Whatever, blog boy.

I feel I need to apologise for how lame I’ve been with this blog lately. I have a schedule, and until recently I’ve prided myself on sticking to it. But frankly that’s been a bit difficult over the past few weeks. No! Wait! Don’t go! I can explain everything! It’s not you, it’s me! Darling, that little tart meant nothing to me, I – Wait, sorry, flashback. What was I talking about?

Yes. I seem recently to have become One of Those Bloggers. You know, the ones who post a lot at first, then gradually allow the schedule to slip, and then slip again, then they change the schedule, then that slips, and eventually the blog goes into stasis. I am determined not to let that happen here, but, well. Allow me to explain fully.

First of all, there was the show that I talked about three or four entries ago. Then there was a trip up to the scenic Lowlands of Scotland, to a town called Whithorn. One of the place’s claims to fame is that it was a location used in The Wicker Man. For all the place’s many attractions, it lacked many of the amenities one associates with civilisation – most notably a decent pub, but also Internet caffs and any other means by which I could contact people. However, Wigtown was great if you like second-hand books (I do) and the Bladnoch distillery was both charming and full of Scotch. Then there was the start of the Christmas period, which has seen me out for many of the standard get-togethers. And in the meantime, I’ve been suffering with an intermittent broadband connection at my flat. This is why so many of the entries lately have been short on pictures and links – frankly I’m happy if I can even get the bloody entry online.

So yes, this is me apologising for being a completely lame writer. Sorry about that. I can change.

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Queensbury rules

The Victorian era produced some real bastards, I think you’ll agree. However, many of them were simply ill-served by history – while we’d now consider them dreadful examples of humanity, they were perfectly acceptable by the standards of the society they lived in. The ninth Marquess of Queensbury (1844-1900) was not one of those people. No, by the standards of any era, the Marquess was an utter shit.

These days, he has two major claims to fame. Firstly, he invented the ‘Queensbury Rules’ of professional boxing. And secondly, it was Oscar Wilde’s libel suit against him that resulted in the writer’s trial and imprisonment, an important event the history of LGBT culture in Britain. It’s a strange pairing of claims to fame, but then, Queensbury was a strange man.

Queensbury, or John Sholto Douglas, to use his name, was defiantly nonconformist in his outlook. For one thing, he was a proud atheist before such beliefs were widely accepted. Unfortunately, he was the sort of atheist that tends to shame other atheists by being a bit too outspoken. He refused to sit in the House of Lords on the grounds that the oath of allegiance was Christian in nature. Well, that’s not entirely unreasonable. I mean, the oath is meaningless if you don’t believe in the thing you’re swearing on. He also got chucked out of a performance of Tennyson’s The Promise of May at the Globe Theatre because one of the characters was an atheist and also a villain, and Queensbury felt this demanded that he kick up a ruckus.

But I mean, the fact that he was an extremist doesn’t make him a bad person, right? I mean, every cause has its extremists, doesn’t it? Maybe he was just responding appropriately to the times and he’s a misunderstood pioneer? Well, maybe, but how about we look at one of his other obsessions, namely homosexuality?

Homophobia was not uncommon in the Victorian era. It was, after all, still illegal. Queensbury, however, took things a little further. He believed that homosexuality was literally contagious. You might have guessed that he wasn’t exactly flying the rainbow flag from his part in the Wilde trial, but there were certain other dimensions to his gay-bashing that are perhaps worthy of note.

To start with, we need to look at his relationship with his sons. Let’s just say that it was strained at best. One of his favourite taunts to use against them was to claim that he wasn’t their real father (maybe he wasn’t – his second marriage was annulled on grounds of non-consummation) and therefore they could expect to inherit nothing. It’s a historical irony, therefore, that his eldest son Francis was granted a seat in the House of Lords – the same one that Queensbury had refused to take an oath for. Rather than shrug his shoulders, Queensbury had a fall-out with Francis.

