James Bond, Espionage and Britain’s Role in the World” Professor AnthonyTaylor 6th January 2020


Ian Fleming — writer

Sean Connery as James Bond 

 Like many mem­bers, I’ve enjoyed mat­ters James Bond for much of my life: boy­hood queueing out­side my local ODEON to see ‘Dr No’ in the early ‘six­ties to 007 accom­pa­ny­ing Her Majesty on her heli­copter ride, sans corgis, to the 2012 London Olympics.  Two iconic Brits!

Our speaker this week, Tony Taylor from Sheffield Hallam University, was to enlighten us as to how the antics of James Bond and his cre­ator, Ian Fleming (1908–1964) reflec­ted British soci­ety, cul­ture, and atti­tudes from 1945 to the end of the ‘cold’ war in 1990.  Fleming, the son of the wealthy bank­ing family, was edu­cated at Eton and RMA Sandhurst and was well con­nec­ted. While not involved in direct action, his ser­vice in mil­it­ary intel­li­gence in WW2 (includ­ing plan­ning Operation ‘Golden Eye’) and later as a journ­al­ist, provided much of the back­ground of the twelve novels and col­lec­tions of short stor­ies he wrote between 1952 and his death. Over 100 mil­lion books were sold. There have been sev­eral later books and movies of the same genre, writ­ten by eight dif­fer­ent authors and no less than seven actors play­ing the lead char­ac­ter, ran­ging from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig.  A fur­ther film, ‘No Time to Die’ is due for release in 2020.  Tony divided his talk into the fol­low­ing topics.

Spy Rings and Spy Nets.  Tony out­lined how the pop­u­lar image of spies and organ­ised spying agen­cies goes back to the Edwardian era and thriller writers like William le Queux.  This cul­ture, in our speaker’s view, also had a strong imper­ial dimen­sion –in ‘the great game’, British and Russian spies battled over the latter’s aspir­a­tion to fer­ment trouble along the NW fron­tier with Afganistan (see Rudyard Kipling’s Kim 1901).  Despite much activ­ity (eg Operation Mincemeat) and mixed suc­cess on both sides in the two World Wars, it was the ‘Cold War’ (1945–1990) when spies came into their own.  ‘Operation Gold’ estab­lished listen­ing posts under East Berlin to tap into Soviet tele­phone and tele­graph traffic. The ‘Cambridge’ trio of Burgess, Philby and Mclane were the most effect­ive Soviet spy ring in Europe.  All  ended up defect­ing to Russia.  George Blake of MI6 worked as a double agent for the Soviet Union. He was dis­covered in 1961, escaped from Wormwood Scrubs in 1966 and smuggled out of the coun­try in a camper van.  In 1963,  theMinister of Defence, John Profumo, was com­prom­ised by his asso­ci­ation with Christine Keeler who was also sleep­ing with the Soviet Naval attache.  There was feel­ing through­out this period of estab­lish­ment cover ups, reflect­ing a Britain in decline and dec­ad­ence which was cap­tured in the fic­tion of John le Carre and Len Deighton.

Spy Novels and Super Spies.  Spies were to cap­ture the pop­u­lar ima­gin­a­tion during the Cold War.  In a push button world of detached mass killing, the spy some­times emerged as an unlikely hero. Ian Fleming’s hero James Bond 007 first appeared in print in the novel Casino Royale in 1952, during the Korean War. Tony con­sidered Fleming’s books to be very con­ser­vat­ive in tone and to reflect the ascend­ancy of Conservative gov­ern­ments in Britain after 1951.  Criticism of the wel­fare state, trades unions and bohemi­ans is very strong in the texts, with an emphasis on ‘sex, snob­bery and viol­ence’.

Spying and the Loss of Empire.   Imperial themes loom large in the Bond books.  Many of the set­tings are in the West Indies, par­tic­u­larly Jamaica, where Fleming had a house called ‘Goldeneye’.  Fleming liked the static social hier­arch­ies in Jamaica, and, in Casino Royale, Bond poses as a Jamaican planter. In Dr No all the action takes place in the West Indies, still an active part of the Empire at the time.  The vil­lains wear Nehru jack­ets and are often mixed race. The idea of dual iden­tity was offens­ive for a par­tic­u­lar gen­er­a­tion of Englishmen, brought up under the Empire.  Often the vil­lains rep­res­ent the foes of Empire at a time of decol­on­isa­tion. By 1950 even white set­tlers in the Dominions had nego­ti­ated sep­ar­ate treat­ies with the US.  Roger Moore’s safari jacket in the films car­ries ele­ments of the colo­nial and post-colonial iden­tit­ies.  Europe and the EEC are barely men­tioned in the books and they bear out the con­ten­tion of Dean Acheson that ‘Britain has lost an Empire but not yet found a role’.

Spies and the ‘Special Relationship’Tony con­sidered that the Bond novels pre­serve the vision of Britain as a great power and ignore the country’s post-war decline.  Bond is a former Commander in Naval Intelligence. His boss‘ M’,  is also a former Naval Officer, hark­ing back to the days when Britain ruled the waves and her navy pro­tec­ted British interests abroad. The books provide a con­sol­at­ory myth, embod­ied in Bond’s Aston Martins and Bentleys and his liking of mono­grammed shirts and Moorland cigar­ettes.  There are Atlanticist themes in the Bond novels, some of which tar­geted an American audi­ence (eg. Live and let Die).   John F. Kennedy was a huge fan (espe­cially Russia with Love),  Bond fre­quently coming to the aid of CIA agents. During and after the 1956 Suez crisis US/UK rela­tions chilled and their ebb and flow is chartered in the novels. US war­i­ness of UK Soviet moles or Marxist sym­path­ising politi­cians is noth­ing new.

Spies and Gadgets.  Heath Robinson tricks are import­ant to spies.  Fleming’s intel­li­gence work in WW2 spe­cial­ised in out­rageous inven­tions and plans to cap­ture German mil­it­ary secrets.  In the Bond novels the emphasis on gad­gets con­sti­tuted a nos­tal­gic glance back to the days when Britain’s tech­no­lo­gical lead helped her to defeat the Germans (Radar, decod­ing Enigma, boun­cing bombs, bend­ing dir­ec­tional beams etc).  Bond has his gun sights hidden in Palmolive shav­ing foam and an explod­ing cigar­ette in From Russia with love.  Bond hides his guns in a book called “The Bible Designed to be read as Literature”and Rosa  Klebb con­ceals knives in her shoes.

Spies and enemies in an atomic mis­sile world.  The Bond books convey a strong sense of an unstable world, where nuc­lear pro­lif­er­a­tion has made atomic war­heads easily avail­able.  In Thunderball, British nuc­lear weapons are hijacked and stolen by Bond’s arch enemy, Ernst Blofeld Head of SPECTRE, a crim­inal organ­isa­tion intent on world dom­in­a­tion.  Dr No also sends rock­ets off course, so that he can sell them to the Chinese.

 Tony con­cluded his much appre­ci­ated talk by invit­ing ques­tions, which ranged from Bond’s know­ledge of wines to film loc­a­tions, sets, and the evol­u­tion of char­ac­ters.  He thought that many depic­tions in the later post Fleming  books and films appear to be out­dated, plu­to­cratic fig­ures in which their vil­lainy is expressed via dis­ab­il­ity or phys­ical impair­ment.  However, be it mis­siles or vil­lains, all were framed by aston­ish­ing back­drops in the air, under the sea and even in an active vol­cano!