Sunday, April 22, 2007

Simon Winder's The Man Who Saved Britain - my late night reading

For the past week, my late night reading has been Simon Winder, The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond (FSG 2006). It is wonderfully entertaining - thesis is that Ian Fleming's novels provided an essential palliative to 50s and early 60s Britain as it faced one humiliation after another following its heroic victory in the Second World War. It is more a cultural history of Britain through a certain period - the period, from my own standpoint, of most of my British friends, who are old enough to have been growing up as children in exactly this period - than a book about Bond, the Bond movies, or even Bond as cultural icon. It is using Bond as a lens on the period rather than Bond as Bond or even Bond as cultural artifact. Winder says a lot about Bond and the Bond books and early movies, and his readings are wonderfully quirky. But it is his take on Britain itself during this period that actually engages me. I understand my British friends who were children during that period a little better for it - I think, anway.

For one thing, I guess I knew - reading, for example, Tony Judt's wonderful Postwar - that postwar 50s Britain was really, really poor. Poor, and not rebuilt with the vigor and speed of Germany. The contrast Winder makes with the United States is striking. Say what one does about the 50s in America - I was born in 1956 and wasn't conscious of any of this - it was a time of tremendous optimism and growth, people having babies everywhere because they had a confidence about the future, the growth of the suburbs, all that. That was apparently not the state of Britain at all - grimy, decayed, destroyed, poor, straitened, Winder has a nearly limitless set of adjectives to describe this world of hopelessness and the irony of victory.

The curious part is that Winder does not have an original political thought in his head - the main point is that Britain was both doomed to this unhappiness and deserved it as the price for its wicked centuries of empire. The vultures come home to roost. Britain's pain is the price - far too cheap, according to Winder - of having been the self-confident Victorian imperialist. His thesis is entirely a conventional whine - or whinge? - about the wickedness of British imperialism and how Bond is supposed to make the British feel better about being on the receiving end of humiliation as things fall apart after the War. I'm not British, I am not especially anglophile, but there is something entirely goofy, if politically correct, about Winder's sense of historic and cosmic justice. The world which got the East India Company going is not the world of Indian independence, and it doesn't help in the present very much at all - not from the standpoint of social justice today or thinking through present problems - to adopt a sort of transhistorical sense of judgment about how things came to be from centuries ago. It just multiplies the problems of historical injustice to the point of complete paralysis, because everyone got fucked by someone in the past, and trying to fix it all guarantees either permanent war or permanent paralysis. This is not to say one doesn't try to address injustice in the present - along with economic growth for the living, political stability, and a lot of other things - but Winder is smitten in the most conventional PC way with ancient wrongs and rights.

Still, it must be said that for an utterly conventional political thinker of the whining, guilty, self-abasing, apologizing variety, put in the service of everyone else's resentments which are finally Winder's own - well, he manages to put this in prose and expression at a level so far above the common academic herd that it is, for all the vacuity of the political ideas, genuinely a pleasure to read. He manages to make one laugh aloud with pointless political correctness, anti-imperialism, anti-god-knows-what - rather than at it, which is much the normal formulation. He's a terrific writer even devoid of political ideas; he is rescued by the acuity of his cultural observations and his highly original readings of Bond. I never thought I would find myself laughing aloud in a book of this sort, which, in academic hands, ordinarily runs to ressentiment.

Or to put all this another way. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that is quite so cheerily and wittily self-loathing. Self-loathing about oneself, one's country, one's political culture, one's fellow citizens. There is a lot of self-loathing about, of course, but almost never does it come so cheerfully dressed. So much so that it almost - almost, but finally not quite - makes me wonder if Winder actually believes it.

(ps., May 10, 2007. Winder's book has inspired me to pick up an ancient - dating back the 1960s - paperback copy of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. I have no idea where it came from - I hope we didn't pay to have it moved from NY to DC ten years ago. I don't recall if Winder mentions it - I'm sure he does - but I can't remember the last time, outside of old-fashioned children's books, where I saw quite so many exclamation points! Every other sentence on some pages seems to have an exclamation point! It seems peculiar because the suave, competent, quiet Bond does not seem like the kind of person to think in sentences ending in exclamation points! But he does!)