Francis had been backed by Lord Rosebery, whom Queensbury decided was “a snob queer.” Therefore, of course, his motivation was obviously to corrupt the lad with gayness. Queensbury decided that the remedy to this was to start stalking Rosebery, which he did all the way to Germany, where he threatened to give the Lord a damn good thrashing if he didn’t stay away from Francis. The Prince of Wales himself had to intervene, and Rosebery subsequently referred to Queensbury, not unreasonably, as “a pugilist of unsound mind.”

And this is where the Wilde business comes in. Like most conspiracy theorists, Queensbury wasn’t going to be put off by a lack of evidence or, indeed, logic. And when he found out that his youngest son, Alfred (or “Bosie” as he was nicknamed) was bonking one of the leading playwrights of the day, it was clear what had happened – Rosebery had set his homosexual sights on another member of the Douglas family.

Queensbury didn’t publicly pursue Rosebery this time, perhaps because batshit insane though he was, he knew when he was beaten. However, he infamously left a visiting card at the Albermarle club describing Wilde as a “posing somdomite.” You’d think an obsessive homophobe would learn to spell “Sodomite,” but I digress.

This being a fairly serious matter, Wilde sued for libel. Unfortunately, the problem with suing someone for libel is that there has to actually be an element of falsehood. What this meant was that by suing Queensbury, he was basically saying, “Prove I’m gay.” Which he was. Queensbury had plenty of testimony from London’s rent boy community to back this up – homosexuality seems to have been something that was fairly openly discussed provided you weren’t actually caught doing it. Anyway, having got lots of evidence that Wilde actually was as gay as a tangerine, he turned it into the police and Wilde was sent down.

Queensbury was undoubtedly the villain in this, and of course I’m not going to condone the laws against homosexuality. But why would Wilde have embarked on such a course against his self-appointed enemy? He wasn’t stupid – maybe arrogant, but even that shouldn’t have blinded him to the fact that it would put him in a perilous position. One popular interpretation has it that Bosie actually put him up to it. Maybe so – romantic feelings can make one do stupid things. And God knows Bosie had the motive to seek revenge against his old Dad.

The verdict against Wilde wasn’t universally popular, and though there were plenty of moral guardians who praised Queensbury for removing this menace to society, there were plenty of literary followers who cursed his name. Theatregoers, literati, Christians, Members of Parliament, his own family – it seemed that there was no one he didn’t annoy one way or another. The Marquess stipulated in his will that he wanted to be buried upright, and his request was granted at his death at the age of 55. Well, apparently. Rumour has it that the gravediggers, no fans of Queensbury, buried him head-first. And really who can blame them?

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On the bottom of the world

Today marks one hundred years since Roald Amundsen’s expedition reached the South Pole, winning the Race to the Pole and achieving one of the major goals of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

Look at this guy!

And heroic it was. There is no environment quite so barren and hostile to human life as the Antarctic. The name literally means “place where there are no polar bears,” so that’s one hazard you don’t have to worry about. There are penguins, though, which survive in the seas around the continent due to their evolutionary adaptations and the fact that they are funny. The continent itself, Antarctica, is the coldest and, perversely given the fact that it’s covered in ice and snow, the driest place on Earth. The phrase “water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink” was never more apt. Despite many expeditions south, the continent wasn’t even seen until 1820 and it wasn’t until more than seventy years later that it was considered worth exploring.

The impetus for the Heroic Age of Antarctic Expedition came from London, specifically Professor John Murray of the Royal Geographical Society, who suggested that an exploration of the forbidding continent would be a great boon to science. His suggestion was taken up in 1895 at the Sixth International Geographical Congress, also in London (I have to justify this entry in a London blog somehow) and in 1897 the Belgian Antarctic Expedition under Adrien de Gerlache made the first serious attempt at achieving this.

