Will the real James Bond please stand up?62 min read . Updated: 06 Sep 2015, 11:10 AM IST
A re-reading of the Ian Fleming novels presents an interesting and more complex picture of the world's most famous spy
A re-reading of the Ian Fleming novels presents an interesting and more complex picture of the world's most famous spy
“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning."
You have smoked 70 cigarettes today and it’s 3am.
“Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling—a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension—becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it."
With these two sentences, Fleming hurtled the reader into Casino Royale in Casino Royale in 1953—and the world’s most famous and popular spy was born.
He was introduced by name in the next sentence.
“James Bond suddenly knew that he was tired. He always knew when his body or his mind had had enough and he always acted on the knowledge. This helped him to avoid staleness and the sensual bluntness that breeds mistakes."
James Bond is a phenomenon like nothing popular culture has ever seen. Not Mickey Mouse, not the Beatles, not Harry Potter. Of course, today, almost all of us know Bond only as the biggest cinema franchise in history. The power of the screen is overwhelming, and hardly anyone remembers the written word that gave birth to 007, with the licence to kill.
Who would possibly not recall an unmatchable opening line like this: “You know what?" said Major Dexter Smythe to the octopus. “You’re going to have a real treat today if I can manage it."
The 23 “official" Bond movies (produced by Eon Productions, so the list does not include the first Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again) have grossed over $6 billion worldwide at the box office. This figure is not adjusted for inflation, and does not include money made from sale of television rights, product placement deals and several other spin-offs. Given that the first film, Dr No, was released in 1963 and is still popular on television, the effective revenues would be at least four times as much.
Anyone who is reading this essay has seen at least one Bond film. In fact, according to one estimate, half the world’s population has watched at least one Bond film. All of us know Bond. But, as award-winning thriller writer Barry Eisler puts it in his introduction to a 2006 reissue of For Your Eyes Only, “Do we? Certainly we know the name. But what about the man—his hopes, his fears, his doubts, his origins? What goes on underneath the suave surface of a legend? For that, you have to read the books."
On screen, except for a few brief flashes, the character of Bond has little depth. Sean Connery was the suave, charming, deadly and nonchalant operative. Roger Moore played Bond with his tongue so far up his cheek that it’s a wonder he could unfurl it in time to deliver those witty—and often cringeworthy—one-liners. Pierce Brosnan’s Bond was serious, efficient and had a quality of stillness that no other Bond had. Timothy Dalton (two films) and George Lazenby (only one) came and went before they could define the character. Daniel Craig, who has acted in three films till now—the fourth, Spectre, is currently in production—is tough, ruthless, with a hint of hauntedness.
But none of them are the Bond that Fleming created. The books remain quite unassailable.
The 23 films—with six actors playing Bond (and each actor brought his own personality to bear on the character)—even in aggregate, reach only a fraction of the complexity of what Matt Damon has done with Jason Bourne in just three films.
The James Bond that the former British Naval Intelligence officer created was a complex man—cynical but with a core of decency, a womanizer but often exhibiting a tenderness that almost none of the films even hint at. He is brutal in the pursuance of his missions, but that is so because his adversaries are invariably cruel and extremely dangerous men. However, he often wonders about the nature of his job, and the act of killing that he has to routinely perform.
If one does a very rough profiling of these two men—the book Bond and the film Bond, they would appear quite similar. Tough, sybaritic, mission-driven killers.
But that’s not true. For instance, the little idiosyncracies and flourishes that we associate with the Bond in our heads are all from the films and not the books.
The little ones
When we think of Bond, perhaps the first phrase that comes to mind is “vodka martini, shaken not stirred". But in the books, he drinks much more of other stuff. According to Bond researchers (and these people are bloodhounds for detail), in the 14 books, he drinks 19 vodka martinis, but 37 bourbons and 21 scotches. Plus gallons of various varieties of wine and champagne, and the local liquor of whichever country he visits—raki in Turkey, sake in Japan and so on.
The Aston Martin is the car that has always been associated with Bond, because that is the car the film Bond has traditionally driven. After a brief dalliance with BMW—in exchange for a very large sum of money—the Bond producers brought back the Aston Martin in Skyfall. The BMW deal caused much outrage in Britain—Bond driving a German car!—and the return of the Aston Martin caused much joy. However, Fleming’s Bond drives an Aston Martin in only one novel, Goldfinger. In the rest of the series, he is loyal to Bentley, and he drives three of them.
Bond is also associated with the 7.65mm Walther PPK. However, he has this gun forced upon him by his organization only in the sixth novel, Dr No, along with a .38 Smith & Wesson. Bond uses a variety of revolvers (and other firearms, from rifle to bazooka) in the books, including a .25 Beretta with a sawn-off barrel (in the first five novels) and a .45 Colt that he keeps in his car. He employs the Walther rather infrequently.
So, the three icons that the Bond films have inextricably associated with the character in the minds of billions of people over the decades are quite unimportant and peripheral in the novels.
But these are all mere accoutrements, though they are extremely important rivets in the framework of the Bond mythology. There are far bigger differences between Bond and the film Bond.
The big ones
The awful truth is that in the novels, Bond did not get every woman he desired. In Moonraker, he is refused by Gala Brand, who is in love with another man. This is revealed in the last few pages of the novel. Bond and Brand have worked together, and faced death together—including the villains literally dropping a cliff on them (they survive, but are left, unsurprisinngly, naked)—to save London from a missile attack that would have wiped the city out.
Bond is half in love—he is most of the time half in love, as opposed to the movie Bond, for whom love, as the average human being knows it, does not exist—and thinks he can take this relationship forward, now that the world, or at least, non-communist civilization, has been saved.
But this is how Moonraker ends.
“‘And now what?’ wondered Bond. He shrugged his shoulders to shift the pain of failure—the pain of failure that is so much greater than the pleasure of success. The exit line. He must get out of these two young lives and take his cold heart elsewhere. There must be no regrets. No false sentiment. He must play the role which she expected of him. The tough man of the world. The Secret Agent. The man who was only a silhouette...
“‘I was going to take you off to a farmhouse in France,’ he said. ‘And after a wonderful dinner I was going to see if it’s true what they say about the scream of a rose.’
“She laughed. ‘I’m sorry I can’t oblige. But there are plenty of others waiting to be picked.’
“‘Yes, I suppose so,’ said Bond. ‘Well, goodbye, Gala.’ He held out his hand.
“He touched her for the last time and then they turned away from each other and walked off into their different lives."
No Bond movie has ever indulged in the shadow of the suspicion of a hint of a suggestion that a woman could ever choose someone else over Bond.
Fleming’s Bond also gets hurt, tortured horribly, shot, hospitalized, has his genitals pulped, and bleeds profusely. In every story, he is put through extreme physical pain, and he feels the pain. Large parts of these episodes actually focus on the pain and how he tries to overcome it, from electric shocks to bullet wounds to attacks by giant squid.
But the first time that Bond bled on film was in the 20th movie of the franchise, Die Another Day (a film that has nothing to do with any Fleming novel, not even the title. Several Bond films have taken their titles from the books, and only the titles, from The Spy Who Loved Me to A Quantum Of Solace, which is actually a short story and a very strange one, more Somerset Maugham than anything in the Bond oeuvre).
