Simon Winder is a word slinger par excellence who writes richly in his best English the sad but true tale of how James Bond, the cardboard-cutout gentleman spy, managed to save the British self-image in the post-war years.
That war being the Second World War, of course. Winder recounts how deeply that war cut into his psyche even as child who did not live through it. The fact that his mother did was enough. How he tried to fashion bombers out of the “decent Danish” Lego set that forced him to create weapons “not only brightly coloured but strikingly nubbled.” No one, it seems to Winder, wanted to talk about the War, yet it was the final blow to British power, the death knell for the fantasy empire that the sun never set on.
Into this cultural vacuum came the vacuous Bond. James Bond. Birthed by Ian Fleming, an aristocrat who longed to live
(and in part succeeded) the life he authored for his absurd hero, Bond was Brit to the core, phlegmatic yet strangely fussy, and always victorious because better organized than the brown and black and foreign villains he encountered under the orders of the wily M, head of the Secret Service.
In reality there were two Bonds, the book Bond and the film Bond. Both have endured long past their predicted shelf-life owing to the never-to-be-underestimated taste of the film-goer and the tendency of a certain sort of reader to latch onto a genre and its hero with clenched teeth. Fleming never conjured up the kinds of gadgets for the book Bond that are de rigueur in the Bond films, and most of the backdrops and characters were as wooden as the dialogue. But Bond lives on because Britain needed him to parry the body thrusts to their self-esteem.
Bond was sexist, racist, and had peculiar food needs, with a dash of sadomasochism thrown in. Comparisons with Fleming and his jet-setting old boy public school Anglo-Saxon attitudes will persist, but in the long run it doesn’t matter a flip whether Bond was Fleming or vice versa. Fleming made Bond and Bond made Fleming.
Casino Royale, the first of the Bond books, was never successfully translated to film apart from a squinchy TV version and a never-shown parody with Woody Allen, but this year it’s making its debut on the big screen. Bond will rise again in the face and mannerisms of yet another balls-to-the-fore shaken-not-stirred muscu-licious English pretty man. And the new movie will undoubtedly rouse the gender divide once again, what Winder calls “the irreducible male response - so hardwired that nothing can deflect it.” Cars, nearly naked broads, intricate weaponry, and evil thugs so nasty that only being smothered under a mountain of bat manure is a fitting death – this is Bond’s universe.
Winder’s book is both a mournful but witty remembrance of the colossal loss of face suffered by the Brits in the latter half of the twentieth century, and a studious if humorous treatment of the harmless if sometimes annoying and puerile romps of their favorite secret agent. Bond. James Bond.