Article by Revelator
This month we conclude our 7 part series inspired by Ian Fleming’s “Seven Deadlier Sins.”
Fleming conceived the idea for a series on the Seven Deadly Sins in the Sunday Times, and though it did not materialize for the paper, a book was published in 1962 that contained essays by some of England’s finest writers on their sin of choice. Ian Fleming wrote the foreword and declared that the traditional seven deadly sins—PRIDE, ENVY, ANGER, SLOTH [accidie], COVETOUSNESS, GLUTTONY and LUST—were no longer sufficient.
Thereupon, he proposed seven deadlier sins worthier of a passport to Hell: SNOBBERY, MORAL COWARDICE, HYPOCRISY, CRUELTY, SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS, AVARICE & MALICE.
“An important reflection seared his spy’s mind like a shooting star. All right. So sexual perversions and sex itself were the main security risk. So was greed for money. But what about status? What about that most insidious of vices, snobbery?” (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service)
For many readers, Bond and his creator are obviously guilty of snobbery. After all, how often have been the Bond novels been dismissed with the jingle of “Sex, sadism, and snobbery”? But is that facile alliteration as accurate as it is annoying? The sex in the Bond novels is tame by our standards, the sadism pales next to the content of modern films, and even the snobbery is overstated.
“If there’s one point in these books at which character and author coincide,” wrote Kingsley Amis in The James Bond Dossier, “it’s their failure to be tempted into snobbery about people. There’s no special attention paid to titled people, or people who have connections at Court, or rich people, or people who have great country houses at which they give country-house parties, or people who attend such parties, or in general any of the kinds of people who achieve the gossip columns.”
Any characters with knighthoods have them in recognition of occupational achievements, not bloodline. The “international set” of the idle rich, as represented by Count Lippe or Count Giulio di Vicenzo (Tracy’s first husband) “are treated as bad people.” And “most telling of all,” Amis continues, M regards his knighthood “as an encumbrance: Bond obediently follows suit by turning down an offer of the same at the end of The Man with the Golden Gun.” Bond’s explanation is splendidly ironic: “I am a Scottish peasant and will always feel at home being a Scottish peasant.” He realizes “there was one thing above all he treasured. His privacy. His anonymity. To become a public person, a person, in the snobbish world of England, of any country, who would be called upon to open things, lay foundation stones, make after-dinner speeches, brought the sweat to his armpits.” This isn’t the first time Fleming knocks England for its status consciousness: in the opening lines of The Spy Who Loved Me, Vivienne Michel confesses “I was running away from England..and I was running away from drabness, fustiness, snobbery, the claustrophobia of close horizons.”
James Bond doesn’t give a damn for titles and is all the better for it, whereas Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s thirst for them is an Achilles heel—a security risk—that allows Bond to hunt down the elusive supercriminal and destroy his operations. Already guilty of Fleming’s Deadlier Sins of Cruelty, Malice, and Avarice, Blofeld adds Snobbery and the Cardinal Sin of Vanity to his horde of vice. Desperate to become Comte Balthazar de Bleuville, he requests a formal confirmation of the title from the College of Arms, whose employees remark on how “Snobbery and vanity positively sprawl through our files.” But not through Bond, who might have ancestry going back to Thomas Bond (namesake of Bond Street in London) but isn’t interested. He declares “I’m perfectly content to be an ordinary Bond.”
College Pursuivant Sable Basilisk shares Bond’s contempt for title snobbery: “I’ve seen hundreds of smart people from the City, industry, politics—famous people I’ve been quite frightened to meet when they walked into this room. But when it comes to snobbery, to buying respectability so to speak, whether it’s the title they’re going to choose or just a coat of arms to hang over their fire-places in Surbiton, they dwindle and dwindle in front of you…until they’re no bigger than homunculi.” Despite being “fundamentally good citizens,” they regard “the process of ennoblement as a sort of laying-on of hands, a way of ridding themselves of all the drabness of their lives, of all their, so to speak, essential meagreness, their basic inferiority.” Blofeld is no different. His desire to become a Count “is tremendously significant. He is a rich and successful man in his line of business” but “no longer admires the material things, riches and power.” Blofeld “wants a new skin.” He “knows he is unclean, a social pariah,” so he’s devised a “way of buying himself a new identity. If you ask me, we must help the hair to grow and flourish on his heel of Achilles until it is so luxuriant that he trips on it.” British readers will know that a “hairy heel” is British slang for “ill-bred,” derived from literal breeding: a poorly bred horse has too much hair about its fetlocks. Blofeld’s ill-breeding manifests in his snobbish desire to become a Count at any cost.
Though aristocrats fare badly with Fleming, it’s still true that the high-stakes, larger-than-life world of the Bond novels revolves around characters with money and power. Fantasy trumps social realism, but on occasion, readers get a peek at a more down-to-earth world. In Thunderball Bond encounters a young member of the working class, “a foxy, pimpled” taxi driver. Before starting his car, the driver takes out a comb out of his breast pocket and runs it “carefully through both sides of his duck-tail haircut,” a gesture intended “to assert to Bond that the driver was really only taking him and his money as a favour.” Bond harrumphs “It was typical of the cheap self-assertiveness of young labour since the war.” After judging the youth as someone who “makes about twenty pounds a week, despises his parents, and would like to be Tommy Steele,” Bond takes a mental U-turn and decides “It’s not his fault. He was born into the buyers’ market of the Welfare State and into the age of atomic bombs and space flight. For him, life is easy and meaningless.”
