For quite some time, I’ve had half a mind to say something about the old Bond novels. At one point, this revolved primarily around the waning of British imperialism, and the apparent fondness for Empire displayed within Fleming’s pages. However, more recently, I’ve become interested in the less profound aspects of the novels, particularly how the everyday habits and presence of Bond is actually quite alien from our current conceptions of health, masculinity, and vice.
For most people, the name James Bond primarily refers to the highly successful film adaptations of Ian Fleming’s novels. Beyond the entertainment value of the twenty-two films (plus one unofficial film featuring Sean Connery), there are important social and cultural lessons to be learned, specifically from Ian Fleming’s novels. Indeed, the evolution of the series itself (not to mention Bond’s character) can tell us a great deal about how society has changed since 1953 when Casino Royale was first published. The thirteen James Bond novels reflect a great deal of the social changes with which British society — and Western society — were grappling with around mid-century.
Bond’s personification of English-ness has been rather well hashed out by some of the best writers of the past half century, such as Christopher Hitchens, who memorably wrote in The Atlantic that Ian Fleming was “a sadist, a narcissist, and an all — around repressed pervert,” who is redeemed only by the fact that he “saw past the confines of the Cold War.” Indeed, entire books have been written on the subject of Bond’s cultural relevance.
However, a number of significant observations can be made without delving too deeply into the books, specifically regarding Ian Fleming’s presentation of James Bond.
One of the defining characteristics of the Bond novels and films is his sexual presence and charisma; the conquests are themselves a precise component of the story, as important as the villains or cars or guns. However, from a twenty-first century perspective, the presence that the literary Bond has is nearly laughable, at least compared to the rippling, hairless pectorals of Daniel Craig’s film Bond.
According to the Russian dossier in From Russia, With Love, Bond’s description is as follows:
Height: 183 centimeters (6 feet); weight: 76 kilograms (167 pounds); slim build; eyes: blue; hair: black…all-round athlete…Smokes heavily (N.B.: special cigarettes with three gold bands); vices: drinks, but not to excess, and women.
The first observation is just how small Bond is according to Ian Fleming. 167 pounds is pretty darn small, especially when it’s clarified with “slim build,” and then put in context compared to what physical attributes are found attractive in twenty-first century North America. Indeed, in Moonraker, M expresses distaste that Bond is sunburned after returning from Jamaica in Live and Let Die, as tanned skin suggests unemployment, or too much time under the “sun lamp.” Daniel Craig’s hulking Bond is certainly a physically
different specimen than Ian Fleming envisioned in 1957. Moreover, it tells us at least a little bit about what was attractive in the 1950s. Other novels give us even more insight into Bond’s physical characteristics.
One only needs to Google Daniel Craig to notice that on the “related searches” list, one of the options is “Daniel Craig workout.” By comparison, James Bond’s level of physical fitness is laughable, espeically as Fleming describes him as an athlete. In From Russia, With Love:
Bond went down on his hands and did twenty slow press-ups, lingering over each one so that his muscles had no rest. When his arms could stand the pain no longer he rolled over on his back and, with his hands at his sides, did the straight leg-life until his stomach muscles screamed. He got to his feet and, after touching his toes twenty times, went over to arm and chest exercises combined with deep breathing until he was dizzy. Panting with the exertion Bond went into the big white-tiled bathroom…
This description of Bond’s workout regimen is quaint, if not outright hilarious by modern standards. It does, however, explain Bond’s slight build. This disconnect between the literary Bond, and the modern film Bond isn’t a particularly deep observation about the nature of the evolution of sexual standards in society, but it is interesting to note how substantially our ideas of masculinity have evolved in sixty years.
Coupled closely with Bond’s physical state is his attitude towards vice, primarily int he form of cigarettes and alcohol. From the above quote from From Russia, With Love, it is clear that smoking isn’t considered a “vice” per se, and that Bond’s drinking is not considered to be excessive. The explanation for this could be relatively straightforward. Fleming was an exceptionally heavy smoker and drinker,it is likely that he didn’t consider his character’s level of consumption to be particularly extraordinary. Fleming is noted by the New York Times to have smoked up to eighty cigarettes per day. Bond himself averaged around sixty per day, although while playing cards in Casino Royale, he gets up towards seventy. It is worth considering, actually, where one would carry this many cigarettes while out on the town. Bond carries his triple gold banded Morland cigarettes in a flat, gunmetal cigarette case which (according to the text of Casino Royale) holds fifty cigarettes. However, in Moonraker, Bond carries this case in his “hip pocket.”
