A literary meditation by Jacques Stewart
“Well, everybody needs a hobby.”
“So what’s yours?”
“I’m sorry, did you just say ‘erection’? Oh, you I like. Bip.” [Gurns a very silly face]
Deleted scene: Skyfall (2012)
Back to life; back to reality. Or not. An altered state, anyway. Having tumbled /crumbled, a medically incapable and psychologically semi-detached James Bond’s fitness is openly criticised, so an underimpressed M banishes him to Shanghai Jamaica to redeem himself against a villain with a terrible reputation telegraphed far in advance of meeting him. So far, so The Man with Golden Gun Dr No. Patterns emerge, which is a kindly way of suggesting that there’s a finite amount of originality that “James Bond” can sustain.
What makes you think it’s his first time?
Resurrected from a near-death experience, 007 emerges changed. At least, there’s a marked shift in the attitude towards him, not least from folks one would expect to be on his side. Including his biographer. Those who criticise Skyfall as having shoved the formative Bond of the first two Craigs too far forward, depicting him in decrepitude, ignore that barely six stories in Fleming is much harder on his creation than post-2006 Eon Productions is yet to be. Arguably, the current run of films are close enough to the spirit (if not the letter) of what was written that the equally clapped-out cliché of going “back to Fleming” might be justifiable. Fleming Bond is a burnt-out case early on, too. Pieces himself together to win the day but, from hereon in, invariably at a corrosively permanent physical and / or psychological cost. To an extent this is evident in the run of five films scripted by Messrs. Purvis and Wade, so it’s not just the “Craig era”; the last three films, however, have made it manifestly critical to what’s going on, rather than nailgunning the idea artlessly onto an unforgiving grimslick of exhausted “characters”, grotty puns and relentless explosions happening regardless.
Albeit with mild erosion of the Casino Royale paragon – his impetuousness in Diamonds are Forever, his accidental brute force and luck succeeding in From Russia with or without Comma – the Bond of the first five novels is prima facie a competent man whom we are invited / required to admire, lest the fallacy of the wish-fulfilment enterprise collapse. Not without flaws, certainly, but tending towards the classically “heroic”. The man introduced in 1953 is a tank-tough archetype with habits and pleasures intended to engender post-War envy; despite a jaundiced view of his trade, a success. The character flourishes of the third, fourth and fifth books are not presented as egotistical faults nor manifestations of defective reason. To an extent, the end of FRWL shows the fluke finally expiring and an invitation to the reader to reflect on how precarious – and unlikely – his previous successes were; how long can luck (believed in or not) continue, before shaming Skyfall downfall? How close to failure has he always been? I’d argue that such contemplation only arises after reading this book: the reason From Russia with Love’s ending is a “shock” is because up to then, we’re not expecting Bond to fail. Now, we can’t be quite so confident of his success. The series pivoted and crashed down, too. Put the same ending on (say) Thunderball and it’d be no surprise at all.
Bond’s aptitude – neither previously seriously doubted – is regularly questioned throughout the second batch of books. Still an author fan-fictionalising himself, but moving from a frustrated writer idealising an impregnable, perfect version, towards an avatar itself struggling to overcome enfeebling human affliction, the real enemy however many cat-masticating Koreans and loony pseudo-Counts check in. It’s no longer the case that “these things simply do not affect Bond”; now it’s “they do, they hurt, and he just about gets by”. Bond’s capacity for failure, his vulnerability (physical and mental) and likelihood of dwindling, are the single consistent defining character points for the remainder of Fleming’s novels. This book and Thunderball start with him as a wreck, a grand old ship being hauled away ignominiously (…etc), the moral of The Spy who Loved Me (other than Don’t do that again) is that he’s not a man to admire, and the shotgun marriage towards the end of this period tips him over the edge. Even Goldfinger, which might be perceived (reasonably) as bucking the trend as a parody anomaly with its impossible scheme, insanely unlikely actions by the villain and “non-religious lesbian curing”, starts with Bond contemplating himself and the filth of his profession, with the remainder an exercise in exposing it to ridicule. Fleming has turned the critical eye developed in his first five books, inward. His habit of lashing out at freaks remains, but he’s not afraid to give Mr Shiny Wonderful a Brooklyn stomping too. Wonder if he actually liked anyone, other than his mates Jim, Jack and Johnnie – Beam, Daniels and Walker – and that smelly trio Chester Fields, Benson Andhedges and (with many apologies in advance) Luke E. Strike.