The RRS Discovery, trapped in ice

Attempting a trip to the Pole with Victorian and Edwardian equipment was about the manliest thing you could do short of beating a bear to death with your penis (which, as mentioned earlier, was impossible in the Antarctic). So it’s a testament to human endeavour that there were so many expeditions over the following decades. Each one added a little more to the sum of human knowledge, both in terms of our understanding of this alien terrain and in terms of our ability to survive in such an environment. Meanwhile, they braved such hazards as hypothermia, extreme frostbite, starvation and the ever-present risk of being trapped by ice (several ships were lost in this fashion, and Captain Scott’s Discovery was frozen in for two years before being freed by dynamite and a fortunate thaw).

The Pole was one of the ultimate goals, and it came as a bit of a surprise when Roald Amundsen was the one to reach it. Not least because he hadn’t told anyone that was where he was going until he was well on his way. You see, Amundsen, for all he was brave and ingenious, was also something of a rogue. His original plan had been to reach the North Pole. However, his expedition had been held up by a lack of funds – at one point, he begged money from his own mother, claiming that it was for his studies (which makes me feel a bit less guilty about some of the things I spent my student loan on). By the time he had the money, the North Pole had already been reached.

Amundsen at the pole

Unfortunately, the South Pole wasn’t a viable goal either, for the simple reason that Captain Robert Falcon Scott of Britain was already planning such an expedition and a gentleman’s agreement was in place among the international geographic community to let him have his shot. No problem, thought Amundsen, and planned his expedition under the pretence of an Arctic voyage. Not even his men knew that they were aiming South until after they had departed, and he curtly informed Scott by telegram that the Norwegians were coming.

In Britain, we’re often taught about the heroic failure of Scott’s expedition. But the simple fact is that, having started the race, Amundsen was the most likely choice to win it. Whereas earlier expeditions were fortified by woollies and hampers from Fortnum and Mason, Amundsen copied the survival techniques used by natives of colder climes. Not a superstitious man, he planned his journey meticulously and left nothing to chance. Thus, while all the members of Scott’s expedition perished, Amundsen succeeded admirably.

While his voyage was a great acheivement for the newly-independent nation of Norway, his success was not universally celebrated back home. You see, he had broken a gentleman’s agreement, and that was Not the Done Thing.

Expeditions continued, and still do today. Modern equipment has revolutionised polar exploration, but let’s not forget the work of those early pioneers. Anyone for a brandy?

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Round the bend

So I see they finally got rid of the last of those bendy buses. There don’t seem to be all that many mourners.

I think part of the problem was that nobody realised quite how nostalgic Londoners got about the old Routemasters. They were a design classic and very much part of the scenery. Old-fashioned, yes, and not without faults of their own, but much beloved. Not that they’ve exactly vanished – they still work a couple of tourist routes and there have been no shortage of private firms to snap them up. But I digress.

The thing with the Routemasters was that, like the classic FX4 taxi, they were designed in consultation with drivers using the routes. They were, in a very literal sense, a bus for London. The bendy buses were not – they were off-the-peg vehicles used all over the world, from Germany to Japan to Mexico.

The bendy buses, or Mercedes-Benz Citaros to give them their proper name, were therefore not universally popular with drivers. Problems with visibility due to the length of the vehicle and reflections in the windscreen were reported. The length of the vehicle also meant that they had a tendency to foul crossings and junctions (this, incidentally, was my personal beef with them). Cyclists were perceived as being at risk from the lack of driver visibility. What also caused a certain amount of jeering in the early days was a fire aboard one of the buses en route to its new home, resulting in the nickname ‘Chariots of Fire.’ When Boris Johnson was standing for the Mayoral election, one of his promises was that he would get rid of the bendy buses and come up with a more appropriate successor to the Routemaster. A friend of mine went so far as to actually decry the bendy buses as “the Devil’s work,” which I think is perhaps a bit harsh.

