After many years of applying for an interview with James Bond, in late 2013 – in time to tie in with the publication of William Boyd’s Bond novel ‘Solo’ and officially just to give a unique review by its hero himself – the Ministry of Defence finally granted us a brief visit at the secret location the agent inhabits for some years now. Accompanied by a number of plainclothes representatives from the Ministry’s branch of public relations, our rapporteur met James Bond in the discreet retirement installation for Her Majesty’s distinguished civil servants in the countryside.
Discuss this interview here
At my inquiry after the whereabouts of Mr Bond a friendly nurse points to the garden. ‘Mr Bond is in our bus shelter in the park.’ Indeed, there is a glass shelter with one orange bench and a bus stop sign beside one of the gravel paths. My spirits sink immediately. Such shelters are used in retirement homes as a kind of anchor or brace, to keep disoriented patients from running away. They want to leave the strange foreign surroundings, see the bus stop and decide to just wait for the bus instead of walking the whole way home. It works remarkably well with most cases of senility and Alzheimer’s. Here I feel this has got to be some cruel prank by Whitehall, granting access to the world’s most famous secret agent only once he’s been reduced to a mumbling shadow of his former self. Nonetheless I head for the shelter, expecting the worst.
Bond must have read my thoughts in my face. ‘Don’t worry, I haven’t become an avid advocate of public transport. It’s just because they don’t let us smoke inside,’ he says with a grim smile as he raises to meet me. ‘Too unhealthy. As if that would make any difference for our lot.’ He blows a dragon stream of smoke from his nostrils and measures me with his grey-blue eyes.
‘So – you are one of my “fans”? One of these “internet people” who write about me,’ Bond says with a wary glance and gives me a firm – if brief and somewhat bony – handshake. ‘Do take a seat.’
I pause and look at the second figure at the far end of the bench, a small woman in a twin-set, a huge handbag on her knees, an air of mild abstraction around her. Apparently she’s searching for some obscure treasure, muttering to herself.
‘Oh, do not mind her at all, she’s busy with her bag.’ And in a lower voice he adds ‘Just pretend she’s waiting for her bus, OK?’
So I sit to Bond’s left, the rummaging lady with her belongings at the other end, mumbling during most of the interview just below the level where it would disturb our talk.
‘Now, young man, let’s get this over with. What do you want to know?’ It’s obvious James Bond these days doesn’t enjoy this kind of PR duty too much, if at all.
‘Mr Bond, since when do you live here?’
Bond frowns. ‘Young man, I was given to understand this interview was concerning itself with this new novel, ‘Solo’, and with nothing else. In fact that was one of the reasons I agreed to it in the first place.
‘But since you ask,’ he continues before I can apologise for my faux-pas, ‘ I’ve been living here for some years now; the blasted age, you see? I was living in Southern France, on Jamaica and on Guernsey before that. Good times – but there inevitably comes a point when you have to trade independence for the amenities a place like this provides.
‘Still, a damn nuisance I’m not even allowed to smoke in my own room,’ he adds with a frown. ‘Not as if I demand a King’s ransom, just a bit of privacy and personal freedom.’
With this he shakes a fresh cigarette from an expensive looking carton and lights it on the stub he has just smoked down to the filter. Strewn around the bench are dozens of old cigarette butts, indicating this ersatz bus shelter is his favourite place around here.
James Bond looks very much like himself: tall, relatively lean for his age – a wide chest hints to his former swimming days but also to high living – and his eyes still don’t show that rheumy look one usually associates with people of Bond’s age. If he has acquired a gut his tall built still helps keeping it in check. Bond’s hair has gone completely white and is much thinner, his face now heavily lined by the years and the adventures – so much so you can’t point to the famous thin scar any more – but otherwise this is undeniably James Bond.
Through the smoke he looks at me, prodding me with a gesture to go on with the interview.
‘Mr Bond, how did you like ‘Solo’?