In the books, Bond even weeps.
In the last pages of Live and Let Die, as Bond sees his faithful Jamaican lieutenant Quarrel arriving with a fleet of boats to rescue him from the shark reefs where he and the sexy Solitaire are stranded (both stripped naked, of course):
“The fresh north-east trade winds had started to blow and the sun was shining down on the blue water and on the soft flanks of Jamaica.
“The first tears since his childhood came into James Bond’s blue-grey eyes and ran down his drawn cheeks into the bloodstained sea."
A cruel mouth
In From Russia with Love, we get the most detailed description of Bond’s physical features. “It was a dark, clean-cut face, with a three-inch scar showing whitely down the sunburned skin of the right cheek. The eyes were wide and level under straight, rather long black brows. The hair was black, parted on the left, and carelessly brushed so that a thick black comma fell down over the right eyebrow. The longish straight nose ran down to a short upper lip below which was a wide and finely drawn but cruel mouth. The line of jaw was straight and firm." We are told later that he is six feet tall.
Most of the novels, at some point or the other, mention Bond’s “cruel mouth" and the scar on his cheek. The origin of the scar is never revealed, but one can assume it comes from Bond’s military service in World War II.
It is interesting that Timothy Dalton, whose two outings as Bond—Living Daylights and Licence To Kill—did poorly at the box office, fits Fleming’s description of his hero more than any other actor who has played the role. He even has a thick black comma of hair falling over his forehead.
What other personal details do we know about Bond, the secret agent? He lives in an apartment off King’s Road in Chelsea, and has an elderly Scottish housekeeper—“a treasure called May"—who looks after his needs and his home when he is away on assignment. He is a solitary man who does not seem to have any friends in London and does not seem to need any. He reads The Times every day, He is an expert at card games and loves gambling. His apartment has a huge bookshelf but he doesn’t seem to have read any of the books. The only books we find him reading are a book on golf and one on how to cheat at cards (both these books he reads for professional purposes), and thrillers by Fleming’s friends Raymond Chandler (“the latest Chandler") and Eric Ambler (The Mask of Dimitrios).
And one more book. John F. Kennedy’s Profiles In Courage. This has a special significance. Through the 1950s, while the Bond novels were doing pretty well in the UK, sales were tepid in the US, which was where the big money lay. But unknown to Fleming, among the few fans he had across the Atlantic were the brothers Kennedy, John and Robert. In 1961, in Life magazine, JFK, then president of the US, listed From Russia With Love among his 10 favourite books. (No one has read any of the other nine, including, one suspects, JFK.)
The US market for the Bond novels instantly exploded. Fleming’s US paperback publisher Signet was canny enough to even run an advertisement which showed the White House at night, with only one window lit, with the caption: “You can bet on it he’s reading one of those Ian Fleming thrillers." Fleming finally had the sort of money he needed to afford the lavish lifestyle he was addicted to.
Placing Profiles In Courage in Bond’s library was Fleming’s quiet gesture of gratitude to the US president.
Bond loves the good things in life—and the more exclusive the better. He is a gourmet and a hearty eater. He is a connoisseur of wines and drinks quantities of liquor every day that would have sent a normal man to hospital for a week. He smokes 60 cigarettes a day, 70 when in a casino.
As Ben Macintyre observes in his wonderfully researched For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming + James Bond, “Bond will drink anything that is exclusive and sophisticated, and he does, in sometimes quite astonishing quantities. Indeed, his intake of alcohol is so prodigious on occasion that it is amazing that he can stand still, let alone shoot straight or make love."
According to an unnamed Bondologist quoted by Macintyre, Bond downs 46 drinks in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, including unspecified quantities of Pouilly-Fuisse white wine, Taittinger champagne, Mouton Rothschild ’53 claret, calvados, Krug champagne, three bourbons with water, four vodka and tonics, two double brandy and ginger ales, two whisky and sodas, three double vodka martinis, two double bourbons on the rocks, at least one glass of neat whisky, a flask of Enzian schnapps, Marsala wine, the better part of a bottle of fiery Algerian wine, two more Scotch whiskies, half a pint of I.W. Harper bourbon, a Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whisky with water (on the rocks), a bottle of Riquewihr wine, four stems of Franziskaner beer, and a double Steinhager beer.
Just typing this list out left me exhausted and wanting a glass of chilled water.
But rarely do we see him have a hangover, and that too because either he has had several bottles of champagne laced with amphetamine, or 11 large whiskies the night before. He leads a “tough, fast, basically dirty life".
And though willing to give his all for Queen and country, including his testicles and life (in what order is not clear), he hates that most English of beverages, tea: “that flat, soft, time-wasting opium of the masses".
In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Fleming claims: “Bond was not was a gourmet. In England he lived on grilled soles, oeufs cocotte and cold roast beef with potato salad. But when travelling abroad, generally by himself, meals were a welcome break in the day, something to look forward to, something to break the tension of fast driving, with its risks taken or avoided, the narrow squeaks, the permanent background of concern for the fitness of his machine."
However, given the amount of pages in every novel devoted to Bond trying to make up his mind about which restaurant to go to for dinner, and the care and precision with which he orders his meals, Fleming’s explanation doesn’t wash.
In Casino Royale, Vesper Lynd orders caviar, followed by a plain grilled rognon de veau with pommes soufflés, and then fraises de bois with a lot of cream. Now for Bond. “I myself will accompany Mademoiselle with the caviar, but then I would like a very small tournedos, underdone, with sauce Bearnaise and a coeur d’artichaut. While Mademoiselle is enjoying her strawberries, I will have half an avocado pear with a little French dressing. Do you approve?"
This is not some man who just wants to fill his tummy—this is someone who knows the intricacies of cuisine. In novel after novel, the only time the relentless action stops is when Bond sits down to have a meal and carefully chooses his wines. But it is done with such panache and throwaway expertise that the reader never feels a slackening of the pace. As Fleming once told an interviewer: “My contribution to the art of thriller writing has been to attempt the total stimulation of the reader all the way through, even to his taste buds."
As Macintyre notes: “For breakfast (his favourite meal, and Fleming’s), Bond eats boiled eggs from Maran hens (three and a half minutes each), eaten off Minton china, with toast, Wilkin & Sons Triptree ‘Little Scarlet’ strawberry preserve, Frank Cooper’s Oxford Vintage Marmalade, honey from Fortnum & Mason, and coffee from De Bry in New Oxford Street, brewed, of course, in the Chemex." The name-dropping is overwhelming. After such a precise and—one can assume, time-consuming breakfast, since Macintyre has not mentioned his regulation two cups of black coffee—when did he belch and get up to save the world?
Fleming was perhaps the first fiction writer to pepper his books with real brand names—from cars (Bentley) to clothes (too many to mention) to wines (again, too many) to cigarettes (a mixture of Turkish and Balkan tobacco made for him specially by Morland Brothers of Grosvenor Street, with three gold rings on the filter to indicate his last rank in the British Navy) to restaurants across Europe. He used them to give a sense of the high life to the reader.
When Bond takes a flight, the aircraft is named. He drives real cars with real upgradations (his first car is a four-and-a-half-litre Bentley with an Amherst Villiers supercharger); when he lights a cigarette, he lights it with a real lighter—a black-oxidized Ronson. One must remember that when Fleming began writing his novels, Britain was still suffering from post World War II rationing, and the vast majority of his countrymen could only dream of all the stuff that Bond was routinely consuming or using.
