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  1. The 007th Chapter: Colonel Sun – Not-So-Safe-House

    A literary meditation by Jacques Stewart

     

    CSWC600

     

     

     

     

     

    Kingsley Amis, with six double whiskies inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Acapulco airport and thought about killing James Bond with a bazooka. It could have happened…

     

    Apologies if you sacrificed a disappointing child to ensure that this had ended. Can’t claim that continuation 007thChapters match the originals (for good or ill) and even a sympathetic reader filled with milky sap will conclude that I’ve exhausted an idea of debateable sustainability, given the knotweed of ennui throttling the initial run. You go spot a parallel, you clever old you.

     

    I recently acquired a 1970 paperback Colonel Sun for 25p, coincidentally its price at the time and, like all books, more expensive in Australia. Why does it cost so much to stock a prison library? I suspect the bookmonger involved rejects decimalisation, and soap, but troglodytes have their uses: the book is in good condition and worth the princely sum. Second-hand bookshop for second-hand Bond: fitting. He (probably a he) muttered, through a greasedribbled beard / nest, “It’s not a real one”. I replied that he was therefore fencing counterfeit goods and I would report him to the Bizzies. Cracking him across the for’ead with me alabaster swordstick, cape a-twirl I sashayed from the emporium, the gay applause of other customers a-ringing like a peal of church bells heralding savage war, and my way festooned with seasonal blooms. Ectually, I didn’t do any of that and, in shuffling out into the drizzle, tripped over a pile (apposite collective noun) of Clive Cusslers meeting their natural fate by stabilising a table. The truth in this escapade is only in what he said, this “person” who – in principle – would be assumed to “know” books. Unrealistic to expect he had read all his wares (and, with the Cusslers, heartless to require it), but an interesting attitude. He didn’t try “Kingsley Amis wrote that”, suggesting he didn’t know / care and his ignorance / apathy had cheated him of, ooh, another five pence (max). I assert not that this is the approach of all booksellers but since in five years’ time the World’s only bookshop will be a warehouse staffed by exhausted dead-eyed polo-shirted slaves on six-hundred hours per week, I can’t expect knowledge going for’ard.

     

    What is it – that the Flemings are “real” and the “not Flemings” are…imaginary? Imagining Colonel Sun I can accept, but dreaming up High Time to Kill? Jee Harvey Christ; must lay off the Moldovan Wait Wayne. Such examples cause pause. Colonel Sun. High Time to Kill. Same “thing”, ostensibly. Wow. OK, the Flemings fluctuated, and the films “vary”, but as widely as that? A hell of a chasm right in one’s face. I do feel it in my face. It’s hurting my nose. Perhaps I shouldn’t turn it up so high.

     

    My purchase contained an insert from 1968 for “the Companion Book Club”, promising members a saving of 14/6 on Colonel Sun’s price (if reading in “American”, five trillion dollars). Further discounts were available upon introducing a friend (unlikely) to the cabal, who could claim a gift of a “Horrockses set” (not a clue), a Food Can Opener (canned food? For humans? Is that really a thing?) or the LP “It’s Easy to Remember” by George Shearing, even if it’s not easy to remember George Shearing. An insight into the persons at whom these books are aimed, or thrown. There’s a list of members – including Major R. G. H. Savory (mmm) – and mugshots that would now be silhouetted in a tabloid. N.J. Prentice of Drumadd, Co. Armagh, says he “enjoyed” the club’s choices, his photo betraying that N.J. Prentice of Drumadd, Co. Armagh’s concept of enjoyment is swallowing a whole Mars bar sideways whilst being told that his doggy is dead. A. Phillips of Pitlochry congratulates “a high standard of diverse yarns”, quaint, like his “face” and Mr T.B. Vadge (I’m not making this up) of Burton-upon-Trent (surely he’s suffered enough?) says “…your books are the envy of all”, but only because he introduced reading to Burton-upon-Trent but, considered a fad, it never caught on.