‘I’ve only received my copy last week, just finished it. To be honest I’m still in two minds about it. I like a lot in the book, somehow feels closer to me than many others. Quite entertaining in a way. But make no mistake, that could be my vanity talking. How many people get to read about themselves in a thriller? Not too many, I suppose.’
‘So you like it? Despite ‘Solo’ not always painting you as the shining hero?’
‘True, ‘Solo’ mostly revolves around its protagonist – me – like few others since ‘Casino Royale’. And it’s not always flattering, sure. But in a way I feel that’s what makes it also more authentic, less fantastical. I think the word is “outlandish”.’
‘Some fans complain about an unremarkable plot and a lack of excitement.’
‘Well, I know what you mean, yes. That mission wasn’t really as adventurous as some others I’ve been through. Comparatively unspectacular, really. Oddly that’s probably just what Boyd was looking for, an episode that allowed him to concern himself more with the protagonist than the adventure. I suggested to Boyd he use one of my later assignments in Africa, when I was after a man who terrorised a whole region with public hangings on a mobile gallows his men had mounted on a pickup truck, grisly business. I had to get into this man’s farm, far out in the savannah and guarded by maneater lions. I witnessed how they mauled some poor bastard and I had to get past them myself. No idea why that wasn’t chosen, perhaps London interfered.’
‘So you met William Boyd?’
‘I’ve met all the writers who picked up after Fleming. With Boyd it was early days, just after he agreed to write the next one. He’s a very nice chap; bit odd how he reminded me of a guy I once met. We’ve had a couple of drinks and lunch together. We talked much longer than we expected to and we met twice after that.’
‘Some readers keep wondering about the vague nature of your assignment in ‘Solo’.’
‘Do they? Odd, never occurred to me. You see, in my time I was quite used to nebulous briefings, put a stop to that gold smuggler, end this diamond business, see where these gold coins come from, look after that spoonbill affair, make that Tokyo loves us more than Washington and share its intelligence, so on. If you look at it it really used to be ‘go there and be a good boy’ for the most part. It’s really only the liquidations London ever is halfway specific about.’
‘Your target in ‘Solo’, a Brigadier Adeka, is dubbed “the African Napoleon”, supposedly a military genius. Yet he turns out not to be the actual villain of the book. In your view, was that the right decision Boyd made? Not to use this “African Napoleon” with his military fame as your main antagonist?’
Bond gives me a sideways glance, a mix of irritation and something else, maybe reluctant guilt. He takes a moment before he answers.
‘We are talking about a war there, young man. Wars are not “fun”, wars are not “adventure” or whatever strange kind of entertainment your generation associates with wars today. They are cruel and bloody business. People die in horrible ways in the slaughter, most of them screaming for their mothers while the blood and excrement ooze from torn flesh, nothing exciting or genius about that.
‘My assignment was to take out one factor, one single individual crucial to the morals of the enemy. It turned out I didn’t have to act – at least that’s what I thought then – and I wasn’t too eager to kill this man. But I would not have hesitated had the situation been different. Prolonging that war itself was villainous enough in my book. Each day, each single hour one could shorten such butchering as I’ve seen there would have been worth killing Adeka. But that doesn’t mean I’d have to like doing it.’
‘Would you agree that mercenary Kobus Breed is more of a henchman than a proper villain in ‘Solo’?
‘In the book, maybe yes, that’s a fair point. Though knowing him in real life I can assure you he’s a dangerous and absolutely vile creature, not one iota better than other men I’ve had to fight against. And his military skills also used to be vital to that war, albeit not in the same manner as Adeka’s.’
During this speech Bond has become quite serious. I can’t help but wonder how close ‘Solo’ is to the real events. But I decide to let it lie for the moment.
‘Since you mention it, Mr Bond, ‘Solo’ features one chapter in which you, working under cover as a journalist, give an example of your own strategic skills. This also is mentioned as one of ‘Solo’s less convincing parts by some readers.’
