The most successful saga in postwar popular culture got off to a conscientious start after breakfast on a tropical morning in Jamaica early in 1952. Ian Fleming, forty-three years old and ten weeks away from his first and last marriage, knocked out about 2,000 words on his Imperial portable claiming (falsely) that he was just passing time while his bride elect, Anne Rothermere, painted landscapes in the garden. In fact Fleming had been planning to write a spy thriller for years and he kept up the regimen of2,000 daily words until, two months later, he was done, with Commander James Bond recovering from a near lethal attack on his testicles from Le Chiffre’s carpet beater, Le Chiffre finished off by a Russian, Vesper Lynd dead by her own hand, and a major addition to the world’s cultural and political furniture under way.
On 16 January, 1962, ten years to the day after Fleming had typed those first words of Casino Royale (‘The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning’) filming began on Dr No at Palisadoes airport in Jamaica, with the British Secret Service and the CIA duly represented by Sean Connery and Jack Lord. Fleming lived long enough to see only two of the Bond films, Dr No and From Russia With Love, before dying in August, 1964 of a heart attack helped along by his seventy or so Morland’s Specials
He has much to answer for. Without Fleming we would have had no OSS, hence no CIA. The cold war would have ended in the early 1960s. We would have had no Vietnam, no Nixon, no Reagan and no Star Wars.
Let those dubious of such assertions study the evidence. It was Fleming, assistant to the director of British naval intelligence during the Second World War, who visited Washington DC in 1941 and wrote a long memo of advice for General ‘Will Bill’ Donovan, President Roosevelt’s Co-ordinator of Information, whose duties included the collection of intelligence and the planning of various covert offensive operations. According to Ivar Bryce, a lifelong friend of Fleming’s who was working at the time for Sir William Stephenson, the director of Britain’s intelligence operations in the Americas, ‘Ian wrote out the charter for the COI at General Donovan’s request … He wrote it as a sort of imaginary exercise describing in detail all the arrangements necessary for financing, paying, organizing, controlling, and training a secret service in a country which had never had one before.’
Fleming’s memo was dashed down in long-hand over two days in the British Embassy with the diligence later exhibited in his imaginative stints after breakfast in Jamaica. It impressed Donovan who gave him a .38 Police Positive Colt inscribed with the words ‘For Special Services’ and went on to build the COI which later evolved into OSS and later still into the CIA.
So, you see, it was all Fleming’s fault. He had a riotous imagination utterly unsuited to serious intelligence collection and analysis. The offices of the British Admiralty often rang with laughter at his mad schemes. It was Fleming who suggested that British sailors be entombed in a giant lump of concrete off Dieppe, from which they could keep watch on Dieppe through periscopes. It was Fleming who proposed to send a cruiser into Nazi waters with a transmitter beamed to the German Navy’s wave-length which would, in his words, ‘keep up a torrent of abuse, challenging the German naval commanders by name to come out and do something about it. No sailor likes to be accused of cowardice, and Germans are always particularly touchy.’
Fortified by such boyish fantasies, the officers of OSS never wrought much damage to the foe, but, from Donovan and his subordinate Allen Dulles downwards, learned to exploit romantic public fantasies of what a secret service should be. Thus they ensured their survival, if not in the field then in the crucial bureaucratic battlegrounds of Washington.
At the end of the war the future of the OSS hung in the balance. Alert to the importance of publicity for their supposedly secret organization, Donovan and Dulles lent every assistance to Hollywood producers racing to be first in the theaters with an OSS movie. Paramount’s man in this race was Richard Maibaum, who, with Alan Ladd produced “OSS”. Donovan’s aid was later responsible for turning the Bond novels into film scripts. Maibaum recently recalled that ‘before we got done we had literally about ten technical agents all telling us marvelous stories of what had happened to them all over the world which we incorporated into the plot. There were foreshadowings of things in the Bond films, – the pipe that was a gun, and other gadgets. There were some things we couldn’t use, such as foul smelling stuff like an enormous fart that the OSS agents used to spray on people they wished to discredit, and thus cause them to be socially humiliated It was called Who, Me? We could never get it in, because the Johnson office would never let us use it.’
Soon the postwar audiences were enjoying Maibaum’s OSS along with Cloak and Dagger from Warner’s and 13, Rue Madeleine from Twentieth-Century Fox. This spy hype helped the OSS resist bureaucratic extinction and instead metastasize into the CIA.
