Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Musings on the Literary James Bond and Religion

The subject of the literary James Bond’s religion is a topic rarely touched upon, so here is a short addition to the available literature on the topic. It is my belief that James Bond was a Protestant of some denomination (probably Presbyterian) as he had a father who was Scottish, Andrew Bond, and his creator, Ian Fleming had a Scottish heritage and was brought up in the nonconformist religion. In John Pearson’s 1966 biography The Life of Ian Fleming, there is a very interesting letter Fleming wrote to a minister concerning comments he had made in a sermon about James Bond in 1961:
“…it was now that [Fleming] gave the only sign of concern he ever made about the possible effect that James Bond was having on the world at large. In a letter to the Rev. Leslie Paxton, of the Great George Street Congregational Church, Liverpool, he revealed a side of himself few of his friends can have suspected:
I see from the public prints that the Sunday before last you preached a sermon against the leading character in my books, James Bond, and, presumably by association, against myself.
Now, having had a Scottish nonconformist upbringing and considering myself at least some kind of a sub-species of a Christian, I am naturally very upset if it is thought that I am seriously doing harm to the world with my James Bond thrillers.
Would you be so very kind and let me have a copy, if you have one, of your sermon, so I may see the burden of your criticisms and perhaps find means of mending my ways if I feel that your arguments have real weight behind them.
I can, of course, myself see what you mean about my books, but it occurs to me that you may have put forward profounder arguments than those that are already known to me.
This unlikely mood of death-bed repentance did not last long. Mr. Paxton hastened to assure him that he had never implied that the creator of James Bond had done the world a serious disservice. Reassured, Fleming turned his thoughts once more to making the best of a distinctly strained future.”
This letter has always interested me. I think it shows how Fleming worried about the effect Bond was having and was a sign he was becoming a more puritan, moralistic person by the time he was writing the Bond novels than he had been necessarily in his youth.
Kingsley Amis in The James Bond Dossier, (1965), p. 85 in the Pan 1966 paperback edition points out that:
“The moral content of Mr. Fleming’s work, the values expressed or implied, whether through Bond or directly by the author, have been denounced all over the place. Bernard Bergonzi, in a long piece in The Twentieth Century, March 1958, lamented the ‘total lack of any ethical frame of reference’ in the books. In the course of reviewing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in the Sunday Times, Raymond Mortimer complained that Bond’s values were ‘both anti-humanist and anti-Christian.’”
Amis goes on to defend Bond’s moral values, stating:
“I should have thought that a fairly orthodox moral system, vague perhaps but none the less recognizable through accumulation, pervades all Bond’s adventures. Some things are regarded as good: loyalty, fortitude, a sense of responsibility, a readiness to regard one’s safety, even one’s life, as less important than the major interests of one’s organization and one’s country. Other things are regarded as bad: tyranny, readiness to inflict pain on the weak or helpless, the unscrupulous pursuit of money or power. These distinctions aren’t excitingly novel, but they are important, and as humanist and/or Christian as the average reader would want. They constitute quite enough in the way of an ethical frame of reference, assuming anybody needs or looks for or ought to have one in adventure fiction at all.”
There are strong religious symbols and themes used throughout the Bond novels. The best example is the reference to Bond as a St. George figure slaying the dragon and rescuing the damsel in distress. For example, Tiger Tanaka says to Bond in You Only Live Twice, “You are to enter this castle of death and slay the dragon within.” This religious reference is also continued in the John Gardner Bond novels. The Bond novels display the classic battle between Good and Evil and the St. George references are an interesting way of highlighting this.
There are also some more direct references to the Christian religion and the Bible throughout the Bond novels and short stories. In Fleming’s The Property of A Lady, set in an auction room, there is the following:
“Bond picked up a wood and ivory plaque that lay on the table. It said:
It is naught, it is naught, saith the buyer.
But when he is gone his way, he boasteth.
- Proverbs XX, 14
Bond was amused. He said so. ‘You can read the whole history of the bazaar, of the dealer and the customer, behind that quotation,’ he said. He looked Mr Snowman straight in the eyes. ‘I need that sort of nose, that sort of intuition in this case. Will you give me a hand?’”
In John Gardner’s Nobody Lives Forever it is revealed that Bond had a very Calvinistic upbringing. John Calvin, of course, was one of the great Protestant reformers. John Gardner himself was a one-time Anglican priest in the Church of England, following his father into the profession until he gave it up, becoming an agnostic for many years until re-entering into the Christian faith a number of years ago. There are references to the Bible and poetry spread throughout his continuation Bond novels. John Gardner's seventh Bond novel Scorpius (1988) has the religious cult ‘The Society of the Meek Ones’, taken of course from one of the Beatitudes of Jesus Christ, ‘The meek shall inherit the Earth.’ Father Valentine in the novel uses an amalgam of faiths to convert disciples to carry out his suicide bombings and assassinations of politicians for him. As a more recent example in Raymond Benson’s first Bond novel, Zero Minus Ten (1997), there is the following passage in Chapter 20, ‘Walkabout’:
“The Aborigines are known for practicing something called a ‘walkabout’, a rite of passage for young and old people alike. They would go out into the bush and stay there for days, weeks, or even months, living off the land, becoming one with the spirits whom they believe live there, and then return. Some say that the spirits act as guides and protect the humans. Bond wasn’t a religious man, but he stood there under the stars and closed his eyes. He breathed deeply several times, concentrating on the silence of the desert.”
From what is known about Ian Fleming’s background, and the fact that he based much of Bond on his own experience, it is fair to say that Bond was probably from a nonconformist Protestant background, as his father was a Scot from Glencoe, and Fleming himself was of this religion. The Protestant religion also fits more with the Anglo-Saxon, British Raj, patriotic elements which the pre-war spy thrillers with their support of the British Empire, which the Bond novels were partially descended from where the villain was mostly a foreigner, usually from Europe, and never from within Albion’s shores. As Amis points out in his Dossier, “Throughout Bond’s adventures no Englishman does anything bad. The villains are Americans, Bulgars, Chigroes, Corsicans, Germans, Italians, Jugoslavs, Koreans, Russians, Sicilians, Spanish-Americans and Turks.” “To use foreigners as villains is a convention older than our literature.” The rightness of England has with the attendant notion of the rightness of the Anglo-Saxon mainly Protestant view of England (the "Protestant work ethic" etc.), and this is why I think I can accurately pinpoint what religion Bond was born into and practiced - the Protestant religion and the Scots Presbyterian denomination.

