Tuesday 20 May 2008

Good work, 007!

For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond, Imperial War Museum, London

Bond breeds borderline boredom. Well, almost. His exploits flicker with easy familiarity from millions of television screens every Christmas Day amidst the detrius of half-eaten festive fare and fully-consummated family rows. But there’s more to the spy than guns, girls and clever, cringe-making one-liners, as we can see from the first major exhibition devoted to the life and work of his creator, Ian Fleming. What in this exhibition leaves us shaken or stirred?

We’re into the legendary Bond and his begetter straight away, for the first thing we see are Fleming’s suavely symbolic dinner jacket, bow tie, cufflinks and (mock) cigarettes – along with a quotation from the novel Live and Let Die (1954) reminding us that ‘Bond never got along well with people who didn’t smoke or who frowned on it’ – and a recreation of Fleming’s study at Goldeneye, his Jamaican home, along with his wall-facing desk, Remington typewriter, photos of his wife, Ann, and Noel Coward, a manuscript, and copies of Casino Royale (1953), the first of the Bond books. But what made 007’s creator tick?

The next section of the exhibition provide some answers. Born in 1908, Fleming would lose his father, a Conservative MP, on the Western Front in the First World War, and we see Phillip Lazlo’s portrait of him in service dress, and the cross which marked his war grave near St Quentin. Fleming’s Eton tailcoat, a collection of sporting trophies, and a photograph of No 5 Company at Sandhurst in 1926, in which Fleming is included as a cadet, all remind us of his academically-undistinguished school record and unsuccessful military career. Becoming a journalist at Reuters in 1931, Fleming followed this with a period as a stockbroker – without success - for he wanted to make money but preferred to spend it on women, golf, gambling and drinking. But the outbreak of the Second World War would give a sense of purpose to Fleming’s life. In 1939 he became assistant to Admiral Sir John Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence Division (NID) of the Admiralty.

The work of collecting, analysing, and distributing intelligence, as well as organising operations, appealed to Fleming’s sense of romance and adventure. Outstanding in the exhibition here are a German Enigma Machine, used for passing coded signals, a Nazi flag captured by 30 Assault Unit (a special force set up by Fleming to capture enemy documents), and the coat he wore at the strategically-valuable but ill-fated Dieppe Raid in 1942 – the only time Fleming ever experienced direct action. All of these are vivid emblems of the mixture of heroism and hedonism that would characterise the life and activities of James Bond. Meanwhile, Admiral Godfrey was the father-figure Fleming never had, and would later reappear as the tough-benign ‘M’ of the Bond novels.

Following demobilisation, Fleming became Foreign Manager for the Kemsley newspaper group, a role which he combined with travel-writing, for Fleming was keen to encourage foreign travel – a task helped by his long, lingering descriptions of exotic destinations and luxurious lifestle – and so broaden horizons of an insular British public only just starting to emerge from post-war austerity. Like a skilled barman mixing good vodka-martini, Fleming would blend these travel experiences with his sporting achievements and wartime deeds to inflame the taste-buds of Bond’s fans. Casino Royale heralded the books that would emerge from his world.

And the era they emerged into was that of the Cold War, where the Western Powers struggled with the Soviet Union for domination of world affairs. Espionage played a vital role in this, and we see displayed guns, cameras and even hollowed-out shoes that were used in his work. Ther’s also a letter from a ballistic expert – one G Boothroyd – advising Fleming as to the sort of gun Bond should use (in the credits from the 1963 film of From Russia With Love, the boffin played by Desmond Llewellyn is described as Boothroyd rather than the later, far more famous ‘Q’).

