James Bond book 2
[James Bond is walking through Harlem]
He was struck by the number of barbers’ saloons and ‘beauticians’. They all advertised various forms of hair-straightener – ‘Apex Glossatina, for use with the hot comb’, ‘Silky Strate. Leaves no redness, no burn’ – or nostrums for bleaching the skin. Next in frequency were the haberdashers and clothes shops, with fantastic men’s snakeskin shoes, shirts with small aeroplanes as a pattern, peg-top trousers with inch-wide stripes, zoot suits.
All the book shops were full of educational literature – how to learn this, how to do that – and comics. There were several shops devoted to lucky charms and various occultisms – Seven Keys to Power, ‘The Strangest book ever written’, with subtitles such as: ‘If you are CROSSED, shows you how to remove and cast it back.’ ‘Chant your desires in the Silent Tongue.’ ‘Cast a Spell on Anyone, no matter where.’ ‘Make any person Love you.’ Among the charms were ‘High John the Conqueror Root’, ‘Money Drawing Brand Oil’, ‘Sachet Powders, Uncrossing Brand’, ‘Incense, Jinx removing Brand’, and the ‘Lucky Whamie Hand Charm, giving Protection from Evil. Confuses and Baffles Enemies’. Bond reflected it was no wonder that the Big Man found Voodooism such a powerful weapon on minds that still recoiled at a white chicken’s feather or crossed sticks in the road – right in the middle of the shining capital.
commentary: More on this book – I was being quite rude about it earlier this month. But it is full of interest, and the New York scenes give me the opportunity to use some of the stunning photos that you can find if you rootle round the collections.
There is a nice selection of settings. Bond goes to New York – where for some unspecified reason he has to pretend to be American. It seems ridiculous and not something he is apparently good at. There are scenes at a Harlem nightclub (which he travels to by bus, bless), and a huge amount of excruciating dialogue among black characters.
Then he travels to Florida, by train. Double bless. After some adventures there he moves on to Jamaica – in a plane, but one that gets into turbulence and puts him into an existential funk. But there is something strange about the plot – we follow the villain’s thoughts and actions (he is handily called Mr Big) and we know that Bond has no idea that he is being watched all the time, that he has no secrets, that Big’s operatives are everywhere. Bond comes over as something of an idiot, thinking he is so clever and doing well, while we know better. We always know more than him about what is going on. And, I kept remembering what Kingsley Amis said (James Bond Dossier, this entry):
When the frogman’s suit arrives for Bond in Live and Let Die, I can join with him in blessing the efficiency of M’s ‘Q’ branch, whereas I know full well that, given post-war standards of British workmanship, the thing would either choke him or take him straight to the bottom.Anyone reading this book now is faced with Ian Fleming’s attitudes to women and to race. The women question is going to come up in every book. The visit to Harlem (here and in the previous entry) combines a genuine wish to describe what would be an exotic area to most of his readers, and cod-dialect and a way of talking about the black characters that make you want to cast the book aside.
Fleming was very much of his time, and came from the most entitled and entrenched section of a very privileged country, but he still had an interest in the world around him (his brother Peter was a noted traveller, explorer and writer) and a certain willingness to question the status quo – not enough, but it was there. Here, he is simply trying to show what you would see if you walked down the road. Voodoo plays a big part in the book (cf Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg) and there is a long extract from a book by Patrick Leigh Fermor included for informational purposes – we can learn along with James Bond, but it is quite unexpected, and not something you’d find in John Le Carre or Len Deighton.
Three of the pictures – a bookseller on 125th St in Harlem, youths out on the street, the waiters’ union - are from the Library of Congress collection. The nightclub picture is from the William P Gottlieb jazz collection.