James Bond at sixty

Manuel Lucena. Professor. IE School of Arts & Humanities

1 June 2012

Sixty years ago Ian Fleming created the most famous spy of all time, a fictional character that helped counteract the prevailing mood amid a declining British Empire and troubles of post-war Europe.

One morning in 1952 a certain middle-aged British journalist who was living in Jamaica at the time and who drank a bottle of gin and smoked 70 cigarettes on a daily basis, began writing his first novel. It was a book born of writer’s block, in the truest sense of the word. His name was Ian Fleming. In spite of trying to become an army official or a diplomat, as he was pre-destined to given the high social standing of his family, it was not until he took up journalism that he found his true destiny.

Arrogant, multilingual, melancholic, and seductive, he was a correspondent in Moscow and then a banker in London, before serving as a navy officer and spy during the Second World War. Extremely gifted in story-telling, he specialized in operations involving deception, two of which were related to Spain. The successful Operation Mincemeat took the Germans out of Sicily, where the allied debarkation was set to take place, by means of the “discovery” of a body in Huelva bearing supposedly secret plans. The planned but never executed Operation Golden Eye was prepared in case Franco opted to enter the conflict in favor of the Axis, cutting off communication with Gibraltar.

The post-war period was boring for Fleming, who lived under the shadow of his brother Peter, a successful travel writer, but his revenge was guaranteed when he started his first book sixty years ago. It was the day after he married his lover of some time, the very rich and devoted Ann Charteris, Lady Rothermere, that he started writing compulsively, and in two months he had finished “Casino Royale”. It was the first of the Bond saga, which comprised a total of two novels and two volumes of short stories published between 1953 and 1966. Two years  before the last story was published Fleming died of a heart attack caused by his highly unhealthy lifestyle.

James Bond, icon of global popular culture thanks to the film versions of his stories, owes his name to a series of laughable coincidences. Fleming, who was an avid birdwatcher, had holed himself up in the picturesque “Goldeneye house”, located in the town of Oracabessa (Golden head in English), on the North Coast of Jamaica. By his own admission, he wracked his brain in search of the name of his most famous character, agent 007, on her gracious majesty’s service and licensed to kill. It had to be a short name, non-romantic, anglo saxon, and very masculine. His eye was caught by the name of naturalist author James Bond as he read his Guide to Birds in the West Indies that had been left lying on a table. He immediately realized the book in question had all the features of his character, who he still thought about in literary terms rather than as character with the more compelling cinematographic features for which he has gone down in history. Fleming’s Bond was a survivor of a world war, which was still ongoing in the form of the cold war, and got by in whatever way he could. The character of the literary Bond comprised a mixture of the features of the different spies that Fleming had worked with during his years in active service, and corresponded to “an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened”.

It is difficult to give an effective description of the atmosphere in Europe of the fifties, clearly reactive, with fast disappearing empires, its world power dilapidated after two brutal wars. Things happened and it seemed that little or nothing could be done to prevent them. Hence Fleming wrote, above all, about the nostalgia for the imperial Britain. The sweeping success of 007 provided fictional consolation for a whole generation, who felt lost in a strange world.  In spite of the victory achieved in war, their country did not belong to them anymore. What Fleming wrote about in his novels was the end of Great Britain as a world power. The invention of the super agent “with a license to kill”, was not a daring feat, but rather a recognition of powerlessness. In the post-imperial world ruled by Soviets and Americans, the rules of a gentlemen (i.e. the British, and Europeans by extension) were no longer of use. It was clear that he wanted to create a caricature. Bond is forced to account for himself to a higher authority (he is not an aristocrat, he lives off his salary paid by the state) and he depends far too often on incompetent colleagues. His bosses are as short-tempered as they are indulgent. When overcome by events, he tries to keep the upper hand through technology and experience. His exuberant vices and questionable virtues remit a classic element, a wild and immoral enjoyment of life, typical of post-imperial hedonism. 

Ever since the Romans, decadency has been portrayed as brutal materialism and an insatiable greed, as a reflection of the loss of political virtue. The humor in his work is about survival. Bond is a hero that belongs to a twilight world, and that is why he is also a pathetic character and a bit of a rogue, like Tristan Shandy or Spain’s Lazarillo de Tormes. Incapable of forming part of a team or forming part of a group effort, he survives all kinds of dangers thanks to a one-off blend of experience and charm. Bond is the result of a Victorian education like the one Fleming received in his youth, a gentleman with his equals, a despot with inferiors, and a lying arriviste with women. He lives a fantasy of dominance over women, but this also works vice versa, as shown by a variety of works written from a feminist perspective, because the “Bond girls” possess him and are in turn infected by his powerful aura: these women represent new elements of power and physical and mental capacity.

Another major element is the relationship of 007 with America’s CIA spies, which is as difficult as it is paternalistic. They are portrayed as minor characters that arrive on the scene when all the difficult work has been done. He talks about the “special relationship” with the US and its old mother country, a pact which, with all its ambiguities, including a marked presence in popular culture (in Hollywood movies the baddies have an English accent and in UK TV series the capricious and arrogant millionaires talk like Texans), has guaranteed the subjects of Elizabeth II a slow and well administrated decline that is still underway. This doubtlessly efficient alliance was at its height in the eighties, when Reagan and Thatcher were both in power in the US and UK respectively, and the period when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of Great Britain, was its one of the last times it was manifested so clearly.

But Bond was also had a surprise up his sleeve. The technology in his stories is in the purest of UK tradition. Permanently resorting to technology in life or death situations is a covert propaganda exercise directed at the luxury market and aimed at creating an enormously successful brand, particularly after the raging success of the cinema versions of the books with Sean Connery in Dr. No (1962), and Diamonds are Forever (1971). Suits, cigarette lighters, shirts, cars, key rings, guns, everything that Bond touched became an object of desire. From his famous trademark Vodka and Martini cocktails to the Floris perfume of Jermyn Street, the makers of which used to send Fleming their products in gratitude for the free publicity. The almost fetishist possession of such objects ratifies, in short, that all past times were better, but that the present isn’t without its own attractions.

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