The argument of the exhibition – which has been made by others – is that the Bond novels were morale-raising books designed to take British minds off that fact that Britain was overtaken in political and economic status by the United States. But this only partly accounts for their origins and success: the year of Casino Royale’s publication was the year of the Coronation, which was supposed to usher in a new Elizabethan age; much of the Empire still remained under British control; on the surface, the country was prosperous; jobs were plentiful, and luxury goods were staring to come on the market. The national humiliation of Suez was three years away. Bond was an updating of previous heroes from the world of espionage produced by authors such as John Buchan and ‘Sapper’ (HC McNeile), authors whose non-PC views would probably ensure that their works would be unpublished today if they were first-time novelists.

Conservative novelist Simon Raven probably summed-up Bond’s appeal corectly. He saw the spy as the embodiment of what spirited men would want to be in a progressively dull, drab world where they were imprisoned by stale domestic custom and engaged in monotonous, worthless work in ugly surroundings whilst being lied to by flabby politicians. One suspects that that remains the appeal of Bond today. In recent films Bond’s patronising treatment of women has been changed, whilst Dame Judi Dench has appeared as a formidable female ‘M’, but these changes have probably been done with an eye more on the cultural critics than on the box office – few filmgoers, one imagines, view Bond films as consciousness-raising exercises.

Yet the Bond novels contained social comment about, among other things, Britain’s industrial decline and the effect of the welfare state, patriotism, and even homosexuality and the beginnings of the changing roles of the sexes since the war. Indeed, as cultural historian Dominic Sandbrook has pointed-out in his book Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to Beatles, although routinely derided as gung-ho, superficial and sexist, not only Fleming’s books but other spy novels and films from the early 1960s such as Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File of 1962 (a copy on display here, reminding us of Sandbrook’s comment that, because of the upstart nature of Deighton’s hero Harry Palmer, the book was the Lucky Jim of spy fiction) and John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1963), contained insights about changes in Britishness, the nature of morality and class mobility. Unfortunately, these tended to be missed in their translation from the page to the screen, so weakening the power – and critical standing – of the novels in the process. If there is one criticism to be made of the exhibition, it is that this aspect of the novels has not been as fully explored as it might have been.

The Bond books now started to take off and we see a wall of paperback editions in various languages. The selling power of what would later be called the Bond brand is shown by a 1958 letter from the perfumers, Floris, thanking Fleming for mentioning their products in Dr No, which was published that year.

Bond would go on to find further success – big time. The film of Dr No was released four years after its publicaton, the year – perhaps fortuitously for its author – of the Cuban missile crisis. Panned by the critics, the public took a different view. By the end of 1962, it had become the second-highest-grossing film of the year, coming behind only Cliff Richard’s The Young Ones. The rest, as they say, is history. We see iconic costumes from the films such as a turquoise dress with pie-crust collar worn by Miss Moneypenny (Louis Maxwell) in Octopussy (1983), the belt worn by Halle Berry in her role as Giacinta ‘Jinx’ Johnson in Die Another Day (2002), along with gadgets such as a working model of Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 and the ‘Little Nellie’ autogyro from You only Live Twice (1967).

The final exhibit is the ‘bloodstained’ shirt worn by Daniel Craig when he played Bond in the film Casino Royale (2006), symbolising the long-lasting legacy of Bond tradition which has produced not only a stream of films but also further bond novels by, among others, Kingsley Amis (Colonel Sun, under the pen-name of Robert Markham, in 1968) and Sebastian Faulks (Devil May Care, this year). But just as Fleming was continuing an earlier cloak-and-dagger literary tradition this legacy – encapsulated by the exhibition – should also include the way in which the world of espionage could provide not just thrilling material for adventure stories but significant social comment. Fleming’s achievement is not passe. When the Cold War ended, spy writers thought that the source of their work had dried-up and that their fictional agents would have to take-up fighting international crime instead.

Today, the West faces challenges from fresh – and perhaps more ruthless – enemies, whilst the patriotic certainties that underpinned the governing establishment of Bond’s day are a thing of the past. This is exciting territory for a new range of espionage writers to spy-out – and comment on –for us. And Bond has done useful groundwork. Good work, 007!


Until 1 March 2009


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