The Spy Who Saved Us
The figure of James Bond consoled a country in terminal decline, argues Simon
Winder in The Man Who Saved Britain, an entertainingly personal romp through Ian
Fleming's potboilers, says Sinclair McKay
Sunday June 18, 2006
The Man Who Saved Britain
by Simon Winder
Picador £14.99, pp300
Was James Bond ever really stylish? Or has 007 only ever been cool to those who
are themselves irredeemably naff? When Penguin reissued Ian Fleming's finest as
silver-jacketed modern classics a couple of years ago - among them Goldfinger,
Thunderball and From Russia With Love - it gave these Fifties potboilers a sheen of
literary sophistication, elevating them to the same plane as Truman Capote and
Jean Rhys. But how many of us were really taken in?
And are any of us going to be taken in by Bond's forthcoming screen incarnation,
Daniel Craig? In the tabloids we are confronted almost daily with publicity shots of
this otherwise fine actor striking poses with guns with his shirt hanging out for
Casino Royale; all we can do is flinch and reflect on just how mad the very notion of
Bond seems now.
Such considerations have been nagging away at Simon Winder, too. And with
supreme artfulness, he has taken what is little more than a debating subject for an
evening in a gastro pub and masterfully turned it into 300 entertaining pages. What
at first seems a rather threadbare premise for an entire book - that the ultimate
fantasy British secret agent only succeeded because he consoled the British at a
time when the nation was in inexorable decline - slowly unfolds into something
more personal and, by the end, hugely amusing.
Anyone who has read Dominic Sandbrook's brilliant history of the Fifties and
Sixties, Never Had It So Good, will already be familiar with the coronation
chicken-filled shabby landscape that Winder paints altogether more luridly. His is an
unforgiving portrait of a country run by exhausted, corrupt Tories and lorded over
by an aristocracy apparently blithely unaware that the foundations of their privilege
had been swept away by the war. But Winder's tone becomes affectionate when he
turns to Fleming himself, that embodiment of the cigarette holder-sporting elite.
He looks at Goldeneye, the author's hideaway in Jamaica (Noel Coward was a
neighbour), notes his heroic drinking, his tip-tapping at his gold-plated typewriter,
and concludes that for all the comical bilge that he produced (and that includes the
sex scenes, names such as Pussy and Kissy and the consumerism dressed up as
jetset sophistication) there were moments of poetry in his fiction. Not just the guilty
pleasure of hearing villains deliver insanely baroque speeches, but the rich
underwater scenes, the hypnotic level of detail in the exotic locations and, in From
Russia With Love, the magnificently oppressive sense of an evil bureaucracy
closing in on Bond.
But this book is not literary criticism; it is much more personal. Winder puts
Fleming's work into the context of his own childhood, evoking the era of
early-Seventies boyhood entertainment - a vista of incredibly bloodthirsty war
comics, self-assembly Spitfire model kits, Action Man commando figures and,
indeed, a nation unable to forget its war triumph 30 years previously. In one
yelpingly funny passage, he recounts how, as a lad, he and his friend re-enacted a
key sequence of The Man With the Golden Gun in his parents' living room using as
props a black swivel chair and light switches flicked on and off rapidly. This was
after an even more inventive use of the room's green carpet for a restaging of The
Dam Busters. Slightly more disturbing is the boarding-school memory of the
younger boys being made to act out the title sequence of (again) The Man With The
Golden Gun in the dorm by dancing nude on beds with torches flashing around, a
portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh looking on. Either way, the argument is that to a
generation of boys brought up on 'achtung Tommy' war fiction, Bond represented a
British future that could never be.
Neither pop-culture analysis nor biography nor social history, this book is a bizarre
mix and yet a weirdly compelling one; especially towards the end when, finally
moving on to the subject of the films, Winder throws out all decorum to do a
spectacular and enjoyable critical demolition job.
There is just one error of judgment and it's a mistake most Bond aficionados make:
Winder has little time for Roger Moore, who was in fact the best screen Bond of all.
Moore was the only actor to see how fundamentally distasteful this character was
and instead made him an eyebrow-waggling safari-suited wag. 'But James, I need
you!' exclaims a blonde in a ski chalet in the pre-credits of The Spy Who Loved Me
(1977). 'So does England' replies jaunty Roger, clad in a banana-yellow ski-suit. And
all we can do is shout hooray for an age when that was considered blockbusting,
top-grossing entertainment. Daniel Craig just won't be the same.