The 007th Chapter: The Man from Barbarossa


#1

A confession. Just the one.

There are abundant others, but I need an optimum time to unleash those (Christmas dinner, can’t fail). In context, the big ‘un for the mo is that I don’t like spy fiction.

Not as Earth- nor family-shattering as […not telling] but in the context of a series of increasingly egregious pieces about increasingly egregious James Bond books, it’s a contemplation that causes me to pause, even if it only causes you to skip this bit and try to find this one’s strained euphemisms for genitalia.

Perhaps it’s part of ageing but I find my patience - never flabby - worn intervention-level anorexic by the overly – and ostentatiously – complex. My tolerance for nuance wanes and the only grey areas to bother with are those abundantly a-sprout from m’noddle and m’nostrils. Perhaps this is a confession that I am nowhere near as bright as I should be and am, bottom line, too stupid to understand most of the genre.

There is a school of thought - not a very good school, and I defer to your greater knowledge of such establishments - that the web-of-intrigue-and-deception stuff is designed deliberately to alienate the reader, to distance them from a world of deeds and people unfit for admiration. One’s interest is piqued as in watching snakes in the zoo; if interested in writhing masses of seething toxicity, they compel, but there’s no desire to jump in alongside. How appealing, say, is the world of Smiley and his ilk and how grinding is it to keep being warned paternalistically about such milieux?

Le Carre’s output is a case in point. Mentally and spiritually depleted, flawed men pottering around for three hundred pages, and frequently presented unto one, lazily and excessively sniffily, as the antidote to Bond, or even the anti-Bond. I don’t accuse that author of deliberately setting out to do this, although It intrigues me how (and why) Smiley’s faithless aristocratic wife happens ever-so- coincidentally to be called Ann. The dour intellectual, suppressed romantic George as deliberate, cheeky counterpoint to the technicolour, anti-intellectual idealised romantic Ian?

I claim no expertise here, having only trudged my way through a few Le Carre books. However, even in their (undeniable) atmosphere, a narrative quality shared with the original Bonds, the intricate drabness strikes as just as heighted a reality (lowered a reality?), as knowingly arch, increasingly routine and formulaic as Fleming banging on again in language as florid as his drunk old nose about hibiscus, gypsies, barracuda and cures for lesbianism. How many times one can tolerate being told that espionage operatives are double-dealing, failed and venal depends on how many times one can tolerate being told than binmen empty bins. Such espionage works may well be exercises in exploration of displeasing human truths hidden in tales of dockets and duffel coats but sometimes all the truth one needs is how nauseating the scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are at a point past one’s bedtime. I accept that in conflating something I’m not keen on – spy fiction – with something else that I’m not keen on – the Le Carre back catalogue – I have promulgated the doubtless erroneous view that they are one and the same, but it’s a method that wins elections, so hey ho, let’s Make Adventures Grate Again.

Where this ill-advised critique is going is to deliver an equally formulaic observation, although I don’t claim it as uniquely mine: with several books, and The Man from Barbarossa in particular, John Gardner writes James Bond as a spy.

Which James Bond is not. Never has been.

Ian Fleming, it is said (possibly by himself), wanted Casino Royale to be the spy novel to end all spy novels. He failed miserably (or, more positively, never actually started) because it’s just not a spy novel. At all. Bond is a disruptor agent, a professional cage-rattler, cruelly riling mischievous foreigners into exposing their exploitable disabilities and their nefarious schemes, than he is a shuffler-about. Gathering intelligence and not being seen are tasks he considers hateful and boring. Bond is immensely visible. His position is post-spying, unleashed once the reports are done. Consider in how many Flemings there is an early dossier on a villain and, on the same occasions, how little more Bond finds out about their nature (other than having it play out before him) before inflicting flamboyant, visceral and downright noticeable death upon them. Would a spy behave as Bond does in Diamonds are Forever (say) where he brings attention to himself to alleviate his boredom (and ours). An agent provocateur, a wind-up merchant, an agitator let loose once the investigation is largely done (or, in the case of Moonraker, instead of an investigation – I remain of the view that the initial charge against Drax is thin and Bond is aimed at him because he has had the temerity to rile people whose gundogs even have a lineage considerably longer than we mere ordinaries).

True, Vivienne Michel considered Bond a spy, but she was thick and “spy” is a monosyllable so was the best she could do, poor mite. I don’t deny there are occasions when Fleming’s Bond “spies”, or adopts a disguise, but these are infrequent and, more often than not, unsuccessful. Consider the following of Goldfinger to Switzerland and using the “Homer”. All he needed to do was establish where Goldfinger’s Swiss factory was, public knowledge, rather than waste his time – and ours – for a chapter or so. Likewise, that business with “look American” in Live and Let Die; this goes nowhere and is immediately seen through, and undermined by an author at pains to point out its absurdity rather than its necessity. Bond’s most successful bit of spying that comes to mind is on behalf of Mr DuPont, rather than the state. Doubtless there are others but one reason they don’t latch onto the retained memories of “James Bond incidents” is because they’re just not the point, and on many occasions the rooms in which Bond performs any such deed yawn at him. I think yet again of Goldfinger, although it’s common practice to think of Goldfinger and yawn.

These were fantasy novels and have as much to say about espionage as The Hobbit does about medieval subsistence farming. It is blunt storytelling at a heightened level of authorial yearning – and these are stories, not documentaries – and its association with “spying” is misconceived. On every occasion the Security Services launch their latest recruitment policy – they let women in now – the reports of such initiative always – always – comment that “prospective James Bonds need not apply”, missing the point that Bond wouldn’t apply because he’s not interested in (or competent at) a job that offers him little opportunity to be the indulged centre of attention all the bleedin’ time. He’s not really such a wonderful spy, but winning lots of money and a gal, he’s a fabulous guy.

Even within the prevailing tone of the current films as “serious-minded” (…yeah, right), the espionage skill on display by all, and Bond especially, strikes one as feeble at best and rampagingly incompetent at worst, all brute force and ignorance – and ill-judged coincidence – than anything resembling what one would hope those engaged in such activities would do. Popular, though, and probably as compelling as evidence in their own way that Bond as a concept speaks rejection of “spying” as are the last forty whacked-out pages of Dr No. The delicate political background of 7777’s mission in You Only Live Twice is brushed aside, to engage instead with tales of fugu, landscapes and death by shrubbery and even the ostensible veracity of the opening of From Russia with Love, as close as Fleming got to “espionage”, finds itself enhanced with an Irish werewolf and a neuter toad-hag. Otherwise it would just be So Much Chatting. A phrase that stands as a shorter, and considerably less spinelessly bitchy, summary of The Man from Barbarossa.

