For Eyes and Ears Only: Reflections on SAMLA 2021

Article by Jeffrey Susla, Nichols College

For the past six years, James Bond has had a prominent place at the annual South Atlantic Modern Language Association conference. In November 2021, it was held virtually and the sessions on Bond “Networks” were co-chaired by Oliver Buckton, Professor of English at Florida Atlantic University, and Matthew Sherman, independent scholar. Both men are well known and respected in Bond studies. Professor Buckton is responsible for the annual presentation of Bond papers at SAMLA and most recently the author of The World is Not Enough, an engaging biography of Ian Fleming and The Many Facets of Diamonds Are Forever, a close examination of both Fleming’s 1956 book and the 1971 film. Matthew Sherman contributed a chapter in the latter book and has written two books on James Bond—James Bond’s Cuisine: 007’s Every Last Meal and Playing Games with James Bond. Mr. Sherman is also a noted collector of Bond memorabilia and for years has led tours to Bond film locations.

The Bond papers were delivered over the course of a morning and afternoon in three, ninety-minute sessions. The authors came from both sides of the pond and represented two generations of Bond scholarship. Each was introduced by one of the co-chairs, and after the papers were read, a Q & A followed, with attendees given the opportunity to submit their questions or offer commentary on the chat bar. Following the conference, attendees were invited to continue the conversation by joining a Zoom meeting where ideas on Bond scholarship were shared.

The following is a report (in order of presentation) on the conference papers. I am grateful to all the authors for providing me with copies for the purpose of this review.

Photo: Robert Gritten

[Photo: Robert Gritten]

“Spy Networks: SMERSH, SPECTRE, Cambridge Spies”, opened with independent scholar Lauren Leonard reading her paper on “The Moguls of Death”: Structure, Strategy, and the Role of SMERSH in Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love. Ms. Leonard argues Bond was a “pawn” in the Cold War game between the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom and relied heavily on his alliances with Darko Kerim and Tatiana Romanova to subvert the SMERSH plan to embarrass the British Secret Service. Ms. Leonard correctly describes the lengthy build-up of the novel’s opening ten chapters establishing the credibility of Bond’s unseen enemies, along with offering an eastern perspective on its ideological war with the west. She is perceptive in her juxtaposition of the novel’s four main characters and their respective pairings—Bond/Romanova vs. Grant/Klebb. Finally, she is most persuasive in her view that From Russia With Love is a “thriller with higher political stakes than in any previous Bond novel.” Her acknowledgment of previous work conducted by Thomas Barrett and Andy Wright, among others, only strengthens the paper.

Paul Tolliver Brown teaches English at the University of South Carolina. His paper, “The Tactical Advantage of Mercy: Confronting SMERSH in Ian Fleming’s Bond Novels” addresses SMERSH within the greater Soviet intelligence apparatus. He cites Ronald Seth and Nigel West and quotes extensively from Fleming’s works to support the idea that while Fleming is primarily a thriller writer/novelist, his work bears much verisimilitude. He agrees with Vadim J. Birstein, that Fleming had “access to privileged information about SMERSH at the time he wrote Casino Royale and From Russia With Love”. Mr. Brown is at his creative best discussing the “familial deviance” of many characters in the latter book, noting Fleming’s use of metaphor in describing them as “inhuman and unnatural”, often in animalistic terms. Characters “hiss” and Grant’s masseuse thinks his lower back hair “reptilian”. When Tatiana first meets Bond in a hotel room wearing only a black velvet ribbon around her neck, Mr. Brown likens it to a “dog collar”. Mr. Brown ably contrasts the villains’ inhumanity with Bond’s own concern for the suffering of others and his profound attachment “to those he cares for”, with M being at the top of the list.

