Monday, September 24, 2012

Review: The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey Into the Disturbing World of James Bond, by Simon Winder

New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006, pp. 287.

In writing The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond I found myself revisiting the vast literature about the character, taking a new look at books with which I had been long acquainted, and checking out newer additions to this corpus for the first time. Of these the book that made the strongest impression on me was Simon Winder's 2006 The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond.

Unlike most of the books published about Bond for popular consumption, Winder's book was not put together as a compendium of production history, plot summary, reviews and trivia, but rather uses the series as a lens for looking at post-war Britain – both the stuff of the history books, and his personal, lived experience of it, while offering a range of thoughts on the series itself. At once a piece of film criticism, cultural history and memoir, there is a thesis of sorts running through it all, namely that James Bond offered a British image of power, relevance and glamour in those post-World War II years when Britons keenly felt the lack of these things.

As might be guessed, his doing so many different things in a single volume makes for a loosely structured and unsystematic book best taken as a collection of bits. However, these bits come from an author with a broad vision of the last two centuries of British history, a striking sense of the quirky ways in which the world-historical and the personal can connect, a wonderfully eclectic literary taste and a deep and subtle appreciation for film as an art form. It also happens to be the case that, at least in this telling of it, Winder does seem to have lived a life oddly explicable in the terms of the subtitle ("A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond"), supplying him with an anecdote appropriate to just about every wrinkle of the phenomenon he considers. To Winder's credit, his writing is also brisk and colorful and humorous to the point of frequently being laugh-out-loud funny. When reflecting on such matters as how the leading political figures of the interwar era look on film or the bizarrely anachronistic boarding school to which his parents packed him off, the career of actor Walter Gotell or the echoes of World War II in his childhood pastimes, the musical scores of John Barry or the manner in which a younger Winder conducted himself as an international traveler, he deftly and entertainingly combines autobiography with wide-field political, military, social and economic historiography, with results that are frequently as incisive as they are flip.

Still, Winder's take has its limitations. Like many another commentator on things Bondian he fell in love with the films (and the books) when he was rather young (as a ten year old watching Live and Let Die in its first run), and then grew apart from the series, especially as the series grew apart from its own '60s roots. While still greatly admiring of much of what he sees in From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, his later reaction against the series is nothing short of blistering. Certainly a sardonic touch is commonly a component of such reflections, while the sociological aspects of his study make a critical take on the material and the history it reflects (the hard facts of what empire involves, the neurosis that sets in when empire goes, the racial attitudes of yesteryear, etc.) natural. However, Winder seems to have gone from the extreme of adulation (the extent of his youthful devotion to The Man With the Golden Gun will astonish even hardcore Bondians) to the opposite extreme in his apparent determination to repudiate his Bond-besotted past (the rapid piling up of one denigrating remark after another regarding just about every aspect of the series equally astonishing). At the same time, while he has an exceptionally sharp eye for the ways in which the novels and the films appealed to Britons of the '50s and '60s (and to a decreasing extent, after), the reverse side of this seems an obliviousness to the ways in which they could have engaged just about anyone else. The result is a number of bits which don't work. Winder's remarks about such things as how non-Britons respond to the films (that, for instance, Bond's appeal to those of us on this side of the Atlantic is only comprehensible as a matter of his giving Americans a chance to laugh at British delusions) can only be read ironically by those generously disposed toward him, while a handful of his barbs (for instance, his wholesale dismissal of the Bond girls as lacking in sex appeal) can come across as a strained effort at iconoclasm.

Even where the recapitulation of British history is concerned there is one point where the book struck me as weirdly self-contradicting. Despite the leftishness of his outlook much of his characterization of postwar Britain (his praise for Attlee and his lack of same for Thatcher aside) takes at face value the right-wing cliches about that history: the '50s as all grim austerity, the '70s as stagflationary disaster, the '80s as a time of national revival. There seems a disconnect here, though rather than some personal quirk of Winder's I suppose it is simply a testament to how pervasive that version of events has become in the popular consciousness. (It may also be a legacy of Winder's childhood in a Daily Express-reading household in the '60s and '70s, and a matter of the contrast of his early impressions of the world inside that context then, and his independent impressions later.)

Still, it would be unfair to linger on these points. If at times Winder seems overeager to provoke, he is much more often thought-provoking. If there are times when he is inconsistent or confusing, he more frequently cuts through the inconsistencies and confusion surrounding his subject. Even when he was at his most unconvincing, I never came close to closing the book, the eccentricities of The Man Who Saved Britain perhaps inseparable from what it gets right, which is considerable, and I dare say, also inseparable from its considerable charm.

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