Sunday, 29 September 2013

James Bond for 20 minutes

Me behind the wheel of an Aston Martin V8 Vantage
Last Saturday I knew what it was like to be James Bond behind the wheel of an Aston Martin. My wife had bought me a driving experience at Silverstone for my 40th birthday, and Saturday was the day I got to take the car around the famous motor racing circuit.

The experience started, as with many a Bond mission, with a briefing. A bunch of us were shepherded into the briefing room to hear the instructor talk us through the circuit, tell us how fast some of the turns could be taken (up to 120mph for some of them, only about 60 or 70mph for the tighter turns), and remind us that the higher the speed, the narrower the margin of error. He explained the controls of the cars (not all drivers opted for Aston Martins), and fortunately those of the Aston Martin – in this case a V8 Vantage – were not too dissimilar from what I was used to. The instructor also revealed that another instructor would be in the car with us, and that we'd do well to follow his every instruction.

We left the briefing room and made our way down to the track side at the southernmost turn (Stowe) of the international track where the cars were parked. We donned crash helmets, and I waited my turn. Every car was numbered, and while there was no 007, I noticed that one of the Astons had the number 009. Close enough, I thought, before remembering that 009 had a sticky end in Octopussy. As it happens, though, I was in car number 010.

When called, and after posing for photos by the side of the car, I climbed into the driver's seat and introduced myself to my instructor, who pressed a switch to adjust my seat and told me grip the steering wheel at quarter past nine and keep that position throughout. So much for feeding the wheel through, or nonchalantly gripping the wheel at the top with one hand and the gear stick with the other. At my instructor's command, I gently pressed the accelerator and took the car out of the pits and on to the circuit like I was taking my driving test.

Immediately the instructor told me to 'Accelerate! Accelerate! Accelerate!' So I floored it and reached over 60mph in roughly five seconds. Instantly I met the turn at Club. I braked, took a neat racing line (Bond would be proud) and accelerated out of the bend. Another turn took me into a straight, where I picked up some frightening speed and changed up to fourth gear (I would never get past fourth, even though the car had six). I braked, changed down to third, turned in at Abbey, accelerated out, took the gentler curve of Farm, accelerated again, then braked sharply and turned very hard at the hairpin at Village. At this point, I was being a little cautious with my steering. My arms should have been crossed, but were barely beyond half-past twelve. Indeed, I might have gone off the track had my instructor not grabbed the wheel and yanked it down until it locked. Lesson learnt.

I accelerated out of Village, approached another sharp turn at the Link, then entered the long Hangar Straight, where, with my instructor's encouragement, picked up as much speed as I could muster.  And with that, lap one was over. Two more to go.

The other two laps were much like the first, though were perhaps a little smoother. I grew in confidence as my familiarity with the track, and the car, increased. I remembered to look at my speedometer on Hangar Straight during my third lap. It was past 100mph and still climbing.

Before I knew it, the experience was over and I was pulling into the pits. It was the drive of my life and my heart was thumping. True, I didn't have Bondian perils to deal with – huge newspaper rolls, caltrops dropped from the villain's car, Vesper Lynd lying in the road – but it was exciting enough taking the turns, making racing gear changes, going hell for leather, and hearing the throaty roar of the Aston Martin's V8 engine. I wish I'd had a chance to explore the car a little more (maybe tested out some of the switches and buttons – the ejector seat's standard, right?), but perhaps I'll hire an Aston Martin for the day for my 50th birthday.

Boyd on Bond - a report

To mark the publication of the new James Bond adventure, Solo, author William Boyd was in conversation with GQ literary editor, Olivia Cole, at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London's Southbank Centre on 26th September. I was lucky enough to be in the audience and hear William Boyd speak about his growing up with James Bond, his views on Ian Fleming, and his approach to writing his Bond novel. I've written a report on the event, and this is available on the MI6: The Home of James Bond 007 website. Click here to read the article.

Monday, 23 September 2013

I shall use my time: James Bond's philosophy

As I was watching Munro Scott's 1964 interview with Ian Fleming on CBC-TV's Exploration programme the other day, I was reminded of Fleming's strong views on boredom. “Boredom is the worst sin of the human being,” he said. “It's the worst thing that could happen.” This may explain Fleming's peripatetic career and craving for excitement, which he'd find in the gambling rooms, the wartime offices of naval intelligence, or the waters off his coastal home in Jamaica, among other places.

Fleming gave the same abhorrence of boredom to James Bond. When we first meet Bond in From Russia, with Love (chapter 11), he is at his Chelsea home between missions. Bond is thoroughly bored with the prospect of the day ahead in the office, and Fleming tells us that “boredom, and particularly the incredible circumstance of waking up bored, was the only vice Bond utterly condemned.”

Fleming alludes to this view again in Bond's obituary in You Only Live Twice (chapter 21). In an addendum to M's obituary, Mary Goodnight writes about Bond's philosophy: “'I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.'”

It's a great line, and aptly describes the boredom-busting, live-life-to-the-fullest attitude of both Bond and Fleming. It appears, however, that the words aren't Fleming's, but have instead been attributed to American writer, Jack London, best known for his novels, The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906), and are included in a larger statement of what has been described as London's credo:

“I would rather be ashes than dust. I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

While there is some question over the authorship of this passage (only the first line closely matches words known to have been London's, with the rest contended to be journalistic invention), it apparently pre-dates You Only Live Twice, being first published in the San Francisco Bulletin in 1916, then republished in 1956 by Doubleday in an introduction to Tales of Adventure, a collection of London's short stories.

I admit I haven't seen a copy of Tales of Adventure, and certainly not the San Francisco Bulletin, and so I remain a little hesitant about the entire matter. I would prefer to see the words on the page of the 1956 volume before committing myself to a more definite view about their origin and date, so if anyone has a scan of the page in question, then please get in touch.

Assuming the chronology of the passage is correct, it's possible that Fleming saw the lines in the 1956 edition and, rather taken with them, felt that they were appropriate for Bond as well. There is no acknowledgement of source in You Only Live Twice; while the lines beginning, “I shall not waste my days” are presented in quotation, the implication is that the words are Bond's. But if the words aren't London's in any case, what do questions of origin and source matter? Well, that's still up for debate, but there's another question: should we add Jack London's Tales of Adventure to James Bond's library?

Sunday, 15 September 2013

The greatest Bond film never made?

If Jeremy Duns' Rogue Royale (JJD Productions, 2013) was a hand in a game of Baccarat, it would be a 'natural': near perfect and very difficult to better. His book charting the early attempts to bring Ian Fleming's first novel, Casino Royale, to the big screen is thorough and authoritative and, like the original novel, a page-turner.

Rogue Royale tells the story of screenwriter Ben Hecht's development of a script for Charles K Feldman's ill-fated production of Casino Royale, which would finally appear in 1967. Hecht's scripts bore little resemblance to the film that would be dogged by countless rewrites,  temperamental actors, a bloated cast-list, and a spiralling budget (David Niven predicted when joining the production in 1966 would be “the biggest f----up since the Flood”), and Duns, delving into the archives, offers a tantalising glimpse of the scripts that had the hallmarks of a classic Bond film.

Ben Hecht, the 'Shakespeare of Hollywood', was by the early 1960s a very well established and highly regarded screenwriter, and the ideal choice to write a Bond film. His credits included the razor-sharp comedy, The Front Page, the archetypal gangster film, Scarface, and Hitchcock's suspenseful spy thriller, Notorious. Hecht wrote several drafts of Casino Royale for Feldman. Plot ideas were developed or dropped with each subsequent script, and his final offering appears to have been as fast-paced, deftly-plotted and witty as Dr No or From Russia With Love.

From a memetic point of view, what I found particularly fascinating was how Hecht was influenced by Eon's earliest Bond films – his plots were faithful to Fleming, but his Bond was Sean Connery – and how in turn aspects of his ideas survived into the 1967 film. And, having written about how Bond's code number is pronounced, I also found it interesting that Hecht was evidently in the 'oh-oh-seven' camp, as one of his lines, “Her father Jonathan Lynd was an 0-0-7 man” shows.

