The 007th Chapter: COLD

An uncle of mine, deciding that he had had enough of things that one femtosecond before things decided that they had had enough of him, retired to North Wales, whatever that is, to await death.

He was only 50 when he did so. Death being her whimsical self and proving as reliable as a rural omnibus service, m’uncle dwindled his next thirty years investing any purchase with the additional characteristic of it being “my last”. Gaze ‘pon this, he would say to me, for ‘tis is my last coat (we shared such gadfly repartee). This is my last car (lie; he had seven in the time). My last toothbrush (that’s true, he did only buy one). The libertine effervescence of every cocktail party, he. When he did eventually cough his last splutter, the only shock for most was that he had still been pottering about until that terminal gasp. Many thought he’d given up years previously. Perhaps he had.

(I say “only” shock, but there was also the content of his “data base”).

COLD is the last John Gardner Bond book.

COLD is my last John Gardner Bond book. That’s it. Won’t be coming back.

Can’t.

That’s not out of spite. It’s out of… it’s out of me, out of my system. Revisiting these books after years untouched, ostensibly to distil a core of a “Gardner Bond” via the specious method of redundant bitching about vocabulary chosen by a successful author many decades ago, one arrives hollowed-out at this directionless slog’s end. My soul’s not overburdened with giddy, even your critical faculties can deduce that, and usually ungnawed by regret. However, something feels sluiced, permanently drained. Transfused out.

It’s not that grim matter has been excised, nor is this smug vindication. In an exotically-lived life I experience that second one sufficiently, invariably when unloading the dishwasher or deworming a hound, to recognise both its presence and absence. I suspect the sensation is nourished by a conclusion that I shouldn’t have read these books again. This transparently unnecessary exercise has eroded something I hadn’t realised I valued: the value of never going back.

Curious, that. I re-read books. A pleasure and a means of avoiding conversation. That after umpteen years of betrothal and parenthood I remain permitted to indulge in this habit must mean my doing so is a pleasure for others, too. As a point of fact - a.k.a. a fact - I believe that runner-up to A Tale of Two Cities in the over-the-years revisited could just be Mr Benson’s seminal The James Bond Bedside Companion. Measured thus, Raymond Benson is my second favourite writer, so that’s one in the eye for Wodehouse, Victor Hugo, those ebullient young ladies who mislay their business cards in Edison kiosks and the takeaway menu of the Bangkok Hot Wok, Henley-on-Thames (4, 22, double 26 and a banana fritter).

Upon which subject, that comment of Mr Benson’s, that the Flemings would be “savored” at Sardi’s and the Gardners munched at McDonalds…

OK, right…

One could, if redundantly cruel (I am, hello), wonder at the fast-fodder-fate of the Raymond Benson Bond novels. Troughed at Taco Bell? Sucked at Subway? Licked at Little Caesar? Chewed at Chick-fil-A? Regretted at Roadchef? Pausing to think one shouldn’t have to live this way at Pizza Hut? Wept into wondering how swiftly youthful promise evaporated into embittered disillusion at Wimpy? One runs out of alliterative drivel, but thus enlightenment dawns. That mean-spirited game denies Mr Benson, who seems nice, an appreciative nod. That what appears to have been a jibe was a skilled, knowing reference to the Gardner overreliance upon alliteration. Mr Benson’s comment is fond acknowledgement rather than a spectacularly misjudged nibbling.

Even so I would challenge, vehemently, his pedestal-placing of Sardi’s (mundane food, self-colonic attitude) as paradigm sophistication, should that have been his intent in reserving the Flemings a table there. In my experience one can just walk in, then walk out twice as quickly. Savoured at Simpson’s, perhaps. Still, The Bedside Companion was “American” so that might be its aspirational touchstone. Bless. It’s Un-U. “Savored”. Hm.

The allusion could work. Sardi’s is, and here’s a review, banal stodge delivered expensively (also true of Simpson’s, tbh). Let’s not kid ourselves, that’s the shelf upon which the Flemings flaunt themselves. “Savored at Sardi’s” becomes not some unimpeachable barometer of quality with which to whack the Gardners around the noggin, but a pointed critique of the pretence of dressing up ordinary matter with fine trappings (and trappings are what they are). The trick is the delivery rather than anything inherently more nourishing in the content. This was a more brutal dissection of the Flemings than first reading suggests.

