Sunday, July 09, 2006

Bond and I

I've just finished reading Simon Winder's book The Man Who Saved Britain, a kind of cultural history of post-war Britain seen through the eyes of a James Bond fan. It was occasionally interesting, if rather long-winded, but it was deeply marred by bad grammar, eccentric punctuation, and some cringe-inducing misspellings that, had they occurred in a schoolboy essay, would have resulted in immediate and lengthy detention for the culprit.

Some of the errors were just bewildering. The following sentence can be found on P159: "Even passing minor villains like the Mexican would-be assassin in Goldfinger, with his single, immortal line, 'You like pretty girl - go jig-a-jig' (managing to convey in six words an entire squalid personality), have a truly Dickensian air." Now which six words might they be, exactly? The sentence to which he is referring has, even allowing for my poor mathematical ability, eight words, or seven if one is being pedantic and counting the two uses of 'jig' as one word. Perhaps 'a' is not being counted as a word, which might - I stress 'might' - allow us to make up the requisite six, but the sheer effort involved in trying to work out a formula by which that sentence could claim to be true rather spoiled the act of reading it to begin with.

I don't usually criticise books in this way - after all, I've confessed to the fact that errors creep into every text, my own books (hell, even these blogs) included - but there were so many in this book that the experience of reading it began to feel like being hit over the head with a small hammer every couple of pages. Mr Winder, you might be interested to learn, works in publishing, and the book is published in the UK by Picador, an imprint that has built its reputation on literary fiction and quality non-fiction. Nevertheless, nobody - not Mr Winder himself, and not his publishers - seemed to feel that it was worth the effort to properly edit The Man Who Saved Britain. It cost me €22 in hardback, and for €22 the least somebody can do is make sure the book is presentable to the reading public.

The reason why I bought this book was because, as a boy, I was a big fan of Ian Fleming's James Bond books. Fleming was the first author whose books I devoured, seeking them out in second-hand bookstores and sales of work, usually in battered Pan paperback editions with often fabulous covers. (My particular favourite was the cover of Thunderball, which had two holes bored into it to resemble bullet wounds in skin. As a bloodthirsty nine-year-old boy, there were few greater pleasures than to be able to poke my fingers through those two wounds. And you wondered where my books came from . . .)

In particular, and this is one of the few areas in which Mr Winder's book becomes less of an apology for liking Fleming in the first place and more of an attempt to engage with the reasons for his popularity beyond the shores of England, I was fascinated by Fleming's villains. I had never before encountered creatures so grotesque: Goldfinger, Blofeld, Irma Bunt (Blofeld's lesbian sidekick in On Her Majesty's Secret Service and You Only Live Twice), From Russia With Love's Rosa Klebb, with a poisoned blade in the sole of her shoe . . . They were like ogres and trolls from fairy tales, and were often, truth be told, much more interesting than the Bond of the books.

True, I haven't read the Bond books for many years, and Mr Winder's book imbued me no great urge to return to them, although I can't quite figure out if that is a flaw of The Man Who Saved Britain or of Fleming's original novels. I expect that it's a little bit of both. To be honest, I can't recall very much about the books at all beyond their villains, and I suspect that even those memories are coloured somewhat by the films that followed. I do seem to remember that a lot of the women in the Bond books had some minor physical disability: a boss eye, one leg shorter than the other, that kind of thing. As a pre-teen boy, I expect that whatever such shortcomings in the Bond women suggested about their creator probably went over my head, although even then I can recall being vaguely aware that there was something, um, unpleasant underlying a great deal of Fleming's work.

But those wonderful villains stayed with me, and I think they influenced me when I came to create some of the vile creatures who inhabit my own books. Characters like Pudd, Brightwell, Faulkner and Adelaide Modine share some of their ancestry with Fleming's creations. After all, most writers, if they are honest, will confess to being, in part, the sum of the writers whom they themselves have read. I have frequently admitted the debt that I owe to Ross Macdonald and James Lee Burke. Fleming's influence is less pronounced stylistically, but is no less important for that, especially given the pleasure (if that's the right word) that a lot of readers have taken in the villains who have cropped up in my books.

Some years ago, I interviewed James Lee Burke for the Irish Times. Burke is another writer who seems to enjoy using grotesques as villains, and one of the questions that I asked him was why he portrayed them in this way. His answer was illuminating, and put into words something that I had only felt, but could not express adequately, in relation to my own characters. Burke said that he believed there were some individuals who were so morally corrupt that their corruption found a physical expression. It was a perfect, concise reply and I thought, yes, that's their appeal. It was probably their appeal for Fleming too, although he is less interested than Burke or I in the roots of that corruption. Still, Fleming planted that seed in my imagination, and for all the shortcomings of the books and the movies, I am grateful to him for that. I suspect that it probably accounts for my continued affection for his greatest creation and for the fact that, despite its own editorial shortcomings, I rather enjoyed Mr Winder's book . . .

This week John read

The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey Into the Disturbing World of James Bond by Simon Winder

and listened to

Bande a Part by Nouvelle Vague
To Find Me Gone by Vetiver
Bamnan and Silvercork by Midlake
(and Midlake's second album, Van Occupanther, once again, because it's simply superb)


Jayne said...

Thanks for another interesting column, John.

At school I was always taught that words which were linked with hyphens only ever counted as one word, so jig-a-jig would have been classed as a single word.

But I left school more than twenty years ago, so the rules may well have changed!

John said...

Now I did not know that, Jayne! I have been most unjust to Mr Winder for that perceived error, then. Mind you, it doesn't excuse the rest of them . . .