This book might be good spy fiction (don’t know/care), but it’s rotten James Bond. On the back of my copy, there’s the statement “Ian Fleming would not be displeased”. Of course he wouldn’t – books like this make his repressed-tease eroto-atomic schoolboy juvenilia look fantastically alluring yet again. Might treat myself to yet another set of them; doubtless there will be a reprint issued shortly, tends to happen every six months. I have one copy of The Man from Barbarossa. That situation will prevail.

The banal comment “rotten James Bond” reflects more upon me than upon its author, as it reveals me to be underimaginative swine, hemming in creativity with demands that something must remain fixed to please me and, in the context of Bond novels, a staggeringly uninformed bleat given how much Fleming experimented with structure, scale, authorial voice even. One perspective of his books suggests that for something of such popularity, the Flemings are under-appreciated for their novelty, the individuality inter se, particularly the first five. A rejoinder would be that the real popularity of James Bond came with the films and note how they started with one of the most linear “beginning, middle, end” stories in Dr No, reshaped From Russia with Love to do the same and exploded with the dead-straight down the line uncomplicated Goldfinger. The far more bread-and-butter structure of the films neutered that James Bond was wide open to narrative mucking-about; presumably adopted to stave off louche ennui.

Why, then, decry this book, which seems to have developed a (small) reputation as underloved and underloveable? If written Bond is fluid, and fluidity is a praiseworthy quality, surely trying something new must be respected objectively, even if the execution is harder to admire subjectively? Fair enough, but even with The Spy who Loved Me, the weirdest Bond ever produced, James Bond is ectually in it. Here, amidst the many characters (in inverse proportion to the amount of character any display), the corkscrews of convenience, the maddening “I’ll tell you later, but I never do” briefings, the glued-on ending about hijacked nukes that does its worst to remind us and the author that it was “a James Bond” that was commissioned, Bond is muted, then lost. I’ll alert you to a spoiler – be alert! – but when Bond “dies” two-thirds through (not ectually a spoiler, given the chapter title), that only reminds that a male with the name James Bond was occasionally present. Oh, right, it was a Bond, wasn’t it? So much of a bit-part player is 007 through everything that happens prior, this potentially impactful moment is underweight, as meaningless as any of the other deaths of the million-and-one other folks and their million-and-one double identities. In such uncertain times, even James Bond can die an unremarkable death and, one perceives a point; why on Earth should he die any better that anyone else? Notably, with Bond “dead”, Mr Gardner continues the story. A smidge of a giveaway. This is a John Gardner book in which James Bond intermittently appears, for contractual reasons, and the story can carry on without him because it didn’t need him at all. The silliness of my Ken Spoon conceit aside, here one really could scratch out Bond’s name and it’d flow just the same; arguably, better because we would be spared the frustration of trying to understand why 007 is involved at all, and the ending which plays to a corrupted perception of what Bond “is”.

Another distancing removal of anything James Bond – including the Gardner vision, beyond tangible reluctance to do much else than a professional job of turning out a book on time – is that M has an emotive reaction to the Fake News of Bond’s death; another good idea squandered. The Gardner M has been so appalling to Bond from the off, farming him out to other agencies, regularly putting him down with literary snobbery, abhorring him at every given opportunity and, here, giving him a mission that’s never explained and doesn’t need James Bond, but a spy, to handle, that any emotion on his part other than gleeful hand-rubbing satisfaction clangs hollow.

This isn’t to suggest that the book is absent ideas, but its merits as James Bond and the ideas it engineers in the name of James Bond, feel off, semi-detached. Perhaps the book needed more space to let things breathe. Even putting the inexplicably brief showdown aside, it comes down to a lot of foggy chatter and then some rushing about without any semblance of an explanation why. Perhaps that’s what’s spying’s like: how dreadful. Despite all the sinister adjectives John throws at puffing up the threat, I still have no idea. I accept that the narrative requires matters to be urgent, the story expressly taking place from the end of 1990 to the outbreak of the first Gulf War in mid-January 1991. Things are therefore fated to whoosh by; maybe that’s what starting a war is like. I wouldn’t know. Honest. Explanations are the luxury and responsibility of reflective history but even twenty-plenty years on, I still don’t know what this book is about.

On reflection, the ending may be explicable – it has to be brief to avoid explaining anything leading up to it. Too many chapters here adopt a trick that Mr Gardner flirted with in Scorpius and Brokenclaw: concluding with Bond being briefed about other, more deadly matters about which we are never told, or informed that things will be explained to him later, be it by SIS or the Russians or whoever else. Fine; what ostensibly happens, happens against the backdrop of a larger, murkier circumstance meriting the involvement of James Bond in a minor Russian domestic concern, a wider game justifying highest-level foreign involvement in the scrabbling for power in the breakdown of the Soviet Union. It’s a point worth making, but just once. The routine is too helpful to the writer at the expense of his reader: were any of these things presented to us, we might pick more holes. Just bat on through, suggest other stuff’s afoot, don’t explain, so never get caught out. Plot by suggestion, misdirection and reluctant whisper rather than by infliction of Giant Squid, carrrrddds and cat-eating Koreans, may work for the style of tale this does appear to want to try to aspire to be; perhaps a style of tale, given other works, suiting Mr Gardner to write at the time, an exploration of the purpose of James Bond the man and James Bond the concept when villainy is less easy to pick out of the parade. The safety net of suggesting other stuff going on around Bond, without revealing what it is, creates the aura of danger without ectual disclosure of these dire threats, lest exposing them creates narrative blind alleys and inconsistencies upon which one has to come good. The trouble is, so relentlessly is the technique used in the opening chapters, that one is moved as a reader from asking what is going on, to why it might be going on, to why one is tolerating it. Although Fleming was more subtle a writer than he is given credit for, the easy targets of his views distracting sympathetic critical evaluation, his plots are, of themselves, blunt and basic suiting a leading character of similar attributes. Removing these pillars – direct if stupid story and direct if brutal lead - and replacing both with aspects more nebulous, risks – and achieves – collapse.