Likewise, the immediate knee-jerk reaction that Mr Benson likens the Gardner Bonds to junk food with the McDonalds analogy - the Junk Bond joke is just out of reach - may also miss the point. Junk they are not. Forgettable sustenance, a lack of “event” …well, perhaps that’s closer. The later Gardners lacking the popularity and consistency of McDonalds tends to disrupt any truth in the observation, although it was made at a time when these books sold well and before Chef became bored and resentfully devised a crazed fusion menu of the half-baked and indigestible.

That intrinsic absence of the “memorable”, though, in this overdone food metaphor, leaves me in two minds. One is subjective, albeit masquerading as objective critique; a second, personal.

There are set pieces throughout this second series that do chime, have indelibility and are worth chewing over. Brokenclaw’s wolf torture aside, the prompts to fond recollection tend to be in the first six books. The EuroDisney stuff is undeniably memorable, as being burgled or the death of one’s doggy would be. Regardless of their qualities or coherence (where many problems lie), there are ideas here, though, throughout. Too often, though, they are mushed into vague and frustrating (and resulting why-bother) contemplation of whatever Bassam Baradj / Unspellable Russian / Maxwell Tarn were meant to be up to, driven not least by the unsatisfactory authorial approach of keeping Bond in the dark as much as the reader. I accept that several of us are sentient adults and do not require spoon-feeding; the Bensons go too far the other way, although one is never in doubt as to what is going on. We can work it out if the pieces are there but the skill in a deconstructed presentation is that the consumer’s indulgence brings the disparate elements together, when masticated. Far too often with Gardners, one’s palate is unsatisfied and the plate is left scattered with discarded matter. Heston Blumenthal in ambition, Heston Services in execution. Whilst lack of resolution might be a truth of real espionage, the abiding impression of these books dawning upon me now is of messy undernourishment. Doubtless many reasons why too many don’t work, several outwith the author’s control, but when it comes down to it, it was his name on the licence above the door and stencilled onto the branded cruet.

If John Gardner’s Bonds had been produced by McDonald’s, when biting into one’s “hamburger” (is this right?) one would find a cogwheel of a photocopier or, God forbid, some poetry, and you’ll never, ever, have it explained to you why they were there, other than making the “meal” look more generous than it was. I suppose the analogy may still possess perspicacity if one compares the photograph of the food – all juicy and replete with the freshest tomato of Bond (…erm) and the moistest patty of adventure (…this is pathetic) – to the experience of opening the box and being presented with something that looks like it was both made, and then sat upon, by your Mum. That difference between promise and payoff… yeah, McDonald’s for all it is.

I’ll pass. I seem to have lost my appetite.

Yet it is not what these books are (and are not) that has generated this feeling of… it’s loss, I suppose. Not the melancholy that creepingly usurps the initial relief of the last ever school run or last ever nappy change, that however much they irritated at the time, such things are truly, forever, gone. It is what these books represent, or represented at the time, to me. I invested in them, and I’m not referring to the £11.95 for Win, Lose or Die in 1989-shaped money, although as that’s roughly £27 now, it strikes one as bloody steep for what it delivered. One could reflect on better uses of the cash, but – and this is where that eroding quality possessed by disappointed memories bites – it must have been the right use at the time. Must have been . These were my thing, mine, these were my youthful fan experience of “more Bond to look forward to”, the films having dropped away, where critical faculty in questioning whether “more” is any good is wholly supressed by that dark denial inherent in fandom: regardless of whether it would be any good, to simply have more of it at all , was all, was everything . One can apply the same rule to offspring.

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One comes to appreciate the poignancy of Duke Orsino’s attitude to music / food of love / excess of it. One comes to shudder at the thought that the references to Twelfth Night in that novelisation of GoldenEye have burrowed into my brain like a bulimic bedbug.

Yet, there he was, that lonely and bullied boy on the beach, a third of a century ago, reading Nobody Lives For Ever, finding something that was his, an experience that was his alone, absorbed into it and then into the perpetual delusion that that the next one would be as good, which it wasn’t, or the one after that, which it wasn’t. The next one would be. It wasn’t. They weren’t because they were trying something different and I wanted them to be the same, I wanted them to do the same things, stir the same feelings, as that first exposure to it, because that was what Bond meant to me, that was what my understanding of it was.

