Monday, 19 March 2018

The return of SMERSH?

It’s well known that when Ian Fleming made SMERSH the arch-enemy of the British Secret Service in the James Bond books, beginning with Casino Royale in 1953, the Soviet Union’s counter-intelligence organisation had been disbanded for over ten years. As a literary device, though, the conceit was a good one, and it also proved attractive to EON, who alluded to the organisation in The Living Daylights (1987) in the form of a plot code-named Smiert Spionam (‘Death to spies’), the phrase that gave SMERSH its name and its motto.
Smiert Spionam - a scene from The Living Daylights (1987)

To most people, SMERSH exists firmly in the realms of fiction and is as real as SPECTRE, the criminal organisation that replaced it as Bond’s nemesis. However, recent events in Salisbury – the poisoning of the former Russian double agent, Colonel Sergei Skripal – has reminded journalists and commentators about SMERSH, its activities, and its connection with James Bond.

In an article for The Guardian, Jamie Doward, Marc Bennetts and Kevin Rawlinson write of the implicit threat that Skripal is likely to have faced since coming to Britain in 2010 after being released from prison in Russia as part of a major spy swap. “Many in the FSB [the successor to the KGB] are fond of quoting the motto of SMERSH, Stalin’s counter-intelligence unit: ‘Death to spies.’” 

Owen Matthews, writing in Newsweek, similarly writes about the sense of betrayal that Russian agents are likely to have felt: “As a convicted double agent, [Skripal] certainly betrayed the Russian secret world’s honour code of ‘death to spies’ – the actual name of the Soviet wartime counterintelligence service, SMERSH.” (I'm reminded of Gogol's words to Max Zorin in A View To A Kill: "No one ever leaves the KGB".)

Writing for The Conversation website about the history of state-sanctioned assassination, historian Dan Lomas places SMERSH as one of a number of Russian security agencies, from the Soviet Cheka to the current SVR, that have resorted to targeted killings, particularly those regarded as traitors.

In an article in the Daily Record, Torcuil Crichton writes of the message that the poisoning was designed to deliver – that “Britain is a dangerous place for enemies of the Russian state,” and reminds readers that ‘death to spies’ is the phrase associated with SMERSH.

The Bond connection is recalled by Eric S Margolis, writing a piece published in various media outlets, including Malaysia's Sun Daily and Germany's Contra magazine. He describes ‘Death to spies’ as the special unit formed to liquidate traitors and turncoats, adding that “readers of James Bond books will recognise SMERSH.” 

James Bond is also mentioned in an article on the Skripal case published in Paris Match. “The years pass, the style remains,” Pauline Lallement writes. “SMERSH, the sworn enemy of James Bond, can still be recognised.” The article concludes with the words, “Bons baisers de Russie”, the French title of From Russia, With Love. 

BenoĆ®t Rayski’s piece in the French-language news website, Atlantico, reinforces the Bond connection with a photo of Sean Connery as Bond (of Never Say Never Again vintage). He writes, “Forty years ago [sic] in a series of famous films, James Bond faced agents of SMERSH, the armed wing of Moscow. It was at the time of the cold war. Today we are witnessing a fairly successful remake. Out of necessity for a happy ending, 007 always won. But this time?"

The events in Salisbury has brought an organisation that has long been consigned to history and is largely known outside Russia through the Bond books back to global attention. In the note prefacing From Russia, With Love (1957), Ian Fleming wrote: “SMERSH, a contraction of Smiert Spionam – Death to Spies – exists and remains today the most secret department of the soviet government.” Perhaps Fleming’s words weren’t so far from the truth after all.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The Lonely Skier - a proto-Bond novel?

In her introduction to the Vintage edition of the novel The Lonely Skier, former MI5 head Stella Rimington describes its author, Hammond Innes, as the first of the post-war generation of thriller writers - a group that includes Ian Fleming - whose writing was informed by their wartime experiences and who broke away from the strait-laced style of adventure set by Buchan and others. And indeed, while The Lonely Skier, published in 1947, is Ambler-esque in its plotting and intrigue, it has a more than a dash of the sort of thrills and spills that Ian Fleming would make his own.

In the book, Neil Blair, demobbed and unemployed, is asked by an acquaintance and former British military intelligence officer, Derek Engles, to travel to a mountain resort in the Dolomites in Italy under the guise of a screenwriter and report back with information about what he sees and the people he encounters. He finds himself high up on the snow-covered slopes sharing a ski lodge with a group of dubious individuals, among them a Nazi collaborator, a former prostitute, and a deserter from the British army. Eventually he learns that everyone is there for a single purpose: to find a cache of gold stolen and hidden at the end of the war by a German officer.