     

    Elsewhere in this delicious pamphlet, Dick Francis’ latest is praised as “a far-above-average thriller” by an “enthusiastic reviewer” (rein yerself in, do) and Mr Francis, interviewed, says he “…would be severely limited as to plots if the same man had to be involved every time,” and “I like to develop and explore the character of my hero. It would be impossible to keep this up if he appeared in book after book.” Ah, the flaw in the continuation Bonds. Puts words into Mr Gardner’s mouth, but it explains why “Dick”, surely a credible candidate, never saddled up to 007. Given the “James Bond” since Fleming’s death, it might not have mattered. Is the Amis Bond the Benson one? Is the Faulks Bond the Boyd version? Is the Bond of Licence Renewed the one of SeaFire? Does it matter?

     

    An extension of the argument that fidelity to the “character” is unimportant so long as there is more “James Bond” to trample our memories and extort 25p a pop, is that it is of equally fleeting concern who “writes” “him”. I suppose there’s a parallel with Uncle Roger’s 007 and the one of this Mr Craig lump, but we accept both as Bond (unless childish). It’s often stated – usually when an acting puppet with whom the internet is bored finds himself dumped for a new victim for the same experts to eviscerate – that “James Bond” is bigger than whoever plays him. These are not Roger Moore films nor Timothy Dalton films, they are James Bond films (just as well, really), although The World is Not Enough is at best a Pearse Brosmum Disease-of-the-Week tv movie, the disease being Ash Dieback. Since the Eon approach has worked, logic / greed dictates that similar undemanding dollars should transplant onto a variety of written 007s. And, if not – why not? Taking a scruffbag bookseller as representative of society – deeming society to be wretched and stinky (competent representation, then) – were I to ask him to name two Bonds after Connery, I would wager he could. People know that sort of thing. Naming a couple or more of the authors post-Fleming – tougher? The same films that adhere to the “no man is bigger” otherwise assert it’s “Ian Fleming’s James Bond”, demonstrating that one man is, and reinforcing that any other author’s 007 can sod off sideways.

     

    This denial of other writers by the principal method of doling out 007 to the gawping public, makes one wonder why anyone persists with more Bondprose, beyond short-term cash influx from draining a commodity bone-dry. No matter how hard one squeezes, there can only be n much toothpaste in the tube (pre-watershed version of that image). True, many of the (many) Bonds post-Fleming have been “New York Times Bestsellers!”; achievement though it is, it’s one of bulk-shift commerce, not worth. Look at the rubbish on there this week. Sales equalling merit renders Avatar the best film ever made (it’s not even the best blue movie), the Toyota Corolla the greatest car (again, not: that’s the Citroen Visa) and Skyfall the best Bond movie. Well, hmm to that, with hairy knobs on.

     

    Fleming stamped his own curate’s egg character into 007, whereas the film Bond is a blander sort, because you can’t sell many watches in Korea if the advert runs “Buy this watch and you won’t smell of zoo”. Emphasising how neutered and incidental he is to the purpose of the aggressive materialism surrounding him, they even cast (two) sentient hairdos, a bald milkman and a grumpy wolf to play Bond and still the series rumbles on successfully. However, writing Bond if one didn’t roll as Fleming rolled – tricky. Might greater public consciousness of “other” written Bond have been achieved by adhering diligently to the “Robert Markham” façade, and developing a “persona” for that name? “They” abandoned it quickly, before staying power could be determined. The most engaging thing in the book club flyer, and the reason for referring to it at all – aside from noting how undemanding were the now-dead / exiled to Burton-upon-Trent (comparable states) – is that it says, readily, that Markham was Kingsley Amis. Legend (not one that convinces) has it that the nom-de-plume could have been adopted by many wanting to cover their shame at sinking to the most significant fictional character of the twentieth century, for cash. Before I found out he existed, I assumed the same of “Raymond Benson”, it being questionable that anyone would accept their real name on those books. However, it seems known / willingly blown from the off that Markham was Amis so someone following wouldn’t have been (picking names from a hat) Montfelch Featherstonehaugh or Denny Clissold (it’s a big hat) writing as Robert Markham, but Montfelch Featherstonehaugh or Denny Clissold pastiching Kingsley Amis writing as Robert Markham writing a bit like Ian Fleming, a triple pastiche if one includes Fleming’s own, of himself. Tough gig, dat. Possibly a pointless one, too.