However, I do wonder if the Citaros are a bus more sinned against than sinning. There has, for instance, never actually been an instance of a cyclist being killed by a bendy bus, despite Boris’ slightly showboating implications to the contrary. While it’s true that in terms of actual numbers, the bendy buses have been involved in more accidents than any other model, they are also used on more routes than any other individual model. The fire does not appear to have been caused by any fault inherent to the bendy buses and was in fact a one-off.

And the bendy buses did have certain advantages. They were roomier than your average double decker (they could hold 120 to a present-day double decker’s 85). And all of that space was downstairs, great if for whatever reason you couldn’t negotiate the stairs. Along those lines, they had disabled access, unlike their predecessor.

They were also popular for rather less orthodox reasons. One of the major reasons for their withdrawal was that they were a godsend to fare dodgers – one could board via the centre entrance. Transport for London as a result had to take on 150 extra ticket inspectors (I refuse to use the term “Revenue Protection Officer”), and there were plenty of reports of people getting shirty when told that actually, they were supposed to pay for this journey. A strange use for the bendy buses I learnt about today was by the Capital’s homeless. The night buses provided a measure of warmth and comfort, unofficially for free. Actually, a friend of mine once spent a week sleeping rough on the 24-hour non-articulated 285, so it is possible even if you don’t have a bendy bus. Just putting that out there. Not that I’m advising anything illegal.

Boris has been noticeably reticent about the cost of replacing the 10-year-old bendy buses with new models, and frankly I suspect the decision to get rid of them was populist first and practical second. Nevertheless, the bendy buses are finding new homes in other cities, where perhaps they’ll be a lot happier.

Why am I feeling sorry for a bus?

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Mother’s Ruin

As regular readers will know, I like a drink now and again and again and again. The way I see it, it’s not an addiction if you’re still enjoying yourself. But even I must draw the line somewhere. Today I think I saw where that line was. In Sainsbury’s this evening I came across the disturbing discovery that, in their Basics range, the supermarket does gin.

It’s not that I have anything particularly against gin, you understand. Actually, I quite like it. But I take the view that spirits, below a certain price, are best employed in experiments to determine whether your tractor really will “run on anything.”

Gin enjoys something of an uneasy reputation these days. Scotch suggests manly sophistication, vodka suggests a fashionable cocktail lifestyle, Jack Daniel’s suggests maybe you aren’t quite ready for spirits yet. Gin, it seems, will be forever stuck with the reputation of being a drink for the elderly and terminally alcoholic.

Although it does tend to be historically associated with London, the origins of the present-day spirit lie with the Dutch physician and chemist Franciscus Sylvius at some point in the first half of the seventeenth century (though similar beverages are recorded as far back as the 10th century). It’s made of distilled grain alcohol and traditionally flavoured with juniper berries, and enjoyed great popularity in Holland as a medicine.

In 1688, William of Orange ascended the throne of England and brought with him this exciting new Dutch spirit. There were a number of contributing factors to its success within these shores. Firstly, William increased the taxes on importing booze and deregulated distillation in Britain, making gin cheaper and more readily available than any other form of spirit. Secondly, food had fallen in price recently, meaning there was more money to spend on life’s little luxuries. Thirdly, grain was particularly abundant at that time, and so gin production was an attractive way to get rid of the surplus, especially as the grain used in gin did not have to be particularly high quality. Fourthly, booze was a way of life in those days – in those days before effective sanitation, alcohol was far safer than water. And finally, gin was cheap and could get you ratted more quickly than beer. There’s also another interesting theory that folk took to drink as a result of being unable to adjust to city life, but that’s a minority view that I only mention for the curiosity value.

