Oh Bondage …

An original Corgi edition of the ‘Goldfinger’-tie-in Aston DB5. About £750-odd now. I had one, when I was six. If only my parents had hidden it from me; a determined child can do a lot of damage with a hammer and a few fireworks.

‘Bond tensed in the darkness and reached for his teeth.’

The above sentence was written by the late Alan Coren and comes from a satire he wrote for Punch magazine in the 1980s, a meditation upon the fate of fictional heroes in later life. Coren’s piece came to mind whilst I was watching No Time To Die, the latest 007 saga and the final outing for Daniel Crag in the role. I confess that I only went to see the film out of a sense of duty, knowing that I was going to be writing this post, as I am not a big fan of the Eon/Bond franchise. However, I will also confess to having slightly enjoyed No Time To Die, against what felt like my better judgement. 

By way of prologue we get a seemingly endless pre-credit sequence – actually two pre-credit sequences, opening with the secret backstory of Bond’s girlfriend – detailing the carnage of Bond’s emotional life by means of a romantic trip to Italy interrupted by the usual chases and ultra-violence. This climaxes with Bond’s novelty Aston Martin DB5 transforming itself from vintage grand tourer into every schoolboy’s fantasy weapon. (How do you think Bond insures his various Astons? Can you imagine what his premiums are like? And the DB5 is a government vehicle, isn’t it? So why is he on holiday in it? Wouldn’t Accounts be asking why he didn’t hire a Fiat?) Anyway, after the credits we get to see Bond in retirement in Jamaica, a nod to Ian Fleming’s love of the island: a solitary fifty-ish gent who lives a simple life consisting of yachting, fishing, brushing his teeth under a waterfall, and meeting CIA and MI6 agents in local bars. And we’re off again. The screenwriting seemed improved this time; the addition of Phoebe Waller Bridge to the credits is clearly significant, as there are flashes of real wit that stand out from the standard lumpenbond dialogue (it would not be a Bond film without the odd line thudding on deck like a harpooned albatross). But the story is a strange mixture of elements; this time, SPECTRE threatens the world with a doomsday bioweapon stolen from a British government lab, picturesquely situated in a skyscraper in the middle of London, as opposed to hidden away in the depths of Wiltshire. This sinister nano-bot virus can be genetically tailored to target individuals or entire populations, inducing fatality – with grotesque physical symptoms – within moments. (This aspect of the plot reminded me of a similar device in The Satanic Rites of Dracula, wherein Christopher Lee – as he unhappily described it – played the lord of the undead as ‘a mixture of Howard Hughes and Dr. No‘.) This genuinely nasty idea sits rather oddly with the slapstick violence of the action set pieces, although Ana de Armas’s brief appearance in one of them, playing a  gauche spy, was an opportunity to exercise some of the aforementioned wit (especially Ms Armas’s nonchalant dispatch of the regulation vodka martini, a welcome acknowledgment of the absurdity of that fixture of 007’s world).

