James Bond and the fantasy that is Britain's soul
"The tumult and the shouting dies / The captains and the kings depart / Far-called, our navies melt away; /On dune and headland sinks the fire: / Lo, all our pomp of yesterday / Is one with Nineveh and Tyre! /
Lord God of hosts be with us yet / Lest we forget … lest we forget!"
That was written at the height of Britain's imperial glory in 1897 by Rudyard Kipling, a man who believed in empire but also glimpsed the coming decay amidst all the decorum and the pomp.
Sixty years later, in the very depths of imperial decline, another writer offered this: "He was a man of war and when, for a long period, there was no war, his spirit went into decline. In his particular line of business, peace had reigned for nearly a year. And peace was killing him."
Peace, of course, would not kill James Bond although it did give a severe kicking to Britain in that period following the Second World War.
Bond himself had been kicking around since 1953, the year of Queen Elizabeth's coronation. But it wasn't until 1958 when he was reintroduced as the licensed-to-kill British agent in From Russia With Love that he really began to shake things up.
Stirring the Cold War
In the From Russia instalment, Bond took on the secret might of SMERSH, the Soviet Union's department in charge of "wet work" — the murder of enemy agents. Bond, of course, dispatched the best that SMERSH could throw at him. He was the clipped and elegant Sir Galahad of the emergent Cold War.
Writing in 1897 on the occasion of Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee, Kipling entitled his poem Recessional and worried that the British, "drunk with the sight of power," might be overcome by "lesser breeds without the law."
That dark vision was already reality in the late 1950s. India, the jewel in the imperial crown, was gone. The African empire was breaking up. And then there was the Suez crisis in 1956.
This truly was the British elite, "drunk with sight of power," thinking it could order a joint invasion of Egypt, along with the French, to retake the Suez Canal.
The British government didn't even bother to tell the American president at the time what it was about to do. The rot that Kipling foresaw had started — at the top.
The American government, Britain's chief creditor, reacted with fury. Humiliatingly, the British and French forces had to withdraw. The British prime minister, Anthony Eden, was forced to retire. It was imperial humiliation.
A fictional universe
None of this is even hinted at in Bond's adventures.
His creator was Ian Fleming. If drinking, smoking and hard living hadn't killed him 44 years ago, Fleming would have been 100 on May 28.
He wrote the books to make money but, when asked why he wrote the first one, Casino Royale, he offered an explanation dripping with upper-class irony. "I wanted to take my mind off the agony of getting married."
Whatever the pain Fleming was suffering, it was small compared to the sufferings of the British public in the early 1950s. When Casino Royale came out, rationing of meat and bacon was still in effect in Britain. The books very consciously offered a brighter, richer vision of life.
The hedonist killer spent a great deal of time eating, drinking and smoking in the early books and what he consumed was exotic — not to mention a very early example of product placement.
Almost everything he wore and consumed is lovingly described and named. It was also out of reach for all but a tiny few.
The consumer fantasy world was only one of the visions on offer. The British historian David Cannadine studied the Bond phenomenon and concluded: "Bond offered a weak country a consoling fantasy — power."
This, of course, was behind-the-scenes power, Bond's "particular line of business," the power of the secret agent to influence important events and to kill alone without being seen.
In a strange twinning of art and life, Fleming offered his own form of consolation to the humiliated Anthony Eden. Eden stayed at Fleming's estate in Jamaica, Goldeneye, after being driven from office.
As the books rolled out, Bond increasingly became the senior partner in adventure with a CIA sidekick — another variation in the consoling fantasy department. "Bond's effortless British superiority is his most potent weapon," observed Cannadine.
Indeed, the Bond brand was well on its way to becoming global when President John F. Kennedy was seen clutching a volume. A successful book series then became a global money-spinning juggernaut with addition of the Bond films.
The fantasy that was originally offered to a public starved of consumer goods and imperial reach soon became taken up by the British elite.
Foreign secretaries took to talking about "Britain punching above its weight," the implication being that "Bondism" — that effortless British superiority — might actually influence events in the real world.
At least one British prime minister appeared to see himself as a political James Bond: Tony Blair pushed Bill Clinton into a so-called humanitarian war in Kosovo. Then he stood by George Bush in the invasion of Iraq, perhaps believing that, as in the Fleming books, the American would follow the Briton's lead and advice.
But, in the end, Basra was not Bond territory.
Still, the illusion continues. The Fleming family, determined to milk more money out of the franchise, hired the well-known author Sebastian Faulks to write a new Bond book for the 100th anniversary of Fleming's birth.
The real coup was to get an armed Royal Navy squad, Bond's old unit, to deliver the first copy via the Thames River, with military helicopters hovering overhead.
Joining in, Britain's Royal Mail is issuing commemorative stamps. The Imperial War Museum has a Bond exhibition underway.
"Lest we forget … lest we forget!" wrote the imperial Cassandra. No, they won't forget Bond in Britain. But they appear to have overlooked the fact that he is just fantasy.