Having engendered the OSS, Fleming now began to lure Anthony Eden down the path of fantasy. Like many in the small but enthusiastic fan club for Fleming’s early thrillers, Sir Anthony Eden rejoiced that in Fleming’s pages, if not in the real world, a Briton was capable of decisive, ruthless action. Eden, as prime minister, resolved that the fortunes of 007 would be reflected in bold deeds, undertaken by himself. In concert with France and Israel he invaded Egypt in 1956. He had not studied the works of his friend with sufficient care. Bond and his master, M, placed the highest priority upon acting at all times with the approval of the United States. In the case of Suez, President Eisenhower said the invasion had to stop and it did. Twelve days later Eden had an attack of what his spokesman called ‘severe overstrain’ and his doctors urged him to spend a few weeks in absolute seclusion and repose.
Once again Eden was overwhelmed by the fantasies of his friend. After the war Fleming had bought a plot of land on Jamaica’s North Shore and built a small house on it. To acquaintances trembling with cold in English winters Fleming would body forth ‘Goldeneye’, his Caribbean paradise. In the crisis, seeking rest, Eden and his wife decided to go to Goldeneye. Fleming was delighted, since it raised the rental value of the place and he was badly in need of cash. But for the Edens the trip was unfortunate. The quarters were unalluring. Gazing into the rafters of Goldeneye, the prime minister, already suffering bouts of paranoia, fancied he saw rats. He was right. He consumed days chasing them in the company of his two body-guards. Finally, harrowed by lack of sleep, broken in health, he returned to London, announced he was ‘fit to resume my duties’ and resigned three weeks later.
In 1958, Fleming wrote Dr No, which advanced the novel notion that Cuba, as the local representative of the international Communist conspiracy, had perfected a reactor-based instrument capable of sabotaging US missile tests, thus explaining the Soviets’ apparent advantage in space technology, as evidenced by the launching of the Sputnik. Having proposed a fictional Caribbean missile crisis, Fleming followed up in person. In the spring of 1960 he was taken to dinner at the Washington home of Senator and Democratic presidential candidate-elect Jack Kennedy. The conversation turned to the problem of Castro. How should he be dealt with? Fleming’s imagination sprang into action. As Fleming’s biographer, John Pierson, reported the conversation, he told the assembled company, which included a CIA man called John Bross, that the United States should send planes over Cuba dropping pamphlets, with the compliments of the Soviet Union, to the effect that owing to American atom bomb tests the atmosphere over the island had become radioactive; that radioactivity is held longest in beards; and that radioactivity makes men impotent. As a consequence the Cubans would shave off their beards, and without bearded Cubans there would be no revolution.
Everyone, including Senator Kennedy, laughed at the scheme. The next day Allen Dulles, director of the CIA, telephoned a friend of Fleming to express regrets that he had not been able to listen to Fleming’s plans in person. Within two years the Kennedy brothers along with Alien Dulles, director of the CIA, were hiring gangsters to help in either the murder or humiliation of Castro, with the latter being attempted by a dust which would cause his beard to fall out. The subculture of sabotage andassination coaxed into being by the Kennedys finally, on November 22, 1963, turned back on the President.
Just as Eden helped raise the real estate value of Goldeneye, so did President Kennedy augment the fortunes of the fantasist. On 17 March, an article by Hugh Sidey in Life announced that President Kennedy could read at a rate of 1,200 words a minute and had ten favorite books. From Russia With Love was ninth, just ahead of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.
Bond became the embodiment of western discourse on the Cold War. The men who would later construct the Reaganite view of the universe turned time and again to their Bond for edification. From him they learned that the Russians use Bulgarians as “proxies” and thus the legend of the KGB-Bulgarian plot to kill the Pope was born. They watched Thunderball and conceived that terrorists, probably Libyans, would steal atomic bombs and attack American cities. They worried about germ warfare when they saw On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and about weather modificationwhen they saw The Man With the Golden Gun. But it was the lasers in Diamonds Are Forever, along with the space station in Moonraker that made the deepest impact. Could missiles be destroyed in space? Could there be such a thing as a space shield? To hand was a Bond sequel by John Gardner called For Special Services in which the villain announces on page 222 that -The Particle Beam once operational – will prevent any country from launching a conventional [sic] nuclear attack. Particle Beam means absolute neutralisation.- On March 23, 1983 President Reagan proposed a space-based defense system, known as SDI, which would use lasers and particle beams. Star Wars was born.
Bond was in poor ideological shape at the beginning, running badly to seed in a way that would have aroused the contempt of his fictional antecedent, the fascist Captain Bulldog Drummond. In an exchange in Casino Royale with the French agent Mathis, Bond unburdens himself of the following: “The villains and heroes all get mixed up. Of course … patriotism comes along and makes it seem fairly all right, but this country-right-or-wrong business is getting a little out of date. Today we are fighting communism. Okay. If I’d been alive fifty years ago, the brand of conservatism we have today would have been damn near called communism, and we should have been told to go and fight that.’