As a main character, Neil Blair is too much the everyman to be a true proto-Bond, and the cast-list generally wouldn’t be out of place in an Eric Ambler novel, but the book touches on themes that would later be explored by Fleming. The theft and recovery of gold at the end of the Second World War form the backdrop to the short story ‘Octopussy’, while skiing would be a major element of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Stella Rimington notes that Innes, like Fleming, was a journalist before becoming a novelist, and similarly wrote with first-hand knowledge and convincing detail. That is certainly true; The Lonely Skier includes plenty of information on the technicalities of skiing (Christiana turns and such like) and the mountain landscape. I would say, though, that there is much more detail in Fleming’s skiing adventure; one would probably learn more about skiing in the mid-20th century from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service than Innes’ novel.

Interestingly, The Lonely Skier is set around the ski resort of Cortina D’Ampezzo, and Tofana is mentioned. The location would be visited in the film of For Your Eyes Only, and I must admit that as I was reading the book, I had scenes of the film running through my mind. 

The Lonely Skier was itself filmed soon after publication. The film, released in 1948 as Snowbound, starred Dennis Price as Blair and Robert Newton as Engles, and featured Herbert Lom as the Nazi collaborator. Both the film and the novel are tense and exciting, and well worth checking out.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

James Bond becomes legal tender in new set of 10 pence coins

The Royal Mint launched a new set of 10 pence coins last week. The 26 designs – one for each letter of the A-Z of Great Britain – celebrate aspects of life that are ‘quintessentially British’, and James Bond is among them, representing the letter B.
B: Bond (photo: The Westminster Collection)
The coin, like the various postage stamp issues that feature Bond and Bond’s appearance in the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, provides another indication of how deeply embedded Ian Fleming’s creation is in the cultural environment. 

The design itself takes its cue from the iconography of the film Bond, depicting the gun barrel and the 007 logo from the EON series. This is perhaps a little ironic, given that both elements were designed by Americans (and, of course, the films themselves would not have been possible without North American producers and finance). There’s a metaphor about modern Britain in there somewhere: Britain cannot go it alone? She is, in Tiger Tanaka’s words, a once great power? Or to be less cynical, Britain is global in its outlook and welcomes foreign investment, ideas and people? You decide. 

In any case, one could argue that James Bond of the cinema is more quintessentially international than British. Bond is distinctly un-British in behaviour and style (in sharp contrast to, say John Steed and Harry Hart), the threats are global, the cast multinational, and Bond barely spends any time in the country. That said, there's no mistaking where Bond’s loyalties lie (the Union flag parachute in The Spy Who Loved Me is, of course, iconic and character-defining), and recent films, particularly in Skyfall and Spectre, have had more of a domestic focus. 

Regardless of the pitfalls of defining what is quintessentially British, I’m rather thrilled that James Bond has been celebrated on the face of a coin. It’s testament to the character’s continued currency (if you excuse the pun) in popular culture, and is curiously appropriate, given Ian Fleming’s interest in coinage (as reflected, for example in Live and Let Die). Indeed, it’s only a matter of time before Ian Fleming himself appears on a £10 note.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

The origin of scrambled eggs 'James Bond'

James Bond’s fondness for scrambled eggs is well-known to readers of the novels, and in the short story ‘007 in New York’, Bond is even given his own scrambled eggs recipe. But what’s the origin of this recipe? Was it Ian Fleming’s invention or was someone else responsible for it? Atticus, the Sunday Times column that Fleming wrote between 1953 and 1957, has the answer.
Scrambled eggs 'James Bond'

In the short story, we learn that Bond had a particular recipe for scrambled eggs, which he had instructed the kitchen staff of New York’s Plaza Hotel to make on a previous visit. ‘Scrambled eggs “James Bond”’, given in full as a footnote to the story, is for ‘four individualists’ and requires 12 eggs, 5-6 ounces of butter, and some finely chopped herbs. It also includes the notable instruction to whisk butter into the eggs when the eggs are ‘slightly still more moist than you would wish for eating.’  

The short story, along with the recipe, first appeared in the Sunday Herald Tribune on 29th September 1963. However, the recipe had previously been published in 1961 in a collection of favourite recipes of the famous, Celebrity Cooking for You. Ian Fleming’s scrambled eggs recipe was essentially the same as that which appeared in ‘007 in New York’, but suggested that cream could be used instead of the final piece of butter. 