Anyway, the result was the Gin Craze, as memorably satirised in William Hogarth’s grotesque and blackly humorous Gin Lane, reproduced right. If you’ve ever been though Kingston-upon-Thames on a Saturday night, imagine that, only all the time. Lord Harvey noted at the time that “Drunkenness among the common people was universal; the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from  morning ’til night.” Sick leave rose to an unprecedented degree as a result of people simply being too pished to make it into work, with the corresponding economic effects. Crime, too, rose drastically – it was observed by magistrates that gin was “the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people” (though the lack of a police force didn’t help).  And of course there were the direct and indirect physiological effects of such widespread boozing – liver disorders, blindness, syphilis and a rise in juvenile alcoholism as a result of spirit-infused breastmilk. Daniel Defoe feared the creation of “a fine spindle-shanked generation.” There was even a (possibly apocryphal) reported increase in cases of spontaneous combustion.

Not helping matters at all was the poor quality of gin on sale. With the simplicity of production, the aforementioned lack of any police force to speak of, almost anyone could set up a still and go into business. And there were plenty of dubious ways to increase your yields if you were unscrupulous. If the buyer was lucky, their gin would be watered down. If they were unlucky, it might be padded out with turpentine. If they were really unlucky, industrial acid.

In desperation, the government introduced no less than eight Gin Acts to counter this between 1729 and 1751. However, what probably did for gin was one of the contributing factors in its initial ascension – the price of grain, which had begun once again to rise due to poor harvests. Just in time for the Industrial Revolution, in fact.

Nevertheless, the damage was done. Gin had gained such unflattering nicknames as “Mother’s Ruin” and low drinking dives were popularly known as “gin shops,” whether they sold gin or not.

Gin would enjoy a resurgance during the 19th century with the opening of the Victorian “gin palaces,” the finest surviving example of which is the Princess Louise in Holborn. I mention this purely because that’s my favourite boozer. Also contributing to its popularity at this time was the discovery of quinine’s anti-malarial properties. Quinine is quite a bitter substance, and so it was typically diluted to make what we now call tonic water. To make the tonic water more palatable, the colonials of the British empire would add gin, which I would imagine also alleviated the boredom of some of those Imperial outposts. And thus was the gin and tonic forged.

And I suppose this was the final nail in the coffin of gin’s reputation – that imperial association. Granted, it’s not regarded as the abomination it was in the 18th century, not least because the following century would see improvements in distillation and a corresponding increase in quality. But nevertheless, it is perhaps the least cool thing behind a bar south of the liqueur shelf.

Oh well. Here’s my recipe for a gin and tonic. G&T seems to be a matter of personal preference, so my word isn’t even close to the last on the subject. I favour Malawi for the gin – it’s a highly aromatic spirit with strong juniper notes, which is really what you look for in a gin. For the tonic, I go with Schweppes, the diet stuff for the sake of my waistline (the relative sweetness of the Malawi balances this out). And here’s where I get a little bit heretical – I don’t add ice. Rather, I chill the gin and the tonic beforehand. Then mix in a ratio of 2:3. Then drink. Then kill my children in a drunken stupor and spontaneously combust.

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The Spook Who Didn’t Sit by the Door

As regular readers may be aware, I like a good haunting tale. But as a sceptic, a good hoax will do just as well. And that’s what brings me on to the haunting of 132 Teesdale Street in Bethnal Green. The events are now largely forgotten, but in 1937 they were a constant source of tabloid excitement as they unfolded. Presumably everyone was bored waiting for World War II to start.

Two families inhabited this house – the Davis family and the Harrisons. They reported late in the year that they had been witness to a number of strange events. First, an intermittent tapping sound, described as being reminiscent of Morse code.  Then other strange noises – moans and crashes. Then objects around the house began to be disturbed, sometimes in front of witnesses. Grace, one of the Davis daughters, reported seeing a picture on the wall begin to twist on its own, and when she tried to readjust it, it was snatched from her hand and smashed on the ground.

The explanation, to the Davis family, was obvious. The previous year, Mrs Davis had died following a long illness. A somewhat jealous woman, she had developed the belief that her husband was having an affair with Mrs Harrison and it seemed that she was determined after death to make her displeasure known.

