Archive for November, 2006

Live another day

Friday, November 17th, 2006

The sun set on the Empire decades ago, and New Labour’s New Britannia dream has long gone sour. It’s been relegated to the status of the United States’ 51st state, and the lasting English image from this year’s World Cup soccer was David Beckham sitting on the bench and weeping helplessly as he watched his team hurtle out of the tournament. But James Bond is back once more, wreaking mayhem and chaos for Queen and country, utterly unaware that times have changed, that they changed a long time ago.

The British spy novel has been a mirror to the slide of the Empire and Britain’s changing geopolitical role. It’s been a long journey from John Buchan’s Richard Hannay in the early 20th century through Len Deighton’s cynical Bernard Sampson to John le Carre’s tired circus operatives who knowingly go to pointless deaths in the service of causes they lost faith in years ago. Hannay was a South African who settled in Britain and fought in the First World War, both on the battlefield and behind the lines. He is Tory through and through, is unconsciously racist, and believes that the white man must civilise the rest of the world. In other words, he is the twin of his creator, Buchan, an empirist bureaucrat and politician who rose to be governor general of Canada.

As the 1960s rolled in, the British spy changed. Both of Deighton’s principal protagonists — a nameless agent christened Harry Palmer for films, and Bernard Sampson in the Game Set Match nine-novel series — are men with no illusions in their heart. The nameless agent is an empty man with no particular values or beliefs other than a visceral hatred of communism. Yet he has no respect for his bureaucratic masters in London and harbours no hope that they will be ever able to make the world a better place. Sampson is, in comparison, an honourable man, but hamstrung by bureaucratic inefficiency in a secret service that has become an old boys’ club, with promotions decided by pedigree. In Sampson’s world, the murky core of the Cold War, mistrust is the only currency, and he is sometimes not even sure which side he is putting his life on the line for.

Former secret service officer Le Carre started writing around the same time as Deighton, but his world — and he is still writing — is grimmer, bleaker, and devoid of any justice. At least, in Deighton’s case, the communists are the bad guys. In Le Carre’s world the communists are definitely not any more vicious or amoral than the men running the British secret service. (In Graham Greene’s last spy novel, The Human Factor, the hero actually defects to the Soviet Union.) Even Le Carre’s post-Cold War novels reveal a deep despair about the state of our world, and no sign that it has become a better place since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And as Britain’s aura faded on the world stage, Le Carre’s novels too recorded how the British secret service became toothless and subservient to “the cousins” from the CIA.

The James Bond novels of Ian Fleming of course had as much to do with reality as the Hindi film Border had to do with a great Australian cricket captain. And as budgets have risen and graphics technology improved, the films have moved away from the real world even further. In the films, Bond has floated inside a space shuttle (Moonraker) and driven a car that flies (The Man with the Golden Gun). He has ridden a motorcycle off a cliff and then free-fallen to board a pilotless plane thousands of feet above ground (Goldeneye). He has raced a car that can turn invisible over a frozen lake at one side of which stands a castle where everything — from the walls to the furniture — is made of ice (Die Another Day). When he visits the US, he is treated with respect by the CIA. In fact, in most of the films where he works with the CIA, the Americans are mere back-up teams to Bond who goes alone into the villain’s den and wipes it off the face of the earth without much help needed from anyone else.

The only concession the Bond films have made to reality in recent times is to show Bond’s workplace as the actual MI6 headquarters by the Thames (The World Is Not Enough). And here hangs an interesting tale. The MI6 had never

allowed exterior filming of the building. When the producers approached the government for permission, it initially objected, citing security risk. But Robin Cook, then foreign secretary, allowed shooting, saying famously: “After all Bond has done for Britain, it was the least we could do for Bond.”

Cook of course was absolutely right. Yes, Bond has been played by an Australian and an Irishman, but he has always been unmistakably British. There can be no doubt in any viewer’s mind at any point which nation this man insouciantly represents. He is descended from a long line of fictional British empire makers. Alan Quartermain’s blood flows through his veins. No wonder there was nearly a national outcry in Britain when Bond switched to a BMW from his traditional Aston Martin in Goldeneye (even though the originally British car company was then owned by US-based Ford). The Empire is gone, but for those two wonderfully entertaining hours when Bond vanquishes his next dastardly villain, perhaps the empire seems living and thriving again to Englishmen. And to everyone else, it is a reminder of Britain’s past glories and achievements in so carefully humour-underlaid a manner that one feels neither rancour nor irritation. I for myself can’t wait to see Casino Royale. Even the Aston Martin has been brought back.