Perhaps, though, this is the ultimate Gardner Bond, dismissing the hero to an “also starring” role and demonstrating the fallacy of the “I, Bond” of Fleming where, by a book’s end, everything menaced within it is sewn up, or strangled, or shot, hurrah for 007. There was still a Gulf War. There was still unrest in Russia (I recall reading this on the very day Gorbachev was temporarily displaced, more evidence of Mr Gardner’s wizardry). There were still people being ineffectual. No-one really had a grasp on what would happen in the collapse of the Soviet Union and therefore we are presented with a story impossible to clutch. Save for the silly conclusion, James Bond is as unnecessary in the book as he would be in real life. Point made. A high/low of the (playful?) attitude, albeit this time a hand overplayed and not so much deconstruction as destruction. One could suggest that The Blessed Holy GoldenEye tries the same thing – an uncertain place for Bond in the uncertainty of Soviet collapse – but then it realises that such a notion would make for an even more appallingly boring film than it already is and ends up being a undernourished haircut fighting a scarred villain under a lake, or whatever it was. Even though it’s a blunt and juvenile answer to the question “Is James Bond relevant” to go “Yes, he is, see the explosions”, it’s a clear statement of intent. This, in remaining confused and confusing, and giving Bond a mission well beneath his means and purpose, suggests he is ill-fitting, past it and redundant and M is just scrabbling around trying to find something for 007 to do because otherwise the payoff and final salary pension will cripple the budget.

In passing, odd (ish) how muchhere chimes in GoldenEye: kickback to a WW2 atrocity for villainous motivation, albeit screwing up the age of the leading characters; Russian powerplays and corrupted Generals; Bond on the sidelines for a fair chunk of it; M unable to disguise the contempt; fake acts of domestic terrorism inside Russia; something about arms dealing with reference to the Gulf War; Bond presented as out-of-place and time; total abandonment of ladled-thick theme in favour of a could-be-any-Bond conclusion. Mr Gardner’s preface to Licence to Kill suggests it didn’t take long to bash out; novelising GoldenEye must have been dead easy. Most of the beats he had already played.

This book might break Bond. If such a melodramatic observation stands, patently there needs to be articulation of what a “whole” Bond is, to recognise where broken. It’s not in the tiresome supporting cast – all here, all those tedious bastards, including several of Mr Gardner’s devising and, of course, Moneypenny who is subjected to such a clumsy incest “joke” from “Bond” that one realises that the tone is as vacillating and changey-facey as all the characters and storylines, the narrative atmospherics clattering about like plimsolls in a washing machine. It might (might) be clever and deliberate rather than rushed and deadline-desperate.
It’s not in the absence of “action”, either. Although a depressingly high number of chapters have the word “briefing” in their title, and there is much sitting and cross-talk (where Bond and M are concerned, prissily grumpy pensioner talk) – but there are “action scenes”, although those have never really been a hallmark of stronger Bonds. Casino Royale has spit-spots of activity, but most of it is sedentary, even the torture, and I’d be amazed if Bond got near his 10,000 steps a day during Moonraker.

Where this struggles, for me anyway, as “James Bond fiction” is in its baffling (wilfully perverse?) lack of engagement of the senses. When the series has started by dripping onto us the atmos of casino life and concluded in a mangrove swamp described in such a manner that one may sniff the words from the page, whatever undulations and flamboyantly careless inconsistencies of character, story and motivation infect the Flemings, one struggles to deny the care in allowing us to share the experience. Diamonds are Forever, for example, may not be credible, but it’s borderline edible. Fine, no-one since “is” Fleming but Mr Benson definitely gave the atmospherics a try, severely misguided on far, far too many awkward occasions but a noble try nonetheless, and Solo is a work of sustained world-building, even if that world doesn’t have an actual story taking place in it.

This, though, is so massively offhand in people and place and – with all the underexplained threads – plot that I can’t even go down the cheap route and suggest that it does indeed appeal to the sense of smell by being a stinker. It’s not – as an exercise in written Bond it doesn’t make itself sufficiently interesting even to repel. Its seduction is neutral, probably neuter, inert. More succinctly, not a book I would have bought without the misrepresentation that it was “James Bond”. It’s probably jolly good Ken Spoon, arguably the masterpiece, but the expectation of Bondy sensory overload smacking me about so unfulfilled, it does make me wonder if I have died.

I suspect part of my frustration here is the open-goal opportunity to do so much more with “James Bond ectually goes to Russia”; even leaving aside the Flemings and what this would have meant given the perpetual menace he narrated, Mr Gardner’s own Icebreaker – if I understood the plot (fifty-fifty) – relies on the threat of Bond being captured and hauled to Moscow as a prize, as does (I think – don’t know, and won’t be checking) No Deals, Mr Bond. It’s deucedly odd that in Icebreaker 2 (which this is – all “the” Mossad and frail teamwork and Arctic Circle and multiple identities and fake terror thingies and nothing villainy) so little is made of it. OK, so Bond has been to Russia before, in Devil May Care… um… but not giving us anything of the place and that it’s James Bleedin’ Bond there, be it deliberate choice or failure to contemplate any significance in it, is weird.

It may be design: that one’s expectation of a Bond would be several pages about how Moscow is replete with the sallow-faced holed up in their ghastly tenements (although even Fleming at the height of his powers would have been challenged to distinguish that from Sunderland), and here, as has been a theme in his books, Mr Gardner undermines our expectation, pulling the rug out from underneath us again. On this occasion, it’s the rug’s last thread, and it may have been a tug too far. One sees a retrenchment into “Bond” tropes in his remaining books. If one accepts that there is some plan to challenge “The Reader of James Bond” out of their preconceptions, the game may just have reached its limit. Fine, the notion allows one to demonstrate a greater flexibility that the perception of “James Bond” permitted, but ultimate anything that flexes reaches a point that it snaps. The joke may have run its course. It’s possible that we were building up to this. “Possible”.

Talking of which. the 007th Chapter, a concept described by an anonymous online chum as “the unreadable in pursuit of the, well, also unreadable”, was initially conceived as an attempt to establish, by isolating one part of book alone, what the core of a “James Bond” novel was, the hypothesis (my, aren’t we posh?) being that even a snapshot might exemplify something either new or reconfirmed on the list, whether these are characteristics to the good (Live and Let Die, say) or the more questionable (every grim syllable of the seventh chapter of Goldfinger).

This, though…

The Man from Barbarossa might have broken this, too.

How cruel your cheering. How cruel.


#2

The 007th Chapter – The Man from Barbarossa: Four Walls

Despite the chapter title boding ill, we’re not in a hotel room; he’s even breaking his own norms of Bond, now.
Welcome to wherever we are. Until spewing this out, I had only really flicked through the book on occasion and now, staring at the opening lines of the seventh chapter, I have no recollection how the story had developed up to this point. Perhaps they are so indelible a part of one’s own formative years, although I haven’t read any in full for years, but dipping into the seventh chapter of a Fleming, I could still I think give a reasonable, if not pin-sharp, summary from memory of the broad span of events up to that point. Here, Bond is landing in Moscow and there are some other characters mentioned and I’ve less of a clue than you doubtless already concluded I had.