Daniel Craig inCasino Royale

Daniel Craig’s fifteen-year turn as 007 has been an opportunity for the film-makers to give Bond sensitivity and depth, which is where the rot sets in. Of course, the entire 007 project is an adolescent fantasy. Ian Fleming made no bones about this. Fleming’s biographer Andrew Lycett suggests that Bond is the kind of agent Fleming would have liked to have been, rather than the largely desk-bound operative he was at the Admiralty during WW2. That said, Commander Fleming was uniquely positioned to research methods of covert warfare which he later elaborated upon in his novels. Contacts in the Ministry of Supply furnished him with details of gadgets issued to agents in the field: hollow golf balls or shaving brushes, gas pens, shoelaces that could be used as saws, and so on. The germ of Casino Royale appears to have been a visit to a casino in Estoril in 1941, whilst en route to a diplomatic meeting in Bermuda. Fleming was intrigued by the idea that it would have been quite something if the nondescript Portuguese businessmen he had played (and lost) against had really been Nazi agents. And elements of Thunderball were derived from his knowledge of the Italian Navy’s submersible operations around Gibraltar in 1942. As to Bond’s sexual predilections, these seem to have sprung directly from Fleming’s id. In The Spy Who Loved Me, Fleming puts these words into the mouth of his female narrator: ‘All women love semi-rape … It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that had made the act of love so piercingly wonderful.’ (And, it should be noted, there is a startling scene in the 1965 film of Thunderball where Connery’s Bond forces himself upon Molly Peters‘s masseuse, a rape treated as a bit of prurient/comic business). Fleming was, it seems, keen on sado-masochism, although the various desires recorded in his letters to Ann Rothermere, his lover and, eventually, his wife, sound comically suburban rather than genuinely perverse. Elsewhere he referred to Bond as a ‘blunt object’ and not a hero, although he seems to have been conflicted as to the true morality of his own creation. The fetishisation of good living in Fleming’s novels obviously reflects the author’s enjoyment of the high life; but Bond is a spy, so his catalogue of lifestyle snobberies makes him rather conspicuous, which you would have thought would been a liability in his profession. In the novels he drives a 3.5 litre ‘blower’ Bentley, which is almost as ludicrous as the fully weaponised Aston Martin DB5 Sean Connery drives in Goldfinger, and which has been resurrected for Daniel Craig’s use. But on the whole it is futile to pick holes in Fleming’s project, as it is Never-Never Land. John Betjeman, in a letter to Fleming, compared Bond to Sherlock Holmes: ‘The Bond world is as real and full of fear as Conan Doyle’s Norwood and Surrey and Baker Street. I think the only other person to have invented a world in our own time is Wodehouse.’ That makes sense but it becomes problematic when fantasy leaches into reality.

Ian Fleming

Personally, I cannot stomach the novels. I enjoyed them when I was twelve, but a recent attempt to read one I was unfamiliar with (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) ended at the start of chapter two. I quite like some of the films. For all the antediluvian sexism of Connery-era Bond the cartoonish nature of the enterprise was offset by the loving treatment of travel and high living, as well as the swirling gorgeousness of John Barry’s scores. By the 1970s, with Roger Moore essaying 007 as a man in a safari suit whose gait suggested a slight case of piles, the film-makers simply opted to parody Britain’s post-imperial delusions; hence Bond becomes the protagonist in a series of hi-tech pantomimes which, whatever their merits as cinema, seemed appropriate treatment for the material. I remember watching Octopussy in a cinema in New Orleans in 1983, and being the only audience member to get Roger Moore’s very British joke at the expense of BBC TV’s dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse. Moore’s 007 even dresses up as a clown at one point; one can’t imagine Daniel Craig’s special agent plumbing such depths. But Octopussy doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a joke (starting with its title). The trouble, it seems to me, is when the 007 franchise is adduced as indicative of national character: that Bond represents Britain. This was put into queasily explicit form at the opening of the 2012 London Olympics, when Daniel Craig was drafted in to play Bond alongside HM The Queen, who was playing herself. A funny idea, except … the absurdity seemed out of place. A piece of entertainment had fused with an idea of national identity in a way that now seems rather worrying. I write this at a time when the British Government’s position over the Brexit agreement re: Northern Ireland has moved into the realm of macho fantasy, a mendacious confection as absurd as the machine guns and bulletproof glass fitted to Bond’s Aston. No sane person would want to disinter Bulldog Drummond, the proto-Blackshirt forerunner of Bond, who worked off his post-Great War energies by beating up uppity foreign villains; but I can’t be alone in thinking that 21st Century Bond caters to a similarly delusional notion of British supremacy. We’re still celebrating VE Day in a world that no longer needs us.

There is one aspect of No Time To Die where the screenwriters missed a trick. The fiendish techno-virus was overseen and kept secret by Bond’s boss, M. Bond is certainly unhappy about this turn of events but it seems to this viewer that, rather than maintain the status quo, it would have been refreshing to have seen Bond going for M’s throat, then following the trail right to the top. After all, we currently have a Prime Minister who possesses many of the essential qualities of a Bond villain, and it would have been satisfying to have seen a ‘Borisfeld’ immolated in some suitably resonant context. Killed by his own hair, perhaps.

N.B.: A dry martini is made with gin, and is stirred, not shaken. (The drink goes watery if you shake it.)