An acquaintance of mine became dependent upon an illegal substance; judging her and her lice-sodden death would hypocritically deny my own enthusiasm for Fleurie. She explained - not excused, explained - her life as hunting down that first one hit forever, that the next one will deliver that same sensation and doesn’t, but the next one will, and it has to get more intense and concentrated the more one’s system becomes accustomed to it, perpetually neutering the thrill. The more one has of it, the less special it becomes, but as enthusiasts we delude ourselves otherwise because the new might – won’t – just be as good as we knew it. As the third favourite author would observe, we believe in the green light, which still eludes us and, boats against the current, are borne back ceaselessly into the past. Cosplay into denial all you like, but you’re so sodding stuck. (He didn’t write that last bit). Whatever one’s enthusiasm - tegestology, heroin, collecting comic books or spouses, cress cultivars - it all plays out the same, the hopeless forward pursuit of something, an emotion, long past, and best left there. On a cost/disbenefit basis, nostalgia’s the most harmful drug of the lot, and pushed cynically at us every time that DB5 rattles into view.

We descend deeper in that chase. Because the x of it meant so much to one, it can be challenging to accept that the y – someone else’s “in” – is just as valid and meaningful, formative even, to those exposed to that. The underlying selfishness of any personal experience leads to a slope well-slipped, to deride that other. All that manifests is the fear that one’s own foundations are equally frail; of course they will be. Kicking away someone else’s crutches doesn’t make one’s own knees any stronger, although it can feel like beneficial aerobic exercise at the time and I do need to get in 10,000 steps a day. Why they are achieved trampling over others is open to discussion, although a discussion I am too spineless to have. It’s always those who dish it out who cannot take it.

Curious nature of fandom, the sharing of something personal with strangers, yet everyone having their own, selfish, emotional connection which, if disrupted or questioned or dismissed within that same core group, can break out into schism if unchecked. A fragile détente between the otherwise lightly entertained. Lashing out at those for whom Octopussy might have been their first cinema visit, and who revelled in it, or the persons cataloguing the wristwatches or Q’s ties, might be superficial fun (and it is) but as with any bully, all it exposes is cowardice, an unwillingness to have one’s own bedrock disturbed.

Accordingly, I had left the Gardners be, hesitant to return, in case… what? That they were simply not good, not worth that childhood anticipation. Watching how one’s children waste their days generates mid-life musings on how one spent one’s unrecoverable time and… it was on those ?

Gone back to the Flemings countless times, but then they were already historical pieces. Ian Fleming was safely tucked up in dead several years before I was born, so his work could not be anticipated, experienced, in the same way, chronology and a scrambled eggs and booze ‘n’ cigarettes diet having prevented that. With Mr Benson’s little goes, I can and do dip in now and again, but both runs of novels are easy targets, for they meant little, or less. The Gardners, though… gathered dust. A wariness to return to them to just have yet another happiness disrupted? A suspicion that the jaded qualities of the later efforts influenced my own subsequent (postured) wearied embracing of anything new in Bond, so - aha!- they were the ones to blame. Ooh, lashings of grim narcissistic deflection/attribution.

Never went back, whatever cause.

Until now, with these pieces of nonsense. It’s not as if I have written this appallingly self-indulgent sewer of claptrap at gunpoint. I chose to go back and am responsible for the consequences of that choice, a hopeless attempt to recapture something one should have accepted as having had its place, its time, and being over, lost. Or, if not lost, then done, past. Time to let go, lest the sentimental attachment erode further, because erode it surely has. Is that the responsibility of the books, that they really weren’t good, or simply the application of the unpleasant lazy sneering characteristics I have developed over the years? Can’t say. Chicken and egg. Chicken, anyway. Boxed away, for my own good. Doubtless foundations of what I am now, but continually picking away at the foundations ignores that layers built upon them are neglected, and tumbling. Life lived backwards; the self-regarding archaeology of the frustrated enthusiast, blinkered to what they are and need to be in fruitless search for what they thought they had once felt.

In “shorter”, if I had now liked what I had been reading, would I have written all that nonsense above? I permit you on this occasion to draw your own conclusions rather than have you manipulated into mine through an onslaught of verbiage.

John Gardner’s James Bond novels exist, and they are as good as they are. That’s it. That is it. As they go into the loft, “my last” glance at them. Won’t see them again. Won’t need to.

Game over.

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The 007th Chapter – COLD: Judas Kiss?

Game nearly over.

Appropriate chapter title, that, given m’mood. Has all this drivel been leading to that? One last bathetic GardnerTwist so, what the Hell, whyever not?

We are not in a hotel room. Change comes too late, I fear, although equally notable facets of a Gardner Bond novel - dotting about between multiple locations and characters flung at one in the desperate hope some could stick - drive this chapter.