The life of luxury that the Bond books described in precise detail worked wonders with the reading public, who vicariously and voraciously lapped up the sauce Bearnaise and the avocado pear.
Bond seems to follow no fitness regime, but remains in perfect enough shape to go through Dr No’s nightmarish obstacle course (involving, among other things, high-voltage electric shocks, crawling through a fiery-hot tunnel and climbing up a long narrow vertical shaft with no footholds), overpower various would-be-assassins and strangle Auric Goldfinger to death.
The only time we see his lifestyle catch up with his health is in the ninth novel, Thunderball, where the report of his routine medical check-up reads: “This officer is basically physically sound. Unfortunately, his mode of life is not such as to allow him to remain in this happy state. Despite many previous warnings, he admits to smoking sixty cigarettes a day. These are of a Balkan mixture with a higher nicotine content than the cheaper varieties. When not engaged upon strenuous duty, the officer’s average daily consumption of alcohol is in the region of half a bottle of spirits of between sixty and seventy proof. On examination, there continues to be little definite sign of deterioration. The tongue is furred. The blood pressure a little raised at 160/90. The liver is not palpable. On the other hand, when pressed, the officer admits to frequent occipital headches and there is spasm in the trapezius muscles and so-called ‘fibrositis’ nodules can be felt. I believe these symptoms to be due to the officer’s mode of life. He is not responsive to the suggestion that over-indulgence is no remedy for the tensions inherent in his professional calling and can only result in the creation of a toxic state which could finally have the effect of reducing his fitness as an officer."
Bond is sent off, against his will, to a naturopathy sanatorium for a two-week programme. Where, of course, mortal danger awaits him, as does a woman to seduce.
We get to see Bond only when he is on assignment. How does he spend his time when the Soviet Union or some megalomaniac is not threatening disaster and doom? From Moonraker: “It was only two or three times a year that an assignment came along requiring his particular abilities. For the rest of the year he had the duties of an easy-going senior civil servant—elastic office hours from around ten to six; lunch, generally in the canteen; evenings spent playing cards in the company of a few close friends, or at Crockford’s; or making love, with rather cold passion, to one of three similarly disposed married women; weekends playing golf for high stakes at one of the clubs near London."
He thinks often of marrying—there are several women in the novels who Bond feels could be a wife to him, unlike in the films. In the very first novel, Casino Royale, he decides to marry Vesper Lynd: “That day he would ask Vesper to marry him. He was quite certain. It was only a question of choosing the right moment."
But Vesper Lynd is a double agent, and unable to reconcile this with her love for Bond, she commits suicide. And immediately Bond snaps back to his 007 persona, the cold professional. The novel ends with perhaps the most famous last line in the 20th century thriller genre with Bond telling headquarters: “The bitch is dead now."
However, in several other novels, he does think of settling down with the woman at hand, but decides that he should not, as long as he is in the Secret Service. It would be totally unfair to the woman. He could get killed on an assignment tomorrow or the day after, and that is not the future one offers a wife.
He even considers taking early retirement and taking on a job in the City, but he never does.
But Bond did marry, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but his wife was killed almost immediately after the wedding, vindicating his worst fears.
Years later, having come to terms with his grief, he confesses to himself that he is incapable of a faithful relationship. “At the same time, he knew, deep down, that love from Mary Goodnight, or from any woman, was not enough for him. It would be like taking ‘a room with a view’. For James Bond, the same view would always pall." (The Man with the Golden Gun)
Reading this passage in 2015, one feels a tinge of sadness. We do not know what reaction Fleming wanted to evoke in his readers when he wrote this, and what his thoughts were. Fleming’s own highly promiscuous life certainly reflected this thought of Bond’s.
But these lines were written in 1962. The world has changed dramatically since then. Even while keeping in mind Fleming’s personal, historical, commercial context, one feels a tinge of sadness.
And one believes that Bond feels a bit sad too.
The mind of James Bond
“There’s nothing to do about it. You start to die the moment you are born. The whole of life is cutting through the pack with death. So take it easy. Lig ht a cigarette and be grateful you are still alive as you suck the smoke deep into your lungs. Your stars have already let you come quite a long way since you left your mother’s womb and whimpered at the cold air of the world." (Live And Let Die)
“You only live twice / Once when you are born / And once when you look death in the face." This is a haiku composed by Bond, in the style of the Japanese poet Basho (1643-94) in You Only Live Twice.
The novel Goldfinger begins with Bond sitting in the departure lounge of Miami airport and thinking about life and death. He has just completed a mission in Mexico which ended with his killing a street thug with his bare hands (the technique of the killing is described in precise detail a few pages later in the book).
He looks down at the weapon that he had used to lethal effect: his right hand. The cutting edge of the hand is red and swollen. He flexes it with his left hand, as he has been doing ever since the encounter. It is painful, but he knows that if he keeps the circulation moving, the hand will heal quicker. “One couldn’t tell how soon the weapon would be needed again. Cynicism gathered at the corner of Bond’s mouth."
“It was part of his profession to kill people. He had never liked doing it and when he had to kill he did it as well as he knew how and forgot about it. As a secret agent who held the rare double-0 prefix—the licence to kill in the Secret Service—it was his duty to be as cool about death as a surgeon... Regret was unprofessional—worse, it was death-watch beetle in the soul...
“(Yet) what an extraordinary difference there was between a body full of person and a body that was empty! Now there is someone, now there is no one. This had been a Mexican with a name and address, an employment card and perhaps a driving licence. Then something had gone out of him, out of the envelope of flesh and cheap clothes, and had left him an empty paper bag waiting for the dustcart. And the difference, the thing that gone out of the stinking Mexican bandit, was greater than all Mexico."
The film Bond we know would never think about these things. We know him for his witty one-liners as he disposes of the baddies.
“Shocking. Positively shocking." Sean Connery in Goldfinger, after electrocuting a baddie.
“I think he got the point." Connery in Thunderball, after harpooning a baddie.
“He had lots of guts." George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, after a baddie is shredded by a snow plower.
“He always did have an inflated opinion of himself." Roger Moore in Live And Let Die, after feeding a big baddie a shark gun pellet and watching him explode.
“Take a giant step for man." Moore in Moonraker, after pushing the principal baddie out of a spaceship.
The original Bond, or Fleming’s Bond, is not witty. He never cracks a joke, or makes a funny remark, and certainly not after killing someone. But Fleming was witty. Many of the Bond novels have passages that would bring a smile to the reader’s face. And the first section of Thunderball, when Bond is confined in the naturopathy sanatorium, could even trigger a laugh or two.
When he checks in, he is ushered into “a room-shaped room, with furniture-shaped furniture". As he goes through the programme, drinking juices, soup and tea, deprived of tobacco and liquor, subjected to all forms of massages, his body starts feeling better, his mind clearer, and he starts getting seriously worried. If he actually got rid of his vices, how would he be able to perform his professional duties? If he continued with this health programme, would he finally end up as one more pacifist marching the streets of London protesting against nuclear bombs?
