The Man Who Saved Britain

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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In my house, books are distributed room to room on principles that have a good deal more to do with the availability of shelving than any kind of bibliographic logic. My bedroom contains poetry, travel, and my stockpile of books bought or sent but not yet read. And, ulp, there are some 200 books in that stockpile. Some of them arrived last week. Some have been waiting for years. The most extreme case on the shelves: the two volumes of David Herbert Donald’s biography of Charles Sumner bought at a second-hand bookstore in Boston during my law school days. I consulted them for a research project I was working on, put them aside, really and truly pledged to read them in full … and somehow never got around to it. No disrespect to the great Massachusetts liberal, but two thick volumes threatened to contain more about him than I felt the need to know.

I am embarrassed to say that I cannot quite remember how Simon Winder’s The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond ended up on my shelf. It’s not the sort of book I would buy, but I don’t see the publicity material that would normally accompany a review copy.

No matter how it got there, I was glad to see it the other night, when I found myself unable to get back to sleep after one of the dogs woke me up at 1 in the morning to eat grass. This amusing time-waster of a book happily occupied me for a couple of hours with its speculations on how James Bond embodied the anxieties and fantasies of Britons nostalgic for their lost empire. In cold, impoverished, humiliated Britain, a secretly powerful agent who traveled to warm sunny places most Englishpeople would never see – and expressed a spirit of mission and self-confidence slowly being extinguished at home – delivered a powerful message of consolation to millions of conservative minded readers.

Winder’s best observation: what it must have meant to still-rationed Englishpeople to read of Bond biting into an avocado at the miserable little resort of Casino Royale on the French coast of the English Channel – barely 100 miles from London, but further from home than all but a tiny minority of them could imagine venturing for pleasure in 1953. And when a nearly bankrupt Bond is rescued at the baccarat tables by a thick envelope of American dollars slipped him by an agent from the CIA? Hard to overlook the power of that symbolism …. or that the agent’s name, Felix Leiter, suggests both light and happiness ….

I fell asleep halfway through the book and returned to it a couple of days later in daylight. This time it was not so much fun. The author’s Guardian-reader political simplicities and his preciously mannered writing style began to irritate me – and the clever 3,000 word magazine article inside the book began to seem stretched out nearly as badly as Bond himself on Patricia Fearing’s traction machine in Thunderball.

Still there are a lot of Bond die-hards out there who would enjoy this book. And I’m placing my copy in the guest bedroom, where it may do someone else a good turn on a sleepless night.

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