To get me up to speed, excuse the following section. Back in a mo.

BRIEFING STARTS:

  • Previously, on The Man from Barbarossa: an old man is kidnapped in North America (didn’t something similar happen in the last one?). “The first step in a plot, so ingenious and skilful, that the stability of nations would rock wildly to its adroit tune”. Hmm – a) who speaks like that, really?; and b) instead of telling us this, John, and thereby sneakily trying to convince us of same, why not make it so and leave us to draw that conclusion? It’s a technique that gets my back up, and when my back’s up, me coccyx stings. I recall now – throughout the book, we keep being told of the gravity of all of this, so often that it gets in the way of the narrative confirming these relentless, empty statements, a miasma of chatting and protocol and bureaucracy. I think it was about disrupting the Russian government and something something something nukes. It’s not unusual to have a government blackmailed in a Bond, and to do so by undermining its constitution and the Rule of Law is a novelty but perhaps a bit dry? As ever, I recall this is “fake” anyway. God alone knows what’s real.

  • Is direct reference to the Holocaust in terribly good taste for a “James Bond”. If one accepts that the book is trying to provoke our complacency, then fair enough and it’s not as if it is a complete taboo as a background for light entertainment product (e.g. those X-Men things debasing it for metaphor) but the internal Gardnering of real dates, events and people disrupting any pretence that the “James Bond” here, expressly in 1991, is the one kicking about Northern France in the early 1950s hits its absolute high/low. I accept its use adds veracity, I accept at face value the research, I accept that we need to be dunked into something so horrendous now and again to try to remind us all “not to”, but what I’m not quite so keen on accepting is using it for “Bond”. It may be more utterly tasteless the other way for the Bonds to have relied on the likes of Sir Hugo Drax and the Comedy Hirsute Nazis of Kent, or making him Horny Space Hitler in his film, or that daft old berk in A view to a Kill, or rendering the Soviet spy council “colourful” despite their mass-murderous ways, but somehow those play “better” (I suspect there’s a much more appropriate word) within the atmospherics of the over-saturated environment, playing to a populist notion of evil rather than exploring the reality of it. Again, it’s an unsettling chime and I suspect intended as such to try to expose “Bond” to a real environment, and it is always the hypocrisy of the lecturer to hate being lectured to themselves. Parallels with Hitler and Mussolini abound the Flemings, I accept, but as a swift, superficial and recognisable shorthand for bad character for an immediately post-War readership, not as a reality. I suppose my point here is that it does not feel particularly escapist (although that of itself raises the notion why the prospect of imminent nuclear immolation so prevalent in a hefty percentage of the other books, should). Maybe I just don’t like having my boundaries fiddled with. Get off my land.

  • The end of the first chapter promises much that is earth-shattering to come, and ambles headlong into the book’s failure to show, rather than just tell. This is really irritating. It reads as a treatment, a synopsis, not an actual story. James Bond, for no readily discernible reason other than M wanting him dead (again) rides to the rescue of the Russian state because of… things.

  • The book has started with a dedication to folks who led double lives. Raises the flag right in our faces, that one. The book has a double life. It says it’s “James Bond”. It bloody isn’t.

  • Bond is found ruminating old-fartishly about computers and his admiration for magicians. Consider Mr Gardner’s biography. We appear to only be a few weeks on from the events of Brokenclaw, which may explain why The Scrivener reappears, having popped up in that book. I am sure I read somewhere that it is in this one that Mr Gardner cross-uses characters from other non-Bonds (but I might be wrong and withdraw the point if so). “Bond never felt so positive about files which came seemingly from nowhere at the command of a series of keystrokes”, thereby at a keystroke itself making me wonder why I wasted my time with the first half of Role of Honour (a book with James Bond allegedly in it, fact fans). Suits the apparent idea of the narrative that James Bond is a dinosaur dunked into a changed age, but given the obsession the Gardner Bond has had with Gee Whizz contemporary mechanics up to this point, it’s a wholesale rewriting of such character development this run had demonstrated. Alternatively, that was indeed Ken Spoon, and this is the real James Bond and he is behaving as if he is approaching seventy.

  • “Oh, come on Penny, I don’t want to add incest to injury.” #metoo. What an appalling man. What’s the overall tone, here? Eight pages ago we were at a massacre. Not surprising Bond is marginalised here, and then killed. Good – he should die.

  • The usual show-off military history stuff with “Fallen Timbers”; the perpetual bloody literary allusions too. The obsession with the word “cryptos”. Icebreaker with lashings of hot Brokenclaw; how tempting. All this – yes, lengthy – security protocols and it basically still comes down to “cow-eyed” Moneypenny handing Bond a document whilst they put the hurt in flirt.

  • How Gardner to describe something with seventy pages bearing “three score and ten”. “Then came some scant details regarding the organisation which called itself The Scales of Justice. These last were, if anything, sketchy, even conflicting.” Sleight of hand and body also being Mr Gardner’s stock-in trade, this confession about how insubstantial things are, is hiding in plain sight. John, you tart. “Bond was left wondering which report was more accurate, for distracted indecision could in the covert world be a cloak for clarity.” I …think I get it. Might as well stop – the book provides its own review. We are not told what is in the reports.

  • “Pix”. Not “photos”. “Pix”. Erm, OK.

  • No-one seems satisfied with the things upon which they are required to sit, and M’s office appears to have been redecorated in the style of that nice office The Dench has in Quantum of Solace. The change in paintings (and paintings by a “real life espionage figure”) gives us another opportunity to marvel at the sledgehammer subtlety of this being “all about change”. Even though they had already changed anyway in Scorpius. So contradictory is all this of previous Gardner Bonds that it might be a stand-alone bubble out of the run, over which one could skip without missing much.

  • The Russians “need” two people, and Bond has to be one of them? That’s… it? He’s going to be working for the Russians. James Bond. I do wonder if it is meant to be a joke. How often in the Gardners has he actually worked for British Intelligence? Why Bond, though? Fine, by the end he Has To Stop Nuclear Thingies and that’s so “Bond” in the misguided consciousness of the great unwashed that it’s ludicrous, but we don’t know about that at this point. Or anything very much, tbh.

