007th heaven

It's half a century since Ian Fleming created the world's most famous - and commercially successful - secret agent, and fans everywhere are celebrating. John Walsh explains why gentlemen still prefer Bond
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The Independent Online

In her diary for 1952, half-way through February, Ann Rothermere wrote: "This morning Ian started to type a book. Very good thing." She was staying with the 43-year-old Ian Fleming at his Jamaican holiday home, Goldeneye, and they were about to get married after a protracted, 15-year relationship. Three things spurred Fleming into creativity. One, Ann was pregnant with their second child, and he knew his life was about to change drastically – not least in that some form of income would be required to pay for the kid's upbringing. Another was the example of his elder brother Peter Fleming, the explorer, who had written his own novel, The Sixth Column (a satire on the security services), and dedicated it – mockingly? – to Ian. The third was Fleming's long-standing ambition to write spy books that would mirror his wartime adventures in naval intelligence.

His writing routine was unvarying. Wake up, swim on reef, breakfast (scrambled eggs, Blue Mountain coffee) in garden, retire to living-room, close doors and outer window shutters, open roll-top desk, type at Imperial portable for three hours (approximately 2,000 words a day), stop at noon, lunch, snooze, go back at 5pm to read over and edit creative endeavours, put typescript in bottom left-hand drawer of desk, drink. He did that every day for four weeks and by 18 March had finished a book called Casino Royale.

Its second paragraph introduced a new name to the cultural lexicon of the Western world: "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." And in that curious de-personalisation of self – that tiny vignette of a man regarding his body as a kind of machine to be carefully maintained – the whole Bond phenomenon was born.

Fleming was to write 14 Bond books in all, and write most of them at Goldeneye, in the next 12 years before he died, absurdly young, at 56. Two years before his demise, and 40 years ago this October, the first Bond movie, Dr No, was released in the UK. It announced a radical new climate of amoral and ruthless hedonism in the grey penumbra of the spy drama, and nothing was ever the same again.

For us schoolboys in the mid-Sixties, the James Bond universe was Kid Heaven, a world of explosions, car chases, glamour, dangerous (but dim) baddies, smooth foreign master criminals and a hero who flew through the air with a jet-pack, whizzed around under the sea in a mini-submarine and ran about holding hands with a beautiful, uncomplaining Girl Friday in a bikini or an abbreviated frock, whom he got to kiss at the end while saying something cheeky to his superiors.

The Bond movies were A-certificate, which meant that the sex and violence were muted to snogs and fist fights, but the action quotient was phenomenal: you could hear the producers striving to find something mind-boggling and hitherto unseen with which to amaze an audience hungry for special effects, avid for wonders. And the movies were full of toys: how we 11- and 12-year-olds lapped up every detail of Bond's Aston Martin, with the bullet-shield, the tyre-shredders, the rocket-launcher and (oh rapture!) the ejector seat; how we rushed to buy all the merchandise that accompanied the release of Thunderball and partially made up for the disappointment that so much of it was filmed underwater.

You might think the movie-makers were responsible for targeting children as Bond-consumers (since the books were clearly meant for grown-ups); but there was always something childish about the milieu – as the author himself recognised. "James Bond is the author's pillow fantasy," he told the press in 1963. "And fantasy isn't real life, by definition. It's very much the Walter Mitty syndrome – the feverish dreams of the author of what he might have been – bang, bang, bang, kiss, kiss, that sort of stuff. It's what you would expect of an adolescent mind – which I happen to possess."

But was there ever anything more to the Bond industry than mere geeky escapism and adolescent shag-fantasies? If we return to the books, can we discern the "strong, consistent moral framework" that Kingsley Amis claimed to find in them? Can we understand what the writer Michael Baldwin was on about when, speaking on the BBC's The World of Books after Fleming's death, he said: "In the field of escape literature, he far outshines Buchan. His peer is the Stevenson of Treasure Island and Kidnapped, and Fleming alone comes close to offering us something more deeply allegorical than either of those books, something much nearer in importance to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde"?

Baldwin is presumably alluding to the public war of Good vs Evil that the Bond books espouse, a modern variation on the chivalric lay, in which the shiny knight sees off the black-hearted dragon and wins the right to dally with the fair maid. Raymond Chandler had already adapted the knight-errant image in his Marlowe novels, to make possible a seen-it-all hero who claimed no allegiance except to a $20 bill and a fifth of bourbon, out to uncover the truth rather than fight the forces of evil.

Bond, in a further twist, is hardly recognisable as a good guy at all. We may cheer for him as an English agent fighting ghastly foreign Johnnies (all Bond heroes are foreign; even Sir Hugo Drax in Moonraker is a German), but he ain't no moral exemplar. The one thing Ian Fleming always harps on, insists on obsessively, in describing Bond, is his cruelty. His face in the repose of sleep, according to Casino Royale, is "a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal and cold". When Tatiana, the honeytrap in From Russia with Love, is shown Bond's file, "she looked down warily at the handsome, ruthless face." When Bond kisses someone, he doesn't just pucker and hope for the best; oh, no, "His mouth came mercilessly down on hers." We might assume that the author disapproved of his nasty operative; but it's clear that Fleming had a thing about cruelty. When Grant, the rock-like assassin, is being massaged by a naked girl, we're told that there's "something cruel about the thin-lipped, rather pursed mouth". Clearly, both sides of this game need to possess a cruel streak a mile wide – just as James Bond's chief, "M", is always described as having "cold" or "blank" eyes. It seems to be a career requirement of the Special Service that you should be a glacial bully, thus mirroring your adversaries, who are serene and cool even while plotting global conquest. Men such as Dr No, the crackpot Chinese-German villain, who taps his contact lenses with a dink-dink noise and says, "These see everything", as if he were an android.