See also: A Drunk At The Flicks

London Airs

Denmark St., with Centre Point looming behind, in 2015.

I have written about old St Giles before: as a dreadful ancient slum, Victorian London’s most fearful rookery, a festering warren inhabited by the poor, according to Charles Dickens, ‘like maggots in a cheese’. Did I mention that there was once a gallows roughly where Centre Point stands now? Seems fitting, especially as the phrase ‘one for the road’ derives from the custom of halting at St Giles to give a final drink to doomed convicts en route from Newgate to execution at Tyburn. (The Bowl and The Angel are both mentioned as pubs known for this charity.) In the 1660s St Giles became notorious as point of origin for the Great Plague, and the areas woes went on and on. Crumbling, fragile Denmark St., laid out in the 1680s, still survives, squeezed by the towering 1960s bombast of Centre Point and an assortment of wind- swept plazas that form an inner-city desert. You would be hard pressed to realize it now but this bit of town was once a mecca for British popular music. The Astoria Theatre, at the northern end of the Charing Cross Rd., was one of the most important clubs for breaking rock bands until it was sacrificed on the altar of Crossrail. A few yards to the north, on the southern reaches of the Tottenham Court Road, in an Irish dancehall (The Blarney, long since bulldozed), you would once have found the pioneer psychedelic club UFO, a short-lived temple to progressive music and expanded consciousness. For a few months in 1967 you could go there on a Friday night to lose your mind to the sounds of Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd or Soft Machine, who were the resident bands, and the hallucinatory light shows (pioneered by Mark Boyle, amongst others) that constituted a new form of art installation.

Billy Fury and manager Larry Parnes.

And you hardly need me to tell you that Denmark St. (‘London’s own Tin Pan Alley!’) used to be London’s music business quarter. In the fifties, this was the fiefdom of Larry Parnes, impresario and Svengali-figure, manager of Tommy Steele, Georgie Fame, and improbably-named singers like Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, Dickie Pride, Johnny Gentle (these latter supposedly – urban myth alert – re-named by Parnes according to sexual type). Parnes was so risible that he was mocked by Muir and Norden in a famous Peter Sellers sketch, and the 1958 musical Expresso Bongo by Wolf Mankowitz (father of music photographer Gered) satirised Parnes’s domination of the contemporary pop scene. Expresso Bongo was promptly made into a film, wherein the satire was largely ditched in order to make it a star vehicle for Cliff Richard; this seems, somehow, entirely appropriate. Other local fixtures included songwriter Lionel Bart, the jingle genius Johnny Johnston (Softness is a Thing Called Comfort, Beanz Meanz Heinz, and five thousand other commercial ditties), and all the other personalities of the pre-Beatles universe. In the later sixties, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Donovan, Bowie, Hendrix all came here to record, in studios (e.g. Regent Sound, at no.4) carved out of 17th-century basements. The likes of David Bowie and Paul Simon came to schmooze publishers and hang out at the Giaconda coffee bar. Ten years later it was the turn of the phlegm-flecked protégés of Malcolm McLaren (the seventies version of Larry Parnes, plus value-added Situationist bullshit) The Sex Pistols, who rehearsed and lived here for a while. And, whilst he is unlikely to get a blue plaque, the mass-murderer Dennis Nilsen spent the early 1980s working in a jobcentre that used to be on the corner of Denmark St. and the Charing Cross Road (where, at one year’s Christmas staff party, Nilsen served his colleagues punch in a large pot he brought from his home, the same pan he used for boiling his victims’ heads).

Barbara Windsor and Lionel Bart during dress rehearsals for ‘Twang!!’

