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James Bond and Post-war England

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The failed British invasion of Suez in 1957 has come to represent the end of Britain’s reign of military, commercial and imperial dominance in the world. British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden resigned in the wake of this humiliating defeat; shortly thereafter, he traveled to Jamaica to visit the home of James Bond novelist Ian Fleming (Winder, 135). A few months later, Fleming wrote what is perhaps his most acclaimed novel, From Russia With Love, in which a British spy in the Mideast steals a device from the Soviets to be used by British intelligence. It seems like a clear response to Suez, especially given the timing of Eden’s visit. This novel is just one example of how Fleming, an aristocrat of the pre-war order, responds to Britain’s loss of prestige in the Cold War era. Through analysis of character, setting, and villain portrayal, this paper will show that Fleming’s James Bond is indeed a significant literary effort to allow Britain to cope with its reduced role in the post-imperial Cold War.

Ian Fleming crafts James Bond into a distinctly and exemplary British character, beginning with his name. The word bond suggests that the spy was bonded to or connected with something. His identification number, 007, was how Elizabeth I’s personal spy signed his letters; the zeroes represented that he was the queen’s eyes, and the seven was for luck (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 19). Bond is thus bonded to a code of honor and expected to act as Britain’s faithful eyes. With his Elizabethan reference Fleming invokes a British golden age, one that produced sterling literature and marked the beginning of England’s rise to become the world’s first superpower (Collinson). James Bond represents that era as he travels Britain’s former colonies and acts as a significant factor in the Cold War. Bond’s relationship to England’s past is important, as Fleming, himself jaded enough with England to move to Jamaica, is likely not promoting a call to reinvigorate the empire, but rather offering a entertaining fantasy, an escape for Britons to relive what cannot be ( Winder, 14).

Bond’s imperialistic attitude and global exploits also recall an earlier Britain. Bond was educated, like Fleming, in one of the country’s top schools; that and his keen intelligence give him some measure of reverence for the past (Lycett, 16-22, 358). He bears a judgmental, unsympathetic attitude toward others, one that is also tinged by racism. For example, in one novel Bond glances briefly upon a band of potential adversaries and remarks, “It was not difficult to sum them up as three Corsicans, three Germans, three vaguely Balkan faces, Turks, Bulgars and three obvious Slavs” (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 96). Bond does not view the foreigners as individuals; rather, he lumps them together to claim a certain droit de seigneur superiority over them – the “right” or “power” to identify and subdue them. At a time when Britain was losing its influence over India and China, Bond asserted the control Britain could not (McKay, 989-992). In several novels Bond also saves the mighty United States from itself, assuredly an unlikely reversal of roles in floundering Britain’s favor (Lycett, 382-383). In addition, Bond reestablishes order in areas of the world where the local authorities apparently could not properly rule themselves (Susla, 119).

The imperialist sentiment recalls a time when Britain was still active and relevant in world politics, which may have been comforting for some British readers. Fleming’s fantasy allows for the British to regain their status in politics and war without really changing. In an era where the costs of WWII were still being manifested by food shortages, Fleming’s fiction of continued British prosperity, empowerment and license to act, even to kill, would be welcomed by readers (Winder 78, 168) – especially those who, like Bond, retained archaic racism and misogyny or still felt pre-war English pride (Winder, 49-52).

Ian Fleming’s infamous villains, who today might seem campy and trite, were, at the time of their literary birth, important for both their backgrounds and for their intentions. Contemporary fiction is laden with mad villains bent on destroying the world at large, for its own sake. Yet, in the early 1950’s, Fleming’s decision to craft opponents whose intentions were global in scale, often nuclear in form, are novel. Indeed, resisting the temptation to follow suit with his peers Ambler and Greene, to utilize less catastrophic plots and frequently place rogue Nazis as the villains is a testimony to Fleming and Bond’s consciousness of the new Cold War era (Earnest, 88-89). Bond’s villains were usually purely evil, international figures, whose criminal perversions establish Bond, despite his faults, as a completely good force and character. Ian Fleming’s resigned, realistic view of England was central to his psychology and he attested that he was “angered and troubled… by the twilight of empire” (Lycett, 356). Fleming’s recognition of the atomic threat, and its intrusion into everyday life, is poignantly drawn out in a scene in Goldfinger, when Bond notices a group of airmen relaxing at a golf club, and begins to wonder; “They were drinking … and talking. Bond wondered if they had spent the day toting a hydrogen bomb round the skies over Kent” (Goldfinger, 82). Bond’s observation shows the nuclear threat to be present, even in an afternoon golf match. The theme of Bond villains bent on destroying the world is a criticism of the senseless rush by the Soviets and Americans to possess cataclysmic arsenals which would afford neither victory in a war. The atomic age is clearly and most importantly part of Fleming’s sensibility, and it is the greatest symbol that Fleming was fully aware of the cultural changes that found British pride hindered in the 1950s.

By 1965 over 3 million copies of the James Bond novels had been sold in Britain alone. Ironically, the success of the novels, which glazed over Britain’s hardships and misplacement, finally gave author Ian Fleming, himself a product of a bygone class system, a way to cope with the Cold War, which he had entered both bored and without prospects following the minor spy games, or “ Red Indian games” he had played in WWII ( Lycett, (150-158) . The tremendous popularity of the novels is the single greatest testimony to their effect on the pride and esteem it imparted on its beleaguered English readership. Ian Fleming’s James Bond, the Elizabethan man of the Cold War, certainly manages to entertain readers and save the world, despite his, very Fleming-ish imperial origins and attitude (Winder, 50). Fleming’s exotic locations, Cold War villains, and most of all, the character of James Bond excited the national pride and stoked the imperial imagination of millions in England. Forsooth, even esteemed Sunday Times literary critic Raymond Mortimer conceded that Fleming had indeed created a “culture-icon” and point of identity for the British (Lycett, 416).

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