Thursday, 27 April 2017

Kingsman returns with a very Bondian trailer

Judging by the trailer, released this week, Matthew Vaughn's Kingsman: The Golden Circle looks likely to contain as many nods to the Bond films as the film it follows, Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014).

In the sequel, the Kingsman headquarters are destroyed by some unknown enemy (who presumably got the idea from Raoul Silva and Blofeld, who were responsible for destroying MI6 headquarters in Skyfall and Spectre), and the Kingsman agents join forces with a spy organisation in the US to defeat the common foe.

Apart from the big explosion, the trailer promises all sorts of Bond-like thrills, including an underwater car (not so much Wet Nellie as Wet Taxi), gadgets galore, a henchman with a mechanical arm that doubles as a projectile (wasn't there something like that in a Young Bond novel?), London-set chases, and a snowy mountain-top lair, complete with cable car stunts.

 
The submersible taxi in Kingsman: The Golden Circle
This last aspect is of course highly redolent of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which evidently continues to inspire film-makers. Other films that have looked to the 1969 Bond film include Inception (2010) and Johnny English Reborn (2011), not to mention Spectre.

 
A mountain-top lair in Kingsman: The Golden Circle?
Kingsman: The Golden Circle is released on 29 September, and I shall be at the front of the queue to see it. Does the film hint at the direction of the next Bond film? I'm starting to wonder. Some may claim that this and the Fast and Furious series (reviews of the latest episode have alluded to the film's Bondian qualities) are beginning to out-Bond Bond, and it wouldn't surprise me if the producers of Bond 25 are keeping a weather eye on such releases.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Maxwell Knight - the real M


When Ian Fleming came to write the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1952, he turned to people he knew for inspiration for some of his characters. Take Bond's spy chief, M. In manner, it seems most likely that M was based on Fleming's wartime chief in the Naval Intelligence Division, Admiral John Godfrey. The code name may have had another source, however: Maxwell Knight, legendary MI5 spymaster who was known by the letter M.

While the connection between Maxwell Knight and the Bond novels is superficially a slight one, a new biography of Maxwell Knight by Henry Hemming has suggested other intriguing links.

Maxwell Knight's career in espionage began in the 1920s when he was recruited by Sir George Makgill to Makgill's private spy organisation. His task: to root out Communist activities by joining the British Fascisti, a powerful right-wing organisation which was waging its own campaign against the Communists, and secretly report back to Makgill. In time, Knight discovered that he was a better spymaster than spy, and was recruiting and running his own agents, who under Maxwell's guidance infiltrated Communist groups. After a brief spell in MI6, Maxwell Knight joined MI5, gave himself the code name M and set up M Section, which continued the secret fight against Communism.

By the mid 1930s, MI5 was waking up (slowly, it must be admitted) to the rising threat of the new Fascist movement, led by Sir Oswald Mosley. As the clouds of war gathered, M's agents set their sights on Fascists and Nazi sympathisers and scored notable hits against them.

M's work continued during the Second World War, and both his section and legendary status expanded. M retired in 1961, and he died seven years later. During his long career as spymaster, M busted spy rings, wrote the manual on tradecraft, trained a large number of highly successful agents, and was also largely responsible for bringing down the Fascist movement in Britain.

Curiously, all the time Maxwell Knight served in MI5, he was well known by the public, though as a thriller writer, and in particular a naturalist. He took part in many BBC broadcasts about animals, and for most of his life kept a menagerie of animals in his own apartments. His MI5 work of course remained a secret, but his expertise with animals allowed him to step out of the shadows.

On the face of it, the real M and Fleming's M have little in common, but reading Henry Hemming's superb biography, I was struck by just how often the worlds of Maxwell Knight and Ian Fleming overlapped. Presumably, Ian Fleming met Maxwell Knight from time to time while Fleming served as assistant to Admiral Godfrey. The two certainly had mutual acquaintances, among them author Dennis Wheatley. I was intrigued by the fact that one of Maxwell's agents was bookseller and bibliographer Graham Pollard. After the war, Pollard occasionally contributed to The Book Collector, the journal that Fleming owned and relaunched in 1952. An obituary of Graham Pollard published in the journal in 1977 described his work for the Communist Party, but not that he had been spying on its members. It's interesting to speculate whether Fleming knew about Pollard's activities when Fleming was on the journal's editorial board and cast his eye over Pollard's contributions.