But the celebrity cookbook was not the first time that the recipe had appeared in print. Fleming’s Atticus column of 25th December 1955 included a small piece about scrambled eggs under the heading ‘Oeufs Attique’. Fleming began: ‘I suppose that the “Chef of the Year” is Mr Bartolemo Calderoni of May Fair Hotel [in London], for he was chosen to cook this year’s banquet for the International Academy of Chefs.’ Fleming continued: ‘Since, I dare say, that 90 per cent of the adult population believe that their scrambled eggs are better than mine, I made it my duty to obtain from this supreme authority his final five-star word on the vital subject.’

The result, Mr Calderoni’s recipe for scrambled eggs, duly appeared below that piece. There are slight differences between this recipe and later versions. For instance, the recipe is for two, so the quantities are halved, and the recipe suggests that it’s not worth using fewer eggs as too much egg sticks to the saucepan (a tip that would survive to the celebrity cookbook, but not ‘007 in New York’). There is also no mention of herbs. However, much of the recipe is more or less identical to those published subsequently, including the instruction to add butter ‘while the eggs are slightly more moist than you would wish to eat them.’ 

Thus, scrambled eggs ‘James Bond’ is really scrambled eggs ‘Bartolemo Calderoni’. Ann Fleming recorded in her letters that Ian liked his omelettes very baveuse – moist and runny – so it’s no wonder that he was so taken with Bartolemo Calderoni’s recipe. 

The recipe demonstrates once again that Atticus is a rich source for information on the Bond books, with many of the ideas and memes that appear in the novels having their origins in Fleming’s Sunday Times column.

Amory, M (ed.), 1985 The Letters of Ann Fleming, Collins Harvill, London
Chancellor, H, 2005 James Bond: The Man and his World, John Murray, London 

Gilbert, J, 2012 Ian Fleming: The Bibliography, Queen Ann Press, London

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Another James Bond pastiche by Sebastian Faulks

An edition of Radio 4’s literary quiz, The Write Stuff, recently broadcast on Radio 4 Extra, was of particular interest to Bond fans, as it featured Ian Fleming as its author of the week. Following the typical format of the programme, listeners were treated to the panellists’ favourite Fleming quotations, a quick-fire quiz round all about Fleming, and, at the end of the programme, the panellists having been tasked with concocting literary passages written in the style of the author, the resulting four pastiches. 

The quotations were taken from the novels From Russia, with Love, You Only Live Twice, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and a 1962 interview with Fleming in The New Yorker. I’m glad to report that I scored full marks on the quiz round. Unsurprisingly, team captain Sebastian Faulks had no difficulty either. 

As for the pastiches, the panellists had to imagine that James Bond had been turned down by the Secret Service and had resorted to a different career. For Sebastian Faulks, this was familiar territory, having already written a Bond pastiche, which imagined Bond shopping in a supermarket, in an earlier series. For his second effort (well, third, if you count Devil May Care), Faulks imagined Bond as a plumber, sent to fix the blocked sink of one Miss Sapho Crumpet and discovering the presence of a rival firm going by the name of SPECTRE – Surbiton Plumbing, Electrical, Carpentry and Roofing Experts.
Pistache, Faulks' 2006 collection of pastiches from The Write Stuff

Fellow panellist Mark Billingham imagined that Bond had turned to hairdressing (licensed to cut, style and blow-dry) in a pastiche that ended with a neat play on Goldfinger’s most famous line (‘No, Mr Bond, I expect you to dye’!). Natalie Haynes presented Bond as a dentist (‘Doctor? No, dentist’, Bond says to a patient), who has a licence to drill and works with a hygienist called Flossy Galore. In the final pastiche, John Walsh returned Bond to his roots, imagining Bond as an ornithologist. 

This was clever stuff, and all the pastiches were fun, but what’s interesting is that all drew, perhaps a little unimaginatively, on the Bond films of the 1960s. In three of the pastiches, dialogue by Bond was delivered in a Sean Connery-style accent, and the efforts variously referenced Dr No, Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice. Clearly, the memes of the early Bond films remain influential, more so, perhaps, than later entries.

At the time of writing, the Fleming edition of The Write Stuff is on the BBC’s iPlayer Radio, but not for long!

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

What can we expect in Forever and a Day

The title of Anthony Horowitz’s second James Bond novel, due to be published in May by Jonathan Cape, was announced last week. The book, Forever and a Day, is set before the events of Casino Royale and sees James Bond earn his licence to kill and develop into the man we know from Ian Fleming’s novels. What else can we learn from the tantalising hints offered by the official press release?  