The first session ended with independent scholar Oliver Giggins’ “One of Us: Ian Fleming, James Bond and the Cambridge Spies”. The paper is a fascinating look at the timeline between the British spy scandals of the 50’s and 60’s, and Fleming’s own association with the four best known: Burgess, Maclean, Philby, and Blunt. Mr. Giggins reports on the time when Fleming was a dinner guest, along with Anthony Blunt, at Michael and Pamela Berry’s home, waiting for the arrival of none other than Guy Burgess, who earlier that afternoon had fled England. Burgess’s departure was so abrupt that he left behind documents incriminating to both Blunt and Philby. These papers were deftly removed by Blunt himself, who had searched the flat soon after Burgess had left. Mr. Giggins researched material at the CIA Archive, and quotes letters from Fergus Fleming’s, The Man With The Golden Typewriter, among other sources. Particularly noteworthy is Mr. Giggins’ discussion of Maria Freudenstein, a Soviet mole in Fleming’s The Property Of A Lady. Her character is also mentioned, under a different spelling, in The Man With the Golden Gun. The infamous notoriety of the Cambridge spies impacted Fleming’s works, and Oliver Giggins shows how truth can be stranger than fiction.

Thrilling Cities“Bond Networks: Imaginary Geographies, Networks, Distances In Fleming” commenced with Lucas Townsend, Ph.D. candidate at University of Roehampton, sharing “Now Pay Attention, 007: Journalism, Networking, Geography, and Inconsistency in Ian Fleming’s Late Work”. Mr. Townsend discusses the importance of Fleming’s travel in allowing his imagination to create fictional places that could exist (emphasis mine) but are never to be found on any map. Much attention is focused on Thrilling Cities, and Mr. Townshend infers from Fleming’s descriptions of individuals he meets in Macao, Honolulu, and Naples, the genesis for Oddjob, Honeychile Rider, Milton Krest, and Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Then, Mr. Townsend pushes the envelope further, suggesting that the inspiration for Crab Key is not found in the Caribbean, but rather halfway across the world, in the pulverized black volcanic lava of Iwo Jima, perhaps the most famous battlefield of World War II. Mr. Townshend’s keen eye for detail, and willingness to tease his listeners with original insights into the novels, while also quoting Buckton and John Griswold, made his presentation among the more intriguing and amusing of the day.

Photo: Robert Gritten

Photo: Robert Gritten

Frieda Toth, an independent scholar, spoke on “The Conspicuous Spy: Why James Bond’s Aliases Were Pathetic”. The cover names Bond uses in the novels: John Bryce, David Somerset, and Mark Hazard among others, compel Ms. Toth to question Fleming’s purpose in using such obvious ruses. As she rakes Fleming over the coals for this apparent laziness, she concludes that Fleming is ingenious in this lack of industry, that while these “terrible aliases are at once the result of sloppy and hasty writing, [they are] marvelously effective for the genre they inhabit”. Respectfully, Ms. Toth goes astray when suggesting that Francisco Scaramanga would have read Mark Twain, therein allowing him to connect Samuel Clemens pen name with Bond’s Mark Hazard. Here she ventures into depths greater than twelve feet, and I can’t fathom her reason for doing so.

Illustration © 2019 Fay Dalton from The Folio Society edition of Ian Fleming’s Moonraker

