Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Hong Kong: Visiting one of Ian Fleming's Thrilling Cities

A trip to New Zealand gave me the opportunity to visit one of Ian Fleming's Thrilling Cities en route. Hong Kong was the first city Fleming visited on his Sunday Times-sponsored tour of the world in 1959. Time didn't permit me to follow in Fleming's footsteps exactly, but I could match him in two aspects at least.

My flight to Hong Kong was rather more straight-forward than Fleming's. Today, one takes a direct flight to Hong Kong from Heathrow. In 1959, Fleming's flight took him to Beirut, Bahrain, Delhi, and Bangkok before landing in Hong Kong. Without in-flight entertainment, Fleming needed a good book. He took a proof copy of Eric Ambler's 1959 novel, Passage of Arms. I took Fleming's lead and read the book on my flight too.

Passage of Arms, set in Malaya, Hong Kong and Singapore, follows the movement of a cache of arms, hidden by Communist insurgents, discovered by a clerk of a rubber plantation estate, and sold on to Indonesian revolutionaries through two Chinese merchants, brothers Tan Siow Mong and Tan Yam Heng, by a naive American tourist looking for adventure.

The novel is a thrilling tale of tension, excitement, comedy, well-drawn characters, vivid descriptions, torture, and a hint of lesbianism, and it's no surprise that Fleming thought the book wonderful. In the descriptions of the Tans, I was reminded of the Foo brothers with whom Major Smythe trades his stolen gold in Fleming's short story, 'Octopussy', written in 1962, and wondered whether Fleming was inspired by Ambler in this aspect.

Once in Hong Kong, Fleming's guide, journalist Richard Hughes (immortalised in You Only Live Twice as Dikko Henderson), insisted that Fleming experience an authentic Chinese meal. They visited the Peking Restaurant, where Fleming had shark's fin soup with crab, shrimp balls in oil, bamboo shoots with seaweed, chicken and walnuts, and roast Peking duckling.

I couldn't find the Peking Restaurant (does it still exist?), but did go to the Peking Garden, a cavernous and smart-looking restaurant on the third floor of an office block. It had everything that Fleming ate on the menu, including shark's fin soup with crab, but looking at the prices, I quickly realised I wasn't going to be able to replicate Fleming's meal entirely. I did, however, order the Peking duck. As with much of the food in the Bond books, Peking duck is no longer as exotic as it was in Fleming's day, but to me the dish remains special, and was delicious.

I just had time before making my way to the airport for my onward flight to visit the Peninsula Hotel, which briefly appears in the film of The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). Alas, I didn't see any of its famous green Rolls Royces. Still, I'll have another chance on the return journey. Watch this space! 

Thursday, 4 August 2016

What Bond villains are reading

I'm reading – or rather re-reading – PG Wodehouse's 1913 novel, The Little Nugget, at the moment. If the title is familiar to you, it may because it's mentioned in the novel of From Russia, with Love. The book is in a pile of other 'membership badges of the rich man's club' next to SMERSH killer Donovan 'Red' Grant, who's lying prone in the garden of a Crimean villa, waiting for his regular masseuse.

Wodehouse's comic tale set within a private school, featuring romance, detectives, gangsters, and plots to kidnap a repulsive schoolboy, might seem an odd choice for a psychopath (although the kidnapping element might be of professional interest to Grant). But then again, the book is the sort of volume that SMERSH would make Grant read as part of his training to develop the persona of a wealthy, sophisticated man, allowing him to enter English society and intelligence circles. (Such methods were standard for Soviet spy agencies. The Penkovsky Papers, for example, include a manual that instructs Soviet agents operating in the USA how to behave without raising suspicion – see The Cold War Spy Pocket Manual, by Philip Barker.)

Moving inside the villa, we get a glimpse of Grant's preferred reading: stacks of 'garish paperbacks and hardcover thrillers'. A selection of pulp fiction about seductive heroines, sultry femme fatales, and hard-boiled detectives, I shouldn't wonder.

There is a similar whiff of pretence in Goldfinger's reading. In the hall of the Grange, Goldfinger's pile in Kent, James Bond peruses a copy of The Field, a magazine for country squires and the hunting, fishing and shooting set. The magazine, placed where it can be seen, displays Goldfinger's credentials as a respectable member of the community. 

Photo: New Yorker Books
We get a different picture of Goldfinger in his bedroom, as Bond discovers in the drawer of Goldfinger's bedside table a copy of The Hidden Sight of Love, a salacious novel that is Goldfinger's 'solitary indiscretion'. (I imagine Bond uttering 'dirty bugger' to himself at this point.) The book does indeed exist, and if you're interested, a New York bookseller currently has a copy listed on eBay. According to the description, the book is a piece of classic Victorian erotic fiction reprinted by Palladium Publications in January 1958, which means that it was hot off the press when Ian Fleming sat down to write Goldfinger that month in Jamaica (the novel was published in 1959). Well, Fleming did have an interest in promoting 'lost books', as we see from his championing of Hugh Edward's All Night at Mr Stanyhurst's.