The reader suddenly realizes that the author is having fun and sharing it, and telling the world that though the Cold War is a very serious matter (all the Bond novels were written during the darkest period of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union is often referred to hatefully by Bond and his colleagues as simply “Redland"), and Bond is at the very frontline, he is not a genius and should not be taken absolutely seriously.
But, returning to Bond’s ruminations about life and death, he is also a creature who is half-automaton, or someone who has reached a zen state of mind. He broods often, but snaps out of it quickly—and consciously—and reassigns his mind to totally focus on the job at hand.
In almost every novel, on a mission, whenever he returns to his hotel, he knows that there is evil at large that needs to be destroyed, and that he has to do some extremely dangerous things the next day. He thinks about it a bit, and then switches off his mind and falls into a calm dreamless sleep. This happens as frequently in the books as he has a shaken-not-stirred.
At Miami airport in Goldfinger, Bond finishes his drink and gets up. “What the hell was he doing, glooming about this Mexican, this capungo who had been sent to kill him? It had been kill or get killed. Anyway, people were killing people all the time, all over the world. People were using their motor cars to kill with. They were carrying infectious diseases around, blowing microbes in other people’s faces, leaving gasjets turned on in kitchens, pumping out carbon monoxide in closed garages. How many people, for instance, were involved in manufacturing H-bombs, from the miners who mined uranium to the shareholders who owned the mining shares? Was there any person in the world who wasn’t somehow, perhaps only statistically, involved in killing his neighbour?"
This is, of course, bunkum logic, and Fleming also, quite probably, knew it to be so, but the film Bond never seems to think at even this level. The closest he has come to make us believe that there is something there inside him is Daniel Craig in Skyfall, where he indicates that there is a lot of inventory—childhood trauma, a yearning for a mother—in there, but he does not give us the key to the lock. Perhaps he’s even lost the key.
Skyfall, which is in my (minority) opinion, the best Bond film ever, had great action supported by a surprisingly strong emotional bulwark. It was also replete with little contextual references, winks, raised eyebrows and shrugs that the serious Bond fan would notice, and delight in. They were strewn around like sea shells on a beach (but hardly carelessly).
Sea shells were what Honeychile Rider was collecting when James Bond spotted her on the island owned by Dr No.
Henry Chancellor, in his definitive James Bond, the Man and his World: The Official Companion to Ian Fleming’s Creation, has calculated that Bond has sex with just 14 women in the books. In the first 20 films, he goes to bed—or other furniture—with an astonishing 58 women.
In the films, the women come and go, but unlike in T.S. Eliot’s poem, they do not talk of Michelangelo. They are, to quote Anthony Burgess’s harsh words, “nothing more than animated centrefolds".
None of the women that Fleming created in his books would fit that description at all.
Ursula Andress as Honeychile rising out of the sea in a bikini (technically a stiff underwired bra and a bikini bottom) and a broad waistbelt with a sheathed knife remains the most iconic “Bond girl" image of all time. It’s from Dr No, 1962. But it is so deeply etched in the late 20th century popular culture mosaic that one wonders why Andy Warhol did not get around to do one of his print-screen jobs on that image. In the 20th Bond movie, Die Another Day, which referenced all the 19 previous ones, Halle Barry reprises the scene. She wears a real bikini (orange).
But in the novel, when Bond sees her, Honeychile is wearing only a broad waistbelt with a sheathed knife. No bikini.
“It was a naked girl, with her back to him. She was not quite naked. She wore a broad leather belt round her waist with a hunting knife in a leather sheath at her right hip. The belt made her nakedness extraordinarily erotic… She stood in the classical relaxed pose of the nude, all the weight on the right leg and the left knee bent and turning slightly inwards, the head to one side… It was a beautiful back. The skin was a very light uniform café au lait with sheen of dull satin. The gentle curve of her backbone was deeply indented, suggesting more powerful muscles than is usual in a woman, and the behind was almost as firm and rounded as a boy’s. The legs were straight and beautiful and no pinkness showed under her slightly lifted left heel."
In today’s unimedia universe, which neither Fleming nor the makers of Dr No could have imagined, it would be interesting to see what turns on men more—Fleming’s depiction of Bond’s first sighting of Honeychile, or Connery’s sighting of Andress.
In Fleming’s novels, women are quite often in a state of undress when Bond meets them. In Diamonds Are Forever, Bond goes to meet Tiffany Case and finds: “She was sitting, half naked, astride a chair in front of the dressing-table, gazing across the back of the chair into the triple mirror... Her spine was arched, and there was arrogance in the set of her head and shoulders. The black string of her brassiere across the naked back, the tight black lace pants and the splay of her legs whipped at Bond’s senses."
In Goldfinger, “It was at the top of the afternoon heat and she was naked except for a black brassiere and black silk briefs. She was swinging her legs in a bored fashion. She had just finished painting the nails on her left hand."
In the short story The Hildebrand Rarity, “Mr Krest was swept out of his mind as a naked sunburned girl came down the steps into the saloon. No, she wasn’t quite naked after all, but the pale brown satin scraps of bikini were designed to make one think she was."
And when they are fully dressed, Bond takes in every detail. There is not a single young woman in all the 14 books, who, when they appear, Bond does not examine closely with sexual intent. Fleming dresses up all his women with a lot of thought and care. The most detailed portrait is in the first novel, Casino Royale.
“Her hair was very black and she wore it cut square and low on the nape of the neck, framing her face to below the clear and beautiful line of her jaw. Although it was heavy and moved with the movements of her head, she did not constantly pat it back into place, but let it alone. Her eyes were wide apart and deep blue and they gazed candidly back at Bond with a touch of ironical disinterest which, to his annoyance, he found he would like to shatter, roughly. Her skin was lightly sun-tanned and bore no trace of makeup except on her mouth which was wide and sensual. Her bare arms and hands had a quality of repose and the general impression of restraint in her appearance and movements was carried even to her fingernails which were unpainted and cut short. Round her neck she wore a plain gold chain of wide flat links and on the fourth finger of the right hand a broad topaz ring. Her medium-length dress was of grey soie sauvage with a square-cut bodice, lasciviously tight across her fine breasts. The skirt was closely pleated and flowered down from a narrow, but not a thin, waist. She wore a three-inch, handstitched black belt. A handstitched black sabretache rested on the chair beside her, together with a wide cart-wheel hat of gold straw, its crown encircled by a thin black velvet ribbon which tied at the back in a short bow. Her shoes were square-toed of plain black leather."
To be fair to all concerned, one should also quote the next paragraph: “Bond was excited by her beauty and intrigued by her composure. The prospect of working with her stimulated him. At the same time he felt a vague disquiet. On an impulse he touched wood."
No such disquiet affected Bond later. In Thunderball, the moment he sees Patricia Fearing, he’s sizing her up: “She had the sort of firm, compact figure that always attracted him and a fresh open-air type of prettiness that would have been common-place but for a wide, rather passionate mouth and a hint of authority that would be a challenge to men... and it was clear from the undisguised curves of her breasts and hips that she had little underneath (her white smock)."
In fact, even in the short story From A View To A Kill, “Bond sat up. She had everything, but everything that belonged in his fantasy. She was tall and, although her figure was hidden by a light raincoat, the way she moved and the way she held herself promised that it would be beautiful."
