Bondage

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Rex Features/Everett Collection
Sean Connery, his wife, Diane Cilento (left), and Queen Elizabeth II at the premiere of You Only Live Twice, London, 1967

If, at the end of 1953, you’d asked almost anybody in Britain what had been the year’s most significant national events, it wouldn’t have been hard to predict their replies: the Queen’s coronation and a British team conquering Everest. (Never mind that the two men who made it to the top were from New Zealand and Nepal.) Yet when it comes to Britain’s global reach ever since, a better answer—if unimaginable at the time—might have been the publication of a novel written by a forty-three-year-old bachelor to take his mind off “the agony” of getting married; a novel, moreover, that the publisher Jonathan Cape thought was “not up to scratch,” but accepted anyway as a favor to the author’s brother, the Cape travel writer Peter Fleming. It began: “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.”

The book was, of course, Casino Royale, starring a man named for the author of Guide to the Birds of the West Indies, which Ian Fleming had in the Jamaican house where he wrote it. He chose the name, he later explained, because he wanted something plain-sounding and James Bond was “the dullest name I’ve ever heard.”

Casino Royale soon became a best seller in Britain, where the reasons for its appeal—and that of its annual successors—aren’t difficult to imagine. At a time when food was still rationed and not many people had cars, fridges, or the chance for foreign travel, here was a man who drove his 4½-liter Bentley through France airily ordering the Blanc de Blanc Brut 1943 to accompany his caviar. (In those far-off days, readers might also have enjoyed the phrase “Bond…lit his seventieth cigarette of the day.”) And the political message was reassuring too. Britain’s world-power status may be fading. It may even need the occasional injection of American cash—in Casino Royale Felix Leiter of the CIA 1 helps Bond out with an envelope marked “Marshall Aid…With the compliments of the USA.” Nevertheless, a little thing called British pluck meant that the old place could still save the world when required.

Bond was initially less successful in the United States, a country that the books regard with reluctant admiration and less ambivalent condescension. Visiting New York in Live and Let Die, Bond is reminded to “say ‘cab’ instead of ‘taxi’ and (this from Leiter) to avoid words of more than two syllables.” In Diamonds Are Forever, he kindly allows that “America’s a civilized country. More or less.”

But in March 1961 came a sudden breakthrough, when President Kennedy named Fleming’s From Russia with Love as one of his ten favorite books in Life magazine.2 By the end of the year, Fleming was the biggest-selling thriller writer in …

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  1. 1

    An organization, incidentally, that Fleming played a part in founding as a wartime naval intelligence officer. 

  2. 2

    Fleming later returned the compliment in The Man with the Golden Gun, where Bond settles down with three fingers of bourbon and a copy of Profiles in Courage