One cliché I’ve never embraced is that one should try everything once.
Sir Thomas Beecham’s exceptions of incest and Morris Dancing one admires, especially for his list’s brevity, the lickle monkey. I know it’s an optimistic serving suggestion rather than to be taken literally but since “everything” encompasses drinking the contents of a radiator, I wonder how even the most optimistic person (an imbecile) would feel after that. I suspect they would slide into bed.
I tried Brokenclaw once, in 1990.
Now leave me alone.
I’ve satisfied the absurd threshold so you can’t make me do it again. Bring on the radiator, and – whyever not? - the dancing and incest too. I don’t think I’ve knowingly been to Northern Ireland, so all three I expect to combine to facilitate experiencing that additional “once” most handsomely.
However, writing this twaddle in 2017, I am as far from my exposure to Brokenclaw as its publication was from the Kennedy assassination, even though Brokenclaw still seems “recent”. Come to think of it, 2017’s the same number of years from Licence Renewed as its emergence was from the end of World War II. Timescales both A) mad and B) sobering, when one contemplates probably having masticated over half one’s breakfasts and how self-satisfied an over-moaned-about lot must be if resenting re-reading genre fiction for an increasingly unconfined experiment is even a thing. I should allow that cliché about time being a great healer to prove itself.
Still, there’s little more deceptively nourishing than the empty calories of a meretricious grudge, and there stands Brokenclaw, boxed-and-unboxed on every house move since but never ectually reopened. Flicking through it now, the last time I touched (say) page 113, I was 17 years old: chap could get miz about opportunities unlived in the interim, although the moistness of the eye might be being triggered by the impregnated whiff of acrid wugger socks, coal tar soap and Drakkar Noir. I’ve re-read every Bond but this. Most, several times (I don’t have much imagination). This, though: once done, never forgotten, but the memories weren’t good. Only four years after being drawn into Bond, here I was shunning it.
Several potential reasons: firstly, I grew up. These 007th Chapter pieces don’t corroborate that turgidly obvious cause, nor does the excuse explain my buying each subsequent Gardner and Benson etc., nor my sacrificing an evening’s tum-scratching to watch GoldenEye on opening night (or ever).
Less prosaic but more typically pretentious reasons canter forth:
• It is the last Bond published before I left school. Era’s end, box it away like all childhood pets, don’t remind yourself of the guilt of reading it instead of revising. Oh, Brokenclaw distracted me so with its wondrously exotic tale of… erm…, that it rawly buggered my Latin A-Level. Well, no it didn’t, because I was a sodding genius. Note grammatical tense. Also note gerundive. Might be a gerund; might be neither. I’m all forgetting, old.
• It is the last Bond published before I married. A friend considered The Man from Barbarossa an acceptable wedding present (we wanted knives). When the inevitable divorce comes, Mrs Jim and I shall fight to the last atom of our cuticles over who takes custody of it. Loser “wins”. Yet such stuff is my protection: were Mrs Jim to come good on her threats to cleave me in twain, its continued presence would then be within her menu of problems. My fragile salvation lies in possessing light entertainment product in which she has no interest. It doesn’t cut both ways: her dresses are divine. Time to soap the stairs.
However, none of this “end of one life, never look back” Hallmark cards piffle explains why I re-read Icebreaker. There is no satisfactory explanation for that, beyond uncontrollable drunkenness.
• It is the first Bond I bought when I thought there would be no more, the negative impact of Licence to Kill pervading. Bond was down, and Brokenclaw proved itself as anything but the means of reviving him from the wine-red floor.
Revisiting the timejumping of “some” words ago, in 1963 the Bonds of record were OHMSS and From Russia with Love. By 1990 they were Brokenclaw and Licence to Kill. Well, quite. If these were the standard-bearers, or even the standards, of contemporaneous 007, James Bond had moved from being rubbish fondly-thought-of, to rubbish inexcusable.
