In the second chapter of John Gardner’s first novel, The Liquidator (1964), which was Brian Ian ‘Boysie’ Oakes first adventure there is an interesting passage that quotes some of the influences Boysie’s boss, Colonel Mostyn, subjects him to. As those who have read the novel will be aware, ‘Boysie’ Oakes is mistaken for being a ruthless killer when he saves Colonel Mostyn’s life by slaying two Germans who were going to kill him during the Second World War in Paris in August 1944. Mostyn was of course wrong to judge that ‘Boysie’ was a ruthless killer who might come in useful in the future, as he had acted out of nervousness and fear when he had shot the two Germans. Years later Mostyn, the Second in Command of British Special Security decides to recruit ‘Boysie’ Oakes to work as an assassin for the organisation to liquidate potential security risks. Mostyn, we are told, ‘brought his protégé to London for a long, arduous period of grooming and polishing’:
‘Mostyn personally supervised Boysie’s reading – which ranged from Cervantes and Luther to Murdoch, Amis and Ian Fleming. For weeks, Boysie was marched round the National Gallery, the Natural History Museum, the Tate, the Victoria and Albert and the Wallace Collection.’ (The Liquidator, John Gardner, Corgi Books, London, 1965, pp. 36-7)
Gardner here rather interestingly quotes the names of James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, and the Angry Young Man, author of Lucky Jim (1954), and future first Bond continuation author, Kingsley Amis. He places both authors in the rather esteemed company of Cervantes, Luther and Murdoch. It is rather ironic that John Gardner himself would become both authors’ immediate successor when he took over the mantle of continuation Bond author and publish Licence Renewed in 1981. It is also rather ironic that Kingsley Amis would attack Gardner’s Bond novels both privately in letters to his friend, the poet Philip Larkin and publicly in a harsh review of For Special Services, entitled ‘Double Low Tar 7, Licence to Underkill’ for the Times Literary Supplement on 17 September 1982. Amis in many ways must have saw himself as the only true heir to Ian Fleming when he published the first continuation Bond novel, Colonel Sun, under the pen name ‘Robert Markham’ in 1968. He therefore clearly felt he was qualified, as one who had been that way before, to attack what he saw as sub-standard work that brought, in his opinion, the works of Ian Fleming into disrepute. In his Times Literary Supplement review, Amis had railed against Gardner quite personally from the start:
‘Quite likely it ill becomes a man placed as I am to say that whereas its predecessor was bad enough by any reasonable standard, the present offering is an unrelieved disaster all the way from its aptly forgettable title to the photograph of the author – surely an unflattering likeness – on the back of the jacket. If so that is just my bad luck. On the other hand, perhaps I can claim the privilege of at least a momentary venting of indignation at the disrepute into which this publication brings the name and works of Ian Fleming. Let me get something like that said before I have to start being funny and clever and risk letting the thing escape through underkill.’
Later on in the same review, Amis concludes,
‘What makes Mr Gardner’s book so hard to read is not so much its endlessly silly story as its desolateness, its lack of the slightest human interest or warmth. Ian Fleming himself would have conceded that he was not the greatest delineator of character: even so his people have genuine life and substance and many of them both experience and inspire feeling. So far from being the ‘man who is only a silhouette’ Bond is shown to be fully capable of indignation, compunction, remorse, tenderness and a protective instinct towards defenceless creatures.
By a kind of tradition, however, perhaps started by Buchan with Dominick Medina in The Three Hostages, the main character-interest in this type of novel attaches to the villain. Mr Big, Hugo Drax, Dr No and their like are persons of some size and power. They are made to seem to exist in their own right, to have been operating since long before Bond crossed their paths, rather than to have been run up on the spot for him to practise on. But then to do anything like that the writer must be genuinely interested in his material.’
John Gardner wrote about meeting Kingsley Amis in the section ‘The Bond Books’ on his website - www.john-gardner.com - in early 2002:
‘I was amazed to read recently, in Kingsley Amis’s letters, that Kingsley was convinced I was absolutely no good at producing a thriller of drama and tension. In fact he had commented to Philip Larkin that Peter Janson-Smith had thrown the manuscript of Licence Renewed back at me because it was so bad. This, of course, never happened except in the sense that I would take every manuscript back to do the necessary work to make a better book and comply with those changes I had accepted from the editor.
Amis was in fact quite amusing. I met him at a lunch party Len Deighton gave at the Savoy for Eric Ambler’s birthday. Out of devilment I said to him, “Kingsley, you’re quite right: the Bond books are terrible hokum. No good at all. Dreadful,” – he had reviewed Licence Renewed for, I think, The Times Literary Supplement, and it was a review in which he set about me with a cat o’ nine tails, the rack and the Chinese Water Torture. Kingsley looked at me in bewilderment, spluttering, “Oh no, my dear chap, no! No!”
Gardner is actually slightly mistaken in his recollections here. He has become confused about who exactly wrote which particular review. It was Philip Larkin, and not Kingsley Amis, who reviewed his first Bond novel, Licence Renewed under the title ‘The Batman from Blades’ for the Times Literary Supplement in May 1981. As is already stated, Amis actually reviewed For Special Services for the Times Literary Supplement in 1982. It is indeed interesting that Gardner and Amis met each other, and how their public and private thoughts about each other were so different. Of course when Amis was faced with Gardner, who was clearly trying to pull his leg, it would have been very unlikely that he would have said something rude like, “Oh no, no, my dear chap. Fleming’s Bond was anything but hokum. However, your incarnation brings his novels and indeed reputation into disrepute. You should be ashamed of yourself!” I suppose Gardner is trying to say that although Amis heavily attacked his Bond continuation novels in private letters and in print, he did not have the courage of his convictions to be downright rude and say face to face to him that his work was complete rubbish. It seems Gardner takes some comfort from this, that perhaps Amis’s bark was worse than his bite. Now Amis was a curmudgeonly character by all accounts, but he clearly would not stoop so low as to attack an author to his face at a friend’s birthday party, despite his already much vaunted opinions in print. This was of course just good manners, and it wouldn’t really have been expected for Amis to have reiterated what he had written in his review of For Special Services, or to have laid bare his thoughts from his private letters to Philip Larkin. His hardened opinions about Gardner’s Bond novels probably never left him, but we have no record of what he thought of the others in the series, if he ever deigned to read any of them.
Another point of interest is the fact that all of these authors were either friends or had at least become acquainted with each other. John Gardner for instance met Kinsley Amis, his predecessor as Bond continuation author at a lunch party fellow spy novelist and friend Len Deighton gave at the Savoy for another spy novelist, Eric Ambler. Ambler, it will be remembered was greatly admired by Fleming and Bond is actually reading Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) on the Orient Express with ‘Captain Nash’ in Fleming’s From Russia, With Love (1957). The public and private interactions about James Bond that occurred between these authors and poets is fascinating and it would certainly have been very informative to have been a fly on the wall at that lunch party at the Savoy which featured Gardner, Amis, Deighton, Ambler and undoubtedly other authors of note.
TBB Article No. 7
© Brian McKaig, 2007.