We know the sort of books James Bond reads – manuals, golf books, thrillers, inspiring books about politics and the intelligence community – but in two of the Bond novels, we also get a sense of the books that the villains read. In contrast to Bond's library, there's something not quite honest about the villains' choice. Just what we'd expect, of course, but I also wonder whether it reflects Fleming's own tastes, just as Bond's library does.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Boris Johnson, James Bond fan

Photo: Huffington Post
When former Mayor of London and chief 'Brexiteer' Boris Johnson was announced as the UK's new Foreign Secretary, it's fair to say that the decision was met across the world with incredulity and much amusement. Given the nature of the position, it wasn't too long before internet was rife with talk about Boris as James Bond's boss. 

It's not the first time that Boris has been linked with James Bond. Back in October 2015, Daniel Craig told reporters, with tongue firmly in cheek, that Boris was the new James Bond. And when Boris was left dangling on a zip-wire during a live-screen event for the London Olympics in 2012, the stunt was labelled by the national media as James Bond-like.

I don't suppose Boris minds about this coverage, and may actually be flattered by it, as, judging by some of the comments he's made about Bond, he's something of a Bond fan. Most recently, during the EU referendum campaign, Boris appeared to compare the EU with a SPECTRE-like criminal organisation. In a speech, he reminded the audience that the last Bond film, Spectre, had been filmed in his mayoral offices, ‘where James Bond shoots the evil baddie who is hell-bent on subverting democracy around the world through a supra-national organisation. I think there’s a metaphor there,’ he said.

In 2013, during a visit to China to promote London as a place open to investment, Boris told an audience of students that the Chinese-owned Trinity Square in London had doubled as the replacement MI6 headquarters in Skyfall. Boris said, 'if that isn’t openness to China, I don’t know what is.'

Shortly after his zip-wire mishap in 2012, Boris took Arnold Schwarzenegger for a cable car ride across the Thames. To a certain generation, cable cars are synonymous with Where Eagles Dare and Moonraker. I certainly can't ride in a cable car without thinking of the films and judging the distance between my car and the oncoming one as they pass, assessing the practicalities of a jump from one to the other. Boris and Arnie are evidently of a similar mind. In the cable car, Boris reminded Arnie of Where Eagles Dare, in which 'they get out and wrestle on top of the cable car.' Arnie replied that 'they did the same thing in a James Bond movie', before mentioning Jaws. Boris' face lit up. 'Jaws! That's right!'

In addition to his political duties, Boris Johnson is also a columnist. He's referred to James Bond. In some of the columns he's written for the Daily Telegraph,  In a piece published in 2010 about the use of helmets on the ski slopes, Boris wrote: 'Each of us must make his or her choice. But I ask you this: does James Bond wear a helmet, when he out-skis the baddie in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service?' Earlier, in 2006, Boris argued that it might be better to talk to the regimes of Iran and North Korea, rather than threaten them, but added that 'if there was some way of quietly disabling Kim's bombs... we should certainly consider it. Where is James Bond these days?' And back in 2003, Boris wrote about his love of the James Bond films and his memory of being taken to the cinema by his father to watch Diamonds Are Forever.

However Boris Johnson will be judged as Foreign Secretary, he's certainly flying the flag for James Bond. Part of that comes from his fondness of the Bond films (and, presumably, the books, which I imagine are required reading at Eton). But for Boris, James Bond is also a source of national pride and a proxy for Britain's position in the world. However illusory such use of James Bond may be, it's been this way ever since Fleming wrote the Bond books, which from the start provided a counterpoint to the national soul-searching in a post-Empire Britain rocked by spy scandals and politically damaged by the Suez crisis.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Roger Moore as a Bond villain

If you've ever wondered what Roger Moore might be like as a Bond villain, then you need look no further than an episode of Alias, the television series created by J J Abrams and starring Jennifer Garner, in which Roger Moore played a member of a nefarious organisation. His performance also demonstrates that he can play more serious roles if demanded.

Alias ran from 2001 to 2006 for five series. Jennifer Garner plays Sydney Bristow, who, when not studying at college, is a double-agent working for the CIA within a criminal organisation known as SD-6. This organisation is part of a wider network called the Alliance of Twelve, which, rather like SPECTRE, trades in weapons and intelligence.

The show inevitably contains nods to the James Bond films. It features, for example, a pre-titles sequence in each episode, a Q-like character in SD-6, and some natty gadgets, such as a lock-picking tool hidden in the heel of Sydney's shoe, and a 360-degree camera disguised as a lipstick. It seems only fitting that Roger Moore should take a guest role, though ironically as a minor villain.