     

    The inside flap of the (pastiche…) Dali cover of the first edition boasts “Incredibly the author [by which the reader is given to understand “Robert Markham”; there is no mention of Amis] adds his own imaginative impetus to the Bond saga yet preserves all the excitement and eloquence, the pace and glitter of a vintage Fleming novel.” (Glitter? They have a vein of moth-eared camp like fat through steak, but glitter?).The book club, same year, gives “Robert Markham, better known as Kingsley Amis, not only takes up the Bond saga where Ian Fleming left off but also adds his own vividly imaginative impetus.” The “left off” suggests “voluntary”. Does anyone choose to have a massive coronary? Admittedly, I occasionally fake one when the family bores me and I want me-time. Many critics of the time revealed the ruse. Markham was Amis and cannot be unlinked. Notably, there’s no mention of excitement and eloquence for the book club members because a ) although a decent book it’s not exciting and b ) reminding myself of N. J. Prentice of Drumadd, Co. Armagh, eloquence isn’t as much in demand as a device for – save me, Dr Jesus – opening his din-din.

     

    Using an ersatz-Dali cover… doesn’t that blare that the exercise is one in nearly-but-not-quite? Wisdom – if conventional – might have dictated a Chopping piece to emphasise continuity. Still, I’m glad we have this smashing Tom Adams painting, and it would be lovely to see it animated in a title sequence, but counterproductive ideas spring, too easily. In much the same way as the quote from The Sunday Times on this paperback that “… the effect is fine…”, that’s exactly what this is: an effect. The paperback goes further, pastiching the films – Mr Amis must have been delighted – with a gunbarrel stance reflected in Colonel Sun’s Colonel Sunglasses, Bond dinner-jacketed as he so frequently isn’t in the Flemings. Did the literary Bond ever wear a white jacket? Strikes me as rare he wore any type at all except when justifiable (i.e. eating dinner and at no other time, lest one be mistaken for a member of the door-opening class), rendering him less of an anachronism than the dandified mannequin of the films who corrupts the dreams of the deluded into thinking they are 007 by dressing so, rather than the reality of attending their under-deodorised adolescent “prom” or showing richer, more important and less insecure – thereby better – people to their seats, for a crumpled dollar. With either cover, the enterprise reeks of artifice, much like the stench of suspicion lingering over any second-hand book, that someone less hygienic than one’s self read it on the loo.

     

    This 1970 edition doesn’t hold back on admitting that the game’s up, the opening pages quoting The Times Educational Supplement review (why not the Literary one?) which, in extract, mentions Amis and Fleming four times each and Markham only twice. Suggests a publisher desperate for Colonel Sun to be considered a Kingsley Amis Bond rather than a Thingy Whatsit one. There might, I suspect, be editions where Amis’s name is prominent on the cover. Commercially sensible, if sneaky. By 1970, another Bond from Amis wasn’t coming – tipsy daftness about killing 007 not being on the publishing agenda – and, in all likely speculation, Amis was not willing / not able / not needing to commit to a series, and arguably spent after just one. Not that he was a bad choice. A fan who had written a study of the phenomenon, although if that were the only criterion it would lead to something as lunatic as  – forgive, if this sounds ridiculous – hiring Raymond Benson to hurl some at us.  A step like that would be the essence of it not mattering who writes Bond and I’ll deny it could happen until the momentum of this nonsense forces me to deal with it. At the rate of shoving these out, that won’t be for a year at least and I might have grown up by then. Still, it wouldn’t be wholly inaccurate to label Mr Benson in this context as “the Kingsley Amis of his generation”. Don’t burst the auto-censor.