‘Well, that journalist cover back in the day used to mean something different than it does now. Now you give a couple of college boys a flak jacket and a helmet and call the snotty brats “embedded” and they immediately turn into camo-fetishists, forget everything they ever learned about their own job and preach the Gospel of Bellicist henceforth. Without ever having been in a fight other than in computer games. Back then many of the scribblers covering the wars from Korea to Vietnam to Cambodia and Africa used to be in active duty themselves, either during World War II or after that. Forsyth for example was a jet fighter pilot and that German Scholl-Latour was with the French paratroopers. I don’t say the journalists back in 1969 were military men, but they surely knew better when they got served a load of lies than some of today’s experts in the media.’
‘But do you think it was professional to interfere in this way in that battle?’
Bond smiles at the absurdity of professionalism in a skirmish.
‘Believe me, once the battle starts you can quickly arrive at a point where it’s no longer relevant what kind of role you play on the field: soldier, reporter, civilian – all the same in front of a barrel or a bayonet. If you want to get out alive, with all your limbs still intact, you better start acting. I wouldn’t be here to talk to you if I hadn’t acted.’
‘So that episode really did happen as Boyd told it?’
Right at this moment our neighbour in the shelter suddenly bursts out: ‘I can see you, laddie! I can see you just fine! Yes laddie, I can see you!’ She looks accusingly across the lawn in the direction of a small copse near the wall circling the premises, her voice trembling with rage. I can see one of my escorts from the Ministry in the distance, looking conspicuously inconspicuous in his raincoat and turning to try and fade into the shades. I can only assume the old lady took him for a flasher. I turn back to Bond but he only answers with a dismissive shake of the head and a face that implies he’s used to this kind of strange scene.
‘Never mind. Weather is a bit nerving today.’
‘Where was I? Oh yes, ‘Solo’ also seems to be the book about you with the highest alcohol strength by a large margin. Don’t you feel Mr Boyd is libelling your reputation?’
‘Not really. There may be an unusual amount of drinks per page in this – though Fleming used to be not that much more reserved about alcohol – but people seldom consider what my line of work consists of and what effects on the soul it entails in the long run. Just think about it, how many people does the average man on the street see die in his lifetime? And how many of these deaths are directly the result of said man’s actions? And now please consider how many people I’ve seen dying at – literally – my own hands. I’m fairly certain only long-time surgeons beat me in that category. And they can at least claim their initial impetus was to the best of their patients’ interests. Under that light I think I’m entitled to the odd glass of spirits, don’t you agree?’
Bond looks at me with the kind of expression an undertaker might give a general practitioner, seeking understanding where he knows he won’t really get it. I feel it’s the best to change the subject.
‘There is also the issue of the peeping Tom scene in ‘Solo’. Not a favourite with some fans, I can tell you.’
This time I’m startled by Bond’s hearty laughter.
‘You can’t be serious, are you?’ When I assure him fans really did complain about that behaviour I only receive a louder guffaw from him. I’m just starting to become concerned about a hysterical cramp when Bond calms down, the look of alarm in my face still amusing him.
‘Please forgive me, I’m not like this usually,’ he utters with tears in his eyes. I’ve never imagined Bond amusing himself to the point of – almost – rolling on the floor.
‘Excuse me, it’s just that this is a really hilarious criticism coming from the Internet, where everything is about “peeping”, from sex to violence to death. Probably beyond that. I’m a man with red blood and a pulse and I’m naturally attracted to the female shape. When I get the chance to eye one particularly charming example I certainly won’t avert my face; even if I didn’t enter that house for this reason. I should have thought you Internet people are the ones who understood this like few others. What’s going on there? And what do the guys complaining about this bit make of the time Gala Brand changed at the cliffs and I lied to her about not looking?’
I tell Bond that I have no idea. ‘But you have to admit it sounds quite a bit odd and out-of-character that ‘Solo’ depicts you breaking and entering a stranger’s house just on a whim, don’t you?’