(pps, May 10. Once, a couple of years ago, I took my daughter with me on a speaking trip to the LSE - we did tea at the Ritz, the Tower, all the good stuff. At the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, the band struck up the themes to James Bond. I think of this today because Gerard Baker, writing about the Queen's visit to the US this week, noted that along with Rule Brittania, the band at the embassy party struck up the Bond theme as well. The man who saved Britain, indeed?)

Update, August 9, 2007. Here, by the way, is what Mark Steyn had to say about this book in the WSJ:

Contemplating the cover of The Man Who Saved Britain – Sean Connery, wearing a tuxedo and a sadistic smile, caressing his cheek with his Walther PPK, as a nubile underclad Sixties dolly bird somewhere down at crotch height nuzzles against his upper thigh…

Where was I? Oh, yes. Bond, James Bond. Contemplating the cover of The Man Who Saved Britain, you’re struck by the apparent ingenuity of Simon Winder’s concept: it is weird, when you think about it, that the great enduring iconic figure of the Cold War, the very embodiment of the espionage profession, should be a Brit. The country was, after all, pretty peripheral in the vanquishing of Communism, and indeed at the height of the Soviet threat was lapsing into a grim Brezhnevite decay of its own. And even the dolly birds were more honored in the breach: if Kim Philby and co are anything to go by, Her Majesty’s Secret Service inclined more toward Plenty O’Toole than Pussy Galore.

And yet, if one were to say the words “secret agent” to almost anyone within range of western popular culture this last half-century, he or she would conjure a suave Englishman (mostly played by Scotsmen, Welshmen, Irishmen and Australians) ordering martinis and shagging his way around the world on behalf of a nation all but shagged out. President Bush implicitly endorsed this curious pre-eminence in his notorious 16 words from the 2003 State of the Union:
The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

Well, of course. And how would they learn that? The CIA, with the unlimited resources of the hyperpower, sent in Joseph C Wilson IV to sip mint tea in Niger with retired bureaucrats for a few days: Double-oh-IV, licensed to kill time. London no doubt dispatched Bond to break into the presidential palace and run around the basement laboratory shooting huge numbers of extras in aluminum-foil catsuits, while still finding ten minutes for a vigorous encounter with some appealingly dusky West African totty (007 was always an equal-opportunity sex fiend; long before it was fashionable, he was usually game for a little affirmative action…

Where was I? Oh, yes. Bond, James Bond. Simon Winder’s thesis is that 007 is both a reflection of and an escape from imperial decline: “I want to convey, perhaps in an overdrawn form, some of the ways in which Britain has changed – and by following James Bond show some of a vanished world which he in various ways pulled together.”

Sounds fun, and Winder would seem the ideal chap to do it. A few years back, he compiled a lovely anthology called My Name’s Bond… rounding up Ian Fleming’s best soundbites from the 007 novels. There are an awful lot of them, not least from Casino Royale:

‘A dry Martini,’ he said. ‘One. In a deep champagne goblet.’
'Oui, monsieur.’
‘Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?’
‘Certainly, monsieur.’ The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

Unlike Bond's critics, who get ever more irked with his rituals. My Name’s Bond… is one of those small perfect books I love to take on long flights. Winder is a Fleming fan and he has an eye for those moments of pure stylistic pleasure the novels offer. It’s in attempting to advance from annotated arcana to an argument that Winder’s new book comes a cropper. He begins in the dark at the dawn of the Roger Moore imperium: “I am ten years old, sitting in a suburban English cinema. On the screen a man with a large chin and black roll-neck sweater pushes through jungle foliage… A white woman has been tied to a post and a black man dressed in animal skins is laughing crazily and wielding a massive poisonous snake… The man with the large chin starts shooting the black people…”

The fan of My Name’s Bond… suddenly seems a lot more sheepish about the whole business. He can’t even get through a list of the movies without collapsing in embarrassment: “The Man With The Golden Gun (1974), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Moonraker (1979)… I’m sorry. I just can’t go on it’s all so terrible. They’re roughly the same, come out at irregular intervals and tend to have the word Die in the title.”