Roger Moore appears in 'The Prophesy', episode 16 of the first series. His character, Edward Poole, is a rich and cultured man who is a member of the Alliance and in communication with Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin), the head of SD-6. When Sloane suspects another member of being a traitor, he asks for Edward Poole's help in exposing the man. Instead, Edward Poole frames a fourth member, who Sloane is compelled to assassinate, even though the two are close friends.

Roger Moore plays it straight, and is not a little chilling in his measured, urbane manner, which masks duplicitous intent. At a crucial point of the episode, he and fellow Alliance members sit round a boardroom table onboard a yacht on the Thames outside the Houses of Parliament and make a fateful decision. The scene could have been taken from Spectre or Thunderball. Indeed, the set design itself looks like it was inspired by the work of Ken Adam. All that's missing is the white cat. 

A scene from Alias. Roger Moore is on the right.
Roger Moore is best known for light comedy, and his Bond films are the most comedic of the series. Yet, he has played roles with a hard edge worthy of Sean Connery and Daniel Craig (as an example, just look at Gold), and his performance in Alias shows he can play serious villains too. If Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson are wondering who to cast as the next Bond villain, it might just be worth giving Roger Moore a call.

Friday, 15 July 2016

James Bond goes commando

Journalists, historians and James Bond experts may have been arguing about the origins of James Bond for decades, but one thing is clear from the many interviews Ian Fleming gave: Bond was based on commandos Fleming had met during the Second World War. And naturally, since those interviews, the search has been on for individuals that may have inspired Fleming the most, individuals such as Patrick Dalzel-Job and Fitzroy Maclean.

Lately, though, I've begun to wonder whether this speculation is rather fruitless. Ian Fleming didn't, of course, mention any names, and, short of a long-lost document or interview containing the name, we can never be certain about any of our suggestions. What's more, Fleming's descriptions of Bond as a mixture of wartime commando types appear to date to the final two years of Fleming's life; before then, there is little hint of this origin. With this in mind, it could be argued that the commando inspiration was a narrative that Fleming gave to Bond retrospectively, a little like Bond's Scottish roots. Let's look at the evidence.

The interviews in which Fleming talks about the inspirations for Bond appear to date exclusively to 1963 and 1964. In an edition of the BBC's Desert Island Discs in 1963, Fleming told the presenter Roy Plomley that Bond was a 'mixture of commandos and secret service agents I met during the war.' Fleming confessed to CIA director Allen Dulles in 1964 that Bond 'is more a commando type' than a spy. In a Playboy interview dated 1964, Fleming regarded Bond as 'slightly more true to the type of modern hero, to the commandos of the last war' than to the heroes of ancient thrillers. Fleming told Daily Express journalist John Cruesemann in January 1964 that Bond was 'a compound of... commando types', and he said as much to Jack Fishman in an interview published in 1965.

Given Fleming's consistent explanation, it's curious that commandos are absent from earlier pieces. When Ian Fleming was in conversation with fellow writer Raymond Chandler for a BBC broadcast in 1958, he discussed the nature of literary heroes, his and Chandler's in particular, but didn't mention that Bond was inspired by the real heroism of wartime commandos. Fleming wrote of the work of the Secret Service, of frogman Buster Crabb, and secret tunnels in Berlin in a piece published in Broadsheet, the bulletin of World Books, in 1956 to illustrate how the fantastic events in his novels were not so unusual, but didn't include commandos in that list. In his piece, 'How to write a thriller', published in 1962, Fleming similarly described wartime secret service exploits, for example the Man who Never Was', and wrote in answer to the typical question of his readers, 'how do you manage to think of that?', that some incidences in Casino Royale were 'extracted' from his 'wartime memories of the Naval Intelligence Division'. But again, no commandos.

It's true that a commando dagger features on Richard Chopping's cover of The Spy who Loved Me (published in 1962), thus establishing a connection between commandos and Bond. Moreover, there are many aspects of the Bond books that are clearly drawn from the Second World War. It should also be noted that Fleming gave many more interviews in the final years of his life as Bond's popularity grew than he had done in the earlier stages in his career as a novelist. Faced with the demands of journalists, broadcasters and the like, Fleming may have introduced the commando explanation to add interest or to assuage complaints that his plots were implausible. And with each telling, the explanation become better established.

My trawl through the archives of Fleming's interviews is by no means exhaustive, and it is possible that there is some piece dating before 1963 that states that Bond was based on commando types that Fleming had met during the war. Judging from what I've assembled, however, the commando meme was a late development, and before then, the source of inspiration for Bond was more generally located in the Second World War and the Cold War (not to mention including a good dose of Fleming himself). Any search for 'the real James Bond', particularly from the pool of wartime commandos, is likely to be something of a wild goose chase. 


