Thursday, March 19, 2015

Matthew Parker's "Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born"

Matthew Parker's non-fiction books include Monte Cassino: The Hardest-Fought Battle of World War II; the Los Angeles Times bestseller Panama Fever, which was one of the Washington Post’s Best Books of the Year; and The Sugar Barons, which was an Economist Book of the Year.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming in Jamaica, and reported the following:
Well, this is a little awkward. Page 99 happens to be a discussion of Ian Fleming’s attitude to the United States. It’s not that complimentary.

My new book is about the huge influence, in many different ways, that Jamaica had on the creation of James Bond. It also traces Fleming’s life on the island, where he spent two months every year from 1946 to his death in 1964 (and wrote all the Bond stories). Page 99 finds us in 1950, and Ian has just had a huge row with his lover (and later, disastrously, wife) Ann Rothermere: he was supposed to accompany her to New York, but at the last minute decided he wanted to stay in his beloved Jamaica a little longer instead, rather than travel to what he called the ‘land of Eldollarado’.

Part of the attraction of Jamaica for Fleming was that it seemed to be in a different time, a throw-back to the glory days of the British Empire. It offered the perfect combination of old-fashioned imperial values, alongside the dangerous and sensual: the same curious combination that made his novels so appealing and successful. Fleming was appalled and bewildered by the British Empire’s spectacular collapse after the end of World War Two. Bond, the imperial hero who still projects British power across the world is in many ways a reaction to this.

Fleming resented Britain’s humiliating new financial and military dependence on the United States, and also the pressure exerted by Washington on Britain to divest itself of empire as quickly as possible. At the same time, he knew deep down that the United States represented the future, and Britain the past.

From page 99:
Certainly Fleming loved the country’s speed, its scale, its service and its food. He had huge admiration for its technical know-how and muscle. In From Russia, with Love, for instance, we learn that the Americans, in ‘such matters as radio and weapons and equipment, are the best’. Even the Russians use American knives of ‘excellent’ manufacture and American Zippo lighters. But at the same time, Fleming despaired of what he called, in a letter to Ann in 1947, ‘their total unpreparedness to rule the world that is now theirs’.

Scottish novelist Candia McWilliam identifies as part of the appeal of the Bond books their ‘continual homeopathic doses of Anti-Americanism’. It is striking how, with the exception of Felix Leiter, almost all the Americans Bond meets are surly, uncooperative and jealous of his success and panache. In From Russia, with Love, praise of American technical skill is countered by the criticism that ‘they have no understanding of the [espionage] work … they try to do everything with money’. And quickly acquired wealth has poisoned the country. In Diamonds are Forever, the Chief of Staff briefs an incredulous Bond on America’s appalling murder rate and ‘ten million’ drug addicts, and how gambling, controlled by the Mafia, is the biggest business, ‘bigger than steel. Bigger than motor cars.’ In his travelogue Thrilling Cities, having beaten the ‘syndicates’ of Las Vegas, Fleming goes to bed ‘after washing the filth of the United States currency off my hands’.

Elsewhere, we learn that Las Vegas is ‘ghastly’, New York is obsessed with ‘the hysterical pursuit of money’, and Chicago has ‘one of the grimmest suburbs in the world’. In all, the country is crime-ridden and in crisis, thanks to consumerism and the breakdown of the traditional family in a ‘society that fails to establish a clear moral definition of right and wrong’.

Fleming’s attitudes to the United States were shaped not only by his own experiences there, but also by the situation in Jamaica. One of the reasons Bond loves the country on his earlier trips is that it is British space, where, for once, he is not dependent on American resources or approval.
Visit Matthew Parker's website.

--Marshal Zeringue