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.
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…
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.