Driven myself by impression of these books, wary about re-reading in full, whilst I haven’t gone back through every last syllable of COLD, I recall an elegiac quality to it, not least the sidelining of the old M, the confirmation of the fate of Flicka/Freddie/Fffft and the attempt at drawing together old threads, seeking to give this run of Bonds an internal logic. It’s a sound judgment call that the world upon which this ambition is built, is the world of Nobody Lives For Ever (rather than, say, Icebreaker, which possesses no logic whatsoever). That was substantially the strongest Gardner, even if I know my view is clouded by what it means to me rather than what it says. I will stand in defence of that book to the last, for reasons lengthily articulated. A more muted, certainly more exhausted companion piece to that nailed-on favourite, COLD is the difficult sequel but not one I recall particularly disrupting my admiration for the original. COLD doesn’t seem to be a book overly beloved, possibly because they only printed seven copies, and as a stand-alone it would confuse the flumpery out of one, so reliant on the past is it. Alternatively approached as an exercise in trying to put the lid on (some) things, it may have more strengths than its apparent reputation deserves. I know that a “significant” character from Win, Lose or Die will re-emerge but, again, best not to dwell. Still, where there are returning characters, save for the usual SIS crew, they tend to be his own rather than crowbarring in some long-deads from Fleming for fan-baffling effect. That’s… that’s next.

Although were it a sequel to The Man from Barbarossa, it would obviously be rubbish.

There’s a parallel with recent (albeit increasingly un-recent) Bond film Spectre, with retroactive world-building supplanting (thus avoiding devising) a discernable plot. The ruse, applied when bereft of ideas, seems more successful in COLD than in that film, which shrank Bond’s world rather than expand it, making everyone a Skywalker or some such. To be “fair”, though, the unwelcome and undemanded revelation that Bond and Blofeld are foster brothers has form and, onset of bruxism though it brings, it may be “consistent” with ideas in Bond stories elsewhere. Never Dream of Dying delivered a Bond whose dead wife was the blood cousin of BloClone Le Villain so, if feeling particularly petty minded, not only did Spectre draw inspiration from Mr Amis’ work, but also from Mr Benson’s. Here it’s less corrosive a notion, because it leaves Bond be but has everyone else related to each other. The echo of Sukie Tempesta being married into a family of gangsters as a shadowy nod back to Tracy cannot be accidental, but it’s not overtly overplayed, from memory, although you’ll have noted my memory as unreliable and selective.

Anyway, here we are, bimbling along in a Rolls Royce with one Luigi Tempesta, whoever he’s going to be, on the road to Viareggio because of… plot, something something something ‘plane crash new terror group with acronym (all Gardner is here) and masses of CIA doubletalk and briefings (told you). This Luigi is “just under five feet” and that Anton Murik, way back, before all those hotels and traitors and SAABs and sandwiches, he was a midger too, so let’s say that’s another ghost. Another spectre. The dead are alive. Etc. Less golden of eye than “pewter”, the man’s eyes remind Bond “of the North Sea on a bitter midwinter day”; full of fish. It’s a strong look.

Tense chit-chat as we roll along, and Bond’s mind turns to poetry, for this is GardnerBond and, at this end of days, who should dare stop him? Unexpectedly - really unexpectedly - in the description of the Tempesta villa as “…rather like the old broom that’s had three new handles and four new heads but is still the old broom”, we have the ghost of that joke about Trigger’s broom from Only Fools and Horses. Still, might as well shove any old thing in now, no-one’s going to notice. Pad it all out with description about the villa’s “good heating and air conditioning”, it matters not. Shove in a “She studied under me” joke when referencing Bond’s cover as a “lecturer” in “computer sciences” and see if we care, although one did note the whisper of Role of Honour.

“The disconcerting eyes appeared to alter again, this time becoming like dangerous grey lava.” Unlike lovely grey lava, which just wants to give you a warm hug.

“ ‘Pleasure boats and a transport service run from there, just a few steps from Puccini’s house, where the composer’s body is entombed.’ ” Nobody talks like that. “ ‘Yes, I know it. It also sports a wonderful statue of Maestro Puccini.’ “ Although “James Bond” does, apparently. One last rattle around his Ken Spoon persona, perhaps. Casting his mind back, Bond recalls a previous visit to kill a traitor: “It was what he had done regularly in those days, with his licence to kill and the double-O prefix.” All very in-the-past, although as this bit’s ostensibly set in 1990 and prior to Two Zeros and that guff, all very er-um-er-what? too.

