This week we are delighted to welcome the esteemed lecturer Christine Berberich in from the cold to discuss Ian Fleming and James Bond in the context of Britain in the 1950s and 60s.
In your essay ‘Fleming’, James Bond and the Question of England’, you mention how Bond (and Fleming by extension) were both ‘at ease and at odds with time’, particularly in the differences between his 1950s and 1960s. How much longer will Bond be relevant in the next few decades?
This is an interesting question. I think that Bond will always be ‘enjoyed’ – but I am not sure about him being relevant. There are, obviously, still authors working on new Bond novels – the most prominent example here would be William Boyd’s and Anthony Horowitz’s contributions – and the films seem to enjoy an ever-increasing global audience. However, I do think that this works more on the level of ‘escapism’ and pure entertainment rather than signifying cultural relevance.
The British Secret Service still plays an important role in the world – but certainly not to the extent depicted in Bond novels and films. In fact, that significance was already over-played when Fleming first started publishing Bond in the 1950s. However, saying that, as an ‘icon of Britishness’ and as a brand Bond is certainly still important.
Personally, I wonder if his particular popularity at the moment – especially in the Daniel Craig films that see an almost unprecedented popularity at present – have something to say about current British uncertainties and insecurities in terms of political standing in the world. After all, the initial Bond books were so popular in the 1950s and early 1960s – which corresponded with a political decline of Britain on the world stage. Maybe we are currently going through a similar phase, and the new Daniel Craig films celebrate and perpetuate a mythical Englishness / Britishness…
Why do you think some women enjoy literary Bond while others do not and were there any novels that particularly portrayed women either well or poorly?
Do women really ‘enjoy’ literary Bond? I’m not sure about this. I think it might be more a case of reading with gritted teeth. Female readers might enjoy the storylines but will almost inevitably baulk at the depiction of women and, especially, Bond’s attitude towards them.
The literary Bond certainly has a very mysogynist and cruel streak towards women – threatening physical violence (I seem to recall him threatening to ‘spank’ Honey Rider in Doctor No and thinking about spanking Tilly Masterton ‘on an empty stomach’ in Goldfinger, sending Pussy Galore ‘back to her basket’ etc).
There are also deeply problematic passages in Casino Royale where Bond links having sex with Vesper Lynd as having the ‘sweet tang of rape’ – surely no woman enjoys reading that?!
Fleming claimed to be apolitical but do you think this was true of his novels?
No, I don’t think this is true of his novels at all. In fact, the opposite – I think they are very political indeed. Fleming wrote his novels at the time of political decline for Britain – the Empire was dwindling, the Suez Crisis really saw the end of international importance for Britain as a leading nation in the world — but the Bond novels actively wrote against those real-life trends. By creating a British spy who was praised as ‘world leading’, who was even acknowledged by the Soviets at being the best in the game, Fleming allocated Britain a role in the world she no longer had. And I think he did this very consciously to actively write against real-life political events and trends of the time.
Why was Fleming’s use of brands and products so effective in his novels, and has this help the ‘Bond brand’ endure as something that Britain and Britons can always turn to as a confidence booster? Did Fleming’s vision of Britain ever really exist or is it a fantasy?
I’m not sure about this, to be honest. I think Fleming’s use of products, exotic locations or expensive brands had, in my opinion, more to do with the increasing affluence in Britain. After the Second World War there had been austerity politics for a long time, rationing, for instance, only ended in the early 1950s. As society slowly but steadily became more affluent, Fleming’s novels celebrated a conspicuous consumption that *everyman* could aspire to. And I think the same is still true today – while, maybe, not everybody can afford Bond’s car, his watches or, certainly, his aftershave are more affordable.
But I really like the second part of your question about this being a ‘confidence booster’. I think, and as I have set in response to the questions above, it’s not only the use of brands and products that serves as a ‘confidence booster’; Bond himself is a ‘confidence booster’, the fact that Britain is shown to be ‘world-leading’ at something. Another word for ‘confidence boosting’ could then be ‘escapism’ – as the Bond books, certainly the ones from the 50s and early 60s, served as such that: ‘escapism’ from the reality of a British Empire breaking up; ‘escapism’ from the fact society was increasingly egalitarian (finally!); escapism (for many readers) from women’s lib; escapism from the debacle of Suez. The list is long.
And as for ‘did Fleming’s vision of Britain ever exist or is it a fantasy’ – I guess that it partly did exist but that it was always a Britain that was very white, very (upper)middle class, very male, and, consequently, very exclusive.
You commented that Bond was a snob in his enjoyment of the finer things, but can this simply be seen as some comfort for man in a dirty and lonely job?
I would like to believe that – but I’m afraid that I still consider Bond a snob. I think Fleming made him such consciously, again to, potentially, advocate the conspicuous consumption of luxury brands and products or to feed a hunger for exotic yet increasingly affordable travel to far-flung places.
Dr. Christine Berberich is Senior Lecturer in Twentieth-Century English Literature at the University of Portsmouth, UK. She has published widely in the field of national identity (constrution), and here particularly the issue of ‘Englishness’, as well as on individual authors such as Ford Madox Ford, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, George Orwell, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro and W.G. Sebald.
She has published the monograph The Image of the English Gentleman in Twentieth-Century Literature.