Giles Fraser: 1950s Britain was stirred by Bond, not shaken

17 July 2007

CAN THERE really be such a thing as a “slightly more vulnerable” James Bond? That is the task Sebastian Faulks has set for himself in writing the first new official James Bond book for more than 40 years.

The problem is this: I cannot imagine what a sharing, caring Bond would actually look like. This may be another way of saying that selfishness seems so bound up with his personality that a redeemed Bond just wouldn’t be Bond at all.

This sort of thing may be why we readily think of virtue as some sort of threat to our identity: that, somehow, goodness seeks to turn us into some goody-two-shoes automaton, and is thus a form of annihilation. I can imagine that some people might think this is what dying to self is supposed to mean.

But this doesn’t seem right. If the redeemed James Bond is entirely unrecognisable as the James Bond we all know and love, then it hardly seems like his redemption at all.

In order to unravel this puzzle, we need to take a step back. One of my parishioners, Simon Winder, has written a brilliant book about how Bond is an epiphenomenon of post-war Britain, a whimper of nostalgia emerging from the misery of the 1950s for an empire that had recently fallen apart.

In those dark days, Bond kept alive a squalid and quite implausible collective fantasy of British sexual superiority and suave cunning. In an age of rationing and low national morale, Bond feasted on avocados and had his fill of Pussy Galore.

Following Freud, we have learnt to think of our inner truths as leaking out in unintended ways, a bit like the “tells” of Bond’s opponents across the poker table. What Simon Winder’s The Man Who Saved Britain does is analyse Bond as the cultural leakage of a failing society. Behind Bond is a buttoned-up, racist culture too self-important to face reality and deal with its dysfunction.

Here, then, is where salvation begins to make proper sense. Bond can’t be saved in the same way as Bond can’t ever take his kids to school or watch daytime TV: Bond isn’t real. But we are. And our Bond-like fantasies often reveal our wounds and our failure.

Real salvation isn’t an annihilation of everything that makes us who we are. It is promised as something that will make us more fully ourselves. That is to say, goodness and godliness are not existential threats: they are the forces of liberation.

The Revd Dr Fraser is Team Rector of Putney and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford.

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