     

    Whatever occurred, odd to create the Markham artifice and then rapidly discard it. There are ways of looking at this, not mutually exclusive. Firstly, Markham was only to apply to Amis. That seems increasingly likely. Secondly, only Fleming could “do” Bond for more than a few books. His Bond’s actions and reactions convince (whatever their morals and merits) because they haven’t just been written for 007 to do / think, they have been lived, Fleming embellishing his experiences rather than creating them, which is harder. Clear by (say) Continuation James Bond John Gardner Product Number Six (more panache than its actual title) that he doesn’t hold 007 in high regard and has lost patience and, although I don’t know this and would happily be corrected, might not have experienced as much of what he wrote as Fleming did of his. I mean, no-one can stay in that many hotel rooms, surely? Mr Benson holds James! Bahnd! in toohigh a regard and fails to shade, neglecting the doubt, the attitude, the tangible reluctance of Fleming, producing pass-the-time bland-o-fluff ad!-venture! but little to chew on before spitting out and moving on. Whatever shoes / rope-soled moccasins their 007 wears, have they walked a mile in them? This isn’t to say either is shoddy in research; indeed, their research grabs one by the throat in its determination to tell you it was done; but it does come across as “researched” rather than drawing on personal resources and outlook. They may have seen the matters of which they write, but have they been?

     

    Thirdly, as this edition states, the Flemings had sold 24 million copies by 1970 (if none in Burton-upon-Trent), worth emulating, so use such leverage as one has: it was Kingsley Amis all along! Now will you buy it? Oh, go on. Finally, we’re probably only going to get at most a couple from any one author from now on. Famous folks might have “a Bond” in them, but fourteen stretches it, given that contemporary writers are less likely to have been in a war or – more specifically – have been denied fighting it, fundamental to Fleming’s wish-fulfilment puppet counselling his frustration. Maybe “just one” is good. Bond is such a bullet-proof concept that we get Writer X’s interpretation and if we don’t like it, fret not, Writer Y will be along soon to give us his (and why not “her”?) spin. Fine, we had series with Gardner and Benson but were all of their already unnecessary books required? But there’s a successful series of Bond films, you holler. Yeah, and they’re all brilliant, aren’t they? If you’re not indulging the playing out your own life dialled up to eleven, 007 might only engage your creativity for so long. Even the bloke whose life it was tired of it all eventually. Too much and there’s a risk of spreading your own authorial interest  – and the reader’s – far too thin.

     

    On which, the Harper’s Bazaar quote in this 1970 copy: “It is as indistinguishable from the real thing as butter is from butter…” There are many brands of butter, although readers of Harper’s Bazaar wouldn’t know as they’re ordered not to eat it and spend money on (wtf?) mocktails instead. Some butter is weak, oily margarine petrochemical tax-break by-product masquerading as butter: better analogy. The point seems best put by the T.E.S review mentioned above (still puzzled; nothing educational about Colonel Sun). Curious to quote it, as it leaves unanswered (and tempts the reader’s response to) the question: “But is Amis’ Bond (or more accurately, Markham’s) the same as Fleming’s Bond?” Would we get, as threatened by Anne Fleming, “a petit-bourgeois red-brick Bond” (one with a SAAB, say – ectually, what areBond’s attitudes other than petit-bourgeois? He’s not a hero of the weak or oppressed; he’s a conservative enforcer of a decaying Establishment who likes quality jam. In many ways, hateful) who “resents the authority of M” (er um er – did she pay attention to what her husband wrote?) and “the discipline of the Secret Service” (er um er – no, she didn’t) ending up as “Philby Bond selling his country to SPECTRE” (er um er – so she’s to blame for Role of Honour. Cow).

     

    Dunno. Let it be a mutual voyage of personal discovery. Let’s butter up, and insert.