It’s a popular complaint amongst the denizens of internet shoutholes that we were served a tadge too much M through the medium of Dench, at best a hyper-critical headmistress, at worst a meddlesome old ratbag who got what she deserved. Fair enough, in the first five Flemings, M is peripheral, sending Kal-El out to do good, and although he gets more than his usual half-dozen lines in Moonraker (and we learn his first name), it’s only because a Non-U plebhead like Bond couldn’t have slipped past the Blades doorman without him. However, from Dr No onwards, there’s a notable increase in M’s presence and whilst, granted, there was no buddy-trip to Bond’s boyhood bivouac, at one point 007 does spend Christmas day with the old stinker. Most notably, M’s attitude towards Bond is increasingly underwhelmed and, starting with Dr No, a fair old slab of any interaction he has with 007 is “being cruel to be kind”. Relentlessly picking away, one half expects Bond to lamp him one but doubtless this new, frayed, Bond would foul it up and collapse in a heap, weighed down by a cirrhotic liver and just so many problems. Do we think this “Gareth” person is going to be different? He was nass-Ty to Bond even before conspiring evilly to get himself more pow-ah.
Starting with Dr No and up to and including the first fistful of chapters of The Man with the Golden Gun, this second life is not the world of the first five books. Hidden within a ludicrous sci-fi dragon-slaying princess-saving fable garnished with birdy pooh-pooh, rocket-toppling, miffed squid, lashings of hot tarantulas, undereducated nature-girl sea-nymphs and hook-handed sinoworms with their hearts firmly in the wrong place, Fleming takes the opportunity to both de- and re-construct his main character, and hasn’t finished by the book’s end. The remaining novels of the period – and several of the short stories – continue to cast doubt, breaking Bond down until he suffers the mother of all breakdowns and has to be re-rebooted, starting all over again all over again in The Man with the Golden Gun, an exploitable zombie lobotomised back into competence by his own side.
This second phase of the Bond universe starts with a lead character who is incompetent, in disgrace, a failure, and continues to chip away at him until he must fall once more, albeit that time from a weather balloon. Literally, a fallen idol. A pivoty one, anyway. Not to assert Bonds 1-5 are without their reflective moments, but these tend to be carpetbeaten away so Bond can heroically save the Empire and bash the Fuzzy-Wuzzies. Whilst there are still superficial heroics going on in v2.0, the greater interest comes in having these performed by an increasingly fragile man. One could speculate fruitlessly (so I will) about this change of heart in characterising the lead, shifting from a cold, hard man who is so superhuman his bollocks can withstand a relentless mashing, to someone frailer with the constant potential to cock things up badly. How much tension can be created if all one gets is Superman? How boring must that be to watch write? Having introduced us to the hero’s capacity to bodge, the ingrained possibility going forwards of Bond failing provides additional tension. If his writer can leave him as good as dead, all bets are off. Subsequent villains’ threats are exacerbated by our increased awareness of Bond’s intrinsic weaknesses (and solid undermining by his own side). An invulnerable hero can only interest so many times, and all the invisible cars in the world can’t camouflage it forever. Amusing though it is that the film of Dr No jettisons the allegations of incompetence in favour of establishing a Teflon iconography, at least Fleming had the good grace/sense to realise the wipe-clean superhero couldn’t be of sustainable interest after only four years, rather than persisting with forty increasingly tedious ones. The crease-free non-stick Bond remains imprisoned by Halle Berry on a Welsh clifftop dead on a French hotel carpet, and a more troubled one has taken his place.
Anyway, matters not; it’s only a codename.
