Sunday, 26 June 2016

Who founded the first James Bond club?

As I prepared my paper for the Spies on British Screens conference, which took place in Plymouth last weekend (more about that event soon), I reminded myself about what must have been one of earliest James Bond clubs to have been founded. What's more, I discovered that its founders were later to become eminent in the world of British politics. 

In my paper, I discussed some of the Bondian words and phrases, such as ‘Bond, James Bond’, ‘shaken, not stirred’, and 'Bond girls', that have become part of everyday lexicon, used and adapted in contexts away from the specific world of Bond. I traced their evolution and usage, and examined why these terms have become so successful; that is, long-lasting and widespread.

I've written about the origin of the word 'Bond girl' before on this blog, and so already knew that one of the earliest appearances of the term is in the Daily Express, published 1st February 1963. Curiously, the term didn't refer to James Bond's female companion in either Fleming's novels or the film of Dr No (the second Bond film, From Russia With Love, had yet to be released when the article was published), but was used as a shorthand term within a headline of an article.

In the article, 'Perfect Bond Girl', Express columnist William Hickey described how Oxford University student, Joanna Hare, had been voted Oxford University's nearest answer to the type of woman that James Bond meets by members of the university's newly formed James Bond club. William Hickey continued that members of the James Bond club were dedicated fans of the Bond novels and pledged to live up to the standards of living and behaviour of their literary hero.

Looking up the article to remind myself of the details, I was surprised to discover the identities of the club's founder members: Mark Lennox-Boyd, who would become a Conservative member of parliament, serving in Margaret Thatcher's, then John Major's governments, and Jonathan Aitken, who served in John Major's cabinet as Minister of State for Defence Procurement in 1992 and was later jailed for perjury following a scandal about a stay in the Paris Ritz. During his time in prison, he turned to Christianity, and has since become a Christian writer.

What of (possibly) the first Bond girl, Joanna Hare? She's the daughter of Conservative politician John Hare (1st Viscount Blakenham), who at the time that the article written was serving as Minister of Labour in Harold Macmillan's cabinet. In 1967, the Hon. Joanna Hare married Stephen Breyer, who is now an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

If you look up Jonathan Aitken and Mark Lennox-Boyd on Wikipedia, you won't find any mention of their Bond fandom and the setting up of the James Bond club. As Marc-Ange Draco from On Her Majesty's Secret Service might have said, Wikipedia's dossier on them is not entirely complete.

There is a footnote to this story. In the following day's Express, William Hickey reported that five undergraduates at Oxford University had formed a university section of SMERSH in response to the creation of the James Bond club. How serious this rival group was is uncertain, but the incident suggests that the university's James Bond fans were motivated in their activities by the books, rather than the first Bond film, Dr No, which had pitted Bond against SPECTRE (although SMERSH is mentioned in the film).

Monday, 20 June 2016

James Bond memes in the Accidental Secret Agent

Watch out, Young Bond. There's a rival in town. The name's Twigg, Kevin Twigg, the teenage hero of The Accidental Secret Agent, by Tom McLaughlin. The book, recently published by Oxford University Press, is a comic tale of schoolboy fantasy, reluctant spies, dastardly plots and villainous characters. And as expected, it is full of James Bond references.

The story introduces us to Kevin, a thirteen-year-old who craves excitement and has daydreams about being a spy. Kevin gets his chance when he meets a spy, who happens to looks exactly like him. The spy yearns for the quiet life, and the two swap places. Kevin is taken for the real spy when he enters the portals of MI7, and is tasked with rescuing top scientist Dr Brainiov, who MI7 suspected has been kidnapped by the sinister Mr Snelly.

The nods to James Bond come thick and fast. The cover uses the gunbarrel motif. A bottle of cola is shaken, not stirred, and Kevin has a 'licence to get all up in your face'. Kevin's ambition is to own the ultimate mobile phone, the MiPhone 25, which would make him feel like James Bond. He also reveals that he 'watched the latest James Bond film last night'.

Kevin's secret agent doppelgänger is called Jake Pond and has the code number 006 and a half. And Jake Pond's father, we're told, has three nipples, obviously recalling Scaramanga.

At MI7 headquarters, Kevin, posing as Jake Pond, witnesses spies at work, monitoring communications and receiving training in martial arts (the latter possibly being another allusion to the film of The Man With The Golden Gun). The M figure is called P, and the gadget master is called T.

Inevitably, Kevin is issued with gadgets – a tracking device, a TV watch and a mobile phone. (The running joke about the phone, incidentally, reminded me of something Young Bond author Steve Cole said during his talk at the Whitstable Literary Festival, that the most useful gadget a spy could have today is an ordinary mobile phone.)      

