Gerald Wadsworth returns in… On Her Majesty’s Secret Service!
Inspiration for a painting can come from one of those inexplicable and unexpected parts of Fleming’s writing. Normally, we race through a story, relishing the action and adventure, the seduction and rejections, the wealth of detail surrounding our favorite spy, and invariably, we find ourselves comparing what we have read to what we have seen in the films. What did they edit out of the novel to make the cinematic flow more interesting to the viewer? What dialogue did they cut to trim the characters on screen time, or enhance it? What musings and ruminations of Bond get the axe because they don’t translate visually?
For a painting, we inevitably end up looking for visual clues in the text for things that will be cool to draw and paint. Things that are recognizably “Bond.” His favorite cigarette. The Walther PPK in its chamois holster. The bottle of Haig’s Dimple Scots or Walker’s Bourbon. Or some other personal element of the villain or Bond’s latest female conquest. These sorts of things there for us in spades, as Fleming was one of the best for introducing exotic and expensive brands into his stories, and making them more believable – and enticing – to the reader. Selecting either the most obvious thing, or conversely, the most obscure still leaves us with a plethora of choices. We find ourselves ranking them in order of importance to the visual.
One of the problems – or challenges – with painting OHMSS is the wide-ranging action and multiple plots that all converge to the unexpected death of Bond’s bride in the very last paragraphs of the story, leaving a devastated Bond and the escape of his nemesis, Blofeld. This vulnerability and humanity of Bond are impossible to communicate in a visual manner, so it leaves us with representational “things” that hopefully will speak to the viewer.
Facing these difficult choices, I was determined to find something else that would be relevant to the story and be the perfect subject matter for the painting. This required at least 5 or 6 readings, copious note-taking, and highlighting of text. I would frequently read passages aloud to my wife and seek her editorial input. So it was in a moment of serendipity that I chose to read out loud two long paragraphs near the end of chapter two – “Gran Turismo.” I was struck by the hilarious and unexpected combination of Fleming’s snobbery about food, humour in his choice of descriptive words, and the flaunting of his intellectual superiority and classical education. We found ourselves laughing out loud at the writing – writing that would most likely be passed over as incidental and perhaps irrelevant to the plotline. It would never see the light of day in a film… I found it the perfect foil for my painting.
We know that Bond was not a gourmet and that breakfast was his favorite meal of the day. We also know that he loved good food, and when in France his meals would be described in detail by Fleming – in French, of course. In chapter two, it is Turbot poché, sauce mousseline, and roast partridge – all washed down with Mouton Rothschild ’53, a ten-year-old Calvados, and three cups of coffee. We know that Fleming, too, loved his food and drink, so it makes sense that Bond would be a reflection of himself in this regard.
But what was so amusing about the two paragraphs was Bond’s critique of food and wine that was foisted upon him when motoring from the Italian border to the (fictitious) French northern coastal town of Royalé les Eaux. Bond ruminates: he had had enough of the “sucker-traps for gourmandizing tourists.” All the restaurants with their flowery names – “Vielles Auberges, the Relais Fleuris.” Then the menus, designed to appeal to the unsuspecting diner, flaunting their “Bonnes Tables, and their Fines Bouteilles with Spécialités du Chef.” He was fed up with the mock-Breton auberges, selling sleazy and expensive provender that was passed off for food in the “Belly Region” of France. From “lip-smacking rituals of winemanship and foodmanship” to indigestion that followed requiring large doses of Bisodol…this was such unexpected Flemingesque humour.
In the second paragraph Bond describes some of the tourist traps in detail. Hammered copper and brass utensils and antique bogosities. “Bogosities” – I had never before seen that word in print! Sham interiors and exteriors with florid window boxes and flower arrangements. Fireplaces with electric logs. Fake wooden beams, china animals frolicking across gabled roofs. Interiors decorated with tacky signage and tables sporting cheap serving ware bearing inscrutable slogans designed to con the unwary. Surly waiters, “fly-walk Paté” and tasteless wine. Fleming leaves no tourist trap restaurant leaf unturned!
I know enough basic tourist French to get in trouble, but one slogan kept puzzling me: “Icy Doulce France” versus what I thought should be “Ici Douce France.” They both mean the same thing – “Here is Sweet France” – but according to a friend who was trained in classical old French, “Icy” is now “Ici” and “Doulce” is now “Douce.” Minor sticking points, but I’m betting that Fleming was showing off his classical French training and education to his readers!
One could only imagine Bond, hungry and tired from driving, and being subjected to the very worst of French food and culture…this was such un-Bond-like fodder for a spy novel, that I felt it HAD to be the subject of my painting. The only recourse Bond had was to find better food and drink – anything, in fact – to “efface these dyspeptic memories”…
There was the title of the painting…”Dyspeptic Memories.”
A quick look at the OED produced the textually appropriate definition of this seldom-used word. Dyspeptic – tetchy and disagreeable.
But, there are more disagreeable and dyspeptic memories throughout the book, and I had to include some of those as well. The wedding ring Bond gave Tracy: a baroque white gold ring of diamonds and clasped hands. Being beaten at Chemin de Fer by the tycoon from Lille, who chomped his cigars and smoked them with an amber holder. The tycoon’s winning card – the nine of diamonds – described by Bond as the “Curse of Scotland.” Some things related to Blofeld were a must: his restaurant at Piz Gloria (matchbook), and the SPECTRE octopus hidden in the hand-painted escutcheon, commonly found upon the walls of the tacky restaurants. Seashells from Bond’s childhood playing on the beaches of Brittany and Picardy. I could envision French travel posters of the ’40s and ’50s, promoting wines of the region and the sandy beaches, so I found two vintage posters to use – one for wine and the other of Cannes – that I changed to Royalé Les Eaux. Both were (probably) screen-printed with flat, solid colors, so to recreate this effect, I painted them using opaque Gouache – a medium I haven’t used for about 45 years. So great was the trepidation, that I had to paint those to objects first.
The other items in the painting were created with traditional watercolours. A tacky porcelain restaurant ashtray. A ceramic cat chasing a ceramic bird. Tracy’s hotel room key and one of the casino blood-red counters of 10,000 old francs. The packet of Bisodol to efface these dyspeptic memories. Bond’s family coat of arms, disguised as part of the wine label with a new motto on the “instant Pouilly-Fuissé” bottle – broken by Bond (and me) and adorned, last but not least, by the Chopping Fly.
All dyspeptic memories that Bond tried hard to forget…but which haunted him until the last pages of the novel.
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