So the new James Bond movie is out. Die Another Day has all the usual ingredients: a deadly megalomaniac with a high-tech weapon; capers in Korea, Cuba and London; a spectacular hovercraft chase through a minefield; some only slightly less spectacular swordplay; a villain's lair (carved from ice!) in Iceland; the delicious Halle Berry; and, of course, approximately 50 zillion dollars of promotional tie-ins.
It's a fun movie, I must admit. But for the hardcore James Bond buff, the Bond films -- with the possible exception of the early Sean Connery ones -- are a deep embarrassment. The only thing that counts is Ian Fleming's classic novels: as much of a cult thing as Raymond Chandler's or Dashiell Hammett's. And the fact is that James Bond died with Fleming in 1964, just as Philip Marlowe died with Chandler and Sam Spade died with Hammett.
Contrary to what Fleming said, nobody lives twice.
Just for the record, as any true-blue Bond aficionado will tell you, that famous catch-phrase, 'shaken not stirred,' was never, in fact, said by Bond. The closest he came to it was in Casino Royale, when he looked carefully at the barman. 'A dry martini,' he said, 'In a deep champagne goblet. Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, and then add a thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?'
But, typical of Ian Fleming, the ritual didn't end there.
When the drink finally arrived, Bond 'watched carefully as the deep glass became frosted with the pale golden drink, slightly aerated by the bruising of the shaker. He reached for it and took a long sip. 'Excellent,' he said to the barman, 'but if you can get a vodka made with grain instead of potatoes, you will find it still better.' He then -- ahh! -- exchanged a brief witticism with the barman in fluent French.'
And that, ultimately, was the secret of James Bond's success: the pseudo sophistication, the fascinating trivia, the attention to detail, not to mention the lashings of sex, sadism and snobbery. Yes, the plots were puerile and formulaic. Yes, the books were almost parodies of themselves. Yes, Bond himself was, all said and done, an immature ass.
But, there was a certain magic about Fleming's writing, and the way he tapped into the zeitgeist of his times. After he died, for instance, no less an author than Kingsley Amis attempted to write a sequel, titled Colonel Sun. It was, of course, a disaster.
Nobody, in the words of the song, did it better than Bond. And nobody did it better than Fleming.
Fleming, despite all those fantasy thrillers he wrote, was a key Intelligence operative during World War II. And according to recent revelations, he was the brain behind some of the wildest, weirdest covert operations of the War. Like feeding Rudolf Hess with phony occult messages and luring him to England, ostensibly to broker a peace deal. And like masterminding the elaborate 'Man Who Never Was' plot, in which a dead British army officer's body was washed onto the Spanish coast carrying fake invasion plans, to fool the Germans into thinking there was going to be a major landing in the Balkans.
Fleming has even -- with only a slight stretch of the imagination -- been called the grandfather of the CIA, because he's the man who drew up the original charter of the OSS, the CIA's war-time predecessor.
After the War Fleming spent his summers in Jamaica, turning out a Bond novel every year between 1952 and 1964, and in the process creating one of the great pop icons of the 20th century. But, bizarrely, his connection with international skullduggery didn't quite end with World War II. His wife Anne was having an affair with Hugh Gaitskell, the leading Labour Party politician, and almost-prime minister, who died mysteriously, now believed to have been assassinated by the KGB.
And it is slightly unnerving to think that just about the time John F Kennedy was wondering what to do about [Fidel] Castro, he was apparently reading From Russia With Love. ('Hey Bobby, I've got it! Lets get the CIA to send in their guys. How about a secret landing at the Bays of Pigs, huh?')
The role model for Bond, Fleming once admitted, was a flamboyant War-time double agent, called Dusko Popov -- code-named 'Tricycle' on account of his taste for sexual threesomes. The name James Bond was swiped from a well-known American ornithologist. And the numerals 007 were simply the last digits of Fleming's literary agent's phone number.
Fleming was not just a man of great style, he was also an unabashed snob. When the first Bond movie, Dr No, was being made, he tried to veto the choice of Sean Connery, because he thought him far too lower-class to play his suave Bond. (He wanted Cary Grant, Richard Burton or David Niven, in approximately that order.)
As one of the world's leading Bond-ologists myself, I believe Fleming would have also hated the smarmy, corny Roger Moore, who played Bond in all those idiotic later movies, but would have grudgingly approved of today's Pierce Brosnan. However, of all the actors who have played Bond to date, his favourite would have undoubtedly been Timothy Dalton (Licence to Kill), who not only came closest to his own saturnine description of 007, but was also the most accomplished actor of them all.
Fleming sent James Bond to India -- albeit fleetingly -- in one of the short stories in his For Your Eyes Only collection (Bond passes through Mumbai en route to the Seychelles, to check it out as a contingency British naval base, in case the Maldives should go Communist). But Fleming did one better. He visited Mumbai in the 1950s and had a brief affair with a well-known Mumbai advertising woman, writing enthusiastically to a friend about her, her literary aspirations and her '38 inch bustline.'
There are other mentions of India in his books. In Goldfinger, for instance, India is described as a key point in the international gold smuggling racket. As Smithers of the Bank of England briefs Bond: 'If you've got a friend going to India, or you're on good terms with a pilot or stewardess on the Far East run, all you have to do is cut a gold bar into thin plates -- smaller than playing cards -- sew them into a cotton belt and pay your friend a commission to wear it. Your friend flies off to Bombay and goes to the first bullion dealer in the bazaar. He will be given one thousand seven hundred pounds for your gold bar costing a thousand pounds. Mark you, that's seventy per cent profit. Gold's been coming into India from all parts of the compass. The latest dodge is to fly it from Macao and drop it by parachute to a reception committee a ton at a time.'
And then, of course, there was that terminally dreadful production of Octopussy, filmed partly in Udaipur, and featuring Kabir Bedi, Vijay Amritraj and an auto rickshaw chase.
But the less said about that, the better.