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Saturday, 9 January 2021

Re-reading Teenage Reading: James Bond

Ian Fleming: From Russia with Love (3*)

Continuing with novels I read in the nineteen-sixties, what would I make of James Bond now? Those books had all the glamour, excitement and adventure missing from the written version of The Saint. The library would not let you have them unless you looked old enough. One school friend was getting away with it a year before me, even though he was younger. Probably because his dad was Italian.

From Russia With Love parades all the comforts of discerning wealth. Why else would you want to read a whole chapter about Bond getting up and having his breakfast? He puts on his dark blue Sea Island cotton shirt, navy blue tropical worsted trousers and black leather sandals and enters his long, big-windowed sitting room for breakfast. The housekeeper brings him a Queen Anne pot of strong coffee from De Bry of New Oxford Street brewed in an American Chemex, a very fresh, speckled brown egg from French Marans hens, yellow Jersey butter and three glass jars containing Tiptree ‘Little Scarlet’ strawberry jam; Cooper’s Vintage Oxford marmalade and Norwegian Heather Honey from Fortnum’s, to eat with whole-wheat toast on his dark blue and gold Minton china.

Meanwhile, Bond’s assassin-to-be is receiving a naked massage from a naked female masseuse beside a swimming pool in a villa on the Russian Riviera. He has a money clip made of a Mexican fifty-dollar piece holding a substantial wad of banknotes, a gold Dunhill cigarette lighter, a gold Faberg√© cigarette case and a gold Girard-Perregaux wrist watch.

What is it? Product placement? We get detailed descriptions of how rooms are laid out and furnished. There is a long account of Bond’s flight in a British European Airways turboprop Vickers Viscount from London to Istanbul, landing at Rome and Athens. Oh if only I had the money. I’d fly off to the Orient in my black leather sandals for a naked massage.

Fleming invariably manages to slip a few snippets of plot into these passages: that Bond has gone soft while his intended assassin is a fit, strong, asexual psychopath, and there are detailed facial descriptions which helpfully reflect the underlying personalities of all the characters, naughty or nice. And, of course, the female Russian agent sent to seduce Bond has faultless breasts. 

In essence, the book is complete and utter nonsense: entertaining, but total nonsense (please substitute a word that sounds like molluscs if you must), and Fleming must have known it. Was is a struggle to make it sound so straight-faced and grown-up? 

The longer you persist the faster you turn the pages, right up to bloodthirsty fights on the Orient Express and the capture of the ugly Russian neuter, Comrade Colonel Rosa Klebb, in Paris. She looks like a toad and has breasts like badly-packed sandbags. At the end, we are left to wonder whether Bond has survived, although we now know he came back the following year in Dr. No.

Neuters, breasts, asexuality, spanking, casual misogyny, racism and other predilections and prejudices you might or might not be able to imagine, they are all there. Is that why the library would not lend them to children, or was it just that they mentioned sex? Is there any wonder that Englishmen of a certain generation are so often caught out by issues of social justice and inequality? Perhaps the books should have been restricted to the over-seventies. Then I might have had to wait until now to read them. 


Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

29 comments:

  1. I've never read any James Bond books and haven't seen most of the movies, but I've always loved detailed descriptions of life in books. However, it does sound like Fleming went overboard!

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    1. I would say he pushed it as far as he could, such that it seems ridiculous now, but many of us completely fell for it in the fifties and sixties when they were written. Thank you for visiting and following.

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    2. Maybe Fleming had an eye to the movie script.....

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    3. It was published in 1957, five years befor the first film, but I imagine the possibility was probably being talked about by then because it was the fifth book in the series.

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  2. I read them as a teenager too and also Alister Maclean then started work in a library and changed to Catherine Cookson! Now I wouldn't read any of those again

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    1. She was another multi-million selling writer, but I've never read any of hers. Weren't they multi generational sagas? My dad said that when I started researching family history it sounded like a CC novel.

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  3. I think James Bond and Ian Fleming were the same people. Extravagant life styles, amazing locations, surrounded with beautiful women and the gift of the gab. Sheer escapism.

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    1. I doubt I would want to swap places with either. Fleming smoked and drank himself to death.

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  4. All I remember reading as a teenager was 'The Sheik' and'Lady Chatterley' - both under the bedclothes with a torch.

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    1. Tried reading Lady Chatterley not so long ago. Gave up even before the gamekeeper appeared. Tedious. Then tried Sons and Lovers. Terrible disorganised writer in my view.