‘My dear boy, as I recall it in ‘Solo’ I ran into that woman twice, both times under circumstances that made it seem at least possible this was a set-up by some hostile party. It’s my duty to find out about such incidents and report them if necessary.’
‘But really – breaking and entering? Was that the right method?’
After having been without nicotine for about a minute now Bond lights another cigarette, this time with some small metallic lighter from his pocket. He inhales deeply, his gaze somewhere in the middle distance, where all our memories seem to linger, going back into time.
‘I once provoked a rear shunt for much the same reasons. And that was long before the era of the airbag and it could have ended much worse than it did.’ With the hint of a smile about some private memory Bond adds ‘No, that little investigation was quite worth the risk.’ He glances at me, raising one eyebrow. ‘Young man, why do you think it took so long for London to approve of your application to interview me? Didn’t you ever have the feeling someone has been in your home while you were away?’ The look on my face is all the confirmation Bond needs. ‘See? I bet London would even tap your government’s phone communications if you were a foreigner.’
I feel it’s perhaps for the best not to pursue this topic any further.
‘There are also some professional reviews that are critical about ‘Solo’. So does Markus Berkmann of The Spectator think the vinaigrette recipe is out of place in a Bond novel. What did you think about this culinary digression?’
‘That it’s my recipe, that’s what I thought when I read it. William Boyd wasn’t the first to include my salad dressing in a book, John Gardner started this. Strange nobody complained about it back then.’
‘So that vinaigrette is actually Boyd’s nod to Gardner’s work?’
‘You’ll have to ask Boyd himself about that. All I can say is the man appeared exceptionally well-prepared when we talked. In his book he even included the garlic I left from the original recipe in later years. Gave me hiccups.’
‘And what is your opinion about the Jensen FF Boyd decided to let you drive in his continuation?’
‘Fine car, a beauty with lots of steam under the bonnet. Provided it started. Jensens could be tough deals back in the day. The quality was at times less than exacting. But if you got your hand on a decent exemplar and knew how to treat it you could have serious fun with a Jensen. ‘Solo’ could have done with one or two additional scenes with that machine.’
‘But some fans complained it was too vulgar for their tastes.’
‘Vulgar? Don’t tell me – the same ones spending ludicrous amounts of money on all the stuff that got shown in those films, right? Well, they ought to be thankful Boyd didn’t place me in a Bond Bug.’
‘Mr Bond, up to now you don’t seem to agree with most of the criticisms ‘Solo’ met with. Don’t you have any gripes with the book?’
‘Oh yes, I sure do. Just seems they are not what others feel is wrong with ‘Solo’.’
‘Well, this is your chance to settle that score now.’
‘The first thing that rubs me the wrong way – not just with ‘Solo’, with most of the books about me – is how they mention how I use my hairs across doors and sprinkles of talcum powder on locks to tell if someone searched my belongings. That’s all good and fine, only if you work in the field such stuff is a dead giveaway that someone is from the trade. You can do it if you work in a semi-official role, like from an embassy or trade mission. But if you are supposed to be an ordinary civilian you better forget about it if you want your cover to hold up.
‘And that’s the second big issue I have: whenever I’m depicted searching the private rooms of others nobody – not Fleming, not any of the continuation authors – cares to mention that I look out for the very sings I employ myself, the hairs across doors, the linings of pockets half turned out and so on. Really, is it so difficult to depict us professionals in a professional manner?’ Bond asks in a tone that suggests he’s honestly hurt by such shortcomings.
‘That didn’t occur to me, interesting that you should mention it, Mr Bond.’
‘That’s not all of it, young man. ‘Solo’ continues the dreadful habit to show me using a sniper rifle without properly zeroing it myself first. Fleming started this humbug in some short story and when I next talked to him I complained about it. He made good for his mistake by mentioning extensive training under comparable conditions to the actual mission the next time he wrote about me shooting a rifle, fine. I used to be a distinguished marksman, but certainly no superman. Buying some rifle over the counter and hitting anything but landscape with it without first shooting it is quite ridiculous.’