The families approached the papers, and during his stay in the house, the Evening Standard’s reporter himself heard the woman’s voice (unmistakably that of Mrs Davis, according to the family) and the overturning of furniture. Other papers covered the story, too, and eventually the matter reached the ears of the International Institute for Psychical Investigation. The Institute duly despatched Dr Nandor Fodor, Mr Laurence Evans and the Marquis des Barres to investigate (because that’s what they do). Incidentally, isn’t “the Marquis des Barres” the best name for a paranormal investigator you’ve ever heard?

Anyway, the investigators, including the Marquis of course, had a look around to see if they could figure out what was what. One or two curious points were noted about the facts as relayed by the individual family members, mostly the fact that they couldn’t agree on the details. The investigators noted in their report that there wasnothing that any of them witnessed, haunting-wise, that couldn’t be explained by more conventional causes. In particular, they noted that “Mrs Davis'” voice sounded uncannily like the Harrisons’ baby. Alternative suggestions were offered for some of the incidents, such as the picture being snatched from Grace’s by means of invisible thread (a common means of faking poltergeist activity, apparently). More damning still was a glass bowl, apparently moved by a ghostly agency which, despite its non-corporeal nature, left fingerprints.

Meanwhile, the Harrisons and Davises found themselves the subject of a great deal of media attention. In addition to the seemingly endless column inches devoted to the haunting in the papers, the radio got in on the act and it was even suggested that a television transmission be made live from the house. Cowds of up to 2,000 people gathered outside to get a glimpse of the supernatural, hindering the investigation in no small measure. Mrs Harrison comnplained loudly about the lack of privacy, yet strangely Dr Fodor’s offer of alternative accommodation was not taken up.

This latter part, as you might imagine, raised suspicions. As did the ghost’s failure to manifest when the rooms were sealed up to prevent human entry. Nevertheless, there were plenty of people who did take the matter seriously, and Fodor and co. found themselves inundated with suggestions. The most common was to hold an exorcism. Others pointed out that poltergiests tend to be attached to people rather than places, so maybe the families should be accommodated elsewhere to determine whether this was the nature of the spirit. A medium was brought in by the families, but as she was already friendly with them, Fodor’s team didn’t exactly take her proclamations seriously.

Also not taking things seriously, it seems, was Mr Harrison. He was rather evasive in his answers, and obviously not a very experienced liar. Apparently lacking the courage to go unreservedly with the paranormal explanation, but unable to simply come out and say “we lied,” Harrison’s attempts to find a middle ground make for interesting reading. I think my favourite moment of backtracking was when he tried to account for one incident by suggesting that their baby might have been throwing onions around in the middle ofthe night.

Fodor’s conclusion was that the haunting was a humbug. The only real mystery was the question of why the families had faked it. An early idea was that the Davises were the fakers and hoped to scare the Harrisons away (the same modus operandi would later be used by a whole generation of Scooby-Doo villains). The best guess, on later reflection, was that it was just a publicity stunt. However, despite his scepticism, he was quite convinced that there was some small basis in reality for the ghostly tricks. The opinion of the Marquis is not recorded. 

The whole thing died down, as many of these fads are wont to do, around February 1938. Not, however, before it backfired on its authors. Both families became utterly fed up with the attention, and made plans to move out. In 1956 the house was demolished to make way for a tower block and now there’s no sign that No. 132 was even there, let alone an spectral tomfoolery. Let this be a lesson to us all.

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The name’s Fleming. Ian Fleming.

I’ve recently been acquainting myself with one of the most iconic characters of the twentieth century, a secret agent by the name of James Bond.

Everyone knows James Bond. The tuxedo, the gun, the enigmatic smile, the Aston Martin DB5, vodka martinis shaken and not stirred, licence to kill, 007 (008 outside Central London), “the name’s Bond,” lots of fancy ladies and so forth. The character has basically become the very definition of spy fiction. Any fictional spy who’s appeared on screen since the 1960s will inevitably be compared to him. Heck, most action films that have come along since then owe something to the tropes established by the Bond movies.