Nearer enlightenment, here. Mr Dalt-Ton hadn’t gone out of his way to pretend there would be more films, although if they were to be as spavined as Licence to Kill this was just as well (an underacknowledged truth). The weighty plop o’doormat of 007 Magazine became more infrequent and the dank torpor that descended over Bond was settling like an unending February. Brokenclaw, with (what I recall of) its plodding nature, administered scant hope. Perhaps that was it: I unilaterally charged the book with a mission it couldn’t accomplish – nor was it devised to - loading too much onto it and using that pretext to proclaim its failure. It had not managed subjective expectations that I hadn’t disclosed. Burned by the brutally pathetic Licence to Kill, this let me down further and I probably wanted it to, to prove a point I hadn’t articulated and, over quarter of a century on, still can’t. Hardly fair, of course, that I imposed upon it an obligation of which it was unaware and, given its antecedents, one misjudged on my part. It was never going to do it.
It was a Gardner.
Whatever the ills of Mr Benson’s books, and many of their elements burn my insides, there’s a zip and zap and spaniel-dim harum-scarum enthusiasm that suggest a writer happy to be there and trying his best, the silly old scrumblenumpkin, to jolly us along. Possess the narrative panache of half a tennis ball lying in an oily puddle they may, but there’s tangible joie-de-Bond. Does this come across in the 90s Gardners? No. No it doesn’t.
If you craved a champion to shoulder across No-Readers-Land the deadweight of the moribund 007, would your keeper of the flame be a writer ever-more-publicly grumbling? Albeit the hiatus was not a situation of his devising – one with which he had nothing to do, and would appear not to have welcomed any opportunity to be involved – was the pall over Bond lifted by the product and the persona Mr Gardner developed? I am not ascribing “blame”, because it’s unfair and delusional to suggest he was required by “the company that owns me” to write Bond-saving books; just idle/flabby speculation how helpful his increasingly spiky observations really, really weren’t.
Advocates may claim his books did save - or at least, promote – the literary Bond, certainly the early ones. Doubtless the balance sheet, the only point of it, would concur, rendering a contrary stance unarguable, or pointless. There was no “right” for Bond to continue, but it did. However, these later Gardner efforts, and memory proclaims them an effort, where one can scratch ‘n’ sniff the burden of contractual obligation, cursed with reluctance and – perhaps crucially – not backed up by the (generally) tonally more positive films – what were they for, exactly? They probably sold every first edition but, if what is said of COLD is true, in printing about eleven copies, that was likely.
Obviously this is hindsight retroactivity. Mr Gardner was under contract, and obliged to produce, which he did. This is certain. End of. (It’s not the end of; “soz”). The implicit mutual trust and confidence in the contract… less certain? This is not suggesting the man should have accepted his task with unalloyed wide-eyed enthusiasm and never expressed any reservations, nor that there was an unwillingness to permit him to do so; that preface to Licence to Kill is not atypical. He was in the best/only informed position to make his observations, which I am not. If, though, despite such reservations/whining the style of the books had been less gloomy, might there have been some reassurance for those of us seeking it that Bond was worth bothering with, that there was still energy into which to tap? It is of record (I believe) that he was seriously ill, and remained in poor health for much of the rest of his run. Those producing the books had aged. Those producing the films had aged. The exhaustion in all matters 007 was palpable, just at the point I was sufficiently immersed in it to feel (unjustifiably) entitled to demand it carried on in the way I wanted. Maybe this is no more than fan-cycle behaviour, and the human moss at whose self-selected humiliation in 2005/06 I sneered were doing no more than I had myself done a decade or so earlier. I resented what written Bond had descended to, but given the aura of chippiness developing about the output, I felt it resented me first. “You started it” is childish, although I was a child so, y’know, fair do’s.
How had we got so swiftly from the energetic, efficient screaming around of Nobody Lives For Ever, to this podgy waddle of a bore? It took me twenty years to become like that; Brokenclaw took four.