The damn thing must be gargantuan, which makes you wonder about his pockets.
Furthermore, as Iain Gately points out rather keenly in his excellent book Tobacco: The Story of How Tobacco Seduced the World, most of Bond’s enemies do not smoke, although when they do, and Sir Huge Drax does, Fleming quickly points out how boorish Drax’s chain-smoking really is. However, when the characters do smoke, they are obsessively described: Bond lights his darts with a battered, black Ronson lighter, for example. Bond’s luxurious smoking “he let the smoke out between his teeth with a faint hiss,” for example, are described with a near sensuality. The habits of his friends are always deeply investigated as well, such as the Colonial Secretary, Pleydell-Smith in Dr. No is described as “one of those nervous pipe smokers who are constantly patting their pockets for matches, shaking the box to see how many are left in it, or knocking the dottle out of their pipes…Bond wondered if he ever got any smoke into his lungs at all.”
Anyways, in addition to his Herculean consumption of cigarettes, Bond is an impressively heavy drinker. Over the course of his card game at Blades in Moonraker, Bond drink a vodka martini, a three-ounce shot of vodka (sprinkled with pepper), a battle of champagne with dinner, a “fat measure of pale brandy,” and a second bottle of champagne (seriously) while playing cards. Fleming also specifically described Bond smoking seven cigarettes and a “thin black cheroot.” Bond also presumably pilots his Aston Martin home afterwards (as he drove it there). All of this over a period of roughly eight hours, and then by 10am, Bond was back at the office, “feeling dreadful.”
Despite his hero’s drinking and smoking habits, Fleming is quite clear that he’s also rather human in that regard. Bond wakes up following his night out in Moonraker with a heroic hangover, and Thunderball opens with Bond recovering from “a hangover, a bad one…when he coughed — smoking too much goes with drinking too much and doubles the hangover — a cloud of small of luminous black spots swam across his vision…” Shortly thereafter, Bond is sent to a health clinic to recover.
One of the interesting trends in Fleming’s writing about Bond’s smoking anddrinking is that Bond exists around the time when people were beginning to become legitimately paranoid about the health dangers of smoking. After returning from the health clinic, Bond stops smoking his Morland Specials, and switches to Duke of Durhams because the “Consumers Union of America rates this cigarette as the one with the lowest tar and nicotine content.” This is actually true, I bothered to look while researching my thesis. Bond also cuts back his consumption to twenty, though he admits it’s usually around twenty-five — still around a pack a day.
Bond is, therefore, not a completely carefree imbiber of spirits and nicotine. Instead, he is quite conscious of the health effects of his habits, and, as did many smokers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, began to make an effort to cut back on his smoking, or make it healthier. This is an attitude that is not really present in the earliest Bond novels, only becoming apparent in Thunderball, and tracking alongside the developments in medical science that were changing the society around Ian Fleming.
These are merely some of the more obvious tidbits of historical information that can be pulled out of the Bond novels. Much has been written about Bond’s sexual appetites and misogynist views towards women, and there is still much to be said about Bond’s presence at the twilight of British imperialism. However, it is important to keep in mind that Ian Fleming’s novels are not literary classics in the sense that they have something deep and profound to say about British society. Fleming was not Dickens. His books are written as entertainment, and they redefined the thriller genre for a generation of readers. As such, it might just be the case that the less deep observations are the most interesting. After all, there is always a lot to say about smoking and drinking, especially from the perspective of twenty-first century paranoiacs who fear any sort of consumption. But, if you’re anything like me, and annoyed by Brosnan and Craig’s nonsmoking Bonds, the books are chock full of an alternative narrative about James Bond’s persona, and it is worth keeping this in mind the next time you pick up Ian Fleming’s novels.