I haven’t managed to see Skyfall yet… though I very much want to as I am a big Daniel Craig fan, and I feel I owe something – some kind of loyalty, perhaps – to James Bond. Not so much to the films, perhaps, though it’s hard to separate out what the ongoing life of Bond owes to his various on-screen incarnations from the part played by the books. But it was to the books that I turned as a teenager – and here’s what I learned from them.
Growing up in an all-female household and going to an all-girls’ secondary school had the effect of making me hopelessly curious about men. But where was I to find out about these strange trouser-wearing creatures? When I got to 17, I finally discovered the answer, which was: down the pub. But till then, I had to make do with books. James Bond became a formative influence, a sort of ghostly proxy uncle, offering, or so I thought, a sneaky insight into what men were really like, and what they wanted.
So what do men really want? Nowadays, I would probably say: a quiet life, with suitable technological entertainments to hand, a comfy sofa and an amenable companion. (Same as women really, no?) But in the world according to Bond, men wanted danger: the lethal ski run, the underwater swim round the villain’s yacht with a Geiger counter in hand, sex with the villain’s girl.
Bond liked to gamble, and drive fast, and drink, and did not like to lose, or ever want to settle down: he feared boredom much more than death, and was not at all domesticated. He didn’t even believe in garaging his car, because fumbling round with garage doors slowed you down and broke your fingernails and, anyway, cars ought to be able to start in the cold.
‘What every man would like to be, and every woman wants’
The blurb on the back of one of the Bond books we had at home proclaimed, ‘James Bond is what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like between the sheets,’ or words to that effect. I suppose there’s a subtle, but important, distinction between what one wants (the sofa and a good book), and what one wants to be, or take to bed (the fantasy the book contains).
My attitude to Ian Fleming’s books is muddled up with the image projected by the Bond films. Back in the 80s, when I stayed up late in the run-up to Christmas, sitting close to the telly with the sound turned down low to watch whichever Bond was on that year, the films seemed exotic, glamorous, and, well – sexy. None of which was particularly British – and yet Bond was.
This was the era of Moonraker and Roger Moore, who played it all a little tongue in cheek, not that I was particularly aware of that. I remember the villain with the mouthful of silver teeth, a bit of crocodile-hopping, the soft, malevolent hands stroking a long-haired white cat, and, of course, the Bond girl who slept with Bond and then didn’t wake, because she’d been covered in gold. I remember, also, piranhas in the pool, and one of those classic masochistic scenes in which Bond is pinioned, spread-eagled and about to face damage to a crucial part of his anatomy, although in the end his manhood is preserved.
Even though the image of the books and the image of the films tend to blur, the books have a quite separate life of their own. Here are some glimpses of Bond and his world from the books that particularly stick in my memory (and I can only apologise if my memory has reinvented them):
- Bond was kicked out of Eton at the age of 13 after being found in bed with a chambermaid.
- Bond’s secretary, Miss Moneypenny, is helplessly in love with him.
- Honeychile Ryder in Dr No is not in a bikini when she emerges from the sea. (She has on nothing much more than a belt and a knife.) Her nose has been broken and badly set, and she instinctively covers it up when she sees Bond.
- There is then a scene involving the sucking of sea urchin spines out of someone’s foot, though whether it’s Honeychile or Bond doing the sucking I really can’t remember.
- The opening of Diamonds are Forever: very short, something about a scorpion, no Bond in sight. Life is nasty, brutish and short, is the message.
- Tiffany Case, the woman in Diamonds are Forever: tough, vulnerable, survivor… but a Bond who took to family life wouldn’t be Bond, so even though he falls properly in love with her, she has to be written out.
- A scene in a health spa in which Bond engages in some rather brutal one-upmanship which leaves a fellow guest with third-degree burns.
- Patricia Fearing, who was, I think, some kind of therapist at the spa, and ends up experiencing Bond on the back seat of her bubble car.
- Somebody (perhaps Patricia Fearing? Or Mary Goodnight?) who impressed Bond as potentially more exciting than the other women she was with because she ordered a strawberry daiquiri rather than something non-alcoholic.
- Bond turning down the option of an emergency suicide pill which could have been stashed in one of his teeth.
- In The Man with the Golden Gun, Mary Goodnight’s arm smelled of Chanel no 5. Chanel no 5 has been my favourite perfume ever since.