Apart from Hecht's scripts, Jeremy Duns' story includes an intriguing prologue. An article in the New York Times about Gregory Ratoff's attempts to film Casino Royale in the late 1950s mentioned that Ian Fleming had written an adaptation. If true, this is an exciting revelation. While Fleming had written a number of film and TV treatments (indeed, his novels Dr No and, of course, Thunderball, are based on them), no treatment deriving from his first novel is known. Doubtless Jeremy Duns' reminder of this tantalising snippet of information will now draw Bond historians back to all available archives of Fleming material.

Just as interesting is another early script of Casino Royale. Its author is unknown, and curiously it dispensed with Bond altogether, replacing him instead with an American gangster called Lucky Fortunato. Clearly this idea was not developed much further, but it occurred to me that the use of the character formed part of a wider trend to look to American gangsters for inspiration. Fleming himself contributed to this. His first screen treatment in 1959 for what would become Thunderball pitted Bond against a Mafia villain called Henrico Largo, and his travel essay on Naples (published in Thrilling Cities) shows a fascination with an Italian-born American crime boss, Lucky Luciano. (When I saw the name Lucky Fortunato, I wondered whether the author of the script was inspired by Lucky Luciano. Indeed, the idea crossed my mind, and instantly dismissed as fanciful, that given his interest in American crime Fleming may even have had a hand in the script.)

Jeremy Duns' book on Ben Hecht's scripts and the film that never was - and what could have been the Bond-fans' favourite - is a meticulously-researched story and a superb read. I recommend it highly.

Baxter, J, 1998 Woody Allen: A biography, Harper Collins
Sellers, R, 2007 The Battle for Bond, Tomahawk Press

Saturday, 7 September 2013

More than just a small island: Cameron's speech recalls You Only Live Twice

When an unnamed Russian official allegedly told reporters at the G20 summit in St Petersburg that “no-one pays any attention to Britain” and that it was “just a small island”, British prime minister David Cameron was quick to respond with an impassioned defence of the country.

“Britain may be a small island but I would challenge anyone to find a country with a prouder history, a bigger heart or greater resilience," he said, continuing by reminding people that Britain helped “clear the European continent of fascism and was resolute in doing that throughout World War II”, and that "Britain is an island that helped to abolish slavery, that has invented most of the things worth inventing, including every sport currently played around the world, that still today is responsible for art, literature and music that delights the entire world.”

Warming to his argument at a later press conference, Cameron listed a number of world-renowned British cultural icons: The Beatles, Elgar, Shakespeare, and, er, One Direction. Unfortunately there was no mention of James Bond, but perhaps if Cameron feels compelled to give the speech again, he can find room for a character that has been one of the most enduring and successful British cultural exports.

Needless to say, there was much reaction in the British media, with many newspapers applauding Cameron's “Churchillian” and “impassioned” defence of Britain. A number of commentators compared the speech to a scene in the film, Love Actually (2003), in which the British prime minister, played by Hugh Grant, says that “We may be a small country but we're a great one, too", and references a similar list of cultural icons (including Sean Connery).

For me, though, Cameron's words reminded me of a passage in chapter 8 of Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice (1964), in which Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese Secret Service dismisses Britain as a world power, and questions the value of giving Britain important intelligence material. “Balls to you, Tiger! And balls again!”, James Bond retorts. “We still climb Everest and beat plenty of the world at plenty of sports and win Nobel Prizes. Our politicians may be a feather pated bunch, and I expect yours are too... But there's nothing wrong with the British people – although there are only fifty million of them.”

Both Cameron and Bond's defences allude to the notion of a small island punching well above its weight, and the idea that Britain has been responsible for many cultural, physical and scientific endeavours. No doubt politicians and commentators have been making the same defence since the end of the Second World War. But Fleming adds an interesting sentence. 'He [Bond] was still smarting under Tiger's onslaught, and the half-truths which he knew lay behind his words.' Those of a more cynical bent might wonder whether, like Bond's defence, David Cameron's speech was also to some extent an acknowledgement of uncomfortable truths.