Bond and the driver start chatting about driving; after the latter makes an expert racing move, Bond compliments his skill. The young man glances “sideways to see if he was being laughed at,” decides he isn’t and says he’s saved up halfway to purchase a better car. Bond now realizes “the comb play had made him over-censorious,” and the two continue chatting about cars, their shared love. Bond gives expert advice about gangs in Brighton, where the driver plans to race), and the young man realizes that Bond “was talking as if to an equal.” By the time the ride ends the driver is chummily telling Bond about old girlfriends. What comes through in this passage is Bond’s desire to gain the driver’s respect by finding common ground between them. Bond crosses the class divide with ease.
But if Bond is not snobbish about people, what about things? Like all those notorious brand names for example? Some critics have pointed to Bond’s customary breakfast, described in From Russia With Love, as Exhibit A: “It consisted of very strong coffee, from De Bry in New Oxford Street, brewed in an American Chemex,” followed by “a very fresh, speckled brown egg from French Marans hens owned by some friend of May in the country. (Bond disliked white eggs and, faddish as he was in many small things, it amused him to maintain that there was such a thing as the perfect boiled egg.).” Next, toast accompanied by “a large pat of deep yellow Jersey butter” and jars of “Tiptree ‘Little Scarlet’ strawberry jam; Cooper’s Vintage Oxford marmalade and Norwegian Heather Honey from Fortnum’s.”Surely this is more like consumerism than snobbery. In fact, this breakfast was much like Fleming’s own, down to the fresh brown egg. Perhaps that explains why the only grocery brands mentioned in the books are found in Bond’s breakfast, as Graham Thomas points out in his valuable essay “The Significance of Brands in the Bond Novels”. Thomas shows how this breakfast is not so much about sounding posh (neither Oxford marmalade nor Tiptree strawberry jam were exclusive brands) so much as quality: coffee brewed in a Chemex glass coffee maker would have been “outré at a time when most coffee drunk at home in the UK was instant, made either with something like Nescafe granules or Camp liquid coffee essence.” That fresh egg, hatched on a small farm and not a corporate factory one, also sounds good, and Bond is upfront is admitting his colour preference is “faddish.” As for De Bry, Chemex, and Fortnum & Mason, all were (and in the case of the latter two still are) long-established firms that had not only a distinguished clientele but also a reputation for quality—even Virginia Woolf praised De Bry’s products. Thomas observes that Fleming’s brand use “only concentrates on four categories: food, drink, cars and to lesser extent clothes and toiletries. In other words the essentials for any bachelor who wishes to live the high life.” The high life is not necessarily the same thing as ostentatious wealth signalling. Thomas observes that Bond wears a Rolex Oyster Perpetual (like Fleming) but not a swankier dress watch like Hugo Drax’s Patek Phillipe or Emilio Largo’s monstrous “solid gold Rolex Oyster Perpetual Chronometer on a flexible gold bracelet.” Bond’s consumer choices tended to be Fleming’s own, rather than approximations of what a very rich person would choose. Thus wine receives little notice in the novels, unlike bourbon and martinis. And contrary to what is often presumed, Fleming received no financial benefit from mentioning various brands. He thought it was “stupid to invent bogus names for products that are household words,” so he named products he actually used and valued. This imparted individuality, not just status.
Fleming was aware of this distinction. In The Man With the Golden Gun, a brainwashed Bond is instructed by the K.G.B. to stay at the Ritz Hotel. “Bond’s file in the K.G.B. Archive described him as a high-liver, so, on arrival in London, he must stick to the K.G.B. image of the high life.” He also buys a raincoat from Burberry’s, a brand otherwise never mentioned in the novels. The Secret Service immediately smells a rat. “The Ritz is sort of stage Bond” says the Chief of Staff. “And these new clothes. Why did he have to bother?” The real Bond doesn’t automatically select high-profile brands to signal wealth. Visiting Turkey in From Russia With Love, Bond stays at the sleazy Kristal Palas hotel because he “just didn’t want to stay at the Istanbul-Hilton or one of the other smart places.” Assuming otherwise would conform to the clueless KGB conception of the high life, which believes Bond would automatically stay at the Ritz when in London. (He does so undercover in Diamonds Are Forever only because Tiffany Case tells him diamond smugglers stay there. Other villains do too—in From Russia, With Love Rosa Klebb occupies the Paris Ritz. So much for the clientele!) Flaunting the most expensive brand names is stage Bond (and movie Bond, to be honest), not the real thing.
Kingsley Amis cogently argues that Fleming’s use of brand names makes for effective story-telling. Fleming “names things to provide a linkage with reality, very desirable when the plot and much else is non-realistic; to appeal where possible to our own experience; to act as shorthand in sketching character or milieu, and to encourage our sense of participation.”
