"Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role," Dean Acheson famously declared, and Simon Winder's melange of cultural history, memoir and political diatribe is a variation on that theme. "Scraped together" from "bits and bobs", his book suggests that, with the Empire dismantled and the economy in chronic decline, Britons in the Sixties found solace in the activities of James Bond, on the printed page and at the cinema. Ian Fleming may have been a shit, but he had his finger on "the neuroses, panics, highs, dreams and disappointments of a Britain that has now vanished and whose death-throes he romanced," and his high-living hero's "ability to maim and kill foreigners became a great consolation to millions of bitter and confused people".
The argument seems reasonable enough, but its elaboration leaves much to be desired. Oddly reminiscent of Soviet cartoons, Winder's crude and lopsided account of 20th-century Britain is, he warns us, "breathtakingly selective and loaded with no doubt facetious and callow interpretation". Greed and brutality were combined with utter incompetence. The ruling class was personified by some "scarlet-faced maniac in a remote aristocratic pile" who, like Fleming, led an entirely "vacuous" life. The Raj had been built from "one long bloodbath of on the whole cheap victories"; elsewhere, "great chunks of the world were repopulated and reconfigured by British settlers whose almost insectoid blankness and rapacity will surely to some later global generation make them appear far, far worse than the Mongols".
Winder is keen to prove himself super-sensitive to the shameful weight of history. On a visit to Les Invalides, he is "completely nauseated" by the captured battle standards; listening to a broadcast of Chamberlain's declaration of war, "it seems nearly impossible to remain standing"; he happily accepts the suggestion that life in Attlee's England was a "complete horror". Not the most elegant of writers, he pumps up indignation with redundant adverbs and makes frequent use of "to be honest", that weasel phrase beloved of lying politicians.
Matters improve when he stops raging about the past, and turns to the Fleming books and films. We learn that he has seen the film of Goldfinger 45 times; he notes how ill-at-ease Bond seems in New York, transmogrified "from cosmopolitan killer to pursed-lip civil servant from the land of toad-in-the-hole", writes well about Jacques Cousteau's films vis-à-vis Bond's underwater activities and - bearing in mind the fiasco of MI6 reports in the run-up to the Iraq war - suggests that Fleming's books implanted a misleading impression of the efficiency of the British Secret Service.
Popular literature is a useful guide to prevailing attitudes and prejudices. That The Man Who Saved Britain isn't in the same league as Richard Usborne's Clubland Heroes or E S Turner's Boys Will Be Boys, both published in the dark ages deplored by Winder, may simply reflect the times we live in.
Jeremy Lewis's 'Penguin Special' is published by PenguinReuse content