The 1990s were an odd period for Bond. Seems like we only had half a decade’s worth to play with but we were subjected to about a dozen books, albeit three of them novelisations (it’s still “ugh”, y’know), several comic series, James Bond Jr. (… I tried it. Once), three films, and a social reappraisal of Bond not as tired old guff your Dad once enjoyed (just like your Mum), but something skipping along the Cool Britannia wave of the latter end of the decade, archly (and cynically) playing up to superficial iconography albeit creating nothing of lasting substance. Not too shabby for something perceived early in the same decade as creatively spent. With Bond having since grown out of that turn-of-the-century renewal phase even bigger and substantially better, I wonder whether my continued dismissal of Brokenclaw as wretched, a refusal to go near it lest it taint once more, is a skirmish redundant. It’s so old and ignored that it cannot really have any continued significance. I know how this feels; my sympathies emerge.
Arguably, continued antipathy towards the book and what I decided it represented achieves one thing only: it supports the assertion, bandied about by The Grim, that GoldenEye and the hiring of The Actor Pierce Eardrum both saved Bond. If Brokenclaw and the remaining Gardners had been stronger, such saviours may not have been required and I would stand firmer in denying their Fake News rather than knee-jerk kicking out my own. For those who have followed my career – pfft – in these things, they might see deliberate mischief in my asserting a change of heart in considering Brokenclaw ectually not being all that bad as a concerted attempt to further undermine Brosnazi supremacist chanting. Well, don’t go looking for a motive. Nor much of a plot, if the disconnected splinters of the memory stack up. And the Brosnazi thing? It doesn’t seem so amusing to fling the accusation about, these days. Perhaps I did do a bit of growing up, after all.
D’you know something? (Rather than “anything” – a question too far). I’ve changed my mind. Brokenclaw is rather tremendous. Further dismissal of prior trenchant views might yet come: I’m on the cusp of the lip of the edge of considering The Man from Barbarossa not as practically unreadable scribble (yes, I know…) but as demonstrating a writer finally freed of having to a produce material in parallel to a series of less creative (and finally dead) films, liberated from shackles that had doomed Licence to Kill and would later confine the Bensons. I might, though, have changed my mind back when it comes to churning out my thoughts on that one: suspenseful, innit?
My new impression of Brokenclaw, I’m happy to stand by. Or at least near. I remembered so little of the story – there’s something with wolves and that ritual business at the end - but all else had passed my memory by, waving at it from a train or some other form of public transport that I obviously wouldn’t contemplate using. Accordingly, instead of the usual watertight method of merely glancing at the opening chapters before the seventh one, I re-read them.
Because it confirms a theory I expressed earlier in these pieces, about the Gardners. It’s all a colossal joke, hidden in plain sight. Piss-take, not mistake. Re-reading pieces of Gardner over a (marginally) shorter period than their initial publication period, one is not left stunned by the lack of association with James Bond and how he’s meant to be written, and repeated frustration, book-upon-book-upon-book-upon-God-not-another-one, about how Gardner’s stuff is miles off the mark, but increasingly awed at how much of it lacerates its target just so. The commonly-held view that Mr Gardner was not interested in James Bond can’t be right. One would have to have taken an interest in Bond to be able to subvert it so deftly. These are not the broad strokes, the easy targets, of Casino Royale ’67 or Austin Powers; this is surgical, not bluntly deconstructing Bond but brick-by-brick demolishing him and then rebuilding the character as the thunderingly boring Captain Boldman/Ken Spoon. Brokenclaw isn’t a trough; it’s a peak. How I nuzzle anew at its teat. I’m so pleased. I’m so pleased I am right, which is a rare sight and without doubt a distressing one, especially when I “smile”. Sorry about that.
In much the same way as that Star Wars Phantom Menace thing is such a terrific film because it so mercilessly, so savagely, so mean-spiritedly picks away at everything that went before it (or after it? I know/care not), I would rather take the view that great effort went into Brokenclaw and its peak-Gardner dismantling of 007 because it’s so wildly, so magnificently enjoyably not Bond, than adopt the easier conclusion that bog-all effort went into it because it’s so turgidly, so despairingly boringly not. Not that I am recommending defacing any book – even if it is Brokenclaw – but here’s a “fun game”, especially if you’re “good with crayons”. Go through it and cross out the words “James”, “Bond” and “007” and replace with something of your own devising, perhaps your name or that of your one friend. With any earlier Gardner, there’s arguably still been indelible residual aspects of the Bond character peeking through but, oh sweet baby Jesus and all his little demons, not here.