The 007th Chapter – Dr No: Night Passage
I’d forgotten how soon within the novel Bond and Quarrel sail to Crab Key, roughly a third in, when the film by comparison spends ages plumping a slight tale with the likes of Professor Dent, a slightly shoddy car chase and a brace of lovelies to knob. Movie might have run about forty-five minutes if it had followed the book more faithfully. Might not have had much of a series that way, so probably just as well. That journey, later. As we join the (in)action, the reader and Quarrel are being driven by Bond directly at a bus, presumably 007 getting itchy because there hasn’t been much activity thus far. Much more relaxed pace of Bondlife, this one, presumably deliberately capturing the high-octane lifestyle of rural Jamaica, the beautiful wilderness. For all the overarching tropical atmosphere – so lustrously described one doesn’t so much read this book as sweat it – and the zoo of unnatural nightmarish wonders, it’s a talky novel. Save for the opening murders, damn all movement to date, unless one includes Bond finding out how acidic the contents of his tummy are after killing a centipede with his shoe (which he fetched himself: Not. A. Racist.). On which…
“….what do you know about centipedes?” Not sure where we’re going with this, Antoninus. Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of snails to be immoral? Tell me about your night passage. It’s probably not that sort of conversation, albeit Quarrel is more of a chum this time around and less of Live and Let Die’s personal-trainer / skivvy. Does seem a shame that the film replaced the tropical centipede with a tarantula, although on balance that’s a more immediately recognisable metonym for toxic menace for an audience unaware of the other creature and Fu Manchu’s stunningly “coincidental” habit for using them. If I’d have been Sax Rohmer, I’d have sued although if I’d have been Sax Rohmer, I’d have been brutally racist; have you read his stuff? It’s jawdropping. Makes this book look like the minutes of a Truth and Reconciliation hearing.
I’d like to suggest Quarrel knows a lot about these centipedes. I’d like to, but it’s bloody difficult as he affects the most preposterous vocal tic since the increasingly peculiar DeNiro person tried to say the word “Hereford” in that Ronin film, or The Actor Piers Brumdrum opened his cakehole to emit anything other than breath. Notably, in response to something along the lines of “Dey hoperates mos’ly at night”, Bond dodges a question about having seen one, presumably because he hasn’t understood a bleedin’ word. Fine, it might enhance the atmos to have phonetic recital of islander-speak, but it’s irritating to have to read it three times for gist, and one can’t shake a feeling of the author making mock. When Fleming eventually gives Bond Scottish roots by indulging in an uncannily lucrative coincidence of being able to sell books off the back of some films, he doesn’t have Bond shlur hish speech, does he, although – fairy nuff – May expresses herself in a pantomime Donald-where’s-yer-troosers “Scots” manner, even down to a deep-fried whiff, possibly on account of age. Query whether characterisation has tipped too far into caricature.
“He had also not told Quarrel about the fruit.” Yeah, don’t do that. You’ll never know what he would say in response. Literally. You’d be there all blimmin’ day trying to work it out, it’d distract you so much you’d actually hit the next bus along, and you need to hurry up and murder a bloke who embodies all those attributes that you find so endearing – a physically handicapped Asian German.
“Dese hinsecks love de holes and de crannies. Dey not love de clean places.” Oh, put a sock in it, you outrageous stereotype. Is it any worse than the stuff from Live and Let Die that I was prepared to let pass on the basis of an argument, now looking waffer theen, that the depiction was so exaggerated that no-one could take it seriously as social comment? Probably not, but it’s wearisome nonetheless. Doubtless it enhances the local colour, intention of pun at your discretion. Knowing that part of the world well, I’m confident that I’ve never heard anyone speak like that, unless they’re uncouthly masticating at the same time. This business of “I tell do police dey stole de car if dey don’”, in relation to the decoys in Bond’s Sunbeam, I can’t help but hear delivered in a Liverpudlian accent. Dey do dough, don’t dey dough? The inability to pronounce the “t” in “hinsecks” is another clue. He’s a Scouser. From now on, that’s how Quarrel must sound, if only to make him marginally more bearable and considerably more amusing. Wonder how I got onto that? Must have been the stuff about the stolen car.
The oxymoron of the “savage, peaceful scene” at Stony Hill is on the one hand an engaging passage of description of the writer’s back yard with its dusty shafts of gold lancing into the plunging valley (fnarr), on the other terrifically self-indulgent given that little has happened yet. Cannot avoid wondering about the use of the word “savage” either: I wonder what Mr Fleming is saying about these people and their lives? I’m not wondering about it for very long, though, in case I get annoyed.
