The Buzz

Spectre of Defeat: James Bond and the Decline of Britain and America

The Suez Crisis in the fall of 1956 broke British prime minister Anthony Eden. It was the clearest sign yet that the empire’s time in the sun had come and gone. Decline that began during the Boer War of 1899-1902, perhaps earlier, had a steep, sudden drop that autumn under Eden’s watch. Exhausted, the prime minister retreated from London to one of the United Kingdom’s remaining outposts, the Caribbean island of Jamaica, and to the vacation home of a World War II naval commander. The house itself was squat, with thick walls of crushed limestone. Sparsely furnished, it was more in the mode of a bunker than the opulent plantation style that, by then, was nobly decaying elsewhere on the island. There, on Jamaica’s northern coast, Eden swam and sunned. After several days he returned to London somewhat rested but, nonetheless, to an empire further diminished in power. He would resign his office within weeks.

The home’s owner was not there during Eden’s visit, but he had been there most years since 1946, indulging in a hobby he had adopted after the war. He wrote novels that his wife would dismiss as “pornography.” He was Ian Fleming and he wrote about the British spy James Bond, a character whose popularity was ascendant just as the British Empire’s power was going the other way.

Geopolitical danger in a foreign land, solace sought in a tropical paradise—it all too perfectly captures the anxieties and escapism that underwrite Fleming’s entire series. Of course, Britain and Bond are linked by more than by just Eden’s 1956 visit to Fleming’s home. This deeper link is something that has been overshadowed by the modern, global, mega-franchise of Bond returning this month with the movie Spectre, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Daniel Craig. Fifty odd years ago, Bond wasn’t global. Before the first major Bond movie Dr. No premiered in 1962, before U.S. president John F. Kennedy listed From Russia With Love among his ten favorite books in 1961, Bond was almost exclusively a British phenomenon. His early adventures are largely unintelligible outside of 1950s British politics.

Several recent books have sought to reaffix Bond to the 1950s from which he has come unstuck. Matthew Parker’s Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming's Jamaica looks at 007 through Fleming’s time on the island and that nation’s path toward independence (reviewed recently in the National Interest). British Spy Fiction and the End of Empire by Sam Goodman, a lecturer at Bournemouth University, puts Fleming among other postwar spy novelists Graham Greene, John le Carré and Len Deighton (Goodman recently wrote an essay for the Guardian). A third, Simon Winder’s The Man Who Saved Britain is a cultural history of postwar Britain mixed with a personal history of 007 fandom.

One quickly realizes from these books and from Fleming’s novels that, even in the 1950s, Bond was a dinosaur. His preferences, pastimes and the company he kept were stodgy from the start. Even his car was twenty years old. Not only dated, he’s dour. Fleming’s Bond is routinely melancholic that the empire’s best days are behind it. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he ruminates in the head of MI6’s office:

“Bond looked round the walls at M.’s treasured collection of naval prints. Everywhere there were mountainous seas, crashing cannon, bellying sails, tattered battle pennants – the fury of ancient engagements, the memories of ancient enemies, the French, the Dutch, the Spaniards, even the Americans. All gone, all friends now with one another.”

In fact, an astounding amount of time in the novels sees Bond in meetings with M. Not only in meetings, but also preparing to meet M, traveling to meet M, thinking about what to say to M and reporting back to M. There is in this an element of the hierarchy and deference traditionally associated with Tory conservatism of the time. Only partly tongue-in-cheek, Winder goes so far as to say that M, in his “patrician omnicompetence,” “incarnates in its perfect form the Conservative ideal.” In the 1950s and early ‘60s, Fleming and his work appeared, Winder writes, “as the Conservative with a vision of how things might be better.”