I just finished Simon Winder’s The Man Who Saved Britain: A personal journey into the disturbing world of James Bond, a good book that would have been an even better essay. His basic point is suggested by the title: it really really sucked to be Britain in the 1950s. Britain had won the war but lost the peace… it was poor, its manufacturing dribbed away, it was falling behind Europe, its empire was lost, and with it its self-image. James Bond and the Beatles made it cool to be British again. Best of all, Bond invented a way to not compete with the US and still feel superior.

Winder points out that Bond is a puffed-up portrait of Ian Fleming himself: an upper-class twit who demonstrates unexpected competence in the world of espionage. His larger thesis is that Bond expresses an old Tory’s annoyance over Britain losing its position in the world— a loss vaguely blamed on Labour, though Britain really had no resources to preserve it.

This got me interested in the Bond novels, and I picked up a couple of them. I had read only ever read part of The Man with the Golden Gun, and thought that the books would be full of tedious anti-communism… but in fact the politics is marginal in Casino Royale and Doctor No. I’d even say that the obligatory Russian spies bored Fleming; his writing comes alive only as soon as the realistic espionage is left behind, and he can concentrate on luxury, diving, and psychopaths.

Casino Royale has one of the strangest plot structures I’ve ever encountered. The villain is soundly defeated 2/3 of the way through the book. The remainder is taken up with a doomed love story— the doom has been foreshadowed from the start; and the denouement isn’t even triggered by Bond. (And though it’s set in a casino, it’s not even Monte Carlo— the whole book is set in a third-string town in Normandy. Winder tells us that with postwar travel restrictions, this was exotic enough for Fleming’s first readers.)

I’ve also been watching some of the movies again— the Connerys, of course. There’s not much to say about them, except to note that, besides Bond, one of the best things about the films is the music. Who couldn’t be a glamorous secret agent with that soundtrack? (If “secret” is the word for an agent who almost never bothers with an alias.)

The latest movie, by the way, is perhaps the best since the Connery Bonds. It was about time to sweep away the camp.