John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Now pay attention, 007. This may look like a plate of sushi, but when Stelth is involved...'
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The Independent Online

I think it was the discovery, just after the launch of the new James Bond movie, that the Russian secret service has an assassination bureau called Stelth that made me wonder. Is the world of international espionage stuck fast in the Sixties? The more I read about the Litvinenko affair, the more it seems to have been scripted by some Soviet throwback in the thrall of old spy movies.

"Stelth," indeed. Bond fans will recall that their hero was targeted by Russian organisations called Smersh and Spectre; if Ian Fleming had lived longer, he'd undoubtedly have named a third evil corporation Stelth, an outfit devoted to rubbing out awkward contacts by taking them to a sushi restaurant and feeding them the teriyaki chicken.

Litvinenko was invited to his fateful meeting by an Italian called Scaramello, allegedly a "magistrate", an "academic" and an "expert on international crime". A likely story. The guy sounds more like a double agent. Behind his not-terribly-well concealed name lurks Scaramanga, the villain of The Man with the Golden Gun. The British police should rip open the front of his Dolce e Gabbana shirt to reveal his tell-tale third nipple.

But it's the restaurant stuff that reveals the hand of a scriptwriter. Itsu, with its carousel of sushi plates coiling around the lunchers, is the perfect metaphor for a world of secrecy and plotting as the conversation dodges and weaves and Scaramello/Scaramanga hands over documents naming the Stelth gang who shot Anna Politkovskaya...

Alexander L is apparently used to such meetings. He told Scotland Yard in 2003 that he'd met a hit man with a bullet destined for Vladimir Putin, and had heard all about his plans "during a meeting outside a noodle restaurant in Leicester Square". This obsession with exotic foreign food is such a giveaway. In movies, spies always met in strip clubs, to provide a backdrop of bouncy flesh behind the earnest dialogue. Modern Russians, sick of the boring nosh back home, prefer to imagine their agents meeting in fancy eating-houses.

As for the motif of poisoning that runs through modern Slavic plotting - well, what would James Bond encounter if he were recruited by Russia's Federal Security Bureau?

"Now, pay attention, 007," said Q the armourer. "I want you to familiarise yourself with some new weaponry."

"What've you got there?" asked Bond. "An exploding ballpoint? A rocket-launcher briefcase?"

"It's a chopstick," said Q. "You eat things with it."

"Admirably lifelike," said Bond. "How does it turn into an armour-piercing missile?" "It doesn't," said Q. "You eat your lunch with it until you find a moment to coat it with... this." He put a small green packet into Bond's hand.

"Incredible cunning, Q," said Bond. "What is it? Semtex?"

"Wasabi, actually," said Q. "You mix it with soy sauce and sort of diddle it around on your plate..."

"May I remind you, Q, I am Licensed to Kill, not Licensed to Experiment With Japanese Cuisine?"

"... but after 30 seconds it releases 5ml of thallium into the mixture, which your lunch date will eat with fatal consequences. Now, you see this, 007?"

"This piece of paper, sir? Is it a list of double agents? Is it the membership of Sneak, the contract killers from Minsk?"

"No, 007, it's a list of restaurants we like to use for fatal rendezvous. Wagamama, Yo Sushi, Silks & Spices, Fatso's Pasta Joint. Anywhere the food is completely formulaic and uninteresting and people are always adding stuff to make it taste of something."

"I've heard of this," said Bond. "I dined at the Lotus Blossom Palace in Chiswick and a spy was carried out in the terminal throes of thallium poisoning."

"Actually, that wasn't thallium, 007," said Q. "That was the monosodium glutamate..."

***

"I enjoy talking to you more than to anybody else," wrote Kingsley Amis to Philip Larkin in 1946, "because I never feel I am giving myself away and so can admit to shady, dishonest, crawling, cowardly, unjust, arrogant, snobbish, lecherous, perverted and generally shameful feelings that I don't want anybody else to know about."

Poor Kingers - to have such self-knowledge and get so little credit for it. All the secret vices he itemised, vices of which he knew he was (sometimes) capable, are now pulled out for inspection once again, as Zachary Leader's 1,000-page biography is published this week. The reviewers' tone is pretty uniform - it can be summed up by the question: "Why was Kingsley Amis so horrible?" - as they home in on his drinking, his lechery and love of giving offence, without giving much thought to his books, most of which are now out of print and likely to remain so.

Is there any point to saying, like so many who met him in the 1970s and 1980s, that he was a treat in person? Yes, he'd argue with you, and sometimes make outrageous remarks and demand you defend a position ("You'd torture someone, wouldn't you?" he once asked me at the Garrick Club, "if you thought they had a bomb somewhere that was primed to go off?"), but he did it to make life more interesting. He wanted people not to be platitudinous, bien-pensant, sentimental, phoney or patient with nonsense. And during this onslaught, he'd employ an arsenal of vocal tricks, wicked impersonations and stories, apparently just for your entertainment.

I got the impression that he genuinely liked meeting people, while testing them (a little too strenuously, perhaps) to see what they were made of. I remember how warmly he talked about writers he admired - Fielding, Waugh and Jane Austen before she "went off" in Mansfield Park - and the encouragement he gave to aspirant writers. I never regretted a minute spent in his company.

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