Wandering a bit further east from Denmark St., past Renzo Piano’s aggressively bright St. Giles Central development, you find Shaftesbury Avenue, St.Giles High St., and Bloomsbury St. converging in an unlovely funnel of tarmac. On the other side of the churning traffic lies the Shaftesbury Theatre, a crumbling Edwardian edifice stranded amidst the one-way system. The Shaftesbury is a survivor, narrowly escaping demolition in the 1970s, during the interminable run of the hippie operetta Hair, which ran from September 1968 until July 1973, when the theatre’s ceiling caved in. The owners, EMI, wanted to redevelop the site but the actor’s union Equity managed to get the building Grade 2 listed and it has since established itself as a successfully venue in a blighted location. The Shaftesbury also played a role in the downfall of local hero Lionel Bart. After rising to prominence as a writer of hits for Larry Parnes’s stable, Bart’s zenith was the celebrated musical Oliver! which opened at the New Theatre (now the Noel Coward theatre) on St Martin’s Lane in June 1960. A few years later, hubris struck as his under-prepared Robin Hood satire Twang!! – that’s two exclamation marks – had its chaotic London premiere at The Shaftesbury in December 1965. Reviews were terrible and the show closed after five weeks. Ignoring the wisdom that one should never invest your own money in your own show, Bart threw his fortune at the mess to try to keep it running and lost just about everything. At one point he sold his Oliver! copyrights to Max Bygraves for something like loose change. (As some of Oliver!‘s numbers were re-workings of old London street cries, this is another eventuality that has a pleasing inevitability about it.)

If 1840s St Giles was the ultimate in city squalor, its 21st century incarnation is the very model of a modern townscape: a sterile concrete tundra, safely contemporary, safely cheerless. Around 1900, London suffered the destruction of Wych St. and environs to create ‘new’ Aldwych and Kingsway, the loss of which it is hard to overstate. That particular act of civic philistinism didn’t just obliterate some of the prettiest streets in the capital, it cauterized life on the streets – which is exactly what it was intended to do, removing ‘unwholesome’ theatres and booksellers and erasing one of London’s cultural centres. The destruction of the area around Denmark Street is the contemporary equivalent. How do we characterise it? A few years ago, I saw chalked graffiti on the hoarding in front of the remains of the 12 Bar club that summed it up …

(Speaking of the Shaftesbury Theatre, there used to be a strange wine bar beneath it, The Grapes, which boasted an Escher-drawing of an interior and small, inadequate tables. It is now another branch of the London Cocktail Club. Some years ago I got into trouble there in a memorable episode which I describe here. A cautionary tale of sorts.)

At Home With The Drinker

The Drinker puts his Roger Whittaker LP on the radiogram and hopes she’ll be impressed … (photo by the late, great, Julius Shulman, used with abject apologies, etc.)

I recently visited some neighbours down on the second floor of Drinker’s Towers for some tips on the management of space. (The flats are nice but they aren’t huge.) This particular couple are a pair of architects and whilst the layout of their flat is in almost all respects identical to mine, the effect on entering is totally different. For a start, every time of furniture, every objet, has obviously been the subject of considerable thought and discussion, as opposed to being rescued at the last minute from a skip. My £5.99 bottle of Aldi Pinot Grigio seemed to shrivel in my hand as I surveyed a pristine vision of luxe living in an unlikely south London postcode, like a meticulously styled spread in The Modern House brochure sprung to life (fortunately without the pretentious, soft-sell copy). Why doesn’t my flat look like this?, I asked myself, then immediately provided the answer: because my flat is stuffed full of crap. Nick Drake’s evocative phrase about the illusory security of ‘all the books and all the records of your lifetime‘ sounds more resonant and mournful as the years wear on. I have over a thousand books and at least as many LPs, CDs, cassettes, minidiscs, DVDs and VHS videos. I even have some 8mm home movies, not to mention my personal archive of a lifetime’s photography (a trunk in my living room contains the corpse of my photographic career). The other night I watched a video tape of Double indemnity that I had taped off BBC2 in 1990; before the film started I glimpsed a youthful Jeremy Paxman wrapping up Newsnight with a characteristically trenchant analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s position following the challenge to her leadership of the Tory party. Nostalgia, eh?