What comes through very strongly in Henry Hemming's book is Maxwell Knight's hatred of Communism and his desire, born from personal experience, to crush it in Britain. I could not help be reminded of James Bond's epiphany at the end of Casino Royale, when having suffered at the hands of SMERSH and been betrayed by Vesper Lynd, he resolves on a personal level to 'take on SMERSH and hunt it down'. The real M would have approved.

When reading about the early career of Maxwell Knight, I was reminded too of Fleming's M's tricky relationship with MI5 and Special Branch. In Moonraker M tells Bond, who is about to operate on home soil, that he 'didn't want to tread on Five's corns'. Later, Bond reflects on how well Scotland Yard commissioner Ronnie Vallance avoids the corns of both MI5 and the uniformed police. It was these sort of 'corns' or conflicts that led to the creation of MI5 as we know it, and to a large extent Maxwell Knight had been responsible. Before joining MI5 and setting up M Section, he worked for MI6, but operated in Britain, and also worked closely with members of Special Branch. These amorphous boundaries were eventually clarified (although the real M would always act with a certain amount of independence).

Henry Hemming's biography is every bit as thrilling as the spy fiction, such as those by John Buchan, that inspired Maxwell Knight and his agents to pursue a career in espionage. What's more, the author has carried out painstaking detective work and identified some of Knight's agents who might otherwise have remained unknown. The book is a fascinating read that breaks open the secret vaults of British Intelligence to shine a fresh light on a remarkable spymaster and his organisation.


M: Maxwell Knight, MI5's Greatest Spymaster, by Henry Hemming, is out on 4th May and published by Preface 

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Meet the James Bond of...

If you've been kept awake at night asking yourself which Korean fish is most like James Bond, you can sleep easy, for I have the answer: it's pollock. According to the Korean Herald, the wild pollock (or pollack), which has been brought to near-extinction through over-fishing and global warming, is 'the James Bond of Korean seafood' because of the many identities and names accorded to it biologically and on the dinner table.
 
Pollock, the James Bond of Korean seaford. Image: By © Citron /, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24350181
Wild pollack isn't the only thing to have been compared to James Bond. Every so often, when I trawl online media for James Bond news, I find stories in which a person, other creature, or thing is described as the James Bond of their career or environment. The comparison is sometimes amusing, as is the case with the fish, but there is a broader point. The evocation of James Bond reveals which characteristics or memes journalists and others associate with Fleming's creation. No doubt, too, the mention of James Bond raises the profile of the piece and attracts readers.

Just the other day, I learnt from a report in the Times of India that French winemaker Jean Charles Boisset is 'the James Bond of the wine world'. The winemaker is apparently a flamboyant dresser and likes doing things in style, and as a result has been identified by many as a James Bond figure.

Then there's Natalie Bellamy and Sophie Spencer, who, working together as the Fussy Shopper, have been described as 'the James Bond of personal shopping'. As the Daily Mail reports, the pair sources rare and eye-wateringly expensive items for the super-rich and celebrities, sometimes in exciting, Bondian, ways. On one occasion, they flew to France to buy a jacket, skied to the shop, which happened to be on top of a mountain, and then skied down with the jacket.

How about the James Bond of philanthropy? That's Chuck Feeney, the billionaire turned millionaire who has given away $8bn over the past 30 years. It was his methods that led Forbes to compare him to James Bond: Chuck Feeney's philanthropic work has been clandestine and globe-trotting.

Chuck Feeney isn't the only one who's been dubbed James Bond because of the travel. Jan Chipchase, a 'trend forecaster' and founder of the global design and innovation consultancy Studio D Radioduran, has been called the ‘James Bond of Design Research’ as he travels the globe learning about human behaviour to inform his clients' decision-making and innovation strategies. Jan Chipchase (a Bondian name, if ever there was one) has additionally been described as one of the smartest people in tech, which possibly encouraged the James Bond moniker.

The 'James Bond of' phrase has been applied to fictional characters too. The hero of Jonathan Lethem's novel, A Gambler's Anatomy, is described in a review by Ron Charles in the Washington Post as the 'James Bond of backgammon'. The book, featuring a professional gambler named Alexander Bruno, is, the reviewer suggests, a James Bond-esque novel, which 'combines a little of the intrigue of James Bond with all the sexiness of backgammon'.