Bit of guidebook infilling from John-John a solid paragraph about Puccini and another few about the “number of tributaries that run from the Lago Massaciuccoli” and he’s probably exhausted the content of his pamphlet about Viareggio by now, so time to board the boat and head off to the villa. No? Something about Shelley’s death, then. Meander, exhaust every last crumb of fact about Viareggio (which is a dump), then may we leave? Jolly good.

Interesting how Gardner’s Bond ends in a down-at-heel European seaside resort, just as Fleming’s started.

Over the lake to the villa, then. “He wondered what tales of drama, melodrama, treachery and plotting that stone held secret.” I’m wondering too: it’s not as if there’s any such tale happening in front of me. Not the most eventful of chapters, even for the habitually sedentary Gardner Bond. A small character study of this Luigi Tempesta, albeit a caricature of an unreconstructed male Italian gangster, and a sail on a lake. Ho-de-hum.

Luigi, Carlo, Filippo, Angelo. Toni. All names, so many names. “Which one is Giulliana, he wondered.” I don’t know, they all merge into one, these Gardner characters. “What was Toni playing at? Was this a Judas kiss, he wondered?” Lost in Wonderland, all. One leaves him there, mildly threatened by anonymous sorts, contemplating abundant rhetorical questions that may never be answered.

How very Gardner.

Shuttling to the end of the book (Bond wins), notable that as with Fleming, the Gardner novels close on a played-out, melancholy note. Whereas Fleming delivers the final definitive statement on why Bond’s perceived success with women is anything but, putting his fractured relationships into their intended context (utter failure), Gardner’s Bond, equally contemplative, is off to meet the female M for the first time, having forgotten he encountered her one book previously (failure of a different sort, poor old sod). It’s apposite, and defining in the different approaches to the character, that where the Fleming Bond was expressing his own base thoughts, the Gardner leaves us with a quote, so very fond of these as he was. “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

“Under his breath he said. ‘Good with words, Churchill. Very good with words.’ “

Well, someone has to be.

The beginning of the end

Playing with quotes, two favourite maxims that have always seemed mutually contradictory are – worth seeing, but not worth going to see ; and – it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive . However, I can see some tessellation where these meandering pieces have ended up. The Gardners are worth seeing. Across the sprawl of this series of pifflesome jibes, it might not have come across like that but I do remain of that view, ultimately, albeit it can only be justified as a sentimental one rather than a cold-eyed critique, a self-assuring denial that taking just one step further back may expose them, tipping everything over the precipice. However, their real meaning for me was in that travelling hopefully, when young. Revisiting now, no journey to make other than to the bookshelves, has been like a visit back to a schoolroom: so much smaller than one remembers, and one notices the blemishes, the peeling paint, too many ghosts, too much happened since; probably a mistake. Weird smell, too.

Still, as Churchill (good with wudz) stated, a nation that forgets its past has no future. It would be foolish to deny these books’ influence, and forgotten they will not be, but it may be best as sense-memory rather than reality. Time to set them aside, and move on for, as another equally influential man observed, SECRET COMPARTMENT!

And – nobody lives for ever.

Ken Spoon is dead. Long live James Bond.

James Bond will return in the 007th Chapter of Zero Minus Ten. Jacques Stewart needs to get over himself, the pretentious twerp.

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Really brilliant.

Veracity dictates I mention I had to look up the word ‘tessellation’. Thanks for that.

The passage on Nostalgia and culminating on the rattling DB5 was beautifully realised.

In this current climate, for reasons maybe unknown, but definitely to be forgiven, I felt like dipping my toes back into the Gardner waters and decided upon For Special Services. Actually, one reason for choosing this novel was to read again the chapter 7 which brought about Jim’s hilarious passage on jiggling boobs. But perhaps also the aforementioned Nostalgia.

Anyway, and needless to say, it is bloody hard work grinding past a Bond character that can be pillow fighting with his best friend’s daughter one moment and climbing into treacherous lifts the next. I have one more chapter to squeak out and then, better informed, I will consider whether or not to succumb to Nostalgia’s next pull.

Really top notch Jim.

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Rosebud.

This series has been epic. The lasting image for me will be from this final one, of Jim packing up the Gardner books after this goodbye search through as they put away in the attic. Not to be revisited again, and yet, put away, not throw away, because of course.

I’ve still got a lot of good will for the Gardner Bonds, particularly the first several, flaws and all, but ones parting sentiments upon reaching the end of them can also be taken as a comment on the overall length of the tenure: So long.

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