“I’se bin puzzlin’ an Ah cain’t seem to figger hout yo game”. S’easy, Quarrel. Taccchtics. Steeeevie G kichhks der ball, it goes in der goal like, dat’s ace, we aw get bevvied an’ we’re made up we do dough don’t we dough, La’? “’Dat so?’ said Quarrel unemotionally. ‘Who you tink done hit?’” Prob’ly de Bizzieeees. Etc. De do do do, de da da da, is all I want to say to you.
“First of all I want you to get me absolutely fit – the way you trained me the last time I was here. Remember?” Oh, we do. Ah, continuity. Insofar as this 007th Chapter activity is seeking to identify the DNA of a Bond novel, here’s something that hasn’t been that prevalent so far in the books outwith the use of M and the American boyf: re-using characters and referencing past incidents. On this occasion, it’s Live and Let Die Another Day. This book commenced with the aftermath of the previous one’s carpet-chewing, and continues now to mine such history as engineered to date. Embedding Bond’s world with a supporting cast, or laziness to fall back on old routines? Not easy to decide. Obviously, insofar as Fleming did it himself, it’s accordingly fine in principle for the continuation authors to do the same, although credibility takes a crash-dive when characters realistically decades-dead suddenly pop up again. If credibility’s ever an ingredient of a Bond. Giant squid pops into the mind, at that juncture. I should probably stop moaning. Still, it’s only four years since Quarrel’s first appearance, rather than, y’know, forty…
“Ah kin do dat ting.” Eh? Yer wha’? What do you call a Liverpudlian in a white tracksuit? The bride. If you see a Scouser on a bike, why shouldn’t you swerve your car to hit him? It’s probably your bike. No Ian, you can’t change “Scouser” for “Cayman Islander” because that’d be racist whereas making unamusing jokes about the populace of Liverpewl… isn’t. Somehow. Perhaps in a hundred years’ time, people will jab angrily with their webbed flippers at this nonsense as evidence of racism against the abandoned, scorched atoll of Merseyside. Some may defend it as “of its time”, or would if their mouths hadn’t mutated shut. All will wonder why their forebears wasted time with it instead of stopping the water running out, growing more food and preventing the US President and his husband from nuking Cambridge in 2038, magnificent idea though that was. You might think this nonsense about Quarrel – was there ever a name more Scouse? – is a feeble and offensive conceit but if you’re not convinced by the rock-hard anthropology of the dialect, then how about the dodgy conspiracy of fixing of life insurance for a generous sum despite the stunningly fraudulent material non-disclosure of a trip to the deadly, freak-laden island of Dr Moreau No? Well, it wouldn’t do to indulge in cheap stereotyping for the sake of time-passing light entertainment, would it? Dat’s right, cap’n. “Now then, how shall we go? Canoe?” No, La – we’ll go by de Ferry. Cross de Merrrrseeee. ‘Cos dis land’s der place I love.
Edition I’m using (it’s the US 2002 Fahey cover) lacks the closing punctuation at the end of Bond’s comment So as to have fresh water and be able to get down to the sea to fish. Hmm. First they remove the previous book’s comma, then they take your speech marks. Before you know it, they’ll break your hyphen then come past midnight for your colon a.k.a your night passage. A dastardly scheme to punctuate us all that they call Ellipsis. Must have got that from somewhere.
“They went through the little town and on round the headland to Morgan’s Harbour. It was just as Jim remembered – the sugar loaf of the inflatable banana boats rising out of the overcrowded bay, the drunks drawn up beside the mounds of empty beer cans, the distant boom of the all night disco-Theque which had so nearly been his grave. Jim, his mind full of very bad memories, took the car down the littered side road and through the landfill site in the middle of which the gaunt ruin of the old Whore House stood up like a stranded skip.” In short: Morgan’s Harbour – total dump. Curious how they end up at a bungalow outside Port Maria – a white single storey affair – with a lawn to the sea’s edge. We know someone with a place just like that, don’t we? Write what you know and all that, but possibly a bit too close to home? At least he didn’t call it Shamelady, I s’pose. The research for this chapter can’t have stretched beyond a morning wander around the garden and then bashing out 2,000 words of filler before a liquid lunch.