The book includes several plays on the 'Bond, James Bond' line, and during the course of his mission, Kevin gets to don a dinner suit when visiting a casino. And in the best traditions of Bond, there are Bond girls – the mysterious Alesha and the Kevin's reluctant sidekick, his sister Elle.

The Accidental Secret Agent is a fun read, with plenty in it for the Bond fan to enjoy. The book joins the growing list of children's books, some of which I described in an earlier post, that reference James Bond. Such books demonstrate how James Bond remains relevant across generations, and help to introduce some of the essential ideas or memes of Bond to younger readers.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

The obituaries of Commander James Bond

Last week's Times featured the obituary of one Commander James Bond. Like many people called James Bond, the Australian naval officer frequently had to deal with jokes and bemused reactions when giving his name, but it seems he was happy to go along with them. Indeed, his name brought him invitations to film premières, offers of martinis shaken, not stirred, and requests for autographs.

Commander Bond's experience mirrors that of the original James Bond, the ornithologist whose name Ian Fleming borrowed for his fictional secret agent. In her book, How 007 Got His Name (Collins, 1966), Mary Wickham Bond, wife of James Bond, wrote how airport customs officials would playfully ask James Bond (the ornithologist) whether he was carrying any firearms, or would fast-track him through customs – the sort of 'red carpet' treatment the fictional Bond enjoys at the start of the novel of Live and Let Die.

Anyone called James Bond no doubt has similar stories (a topic explored in Mattt Bowyer's documentary, The Other Fellow). To what extent Commander Bond's experiences differed from those of other James Bonds because of his rank, which is as much part of the fictional spy's identity as his name, is an interesting question and worth exploring.

What also interests me about Commander Bond's obituary is that the headline is so familiar. It is, after all, the fourth time we've seen it in print and on the screen.

The fictional Bond's obituary in the book of You Only Live Twice (published, of course, in the Times) reads 'Commander James Bond', as it does in the films Tomorrow Never Dies and Skyfall. In the film of You Only Live Twice, the 'death' of James Bond is presented as a newspaper story, rather than an obituary, but in common with the obituary of the real Commander James Bond, the fictional Bond is wearing his naval uniform.

Friday, 3 June 2016

How would James Bond vote in the EU referendum?

An article in The Times this week reported on a YouGov survey, which polled 1,700 adults about how they thought fictional characters would vote in the upcoming EU referendum. The results suggested that the respondents projected their own voting intentions on the characters. Thus, in the case of James Bond, those in the leave camp imagined Bond would vote for the UK to leave the EU, while those in the remain camp thought that he'd vote to stay in.

So, with this unclear picture in mind, just how would James Bond vote? Well, it depends which Bond we're talking about. The literary Bond might well vote for the UK to leave. After all, he's deeply patriotic and is quick to defend the county against any criticism.

For instance, in You Only Live Twice (or is that EU Only Live Twice? as one reader of the Times article put it), Bond is stung by Tiger Tanaka's accusations that England has thrown away a great empire, that Suez was a pitiful bungle, that successive governments have handed control to the unions, and that England is generally declining in fortune. Bond counters, somewhat lamely, that England isn't doing too badly and that it still beats people in sports and wins Nobel prizes.

Bond hears a similar case in 'The Hildebrand Rarity', when boorish American Milton Krest tells Bond that England is a diminishing asset in the world, though he responds simply that he thinks Krest's view oversimplified and naïve.

Evidently, Bond considers that the UK (or, rather, England) still has what it takes to stand on its own. On the other hand, with his Scottish ancestry, proudly claimed in The Man with the Golden Gun, Bond might ally himself with majority opinion in Scotland, which appears to favour a remain vote.

The film Bond might lean towards a leave vote ('So does England', says Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me in response to the Log Cabin Girl telling him that she needs him). But then again, today's Bond is not so much a lone wolf, as part of team that increasingly depends on intelligence and cooperation from different agencies. Bond might view Brexit as a threat to those arrangements. No more Monsieur Aubergine. 

That said, spy chiefs appear to be sanguine about the impact of leaving the EU, given that the EU has been less important in intelligence matters than the 'Five Eyes' alliance of the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. Former MI6 chief David Dearlove has suggested that the cost to Britain in the case of Brexit would be low, while former CIA director Michael Hayden has said that the EU was not 'a natural contributor to national security'. These are opinions that one can imagine Bond sharing. But, as the Guardian's Ewen MacAskill suggests, the need for cooperation and intelligence-sharing across the EU is only likely to increase. 

So, if you want to know how to vote, don't ask Bond. He's as confused as the rest of us.