Monday, 22 February 2016

Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming: Part 2


James Bond book 2
published 1954

Live and Let Die LOC  2

Live and Let Die LOC


[James Bond is walking through Harlem]

Live and Let Die Tiny Grimes gottliebHe 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.






22 comments:

  1. Moira, I haven't read a lot of Ian Fleming's novels but from all the films I have seen, Bond's role and conduct have been stereotyped. He is not very different from one film to another.

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    1. I haven't seen any of the films for years, but that's what I would guess from clips and trailers.

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    2. The Bond movie for people who don't like Bond movies is On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Rather different in tone from any other Bond movie, and closer in spirit to the novels. There's less of the overt tongue-in-cheek feel. Plus it has virtually no gadgetry (although it does have spectacular action sequences).

      And I won't say anything about the ending other than this - you won't see it coming.

      There are those who consider it to be the best of all the Bond movies. I would certainly put it in the top three.

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    3. I will definitely bear that in mind - it wouldn't really have occurred to me to try that one because it is non-canon almost, so good to know - thanks.

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  2. I have to say, Moira, that was always one of my issues with these novels: the portrayal and treatment of women. But I do agree with you about the settings and scenery. Fleming presents a solid sense of place in his novels.

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    1. I try to allow him a little leeway, because most people in that era wouldn't have thought twice about his attitudes and descriptions - we have to try to concentrate on the enjoyable aspects.

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  3. Are you planning on reading all the Bond's or just Fleming's contribution?

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    1. I'm really enjoying Fleming, and at the moment feel no interest in anyone else's version. But that might change if I get withdrawal symptoms when I finish.

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  4. Good point that the "How to Succeed" books (Think and Grow Rich) are just another brand of voodoo. Still are.

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  5. The thing about Bond thinking that he is safe, but the reader knowing that he isn't, is one of the ways that Fleming drums up tension. In FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE we know all about the plan to kill Bond from the beginning of the book, but he knows nothing. Fleming always liked to portray the villain as more powerful than 007. They were the terrifying dragon that had to be slain by the knight errant. I think that in the Amis book he talks about 'the scene in the headmaster's office' which occurs in nearly every book, where the villain tells Bond what a complete idiot he is, how none of his plans have worked, how he knew everything that Bond was doing... It's the authority figure from his childhood, who always told him that he was worthless, but now he is able to strike back at. If Bond can win out against such a foe it makes him even more potent and magical.

    The thing about Fleming being a product of his time, his background, his upbringing, are all true, but they are true of all of us. Attitudes shift incredibly quickly, and very often we aren't aware of it. Reading one of James Mitchell's CALLAN novels recently, I was struck by some of the things written about both race and homosexuality, which would probably get edited out if the author wanted to be published by someone in the mainstream. Mitchell was considered a much more anti-establishment writer than Fleming, and probably saw hiimself as much more right-on type than him. But time grinds on, even though our prose doesn't. Ultimately we all go out of date!

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    1. That's such a good way of looking at it - I love the headmaster's study! The more I read of the books, the more I enjoy them - and the more weird they seem. They are so much not what one might be expecting...

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  6. "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."

    Maybe Q bought it from the French?

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    1. I think Kingsley Amis would have appreciated that idea...

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  7. "Bond comes over as something of an idiot, thinking he is so clever and doing well, while we know better."

    That's one of the things I like about the Bond books. He's a fallible hero. He makes mistakes. Sometimes very serious mistakes.

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  8. "Anyone reading this book now is faced with Ian Fleming’s attitudes to women "

    I find Bond's attitude towards women to be extremely interesting. He's actually a closet romantic. His ambition is to retire from the Secret Service and get married and have kids. And if and when he does that he intends to be a faithful husband. His attitudes are actually very old-fashioned by 1950s standards.

    In fact Bond is an old-fashioned guy in general. He's not really at home in the new post-war world. Britain in the immediate postwar era was a grim, grey, depressing place and the country was virtually bankrupt and had been reduced to the status of a second-rate power entirely dependent on the US. That was very humiliating and Fleming was clearly not happy with the new situation. The Bond novels are a desperate attempt to prove that Britain still counts for something - to prove that however weak Britain was it still had the best Secret Service in the world and that when it came to the crunch it would be a British secret agent who saved the world.

    Which of course was supremely ironic, given that there were more KGB agents in the British Secret Service than there were in the Kremlin. It was all an illusion. In reality Britain really did count for nothing, as they found out in 1956.

    To me that makes the Bond books more interesting, and even gives them a touch of pathos.

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    1. Thank you, that's a fascinating reading. I love the comments from you and ggary (above) on these books - I find them illuminating and thoughtful and clever. Please keep them coming as I continue to read the books...

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  9. Looks like I have some interesting reading ahead of me when I tackle the next few Bond novels.

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    1. Yes indeed, and please do them soon - it would be great to compare notes...

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  10. I finally read the part about the "existential funk" on the airplane (in a second or third scan of the text). Nice, because I use to go through something like that every time I flew somewhere.

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    1. Yup, seems fair enough to me that James Bond should have the same fears as the rest of us.

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