When both adversaries are cold, cruel, blank and ruthless, the only thing being measured in their rivalry is effectiveness. The Bond books are not, you soon discover, about terrible men who threaten to ruin decent society but are thwarted by the intervention of a sane, democratic, kindly disposed, liberal-minded decent bloke. They were, let us not forget, written mostly in the shadow of the recent war. Sixties liberalism was still a decade, and a whole world, away. The James Bond of the early books is not a Connery or a Moore; he is much closer in attitude to the kind of character played by Jack Hawkins on the bridge of a destroyer – a commander RN, tight-lipped, laconic, keen on clear orders and direct action, wholly unbothered by the moral aspects of his actions, anxious to get into enemy territory, drop his depth charges and scarper. A gruff bachelor keen on getting things done.

One of Fleming's finest moments in the war (he was personal assistant to Admiral John Godfrey, the forerunner of "M", at the Admiralty, and became adept at underwater demolitions) was Operation Mincemeat. This propaganda exercise, designed to put the Germans off the scent of the Allied invasion of Sicily, involved dressing up a corpse to resemble a drowned naval officer carrying misleading "secret papers", whose body was washed ashore in Spain. Fleming oversaw the operation (later filmed as The Man Who Never Was) with meticulous attention to convincing detail, including filling the man's pockets with theatre tickets and love letters. It was a classic instance of transforming a human body into an effective machine to fool the enemy.

Effectiveness is a shining virtue in Fleming's books. Knowing what to do in any circumstance – from tackling a stampede of poisonous spiders in a boiling ventilator shaft (Dr No) to bending the rules of golf (Goldfinger) – makes you good. Keeping your body in shape and combat-worthy is good. Eating "plain wholesome food" (which is how Bond describes a dinner of caviar, grilled rognons de veau with pommes soufflées and a dish of raspberries with cream) is extremely good.

And as you read through the Bond canon, you notice that Fleming's obsession is with things that make the world work better. Not just the cars, guns and gadgets, the rockets and torture systems and heist plans for Fort Knox, but everything about living your life. He turns life itself into a kind of commodity. He makes Bond – so coldly, ruthlessly effective – into a machine, as enviable and beautiful as his 4.5l Bentley. For his readers, his big achievement was to turn Bond into a brand name – one that went with his Frank Cooper's Oxford marmalade and his Morland cigarettes (Balkan and Turkish blend with a triple gold band). A brand name that we could try on and buy and luxuriate in, like a William Hunt suit.

For the idle reader, the Bond books have a surface sheen that's as cool as an MTV video. The names! Fleming was brilliant at names. Le Chiffre, Largo, Drax, Mr Big, Dr No, Scaramanga, Smersh, Sceptre, Tee-Hee, Oddjob, Vesper, Domino, Honeychile, Mary Goodnight... Even chapter headings carry little jolts and frissons: "Table Z", "The Long Scream", "How to Eat a Girl", "The Disco Volante". Fleming should have been a brand-marketing consultant, rather than wasting his time in newspapers and banking (after the war he became foreign manager of Kemsley newspapers, until it was taken over by Thomsons in 1959).

He was a much better writer than later critics give him credit for. Having a formula to work to (opening event, Bond visits "M" and "Q", flies to Jamaica, meets girl, meets villain, encounters assassin etc) bored him rigid, and he took extraordinary liberties with narrative in order to try new things. In From Russia with Love, Bond doesn't appear until chapter 11, because Fleming offers a long, detailed history of how the Soviets train an Irish psychopath. In Goldfinger, a golf game spreads itself across four leisurely chapters but never loses one's interest. In The Spy Who Loved Me, his boldest experiment but worst book, he goes for a female narrator, Vivienne Michel, who explains how she came to be kidnapped. He does terrible things to his machine-like creation – makes Bond smoke 70 cigarettes a day and drink like a Bowery wino, has him burnt, battered and eaten by crocodiles, marries him off, kills off his wife, even has him missing, presumed dead, in Japan so that The Times can publish Bond's obituary.

Fleming's writerly character comes across as capricious, unpredictable, keen to take risks and spring surprises, short on reflection and long on descriptions of how things work. He is extremely good at evoking sadism and corruption by the simplest means (his description of Rosa Klebb, the Smersh torturer, with her spattered smock and little camp stool, is a triumph of creepy horror). And everyone who read James Bond around puberty will remember the sex scenes in From Russia with Love, Thunderball and Live and Let Die, and how they were all about preliminaries – cleavage and shorts and choker and stockings – and how breasts always warranted at least four adjectives, and how the women, though occasionally they came on like little girls, in baby-doll nighties, more often behaved like imperious mistresses demanding "slave time". They wanted, in Fleming's essentially adolescent understanding of psychology, to be serviced by the best machine around.

And for 50 years, the reading and film-going public has bought into an adventure fantasy – where good and bad confront each other as forms of human designer machinery, and strive to outclass each other in ruthless efficiency. It's not a warm aesthetic, but it's worked for half a century.