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a lone wolf secret agent must be in need of a social network in order to complete his mission. The inspiration for this sentence comes from Jennifer L. Martinsen’s paper, “James Bond: Plays Well With Others?” Ms. Martinsen teaches English at Newberry College and has written about Jane Austen, among her varied interests. Ms. Martinsen references the work of Mark S. Granovetter to explain how the “strength of one’s ties has a large impact on an individual’s ability to function within different social networks.” I was instantly intrigued by Ms. Martinsen’s approach of seeing how social networks—obviously essential in Austen’s Regency England—apply to Bond. She selects “A View to a Kill” and Moonraker for her purpose and she does not disappoint. Being a short story, the former really doesn’t provide an adequate framework for relationship building, especially between Bond and Mary Ann Russell. The story ends with a dinner date promise—the least Bond could offer her as Russell had not only been an excellent intermediary between Bond and the Station F chief, but also saved his life. Ms. Martinsen picks up the pace in her excellent commentary on Moonraker, noting early in Chapter 1 that when not on assignment, Bond spends evenings playing cards with “a few close friends” and engaging in the occasional tryst. Who are these “close friends?” Nowhere else in Fleming are they mentioned. Ms. Martinsen explains that Bond cannot develop strong ties because he expects to be killed while on assignment, which is likely to happen before the statutory retirement age of forty-five. These maudlin thoughts, along with a wish to have little in his bank account when he dies, are key to Bond’s psyche. He needs characters like Russell and Gala Brand to serve as his go-betweens in his assignments as he feels uncomfortable when “out of his element”, working under others’ direction or with a foreign agency. The ideas here merit expansion, as Bond arguably grows out of his lone-wolf character, especially when he seeks true human connection by proposing to Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. What is missing from Ms. Martinsen’s wonderful paper is the idea that Bond’s inability to play well with others may stem from the simple truth that Bond is an orphan.

Illustration ©2020 Fay Dalton from The Folio Society edition of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Conference co-chair Matt Sherman, in his “The Cuts That Bind: Separations in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” offers a superb commentary on aspects of my favorite Bond novel. Mr. Sherman’s insights into Fleming’s name and word derivations are both witty and instructive. He deftly describes the Manichean forces at work in the story, not only those within Bond and Blofeld, but ones faced by Irma Bunt, Tracy, and the allergy-sufferers at the alpine institute. Mr. Sherman also considers the separation experienced between Bond and his long-sought-after prey. Seemingly punished for not finding the unholy grail that is Blofeld, Bond then wishes to distance himself from his employer by planning to resign from the British Secret Service. Meanwhile, Blofeld is in self-exile, on a Swiss mountaintop, planning economic and agronomic revenge on a government that thwarted his plan for an atomic ransom, while simultaneously seeking social recognition for noble ancestry. While critics have thought that James Bond is a character created by Fleming to satisfy his own self wish fulfillment desires, Mr. Sherman subtly suggests that Bond and Blofeld may be two sides of the same coin—why else would Fleming have given Blofeld his own birth date, and the desire to achieve a type of social status that Fleming’s own wife, Ann, clearly sought out through her earlier marriages and social contacts? Blofeld has a syphilitic nose and presumably goes mad from the disease in You Only Live Twice, if not earlier. Fleming was ousted from Sandhurst for contracting an STD. Both Bond and Blofeld have female partners in the story, among numerous other similarities. Finally, the greatest distance experienced in the Fleming oeuvre is between the author and his critics. Long unappreciated but obviously adored by the public, Fleming’s books continue to inspire Bond enthusiasts around the world, and Mr. Sherman’s righteous indignation at much of Fleming’s critical treatment, obviously based on quick reading, rather than careful, is a clarion call that deserves to be heard from across all the world’s mountaintops.

Opening the last session, “Social Networking and Distancing in the Bond Films”, independent scholar Rosalie Carsen, offered her work on “’Here’s to Us’”: How Minor Characters Save the James Bond Films.” Ms. Carsen has a thing against “guys in suits” and claims that many of the Bond film villains are interchangeable due to their similar mastermind plots and uninventive costume design. This allows secondary figures such as Nick Nack, Jaws, Tee Hee, and even Baron Samedi to serve as foils, and to Ms. Carsen, become more interesting than their bosses. The paper is too short to be an effective argument and Ms. Carsen neglects to credit the screenwriters for creating these often-tertiary characters, but her enthusiasm for the little man or little woman in Bond films (e.g., Dolly in “Moonraker”) is clear.

