I’m kind of without a keel this summer because I have no white whales to slay. Having clobbered The Story of Civilization it’s been a hodge-podge of random crap recommended by Geopolitical Futures, recommended by some link somewhere years ago, or recommended by veen, blackbootz and galen. Further limiting things it has to be audio because I can cook off a Harry Potter book in two days on my commute while I haven’t so much as powered up the kindle in two weeks. So so far I’ve killed
- Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone
- When the Facts Change
- City of Quartz
- What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia
- The Secret of Our Success
- Spook Country
- Notes on a Foreign Country
- Our Man
- Seeing Like a State
- The Quiet American
- Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets
Not all finished, of course - the nice thing about getting stuff from a library is that you don’t feel obligated to finish it. Zucked is written by a pompous venture capitalist butt-hurt that Facebook didn’t listen to him ten years ago. Notes on a Foreign Country is an American flabbergasted by the idea that Turkey isn’t monolithic. Our Man is George Packer assuming you find Richard Holbrooke interesting because he’s not going to put in the effort if you aren’t already hooked. Seeing like a State is a massive straw-man argument in service of libertarian demagoguery and The Quiet American is the sort of book Richard Holbrooke would have liked. Some of those I gave half the book over to before deciding they were crap. Seeing like a State and The Quiet American got a handful of pages… but I think it was The Quiet American that prompted me to finally, after thirty-odd years of intent, read an Ian Fleming.
It’s worth noting that I read a biography of Ian Fleming back in high school. Even the fawning sort of biography you would expect to be available from a high school library couldn’t hide the fact that Ian Fleming was a rank asshole; he was an Eton brat that joined the foreign service because he had no marketable skills and while there, was tasked with a minor role attached to the British mission in Washington DC spying on the Americans. Of course the high school biography didn’t say “spying on the Americans” because pip pip cheerio wot wot but the high school biography did say that he drank a fifth of scotch a day, smoked a carton of cigarettes a day, hated women, was too scared to go on an actual mission when it was offered to him and basically took the royalties from selling the film rights to Casino Royale to buy a plantation in Jamaica where he drank himself to death under the diffident care of the one woman in his life willing to put up with his bullshit in exchange for living on a plantation in Jamaica. Eton? Bachelor. Foreign service? Bachelor. Author? Bachelor. Rich dude from movie rights? Married a woman 30 years his junior. Connect the dots.
Maybe ten years ago I read Jennet Conant’s book The Irregulars, which is mostly about Roald Dahl spying for the British while chumming around with Eleanor Roosevelt but an irrepressible subplot is Ian Fleming’s mancrush on Roald Dahl. Dahl, you see, was a dashing adventurer from the right family who also went to the right schools and managed to crash two Spitfires in like five flights. So the Brits sent him to the USA so that his daring-do would impress the Yanks into joining the war against Hitler because he was far too broken to participate in military action ever again. Dahl write about his exploits in Harper’s, sold a script to Disney, banged every chick on the embassy circuit and reported directly to Intrepid in Canada, the British master spy responsible for making sure the Americans didn’t get out of hand. You can’t read The Irregulars without concluding that James Bond is Roald Dahl with the name of an ornithologist because Dahl was so good with the “birds.” How droll. Pip pip cheerio. Here’s a Ned’s Atomic Dustbin video from the ‘90s to demonstrate that subtle English humour.
“But what the hell does this have to do with Casino Royale,” you ask. Well, it’s a shit book. I mean, Dan Brown shitty:
'But we must stop joking, my dear fellow, although I am sure you would like to follow me in developing this amusing little cautionary tale.”
And initially, my reaction was “what a shit book, thank god it only took three legs of my commute to stomp it into the ground.” But then I realized that Casino Royale, more than being a shit book, is a spectacular insight into the decline of the British Empire.
I’ve lost count of how much history I’ve read. My perspective on world events may not be completely dispassionate but it’s certainly an elephant fondled by an army of blind men. With enough remixing of the same period of time you can’t escape the conclusion that the British Empire was effectively fucked the minute mechanization became cheaper than serfs but with such a serf-based empire the death throes were gonna take decades.
Seen through the lens of slow-motion collapse, Casino Royale is instructive.