It didn’t take too long for Bond to straighten himself out and declare unending war on evil in the manner prescribed by Mathis. As Maibaum puts it, ‘the basic success of Bond is lan Fleming’s James Bond syndrome: a ruthless killer who is also St George of England, a modern day combination of morality and immorality. In the age of the sick joke it clicked.’
Of course the Bond of the books was a bit of a sicko, held together mostly by his sanction from the state: licensed to kill. He could never keep any relationship together, and if Vesper Lynd hadn’t done herself in with a handful of Nembutals before they got married she probably would have got around to it in the end. What a prissy old autocrat of the breakfast table he would have been, howling for his perfectly brown egg, boiled for three and a third minutes and then put in its Minton cup, next to the Queen Anne coffee pot and the Cooper’s Vintage Oxford marmalade!
There was something a bit common too in all this insistence on the very best, as though Bond knew that in the end he was, as the elegant Dr No put it in Maibaum’s line in the movie, ‘nothing but a stupid policeman,’ on hire to the ruling class. Hence the great scene in From Russia With Love, when the class impostor Bond, played by a working-class boy from Edinburgh with a Scots burr in his voice, comes up against the other class impostor and psychopath Red Grant, played by Robert Shaw. ‘Red wine with fish,’ says Connery, ‘I should have known.’ ‘I may take red wine with fish,’ Shaw gg hisses viciously, ‘but you’re the one on your knees now.’
Bond was in urgent need of a shrink. Fleming himself had the good fortune to be cared for in his troubled teens at Kitzbuhel in Switzerland by a couple called Forbes-Dennis, who were much influenced by Alfred Adler. Mrs Forbes Dennis, who wrote under the name Phyllis Bottome, thought the young Fleming proof of Adler’s theories, his impressive elder |g brother Peter being the Adlerian Gegenspieler. ‘The Gegenspieler; wrote Bottome in her book on Adler, ‘is a contemporary brother or sister by whom the child felt dethroned … in almost any intimate relationship that follows, the child as he develops into the man will build up the same perpetual antagonism between himself and any beloved person.’ The ^ subject, said Adler, pushes aside the world by a mechanism consisting of ‘hypersensitiveness and intolerance … the neurotic man employs a number of devices for enabling him to side-step the demands of reality.’
If Adler had lived long enough to visit Pinewood in 1982 when they were making Octopussy and Superman III he would have surely felt vindicated. Somewhere along the line, in their post-imperial fantasy life, the British got muddled about secrets and spying and sex and identity and the confusion has been causing them endless trouble ever since. On a one-week visit years ago to England I found the newspaper headlines were replete with spy and sex scandals. The Thatcher government was claiming that national security had been ‘compromised,’ by an article about a British spy satel¬ lite.
Another story concerned Mrs Payne, a woman on trial for running prostitutes, about whom Terry Jones, of the Monty Python crew, has produced a film. According to the account in The Independent, a tall man who dressed as a French maid at Cynthia Payne’s parties told yesterday how he was ‘touched up’ by a man he later learned was a ‘boisterous, tall and very fat’ undercover policeman. Keith Savage, with short cropped hair and a Geordie accent, told a jury that the bearded officer put his hand up his skirt and fondled his bottom. ‘I was a bit upset about the police bursting in and I thought this man was trying to console me. But he got a bit overfriendly … I think he had a motive of a sexual nature.’ Another policeman, he claimed, was dressed effeminately wearing eye make-up and a monocle.
* * *
The titular villains in the Bond books are always grotesques. Le Chiffre, in Casino Royale, set the tone, weighing in at 252 pounds at a height of 5’8″, with his ‘small, rather feminine mouth’, small hairy hands, small feet, small ears ‘with large lobes, indicating some Jewish blood’, ‘soft and even’ voice and white showing all round the iris of each eye, ‘large sexual appetites’ and ‘flagellant’ tastes. This, in admittedly baroque form, was our old friend the Father Figure, as evinced in the scene where Le Chiffre goes to work on Bond’s balls with the carpet beater and promises to chop them off with a carving knife.
Fleming inaugurates the torture scene thus: ‘”My dear boy”–Le Chiffre spoke like a father–”the game of Red Indians is over, quite over. You have stumbled by mischance into a game for grown-ups, and you have already found it a painful experience. You are not equipped, my dear boy, to play games with adults, and it was very foolish of your nanny in London to have sent you out here with your spade and bucket.’” But when Bond, manhood spared by the Russian executioner who dispatches Le Chiffre, recovers in hospital and then prepares–with Vesper Lynd’s help–to check that all physical systems are in working order, he discovers that she too is a villain.
