Reading James Bond – books by Ian Fleming

I am about to make a confession that may get me excluded from polite circles. It is to do with my fascination with the fictional character, James Bond, which features in both films and books.

According to Wikipedia: “Commander James Bond CMG RNVR is a fictional Intelligence Agent created by the British journalist and novelist Ian Fleming in 1953. He is the protagonist of the James Bond series of novels, films, comics and video games. Fleming wrote twelve Bond novels and two short story collections. His final two books—The Man with the Golden Gun (1965) and Octopussy and The Living Daylights (1966)—were published posthumously. The character is a Secret Intelligence Service agent, code number 007, residing in London but active internationally. Bond was a composite character who was based on a number of commandos whom Fleming knew during his service in the Naval Intelligence Division during the Second World War, to whom Fleming added his own style and a number of his own tastes. Fleming claimed that Bond’s name was appropriated from the American ornithologist of the same name; however, new reports have emerged claiming Fleming may have got the name from a Welsh agent he served with, one James C. Bond. Bond has a number of consistent character traits which run throughout the books, including an enjoyment of cars, a love of food, alcohol and love-making, and a smoking habit of 60 custom-made cigarettes a day”.

Going back to my mid teens, I landed what seemed at the time a plumb job, that of school librarian. One of my duties included ordering books for the library. These included Ian Fleming, James Bond books, alongside classics like Dickens, Hardy and Austin – all of which I read, given that back in the day I was an avid reader. As for Bond, this coincided with hormones coming into play and my being a somewhat nerdy character who in my fantasy world rather envied James Bond. It was also at a time when Bond films were being released. Doctor No and From Russia with Love had just been released and this was followed by Goldfinger and Thunderball. It became evident that the film makers used more than a little license with the book, but both met with my approval. The combination of great plots, the hero I wanted to be, for example his coolness and resourcefulness under pressure, his bravery and especially when the odds were against him, his subtle contempt for authority of the petty and overbearing ilk, memorable one liners, colourful villains, his prowess with women and in the case of the film versions some amazing gadgets, all added to my enjoyment. While I left books behind before I left school, I have seen every Bond film that has been made since then, several more than once.

I mention this given in recent months I have rediscovered the same Bond books that fascinated me as a teenager. But rather than read them, I listen to them being read, thanks to YouTube, and it takes on average 6-7 hours. I feel a bit guilty when it comes to gratuitous sex and violence, although thankfully there is not that much of it, certainly by today’s standards. Occasionally, the story veers a bit to the dark side as it leaves readers imagination in little doubt when it comes to its representing scenes of sadomasochism but then again there is not too much of this and in fairness to the author it is intrinsic to the plot. Besides bringing back memories of my long ago youth and adventures outside my league, and less long ago films, noting when the plot deviated, which was often, I found listening as I did was a great antidote to the intensive study, often involving being online hours on end, of what occupied me in recent months.

Fleming was an engaging and interesting author whose use of the English language is attractive, who knew what he was talking about and talked about what he knows, and while no Dickens was more than passable portraying different characters. While the films have brought the various plots into the present especially with the ingenious gadgets that are introduced, the books are set in a fifties and sixties Britain. Those who lived through that period will identify with the pre-occupations, values and prejudices on display in the books and knowing something of the authors bio, e.g. he was an intelligence officer during the war. By today’s standards, the misogyny, racism, xenophobia and homophobia seen in the book may seem outrageous to some modern sensibilities, but were par for the course as far as Fleming was concerned, as was his fixation on the Cold War, hangovers from the Second World War, the austerity of 1950’s Britain and what was then state of the art technology. For those of us being condition to woke pre-occupations, going with the societal flow and beholdeness to political correctness, and to the challenging of class and race divisions, I found Bonds or rather Flemings attitude to such things rather enlightening.

One of the fascinations for me was the way James Bond is now interwoven into British culture. Also, Fleming weaved into the plot interests from his own life, barely touched on in the films. I was intrigued how Bond outcheated the villainous cheat in a card game in Moonraker, when he made a killing defeating his opponent with his bid of seven clubs redoubled in Bridge. Or another gambling victory, this time at the expense of the villain in Casino Royale, and yet another card victory over a villain in Thunderball. Or the game of golf in Goldfinger where every hole was described in detail. Or the journey on the Orient Express in From Russia with Love, where he clearly understood what that classic railway journey entailed. Or the detailed description of the various sea life in Octopussy and Live and Let Die, notably that of the more dangerous variety. When it came to the gold or diamond trade or items of fine art or atomic weapons, he too knew his subject. Then there was the authors fixation with good food, fine wines, weapons and fast cars, and knowledge of various locations around the world, with their culture, history and politics, in many of the books. It is almost as if the author is projecting his own interests and perspectives of the world in each book he wrote.

Bond, like his creator, was a flawed character and I liked how this was depicted in the book. I also liked his non rose-tinted view on life, even though the heroes and villains were clearly identifiable. An example of Bonds flaws was his addiction to cigarette smoking and tastes of the more potent variety. As a lifelong non-smoker, and having lived through huge transformations in societal attitudes, I found it fascinating to having been transported back in time, viewing the world of smokers (including M with his pipe) through Bond’s eyes. While I suspect Fleming was not religious, and my reading was that his life showed a fondness for the good life and hedonist mindset, it was nice to read of the good guys invariably winning in the end, and while Bond had a ruthless streak, there was also a sense of decency and fair play evidenced in his dealings.

I hope in ending I do not disappoint too much my many good living Christian friends, by my admission, one of my leisure activities is reading, or rather being read to, James Bond books. If nothing else it is light relief from some of the more heady stuff I have to deal with regularly. As well as a getting a blast from the past, I can now look back upon it philisophically, with world-weary, knowing eyes, in the sure knowledge that I am not called to be the next James Bond.

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