The films created the popular culture term “Bond girl". Every time a new Bond movie is announced, there is furious speculation in mainstream, non-mainstream and social media about who the new “Bond girl" is going to be. It is curiosity—expertly orchestrated by the Bond producers—mixed with pure lasciviousness. Who is the woman Bond is going to have sex with this time round? There are websites devoted to “Bond girls", appraising and scrutinizing and ranking them. But, getting down to the basics, what does the term imply?
A “Bond girl" is fundamentally a sexy woman in distress who Bond rescues and then beds (with a few exceptions like Jinx in Die Another Day or Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, and of course, Tracy Draco in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but this is what she is in at least 18 of the 23 films). She is not expected to have much intelligence (even if she is in a supposedly brainy profession), and the film Bond too never has any conversation with her that remotely verges on an intellectual transaction.
A classic example is what Bond says in the film The World Is Not Enough after having sex with the absurdly named Christmas Jones: “I thought Christmas comes only once a year." It is obvious that the scriptwriters named the character (a nuclear scientist who dresses like a stripper) to fit this one-liner orgasm joke that they had thought up.
In the popular imagination, the “Bond girl" is typified by the sexually charged near-whisper “Oh James..." after she has been rescued from certain death (there are no fates worse than death for women in the films) by a calm, clear-eyed, casual 007.
“Bond girls" are often given double entendre names, like Holly Goodhead, or Xenia Onatopp, or Plenty O’Toole. However, it must be recognized that the scriptwriters think they are following Ian Fleming’s hallowed footprints—after all, he named the female lead in Goldfinger Pussy Galore. But one should also know that this was the only time that Fleming, who thought a lot before naming his characters, descended to this level.
Thankfully, as the world has changed, the Bond film franchise has taken note and moved on from this misogynistic attitude. The turning point was casting the wondrous Judi Dench as M in Goldeneye (the name of the Jamaican villa that Fleming owned and wrote all his novels in) in 1995, when she tells Bond (Pierce Brosnan, in his first Bond film) that he is a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War". Brosnan has since left and Daniel Craig has come in, but Dench remained M till the last Bond movie, Skyfall.
Through seven films, she was actually the “Bond girl", radically redefining the term and announcing to the world that Bond had finally reached the 21st century. In fact, in Skyfall, there is only one major female character other than M—Eve Moneypenny (a huge twist to the novels, but that will need much explanation; let us just slot it in the “contextual references, winks, raised eyebrows" part I mentioned before), and she is as empowered and trained as Bond is as an agent.
So, the term “Bond girl" may never die, but the fact is that Judi Dench as M, 30 years older than Bond, and his boss, has made sure that it will live differently with a new identity.
However. It may amaze someone who hasn’t read the Bond novels that none of the women Fleming created were dumb no-brainer babes, totally unlike the popular imagination of “Bond girls". They are all spirited personalities, usually tough and independent, often idiosyncratic, and never the “Oh James..." type.
And two of them had physical deformities. Honeychile has a broken nose, “smashed crooked like a boxer’s". In Thunderball, Domino Vitali has a limp. And to Bond, that makes her sexier. Today, should we consider his being attracted to such women as some sort of perverted desire? One is not sure. But like all the women in the Bond novels, they are fiercely independent creatures, confident and sexually liberated, and are sure that they cannot spend a life with Bond. In many cases, they are surer about this than Bond himself.
Above all, every romantic—or sexual—interest that Fleming created for his hero was an interesting woman. And never a docile one.
Honeychile, for example, grew up more in the company of animals than humans. She is a child of nature and possibly more a cheetah than a human. This is how she shows Bond what she is and what he is: “How do you know there aren’t such things as dragons?... What do you think you know about animals and things? I have had to live with snakes and things since I was a child. Have you ever seen a praying mantis eat her husband after they’ve made love? Have you ever seen the mongoose dance? Or an octopus dance? How long is a humming bird’s tongue? Have you ever has a pet snake that wore a bell round its neck and rang it to wake you? Have you seen a scorpion get sunstroke and kill itself with its own sting? Have you seen the carpet of flowers under the sea at night?... Oh, you’re just city folk like all the rest."
Which Bond film heroine has put 007 in place like this?
Or like Domino in Thunderball, who has one leg shorter than the other, and whose “profile, the straight, small uptilted nose, the determined set of the chin, and the clean-cut jawline were as decisive as a royal command, and the way the head was held on the neck had the same authority"—who tells Bond that he would have to try harder and drives off, telling him to take a cab to his hotel.
What follows is a particularly tender passage from Diamonds Are Forever that would never find a place in the films (and has not).
“Bond put an arm around (Tiffany Case) and held her to him. ‘My darling... I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just wanted to know for certain... I had to ask you.’
“She looked up at him doubtfully. ‘You mean that?’ she said searching his face. ‘You mean you liked me already?’
“‘Don’t be a goose,’ said Bond impatiently. ‘Don’t you know anything from anything?’"
They did not sleep with each other that night. But the next chapter begins with this paragraph: “It is an intoxicating moment in a love affair when, for the first time, in a public place, in a restaurant or a theatre, the man puts is hand down and lays it on the thigh of the girl and when she slips her hand over his and presses the man’s hand against her. The two gestures say everything that can be said. All is agreed. All the pacts are signed. And there is a long minute of silence during which the blood sings."
Purple prose. But this is James Bond! The authentic one.
Bond brings Tiffany to London to live with him, with definite ideas of marriage. The relationship doesn’t last, she leaves him when “she met some chap at the American Embassy", as mentioned in From Russia With Love.
Unlike in the films, the book Bond remembers the women he bedded. When he returns to Jamaica in Dr No, he wonders where Solitaire is now and how her life had turned out after the traumatic experiences in Live And Let Die.
But sex is always on his mind
“Up to 40, girls cost nothing. After that you have to pay money or tell a story. Of the two, it’s the story that hurts the most. Anyway, I’m not 40 yet!"
He likes gambling, but when he thinks about it... “Luck was a servant and not a master. Luck had to be accepted with a shrug or taken advantage of up to the hilt... Bond saw luck as a woman, to be softly wooed or brutally ravaged, never pandered to or pursued. But he was honest enough to admit that he had never yet been made to suffer by cards or by women. One day, and he accepted the fact, he would be brought to his knees by love or by luck. When that happened he knew that he too would be branded with the deadly question mark he recognized so often in others, the promise to pay before you have lost: the acceptance of fallibility."
Of course, he is a male predator to beat all others in respectable fiction. He is a lecher, though he never thinks through his penis; he is always focused on his assignment, and in almost every case, the woman he seduces is a way to his final non-negotiable goal. But there are passages in the novels which today would raise the hackles of any civilized sensitive human being.
In Goldfinger, the two principal female characters, Tilly Masterton and Pussy Galore, are lesbians. “Bond came to the conclusion that Tilly Masterton was one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed up. He knew the type well and thought that they and their male counterparts were a direct consequence of giving votes to women and ‘sex equality’. As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing where they were. The result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits—barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied. He was sorry for them, but he had no time for them."
At the end of the novel, Pussy Galore comes to Bond’s bedroom, “wearing nothing but a grey fisherman’s jersey that was decent by half an inch", and “her deep blue-violet eyes... were no longer hard, imperious". Bond says: “They told me you only liked women." She answers: “I never met a man before." She also provides an explanation why she was a lesbian: she was raped as a child by her uncle.
