You now need to be in your mid-sixties or older — a chilling thought — not to have lived your whole life in the shadow of James Bond. In 1953, the year of the Queen’s coronation and the conquest of Everest, Bond announced his arrival with the words, ‘The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning’, the opening line of Casino Royale.
His creator was Ian Fleming, a cynical, not-very-clean-living newspaperman with a chequered career behind him, who wrote the book to take his mind off ‘the agony’ of getting married for the first time. Even Jonathan Cape, his publisher, thought the book ‘not up to scratch’, but brought it out in a modest print run as a favour to Fleming’s then better-known brother Peter, among other things the Spectator columnist ‘Strix’ for many years.
Now, more than 60 years later, and more than 50 after the death of his creator, 007 is in the news again, as we learn that Daniel Craig may or may not sign up to play Bond for the fifth time. Sir Roger Moore, who played Bond in all of seven movies between 1973 and 1985, says gravely that ‘He is the incumbent actor in the role, until he says otherwise.’ But Craig seems to be suffering from Bond fatigue, and has reportedly said that he’s ‘done’ with the part. Some of us will sympathise, having been done with Bond a long time since.
Even so, ‘Bondage’ has been a most revealing phenomenon; it’s not too much to call it an episode in cultural and social history. As the books became more popular, they attracted notoriety, scolded by critics for their ‘vulgarity and display’, their air of dissipation, and for the sex, or the kind of sex, well before the present age, when everything about them offends against contemporary canons of correctness, from Bond’s 70th cigarette of the day to ‘the sweet tang of rape’.
Under the headline ‘Sex, snobbery and sadism’, Paul Johnson famously called Dr No ‘without doubt, the nastiest book I have ever read’. And more recently, the late Christopher Hitchens wrote a funny piece, ‘Ian Fleming: Bottoms up’, in which, apart from observing that one of Fleming’s early mentors was called Phyllis Bottome, and one of his mistresses Monique Panchaud de Bottomes — ‘This might be coincidence (it could hardly be conspiracy)’ — he correctly noted that Fleming wrote much more enthusiastically about flagellation than copulation.
If the original novels bear serious attention at all, it’s for an underlying theme of national decline, which makes them 1950s period pieces. Like his creator, Bond is oppressed by everything from the sloth of postwar working-class youth to the humiliation of Suez. Fleming served creditably in the wartime Royal Navy Voluntary Reserve, rising to the rank of Commander, but most of the time as a ‘chocolate sailor’, in his own rueful phrase, who fought his war from behind a desk. Except just once: he literally ‘saw action’ on 19 August 1942 when he was in a destroyer off the coast of France and witnessed the catastrophic Dieppe raid in which Mountbatten and Montgomery sent large numbers of Canadian soldiers to needless death or captivity. This may help explain Bond’s under-lying insecurity, and his boasting that we can still climb Everest and run a four-minute mile.
After the books came the films, the first in 1962 two years before Fleming died, and following his death the spin-off or rip-off novels. They began with Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis and continue right down to the latest pseudo-Bonds by Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd. If I haven’t lost count, there are now some two dozen movies and three dozen ‘after-Bond’ books. It’s quite droll that, whereas great writers have often been imitated by lesser writers, Fleming is a rare if not unique case of a tawdry popular novelist who has been mimicked by much better writers.
There have also been parodies rather than pastiches of Fleming, from Bernard Levin’s very funny ‘Queen of the North-West’ in The Spectator in 1960 to Cyril Connolly’s only fairly amusing ‘James Bond Strikes Camp’. And yet that last was surely the right word, for the books and still more for the movies, each of which outcamps the last until the films with Craig have dissolved into self-parody.
There may perhaps be some men who still agree with Amis that ‘We rather enjoy being told by our wives and sweethearts that we’re smoking and drinking too much. It enables us to feel devil-may-care at little trouble or expense,’ although Fleming, who smoked even more than Bond and drank a bottle of gin a day before dying at 56, was no advertisement for devil-may-care (nor was Kingsley in his later years). The rest of us may feel as weary as Mr Craig. The name’s Bond, James Bond, you say? Well thank you, but you have delighted us long enough.