Amen.


TBB Article No. 19.


© Brian McKaig, 2006.

HRF Keating on The James Bond Novels

In the documentary The Truth about Len Deighton broadcast on BBC Four in the UK in January 2006 the novelist and critic HRF Keating, the author of the Inspector Ghote books about an Indian detective said the following about the range of spy fiction:
‘The spy story can vary enormously. It can be at one low pole, if you like, Ian Fleming, writing to get himself readers and get himself money. I’m sorry to say it, but that’s true. And at the other extreme is Len Deighton, using the spy story to say things about people and about the world in just the way that Graham Greene used the spy story for that. In Conrad – very happy to use the spy story to penetrate into people and their motives and why they do extraordinary and absurd things and Len is with them all along.’
Now, I have no doubt that what Keating is saying about Deighton is completely accurate. Deighton does not write mere ‘kiss kiss bang bang’ spy thrillers, but I think he is being a little unfair in his assessment of Ian Fleming, who always seems to be so undervalued as a ‘popular’ spy novelist.
Let us not forget that it was HRF Keating himself who acted as the go-between for Glidrose in 1980 when John Gardner was asked to be the continuation James Bond author. From John Gardner’s site:
‘In the autumn of 1980 I was living in the Republic of Ireland: about two miles outside Wicklow town. There, on a glorious morning when the leaves were turning to red and gold, I received a letter from HRF Keating, the author of those wonderful Inspector Ghote books. In fact I did not recognise his handwriting so I put it into the pile I usually held back until my lunch break: the letters I thought were either love or hate mail. When I finally opened the envelope – Basildon Bond notepaper – I found that Harry Keating was acting as a go-between for Glidrose, the literary copyright holders in the James Bond books. They were sounding me out: would I consider writing a continuation James Bond novel?’
Perhaps some of Keating’s view of Fleming’s Bond novels comes from the article Ian Fleming wrote in 1962 entitled How To Write A Thriller,
‘I am not an angry young, or even middle-aged, man. My books are not “engaged”. I have no message for suffering humanity and, though I was bullied at school and lost my virginity like so many of us used to do in the old days, I have never been tempted to foist these and other harrowing personal experiences on the public. My opuscula do not aim at changing people or making them go out and do something. They are written for warm-blooded heterosexuals in railway trains, aeroplanes or beds.’
Fleming continues he once asked an ‘angry young’ writer ‘of renown’ ‘how he described himself on his passport’:
“I bet you call yourself an Author,” I said. He agreed, with a shade of reluctance, perhaps because he scented sarcasm on the way. “Just so,” I said. “Well, I describe myself as a Writer. There are authors and artists and then again there are writers and painters.”
This rather spiteful jibe, which forced him, most unwillingly, into the ranks of the Establishment, while stealing for myself the halo of a simple craftsman from the people, made the angry young man angrier than ever and I don’t now see him as often as I used to. But the point I wish to make is that if you decide to become a professional writer, you must, broadly speaking, decide whether you wish to write for fame, for pleasure or for money. I write, unashamedly, for pleasure and money.
I also feel that, while thrillers may not be Literature with a capital L, it is possible to write what I can best describe as “Thrillers designed to be read as literature”, the practitioners of which have included such as Edgar Allan Poe, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene. I see nothing shameful in aiming as high as these.’
Perhaps Fleming here is being a little too modest, polite and admirably unpretentious, as Kingsley Amis in The James Bond Dossier (1965) points out in pages 140-1 in the Pan 1966 paperback version:
If Mr. Fleming had wanted the Bond books to be read as literature (a big ‘if’, I would bet), he certainly went about it the wrong way. To begin with, he shouldn’t have behaved as unpretentiously, even flippantly, as he did when interviewed.
‘My books tremble on the brink of corn.’
‘I have a rule of never looking back. Otherwise I’d wonder, “How could I write such piffle?”‘
‘[I am concerned in] the business of getting intelligent, uninhabited adolescents of all ages, in trains, aeroplanes and beds, to turn over the page.’
That’s no way to go on. Mr Fleming seemed never to have heard of the most elementary maxim of the writer’s trade, People take you at your own valuation. If you tell them you’re a genius, or a mere entertainer, they’ll tell one another you’re a genius or a mere entertainer. The remedy was plain to see and not onerous. A few public statements with every other sentence beginning, ‘As a writer I…,’ a couple of articles explaining that the lot of 007 allegorized the lot of Western man, the Secret Service symbolized the contemporary consciousness, and critical esteem would have gone shooting up.’
p. 142,
‘That huge virtue of never stooping to pretentiousness, of never going in for any kind of arty or symbolic flannel, has cost Mr Fleming a formidable amount of critical acclaim, but it’s done as much as anything to bring him readers. Whatever the rights and wrongs of using literature as escape from life, there’s a lot to be said for using one kind of literature as escape from others.’

TBB Article No. 18


 © Brian McKaig, 2006.