Happy 50th Mr Bond
Racy? Yes.Politically correct? Definitely not. But 50 years after the first Bond film, one bestselling author, who was inspired to write by 007, argues that Ian Fleming’s books remain gloriously British mini masterpieces…
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.’
It really won’t do, will it? Bond creator Ian Fleming’s attitude to women, typified here by the famous appearance of Honeychile Ryder in Dr No is the one stick that’s most often used to beat him with. Then there are the terrible, sniggering schoolboy names: Plenty O’Toole, Pussy Galore, Kissy Suzuki.
‘Unappetisingly pornographic,’ was the verdict of the Punch critic, reading The Spy Who Loved Me, a slightly botched attempt to get inside the female psyche, written as it is in the first person of its main female character.
‘An animated pin-up conceived purely as a sexual object,’ London Magazine concurred.
There is also something slightly unappetising about Bond, who is celebrating 50 years on screen, being so utterly attractive all the time. It only takes him about 40 pages to turn Pussy Galore from ice cold gangleader and lesbian to purring sex kitten. ‘He said: “They told me you only liked women.” She said: “I never met a man before”.’
Then, Smersh’s plot in From Russia With Love unravels when female spy, Tatiana Romanova, realises she can’t fake falling in love with Bond because she’s done it for real. In fact, only one woman (Gala Brand in Moonraker) remains impervious to his charms. But then, she is engaged to someone else.
Can we forgive Fleming, given that he was well aware of his own shortcomings? ‘James Bond is the author’s pillow fantasy,’ he once wrote. ‘It’s what you’d expect of an adolescent mind – which I happen to possess.’
Only recently, I found myself debating this on Newsnight with a feminist author who cheerfully laid into the UK’s most famous spy… but here’s the thing. As we talked, I realised that she had little knowledge of the books. What she was objecting to was the smutty ‘oo-er missus’ humour of the Roger Moore era. The magnetic watch that unzipped the girl’s dress in Live And Let Die (Bond has no gadgets in the books), the excruciating wordplay… ‘Oh James! You always were a cunning linguist!’
But the books remain, for me, small masterpieces, creating a world that has endured now for more than half a century: Casino Royale was first, published in 1953, two years before I was born, and over one hundred million copies have sold worldwide. Bond himself is an astonishing construct. How is it that he has survived while so many others – Bulldog Drummond, Richard Hannay, Mike Hammer – have slipped away?
Partly drawn from memories of the Second World War, where Fleming of course served in naval intelligence, he’s a constant reminder of the British penchant for over-achievement. I love the opening of From Russia With Love, where the evil masterminds of Smersh dismiss all the intelligence services of the world and focus on the British as the only ones still worth fighting. But there is also something of the Byronic hero about Bond – ‘that man of loneliness and mystery’ – that raises him to mythical status and has assured his appeal to three generations.
The books are beautifully written. ‘The ugly wind had gone and the hideous scenery lay drowned in darkness’: a sentence plucked at random, describing Crab Key in Dr No.
When he wasn’t thinking up sexualised puns, Ian Fleming was also a master of names – particularly for his villains. Goldfinger, Rosa Klebb, Irma Bunt, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Nobody, as one of the movie posters exclaimed, does it better.
And what of the titles? I cannot think of an author who has managed to set down so many memorable titles and, for that matter, chapter headings (‘Crime de la Crime’, ‘Ten Pints Of Blood’) than Fleming, and one’s heart surely sinks a little when the best that the next Bond movie can come up with is the slightly meaningless Skyfall.
Then there are the astonishing set pieces, none of which has lost its power to enthrall even after several re-readings. The bridge game at Blades, when Bond rips ex-Nazi Hugo Drax apart. The confrontation with insane killer Donovan Grant on the Orient-Express. Bond’s hideous interrogation by Le Chiffre in Casino Royale.
My favourite is the circular saw in Goldfinger. They replaced it with an industrial laser in the movie but read the chapter and you are plunged into the sweaty tension of the scene, simply through the power of the prose: ‘Still the light burned red through his eyelids. Still he could feel the bursting pressure in his temples. Still the slow drum of life beat in his ears.’
At the end of the book, Bond more or less goes mad, strangling Goldfinger to death. You understand why.
Back in the 1960s, in a tedious suburb in London, James Bond was my lifeline to a world that was exotic, thrilling and filled with danger. Years later, he inspired my own creation, teenaged spy Alex Rider. And the truth is, when I confront a feminist author on Newsnight, I know there’s no real defence against Fleming’s rampant sexism… nor, for that matter, his snobbery, his homophobia or anti-Semitism.
But you know what? I love the books so much, I don’t really care.
As Bond celebrates its big-screen Golden Jubilee, Designing 007: Fifty Years Of Bond Style is at the Barbican, Silk Street, London EC2, from 6 July to 5 September: 020-7638 4141, www.barbican.org.uk/bond
Oblivion, Anthony Horowitz’s next book, will be published by Walker Books on 4 October.
Daily tip from the lady archive
"DEEPLY-ROOTED is the idea that men are indifferent to dress, while the ladies, God bless them, think of nothing else"The Lady, With Prejudice, 8th January, 1942