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From the Editors: Taking Stock of Bond

Larry Bean

His tastes were sophisticated, his manners refined, his appearance elegant. To quote one admirer, “He looks very clean.” He drank the best wines and drove the finest automobiles, and he regularly demonstrated his nerve and his proficiency at high-stakes card games. And had he come along 25 years or more later, he might even have read Robb Report, for his creator, author Ian Fleming, was an early practitioner of product placement.

James Bond certainly showed a preference for items that regularly appear in the pages of this magazine. The later film incarnation of the character dressed in Brioni, and the Bond of Fleming’s novels and short stories brandished a Beretta and drove Bentleys and Aston Martins, two of the marques that competed in our annual Car of the Year contest. A year ago, after the Aston Martin DB9 earned Car of the Year 2005 honors, one of our judges, recalling his experience behind the wheel of the coupe, effused, “I felt like Bond when I drove the DB9.”

The driver presumably felt like the idealized Bond, the character who has come to represent the man’s-man archetype, who is, as Raymond Chandler wrote, “what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like to have between her sheets.” However, not everyone saw him as such. Paul Johnson, one of the writer’s contemporary critics, denounced Fleming’s Bond novels as collections of “sex, snobbery, and sadism.” Johnson did have a point. After all, Bond was a chain-smoking (60 to 70 Turkish cigarettes a day), alcohol-abusing (half a bottle of spirits daily) philanderer with some deviant proclivities and little tolerance for foreigners—not exactly the persona one would associate with the V8 Vantage or Continental Flying Spur.

Fleming, who himself smoked 70 cigarettes a day, drank heavily, impregnated a friend’s wife and then partook in numerous affairs after he married her, and supposedly exercised a spanking fetish, did not intend or view Bond as a degenerate. In fact, the author, who, not surprisingly, died of heart failure in 1964 at the age of 56, is said to have meant his hero to be just an ordinary guy to whom extraordinary things happen. According to Fleming biographer Andrew Lycett, Fleming chose the name James Bond because he wanted the character to be “unobtrusive. Exotic things would happen to and around him but he would be a neutral figure—an anonymous blunt instrument wielded by a Government Department.”

As Kingsley Amis noted in his 1965 The James Bond Dossier, Bond is no superman. He must go into training—running and swimming—to prepare for his missions. He has to practice his marksmanship, and before defeating Moonraker villain Hugo Drax at bridge, he spends half an hour performing drills to perfect his cheating.

In other arenas, however, cheating came more naturally to Bond. In Moonraker alone, he concurrently was involved with three women, and all of them were married. (In most cases, Fleming’s novels and the Bond films share a title but few plot elements.) But Amis, who under a pen name in 1968 wrote Colonel Sun, the first Bond novel after Fleming’s death, argued in Dossier that Fleming’s critics overstated Bond’s sexual exploits. “Bond collects almost exactly one girl per excursion abroad, which average he exceeds only once, by one,” wrote Amis, apparently not taking into consideration the Moonraker troika. “This is surely not at all in advance of what any reasonably personable, reasonably well-off bachelor would reckon to acquire on a foreign holiday or trip for his firm.”

Perhaps, but that bachelor probably would not threaten to spank any of his acquisitions, as Bond did to Honeychile Ryder in Dr. No—“Honey, get into the bath before I spank you”—evidence, some claimed, of Bond’s sadomasochistic leanings. (It should be noted that Johnson’s mistress later revealed that the critic himself was a fan of spanking.) Amis dismissed those charges, writing that those critics were transferring Bond’s violent exchanges with his enemies onto his dealings with women. “For however much amateur lip-curling toward women in general Bond may go in for,” he wrote, “he never uses an individual woman unkindly, never hits one, seldom so much as raises his voice.”

Amis would not have been able to convince Fleming’s wife, Ann, of Bond’s gallantry. She referred to the novels as “Ian’s pornography.” (She also characterized Amis as “a left-wing opportunist” when he sought a contract to write his first Bond novel.) Mrs. Fleming’s take on the character and his escapades suggests that the next time someone emerges from an Aston Martin feeling like Bond, he should feel dirty and, figuratively speaking, in need of a bath, or maybe a spanking.

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