From Empire with love

July 5, 2008 at 12:09 am (UK) ()

How the James Bond exhibition in London fails to highlight 007’s less charming side


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James Bond is arguably the mother of all ‎on-screen celebrations of white, European ‎masculinity. More than 2 billion people – ‎two fifths of the world’s population – have ‎watched a 007 film. Only Tarzan or Indiana ‎Jones might rival his stature. For Your ‎Eyes Only: Ian Fleming And James Bond – the ‎exhibition currently running at London’s ‎Imperial War Museum – sets out to outline ‎the relationship between the fictional ‎secret agent and the man who created him, ‎Ian Fleming.

Fleming (pictured) was born to a wealthy Scottish ‎banking family.

He went to the elite school Eton and then the military training academy ‎Sandhurst. His father Valentine Fleming, an ‎aristocratic MP, was killed in 1917, ‎serving in the same unit as Winston ‎Churchill in World War I. Peter, Ian’s ‎older brother, was handed the mantle of ‎family patriarch.

A journalist and established travel writer, ‎Peter’s derring-do in foreign climes in ‎part inspired his younger brother to take ‎to fiction. Ian ‎needed a refuge from his sibling’s towering ‎shadow and found this in the character he’d ‎created, James Bond.

Peter recommended his publisher Jonathan ‎Cape publish the first Bond novel in 1953, ‎something Cape did with reluctance. Another ‎‎11 novels were written before Fleming died ‎in 1964 – a window one cannot help but ‎notice — in which the sun truly set on the ‎British Empire. Bond, you can be forgiven ‎for thinking became a fictional substitute ‎for Empire, a national hero who could – and ‎did – take over the world, or at least its ‎imagination.

But historical context is not what this ‎homage to writer and character is about – ‎nor is it is about the gadgetry that many ‎Bond aficionados will be hoping to see.

Sure, there is the gun from Goldfinger; one ‎of the yellow space helmets from Moonraker; ‎a cello pierced by a bullet from The Living ‎Daylights; flick-knife shoes from From ‎Russia With Love; a spear-gun from ‎Thunderball; a transparent “nuclear” bomb ‎from The World Is Not Enough; a golden gun ‎with bullets marked “007”; a wing-mirror ‎dart-gun from Live And Let Die; the heart-‎transplant unit used for smuggling diamonds ‎in The Living Daylights; the overcoat worn ‎by Sean Connery in Dr No; Daniel Craig’s ‎bloodied shirt from Casino Royale; and a ‎portrait of Halle Berry in an orange bikini ‎in Die Another Day.

There’s also much to read up on – it is, ‎after all, a biographical display: here’s ‎Fleming in Switzerland, at school, here he ‎is with Ms X or Ms Y, his recipe for ‎scrambled eggs – there are truly Bond facts ‎galore.‎

But all this is no solace for museum-goers ‎there for more interactive fun. The exhibition’s problem is not its lack of ‎gadgets, but that they are not Bond ‎gadgets. A virtual roulette table turns at ‎the press of a button, sending a ball ‎landing on a number which then triggers a ‎Bond fact in audio. The two children I saw ‎playing with this machine, however, were ‎less interested in hearing what the ‎roulette table had to say about Bond, than ‎in spinning it around and around.

There is a signed letter to Fleming from ‎Joseph Stalin refusing him the audience he ‎had asked for one while in Russia, among ‎family albums and numerous postcards, ‎letters and loads of manuscripts. Then you ‎reach a glass display with international ‎editions of the novels.

Here, the exhibition loses its steam. Who ‎wants to see a wall of international first ‎editions?‎

And you can forget about any dissection of ‎the appeal of James Bond as the embodiment ‎of British imperialism too – eminently ‎civilised exterior, licence to kill without ‎compunction – is not touched on.
‎Tony Blair comes to mind. Aptly, we learn ‎that Bond attended Fettes, the same school ‎Britain’s former prime minister – though ‎poor Bond today would probably end up ‎poorly equipped in Afghanistan or Iraq on ‎the basis of dodgy information taken from ‎the internet and end up in an Al-Qaeda ‎video.

What struck me most at the exhibition was ‎an oil painting featured on the cover of ‎Live And Let Die depicting a restrained and ‎half-naked 007 looking on powerlessly as ‎two or three black men held a Barbarella-‎style blond captive – a possible indicator that ‎Bond is the product of a racist colonial ‎mindset.

‎ The exhibition is intended to celebrate a ‎hundred years since Ian Fleming’s birth and ‎to coincide with the publication of the ‎Sebastian Faulks-penned novel Devil ‎May Care – in which Bond visits Iran. Yet ‎although we might be on the brink of seeing America’s first black ‎president sworn in, we are probably a century away ‎from seeing a black James Bond.‎

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1 Comment

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