     

    The 007th Chapter – Colonel Sun: “Not-So-Safe-House”

     

    Title a nodge spoilerific but since Bond outlived his creator, he’ll survive this. Not deviating far from Fleming norms – and should it? Discuss – the chapter has a portentous, declamatory sweeping-statement opening that ultimately means little. Acidic sideswipes at the antiseptic cultural practices of Germans and Americans remind of He-Who-Is-Not-Being-Impersonated-Honest-This-Is-A-Viable-Standalone-Text-That-Would-Exist-On-Its-Own-Merits-Remember-That-Stuff-About-“Own Imaginative Impetus”, Yeah?-Although-That-Doesn’t-Explain-Why-The-Cover-Rips-Off-The-Films.

     

    So, Bond is in uneasy cahoots with a Russian agent. Surprising for the contemporary reader given Fleming’s depiction of their mercilessness but, as we know, this is new imaginative impetus, and therefore worth nicking, abusing and softening off for The Spy who Loved Me. It’s a sufficiently dynamic element to give the book a point. Whilst we have had Bond working with an old enemy before, in Japan, for him here to work through a relationship with a live foe, and leaving it bitterly unreconciled by the book’s end, adds novelty to the overall picture.

     

    Less enamoured of the plot mechanisms causing it. Fleming’s plots weren’t impermeable but problems with Sun’s scheme seem twofold. Firstly, the “this is bigger than the both of us, so we join forces” routine hides what the menace is. It might be the product of familiarity, but equally one of clarity, that Fleming’s schemes are basic and memorable and, in several cases, incidental to what he wants to write. Colonel Sun’s plot is over-reliant on Bond taking specific actions and achieving specific things, amounting to that total-coincidence-suggested-as-deliberate-engineering con that so blights the likes of Skyfall. In other tales, Bond stumbles into badhattery already underway, even low-rent stuff such as The Spy who Loved Me’s insurance scam. Here, Bond must do things without which there’s no scheme, and the villain – and the reader – is hanging around waiting for him to get on with it, without the story moving independently. OK, so 007 is walking into an intricate trap, but is it credible for a villain to invest such reliance and ignore the possibility of Bond, accidentally or otherwise, blowing his own head off or falling over a haemorrhoid of Clive Cusslers, thus foiling everything? The assumptions relied on by Sun are “optimistic”. Much meandering, waiting for 007 to reach the island – same with Skyfall, oddly – before the scheme energises. Whilst the notion that Bond is the trigger for the bad things that happen to him, is fun – and dark – it affects momentum.

     

    The other aspect I’m not sold on is the “kidnapping of M”; not so much the idea but its significance. Those who could start a war because of what Sun intends to show as Bond and M’s destruction of a Russian delegation (or whatever it is), know that M has been kidnapped. Are they going to believe that M and Bond would willingly go to a Greek island together (unless Mykonos) and shoot off (unless Mykonos)? Again, Sun relies on credulity of others, stretching ours. Whatever its flaws (multiple), at least TWINE had M’s kidnapping as a “bonus” rather than anything that had to happen. “Harder” and “more political” being (lazy descriptions of) Colonel Sun’s reputation, yet luring Japanese folk into feeding themselves to aggressive hedges chimes as more credible. Might be the problem – the more “real”, the more corrosive its lapses into daftness, at which point The Man from Barbarossa minces into view and one tries to flee the party before it traps one in a conversation that is at once both boring and yet yelping incoherently as if badly bitten on its bot.  “Hard” and “political” make Colonel Sun sound like the Communist Party Manifesto when “slightly boring”, “protracted” and “logically exasperating” – also descriptions of the Communist Party Manifesto – would be more accurate.

     

    This Ariadne is such an energetic poppet, isn’t she? More proactive and aggressive than a Fleming woman, although they were capable of killing men with spiders, or being British agents, Russian agents, film stars, smugglers, voodoo death-cult witches (yeah, right) policepersons, lesbian rapscallions or uncontrollable brats. However, there was something more douce about them than this… this thug. I must have overlooked the bit where Domino or Gala Brand “…cracked her knee into his crotch and drove her stiffened fingers at his eyes”. Arguably, the trend of “the female version of Bond” starts here, as do the alliterative names, something Mr Gardner will crack into one’s crotch all too frequently. I’m not sure Amis has captured the Fleming tendency to suppress the violence below a softer surface; this one’s all fists and fury, but that could be an intentional deviation. Otherwise, it’s haywire characterisation but singling out Colonel Sun when many Flemings have a free pass on this is arguably unfair. It’s not as if Solitaire is well thought-through, is it?

     

    Lots of this has already been filmed, hasn’t it? The Spy who Loved Me, TWINE with the M-napping to fill out its running time, DUD and its Moon / Sun thing and alliterative agent companion with questionable motives and even more questionable characterisation, and Skyfall as the “drive”. Ariadne’s ruse in this skirmish is similar to Jane Seymour hitting Uncle Rog in the face with her handbag, with the unmistakeable squeak of leather rubbing on leather, and Tomorrow Never Dies is brimful: a rogue Chinese bod, the flinging of a missile at Commies whilst blaming it on Britain, a spiky relationship with an agent of a belligerent foreign power and savage ear trauma, courtesy of Ms Crow and Mr Brosnidge. Title aside, given the strip-mining, we won’t get Colonel Sun d’Movie, although with sparse but vivid violence, its being slightly-overwritten-but-hugely-underplotted with protracted passages in which chuff all occurs, Mr Tarantino could “entertain” us all with a go, I s’pose.

     

    With the “Bond girl” taking the initiative, and 007 passive and willingly-led – either Markhamesque imaginative impetus, or Amis taking the piss – Ariadne, her docile male companion following and trying not to fall over, belt downhill from the Acropolis and pass “…a pair of willowy youths with Germany written all over them”. Two derogatory references to The Hun in two pages; some things change, some things don’t. What does that look like, having “Germany” written all over one? Takes Deutschland uber Alles too literally, oder? Most folks just buy a football shirt but, still, if one can tattoo Baden-Wurttemberg along one’s Lower Saxony, then fair play.

     

    An escape down a cliffside that is vivid, tense, a jumble of tenses, bursts of breath and sudden thinking, and then respite in a taxi. The capacity to drift from langour to exertion strikes a familiar chord. We ignore the old ways at our peril.

     

    I realise I’m ahead of the plot: Bond doesn’t yet know that Ariadne is a Soviet agent, and the ensuing taxi-ride circles the point, although why she doesn’t tell him when in a few paragraphs’ time there is “no question about it” renders paragraphs of chat here redundant. As with girls when dealing with his advances, having been picked up Bond’s now going along with this predatory type whilst knowing little about her in the hope she might help his predicament. Jill and Tilly, Domino, Tracy, others all exhibit the behaviour. Funny, to make 007 the Bond girl of Colonel Sun. The “You were brilliant, absolutely brilliant” – the reaction of a male damsel, now undistressed. This (long) conversation shows a softer side to Ariadne but given her tendency for kicking chaps in the nadgers, it might just be a conniving attempt to seduce her companion, making this female Bond even more of a scoundrel than he. “They kissed, and for a moment left the world of enmity, violence and treachery in which they worked.” Ooh, fancy. Presumably ironic. Who’s kidding whom? As a study of 007 placed in the position he has placed others in so often, it’s fascinating. Not that this runs through the whole book, but as a snapshot of the early stages of the Bond / Ariadne relationship, one can spot in this 007th Chapter some comment on Bond’s previous performance at a similar stage.

     

    Couple of paragraphs to get from cab to door, which seems excessive. Atmos, ‘n’ all, but do get on with it. This truism that “the Fleming is in the detail” is an untruism; on occasion he is over-ripe with content but elsewhere, skittishly skirts through to get to the next meal, flower, hostile turbot, exotic sparrow or racial / sexual / physical slur. He tended not to dwell universally, just on what caught his eye (rarely the story). Impression here is one of being told everything, a bad habit that the Gardners and Bensons don’t shake. I’m not too interested in how Bond and Ariadne get into the house and, other than the detail of the squeaking gate, nothing of consequence occurs; momentum of narrative requires them in the room, now. OK, it’s not a major problem with this example, and the story gets going again relatively quickly, but the impression of narrative avoirdupois across Colonel Sun is an indelible one. The structure doesn’t help. The reader has been introduced to Sun and the other villains, so the twist of this chapter, that it’s not the Russians behind things, may come as a shock to Bond but it’s not one for us, and we now have to trudge through 007 and the Russians working things out at length whilst they catch up with the reader. From Russia with Love aside, has it often previously been the case that one is this far ahead? Usually we’re running alongside Bond or he’s just out of our reach, ahead. Here, we need him to stop dawdling and pick up the pace.

     

    The discussion with Gordienko – who could merit an animal metaphor but doesn’t get one, those seem forgotten – plays as subversion. Not so much the plot point of joining forces against an even more brutal third party who they don’t know but we do – get on with it – but as a comment on a “villain” having Bond at his mercy and choosing to do something daft instead. The plot dynamic means that Gordienko’s decision not to send Bond to Moscow with a bag on his head but keep him on side, means that Sun’s plan is more likely to succeed. Sometimes the heroes and sort-of-heroes also make peculiar decisions. Admittedly with the benefit of hindsight but I suspect Amis is deliberately rewarding a re-reader with a point, albeit that point is “everyone’s an idiot”. Stuff like “Gordienko’s obvious air of competence…” is a good joke, albeit a slow-burner. They are weary and ineffectual, these Russians; deliberately. Things have moved on. Their power – and threat – is reducing, an old and listless hound. Any suggestion from Mrs F. that Amis was sympathetic to Russia seems misplaced when one considers how emasculated he makes it look. This isn’t wholly out-of-step with where Fleming had them in his last novel, a distinctly unsuperpower.

     

    Again, curious mixed tenses whilst Bond runs things through in his mind, presumably to demonstrate urgent thinking. When Bond’s proposal to join forces comes, it is conveniently swiftly agreed on the rationale “We’re so used to there being two sides that we never remember there may be a third, hostile to both of us.” Oh, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, did you die in vain? OK, so Russia was the Big Bad of the 1950s, the Spangs aside, but come the new decade Fleming’s Bond was fighting private enterprise, either the grand scale of SPECTRE, or the minor key of Mr Sanguinetti.  Even with The Man with the Golden Gun, Russia is just making a crooked buck rather than anything globally outrageous. I’ve seen it argued that for all its “progressiveness” with Ariadne, the more aggressive sexualised content, the graphic violence (this chapter ends with a belter), Colonel Sun is in fact regressive, pulling back from where Bond had been going by relying again on the “warped individual ideologue” 50s-style single-issue threat – Drax, Dr No, Goldfinger etc – rather than the pernicious, corrupting influence of post-War boom materialism on all classes of society – including “working”, and “criminal” – that Fleming was latterly promoting as the great danger.

     