What is it, really? It’s a blue-blooded stuffed shirt telling fairy tales to a collapsing empire. It’s a defiant cry that the UK isn’t irrelevant to world geopolitics in 1953, despite the fact that rationing wasn’t quite over, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia had kicked them out eight years previously, despite the fact that Iran had kicked them out a year previously, despite the fact that the US was calling the shots in Palestine, despite the fact that WWII earned them no reparations, no power and only what weapons and technology the Americans chose to give them. It’s a “secret agent” with a “license to kill” who is somehow propping up the world.
That there is Ian Fleming saying “In my day, boy, we were allowed to whip peasants.” I think the British didn’t really start to understand where they’d been until Labour took over in the ‘70s - Upstairs Downstairs is brilliant primarily because it’s a leftist take on the collapse of oligarchy following WWI. Then of course we got Downton Abbey which is a Fisher Price retcon of that collapse because thanks to Maggie Thatcher the culture is back to the glories of cultural authoritarianism. But there? In the smoldering ashes of empire? Back when we were giving the Brits nuclear technology so they’d shut up and let us take over the world without whingeing? Okay check it:
James Bond is pretending to be an agent of a Jamaican sugar merchant (imperialism) who is in Monaco to gamble (imperialism) because there’s a French union leader (imperialism) that spent money poorly and is now beholden to SMERSH (Soviet nogoodniks) so he’s gotta go out-play this guy at baccarat (!?) in order to bust him, embarrass him, and cause a scandal that will set back unions ie socialism ie communism ie The Red Menace thereby securing the future for that particular aristocratic brand of British capitalism for the good of all Mankind but primarily Britishkind.
Yeah. Fer real. The basic spine of Casino Royale is “go beat a labor organizer at cards so that Communism looks bad. Rule Brittania.” But see, he can’t because well, cards are luck:
So the CIA has to step in and front James Bond 20 million francs so that the British can save the day thanks to American bankrolling.
That’d be the end of it of course except ugh women:
‘cuz see Q, who isn’t Q, but is Q, sent a woman to help James Bond out and although Fleming spends a legit page each describing every one of Vesper Lind’s outfits, her motivations or thought processes or emotional arcs are pretty much I’m a stupid woman who can’t do anything without my man and since the Soviets have my man I’m going to betray all other men but then I’m going to commit suicide because I love my new man and my old man is dead the end.
That’s a fairly famous ending line right there. It shows what a “rugged style” Fleming has but what nobody talks about is the fact that she’s dead now because she overdosed on sleeping pills. It’s pretty clear Fleming played up the butchness of Bond because he talks at one point about “the sweet taste of rape” or some shit but at the same time, the world of James Bond is such a shitty misogynistic universe that even women whose hair takes half a page to describe are still going to have an easier time finding a Communist overlord than an empathetic British male. The British got suffrage in what? 1928? Clearly that was a major step back in the eyes of Fleming fans.
Fleming pretty much puts it on Bond’s lips - you shouldn’t have women around because you get all stupid caring for them and shit. True to form, Bond is busy chasing some loathsome Citroen around the coast in his ridiculous pre-war supercharged Bentley of minimal practicality (which, contrary to popular opinion, was his car through eight of the fourteen books - he only drives an Aston Martin once) and, although his peasant-crushing House-of-Lordsmobile is clearly superior in every way to these pathetic foreign monkeys in their plywood cars, he need only glance at our poor damsel in distress to screw up and drive over a bunch of nails in a blind corner like a simp because, you see, women make you simps. And then you spend all your time imagining raping them instead of doing your job which as we all know is murdering Communists. Or at least beating them at cards so they can be murdered by other Communists.
Then of course bond gets tortured because women. Tortured for what? To give up the location of a fucking check he hid in his hotel room, of course. And of course we have to threaten his junk, but since we’re British we’re going to speak obliquely about his junk for about thirty pages until SMERSH shows up to kill the card player but not Bond because bureaucracy or something. The girl, for her part, is not tortured because she’s a girl so she can feel more guilty about it and SMERSH isn’t going to do anything with the girl either because - no, not because she has to profess her undying love for Bond first, you idiot, but because we aren’t done vacationing!