This is less surprising when we realise that Bond’s women are often men, thinly disguised. This is progress from Buchan and Drummond where they were often horses. Vesper is introduced with the news that ‘her eyes were wide apart and deep blue and they gazed candidly back at Bond with a touch of ironical disinterest which, to his annoyance, he found he would like to shatter, roughly. Her skin was lightly suntanned and bore no trace of make-up except on her mouth which was wide and sensual. … the general impression of restraint in her appearance and movements was carried even to her fingernails, which wer unpainted and cut short.
Of course there was dutiful mention of Vesper’s “fine” breasts but Fleming does not seem to have been too interested in them. Four years later in From Russia With Love, Fleming scurries past Tatiana Romanova’s breasts with a mumbled “faultless” before assuming a hotly didactic tone on the matter of her ass: “A purist would have disapproved of her behind. Its muscles were so hardened with exercise that it had lost the smooth downward feminine sweep, and now, round at the back and flat and hard at the sides, it jutted like a man’s. A year later, after publication of Dr No Noel Coward wrote to Fleming, saying that he was slightly shocked by the lascivious announcement that Honeychile’s bottom was like a boy’s. “I know that we are all becoming progressively more broadminded nowadays but really, old chap, what could you have been thinking of?”
Fleming didn’t address the point in his response, but there is an answer in one of his notebooks from the thirties, a period when he looked, in one description, like someone who had walked out of the pages of The Romantic Agony: ‘Some women respond to the whip, some to the kiss. Most of them like a mixture of both, but none of them answer to the mind alone, to the intellectual demand, unless they are men dressed as women_ For Bond there were father figures lurking behind every shrub none more imposing than old M, with his damnably blue eyes, whom Bond tries kill in an Oedipal spasm at the start of OHMS. But here too we find that ambiguity discovered by the very fat policeman when he slipped his hand up Savage’s skirt. Fleming’s father was killed in the war when he was a boy. The dominant figure in lan’s life was his formidable mother Mrs Val. Like Holmes and Moriarty locked together over the Reichenbach Falls, motherand son maintained vigorous psychic combat until they died within two months of each other in l964, MrsVal going first in July. Fleming often called hiss mother M.
Always this terrible confusion! The real ‘M’ in the war was the head of MI5, a man called Maxwell Knight. He was loved by his secretary, Joan Miller. She died in 1984 but her daughter fought, over the desperate efforts of MI5 to suppress them, to publish her memoirs, which are now available in Ireland. There is a poignant passage in which Miller describes the object of her doomed love: “As I sat there watching this avowed opponent of homosexuality mince across the lawn, a number of things became clear to me. His tastes obviously inclined him in the direction of what, in a phrase not then current, is known as “rough trade”. It was plain that he’d taken himself that time, to the cinema tea room, instead of spending the afternoon with his wife in Oxford, in the hope of effecting a suitably scrubby pick up.”
If Bond’s women were men in the books, in the movies they are fish, starting with Honeychile who comes up out of the sea in Dr No in one of the most successful associations of woman with water since Botticelli stood Venus up on a clamshell. In the movies Bond is often to be found down in cold water or up in the snow. The problem for Maibaum and for the various directors was no doubt to find scenery to match or compensate for the distraught psychic landscapes of the books. They found the answer where Jules Verne so often did, in the soothingly amoral underworld of the sea. It didn’t always work. The underwater sequences in Thunderbolt are numbingly slow. But at their best, in the explicitly Verne-like Spy Who Loved Me with Curt Jurgens’ Atlantis on its tarantula legs, or in the lesbian fantasy, Octopussy, the movies do take on the surreal texture of a Max Ernst painting.
They also lightened everything up. The only time Bond really behaves like a licensed killer is at the start of Dr No, when he studies the renegade Strangeway’s empty gun, says ‘You’ve had your six’ and then kills him in cold blood. Maibaum gave Bond a sense of humor. The idea was to present the cold war as a necessary, but humorous–in the case of Moore, frivolous–ritual. Right from the start the film series stood in marked contrast to the books in being pro detente. The only bad Russians are renegades, part of SPECTER, intent on sowing distrust between the great powers, as in The Spy Who Loved Me, where Jurgens schemes to arrange mutual assured destruction of all great powers other than his own. Maibaum says now that starting with Dr No, ‘for some reason, looking at the very, very long-range future United Artists did not want the Russians to be out and out villains, so we made Dr No come from SPECTER rather than SMERSH. That was really done for reasons of motion picture distribution, thinking that maybe some day Bond might go to Russia.’