    All well and good, but you have to wait for this massive third party threat to actually do something. Glass of ouzo? Don’t mind if I do. Nice to have a sit down after all that clambering about. Clement weather for the time of year, isn’t it? Might as well have a chat whilst we wait. It’s not like the good old days, is it? I’m just trying to organise an event, a conference, not take over the World, and someone’s interfering with my logistics. I accept it’s not you, Mr Bond. Oh, you wouldn’t believe how much work it is, though. That reminds me: need name-badges. ‘Scuse me while I bang on about the arrangements, but there’s nothing else to pass the time, is there? Plenty of pens, too, always need pens. Bottled water’s a good idea. Must ensure there’s a vegetarian platter at lunch. Dum-de-dum. They’re waiting for you to do things, Mr Bond, and we’re now waiting for them to do things, and the reader is waiting for anyone to do anything. Hmm. I think fruit, rather than biscuits, don’t you? I wonder where the villains are? “Our common enemy is proceeding with extreme ruthlessness”…if not speed. They’re at least three paragraphs late. Bit rude. If they decide not to attack, we’re stuck here forever, waiting for others to move the plot along rather than taking any initiative ourselves. Oh, for the days of teasing Hugo Drax until he squealed, or provoking Dr No on his disabilities, or accidentally-on-purpose turning up at Royal St Mark’s to smack Goldfinger around. Agent provocateur? Agent flaneur, more like. Oh, thank God, they’ve just shot Tzimas through the eye. Hooray! Now we can burst into action! Don’t let me forget that thing about the name-badges, though.

     

    Germans! Spit-spatters of violence! Variations in tempo! Russia in decay! Occasional literary devices! Some of the time it’s very Fleming. Pompously described romantic liaisons! Traitors! Uneasy truces against a third party with an over-intricate scheme! Alliteration! Having a sit down! Passing the time whilst waiting on the off-chance something happens! Some of the time it’s very Gardner, too. With hindsight, it bridges the two approaches. Is it particularly “Amis”? Not especially, although I can’t claim to have read vast amounts of his stuff. What is “Markham”, then? Not the same as “Fleming’s Bond” (or, in unsurprising shorthand, “Bond”) although there are glimmers, particularly so in rampaging racial stereotyping and hangovers brought on both by drink and WWII. It feels as though care has been taken to get close but this may be its downfall in convincing that it’s more of the same: it’s too careful and tends to dwell rather than breeze on through things in an endearingly slapdash manner that would make it more of that same. It’s not a long book, from memory, but memory also suggests it feels it. Denser than The Man with the Golden Gun, but query whether its story justifies the substance. In retrospect, TMWTGG is as long and as “written” as its tale merits – no more, no less. Colonel Sun’s denseness is counterproductive; the more time one requires to work through it, the more potential there is to pick away.  Any proposition that MarkhAmis didn’t give us Grimm fantasy but grim truth that we could not handle, isn’t on point, because it is, at its conclusion, utterly potty. It does “continue”, and there are moments both of touchstone recognition and of novelty that justify Colonel Sun, but experience dictates that its new imaginative impetus establishes some questionable characteristics that would come to populate written “James Bond”, the most notable being a tendency to be the indoorsy type.

     

    Upon which the issue becomes not so much whether Messrs. Gardner, Boyd et al have followed Fleming, but whether they are following the  template set here. It’s not revolutionary to consider Fleming’s Bond so much his creator that it’s futile to try to “be” Fleming – or “write as”, which means “flagellant racist and walking carcinogen”, an odd thing for Mr Faulks to want to be – and unfair to criticise them for not being him. What is within their grasp is “being Markham”, being someone “who isn’t James Bond but writing James Bond” and that may be the more appropriate level at which to assess them. As such, we can stop the pretence that anything non-Fleming is “continuation” of what he did, and let those 14 books stand on their pedestal / fester in their ditch as a sealed entity. Colonel Sun is the reboot and continuation starts after it. Hopeless cause and a waste of time to opine “better / worse than Fleming” because anyone “not-Fleming” is doing a different thing and one might as well hand out awards to people acting different roles in different films (…um).  However, MarkhAmis onwards have been trying the same thing – James Bond that isn’t Fleming, James Bond that isn’t “real” if you prefer – so benchmarking within themselves possibly lends more legitimacy, or at least reality, in cracking weak jokes about them.

     

    Given Colonel Sun’s good points, I suspect that even resetting the levels like this is going to be too much for some.

     

    “James Bond” will return in the 007th Chapter of Rights Preserved Licence Renewed. Jacques Stewart knows that, chronologically, Pearson and Wood come next but he needs something to look forward to.

    Helmut Schierer @ 2015-04-08
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