Anyone familiar with the novel of Casino Royale will remember that James Bond earned his double-O status during the Second World War by killing a Norwegian agent in Stockholm who was doubling for the Germans, and a Japanese cipher expert operating out of the RCA Building in the Rockefeller Centre in New York. Presumably the episodes will be referenced in the new novel, but the latter is especially interesting, as the Rockefeller Centre was also the headquarters of the British Security Coordination (BSC) headed by William Stephenson. The BSC represented British intelligence in the US during the war and was concerned with intelligence gathering, counter-espionage and special operations. If Horowitz’s novel describes or alludes to the killing of the cipher expert, will it link Bond more explicitly to the BSC? 

Probably not, judging by the synopsis: 
‘007 floats in the waters of Marseille, killed by an unknown hand. It’s time for a new agent to step up. Time for a new weapon in the war against organised crime. It’s time for James Bond to earn his licence to kill. This is the story of the birth of a legend, in the brutal underworld of the French Riviera.’ 
This appears to be a different narrative to that presented in Casino Royale, and it will be interesting to see how the two origins are reconciled.

In any case, the Marseille setting and mention of the underworld of the French Riviera are intriguing. We know from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that this is Union Corse territory. Are the members of that criminal organisation involved in the death of 007? Will we be introduced to Bond’s future father-in-law, Marc-Ange Draco? There is no suggestion in OHMSS that Bond knew Draco before the events of that novel, so it seems unlikely that Bond and Draco would meet in Forever and a Day, but Draco could certainly be in the background.

It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that Marseille was home in the early 1950s to Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s operation to excavate two ancient wrecks. Ian Fleming reported on the underwater excavation for the Sunday Times and even attempted to dive to the site. It’s possible that this will inform Horowitz’s novel to some extent (just as it informed Fleming’s Live and Let Die), and indeed the author confirmed in a tweet that the book involves ‘lots of water.’ 

And will Bond eat one of the regional specialities? In OHMSS, Bond asks a Marseille taxi-driver whether the bouillabaisse (ideally made with rascasse or scorpion fish) chez Guido is always as good. Bond is clearly familiar with the dish and the local restaurants, and it might be in Horowitz’s adventure that he is introduced to them. 

One thing we do know is that the novel will, like Anthony Horowitz’s first Bond adventure, Trigger Mortis, contain original material by Ian Fleming. How it will contribute to Forever and a Day has not been revealed, but it makes the novel an even more mouth-watering prospect.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Bond references galore as Aston Martin DB6 is restored on Car SOS

Another programme of Bondian interest to report on this week: More4's Car SOS. Each week presenters Tim Shaw and Fuzz Townshend rescue a classic car belonging to an owner unable to restore the car themselves because of straitened or other unfortunate circumstances. In an episode broadcast a few weeks ago, the hosts answered a request from a viewer to restore an Aston Martin DB6, which had mechanical problems and had been sitting and rusting in the garage for some years. The DB6 never appeared in a Bond film, but that didn't stop the presenters from playing on Aston Martin's connection with James Bond.

In the introduction to the car, the DB6 was described as the Bond car that never was; the model is closely based on the DB5, which was of course made famous by its appearance in Goldfinger. Indeed, the introduction as a whole was given a Bondian theme with graphics that recalled the gunbarrel and title sequences of the Bond films.
An introduction to the DB6 is given the Bond-film treatment
The presenters collected the car from the owner's wife (the owner was abroad and the restoration was to be a surprise) and got it back to the workshop. There was a lot to do on the car, and Tim wondered whether the car would scare 'the living daylights' out of the team of mechanics. He continued: 'It's time for the whole team to cast a golden eye over the car.' For much of the episode, Tim was wearing a semblance of a dinner suit in the form of a white jacket and bow tie. At another point, we saw a man turn towards the camera while sitting in a swivel chair and stroking a white toy cat.

Tim Shaw in 'dinner suit'
Despite the restoration being the team's 'riskiest undercover mission yet', the mechanics did wonders and managed to restore the DB6. An elaborate 'reveal' was planned. The owner was collected from the airport by his wife, who took him to a castle where they watched the filming of a fake spy film, Dr Spyfinger. There the restored car was brought into view to the obvious surprise and joy of the owner.

The restored DB6
The whole episode was full of Bond references, and it even included a visit to the Aston Martin Heritage Trust Museum in Drayton St Leonard in Oxfordshire, where, incidentally, there's a very nice display of Bond memorabilia relating to Aston Martin. Interestingly, in the previous episode of Car SOS, the team restored a Sunbeam Alpine, a model that appeared in both the film and book of Dr No. Now there's an idea: how about an entire series of Bond car restorations?