In the short story A Quantum of Solace, Bond tells a British colonial official that if he ever married, he would marry an air hostess. “It would be fine to have a pretty girl always tucking you up and bringing you drinks and hot meals and asking if you had everything you wanted. And they’re always smiling and wanting to please. If I don’t marry an air hostess, there’ll be nothing for it but marry a Japanese. They seem to have the right ideas too." How much more politically incorrect can you get?
But wait. Read the next lines. “Bond had no intention of marrying anyone. If he did, it would certainly not be an insipid slave. He only hoped to amuse or outrage the Governor into a discussion of some human topic."
The late Paul Johnson, revered and terminally indignant journalist/historian, swatted the Bond novels off his reading list as “sex, snobbery and sadism". In April 1958, he wrote in the New Statesman: “I have just finished what is without a doubt the nastiest book I have ever read. It is a new novel entitled Dr No and the author is Mr Ian Fleming... There are three basic ingredients in Dr No, all unhealthy, all thoroughly English: the sadism of a school boy bully, the mechanical two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent and the crude, snob-cravings of a suburban adult." Johnson definitely did not realize how snobbish and elitist his comments were.
Fleming told an interviewer that his books were “written for warm-blooded heterosexuals". “Doesn’t do to get mixed up with neurotic women in this business," M warns Bond in From Russia With Love. “They hang on your gun-arm." Fleming’s Bond appeared at a certain crucial and confusing time in British history. The War had been won, but at a nearly-unimaginable cost. The Empire was going, and Great Britain had to recognize the fact the United States of America was the boss. Britain needed a hero—a reassuring fantasy, a man at the forefront of the Cold War, fighting evil and bedding strong-willed women.
When 007 did marry, he married a woman who was a mass of contradictions. She possessed indomitable joie de vivre and was also a manic depressive. She loved life and wanted to commit suicide. She was enormously confident and deeply vulnerable. She was a wealthy high-living slut looking for a man who would be the love of her life, to whom she would surrender totally and stand by him, forever.
Fleming had created the character of Tracy with much care. He was now an extremely successful author, and a professional. He knew that the maintenance of his luxurious life depended entirely on 007, and he had to do things with him that would surprise the reader. He was a thrill-seeker as much as Bond was. He had also matured as a writer—though he had always been a fine and pioneering one (more on that later).
He already had premonitions of what the life he had—the lifestyle he had lent Bond—would lead to. He had had his first heart attack, but had not cut down on his smoking and drinking. He now wanted to do some unexpected stuff with Bond.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service begins with Bond having written a resignation letter (and revising it and fine-tuning it). The first chapter is as good as any ever written for a thriller (and most of the competition will be from the other Bond novels). It also suddenly and dramatically humanizes Bond as he remembers his childhood holidays on the seashore. And then—bang—you are in the middle of the action, and then—whish—you are transported to the arcane world of heraldry, which would lead Bond finally to his archenemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
(Like heraldry here, many of the other Bond novels have long passages detailing a particular subject from broad principles to minutiae, from the world diamond trade and how it affects the British pound in Diamonds Are Forever, to the intricacies of a bridge game in Moonraker. In Goldfinger, Fleming introduced the Western public to karate, and in You Only Live Twice, to sumo wrestling and haiku.)
Bond’s reason for not marrying was always that there would be never time enough for the couple to stay together. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, his promise, often repeated, is “We have all the time in the world." But Tracy is killed immediately after the wedding, and Bond is back to where he is. Lone wolf.
Read the last few paragraphs of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. They are heartbreaking, especially if you have read a few Bond novels already and have some idea of the hero’s character.
It is a portrayal of a man driven mad by grief, refusing to acknowledge what has just happened, seen through the eyes of a young German policeman. “He looked up at the young man and smiled his reassurance. ‘It’s all right’, he said in a clear voice as if explaining something to a child. ‘It’s quite all right. She’s having a rest. We’ll be going on soon. There’s no hurry. You see...’ Bond’s head sank down against hers and he whispered into her hair ‘...you see, we’ve got all the time in the world’."
In the next novel, You Only Live Twice, we find Bond sitting in Queen Mary’s Rose Garden in London eight months later, still trying to come to terms with his loss. “It was all right here, really. Lovely roses to look at. They smelled good and it was pleasant looking at them and listening to the faraway traffic. Nice hum of bees. The way they went around the flowers, doing their work for their queen. Must read the book about them by the Belgian chap, Metternich or something. Same man who wrote about the ants. Extraordinary purpose in life. They didn’t have troubles. Just lived and died. Did what they were supposed to do and then dropped dead. Why didn’t we see a lot of bees’ corpses around? Ants’ corpses? Thousands, millions of them must die every day. Perhaps the others ate them... It was three thirty. Only two more hours to go before his next drink!"
The whole gazillion-dollar film franchise cannot match this one paragraph quoted from a wonderfully written three-page passage. And then, of course, Bond gets up from his bench, gets back to work and the high-octane action begins.
When I read a few Bond novels in my teenage years, I was unimpressed. 007 was already a film thing, not a book thing. I had persuaded my father to take me to watch Diamonds Are Forever. (I have no idea what he thought of the film, with Jill St. John as Tiffany Case lounging around in a bikini most of the time, a topless Plenty O’Toole getting thrown out of a hotel window, and Sean Connery wrestling with two barely dressed women.) The first film I bunked school to watch was Live And Let Die.
To me, at that age, the novels seemed dated. To me, at this age, having read all of them in one go—and most of them for the first time—they seem terrifically crafted, with the sort of research and detail that no thriller writer had ever done before.
Some of the plots may be outrageous, but the details are absolutely true. Whichever exotic spot Bond visits to hunt down the most repulsive and powerful men in the world is described with perfect fidelity. If Fleming writes that this is a good hotel to spend your night in, it is. If he says that this is the wine to drink when you are in this small town in France, it is. If he says there is a dangerous turn here as you are driving from London to Dover, it is there. A part of Goldfinger can, in fact, be very well used as a driving guide from Calais to Geneva.
All such topics have been covered—and are being covered incessantly—by the travel and leisure media. But no one has written so grippingly about reaching there. Diamonds Are Forever devotes an entire chapter to Bond taking a flight from London to New York. This quite possibly made eminent sense in 1956, when the novel was published, and the large majority of Fleming’s readers had never boarded a passenger aircraft, air travel being prohibitively expensive at that time. But why does this chapter still engage us and thrill us today, when taking a flight is cheap and commonplace?
This is how the chapter titled “In Transit" ends: “And then there were three hours when the plane hung dead-steady in the middle of the world, and only the patches of bright sunshine swaying slowly a few inches up and down the walls of the cabin gave a sense of motion. But at last there was the great sprawl of Boston below them, and then the bold pattern of a clover-leaf on New Jersey Turnpike, and (his) ears began to block with the slow descent towards the pall of haze that was the suburbs of New York. There was the hiss and the sickly smell of the insecticide bomb, the shrill hydraulic whine of the air-brakes and the landing-wheels being lowered, the dip of the plane’s nose, the tearing bump of the tyres on the runway, the ugly roar as the screws were reversed to slow the plane for the entrance bay, the rumbling progress over the tired grass plain towards the tarmac apron, the clang of the hatch being opened, and they were there."