James Bond's association with technology means that buildings can also be considered Bond-like. A children’s nursery that opened recently in Oxford is equipped with a fingerprint entry system, a roof that changes colour with the seasons, a secret garden with a mini amphitheatre, and a cinema room. No wonder Dr Genevieve Davies, who opened the building, called it 'the James Bond of nurseries'.

The connection with James Bond isn't always a positive one. One Julius Mwithalii from Meru in Kenya became known as ‘James Bond of Meru' when he attempted suicide by hanging himself on a helicopter. The attribution would appear to trivialise a distressing incident, although as journalist Iregi Mwenja points out, the resulting publicity, partly because of the comparison, has raised awareness of certain social issues, which is no bad thing.
 

This brief survey has shown that 'the James Bond of' phrase has currency in the cultural environment. It's applied widely, and to people or things with little or no connection to the masterspy. Anyone in the public eye who travels the world, is technologically minded, has style or lives a life of intrigue and danger could be the next 'James Bond of'. Perhaps we all have a little bit of James Bond in us. In my own career, I like to think I'm the James Bond of archaeology (or is that Indiana Jones?). What are you the James Bond of?

Saturday, 8 April 2017

References to the older Bond in the Young Bond adventure Strike Lightning


As we gear up for the publication of Red Nemesis, the next Young Bond novel and the final one, at least from Steve Cole, I thought it was a good time to look back on the previous novel, Strike Lightning. One of the pleasures of reading the Young Bond books is spotting the nods to Ian Fleming's original books, and Strike Lightning has its fair share.

When James witnesses the death of a fellow student, he begins another dangerous adventure to seek answers. With the clouds of war looming, James travels to Holland and discovers a plot to create a deadly weapon, gains the help of the resourceful Kitty Drift, and has several deadly encounters with technological mastermind Hepworth Maximilian Blade.

In fine tradition, James introduces himself to Kitty as 'Bond, James Bond', eats scrambled eggs on toast several times (on one occasion having rye toast, just as he does in later life in Diamonds are Forever), and dons a dinner suit.

Aspects that would define James' attitude to life and his job are also nicely alluded to. At their first encounter, Blade advises James not to squander his future, to which James replies that he fully intends to make the most of his time. This recalls the words in You Only Live Twice that Mary Goodnight suggests represents James Bond's philosophy: 'I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time'. Later, the young James, when faced with the prospect of killing in cold blood, asks himself whether he could ever do such a thing. We know, of course, that the older Bond can, but as he reflects in Goldfinger, he never likes doing it. 

There are shades of Dr No when James Bond manages to get hold of the files about the secret weapon – Steel Shadow – and tries to make his escape. His presence has been detected, and he is prevented from leaving the building by a series of cunningly hidden traps. Shutters come down in front of doors, heating under a rubber staircase melts the stairs, creating a sticky goo, releasing toxic fumes and slowing James down, and turning on the lights gives James an electric shock. This reminded me of Dr No's deadly obstacle course on Crab Key, which also subjects Bond to electric shocks and heat, among other terrors.

Strike Lightning includes a reference to one of the presumed inspirations for James Bond. Kitty asks the young James after he's outlined a foolhardy scheme to hijack a moving train: 'Who do you think you are – Richard Hannay?' At another point, playing on the phrase often attributed to the villain when he catches Bond in his lair, Blade says: 'I wasn't expecting you, Bond.'

As Bond's adventure reaches its denouement, he and Kitty remain in danger. At a particularly tense moment, he tries to reassure her by telling her 'It's all right, now, Kitty. Quite all right. We have all...'. James is interrupted but presumably meant to say that 'we have all the time in the world'. The words after all are similar to those of the older Bond's in On Her Majesty's Secret Service: 'It's quite all right. She's having a rest. We'll be going on soon. There's no hurry. We've got all the time in the world'. (Actually, the young Bond's words seem to derive from the film version of that novel, in which Bond tells the motorcycle policeman that 'we have all the time in the world'.)

Strike Lightning no doubt contains more references to the original books (and films), and I'll have to read the book again to find them all. In a few weeks, though, there'll be another Young Bond novel to read, and I can't wait to get stuck in and spot the references in that one.