My sister correctly diagnosed the problem: ‘You are trying to recreate the certainties of adolescence.’ She’s right, of course. And whilst I am well aware of the problem, I still perpetuate it. The other day I treated myself to a new turntable and promptly dug out records that I bought when I was young and culturally ambitious. It was a terrible mistake. Do I really derive any pleasure, any enjoyment at all, from listening to that (unaccountably worn) LP of Le Marteau Sans Maitre? Can I really be arsed to clear those 1970s photographic magazines off the armchair and sit through an entire Mahler symphony, or, for that matter, John Coltrane’s Ascension: is that really something I want to sample over a glass of corner shop red wine? Wouldn’t I rather watch Dr. Pimple Popper instead? Yet still I hang on to these things. An even bigger problem is all the stuff that I have inherited: an African tribal shield fashioned from a giraffe’s neck, something my father picked up in Africa in the late fifties. An entire cabinet of decorative glassware; a prop sword; my mother’s set of willow-pattern serving platters and unidentifiable kitchen equipment; a variety of imposing Thames And Hudson coffee table volumes (e.g. Great Cities, The Cradle of Civilisation, The Renaissance, etc., with introductions by the ubiquitous Arnold Toynbee and ‘tipped-in’ colour plates that have all since tipped out) … the list goes on and on. The problem is that my flat is like the inside of my head: crammed with partially-digested cultural influences, too many ties to the past, and a style of presentation which is as au courant as the House And Garden Annual, 1963.

I suppose that the psychology of collecting or, God help me, hoarding, is connected in some sense to the need to build a bulwark against death. In that sense, my flat is a bit like a Roman general’s campaign tent, pitched in some wet field in Provincia Britannia but arrayed with reminders of Rome and the spoils of victory: tokens of luck against a nasty fate at the hands of some gnarly Pict or Celt. And when the time comes to move house, I suspect that many of these things will simply be abandoned, like the family heirlooms jettisoned by desperate 19th century American settlers heading west across the Sierras. Seeing treasured (or just familiar) family possessions out in the street is genuinely disturbing; but, ultimately, it is all just stuff. Yet there are few things more depressing than walking into someone’s home (especially if the occasion happens to be a date) and encountering a default modern interior. Plantation shutters, recessed downlighters, beech laminate flooring, a flat screen TV over a cold function-free fireplace, repro posters from IKEA, ‘inspirational’ quotes plastered over lemon/beige walls in peel-off acrylic letters (‘Live, love, laugh’, ‘No dancing – except on tables’, etc.), an occasional, unsurprising book – a Booker Prize winner or a Nigella tome – and an overall sensation that life’s essentials have been carefully subtracted from the space. It isn’t just a question of taste; it seems to me that it is a fear of introspection, an aggressive wish to live a modern life as a modern person, which is just as much a denial of mortality as, say, owning the complete Laurel and Hardy on DVD. (I have it, I never watch it.) The socially approved, tastefully furnished yet numbing interiors on show in Francois Truffaut’s underrated 1968 film of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (filmed in Britain) seem prophetic: comfortable spaces where thought and memory are prohibited.

As it happens, I am currently away from Drinker’s Towers, dog-sitting in distant Metro-Land whilst a friend is out of the country. Here, where the Metropolitan Line trains still toot their toy-like horns as they pass, it is sad to see Deco houses being made-over into identikit modern homes, with front gardens grubbed up to make way for dual car ports with recessed floor lighting, sashes replaced with steel black-framed windows, and fitted with those weird front doors that look like entrances to public toilets in small hotels. But I can’t worry too much about that, I am faced with yet another stash of things, as I promised my absent friend that I would try to straighten out her place whilst she was away. This has proved to be a daunting task. The volume of her possessions has grown, exponentially, to fill the available space, which happens to be a three-storey Edwardian house. Impressive collections of books, furniture, china, paintings and drawings, photographs, shoes, etc., fight a losing battle against five cats, two dogs of excitable temperament, dead Amazon packages, out-of-date food, chewed slippers, and a sea of laundry, paperwork, turds, and balls of fluff. The gardeners are due soon and I have to clear the lawn of dozens of doggy jobbies before they arrive. Pets, like small children, are a great leveller when it comes to aspirational decor. That Eames recliner looked great before the French bulldog pup sank its chops into the plywood shell (which now looks like a chunk of reclaimed driftwood). The carved apron on that astral glazed bookcase was exquisite until he bit right through it. And I’m not going to touch that lumpy yellow stain on the rug, I don’t know what it is or how long it’s been there. I haven’t spilled anything; but if I stick to white wine and spill that, she will think it was cat piss, so I’m in the clear either way. Cheers.

Lush life in Metro-Land …