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A bumper crop of Bondage

17 December 2005

12:00 AM

17 December 2005

12:00 AM

Here is part of an Evening Standard review of Goldfinger, written when it was first published in 1959 under the untentative title ‘The Richest Man in the World’: ‘The things that make Bond attractive: the sex, the sadism, the vulgarity of money for its own sake, the cult of power, the lack of standards.’

Over 50 years later (Casino Royale, the first Bond book, was published in 1953, its author born in 1908) what is the verdict? That highly accessoried and fetishistic sex in the novels is rather unpenetrative by comparison with thriller-sex now; it is too ultra-romantic, of course, in the mean-keen/ luxe-location mode. The sadism is beating away in the heart of the novels, not to be minimised but nothing like as sub- cutaneous as what you might now find at the cinema in a film categorised PG. There is no question that the vulgarity of money for its own sake in the world without the fictionalised world of novels has quite outglared anything to be found within their pages. As for standards, Bond has them. He has them about everything, from the material world, where he is a famous fusspot about the details of his drinks, his scrambled eggs, his clothes, and women’s too, to the world of manners, which in the old days constituted the silken armour that manifested the real spirit of the man within — patriot, spy, loner, orphan.

‘Innocence’, wrote Ian Fleming in those notebooks of which Henry Chancellor makes splendid use in James Bond: The Man and his World (John Murray, £20) and that are germane to the imagined world he made in his novels,

is appealing but it isn’t interesting. It belongs to flowers and vegetables and tadpoles only. The guilty are interesting because they have lived in the world we know, which is a guilty place full of guilty people. The only interest of innocent people is that they are about to become guilty as they must with age.


I do not think that he believed this for a moment; I think that it is innocence for which he hankers. It perhaps takes a Scot to balance against innocence not corruption but guilt; this split goes through the man and his work and his unhappy life that has left us with such a stash, though, of reliably pleasurable reading.

Ian Fleming was born to quite new money, made by his prodigious working-class grandfather from Dundee. His father Valentine was killed in 1917, leaving four sons, of whom Ian was the second. A knotty will tied the forceful mother for life to her boys. She admired success and would tolerate nothing less. The oldest boy Peter was golden, captain of the Oppidans at Eton, very clever, and, it was to transpire, a natural and brilliant writer. Ian was not academically clever. Peter had scooped all the school’s great prizes. Ian became a most successful athlete, the victor ludorum, at a school where athletics has for some reason never been thought as prestigious as rackets or cricket. This seems to be so to this day.

The better Peter was, the badder Ian became. His deep habits of sadism and sternness with himself were laid down, painful (if sometimes ostensibly pleasantly so) for their possessor, but thrilling once transformed from neurosis into stories, for us, his readers.

Henry Chancellor has produced an amazingly rich volume that uses the life of Fleming to shed light upon his creature Bond with an intelligence unusual in even a serious biographer. The illustrations are a wonderful bonus. The whole may be referred to or, as I recommend, read from cover to cover at once, twice. It is a reflection upon a time and a class as well as upon the nature of secret worlds that have much in common, the worlds of the writer and the spy.

The Moneypenny Diaries, ‘edited’ by Kate Westbrook (John Murray, £12.99), look good in their government-issue binding, are based upon a diverting idea and are technically well made. Kate Westbrook, the back of the book tells us, ‘is a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge’. She isn’t, and that is a good start. They tell, using the conceit that the diaries of Bond’s own Miss Moneypenny have been left to her niece Dr Westbrook, the other side of the story, not, thank heaven, the feminist retelling, but a well reversed-out image of what ‘actually’ happened. The idea is good, there is some nice writing, the series will grow, and there are excellent evocations of Africa, Scotland and heartbreak (which is never far from James Bond). I wish ‘Dr Westbrook’ the success she deserves but something is missing. Perhaps the author intended this, but there is the problem of absence that spoils for this reader The Spy Who Loved Me. It’s by the voice of a woman and a faint tone of womanish hanging-back just leaks in. Still, I will read the next for the quality of the historical tone, very hard to do about a time so recent and so very far away. If Dr Westbrook’s birth date is to be believed (1970), she is a fine, workmanlike novelist and it will be a more complete pleasure to read her when her identity is blown.

Whoever thought of commissioning Charlie Higson to write the ‘Young Bond’ series for Puffin was quite brilliant. I found myself telling my 22-year-old daughter unstoppably the plot of Silverfin (£5.99), which concerns, mainly, carnivorous eels, of which neither of us had known that we were such absorbed fans. Like a very different book, Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing, Silverfin begins with a cross-country run at a great public school, though here it is named from the start and it is Eton (there is no getting away from Eton in these books unless you count the far Caithness coast, the heart of Sardinia, devilish underground lairs, granite castle walls ten feet thick, a mountain-locked plaster city belonging to the millennialist megalomaniac Count Ugo Carnifex and many other fully imagined places). Charlie Higson, apart from about three solecistic glitches that run through the books (‘like’ to mean ‘as though’, ‘lifestyle’, ‘role model’) has pulled it off wonderfully. The reader believes in the young Bond, and begins to see how this boy became that man. This is writing for children of the highest order, with marvellous subtlety about the ambiguities of the adult world, brilliant names, including for girls (Wilder Lawless and her black horse Martini), delicate handling of real emotion, and, pace Ian Fleming, whose creature after all summoned this terrific tribute from Higson, a strong sense of innocence. Cheating is bad, to love is to lose, but to live is to love; it is my guess that Higson is a fan of Robert Browning. If he is a father, what luck for the children. I had thought that Blood Fever (Puffin, £6.99) could not live up to Silverfin. I was wrong. Higson shares with Fleming a masterly ability to teach and explain. Never before have I understood how a car works, or the human (or elverine) endocrine system. He is also a describer of the concrete in the class of the Master of the Thing Described, Ian McEwan.

I’m not completely clear how an evil American can come to be called both Lord Randolph Hellebore and Lord Hellebore, and it’s not the evilness nor the Americanness that puzzle me, but you are tired of reading about that sort of thing. Shake yourself a cocktail and read on.


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