Shaken, stirred and sizzling
The inspiration for countless Hindi thrillers, James Bond is a fantasy that will never die
Earlier this year, the world – or at least the British media – marked the centenary of the birth of Ian Fleming, best known as the creator of James Bond, code-named 007 (the double-zero prefix reflecting his “licence to kill”). The occasion was marked by the publication of yet another posthumous Bond novel, this time by the literary novelist Sebastian Faulks, who follows such illustrious predecessors as Kingsley Amis and John Gardner in attempting to prolong the literary life of Fleming’s hero (and augment the revenue of the Ian Fleming estate). There is, of course, another Bond movie in the works, and even an exhibition devoted to the British super-sleuth in London’s Imperial War Museum, no less. Britain has every reason to celebrate James Bond’s enduring mystique.
British fictional heroes have captured a curiously persistent place in the world’s imagination. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is easily the best-known detective in human history; if he has a rival, it can only be Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, a Belgian who also plies his trade in Britain. And of all the secret agents in popular fiction who have attracted the attention of the world public, there is simply no one to rival James Bond (or “Commander James Bond, CMG, RNVR,” to give him his proper moniker). Wikipedia has an entry on him; there were, at last count, 67 different websites devoted to the master spy from MI-6. The fourteen Ian Fleming novels, which have sold some 100 million copies, have long been outstripped in popularity by the 21 James Bond movies; the London Times recently estimated that more than half the global population has seen at least one Bond film. The Bond name sells watches (earlier Rolex, now Omega), video games, toy action figures, cigarettes, cufflinks, and even cars; Aston Martin and Bentley are squabbling about which make he “really” drove (Bentley in the books, Aston Martin in the movies). Forbes magazine, global capitalism’s weekly bible, estimates the value of the Bond franchise at $13.5 billion, or roughly the size of the entire gross national product of Myanmar.
Britain’s Bond boost
At one level, James Bond’s sustained popularity is somewhat surprising, for the Bond character in the novels was very much a product of two now-forgotten phenomena – the Cold War and the collapse of the British Empire. In the 1950s and early 1960s, people in the English-speaking world lived in daily fear of nuclear annihilation brought about by sinister Soviet agents working on behalf of Communists bent on taking over the world. Meanwhile, the sun had begun to set on the British Empire with the independence of India, soon followed by the freedom of other formerly colonised lands. Britain, in the famous formulation, had lost an Empire and was still looking for a role; and the only role available in the global superpower standoff between the USA and the USSR was a subsidiary one. The moment was ripe for an action hero who could reassure British readers that Britain still mattered: a suave, Eton-educated tough guy, perfectly schooled in the ways of the world, irresistible to women, fluent in foreign languages, at ease anywhere on the planet, virile and sophisticated, single-handedly thwarting the dastardly plans of the evil Soviets and their minions. James Bond fitted the bill. For the British, he was just what the doctor ordered for a lingering case of post-Imperial decline. The books were bestsellers in Britain, of course, and then worldwide, when American President John F Kennedy listed From Russia with Love among his favourite books. But it was the hugely successful films that cemented the character’s hold on the global imagination.
Still, it’s Ian Fleming’s centenary we’re marking, not of Hollywood producer “Cubby” Broccoli, who brought Bond to the screen. So it’s time to reflect on the disastrous personal habits of James Bond – habits evidently admired by his creator, who died in 1964 at the shockingly young age of 56, no doubt of excessive indulgence in his character’s vices. In the very first Bond novel, Casino Royale, the super-sleuth consumes thirteen stiff drinks in the course of the book – his famous dry martini of gin, vodka, Lillet and lemon peel, “shaken, not stirred”, but also whisky, champagne, neat vodka, and an “Americano” (Campari and Cinzano sweet vermouth). He also chain-smokes cigarettes, a blend of Balkan and Turkish high-tar tobacco from Morlands of Grosvenor Street, each cigarette bearing three gold bands on the filter, signifying the stripes that go with Bond’s (and Fleming’s) rank of Commander. At one point Bond lights up his 70th cigarette of the day. With this much alcohol and nicotine in him, it’s a wonder 007 can shoot straight, let alone chase spies, swim underwater, ski down treacherous slopes and leap buildings with a single bound. In real life, he’d be pie-eyed and out of breath.
Such habits today seem as dated as their political assumptions. And then there are the women, with suggestive names like Pussy Galore, Mary Goodnight and Plenty O’Toole, whom Bond beds casually, frequently and indiscriminately. Quite apart from falling seriously afoul of the sexual harassment laws, it would be a small miracle if James Bond hadn’t contracted an unmentionable disease well before the latest instalment of his adventures.
Dated, yet timeless
But James Bond is, of course, fiction: a product of a certain era, but with a timeless appeal to the schoolboy yearning for adventure that lurks deep in all of us. The improbability of his life, his preposterously luxurious tastes (on a British civil servant’s salary!) and his extravagantly recherché escapades are all the more interesting precisely because they bear so little relation to reality. One real spy, a Serbian double agent named Dusan “Dusko” Popov, was reportedly a model for the fictional Bond. Asked by a group of Italian journalists about Fleming’s creation, Popov was blunt: “I doubt whether a flesh-and-blood Bond would last 48 hours as a spy.” But the only flesh and blood in Fleming’s novels spilled out of his minor characters: Bond was indestructible because he was a fantasy. And fantasies, of course, can last for ever.
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