‘Did you mention this to Mr Boyd?’
‘I shall the next time we talk. I shall also mention that any secret agent in the field keeps at least one set of documents consisting not just of passport but also of driver licence and little odds and ends to support the false name, notebooks and recipes and such, for emergency use. In this regard ‘Solo’ shows me about as experienced as I used to be around fifteen, not too fond of that.
‘I’ll also ask Boyd why he didn’t mention I had my Leica with me on this mission. It was a great help supporting my cover and while I’m no big photographer myself I used to be proficient enough. Somewhere in the files there must still be some of the photos I shot during the mission.’
‘That’s a most interesting detail. So there are pictures from this civil war shot by James Bond. Were some of them ever used in the actual coverage?’
‘They were of course not sent to London under my real name. Honestly, I have no idea why Boyd thought London would send me there as “James Bond”, that’s far too dangerous. After all the Russians knew my identity for many years.
‘And the Russians! That’s the next thing that’s hard to swallow when reading ‘Solo’: in 1969 the Cold War still used to be very much the background to everything that happened on the globe. During that time, whenever I got sent somewhere it usually was to weaken Russian influence and support Western interests there. There’s a nice speech by Felix Leiter in ‘Solo’, about oil interests in the region and everything going on there because of this, certainly true today. But the first oil crisis came only with the Yom Kippur War in 1973. In 1969 oil was still not an issue and the Middle East interested few people not living there. ‘Solo’ doesn’t really reflect that time the way I remember it. That’s of course highly subjective. Still – it felt odd.’
‘I’m curious now, what do you think William Boyd aimed for when writing ‘Solo’? Did he have ‘The Quiet American’ in mind? Or ‘The Honourable Schoolboy’? Greene or le Carré?’
Bond takes a deep drag from his cigarette.
‘You must ask him yourself, young man. To be honest when reading ‘Solo’ I thought of neither. What I was reminded of was – strange perhaps – Tom Ripley.’
Bond’s look invites me to challenge this choice. After all Tom Ripley, materialist murderer with questionable morals and nebulous sexual identity, is hardly the first character to associate with James Bond, not even the James Bond of ‘Solo’. Or is he?
I sense that this talk is coming to an end. Pick up the Ripley bait or go in a different direction? Before I can make up my mind the initiative is taken from me.
‘Looks as if your time is up, young man.’ He points to one of the Ministry’s “Public Relations” men coming across the lawn toward us, unmistakably to end the interview and bring me back to the car.
Bond looks mildly amused about my apparent discomfort.
‘One last question: Kobus Breed, is he still alive?’
‘You’re asking the wrong man there. Try your luck with Mr Boyd, maybe he’ll be able to tell you.’ With that Bond raises and turns to the old lady.
‘Time to change for dinner, Penny. Let’s not keep the cook waiting.’ He offers the woman his left arm and she takes it routinely as if they are an old couple. I catch a quick glance of the handbag’s interior. There is a huge revolver inside, its hammer cocked. Bond follows my line of sight and reaches into the bag. ‘Let’s put that hammer down, me gal. We don’t want any unpleasant surprises around here.’
‘James, did you see those amateurs on guard duty? The one in the blue raincoat played with this ghastly mobile phone! The whole time! It’s really impossible to get decent staff these days, impossible…’ She nods to me as if seeing me for the first time, then her voice once more drops to an unintelligible murmur and her gaze becomes clouded again by whatever goes on in her mind.
Bond looks at me apologetically while we slowly walk towards the main building, the minder now nearly at my side.
‘Would you be up for another interview some day?’
I feel the guard reaching for my arm just before we reach the entrance to the dining room, but Bond gives him a sign to wait.
‘That’s not for me to decide, young man. If London agrees – maybe,’ and for the first time there is a definite trace of age in his voice. He follows his female companion through the French doors. Just before they close behind them he turns to me again.
‘But if you do make sure to bring something to keep our spirits up. Talking to you is thirsty work.’