I should add that I'm of course aware that Ian Fleming set up and ran a commando unit during the Second World War, and that the Bond books contain references to commandos and have Bond doing commando-like feats. My point, however, is this: Ian Fleming didn't write a series of commando adventures, and probably didn't even start out with a fully-formed character in mind, with all the memetic building blocks in place. Bond acquired commando-like traits, along with others (for example, the traits of the fictional American private eye), gradually over the course of the series. Casino Royale (1953) itself is different in many ways from the other books and draws most heavily on Ian Fleming's own experiences, and only obliquely, if at all, on the experiences of the commandos he directed.

In later years, Ian Fleming developed a coherent narrative to explain the origin of James Bond that doesn't quite reflect the somewhat unplanned evolution of the character. Why Fleming began to talk about commandos to such an extent in later interviews and articles is what I find particularly fascinating, and is what I'm chiefly commenting on in this post.

I dated the earliest use of the 'commando explanation' to 1963, but I've been informed that there is an earlier mention. I'm grateful to Jeremy Duns for alerting me to a 1959 edition of Books and Bookmen, in which Ian Fleming says that he 'wanted Bond to be... a composite figure made up of commando types and spies' he met during the war. I must also point out that Jeremy Duns has explored Bond's commando roots and the commando references in the books in his excellent piece, 'Commando Bond', published in the book, Diamonds in the Rough.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Shades of Live and Let Die in the Flashman Papers?

There are only a few authors I return to time and again. Ian Fleming is naturally one, PG Wodehouse another. A third is George MacDonald Fraser. I can't remember how many times I've read the Flashman Papers, George MacDonald Fraser's series of adventures featuring Harry Flashman, a Victorian cad, scoundrel, poltroon and undeserving hero, but the novels, presented in the form of Flashman's memoirs, are becoming as dog-eared and well-thumbed as my Bond books.

I was re-reading the tenth volume in the series – Flashman and the Angel of the Lord (1994), in which Flashman reluctantly joins John Brown and takes part in the infamous raid at Harper's Ferry in 1859 that presaged the American Civil War – and was struck by a number of similarities between the book and the novel of Live and Let Die (1954).

For example, after a remarkable series of events, Flashman finds himself in Washington. Escaping from an organisation keen for him to join John Brown, Flashman hails a cab and is invited in by a mysterious woman already occupying it. Flashman tells her he's from Canada, to which the woman replies 'uh-huh'. Flashman remarks in his memoirs that uh-huh “is the most expressive word in the American language.” This brought to mind Felix Leiter's advice to James Bond in Live and Let Die that “you can get through any American conversation with 'yeah', 'nope' and 'sure'.”

While in New York, Flashman meets and is arrested by Allan Pinkerton, who founded his famous detective agency in 1852-3. (Felix Leiter would become a Pinkerton's agent in Diamonds are Forever.) In his cell, Flashman consumes a “disgusting luncheon consisting of a cake of fried chopped beef smothered in onions and train oil.” Flashman's first experience of a hamburger is rather different to Bond's. He describes his meal of “flat beef Hamburgers, medium-rare” (among other items) as “American cooking at its rare best.”

Earlier, while still in Washington, Flashman is dining in a restaurant and eavesdrops on the conversations of fellow diners. One conversation gives us a flavour of the political background in 1859, and George MacDonald Fraser, through his writing, attempts to convey the accents and dialects that Flashman is likely to have heard. Inevitably, this reminded me of Bond and Leiter in Sugar Ray's in Harlem, where they listen to a couple's conversation so that Bond can get a feel of the accent and the colloquialisms. (Today, the passage makes rather uncomfortable reading, but Fleming was no doubt well intentioned.)

It also occurred to me that both Live and Let Die and Flashman and the Angel of the Lord feature secret organisations that have spies everywhere to keep tabs on the movements of the books' respective heroes. Mr Big has his Big Switchboard in the former, and while the latter introduces us to a secret network sympathetic to the southern states.

Live and Let Die and Flashman and the Angel of the Lord are very different novels, and the similarities may well be completely coincidental. But George MacDonald Fraser did, of course, co-write the screenplay of Octopussy, and his comic historical novel, The Reavers (2007), is packed with Bond references (the hero of the novel is the spy, Archie Noble, who, as head of Station B for Border, is ‘licensed to slay’, and a ‘double-nought operative'). It is not impossible that as a Bond aficionado, George MacDonald Fraser alluded to the Bond books in some of his other work. 

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Spies on British Screens conference - a review

As mentioned in last week's post, a fortnight ago I attended the Spies on British Screens conference at Plymouth University. The conference explored how spies and the intelligence community have been represented in British cinema and TV. It also examined the impact of screen spies on popular culture, with good part of the proceedings looking at aspects of the James Bond phenomenon.

Head over to the excellent website Artistic License Renewed for a review of the conference. Tom May looks back to day 1 of the meeting, while I review days 2 and 3.