  • Bond and M commence a conversation, both of them having read the document but this is a cheat as we have not been allowed in, and therefore we are invited to consider their interpretation of material we know nothing about. M’s turn of phrase is all over the place, as ever; on occasion very casual and slang-driven, and then pompous and terse. Not sure he knows what he’s doing in this story, either.

  • Chapter 2’s crunched-in literary reference: The Wind in the Willows.

  • M reads “word-processed text”. What are we really being told, here? M seems enraptured by the invention of the telephone. It’s very odd. “M made one of his harrumphing noises, which were often the advent of unpleasant tidings.” Don’t have the sprouts.

  • The Russians have asked for two agents and M’s just said yes? Does this really sustain even flippant scrutiny? “You follow me?” / “Not really, sir”. Yeah. “Bond opened his mouth, frowning and puzzled…” The sole, empathetic moment in the whole enterprise. “Old habits die hard, and I cannot feel wholly happy about my people talking to their people…” Don’t, then. Tell them to bog off, and Bond can return to his sinister sexually predatory ways. End o’book.

  • “Bond had already heard the warning bells ringing from behind the technicolour pictures of disaster which he could not exorcise from his mind.” Happens to me a lot, that. Whatever it means. Lots of this book’s chapters end this way, presaging doom and tension which the chit-chat beforehand has done practically nothing to instil.

  • The third chapter is called “First London Briefing”, so whatever chapter 2’s lengthy briefing was, it wasn’t that. Title bodes ill; more talk, then? First though, some other old geezer finds himself kidnapped. It might be a fake kidnapping, much like this is a fake story. FedEx seems to get a lot of mentions.

  • Hurrah! It’s Brian Cogger everyone! I’ve been waiting for him to turn up and do his Brian Cogger stuff. Just watch him go! Cor! In other news, James Bond fancies Pete Natkowitz.

  • Names and names and names and names and X is also known as Y and sometimes Z. Blizzards of just… stuff, all the time masking that there is no actual story here. I don’t know who all these people are and I don’t care. There’s just too many of them. Dr No has about five people in it in total. Some paragraphs here have eleven. The plot might be emerging here but it’s so masked by all this unnecessary Jeffrey, it’s not easy to spot. Doubtless it’s there if I look for it but I just glaze over and daydream of a Venus with a broken nose, a voodoo demon, hostile fish and Hot Cock Soup.

  • Right, well, bit of time spent filling up on the war criminal and his seventeen identities. Yaybo. “I think we might well have some unfortunate problems.” But end the chapter there and don’t bloody tell us, why don’t you?

  • Fourth chapter finds itself called “Frogs in the Ointment”, and we learn of the involvement of the French. This book’s just not right in the head. First though, another character for the hell of it (and I suspect the original protagonist of the book before it had to have James Bond dumped into it), Nigsy Meadows. One assumes that’s a colloquialism of Nigel and not something much, much worse, but given the racist slur in the chapter’s title, who the Hell knows any more? Obviously it is so much more acceptable than “Nigger Heaven”. Obviously.

  • John indulges in some unveiled criticism of Barry Manilow. Just “because”. This Nigsy is probably going to end up a traitor or dead or both or neither and I don’t care very much now. Mention of Arafat, real world entanglements, “spies” and such. Yeah, we get it. Not that we want it, but we get it.

  • “M had sent the flash signal to Tel Aviv and recalled Flossie Farmer from leave during a short break in the briefing.” Oh good. Still, another tick in the box marked “alliterative name is enough to establish an indelibly memorable character”. A codename for Moscow is Oxford (how dare he). Banbury is Berlin (yeah… that fits). Reading is Prague (he’s insulting everyone with that one), Colchester is Paris (no… no, it really isn’t) Basingstoke is Bonn, Frome (?!) is Budapest and Bicester is Warsaw which, adopting the embittered racism of my neighbour, seems right these days. Liverpool isn’t equated to anywhere in Eastern Europe, which is an observation missed.

  • We are told of “troublesome tidings”, but not what they are. Stop it.

  • We know we’re in trouble when the abbreviations begin. “GSG-9. Alert 1942/90. You’ve all seen it?” No John, we haven’t, you haven’t let us. “On three occasions in the past month, according to the GSG-9 circular, we have had evidence of a new quasi-terrorist organisation which appears to be ill-defined and with blurred, uncertain aims.” I find I have written a lot about the characteristics of Gardner’s Bond books; I could have spared you “all” and just quoted that, instead.

  • “In fact, it was no secret that the old 00 Section, which had officially ceased to exist, had become his own Service’s elite counterterrorist unit”. Would probably be better all round were that a secret and I still don’t get, even with that reallocation of resources, why Bond is anywhere near this. There is no threat to the UK.

  • Right, now you tell us all about this GSG-9 thing (although everyone in the room (several hundred I think by this stage) says they had read it?). “Just to refresh everyone’s minds…” Why? Fills space, I s’pose. Whatever, there’s one lonnnng paragraph delivering “Grey Wolves” and “Dossier Number 4” and Hamburg and Frankfurt and GIGN and Red Army Faction and footnotes for abbreviations because the detail’s far too crammed in to allow for any more space and please, please PLEASE make this stop. Is this the plot? Help me.

  • “Tanner looked round as though asking if they could all understand that.” No. This book is staring into my soul. Shut up, all of you. Please, just stop talking all this gobbledegook. Fine, we get it – spying’s really boring and since there isn’t a clear villain any more with the collapse of the Soviet Union, no-one knows what to do any more so rather than having One Big Bad, everything with any tangential connection to a potential power-player is a threat. Even this utter trivia. The fake terrorist group has a fake address list and were previously known by another fake name? Oh bring on the hook-handed maniac and leave me alone. The military creating a fake terrorist group to cover up actions of its own, to exaggerate the threat to justify their actions, isn’t a wholly new line of narrative, but is abnormal for “Bond” where things are far more black-and-white. Despite all the chat about heroes and villains getting more mixed up, which was only ever a pretext to allow his lead to say and do unpleasant things, there’s very little questioning that ultimately he is in the right. Even when murdering Von Hammerstein, the victim is a very, very naughty person.

  • “…for all they knew, it had taken some swallowing for the Mossad to agree to an operation hand in glove with the British Service.” Bond and his new chum Pete are just going to have to decide how much swallowing is required, aren’t they? Also – “the” Mossad? Wasn’t it just “Mossad” in Icebreaker. Also – Icebreaker, at all? The suggestion here denies its existence (not a bad idea, artistically) but that might be because this is essentially the same book, with added gibberish and even harder to bring into line with widely-agreed norms of “sense”. I know I’ve previously stated that continuity is often counterproductive, but there’s contrived continuity on the one hand and basic sense on the other.