But the Bond we all know and love is, let’s be honest, the Bond of the films.

Being a cultured sort, you’re no doubt aware that the Bond franchise started out with a series of novels by Ian Fleming, pictured right. Fleming was a spy himself during the Second World War, and in fact claimed that Casino Royale was inspired by an experience he himself had with a couple of undercover German agents at the gaming table (sadly, not the wicked-awesome bit from the film where Bond flips his car over seven times).

Fleming created Bond initially as a fairly dull character – the name was chosen to reflect this, and was taken from an American ornithologist. The ornithologist in question did see the funny side. Fleming built the character and his world up from his own experiences and those of friends and colleagues – for instance, it’s from Fleming that Bond gets the bon viveur tendencies for which he’s known. The first book, Casino Royale, was published in 1953.

The books were, initially, only a modest success, and Fleming planned to end the series after the fifth, From Russia with Love. This is actually incredibly obvious from the ending of the book, but I won’t say any more for fear of spoilers. However, this very same book was a roaring success, and is considered by many fans to be the best of the series. It was followed by seven more before Fleming’s death.

So how does Literary Bond compare to Movie Bond (s)? Well, it’s all rather interesting. Fleming himself rather liked Connery’s portrayal, to the extent of giving Bond a Scottish father in later books. However, the closest portrayal to the early books is probably that of Daniel Craig or Timothy Dalton.

Literary Bond, as Fleming envisioned him (the picture on the right was commissioned by the author), is something of a damaged individual. He is a man with definite mixed feelings about his calling in life. Not the sort of man who’d kill a henchman in cold blood and then produce a one-liner. There are several occasions when he becomes positively morbid – he accepts as inevitable the fact that he’s probably only got about a decade before being killed in the line of service, for instance. By the time of Doctor No, one of the weaker books in my opinion, M has decided that Bond is losing it as a result of all the crazy shit he’s been involved in recently. He’s an imperfect man whose cruel façade is built upon a very fallible, human foundation. As such, I actually find him a much more satisfying character than Connery or Moore’s impermeable action hero.

Interestingly in character terms, the Bond girls in the books are far more rounded characters than they are in the films. One, Gala Brand in Moonraker, is arguably more responsible for foiling the villain’s plan than Bond. And, most surprisingly of all, he doesn’t always get the girl.

The films vary in terms of how closely they stick to the books. Aside from updating the setting and padding the story out, Casino Royale is a fairly faithful adaptation. Moonraker, meanwhile, adopts the title and name of the villain and little else (so if you saw that film, don’t be put off the novel)

As I said earlier, the suave sophistication of the films is there – Fleming takes an almost pornographic delight in describing Bond’s food, drink and surroundings. Bear in mind that when the first books were published, Britain was still in the grip of rationing and far-flung holidays were just a dream for most people – this luxury was as much a part of the escapist fantasy as the machinations of Le Chiffre or Julius No.

One point against the books is that, in some regards, they are very much of their time. Particularly when it comes to things like imperialism and race. It’s always a bit embarrassing when Bond starts talking about race. Doctor No is particularly bad in this regard, and the whole thing frankly feels like a late installment in the Fu Manchu saga.

This aside, I can’t deny that they are very, very readable. I’ve ploughed through the individual novels at a rate of just under one a day because they are extremely compelling. Not great literature, you understand – I suspect that were it not for the films they’d have been forgotten by now – but something of a guilty pleasure nonetheless. And I think that when you have a character as iconic as Bond, you really ought to familiarise yourself with the source.

Moonraker was still a terrible film, though.

Further Reading

If you’re in the mood for further comparisons of films to their literary sources, my good chum Jess has recently started a blog doing just that for Disney. It’s right here. I’m looking forward to the surely-upcoming entry where she compares The Lion King to Kimba the White Lion (zing!).

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