Contemplating his past, and padding the chapter with non-eventful content, Bond’s mind turns to Solitaire. “What had happened to her? Where was she?” Selfish moo; she could have written or, being psychic (yeah, right), got the Ouija board out and Oui-mailed him. This Bond doesn’t care to remember (or, as he’s getting on, can’t), but it’s suggested she’s still out there, somewhere, and accordingly could have been fair game for a Continuationerist. John Gardner might have made her a shock traitor who becomes a shock untraitor and then in an anticipated twist turns out to be a unshock traitor all along, except she was an unshock untraitor (I think). Head hurts: make it stop. Young Mr Benson might have had Bond playing solitaire on his laptop, because he’s such a modern guy and knows computers and ting, telling us the rules in mandible-grindingly basic detail and then proclaiming “It reminded him of a woman he had known of the same name, much as his passion for playing dominoes did; do you see what I did there?” Yep; more than once too often, old fudge.
“Brusquely Bond turned and walked back into the house, driving the phantoms away from him.” And presumably headlong smack into an oncoming bus. Still, end of reference. There for a moment, and gone. Not the basis of a significant plot development, nor ostensible justification for the book as a whole. A phantom, rather than a SPECTRE. Right, brekky time and setting a punishing exercise that seems to involve quite a lot of kip. “After breakfast the routine began”. With sunbathing. Lazy sod. Going for the burn, but perhaps the wrong type.
The disaster that befalls the two decoys in the Sunbeam is open to a couple of interpretations: firstly, that Dr No is an unstoppable menace; secondly, that Bond is slipping and getting a touch raddled because the deceit was so easily seen through that it’s exposed in the national press. Clown. The telegram from Pleydell-Smith, however, is only open to one interpretation: that the man knows how much cyanide it takes to kill a horse. Still, with independence just around the corner one has to fill the long, hot Kingston afternoons somehow. Seems a cruel way to dispose of a noble beast; I thought they just rode them into fences at Aintree which, for those blissfully unaware, is in… um… Liverpool. Oh blimmin’ spoonbills, I think I need diversity awareness training. This book’s such a bad influence, although the sex, snobbery and sadism promised by the notorious Paul Johnson review are so conspicuous by their absence I’m having to add them in as I rattle along.
Describing the canoe as “a blunt instrument” bears resonance and amusement, as does the image of Bond “…chafing to get out of the stable and on to the track.” A thoroughbred, then. Not an old donkey. Still, whatever you are, don’t go near that Pleydell-Smith nutter and certainly never let him offer you “a drink”. Less amusing is that Bond is wearing jeans. Christ. Doubtless more practical than a dinner jacket but there’s still something troubling about the image.
“He admitted to himself that this adventure excited him. It had the right ingredients – physical exertion, mystery, and a ruthless enemy.” Hm – bit metacognitive that, no? Puts the book beyond the embittered fingertips of the “reviewer” by having the hero review it himself. A dishonest resume of the plot to date – physical exertion and mystery have been pretty low-level – and it comes across as trying to convince the reader of its merits just in case one wasn’t wholly sold, like the sort of person who relentlessly bangs on about their famous sense of humour despite considerable evidence to the contrary; that’d be Scousers again. I’m sorry. Hi everyone, I’m Jim, and it’s been nine words since my last drink unwarranted remark about the fine city of Liverpool and all who fail in her. I’m sorry. Hi everyone, I’m Jim and it’s been ten words since… Anyway, the instant review of Dr No by someone actually appearing in it does emit another mutated gene of the Bonds: winking self-awareness to try to render it critic-proof. No wonder that Mr Johnson was so upset. It can only get worse. Bond’s bitterness at his treatment by M is only going to deteriorate, too. The start of The Man with the Golden Gun was merely acceleration of the inevitable. Bit rich to gnaw at M for sending him on a “holiday in the sun” when that’s all he’s doing, currently.