  • “Mistrust between the two intelligence services had been spawned long ago…” Possibly around the time James Bond exposed one of their agents as a Nazi, I guess.

  • It takes 30-odd pages for someone to dare ask “Perhaps you are ready to tell us now.” Nope.

  • It seems Bond and Pete are to impersonate two members of the terrorist cell. I’ve a feeling we could have got here a bit more quickly, rather than in 35 pages of acronyms. Perhaps just using the sentence “Bond and Pete were to impersonate two members of the terrorist cell”. S’about it. Why this needs James Bond, other than staving off redundancy, remains unclear. You need a spy for such a mission. James Bond isn’t a spy.

  • These British members are “known only by cryptos”. Well of course they frickin’ are. “The interesting thing is that Moscow believes the SoJ to be organised into non-intercognisant cells”. Interesting only insofar as the word “interesting” is a synonym for “massively convenient way out of obvious plot hole”. Which I’m not sure it is.

  • “M again made the sound of a happy bee on a sunny afternoon.” There is no reason whatsoever to trust this lunatic. “He seemed oblivious to the unspoken peril.” He’s on crack. And, John, the reason it’s unspoken is because we’re relying on you to speak it. Come on, man.

  • “If you want out, you only have to say.” I want out. On several occasions M presents this as a voluntary bid for oblivion, that Bond is under no obligation to accept the mission – and on the basis it can be refused it’s not actually a mission anyway – but Bond proclaims that he has no choice. Imbecile.

  • “Is there a full briefing, sir?” Bond, you callous bastard; surely this is the full briefing? Don’t ask for more, you evil little sod. I really hate you now. Go on, die, see if I care. “I think we might have to keep them waiting a little longer.” Oh, you swine. Are these “spy” books all like this?

  • "Cogger did not talk much. It was said he believed words entrapped people.” I know how that feels. I like Cogger.

  • Having himself realised that absolutely nothing has yet happened, Mr Gardner introduces curveball time with the introduction into the tale of two French agents in London and the opportunity for Bond and his new boy-toy Pete “working together” to investigate. “Contrary to rumours spread abroad by novelists, and possibly yourself, 007, most intelligence and security services do not encourage interservice affairs.” It would be a damn sight more interesting if they did.

  • “They could be a real pair of flies in the ointment.” / “Or Frogs in the ointment, sir”. / “That is a racist comment, Captain Bond, and you know how I feel about such remarks.” Delighted? Earlier in the book he has banged on about “the Yanks”, and towards the end of chapter 4 expresses his mistrust of practically every other country on Earth.

  • First hotel of the book! (I think) – the Hampshire in Leicester Square. Now a Radisson Blu, inevitably Bond seems to know of it.

  • “You going to feel happy about this, 007?” / “When we’ve had the full and final briefing, I expect to sleep easier, sir.” By this stage in Live and Let Die, we’d had a bombing and some voodoo. Just sayin’.

  • “There is one piece of information I don’t intend to use in the final briefing, but I think you should know of it.” Good. Might be getting somewhere now. But… “M continued to talk for ten minutes…” ABOUT WHAT? TELL ME. Don’t end another bloody chapter with another bloody tease.

  • Introduce the villain – Yevgeny Yuskovich, suitably alliterative and commensurately memorable (I know they can’t all be called Voldemort Aidsbaby, but this just smacks of not bothering), but then… dangle. “…it was a more anxious Bond who left the office to do battle with the French.” Why was he anxious? TELL ME. The easy criticism of the film Bond, perhaps most notable in the latter Moore films, is that he is a know-all superman. This Bond knows nothing.

  • “Stephanie Adore looked like a professional woman.” Isn’t that a euphemism for prostitute? Doesn’t say much for the Hampshire, although Leicester Square can be a smidge rough. Her hair is “the colour of well-preserved copper”, which is just as well as otherwise it would be green. “It was all liquid, drawing attention to the lower half of her body and what might lie beneath the skirt.” If it’s all liquid, I don’t wish to know. “She was enough to cure impotence and make a happy man very old.” Cute, but does the reverse at the end of that really work?

  • “…death now stalked the world invisibly in the disguise of toothpaste tubes or pens which could spew death in seconds.” Or word processors that could spew tedium in the same. Lot of “death” going on there. He does get about, doesn’t he?

  • Bond is a snob about champagne cocktails, but drinks his nonetheless. Is there an express call back to Fleming in the passing comment about what a espionage novelist once said of such drinks? Stephanie drinks by dipping her tongue into the glass; she’s a frog.

  • Amusing little scene between Bond and Stephanie, and one of the better “Ken Spoon meets lady” that Gardner’s done as Spoon isn’t as weird and creepy as usual, but even then it’s still a rush of abbreviations and double-speak and lack of trust (yawn) and ends with a jarring reference to the onset of the Gulf War. It appears to be January 2nd 1991. There is nothing else to indicate that it is, essentially, still Christmas, although as this is the eighth day of same when maids are a-milking and there was an earlier reference to Stephanie’s “large pink-aureoled nipples”, perhaps it’s not udderly absent.

  • “A bellicose M had recently said ‘The Kraken of Communism sleeps, but it will awake again, stronger and more rarefied from the succour we in the West have given it.” A drunk M, more like. Still, it’s Christmas.

  • The zipping around London tailing Stephanie’s cab means we’re outside at last and whilst it’s fun to see places I know of appearing in a Bond, isn’t this a bit beneath James Bond? Still get the impression he’s been shoved into a pre-pack of a tale. Surely there are other agents to do this sort of thing? The pretext that it affords Bond and Pete an opportunity relies on buying that they need to practise for a nonsense escapade neither of them should be bothered with either. I don’t.

  • At the point of being run over, Bond reflects on literary puns. As one does.

  • Does anyone refer to a Volkswagen as a “Volks”?

  • This sixth chapter’s called “Final Briefing”. That’s a lie.

  • All sorts of stuff about this Dudley Dowrong or whatever the villain’s called. Sees himself as the next iron man of Russia, no doubt. Don’t give him the keys to the GoldenEye… oh, you did.

  • Good to know Bond hasn’t run out of rollnecks; bad to know he is still weapon-fetishising. Weird to know his vigorous towelling routine.

  • “I’ll give you all necessary updates in the morning.” Another lie.