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  5. Never read the Bond books. Must say, from what you say they do sound like a load of spherical shellfish. Can't say I've ever read anything like them. I did read The Spy that came in from the Cold once.

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    1. A euphemism for a euphemism! Must try to think of more of those. I haven't read any le Carre, but my understanding is that he is a far deeper and more serious writer than Fleming.

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  6. I was far too busy reading Dostoyevsky et al in the 60s and 70s. It wasn't that I was a clever or precocious prat I just loved the Russian novels and Tolkien. I started lighter reading when I got into my 30s. Now that I've actually found my lost youth I've almost given up reading anything serious or worthwhile.

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    1. I would say that James Bond would be just the thing then. There was nothing at all serious or worthwhile in this one, except it was quite entertaining.

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  7. Those books were considered quite sexually explicit in the 1960s. And you're right about libraries restricting access to them. I tried to take one out and they phoned my mother to get her consent first, LOL! My mother said "let her take out whatever she wants." Thanks, Mom!

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    1. It is easy to forget just how proper everything was. People including many children would now try to assert their right to take out any book they want. Try that then and you would have been banned from the library and in trouble both at home and at school.

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  8. Not my sort of thing, for some strange, unaccountable reason.

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    1. I hope my gist is generally the same, except with reasons.

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  9. I've watched all the Bond films but not read any of the books. Based on your descriptions I don't think I would enjoy the books but I guess a diehard Bond fan might like them. The movies are quite full of wealthy visuals and such so maybe Fleming felt it necessary to include a full chapter on breakfast. That's a bit much for me though.

    I like your series on novels that you read in the nineteen-sixties. It makes me reflect back on the differences in the books I was reading then and now. I read a lot of Tolkien in the 60s and 70s and I've always read some of the many classics that my Mother started me on when I was quite young. I still love those books. However in the 60s I also read a lot of fiction love stories that many girls tend to read and I have lost interest in those since I've gotten older. I still love fiction but only with a bit more substance!

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    1. I have only seen occasional clips of Bond films. They leave me with the impression they are even more ridiculous than the books. I think we go through phases of reading different things. It is only in the last two or three years I've read a lot of fiction. My first reviews here were all non-fiction.

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  10. John Le Carre said that Bond would have been a double agent, because his character was given to corruption. Even as a schoolboy I was drawn to Alec Leamas, hero of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: Burton in the movie.
    Fleming was admired by Kingsley Amis and Anthony Burgess, and read by President Kennedy.
    I wonder if the men who planned the murder of the President (see Oliver Stone on 50th anniversary of JFK Assassination: Free Speech TV, YouTube) read Fleming and thought: We can get away with this.

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    1. John le Carre's SWCIFTC is one I hope to get round to reading some day. As regards Fleming, I wonder how many writers have read him and thought "I can get away with this". The problem is, not many can.

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    2. In a YouTube interview Norman Mailer said some novelists can exaggerate and get away with it. Fleming wrote Sex and Shopping novels with panache. I reread The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins: the last War interests me. Lionel Davidson's thriller Kolymsky Heights has been reprinted with a preface by Philip Pullman.

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    3. I went to a writing workshop when I lived in Leeds in the early 1970s. One of the leaders was a tall chap called Harry. I'm not certain, but suspect it was Higgins. Should have paid more attention.

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    4. Harry Patterson: Jack Higgins.
      The Eagle Has Landed was terrific read; with a better casting director, it might have been a good movie.
      Hitler's spies interest me: and Reinhard Gehlen, who was chief of Wehrmacht Armies East Military Intelligence; died 1979.

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  11. It was just pure escapism which I never read (must have been a feminist then). My escapism was Tolkien and Dostoevsky, you can't beat a Russian writer for 'proper' writing ;)

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    1. I mentioned before that a lot of my reading (apart from Bond and the Saint) is catching up on things I should have read years ago when I didn't read much at all, and the Russians are on the list. I did read Tolkien's LOTR but put it down part way through and was never sufficiently motivated to pick it up again. Sounds like you and Graham should form a reading group. You could go up to Lewis for your holidays.

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    2. I've heard it said that Fleming thought his readers would find the more outrageous elements of his stories acceptable if he grounded them in a recognizably 'real' world. Hence detailed descriptions of the mundane and plenty of 'product placement' that readers would know.

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    3. I also suspect that, in 1957, aeroplane flights and Riviera villas were beyond the dreams of most readers (in England only a minority had fridges, fitted carpets or even bathrooms), so he is cashing in on aspirational envy as well.

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