“The sun blazed beautifully into its grave.” Smashing. There we were, pottering around the author’s home and getting nowhere fast, and then he gently unleashes something like that. As the melancholy of the tropical dusk sets in, the creatures come out to play. A Fleming staple, the beauty and violence of the natural world juxtaposed with, and interrupted by, the blander human brutality of Bond choosing which gun to take (and, notably, not picking the Walther PPK). “Was it over-insurance to take all this metal on what might only he a tropical picnic?” Well, a ) you’ve certainly changed your tune on the morality of insurance from a few paragraphs ago and b ) Operation Ellipsis strikes again with an errant “he” rather than “be” – or at least in the version I’m gawping at, mystified. Enough to give one the hebejebees.
And now, after all those exhausting bacon breakfasts and days of sunbathing, we’re going to watch Bond sit in the garden at sunset and get pissed: what autobiography? The sinister march of the shadows across the lawn to envelop him: what metaphor? Bond downs at least a quarter of a pint, but probably closer to half, of bourbon without noticing it: what complete bloody alcoholic? Still, those fireflies were flashing their “sexual morse” at him, the slags, and at one point he pours “another big slug” into his glass; less toxic than a centipede, but still an odd thing to do. He’s so strange. Suggests the whole thing, raucously sexualised nature here and with serious weirdness to come, might all be the hallucinations of a man still dying on a wine-red floor.
So, slightly drunk, Bond finds himself having to sail many miles to The Isle of Man Crab Key. Solid plan. Yet again, against man’s folly, nature raises its objections, via conflicting currents and coral trees bared like fangs and (…um) niggerheads. “The wood was already beginning to bite into his buttocks and his back” He’s got wood, up his botty? Hee hee hee. “It crossed his mind that it was going to be the hell of a long and uncomfortable night”. Depends what floats your boat, my darling. A pastoral interlude in all the furious action of the chapter so far, paddling away, staring at the stars and the “cluster of lights that would be Port Maria.” That or a godforsaken party boat overcrammed with lacrimose pubescents and awash with sweaty puke. Still, the passage about “the pulse of the sleeping sea”, with Bond wondering about all the dangerous creatures of its depths, is rather beautiful albeit a dead giveaway that Fleming is getting relaxed and all too happy to digress, displacement activity for moving things forward, which would expose the story as not very much. However, the notion that all it would take would be a wave to capsize them into the maws of the deep-sea creatures does continue the idea of contemplating Bond’s vulnerability, with 007 well aware of it. The curious, discordant natural analogies are firmly in place too: Crab Key in shadow is likened to “a giant swimming rat”, which one the one hand is spot-on, but on the other a pretty unusual way to describe an island. Punchy and memorable and suitably revolting, though.
Once beached and the boat hidden we leave Bond, having both wondered at and struggled against the animal kingdom for much of the chapter, absorbed into it, asleep. The novel in which Bond goes back to nature and nature’s not too keen on the idea, this chapter (of several) exemplifies some positives, some negatives, of the Bond series. On the upside, the opportunity for Fleming to write, with detail, passion and conviction, about the savagery and beauty of the natural world and Bond battling the true environment in which he finds himself – and it’s not the silly constructs of tradecraft and the world of man’s devising. James Bond contemplates nature, and we are invited to contemplate his. Less encouraging is a developing tendency to digress into hobbies to disguise a thinnish story – Goldfinger’s yet more culpable of this – and relying on previous incidents for narrative. Jamaica’s a big enough place; Bond doesn’t have to go back to Beau Desert. Query whether the story needs to be in Jamaica at all, save for the convenience for Fleming of a few days spent working from home. Reads as the most densely, weightily uberambient so far, but also in certain respects the most idle, albeit the typesetting errors doubtless aren’t the author’s fault. Perhaps “idling” is a fairer word as there is juicy stuff throughout the novel about the character of James Bond and why he’s a bit crap, but one cannot avoid a feeling of distracted complacency creeping in, an ennui hard to shake. Possibly all the sunshine and booze.
The history of the continuations tends to point to the adoption of one of these attributes above the other. Here’s a clue: the remaindershop Bonds weren’t published by National Geographic. The sinister march of continuity and self-referencing across the lawn, about to envelop. It’s not the first time it’s happened. It sure as hell won’t be the last.
James Bond will return in the 007th Chapter of Goldfinger. Jacques Stewart once had a car that went invisible. Three guesses where that happened. Ectually, it was in Manchester but, y’know, near enough.