  • Stephanie “…ate the complimentary breakfast with obvious enjoyment – after all it was the first food she had taken since the meal with Mr Boldman at the Café Royal”. Well, that was only the previous evening’s dinner; what would one expect? Very Gardner – one “takes” a meal, rather than “eats” it. Where had she taken it? To the cinema? Dated book – complimentary breakfast (and one that could be enjoyed) from British Airways? These days little change from a tenner for half a tub of Pringles (the breakfast of champions).

  • M, of Bond: “…you’ve been used in this stalking-horse capacity maybe a little too often of late.” That would be your doing, you berk. “This is a small sideshow. A small and undesirable sideshow”. Too true. That all the little plots – the French agents, the Scales of Justice, the outbreak of the Gulf War – all seem to combine, to be convincing would take, I fear, more than the 150 pages or so left of this. Maybe if things had got moving faster, there might have been hope.

  • “ ‘Course they mean it, 007,’ M grunted, as though he were addressing an imbecile.” Nope, too easy.

  • “ ‘Well, gentlemen,’ M leaned back…” Not on one of those uncomfortable chairs, I hope; “ ‘ I suggest we get you to Moscow in double-quick time. The sooner you’re there, the quicker KGB will be able to explain matters to you.’ “. Hang on, that’s not fair – practically every chapter has ended with a promise of M explaining more and now he’s passing this along the line again. How many more opportunities will there be to not know WHAT THE BLOODY HELL IS GOING ON? “If, once you’ve listened to KGB’s briefing…” Oh God, not another briefing. But before even that happens “In all, M talked for the best part of an hour. There was another hour of questions from both Bond and Natkowitz, then another briefing by specialist officers.” We’re not told anything more about these. I can’t tolerate much more of this. I know it’s a Bond trope to introduce a minor-sounding threat and then Bond discovers that is escalates into something much worse, but the gap between this… this whatever it is that no-one can actually tell us about, to potential nuclear holocaust, is ludicrous.

END OF BRIEFING


#3

The 007th Chapter – The Man from Barbarossa: Four Walls (still)

Right, hello again. Having rebriefed myself (I’m quite old and the ensuite is a blessing), what a colossal waste of our mutual time that was. I am none the wiser, but much more the confused and saddened. The sleight-of-hand bombardment of conversation has failed: the plot is nowhere, and there is nothing for Bond here.

“Here” happens to be Moscow’s central military airport, arrival into which Bond – that’s James Bond, British Secret Service Agent 007, SMERSH thwarter and killer of many – feels nothing, not even the inkling of a trap. In all the chatter up to now, that prospect doesn’t seem to have been on the many agendas of the many briefings. Bond is James Betteridge and Natkowitz is Peter Newman; I’m not sure either alias is Brian Cogger’s best work. Why keep the same initials? Might as well have called him Bames Jond. “Mark Hazard”, albeit like calling one’s self “Steve Kill”, at least appears to be the work of someone slightly bothered.

Interesting stylistic way to introduce Stepakov, physical description prior to name, although the promise of “clown-like features” suggests to me a big red nose. Seems to be played by Robbie Coltrane.

“Bond felt there was a need to put on a kind of silly-ass accent, though it was uncharacteristic, and he could not have said why he did it.” Nor me. Nor the author, it appears. Nor is there any explanation why Stepakov repeats his “new man” joke within the space of a few lines. Nor is there any explanation why we have to spend time contemplating whether Bond has had a “pee”.

A briefing. On the move it may be, but a briefing still. Are we in double figures for briefings, yet? Some badinage about Moscow Centre but this is all the indication that Bond is in the territory of his traditional enemy, an enemy that has occasion caused him pain, both physical and emotional. More chat about poetry, for ‘tis Gardner, and the total fib, given the prissiness of recent books – he was fond of Dante in Win, Lose or Die - that “Bond had never been a great one for poetry, unless you counted Homer.” Do I count Homer, John? Are you addressing me directly? One Homer. There’s only one Homer. Easy to count. I’m assuming he doesn’t mean Simpson.

Bond runs through historical exposition in his mind, to establish where they may be going. As it’s night, and the road is banked with snow, Mr Gardner is relieved of describing their surroundings, which is terribly convenient for an author never seemingly that interested in them.

“Bond… put his mind into idle.” Book feeling idle. “Pete Natkowitz appeared to have fallen asleep.” I’d hazard a guess at his in-flight reading, but I’ve probably jabbed enough.

Bit and pieces of Stepakov’s history reference Qaddafi and Andropov and various abbreviations that demonstrate a desire for reality that may or may not be desirable for a Bond. The man is their case officer “…in whatever the Russians needed to do in flushing out the Scales of Justice.” They still don’t know. Nearly three score and ten pages of briefings and they still don’t know. By this stage in Dr No, we’re on our way to Crab Key. Just sayin’.

“… we have nobody who could pass themselves off as English.” Bond’s not English. Comment seems to cry out for “…and that’s because you killed Captain Nash”, but no.

The idea of Bond being drafted in to help the Russians at a time of crisis following their collapse of their system, a dismantling that Bond himself may have had a hand in over the years, strikes one as an irony lost in all the conversations. Is much made of that? Might be there, but it’s foggy.

“…the realisation of being in a country so huge that it could even swallow the vastness of the United States and tuck it away into one corner.” Perhaps the book’s not so dated, after all. Bond appears to have driven through the American Midwest at some point (For Special Services?).

“At last they started to slow down…” the book’s reached a halt, definitely, “…and there were signs of life.” Here’s hoping. It’s page 68. The book’s going to end on page 231, with Bond awarded the Order of Lenin (again). Get on with it.

“…the impact on the eyes, and on the mind, was bleak.” I accept this is out of the context of describing the dacha, but it’s a fair summary of the mood the book engenders. There’s a reluctance to express joy here; the beckoning approach of Fleming, to draw one into his world even if, and especially because, it was beyond our means, is wholly reversed. We are being pushed away.

Some general critique of “films”; earlier, “stuntmen games” are derided, here it’s the failure of film sets to truly depict the bleakness of the scene and Bond later masquerades as a cameraman for something entirely phoney. Yes, yes, John: we get it.

Bond is aware of The Prisoner of Zenda and the works of Dornford Yates which, as immediate touchstones, would be credible for a man in his seventies as formative childhood adventure texts. If he’s meant to be – what? – late forties, are these the immediate cultural references that would spring to mind as appealing to the adolescent, schoolboy mind? Dornford Yates was old hat by the early sixties. Swept away by – James Bond. The further reference to (and pompously precise naming of) Through the Looking Glass does tend to give the lie to earlier ministrations of philistinism.