This is very good writing.
If I just gave you this paragraph, without revealing the source, would you ever guess that the writer was Fleming? I tried out this test. I mailed it to six friends who I consider are very well-read and asked them to take three guesses about who had written it. I told them that this was written in the 1950s and the author had passed away some years later.
Several of them thought it was Ernest Hemingway.
This is, of course, not a test that is statistically determinate in any way, but my point is simply this: anyone who believes that the Bond novels are junk has either not read them or does not deserve my respect. The success of the Bond film franchise has overwhelmed—actually almost obliterated—the books, the words, the creator.
In this essay, I have quoted hundreds of words from the Bond novels. Not a single sentence is not well-crafted and thought-through. Just read the opening lines of some Bond novels. Opening lines, as every writer—and every reader—knows, are crucial. Sometimes, they become legend.
“Call me Ishmael."
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
“Mr and Mrs Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."
“What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?"
Here are some opening lines from the Bond novels.
“The naked man who lay splayed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead."
“I was running away."
“It was one of those days when it seemed to James Bond that all life, as someone put it, was nothing but a six to four against."
“With its two fighting claws held forward like a wrestling arms the big pandinus scorpion emerged with a dry rustle from the finger-sized hole under the rock."
There are moments of great luxury in the life of a secret agent. There are assignments on which he is required to act the part of a very rich man, occasions when he takes refuge in good living to efface the memory of danger and the shadow of death.
So, you have a great opening line. How do you sustain the grip you want your writing to have on your reader? Let us be very clear: Fleming was writing for the mass market, and he was writing to make enough money to buy enough champagne and give his girlfriends a good time, while keeping his wife in clover.
There are several—long—passages in the Bond novels, that exhibit a fine skill to captivate the reader, and not let him sleep till he has seen it to the end. Almost 30% of Moonraker is devoted to one game of bridge, and the only bridge I know is the one I drive over, and sometimes there’s a river under it. But I read through the 50 pages devoted to it breathlessly, and was rewarded with a diagram of a classic bridge hand, a total outlier that can beat, given the calls, someone who literally has the best cards one can imagine. Of course, Bond cheats; he has fixed the deck of cards so he knows exactly which card goes to whom, but he is cheating a billionaire who can’t help cheating at cards.
I have played baccarat, but Fleming explains the rules in such simple terms that anyone who can add 5 to 8 can play it. (It’s a bad hand, you have almost certainly lost your money). But Casino Royale will keep you awake and alert.
There are passages of danger and suspense that I find quite unequalled in the genre—and the genre stretches from Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands through John Buchan’s Richard Hannay adventures to Len Deighton’s magisterial Bernard Sampson triple-trilogy, to, of course John Le Carre (not to mention the casual forays Graham Greene made once in a while into spy fiction, sometimes for fun, sometimes with far serious intent).
In Dr No, someone lets a giant centipede into Bond’s room. It reaches his bed and his body. The four pages that follow are the best suspense writing one could ever hope for. Just imagine this lethal and entirely horrible creature making its way from your foot to your mouth. Fleming is unsparing in clocking the horror, almost inch by inch. A small extract.
“The centipede had reached his knee. It was starting up his thigh. Whatever happened he mustn’t move, mustn’t even tremble. Bond’s whole consciousness had drained down to the two rows of softly creeping feet. Now they had reached his flank. God, it was turning towards his groin! ... The centipede trampled steadily on through the thin hairs on Bond’s right breast upto his collar bone. It stopped? What was it doing? Bond could feel the blunt head questing blindly to and fro. What was it looking for?...The animal was at the base of his jugular. Perhaps it was intrigued by the heavy pulse there… Now it was at the corner of his mouth, tickling madly. On it went, up along the nose. Now he could feel its whole weight and length. Bond closed his eyes... With incredible deliberation the huge insect ambled across Bond’s forehead. It stopped below the hair. What the hell was it doing now? Bond could feel it nuzzling at his skin. It was drinking! Drinking the beads of salt sweat."
Bond and Fleming
There are striking similarities between the lives and personas of Ian Fleming and the man he created, James Bond.
Ian Lancaster Fleming was born to wealth and privilege on a vast estate in Oxfordshire, in 1908. As a child he idolized his father Valentine, businessman, banker, rising Conservative Party politician, and close friend of Winston Churchill. But, tragically, Valentine died fighting on the Western Front in 1917.
It is quite possible that this early childhood trauma shaped Ian’s personality and values in ways deeper than he realized. (All the information on Fleming’s life used here has been taken from either Andrew Lycett’s authoritative biography Ian Fleming, or Ben Macintyre’s For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming + James Bond. Wherever I have quoted directly from these books, or from other sources, they have been attributed.)
Bond lost both his parents in a mountaineering accident when he was 11, and was brought up by an aunt.
In the novels, M, the head the British Secret Service, is clearly a father figure to Bond, and the only person he is unquestioningly loyal to. In fact, Fleming uses the words “loyalty" and “affection" many times through the series to describe Bond’s feelings for M. This could well be a reflection of the loss that Fleming perhaps could never get over.
Fleming went to Eton, but the public school regime did not suit him—the individualism and disregard for rules that would characterize his life (very much like Bond’s) were already beginning to manifest themselves. He did poorly in his studies, and finally, his exasperated mother took an almost delusional decision. She yanked Fleming out of Eton when he was in the Fifth Form (behind the boys of his age), and forced him to cram for the entrance examination of military college Sandhurst. Fleming got through and obviously hated every minute he spent there.
Bond too went to Eton, “and his career (there) was brief and undistinguished", and “due to some alleged trouble with one of the boys’ maids, his aunt was requested to remove him" (from Bond’s obituary written by M in You Only Live Twice for The Times, when Bond was believed to be dead). He was sent off to Fettes, a school where “the atmosphere was somewhat Calvinistic, and both academic and athletic standards rigorous". We do not know whether Bond graduated from Fettes; what we do know is that at 17, in 1941, he lied about his age, and with some help from an influential friend of his late father, “entered a branch of what was subsequently to become the Ministry of Defence".
Fleming broke every rule in Sandhurst, often returning after hours post some hard drinking, and having sex with barmaids or anyone else whose legs were willing to spread. In two years’ time, he had had enough and quit Sandhurst. He completed his education as an external student in Munich University, while living most of the time in Switzerland. The Swiss villages and hamlets he stayed or holidayed in during this period figure prominently in the Bond novels. He knows all the roads, streets and roundabouts, and where to get the best food and wine.
Back in London, he worked for Reuters, and as a manager and a stockbroker, while leading a wild wine-and-women life. Then in 1939, with war with Germany seeming imminent, bored and restless and in search of adventure, Fleming joined the British Admiralty and was assigned to the newly formed Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR), which would be the navy’s intelligence arm.
RNVR was where Bond worked during the war, and like Fleming, had a distinguished career and by the end of the war, held the rank of commander.
Unlike Fleming, however, who went back to journalism, Bond stayed on with the ministry of defence and was inducted into the Secret Service (MI6). This was absolutely logical. In 1944, nine years before the first Bond novel was published, Fleming had confided his life’s secret ambition to a friend: “I am going to write the spy story to end all spy stories."