Dr No set the high standard for Bond villains. The best of these villains was probably Gert Frobe in Goldfinger and Maibaum gave him one of the best lines. ‘Do you expect me to talk?’ Connery grits as the laser slices towards his crotch. ‘No Mr Bond, I expect you to die.’ On the whole one feels rather sorry for the villains, cultured and bold, but thwarted in their schemes for world conquest by so mean an intellect as Bond’s. But films don’t have the juice that Fleming’s cold war fifties political stance gave the novels, which is no doubt why the films got more and more fantastical, as sea, snow and travelogue became substitutes for Fleming’s paranoid verve. It is not surprising, given the length of the Bond series, that the audiences now take so much pleasure in the expected, in Bond as ritual: the pre-credit sequence established in From Russia With Love; the encounter with Miss Moneypenny; the throw-away lines and polished dialogue; the gadgets produced by Q.
Ah yes, the gadgets: the briefcase with knives and gold sovereigns, the Aston Martin DBS with ejector seat and saw-blades in the wheel hubs … In the mid 1960s Umberto Eco wrote an interesting essay about Fleming in which he discussed the author’s stylistic technique. ‘Fleming takes time to convey the familiar with photographic accuracy,’ Eco wrote, ‘because it is upon the familiar that he can solicit our capacity for identification. Our credulity is solicited, blandished, directed to the region of possible and desirable things. Here the narration is realistic, the attention to detail intense; for the rest, so far as the unlikely is concerned, a few pages suffice and an implicit wink of the eye.’
Fleming, and through him, Bond, was acutely aware of commodities, mundane objects of desire. No previous thriller writer had ever accommodated himself to such an extent to the psychology of acquisition, of envy, to the spiritual rhythms of the advertising industry. The makers and marketers of Bond movies understood this aspect of Fleming’s appeal very well, and soon the world grew used to Bond’s pedantic lectures on Taittinger and Q’s proud demonstrations of the latest in British gadgetry. The movies are full of tie-ins, from Cartier watches to vodka to the trusty Aston Martin itself. Backdrop becomes commodified too, as the Bond producers scour the world for fresh locations and ministers of tourism plead for a visit.
In this matter of commodities the Bond films have been a somewhat ironic reverie of British omnipotence. The cycle of Bond films began just when the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson was urging the nation to cast aside the archaic vestments of the past and bathe itself in the ‘white heat of technology’. Things worked in Bond movies but they didn’t work in Britain and as Kingsley Amis once sadly remarked, if Bond had really had to use his mini-submarine in combat conditions it would have surely taken him straight to the bottom. In 1983, just when Q gave Bond a staggering number of gadgets in Octopussy, Britain became for the first time in its history a net importer of industrial goods.
Noel Coward put the contrast between fantasy and reality well. ‘One of the things that still makes me laugh whenever I read Ian’s books is the contrast between the standard of living of dear old Bond and the sort of thing Ian used to put up with at Goldeneye. When Bond drinks his wine it has to be properly chambre, the tournedos slightly underdone, and so forth. But whenever I ate with Ian at Goldeneye the food was so abominable I used to cross myself before I took a mouthful. … I used to say, “Ian, it tastes like armpits.” And all the time you were eating there was an old lan smacking his lips for more while his guests remembered all those delicious meals he had put into the books.’
In that same weeklong visit to the UK years ago I turned on Channel 4 one evening. There was my friend Robin Blackburn, at that time editor of New Left Review, addressing the nation on the paramount necessity of Britain becoming truly socialist if it is to get out of its present mess. “The social horizon,” Robin said, “is still defined by institutions which serve British capital but which are not specifically capitalist and are not found in any other capitalist country. Our ruling institutions are the products of oligarchy and empire. Consecrated by time and custom they are like a dead weight on the imagination and aspirations of the living. Britain has become a living museum of obsolescence, whose most splendid trophy is nothing less than the world’s last ancien regime.”
Under prime ministers stretching back to Churchill, 007 has done his best, probably none better, to put Britain’s foot forward. He himself is, with the happy assistance of United Artists, one of Britain’s most successful exports. But if Bond is a fine example of world cultural integration at the level of kitsch, things have not always been in good shape on the home front. What has improved strongly is the coercive apparatus of the state. ‘You’re nothing but a stupid policeman,’ Dr No told Bond. If he had not had the misfortune to drown in his own nuclear well, the doctor would have been unhappy to discover that Bond’s trade–policing the British state–has fared better than most of the other props in the old museum. In this respect at least, the fantasy came true.
This article is reprinted from Serpents in the Garden by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair.