A literary meditation by Jacques Stewart
In an act of stool-loosening snobbery, in 1957 Ian Fleming wrote a financial-suicide note to CBS.
“In hard covers my books are written for and appeal principally to an “A” readership, but they have all been reprinted in paperbacks, both in England and in America and it appears that the “B” and “C” classes find them equally readable, although one might have thought that the sophistication of the background and detail would be outside their experience and in part incomprehensible.”
A modest missive, amusingly provocative in using the letters ABC when writing to a competitor, and a curious proposition when “the background and detail” of Live and Let Die I would suggest is beyond anyone’s experience, unless they’ve eaten too much cheese before beddy-bye. Slightly thick – a.k.a. “C” – letter to write to a maker of television, that most plebian of media, even if hindsight rewards him with Eon Productions hoving into view. It’s unclear why he considered Bs and Cs incapable of tackling hardback books, unless he feared their using them as trays from which to eat their gristleslop whilst… watching television.
Perhaps I’m being literal rather than literary. Insofar as the 007th chapters so far have slipped us this Class A drug, it’s been roulette, fancy drinks, very wild gambling, very mild spycraft, intensity of sensual experience, nice blond American lads, telepathic lovelies and exaggeration heaped on exaggeration, so even using those as a rough shapshot of what he asserts, his claim has potential.
The 007th chapter of Moonraker renders it unarguably true.
I’ve never played Bridge. Nor have I looked up how to. No, tell a lie; in shoving this rot together I browsed Wikipedia’s explanation but couldn’t grasp the rules, much like Rugby Union or An Argument with Mrs Jim. Like those, it is “in part, incomprehensible”. Must be getting C-nile. This absence of experience isn’t “not wanting” to know; it’s not needing to. Trepidation, though, when it dawned on me that the game of Bridge against Sir Hugo Drax would feature in this experiment in modelling an exemplar Bond novel. Not in the nature of what occurs: Bond bests the villain at his own crooked game, and as this happens in several others – Goldfinger, Zero Minus Ten, Devil May Care to name a few – it establishes itself as an ingredient as habitual as those suggested by the previous two 007th chapters. It’s just that I haven’t the foggiest idea what’s going on. Accordingly, this piece could bear witness to the stultifyingly under-informed (hello) commenting upon a matter about which they’re shamelessly inarticulate. Perhaps no change there, then (ooh, you bitch), but with particular reference to my relationship with Bridge, think Fox News and European politics, Piers Morgan and American politics, or internet message boards and both. It appears to involve carrrddds. Well, turbo-Yay with double cream, I s’pose.
Without suggesting it of everyone, I suspect I’m not alone, either at the time or now, in feeling shut out by the Bridge game. It’s something of a dilemma: do I want Ian Fleming to explain every detail to me, to indulge my All C-ing Eye, in the same way as – say – Mr Benson’s High Time to Kill explains the very, very (very)basics of golf? Or am I happy enough to accept that Fleming is writing for those in the know and, for the rest of us grubby saps, he renders whatever-the-Hell-it-is terribly exciting, pounding along to an ending one may or may not understand. You there, you Bs and Cs, stand straight when I’m addressing you; just do try to keep up, yes? You run along at Fleming’s pace, understood?
Contemplating the quote at the head of this nonsense once more, perhaps there is more humility than first appears. The reason the Bs and Cs buy your stuff, Ian old freckle, is because you convey it with such impact. He’ll write it with efficient momentum so you don’t drop off, a terribly underrated skill of his given that one reaches the end of the chapter excited but without knowing why, but he’s not going to pander to your baser lives by stopping to explain it as if you were a child, or a woman. The pains taken to explain Baccarat in Casino Royale is through the narrative device of Vesper Lynd not knowing the game; all the players in the Moonraker situation are familiar with how to play, so it would be artificial to pause and narrate the rule-book. You just get sadistic teases of comprehension now and again but suddenly, it’s gone, once more out of your brain’s yearning grasp, leaving you chasing the words, chasing the game until, your senses captured, you reach the climax, exhausted, a bit sweaty and cross-eyed and gleeful. [Dubious sexual metaphor – here]. Aspiration by alienation, colossal snobbery against his reader.
Alternatively, what Bond does might be technically impossible so Fleming hasn’t given the full detail because there isn’t any and he was too bored to make it work. I prefer the first theory, largely because it feeds the next one.
Which is: the chapter is not about Bridge. It’s is a gaudy display of humungous snobbery in “club”land, the sort of ferocious clubbing requiring a blunt instrument (guess who). The whisky and soda drops when the ugly, buck-toothed truth dawns: there is no credible evidence whatsoever of Drax’s cheating. I know he admits it later when ranting himself into ridicule as the world’s first openly Communist Nazi, but blinded by hindsight, or absence of foresight not to read that bit lest it undermine my point, the evidence present at the time of the game itself is lissomely thin. Bond swallows it because M instructs him Drax is a cheat; his blessed club is “suspicious” – woo-hoo – and, since Bond isn’t the freest of thinkers, he’s primed as a weapon by these scions of society to simply look for the worst in Drax. Bond, telling M precisely what M wants to hear, is rarely more manipulated by his masters, than here. The silver cigarette-case is suspicious, but it’s circumstantial not conclusive: there’s still no direct evidence, and the key prosecution witness is a corrupted man primed to believe the worst, a loaded gun with a history of substance abuse who then proceeds to get off his noddle on Benzedrine and non-vintage champagne. It doesn’t promise watertight reliability or safety of the conviction. Particularly the non-vintage champagne bit.
The protracted preparation for tearing Drax apart satisfies two of the frequent criticisms of Fleming’s work: snobbery and sadism. The third, sex, is absent, unless the “Hugger” stuff is leading somewhere. The ruthless old bastards of Blades have decided they don’t like Drax – he may have amused at first, but now they’re tired of the noisy oaf who is not one of their own but happens to be better than them, the rampage of New Money right through their ostensible standards; he had the temerity to approach The Queen, damn the man – and they are going to unleash their pet yobbo to destroy him. Excusing the carrrddds pun, these are trumped-up charges. Devil May Care comes in for criticism for having M inflict Bond on Dr Gorner on flimsy grounds; this is not markedly different. Mr Faulks may have been writing more “as” Ian Fleming than one immediately thought.
Bond is simply (blunt) instrumental in the takedown. They don’t sully their own hands; unleash the prole. You there, Shouty Ginge, we’re going to get you. You and your little Jewish chum, Meyer. All of this, this is our game sunshine, our world, and we’re not going to allow you in. We’re going to Grand Slam the door behind Drax, sending him straight back to “the Liverpool docks, or wherever he came from”. If I were treated like this, I’d be tempted to plunge a nuke right down their wobbly gullets, too. It’s a shame that Drax does turn out to be just another loony Russian/Nazi/wha’evah. He’s much more interesting as a victim of class snobbery and the school and social bullying meted out by the “good guys”. Is Fleming deftly slipping us this card, whilst on the surface giving us all a jolly good laugh at the demento-Kraut? I do wonder how much of Drax’s revelatory tirade against the English isn’t echt Fleming-Think (the sentiments have to come from somewhere), forcing his hand into making the villain completely mad by the end lest the author’s mockery of his milieu be too easily spotted, resulting in his lovely clubbing chums never letting him back in, either. Vivid though the eventual wartime backstory is, would Drax have been any less colourful a villain if there wasn’t any of the madness about his personality change, he was indeed an Englishman after all and it had been purely the lifetime of snooty bullying that had driven him to it, class war rather than a cold one? If not persuaded, can’t I tempt you into evaluating this argument by dangling that we’d have been spared Die Another Day, that way?
The irony of Drax’s observations about requiring the “façade” of a gentleman is punched home in this 007th chapter: for all of them, it’s façade. There’s no such thing as a gentleman. Avoiding public exposure of suspected cheating is not to protect Drax, about whom they care not one damn, but to protect their own reputations. They cover up the abhorrent villainy at the end, too, for the same reason. Bond is the dispensable hired help for both. These are not nice persons. The gentility of the surroundings masks utter cruelty, a quiet brutality. It’s time to scrape the pooh from the shoe, and we’ve got just the right pliant stooge to do it for us. No, he’s not a member. Lord, no. Should it go wrong we can deny him, just as we would were he caught by a foreign government.
“Useless, idle, decadent fools, hiding beneath your bloody white cliffs while other people fight your battles”. Ian Fleming Sir Hugo Drax.
No-one appears to complain that the people and the rituals of the society on show here look as inherently savage or as open to ridicule as anything written of the” Negro” world in Live and Let Die. This may be because Fleming’s motives are different, I’ve read far too much into it and he isn’t seeking to expose in the manner suggested above. However, so blunt and punchy does the writing get towards the end of this 007th chapter, plain evidence of an intention to depict this ostensibly genteel game as having the violent impact of a gunfought duel, the quickness of the hand in drawing the weapons – it’s only a short hop from that to contemplating the merciless conspiracy against Drax, however many chandeliers and lamb cutlets one flings about. The later business with the rocket etc., this lot just bring upon themselves. They really are their own worst enemy. Well, apart from the whacked-out loon with the moustache fetish, “obv”.
And if you think I’m doing a “Bond made this rubber (fnarr) too hot to handle (ho-ho!)” joke, you’re better off ignoring this sentence.
The 007th Chapter – Moonraker: The Quickness of the Hand