IT may leave you slightly shaken, or even stirred, to realise that this year marks the 70th anniversary of the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale.
Because 007 is still going strong in films and ‘guest-authored’ books, some may tend to think he’s a contemporary character. But it was as far back as April 13, 1953, that Ian Fleming’s iconic secret agent first holstered his Beretta 418 handgun (with skeleton grip).
Since then, of course, Bond has become a global entertainment and cultural phenomenon and a multi-billion-pound industry, a gift that keeps on giving to film-makers and fans alike.
His attraction is enduring. I started devouring the Bond novels as an enthralled schoolboy around 1964 after a fellow pupil daringly sneaked a copy of Thunderball into class to show us. It was the one with bullet holes cut into the cover. Talk about cool! I was instantly hooked. The paperback versions weren’t hard to come by, as secondhand book shops abounded, and I gradually bought all the Bond titles.
Naturally, the books were disapproved of by our fanatical headmaster (along with anything remotely resembling fun or popular culture), who warned us we would be led astray by the SEX in them. I swear he boomed the word in capital letters in one of his tedious assemblies. Needless to say, we couldn’t wait to be led astray. As it turned out, the sex was by modern standards almost prudish.
Remarkably, Fleming had written the bulk of his 14 books by the early 60s. But the 007 films didn’t start until 1962, with Dr No, so the stories felt up to the minute to us young fans.
Along with wanting to be a Beatle, almost every red-blooded lad was a wannabe Bond, especially after 007 was made flesh by Sean Connery. Bond was everything we could only be in our dreams: a tough, devilishly handsome, hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-gambling, straight-shooting fearless ladykiller who vanquished baddies and drove fast cars (a 4.5 litre Bentley with Amherst-Villiers supercharger, since you ask). And he didn’t have to do homework.
His dashing good looks were enhanced by a ‘cruel’ mouth, a scar on his cheek and a ‘comma’ of black hair that sometimes fell attractively on to his forehead. Some of us did our best to look Bondish. A cruel mouth could be attempted by twisting one side of your upper lip into a sneer, but you tended to look like a halfwit nursing a gumboil.
By the same token, it was hard trying to develop a comma of hair when you were compulsorily shorn to comply with school rules (never mind a comma, you’d be lucky to grow a semi-colon). A scar would have been more easily attainable, but would involve either slashing yourself with your penknife or getting into a switchblade fight with a Bulgarian drug lord, neither of which was recommended when you had school the next day.
Along with his good looks etc, Bond possessed the supreme asset, the glittering prize, the one thing we all coveted … a licence to kill. To spotty schoolboys whose only hope of any sort of licence was a provisional one for a moped, it was the ultimate must-have accessory. Of course, even at 13 we were free to kill anyone we liked (or didn’t like), but it would not have been the same without a proper licence.
So I and millions of others made do with simply adoring Bond, in books and on screen. Connery, for me, will always be the original and best film 007. Next best was Daniel Craig, who refreshingly ditched the tiresome quips of some predecessors and gave us Bond as a mean, brooding hard knock. So in the 2006 Casino Royale movie, when the barman asks Craig’s Bond whether he would like his Martini shaken or stirred, he is testily told: ‘Do I look like I give a damn?’ (Apparently Craig wanted to use a stronger word than damn).
I recently re-read Casino Royale. As you’d expect, it’s rather dated and, as with several Bond novels, the plot is a bit far-fetched. But Fleming’s taut prose carries the story along at such a pace that you hardly notice, although it gets a bit waffly towards the end.
Bond is in the northern French resort of Royale-les-Eaux to play cards against a communist agent, Le Chiffre. The dastardly villain has recklessly splurged his masters’ funds on buying brothels just before they were banned by a new law. To replenish his coffers and save himself from Moscow’s revenge, Le Chiffre must win big on baccarat at the casino, and Bond is there to try to outplay him.
The love interest, the original Bond girl, is the beautiful Vesper Lynd, despatched from Secret Service headquarters in London to assist 007. However, he is furious when he hears: ‘What the hell did they want to send me a woman for? Do they think this is a bloody picnic?’
As far as Bond was concerned, ‘women were for recreation. On a job they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around’.
And when Vesper is kidnapped by Le Chiffre: ‘This was just what he had been afraid of. These blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work. Why the hell couldn’t they stay home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men?’
As you may gather, Bond was hardly a pioneer of the women’s lib movement. But such were the accepted attitudes then, and I doubt if few male readers gave it a passing thought.
Neither was our hero the greatest advert for healthy living: ‘Bond undressed and took a cold shower … then he lit his 70th cigarette of the day.’ Again though, this only served to impress many of us schoolboys, to whom a surreptitious drag behind the bike sheds was the height of daring and sophistication. In an age when most adults smoked, often incessantly, 70 a day was quite feasible.
I won’t tell you the ending of Casino Royale in case you haven’t read it, but suffice to say Vesper turns out to be a rather complicated lady. It’s worth also reading the other Bond novels, because as the years passed, the films veered away more and more from the original stories. Fleming died in August 1964, and when the Bond franchisees ran out of his plots, they simply began writing their own. However, offerings such as the 2012 movie Skyfall were quite impressive.
Meanwhile, now in my 70s, I’m still a fervent Bond fan, and still trying to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition by washing my hair in Pinaud Elixir. I’ve never forgotten how in the 1963 novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond is back in Royale-les-Eaux, where he goes into the hotel bathroom, has an ice-cold shower and washes his hair ‘with Pinaud Elixir, that prince among shampoos, to get the dust of the roads out of it’.
I must try to find a bottle of Pinaud, which although discontinued is apparently sometimes available from old stock at high prices. I mean, while Head & Shoulders does the job, its boast of being ‘clinically proven 100 per cent flake-free’ doesn’t have quite the same ring as ‘prince among shampoos’, does it?
But there’s no chance now of me getting that sexy Bond-style comma of black hair tumbling down my forehead. You see, the name’s Getley . . . grey-haired Getley.