Being an old James Bond fan, I was interested when mention kept cropping up about a book by Simon Winder entitled The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond.
Most of the bloggers who discuss the book present it as a handy way to gain a historical perspective on Mr. Fleming’s most famous character. Plot elements or settings in the books and films that nowadays seem ordinary and unremarkable were once loaded with significance. Mr. Winder, it was said, supposedly put everything into context, explaining why Bond was a creation of his times and why the character resonated so with the audiences of the time.
This intrigued me, mainly because I have always had a vague feeling that there were plenty of nuances to Bond and his exploits that passed me by without making an impression because I was lacking a British cultural background. It appeared that Mr. Winder’s book would be just the thing to put everything into perspective.
Mr. Winder starts the ball rolling with a brief explanation of British history, all to give a proper grounding of the political and historical forces that shaped the culture which spawned Bond. This is a necessary first step, but Winder instead decides to take the reader on an astonishing protracted rant against everything British.
To hear him tell it there was never a more racist, rapacious, violent, bull-headed or stupid country in all the history of the world than Old Blighty. To be sure the Germans and Soviets in their day might have been a bit more extreme than the Brits, and defeating them was a good thing. But Winder also points out that the British Empire was playing the world domination game a whole lot longer. The damage caused by her rivals might have been greater in any given decade, but the Brits get the prize for destroying more of the world and wiping out more lives than either of those poor runners-up. The impression one gets (and which Winder was no doubt trying to give) is that it is a marvel that any non-British person or culture managed to survive the great plague on humanity that was the Empire.
Winder takes great, gleeful delight in spewing this bile for close to a third of the book. He spends a fair amount of it discussing World War II, which he claims was the end of the Empire and the beginning of the great decline in British fortunes. This was found to be confusing and horrifying to Winder’s fellow citizens, which led to the conditions where a character like James Bond could be embraced by so many people.
But what about Ian Fleming, who not only is Bond’s creator but who actually played a part in some of these history-defining moments? Winder barely mentions him except to sneeringly dismiss him as yet another example of British incompetence and inbred idiocy.
The reason for such a bottomless well of black, bitter hatred is made clear when Winder finally gets to the years immediately following the war. He seems to think that there was a bright, glorious few years where British culture, society and the arts flourished before being dragged back into the muck. And what was the cause of this amazing Renaissance? The Conservative government was defeated, and the Labour Party under Attlee came into power.
“It is impossible on any sane scale not to feel an overwhelming sense of wonder at the achievements of Clement Attlee and his Labour government. Their humane single-mindedness in making sense of the horrors of the War through the creation of a new social order based on fairness and inclusion rather than class-hatred and coercion makes all other post-war governments seem pitiful.”
So Winder’s political convictions are firmly on the Left side of the aisle. That certainly explains the bitterness and hatred.
But all that went to hell in a handbasket when the Conservatives managed to regain power in 1951. The grand Socialist scheme of a remade Britain had seen some progress, but not enough. Thanks to the Conservative government the old British sins of racism, violence, pig-headedness and sheer stupidity came crashing back with a vengeance. Authors responded by producing pedestrian pap instead of the high quality stuff that was being churned out just a few months before, ending the British literary Renaissance with a crash. (No, really!) It would seem that politics set up the exact conditions needed for the James Bond novels to become popular.
Winder eventually deigns to climb down off of his towering mountain of rage to actually let slip some of the details that I was reading the book to discover in the first place. For example, he points out that a devalued pound sterling and the collapse of the once cutting-edge British airline industry meant that most people were stuck in England from the 1940s through the 1970s, unable to travel. That is why the thrilling Bond theme starts up in the movies made in the 1960s over scenes of Sean Connery standing in line with his fellow passengers while they make their way through customs. Just being able to get on an airplane and travel to another country seemed to be a feat worthy of a secret agent with a great deal of resourcefulness.
It is indeed unfortunate that Winder doesn’t see fit to do this more often. Instead, each chapter seems to go through the same tedious routine where the author begins by expressing his disgust and rage about the very country and culture that educated, protected and nurtured him. Give him enough time and, exhausted by the overheated outpouring of hatred, the author might just let his guard down long enough to write something worthwhile. It is in these brief passages of sanity where Winder’s great talents as a witty, insightful writer are most apparent. The only problem is that it certainly isn’t worth the effort.
So what am I going to do with my brand new hardcover book for which I paid full price? One of the projects I am contemplating for my personal blog is a how-to post where common household items are used to make an emergency stove, something that can be used to heat a small room if the power goes out during an ice storm. Thanks to Mr. Winder, I won’t have to go very far to find something to burn.