Fleming also defended himself for depicting the high-life: “As to snobbery, I wonder how much it isn’t a very common motivation, perhaps a spur. Wouldn’t all of us like to eat better, stay in better hotels, drive faster motor-cars, write better books?” Who could honestly say no? Fleming touched a dream of aspiration shared by a mass audience. If he is guilty of consumerism, so are we. And surely Bond’s attitudes toward food and drink are less annoying than those of today’s foodies, wine snobs, or craft beer bores, just as his consumerism looks refreshingly individualized next to those mercenary influencers paid to flog products to their millions of Instagram followers. The enjoyment of good food, drink, and furnishing is part of the enduring bon vivant quality of the novels and resonates (even in an age without rationing) across countries and cultures. Fleming understood that most of us enjoy the finer things in life, no matter how much we pretend otherwise and tut-tut at other people’s vulgar spending.
So much for snobbery toward people and products. But what about places and institutions? “Here,” writes Amis, “I’m afraid Mr Fleming is liable, if not precisely to the charge of snobbery, then to the related one of glamour-susceptibility.” Amis objects to the description of the “crowded, electric, elegant scene” of the casino at Royale-les-Eaux, since at most the place is “ornately got up, expensively and perhaps beautifully furnished, full of movement and tension.” But Amis is making a distinction without a difference, especially since Fleming’s Royale-les-Eaux is a fictional establishment intended to be more glamorous than any real-life casino, just as the Bond novels invest life with more glamour and sensation than it could provide in reality.
Amis also reserves scorn for the description of Blades in Moonraker, that “sparkling scene” of men in dinner-jackets, “all at ease with themselves and their surroundings, all stimulated by the peerless food and drink, all animated by a common interest—the prospect of high gambling.” Fleming admits “There might be cheats or possible cheats amongst them, men who beat their wives, men with perverse instincts, greedy men, cowardly men, lying men; but the elegance of the room invested each one with a kind of aristocracy.”
“Oh really?” asks Amis. “What kind of aristocracy?” A synthetic one, surely. Unlike Amis, Fleming was passionately interested in gambling; for him, the idea of gambling in a refined sphere of luxurious furnishings, where everyone is well-dressed and partakes of the finest food and drink, was recreational bliss. In that sense, Fleming might seem “more sold on Blades than on the notion of England,” as Amis complains, but Blades is inseparable from England, being a storehouse of its rarified pleasures. Fleming was notoriously more interested in things than people, so his view of clubland is characteristically inverted: Blades is a club whose worth stands apart from that of its members, who might be scum outside its confines. The members do not confer worth on the club—they can only become aristocrats of pleasure in the triumph of the club’s setting. Like Royale-les-Eaux, Blades is not a real establishment and not a real brand, but rather the platonic ideal of a gambling club.
Fleming writes the members of Blades may fall short of the club itself, and Hugo Drax gives double-edged proof when he denounces “Those bloody fools in Blades” and savages those “Moneyed oafs. For months I took thousands of pounds off them.” Moreover, “I knew that all I needed was money and the façade of a gentleman. Gentleman! Pfui Teufel! To me a gentleman is just someone I can take advantage of.” Drax is obviously one of those members of Blades who “might be cheats” with “perverse instincts.” Blades might have invested Drax with “a kind of aristocracy” but its members welcomed a predator into their ranks, a predator who knew all he needed to gain membership was wealth and the mere appearance of a gentleman. Drax’s condemnation of Blades and its members might be that of a sore loser, but it’s linked to a denunciation of the British that Fleming likely agreed with. “Useless, idle, decadent fools, hiding behind your bloody white cliffs while other people fight your battles. Too weak to defend your colonies, toadying to America with your hats in your hands. Stinking snobs who’ll do anything for money.” They even let Drax into Blades for it.The British toleration of wealthy eccentricity eased Drax’s path. Even M makes excuses for Drax’s personality: “After all, it’s a big step from the Liverpool docks, or wherever he came from, to where he is now. And he’s one of those people who was born with naturally hairy heels. Nothing to do with snobbery. I expect his mates in Liverpool found him just as loud-mouthed as Blades does.” How ironic, since Drax is really an aristocrat! Little does M know those mates in Liverpool never existed. Graf Hugo von der Drache, the scion of an ancient family, instead mouthed off at wealthy classmates at a posh school. Bond realizes “that the hulking bully with the ogre’s teeth had not been very welcome at an English private school. And being a foreign count with a mouthful of names would not have helped much.” So Graf Hugo really was born with hairy heels, though Bond acknowledges that English xenophobia helped turn this natural misfit an even sorer loser.
Like Captain Nash (the disguised Red Grant) in From Russia With Love, Drax is one of those fake Englishmen Bond unconsciously sniffs out before they unmask themselves. Foreigners cannot completely fake Englishness in Bond’s world. Nowadays Bond and Fleming’s assumption of British/English essentialism and superiority would be considered a sin every bit as grievous as snobbery, but such a sin is outside the scope of this essay, since jingoism was not one of Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins…which we hope you’ve enjoyed reading about in this series at Artistic Licence Renewed. If you did, please excuse our indulgence in one of the old Deadly Sins—Pride.