Alex Baratta, of the University of Manchester, delivered the penultimate conference presentation, “Accent as a Marker of Class Distancing in the Cinematic World of 007”. Using PowerPoint, Mr. Baratta discussed the large variety of accents in the U.K., and the general acceptance of received pronunciation (RP) as the standard-bearer—BBC English, if you will. RP is considered upper class, and its users are associated with qualities such as being gentlemanly, educated, and trustworthy. The RP snob appeal creates its own distinction and social distance between upper and middle class. Film Bond speaks RP with some notable accent exceptions. Connery’s Scottish burr is heard in all the EON productions. Moore is the most RP/BBC of the Bonds and Brosnan’s Irish-American speech does appear from time to time. I learned from Messrs. Baratta and Sherman that while I thought Dalton Welsh, he was raised in northwest Lancashire. Dalton’s Welsh lilt in his two films is detectable. Daniel Craig, Liverpudlian by birth, shows no signs of Beatlespeak as Bond. Mr. Baratta suggests that a non-RP speaking Bond would be a “dramatic departure from Fleming’s creation and the [previous] films” making the shift even more significant than recent discussions about changing Bond’s race or gender.

Closing the conference, co-chair Oliver Buckton shared his “The Author of All Your Pain: Exploring Fleming’s Familial Networks in ‘Octopussy’ and “Spectre”. Based on his own significant contributions to Bond studies, Professor Buckton’s paper is the best of the conference for three reasons. First, we are given a brief, but effective biographical sketch of Fleming’s youth, along with comments on the conflicts and rivalries he had with his controlling mother, Evelyn, and his slightly older, superbly distinguished brother, Peter. In 1917, the four Fleming brothers lost their war hero father in the Somme, and Ian subsequently had a rudderless, itinerant youth—from Eton to Sandhurst to the Am Tennerhof, a private school in the Austrian Tyrol where Ian was tutored by Ernan Forbes-Dennis and his wife, Phyllis Bottome. Although Fleming wrote a short story at Eton, ultimately, it was the couple’s nurturing natures and encouragement that led to Fleming’s writing career. Years later, Fleming acknowledged the kindness of the couple when he wrote to Forbes-Dennis, “you were mother and father to me when I needed them most”.

Second, the idea of a missing father figure surfaces in Professor Buckton’s discussion of ‘Octopussy’, which Buckton (and Jon Gilbert) consider “one of the most intriguingly autobiographical short stories of his career”. Buckton makes several comparisons between the fictional career of Dexter-Smythe and Fleming’s own wartime experiences with the 30 AU Commandos. The men have similar health ailments, medications to address them, and the unwillingness to forsake alcohol to prolong life (à la Fleming’s ‘accidie’). In ‘Octopussy’ we learn Dexter-Smythe is responsible for the murder of Hannes Oberhauser, Bond’s early ski instructor and, as Bond tells Dexter-Smythe, “something of a father to me at a time when I happened to need one”. Charitably, Bond leaves Dexter-Smythe to his own demise, eventually poisoned by a scorpionfish and consumed by an octopus. Finally, the octopus symbolizes SPECTRE in the EON films, where Buckton connects ‘Octopussy’ to the ‘Spectre’ film treatment of Bond’s relationship with Oberhauser, who takes in the young, orphaned Bond, and raises him along with his own son, Franz.

The Adlerian battle of the near stepbrothers for Oberhauser’s affection eventually leads to the father’s death and Franz’s reincarnation as Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Not only is the connection between Fleming’s youth—the autobiographical ‘Octopussy’—and the relevance it has to ‘Spectre’ adroit, but Buckton also ends the paper with a flourish. Rather than take Fleming’s wish-fulfillment approach to his Bond creation, Professor Buckton poses Bond is Fleming’s “scapegoat—a sacrificial victim created to endure all the suffering and humiliation that Ian endured as a young man”. This is a thought-provoking idea and as Fleming’s biographer, I encourage Buckton, and the next generation of Bond studies scholars to pursue it.

2 thoughts on “For Eyes and Ears Only: Reflections on SAMLA 2021

  1. Thank you Jeffrey for your detailed, thorough and enthusiastic review of the SAMLA 93 Bond papers. I know we all appreciate your interest and participation in the proceedings, and for your support in spreading the word about Bond at SAMLA.

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