For the 14 years before he turned full-time author, Fleming possibly had the cushiest journalistic job in the world. The Sunday Times allowed him total freedom to do any story he wanted, and paid for him (and Fleming had very expensive habits, which Bond inherited from him) to travel round the world, tasting every exotic pleasure he could discover, and taking copious notes that would all contribute to the feel and thrill of the Bond novels.
There is only one Bond novel, Moonraker, that is set wholly in England. In every other story, Bond travels—from France to Japan, from the US to the Seychelles. And everywhere he goes, the locales are described in exquisite detail, but in prose so pacy that the reader never feels that he is reading a travelogue. Which, of course, he is not. As Macintyre has written, “wherever Bond went, Fleming had gone before him".
Fleming married but never believed in marital fidelity. He was serially promiscuous (many of his “conquests" were wives of friends), but also had a steady years-long relationship with a lady who was his neighbour in Jamaica. If he heard that his wife was sleeping with another man (in several cases, a friend of his), he shrugged it off. He never divorced his wife, and though it was a stormy relationship (involving much more than just sexual fidelity), there is enough material left over from their lives that proves that they loved each other (at least, he did, in his own way).
Macintyre writes, “An American acquaintance was struck by his apparently clinical attitude towards women. ‘He got bored with them fast and could be brutal about it. He had absolutely no jealousy. He explained to me that women were not worth that much emotion. But with it all, he had an abiding and continual interest in sex without any sense of shame or guilt.’ Certainly, he was more versed in seduction than courtship. ‘The direct approach to sex has become the norm,’ he told an interviewer. His own approach was direct to the point of bluntness. He would ask a woman, often on slender acquaintance or first meeting, to go to bed with him; if she declined, he would simply move on, unashamed, unresentful and unembarrassed, to the next potential seductee. He was successful as often as not—odds which he seemed to find perfectly acceptable."
By the early 1960s, the British spy novel had changed. Len Deighton had published The IPCRESS File in 1962, featuring an anonymous secret agent and a brilliant laconic tone of voice. In 1963 came The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by a man called David Cornwell who preferred a nom de plume, John le Carre. Deighton, almost effortlessly, made the spy novel more stylish and hipper than anything anyone had experienced before. Le Carre addressed issues—with great literary skill—that brought a new, grey and troubling perspective to the Cold War, and transformed the British spy novel. Suddenly, the days of the virile Englishman saving the world was over.
Fleming died in 1964 (staunchly adhering to his smoking-and-drinking lifestyle, and telling his friends that he would not waste time in his life trying to prolong it), and his last Bond novel, The Man With The Golden Gun, was published a year later.
Of course, Bond did not die with him. Fleming had lived his life through Bond, doing everything that Bond did, other than killing people to save Western civilization. He was also a cautious gambler (unlike Bond), and did not like guns (Bond’s final arsenal was selected by an avid reader, who features in the novels as Major Boothroyd, the armourer of MI6). By the time Fleming’s ticker decided to retire, the first two Bond films had already been made, and US president Kennedy had held a special screening of Dr No in the White House.
Fleming’s hero’s name had been stolen entirely whimsically and arbitrarily from an American ornithologist, whose book on the birds of the Caribbean just happened to be lying around when Fleming sat down at his typewriter and banged out the first paragraph of Casino Royale. But he had created a popular culture phenomenon astonishing in its power and reach. Bigger than Sherlock Holmes, and yes, bigger than Harry Potter.
The Bond films represent something much greater than what they themselves are—and yes, misogyny and chauvinism are as much a part of the whole experience as legends of the knight in shining armour, and a certain credo and coda. Fleming would have definitely loved it. Not that he would have been around—he would be 107 years old if he was still pottering around in his beloved Jamaica and swimming in the deep blue waters and watching the fauna.
After so many years, when I went back to the books (and I have watched every Bond film more than once—don’t try a trivia challenge with me), it was quite delightful. The films have to be set apart from the books and judged differently, and in their own terms. What hardly any critic, overinfluenced by the films, has noted is that the books are so well-researched, precised, well-crafted and written in a keen grip on what the reader wants from the next sentence.
Fleming was a passionate man. On the whole, he doesn’t seem to have had a very high opinion of Bond—his physical courage and abilities, yes, but not his intellectual stature. He repeatedly described 007 as a “blunt instrument" of Britain.
In one of the books, Bond’s chief of staff tells him: “"Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles. But don’t let me down and become human yourself. We would lose a wonderful machine."
In Moonraker, “He’s a dedicated man," Vesper Lynd’s (Scotland Yard) chief had said when he gave her the assignment. “Don’t imagine this is going to be any fun. He thinks of nothing but the job on hand and, while it’s on, he’s absolute hell to work for. But he’s an expert and there aren’t many about, so you won’t be wasting your time. He’s a good-looking chap, but don’t fall for him. I don’t think he’s got much heart. Anyway, good luck and don’t get hurt."
Fleming took extreme steps to portray Bond as basically a thug. But he didn’t succeed—he betrayed himself quite often. From Diamonds Are Forever: “He thought of the lovely face cradled in the open hand below him, innocent and defenceless in sleep, the scorn gone from the level grey eyes and the ironical droops from the corners of the passionate mouth, and Bond knew that he was very near to being in love with her. And what abut her?... Would the child and the woman ever come out from behind the barricade she had started to build... against all the men in the world? Would she ever come out of the shell that had hardened with each year of solitude and withdrawal?"
Have you ever seen a Bond film where Connery or Brosnan—both fine actors—are given a scene like this by the scriptwriters?
I should end now. And I will end with the first paragraph of a Bond short story. Fleming’s wide interests often—wonderfully—find a place in stories that are, of course, essentially about thrills, babes and extreme violence. But they provide a glimpse of a picture larger than the man we know as 007, a body of work that is a millennium ahead of Dan Brown in its sheer craft and erudition, and much bigger than the enormous budgets of the Bond films can deliver. (This is not to denigrate the Bond films in any way. Sam Mendes is one of the coolest film directors working today. Skyfall, in my opinion, is the best Bond film ever—as I have already said—and I eagerly look forward to Spectre.)
But I have to end now. So, to end with a beginning.
This is how the short story For Your Eyes Only begins. Stay with me, dear reader.
“The most beautiful bird in Jamaica, and some say the most beautiful bird in the world, is the streamertail or doctor-humming bird. The cock bird is about nine inches long, and about seven inches of it are tail—two long black feathers that curve and cross each other and whose inner edges are in a form of scalloped design. The head and crest are black, the wings dark green, the long bill is scarlet, and the eyes, bright and confiding, are black. The body is emerald green, so dazzling that when the sun is on the breast you see the brightest thing in nature. In Jamaica, birds that are loved are given nicknames. Trochilus polytmus is called ‘doctor bird’ because his two black streamers remind people of the black tail-coat of old-time physicians."
This is how a James Bond story begins.
In the next two pages, two innocent people are butchered, and six pages later, Bond is in Vermont, US, on a mission that mercy turns its face away from—and meets a girl who is armed and dangerous, with golden hair and eyes that “blazed with obstinacy", and had never stayed in a motel.
Sandipan Deb is editorial director of Swarajyamag.com.
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