In a preface to his novel "Brideshead Revisited", a film adaptation of which was released this autumn, the author Evelyn Waugh apologized for the excesses of his text, which was full of glutinous descriptions of rich food, expensive liqueurs and good living. It was written in "a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster", he explained, meaning the Second World War. Writing the book was a form of escapist therapy, he admitted. It gave him, so to speak, a quantum of solace.
What better recommendation to go and watch the new James Bond movie then? Without giving away the exact plot, you can be pretty sure that Bond will fly around the world to beautiful destinations, wearing smartly tailoured clothes, eating well and drinking enough cocktails to kill a horse. All the activities then that, in this new "bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster", our bank managers, climate change advisors and, indeed, doctors would wisely advise us to eschew.
This is no coincidence, of course.
When Ian Fleming first introduced Bond, the Britain that the spy was so extravagantly protecting was a rather sober and monochrome place, totally diminished by the war. Ration-books were still in use until 1954 and the country was no longer taken seriously as a real power in the world. And yet here was a jet setting lothario Brit, who whenever necessary, could chuck a dozen oysters down the little red hole, save the world and get the girl. At a time when the most heroic activity most Brits were involved in was growing potatoes, this was irresistible escapism.
F**K the Footprint (for two hours)
In the responsible and soon, apparently, to be cash-strapped 21st century, the character that Fleming created has an added escapist appeal. He simply doesn't give a hoot about his carbon or ecological footprint, even when pursuing dirty oil villains.
And he certainly doesn't care about his archaeological footprint. Whereas I (quite rightly) felt a twinge of guilt at the amount of trees that I needed to plant for my romantic long weekend in Venice, Jimmy B. not only flew in the name of love, but, once there, he smashed up a priceless Venetian palazzo in a fairly gratuitous manner, sank it into the lagoon for good measure and only shed tears for the double-crossing Tussi that drowned in the process. In Quantum of Solace, I've been told, he smashes up enough of Siena's terracotta roofscape to keep UNESCO's tilers busy for a month.
Obsessive compulsive disorder?
This May, exactly a hundred years after he was born, I started reading some of Ian Fleming's books that my grandfather, who put pepper on his strawberries, had lapped up. I quickly came to the rather predictable conclusion that I probably wouldn't get on too well with his hero James Bond, despite our shared nationality.
He reminded me of the sort of guy who would watch too much DSF, and not for the second-rate football coverage. Like a Gangsta Rapper without the rhythm, fast cars, gadgets and girls rock Jim's world.
His attitude to Woman's Unencroachable Right to Speed in Peace is to be sternly rejected: as James zooms through the French countryside on the trail of the sinister Auric Goldfinger (who's called Auric?!) he spots some hot-totty in the rear view mirror. Fleming wrote that would have pulled her over to have sex with her, but he couldn't because "today was for Goldfinger, not for love".
Far from being cool as a cucumber, He is fussy as an old maid about his breakfast arrangements and the way his cocktails should be prepared. Take his insistence on ear-bashing waiters into serving him what he calls a "Vespa Cocktail", with Gordon's gin, vodka, Lillet vermouth, shaken well and served in a deep goblet with lemon peel. Is this a sign of sophistication or of obsessive compulsive disorder?
Clearly an alcoholic
And while we're on the subject of cocktails, the man is clearly an alcoholic. In the pages of Fleming, he gets through at least half a bottle of spirits and a bucket of champagne daily. Most shockingly of all, he denounces tea, calling it the 'flat, soft, time-wasting opium of the masses'. Those are not the words of a friend of mine!
He gets his comeuppance, of course. In the later books, the tea-less fast living is beginning to catch up with him - like Fleming he suffers from high-blood pressure. And this is why it is well worth reading the books. You get a human being. You get a grumpy spy, an agent who shows real fear. You see a man who sometimes has to block out fond memories of childhood and remember that he is a professional killer.
And that is the genius of the books and of the Daniel Craig's Bond. They combine pure escapist fantasy with a rich vein of human vulnerability.
Unlike the smirkingly smug Sean Connery version, Craig's Bond remains believable even in the most unrealistic story lines. He is, even when he rather ludicrously repairs his own heart in the back of his Dienstwagen, a little bit like us.
One fantastic scene in "Casino Royal" brought this out perfectly. After undergoing a brutal session of psychoanalysis at the hands of Eva Green on a train down to Montenegro (and if only the trains to Montenegro were really that posh!), we learned that he is not the preppy barbour wearing gentleman that Pierce Brosnan sold to us, but rather a man from the ranks - an outsider, an ordinary boy who didn't fit in with the other boys at his posh school.
Stored up anger
So Bond is a hopelessly lonely man with a chip on his shoulder and a lot of anger stored up. With that in mind, who could begrudge him that 11th cocktail, or the occasional night in the stars if the smart girls notice him now that he's a muscle-bound agent?