Dr Matthew Woodcock is a Senior Lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern Literature at the University of East Anglia – and a lifelong James Bond fan. Hear him in conversation with bestselling Young Bond author Charlie Higson on Friday 16 September at Noirwich Crime Writing Festival, where they will discuss 007, the place of thriller vis-à-vis crime writing and the challenges of writing for a young adult audience.
I was interested in Ian Fleming and James Bond long before I was old enough to recognize that one should never—as the books and films sagely inform us—mix champagne and benzedrine or drink red wine with fish. There was no Young Bond when I was growing up, only grown-up Bond read, with varying degrees of comprehension, by the young; in my case this meant a collection of much-loved Pan paperbacks borrowed from my mother. I’ve fond early memories of watching On Her Majesty’s Secret Service on TV at a very young age, and somewhere there’s a photo of me that was taken around the same time sat in the Lotus Espirit that featured in For Your Eyes Only.
But it wasn’t until I was in my first academic job (teaching medieval and Renaissance literature) that I returned to the Bond books in earnest. I found myself enthralled, not so much by the more obviously escapist action sequences and all the sort of things I would have loved and expected as a boy, but by the frequently dilatory ‘set-up’ scenes in which 007 is travelling to various exotic destinations and sampling the delights of new cultures, and by the numerous expositional moments in which we’re being given, say, the rules of baccarat, specifications of a motor-car, precise details of a golf game or bridge match, or instructions on how to safely drink pre-war Wolfschmidt vodka.
Fleming is at his best, I think, when it comes to descriptions of place and in all those passages of travelogue that see Bond en route to where the action is. The undersea diving scenes in Live and Let Die, for example are both beautiful and—as I can attest from experience—usefully informative. Now I know that when it comes to spy fiction I can find more accurate accounts of cold war or current espionage in the likes of John Le Carré or Charles Cumming, but it is Fleming’s ability to make the exposition of facts and evocation of place thrilling and exciting that keeps drawing me back.
Fleming wrote thrillers with the eye of a journalist, with an eye for juicy nuggets of fact around which to weave a more fantastic plot, and with a natural aptitude for acquiring and managing information that had served him well during the war-years spent in naval intelligence. At heart, Fleming was interested in getting to the story beneath that which was readily apparent, everyday or otherwise mundane. As he wrote in Thrilling Cities, his superb 1963 collection of travelogues penned during some adventurous round-the-world trips for the Sunday Times, a good thriller writer should possess a desire ‘to take a tin-opener and find out what goes on behind the façade’. His journalism and travel-writing was thus composed with the eye of a thriller writer. Or rather, it was executed by someone who was skilled at piquing and sustaining a reader’s interest—in all of his works—not only through pace of narrative but by drawing one in with the lure of recondite information or momentary glimpses of something more exciting than quotidian experience.
Fleming’s continued search for the thrilling is a hallmark of both his fiction and non-fiction, and I have been exploring how his journalism and travel-writing share many of the same characteristics and preoccupations as the Bond books. The cultivation of escapism is by no means the sole preserve of the thriller, and the art of escapism itself is something that warrants far more serious consideration than it often receives.