Where new writing finds its voice

Shaken and Stirred

Felicity Cloake

The emotional side of James Bond

You probably think you know James. He’s a dashing, debonair young Englishman with a flair for sharp shooting and an obsession with martinis that borders on the autistic. He fights for Queen and country with single-minded devotion. He has impeccable manners. He never seems to get hangovers, even when he’s mixed said martinis with a spot of bare-knuckle boxing. And he’s always nattishly turned out (making allowances for the seventies sense of style that spawned a thousand safari suits). 

Commander Bond, on the other hand, is a rather different kettle of fish. He has a ‘ruthless look in the set of his mouth’, cold blue eyes and a face that is ‘a little sullen, almost cruel’. He is recovering from a nervous breakdown that almost spelt the end of his career in the Secret Service(1), and still struggles with the Manichean ethics with which he once sought to justify his profession(2). He’s even been known to dabble in drugs, and was once seen in a London club gulping Benzedrine (a close relative of crystal meth) and Champagne(3). He wears open-toed sandals with a double-breasted suit(4).Twenty-first century, metrosexual Bond he ain’t. 

Say hello to the original 007. He’s the creation of a forty-four-year-old newspaper manager named Ian Fleming, and made his debut in the 1953 novel, Casino Royale. He continued to collect scars, both emotional and physical, until Fleming’s death in 1964, by which time his adventures had sold more than forty million copies worldwide. And he bears only a passing resemblance to the heroic, if vaguely absurd figure who graces our screens every Christmas. So who is this mysterious Bond?

You Only Live Twice

The curious could do a lot worse than look to James Bond’s creator for clues about his identity. There are striking similarities between the two characters, and it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that the spy is a romanticised version of Fleming himself – the product of an unsettled period in his life when, after many years of bachelorhood, he was suddenly faced with the prosaic realities of cohabitation and impending paternity. Andrew Lycett, author of a recent biography, claims that the first Bond novel was an attempt by the golf-obsessed, rather anti-intellectual Fleming to enter his fiancée’s ‘grown-up world of letters and ideas’ (the aristocratic Ann was one of London’s premier literary hostesses), and, given her embarrassed reaction to his artistic debut, ‘a literary manifestation of their sado-masochistic relationship’.

John Lanchester writing in the London Review of Books suggests that Bond is a product of the ennui which dogged Fleming and others of his generation, notably Greene, Waugh and Cyril Connolly (the latter two of whom, incidentally, were part of Ann Fleming’s high-brow inner circle): 

Perhaps the obvious explanation as to why these brilliant men were so bored is the simplest one: life, for them, was boring. Life was changing in ways which made it less boring to be an upper-middle-class man, but the awareness of the fact that life was changing made men more conscious of the burdens they had been carrying. The straitjacket of gender and class identity pinched hardest as it was being shaken off. All the four writers I mention felt that pinch, I would suggest, as boredom: the deep, chronic boredom of roles, of social life, of having to pretend to be something that they knew they weren’t, quite.

Fleming in particular struggled to find his place in the world. Unlike his older brother, Peter, he was not considered bright enough to follow his father to Oxford, and instead was enrolled at Sandhurst. He never completed his training, however, due to an unfortunate bout of gonorrhoea, and after failing to get into the Foreign Office, he tried his hand, with similarly unspectacular results, at both journalism and stockbroking (in fact, he once described himself with laudable honesty as ‘the world’s worst stockbroker’). It was with some relief, one senses, that on the outbreak of war he threw in the towel at his ‘proper job’ and, through family connections, found himself a position in Naval Intelligence; like so many of his generation and class the outbreak of war can fairly to be said to have rescued him from himself. Although he was employed in Whitehall for the duration of hostilities, the glamorous possibilities of espionage were not lost on him, and the Bond novels which followed a decade later are easily interpreted as yearnings for this, the freest and most exciting time of Fleming’s life.

‘The Cardboard Hero’? (Thunderball)

Although James Bond may seem an essentially nostalgic creation, and as such is often seen in the Bulldog Drummond tradition of jingoistic imperial derring-do, as James Chapman notes he in fact represents ‘somewhat of a paradox for the cultural historian’. On the one hand, 007 can be seen as an all-guns-blazing response to the rapidly crumbling British Empire – having seen off the Nazis, this brave symbol of Great British pluck tirelessly battles the Commie threat on our behalf. But the character is not as anachronistic as such type-casting would suggest. Despite his – brief – Etonian education, Bond is no establishment hero. Between jobs he shuns the London social set, preferring to spend his evenings gambling or drinking with ‘a few close friends’, or making love with ‘rather cold passion to one of three similarly disposed married women’. At weekends he plays golf ‘for high stakes at one of the clubs near London’. 

It’s a life remarkably similar to that led by Fleming before his often unhappy marriage, and which, one senses, he evokes with a degree of envy. Unlike many of his gentleman predecessors, Bond is a consummate, modern professional rather than a enthusiastic patriot. And in contrast to the rather black and white morality of his celluloid alter-ego, he is happy to acknowledge that the rights and wrongs of his work are contextual rather than absolute. ‘History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep changing places’, he notes. ‘If I’d been alive fifty years ago, the brand of Conservatism we have today would have been damn near called Communism and we should have been told to go and fight that.’ As he explains to Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, the people he killed in order to gain his 00 number were ‘Probably quite decent people. They just got caught up in the gale of the world … It’s a confusing business, but if it’s one’s profession, one does what one’s told.’ 