So inert and plodding is all this, I do wonder we are witnessing Mr Gardner’s greatest joke yet; that, hidden beneath the smoke and mirrors of a colossally inert and joylessly earnest narrative lies the most savagely ironic statement about “James Bond”, that so long had it been about the disruption of the Soviet Union that once the same finds itself disrupted, there is nothing for the man to do, be careful what one wishes for, and one might as well “die”. Left to pick up the pieces of the indirect aftermath of his actions, the result of being an agent of chaos is ultimately even greater chaos, even (and this is where the postmodernism creeps in) narratively. A book like that would be tremendously bold, to assert it all as having been toxic, and now redundant. Is that this book? One does wonder, as one reads yet another deathly list of stuff – this time, food – whether there’s something else the author’s not directly telling us.

“We’re here to do a job after all. I’d like to get at it.” Page 71. By page 71 of… you get the idea. “First thing tomorrow morning, we shall start.” No, no, no; no more foreplay. Take me to the plot.

Instead, mischievous John takes us immediately away from the plot and into a digression about the particular sounds and smells of “large cities of the world”, although in his list it is only New York that has a sound; Paris, albeit bearing an aroma, must be silent. Presumably all that mime. What’s very curious, and I suspect could be further evidence of comedic intent on the part of the writer, not immediately obviously in all that boring detail, is that he proffers Cork as a “large city”. It’s not, is it? Population about the size of Cambridge, but a better bet to illustrate the point because all Cambridge stinks of is failure.

Right, so in another potentially hootingly funny subversion, we’re scooped up and away from a timewasting James Bond doing stuff all, to the exciting life of Nigsy Meadows as he walks through customs towards a briefing of his own. Yay spies.

“Jupiter was this month’s crypto for head of Moscow station.” I’m not sure I have come across the word “crypto” in any other books than these, although that may be because I am staggeringly poorly-versed in the genre and, if they’re all like this, intend to stay that way. Yes, yes, Bond is part of a bigger world reality that the Flemings chose to ignore. A good choice, though.

More characters, more double-talk and grumpiness and “none of it made much sense.” Brutally honest or intricately subversive? How about, given the “cryptos” applied to Bond and Natkowitx of Block and Tackle, Bond expressly isn’t Tackle? Every opportunity to go “Bond”, the book hasn’t taken it. I suppose if it were the truly Bond-busting thing it might (might) be shaping up to be, we wouldn’t have the nuclear bombs at the end, so the conceit may be one of my own wishful thinking rather than design, but let me stick with it within the confines of this chapter because there’s not long to go and then I can close this book. Forever.

James Bond dreams by reference to yet another lot of abbreviations and terrorist groups, because we haven’t had anywhere near enough of those so far. There are “telltale plastic nipples of sensors” on his bedroom window, although we’re not told about their areolae. Bond showers, shaves and dresses “in record time”, although it is suggested as taking twenty minutes; I must be doing something wrong. Quick dab of Dettol round the clefts and I’m set for the day.

“…slacks, a rollneck and soft leather moccasins.” Ecce Bondo. Gardner Bondo, anyway. Is this practical garb for 4th January, deep in the Russian countryside? Perhaps he is banking on all of the rest of it occurring indoors. Fair enough: the only time he’s had some fresh air so far he was nearly run over so it’s better to stay in the warm, particularly for one of such advanced years.

Another list of food, because it is Gardner and this is what you get. He does this. A lot.

“Bond thought that, for all Stepakov’s friendliness and vaunted brilliance in his particular field, the man could be exceptionally irritating.” Suggesting Bond has not been particularly irritated by anything else up to now. You’re a stronger man than I, James Bond. And better deodorised, evidently.

An actual cliffhanger: some folks I think we have met before turn up because… they do. Gadzooks! How will this ill-matched, mutually mistruisting team fare when the action (such as it is) moves to the Russian-Finnish border and all sorts of cracks emerge, both in the group and the story? If you can’t be bothered to find out, and you mustn’t feel at all guilty about that, all you need do is recall Icebreaker and add some warheads. You have now reached page 231 and can leave.

A character in search of a mission. A concept in search of a purpose. A reader in search of a story. Tricksy, or just tricky? Delivering something so femtoBond in execution really might be the most brilliant ruse yet.

Or it really might not be.

James Bond - a crypto for Ken Spoon, but even he’s not the same man any more - could return in Death is Forever, and there’s genuine tension and excitement in wondering whether he really will. Jacques Stewart is probably better off reading Noddy, although even that’s beyond him, despite all its incest jokes.


#4

I’ve read The Man from Barbarossa twice, decades ago. What baffles me is not so much how little recollection I can muster of its contents; rather I’m astonished that I finished the book at all - and went to the trouble of reading it again a few years later. Such was the mighty magic of 007 and the James Bond monicker that I invested lifetime and calories and hope and good faith in the task of searching the tome for traces of Bond, even though I had hardly found any the first time.

The Gardner run had been a tough deal for a number of books already. But here it was the first time I wondered if the book might not have been better if it hadn’t had to deal with Bond. And yet, in spite of its weird nature, I read it a second time. And yet, in spite of the disappointment, I would buy the next one and read that too, twice. And would go on to do so for a whole five more books after The Man from Barbarossa.

Did I really think I read Bond during this time? Did my hope to find a scrap of the bizarre adventure - a seat on a geyser, a ninja school, a gigantic gun barrel with a rocket projectile - completely override my actual reading experience? Apparently so, yes. Even though I was disappointed time and again, even though I was quite critical with these books back in the day - I kept coming back for more.

And now I wonder: if John Gardner was still with us, and if he still kept to his contract (that must have been a burden for him for the longest time, and yet he pulled it), would I still pick them up once a year? Like Charlie Brown kicking for the football time and again, never learning from experience, falling for Lucy’s prank whenever she feels like playing him for a fool again?

Well…


#5

Lovely to see a man celebrate his love of words with such barb and dexterity.

Jacques, not John.

I wish could elaborate commensurate in length to that which I have enjoyed but thankfully whereas others amuse, I would bore.

Yes, Barbarossa was about the time I realised I was ‘set completing’ as opposed to enjoying. And this was before Jacques and his bloody words made me question the entire canon. And my sanity.

I do hope there is an audience through this forum for these essays. It does seem slightly criminal that they aren’t (are they?) unleashed elsewhere on wider read forums.

All the best, and thanks.