A literary meditation by Jacques Stewart
What’s on television? You might be wondering the same. Touch harsh considering you’ve only read a dozen words. C’mon, Babycakes, make an effort and stick it out. You’ll make an old man very happy.
What’s not on telly is James Bond; at least, not in an original capacity. Ah me, my salad days, those dappled sprigs of youth long-mildewed at the back of the ‘fridge alongside the quince jelly and the postman’s head, a time when a Bond film on tv was a gleesome treat, a highlight of a week already brimful with the underappreciated sunshines of First-World childhood freedom and parental love. Even in one’s teenage years, a Bank Holiday or – especially thrilling – a past-bedtime school night Bond would dissolve my truculent rebellion and pretence of liking poor garb, hair worn below the collar and horrid music.
Progress may have benefits – I now tolerate the wheel, and my loom-smashing days have ceased – but I can’t help feeling that direct access to Bond films via multitudes of electrical thingy (and corresponding immediate opportunity to bitch about them anonymously) has eroded the pleasure of seeing how ITV had butchered a film, lest it corrupt impressionable minds into hollowing out a local volcano, cultivating an additional nipple or flying jetpacks without a helmet. My offspring can up / down / sideload the things immediately (along with stuff I’d prefer not to know about) and the special scarcity of Bond – and equivalent scarcity of good behaviour on my part allowing me to watch it – evaporates. Instantly available, there’s nothing of the (harmlessly) illicit about them any more, presumably why ITV has the temerity to show Licence to Kill at 4 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, an extraordinarily irresponsible act given that there might be people watching. For that “film”, no butchering’s enough. Mid-afternoon schedule fillers, because we can get them by so many other means, the lustre dwindles. A direct consequence of giving votes to women and ‘sex equality’.
What could have been on television are these stories, although Quantum of Solace needs energising to render it watchable; I’d suggest shaking the camera about. Apparently unwavering in a belief that 007 was fit for tv despite the Card Sense Jimmy Bond shambles, and doubtless associated with the marvellously snobby letter to CBS about Bond’s appeal to poorly-educated Bs and Cs, 1958’s aborted thirteen-episode Bond series finds itself novelised two years on. The clever / lazy trick of adapting abandoned projects Fleming would pull again with Thunderball, albeit “quite a” poor decision with a corrosive legacy. Whilst it would have been a shame to have some of these tales lie abandoned in first-draft screenplays, the practice suggests increasing frustration in replenishing ideas and authorial interest the more vocal the demand for annualised Bond became.
More benevolently, the short-story format trims the outré excess that dragged Goldfinger down, the brevity emphasising the duality of high living and low killing without pausing for wheezy deliverance of tart opinion. To an extent this succeeds: From a View to a Kill and The Hildebrand Rarity are contained, terse yet characterful admixtures of business and pleasure, with only occasional hiccoughs of pastoral digression, sexual unrealpolitik and dodgy racial observation. For Your Eyes Only sprawls slightly (not totally convinced why it shifts to Canada other than giving Ivar Bryce’s farmhouse a role, presumably jealous that a thinly-disguised Goldeneye kept appearing) but is blessed with a terrific conclusion. Risico is as loose as Ms. Baum herself but again delivers a stirring set-piece with the Lido minefield chase, something missing from the 1981 film (along with pace) although it would have required Uncle Roger to run and, given its aura of “underage”, would have been a different minefield to traverse; one littered with yewtrees.
Quantum of Solace is anomalous, and I’d guess it wasn’t one of the telemovies, although it gives Eon Productions Ian Fleming opportunity to do other (better?) than the restrictive regime of “James Bond” and send a love letter to W. Somerset Maugham and quite the opposite to Mrs F. at the same time. I admire most of what he produced but Fleming himself could be a toxic measle. Writing that can’t have impressed the wife, nor could From Russia with Love’s fixing of 12th August as a day on which Bond finds himself thoroughly bored by the prospect of what it brings, utterly coincidentally Caspar Fleming’s birthday. Gee, thanks Dad. That it turned out to be Fleming’s deathdate, when the blubbery arms of the soft life caught up with him, is probably karma, along with being very weird. I’m not averring that one has to be a vindictive old chisel to write Bond “properly”, although Messrs. Benson and Deaver (inter alia) appear to be splendid, kindly chaps but their contributions… hmm…
Mid-period Bond – 1959 to 1962 – delivers four odd books, each offering different things to varying degrees of success, searching for settled identity, striving to establish where Bond goes, the cash cow’s milk at risk of turning sour if Goldfinger’s tone were to demonstrate a trend. The sequence has a parallel. Starts with a story delivering crowd-pleasing tics, an Aston Martin and unworkable economic meltdown devised by a British citizen of Eastern European heritage in league with Russians; an adventure that has, on reflection, dated pretty badly. This is followed by an episodic affair in which Bond rides a motorcycle, provokes marital jealousy and spends time in Paris. Next one has 007 starting off unfit for service, something something something about stolen nukes and a conclusion justifying a submarine. Finally, in a wild but wisdomless last gasp, going utterly, utterly mad and unleashing Madonna and an invisible car a female narrator, Bond a bit-part-player in his own life story and secondary to curious artistic decisions. All existing to satisfy the obligation to produce James Bond material, but swerving wildly in the pursuit of a consistent approach. A whiff of going through the motions before roaring back with three tales in which Bond falls in love and is bereaved, goes a bit odd (personally and structurally) in the pursuit of revenge and then, having been missing presumed dead, is sent on an impossible mission against a potentially homosexual foe. So – Fleming’s patchy run of Goldfinger to The Spy who Loved Me inclusive = the Brosnans? OK, so this is wretchedly strained, but that’s in keeping with the Bonds at this juncture, treading water and – whilst not unentertaining and sporadically magical – muddled in moving forward coherently. James Bond’s there, lovely to see him, but hazy what he’s there for.
An alternative view is that these books’ variations, rather than bored attempts to realign, show confidence by an author whose stuff sells regardless, adventurously upholding his underappreciated penchant for experimenting, and the For Your Eyes Only collection is a microcosm of his seriously underestimated breadth, capable of demonstrating five differing characteristics of written 007. Insofar as establishing ingredients of a Bond through spot-testing the seventh chapters was the excuse for this smug prolix dross, there’s a bijou problemette here. For Your Eyes Only has no chapters. If the experiment is worth inflicting, a solution lies in channel-surfing the episodes. Let’s go with paragraphs 1 to 7 of From a View to a Kill; 8 to 14 of For Your Eyes Only; 15 to 21 of Quantum of Solace, with 22 to 28 and 29 to 35 of Risico and The Hildebrand Rarity respectively, to polish us off. This might not work, being too short a selection to demonstrate “range”, or five manifestations of it but, with another portmanteau to come, even this approach might leave insufficient prose to carve into for the likes of the extremely / mercifully brief 007 in New York. That might prove headachey but I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it. Sometimes you have to take the rough with the smooth.
You’ll definitely make an old man very happy, doing that.
The First 007th Paragraphs – From a View to a Kill: “The eyes behind the wide black rubber goggles were cold as flint…”