Lost in the Albert R Broccoli-ism of cinematic Bond is the fact that literary Bond is basically a Kardashian of a man drifting from dinner party to dinner party. Fleming spends more words describing canapés than he does describing fistfights. You know exactly what color, cut and fabric everyone is wearing, you know what they’re drinking, you know what they’re driving and if your femme fatale has to put off committing suicide for two weeks so we can frolic in the waves, sobeit. It’s as if fate is inevitable so why describe it, while the trappings of wealth are all we have left so celebrate it. There’s half a page on how to eat caviar. Two or three times Bond orders dinner “with plenty of extra bread.” That dry martini shaken not stirred? Yeahnotsomuch:
Yeah fuck your dry martini, James Bond drinks three and a half shots of gin, vodka and burgundy fortified with fucking quinine and then mentions to Vesper that he’s been trying to figure out a good name for it so that he can market it the world over and has decided he’s gonna name it after her. Yeah. She’ll be right up there with the Harvey Wallbanger.
Jon Ronson celebrated the centennial of Ian Fleming’s birth by borrowing an Aston Martin and recreating the drive in Goldfinger. Yeah - the only book he’s got an Aston Martin in. His primary reaction was stomach upset:
Bond awoke the next morning, fresh as a daisy, had breakfast and a double coffee at the railway station, and then jumped in his car to continue his pursuit of Goldfinger, motoring "comfortably along the Loire in the early summer sunshine. This was one of his favourite corners of the world."
I awake the next morning feeling unbelievably nauseous and constipated, and stumble blearily across the road for breakfast at the railway station. If there ever was a restaurant here, there isn't now, just a vending machine selling crisps and Twixes.
"Had this been the case in Bond's day, would he have eaten a Twix for breakfast?" I wonder. "Probably, judging by his constant desire to fuck up his body." I eat a Twix and begin to hate James Bond.
I check the novel and read to my disgust that there's a lot more eating and drinking to be done today. Bond had a big boozy and meaty picnic in the foothills of the Jura mountains, followed in Geneva by a boozy dinner of Enzian liquor - "The firewater distilled from Gentian that is responsible for Switzerland's chronic alcoholism" - choucroute, a carafe of Fondant, a glass of Löwenbräu, a slice of gruyère, pumpernickel and coffee. I feel envious that Bond ended his journey inside Goldfinger's villa. Being tortured is the only time during the entire trip he'd have managed to use up any calories.
So there it is, really - A useless spy writing a book about a useless spy, a story propagated on the world by American money where the only real success is secured by American money. I have no doubts that Ian Fleming would have been all about Brexit, particularly if it allowed any hereditary landowner to cane peasants again. What’s left is a juvenile fantasy about all the food you get to eat, all the tail you get to tag and all the fancy cars you get to drive when you’re a member of a ruling class threatened by union organizers and social mobility. James Bond is a pre-war Bentley carefully mothballed during the Blitz only to roar around corners and overturn due to the nefarious machinations of communists and union organizers.
You know who saved the world from the Nazis in Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle? A trapped housewife on a deserted island. You know how Ken Follett grew up? Fuckin’ poor. But it took another twenty years before poor people could accomplish anything in the UK and it was a mere ten years before the capitalists struck back. If you were fifteen years old when Casino Royale came out you’re 76 now and you’ve seen a steady decline of your way of life since the day you were born. Who wouldn’t long for a return to the good old days?
Follett wrote a great set of books called The Century Trilogy. As much as anything else, it’s about the rise and fall of different classes in America, Russia and the United Kingdom. All three families stay basically true to their beliefs; the Americans muddle through and rise a little, the Soviets stay true and rise a lot, the British stay true and descend into ignominy because they’re assholes. And that’s the thing about Fleming and Kipling and Doyle and all the other Britons I’ve read - they all celebrate the assholishness of the English ruling class. It is their principle characteristic. That upper lip is stiff because it’s primed to spit on you.
I read a book a while ago called Strange Rebels that argued the most important year of the modern world wasn’t ’68 no matter how hard the ‘boomers want to be relevant. No, it was ’79 because (A) a Polish Pope got elected (B) the Chinese instituted market reforms (C) Islamic tribesmen stood up to the Soviets and (D) the British elected Thatcher and threw away half a century of liberal progress.
I read Casino Royale and I wonder what the world would look like if Maggie Thatcher had never been born. Because to me? The past worshipped by the Tories sure looks like a dead end.