This Bond is a skilled career spy, and, as such, can be seen as a representative of the new Britain; one that pits skill, brains and professionalism against threats to national security, rather than the brute force of Empire. Without the nepotistic leg-ups that Fleming enjoyed, his success is a sign of a new, more meritocratic society emerging from the rubble of war. He is, in fact, the consummate man of his age, paying lip service to traditional authority while forging his own path through life.

‘Nothing but a complicated game’ (The Spy Who Loved Me)

In an influential early essay on the novels, Umberto Eco argues that Fleming abandons all psychological motivation after Casino Royale, instead making the decision to ‘transfer characters and situations to the level of an objective and conventional strategy’ in the well-honoured tradition of many essentially one-dimensional thrillers. He sees the stories as a series of ‘play situations’, structured like a game, with various rules, stock characters, and set moves. The reader is well versed in these, and is content to be entertained by the way the story unfolds, rather than by any real sense of suspense. 

For example, Eco identified a theme of recurring opposing relationships in each novel. The most obvious, of course, is Bond versus the villain. Although the individuals differ, there are striking similarities amongst them, regardless of nationality, gender or motivation  – a certain ‘unity of monstrosity’, as Eco put it. They are always of mixed racial origins, usually with some central European, Jewish blood, physically hideous and often sexually impotent or deviant – the virile, attractive Bond is thus able to seal his victory with the conquest of the beautiful young woman his foe keeps captive (think of Solitaire in Live and Let Die, or Domino in Thunderball). 

It’s easy to pick holes in the narrative structure of the books too; even the most perfunctory reading of a couple reveals a pattern.  Their common plot can be roughly divided into thirds. It begins with a teasing snapshot of Bond already on the case to whet the reader’s appetite. We are then allowed a flashback of the initial briefing meeting with M, a device which serves to contexualise the mission. The remainder of the first third is taken up with the search for clues, although 007 also finds time to make the acquaintance of both the villain and the girl he will eventually seduce. In the second third he tracks his prey to his lair, and is usually captured. And in the last he dispatches the baddie, saves the world, and gets the girl. Again.

‘Such a wonderful machine’ (Casino Royale)

If the Bond books were as undemanding as Eco suggests, and the super spy himself was no more than a one-dimensional crime-fighting stooge, this formulaic plotting would render the novels little more than cheap thrillers. But although it’s true that, after Casino Royale, Fleming never again attempted to explore the ethics of espionage, suspecting, I imagine, that such philosophical ponderings weren’t really true to the spirit of his character, that isn’t to say that Bond doesn’t develop and mature as the series continues. We learn at the beginning of You Only Live Twice, for example, that 007 has suffered a nervous breakdown following the murder of his wife by Ernst Blofeld. He has bungled two assignments and become a risk to national security. M plans to fire him; ‘Just as if he’d been shot to pieces or got some incurable disease. I’ve got no room in his Section for a lame-brains, whatever his past record’. 

Even before his bereavement, the tough man has a propensity for rather melodramatic morbidity, as seen here, when his Jamaica-bound plane runs into a spot of turbulence in Live and Let Die:

He looked at the racks of magazines and thought: they won’t help much when the steel tires at fifteen thousand feet, nor will the eau-de-cologne in the washroom … No, when the stresses are too great for the tired metal, when the ground mechanic who checks the de-icing equipment … skimps his job … then the little warm room with propellers in front falls out of the sky … 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.

And this tendency towards melancholic musing is not Bond’s only frailty. Far from the super fit superhero we see on screen, he becomes bored, irritable
and self-destructive when left to his own devices, and has a serious weakness for alcohol and cigarettes which leads M to pack him off to a health farm (rather conveniently as it turns out) to detox at the beginning of Thunderball. Although
physically strong – later in Live and Let Die for example, he has a chunk of shoulder chewed off by a barracuda, wrestles with an octopus, and is dragged naked through a reef in the space of about twelve hours, and still manages to enjoy a cocktail the same evening  – he is not invincible. In fact, he’s weak enough to suggest to the eager Solitaire that they may have to wait some time before they re-consummate their relationship. He’s a tough man, but he’s certainly no superhero. Bond may not be a particularly likeable character – he’s sexist, racist, and occasionally snobbish, and there’s more than a grain of truth in Malcolm Muggeridge’s dismissal of him as ‘pretentious in his tastes, callous and brutal in his ways, with strong undertones of sadism, and an unspeakable cad in his relations with women’ – but, unlike his celluloid equivalent, he is at least a very human one. The glamorous locations, fast cars and beautiful women may never age, but Bond does, and it’s this psychological depth and emotional
complexity that makes the novels so valuable in their own right, as well the fact that they’re cracking good reads. Give them a try – after all, you only
live twice.

1) You Only Live Twice (1964)
2) Casino Royale (1953)
3) Moonraker (1955)
4) Thunderball (1963)