Oh, dear. And this is before Mr Winder has even got stuck into his big picture: the violence and racism and ugliness of the British Empire. Though he refers to “a sort of paroxysm of national self-loathing”, he would appear to be the principal evidence of it. And even then you vaguely suspect that he’s faking it. There are, broadly speaking, three reactions to Bond: those who dislike him; those who love him; and those who love him but feel obliged to deplore all the frightful imperialism, racism, alcoholism, chain smoking, snobbery, profoundly unsafe sex, etc.

Winder elects to join this last category, which makes the book a glummer read than it ought to be, a kind of Doctor No But... British audiences have never had any difficulty reconciling 007’s luster with their more general eclipse: The opening of The Spy Who Loved Me, when Bond skis off a cliff and opens his Union Jack parachute, is offered and understood as a kind of semi-parodic flag-waving. In the Roger Moore era, the film-makers took to ending the movie with a scene in which the Queen or Mrs Thatcher or some such would be waiting to congratulate Bond via satellite link only to be confronted by the old legover maestro doing the horizontal mambo with Holly Goodhead as an excuse for a final double-entendre. “What’s Bond doing?” “I think,” explains Q, looking at the radar rather than at Roger, “he’s attempting re-entry, sir.” Or: “Just keeping the British end up, sir.” Or a dozen others, as Roger Moore rogered more.

With the best will in the world, one can’t divine a lot of imperial self-doubt in this oeuvre. And Winder, demonstrating the peculiar snobberies of the minor public schoolboy (if you’ll forgive a touch more snobbery), allows his obsessions to lead him astray – as in his assertion that these tales of Brit derring-do were viewed in America as “comedies of self-delusion”. Oh, really? So it’s not the babes and the gadgets and the car chases? Just the huge market for post-imperial “comedies of self-delusion”. Who knew?

Poor old Winder. A genial gentleman publisher of the patrician left, he seems to have missed the central feature of Bond’s character: his cool. Winder is not cool; he is over-heated to the point of rhetorical meltdown: his nation’s history is “despicable”, “repulsive”, “revolting and mad”, “sickening”, “nauseating”, “nauseating and absurd”… One feels that, instead of this shrill overkill, he might have taken a lesson from Blofeld et al and expressed his loathing with an amused contempt – “I’m afraid you’re beginning to bore me, Mr Bond” – before lowering him into the piranha tank. There are some useful insights here – the observation that Ken Adam’s Bond sets are so good that real location scenes such as the Vegas hotels of Diamonds Are Forever look wan by comparison. But otherwise, generalizing ever more wildly and hysterically, Winder manages to miss all his targets – Fleming, Bond and the British Empire. He seems an amiable self-deprecating cove, but so’s Hugh Grant, and I wouldn’t fancy his chances trying to beat up Daniel Craig.

The Wall Street Journal, November 24th 2006


Tripper said...

Interesting. Britain was smashed and bankrupted in the 1950s. We had spent all our gold buying weapons from the arsenal of the democracies in WWII; then spent our remaining credit on building a 'cradle to grave' welfare state. I don't begrudge the US the cost of the weapons; it was our fight, not yours. But what does make me angry is the strong strain amongst English intellectuals of mocking and denigrating the qualities that formed the core of English values. As Orwell said of English intellectuals: they would sooner be caught stealing from a Church poor-box than stand to attention for 'God Save the King.' Please keep up the good work on your blog - it is consistently interesting. Regards,

john fernbach said...

"wittily self loathing" -- what utter bilgewater.

Anyone who can be as funny & gleeful in print as Winder is not self-loathing; he's just able to laugh at the crimes & absurdities of history, including his own society's history.

In fact, Winder's ability to laugh at the sometimes murderously wistful absurdities of British imperialist culture - or more accurately, British post-imperialist culture -- probably is a sign that he's been able to make peace with it, that he's emotionally healthy enough to accept it for what it was, warts and all, and then move on.

It's too bad that one cannot say the same for you, sir.

As for tripper's comment about Orwell, I don't remember Orwell ever writing anything very positive about British imperialism, as suggested by his fine essay "Shooting an Elephant."