So, lately I have been amusing myself by picking up the James Bond novels when I see them in charity shops, at car boot sales or library sales, and so on. I haven’t read that many of them — I’ve read Dr No, Live and Let Die, Goldfinger, Diamonds are Forever, and, er, the one with the skiing. Is that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? And maybe one more.
I enjoy them primarily as period pieces. There is a certain amount of thrilling action in them, but mainly there is a lot of shopping and vacationing. And sometimes golf. And racism.
I think my favourite thing in them, though, is the cool newness of the 1950s. For instance, Diamonds are Forever (I think) has a really long section where James Bond flies to America. And, I mean, these are not long novels. They are quick beach-reading thrillers. But still it has this whole long rigmarole: James Bond packs his suitcase. He goes to Heathrow. He has lunch. He gets on the plane. He goes to Ireland. He gets off the plane. He has dinner. He gets on the plane and flies to New York. He goes through customs. He goes to the hotel. He has breakfast. It goes on forever.
But of course in the 1950s international air travel was still very new, very glamorous. James Bond is doing something exotic and cool and his readers can go “wow, it must be great to be this sophisticated globe-trotter.”
So in that respect they’re fascinating. But they’re also, of course, very dated — sometimes unpleasantly (James Bond thinks letting women vote has turned men into “pansies”) and sometimes hilariously. Here is Bond asking Goldfinger about his henchman Oddjob:
“I was very impressed by that chauffeur of yours. Where did he lean that fantastic combat stuff? Where did it come from? Is that what the Koreans use?”
[Stuff about the food and wine]
… Goldinger said, “Have you ever heard of Karate? No? Well that man is one of three in the world who have achieved the Black Belt in Karate. Karate is a branch of judo, but it is to judo what a Spandau is to a catapult.”
It’s just amazing. I love the breathless hyperbole, I love the “have you ever heard of … Karate?” I can’t decide whether it’s funnier to imagine him saying it “Kara-TAY” or “Kroddy.” It’s just … in 1959 maybe having heard of karate made you a baller, but in the world of mini-mall dojos it’s the most charmingly dumb thing imaginable.
I wonder what the modern equivalents will be. My friend Ted used to refer to forms of wealth in spy stories as “katana currency,” that is to say currency which has some kind of cheap exoticism attached to make it cool and memorable. A briefcase full of hundred-dollar bills is currency, but conflict diamonds are katana currency. That kind of thing. Like bad guys in movies always being ex-Spetsnaz. No one can ever just be a former used car salesman from Magnitogorsk who goes to the gym a lot and has no regard for human life. And in the 80s everyone was a ninja. Next it’ll be … I don’t know what. Some other thing. But it’s really sweet to see that in 1959 it was karate.