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The secret agent within my head

Darrel Bristow-Bovey
The secret agent within my head

I have just finished reading Pico Iyer’s The Man Within My Head, his account of how he has been haunted at strange moments in his life by the plots and characters of Graham Greene’s novels. I envy Pico Iyer for having so admirable a phantom as Graham Greene: mine is James Bond.

The first film I remember seeing is The Spy Who Loved Me. Outside it’s a hot bright day and the Embassy cinema is cool and dark and full. This is a James Bond film, my father tells me. James Bond is good, he says. My mom is at home with my baby sister; we are men in the city on a Saturday afternoon. In the beginning of the film, Bond is skiing. People shoot at him. He shoots back with his ski poles. He skis over a cliff. Everyone in the audience gasps. James Bond falls. We hold our breath. He falls and falls. I clutch my father’s hand. He clutches mine. There is only the sound of the alpine wind and James Bond falling and no one breathing. Then there’s a parachute. A parachute! The audience cheers. I cheer! I’m laughing and my dad is laughing and I’m clapping. James Bond is good. James Bond is as good as my dad said he’d be.

My father met Roger Moore when he came to South Africa in the seventies, filming Gold. They were both on the veranda of a hotel in Johannesburg and Roger Moore asked him to pass an ashtray. My father wasn’t that impressed about having met Roger Moore. He thought Roger Moore was too soft. For him, the only James Bond was Sean Connery. Once after my dad died I punched a kid at school who said that Roger Moore was better than Sean Connery. Secretly, and it tears me in two to say this, I may in my secret heart have preferred Roger Moore.

The first book I ever took from the adult section of the Brighton Beach municipal library was From Russia with Love. I was ten years old and my mother worried it was too sexy for me. I pretended not to know what she meant, but I read certain pages over and over again with my bedroom door closed, especially the part where Bond returns to his Istanbul hotel room to find Tatiana Romanova waiting in his bed, naked but for a black satin ribbon round her neck. I haven’t read From Russia with Love since I was nine years old, but I can smell the paper still and feel the cover between my fingers and see the typeface of the print. I learnt that books are darker and sexier than films, that films offer brightness and fun but books give you darkness and the erotic pleasure of secrets. I understood that James Bond was split in two – the smiling, wisecracking, bright-eyed Bond of the movies, and the dark, cruel-mouthed, secret Bond of the books. I guessed that this is true of all of us.

When my dad died I didn’t want to go to the funeral, and my mom didn’t make me. She sent me to the cinema with my friend Rod Murray. We watched For Your Eyes Only at the Embassy. Roger Moore was tied to Carole Bouquet and dragged behind a speedboat over a coral reef with a tiger shark. I remember the sunlight bright on the blue waters of Corfu. As long as Bond was in Corfu and there was sunshine and crossbows and tiger sharks, everything was still just the way it should be.

In my first year at university my high-school girlfriend broke up with me because I was moody and she was meeting people who were more fun than me. But one of the people she’d met hadn’t treated her well, so there was an opportunity to get her back. It was my birthday and I persuaded her out for dinner and a movie. We caught the train to town and ate as swanky as I could think of eating: a starter, then spare ribs at the Cape Sun. I didn’t know whether to order red wine or white wine so we had rosé. I wasn’t moody; I laughed and joked and kept it light. I had scripted some urbane conversation and it went down well. If I could keep this up, I would win her back. The movie was the new Bond, Licence to Kill, with Timothy Dalton. I know now that it was intended to start a new era of Bond: grittier, more realistic, an early foreshadow of Daniel Craig. As I watched, my mood darkened. Where were the jokes and the gadgets and the parachutes in your backpack? Where was the magic? This wasn’t Bond. This was not Bond. This was not the way it should be.
          We caught the train back in a brooding silence. ‘Why does it bother you so much?’ she said.
          I didn’t answer.
          ‘It’s just a movie,’ she said. ‘We’re not children any more.’
          We reached the station and walked through the dark Saturday-night streets.
          ‘Why are you like this?’ she said. ‘Why can’t you be like other people?’
          ‘Why doesn’t this bother you?’ I said as she walked away. ‘It’s James Bond!’

In 2003 I lost my job and no one would hire me. I had no prospect of working and I could see no future. I went to the Seychelles and caught a ferry from Praslin to La Digue. I rode a bicycle over a hill and swam in the sea and convinced myself I saw a shark. Afterwards, wading through the high tide, I hatched an idea for a book. I would travel to all the locations in all the Bond books, to Jamaica and New Orleans and Switzerland and Japan. It would be a funny book but honest and poignant. It would be about a search for childhood, a boy’s search for his father, and about how an obsessive, ridiculous idea – the conviction that your life is somehow fated to unfold through encounters with James Bond – can articulate a struggle for meaning and connection. Other people have written similar books about crossword puzzles and bridge and football and pop music. Why not James Bond? I was excited. As I thought about it, the gloom lifted from my heart. I saw a future. I flew home and by the time I realised it wasn’t a very good idea, it didn’t matter any more.

Every few years, Ian Fleming’s estate commissions a new Bond book from a well-known author. Sebastian Faulks made me angry by not taking the job seriously. He wrote Devil May Care in a rush, with one hand pinching his nose. He half-arsed it and it showed; he considered Bond beneath his better efforts. Jeffrey Deaver’s Carte Blanche tried harder, but Bond was beyond his better efforts. William Boyd is writing the next one; I’m a fan of Boyd’s but I fear for Boyd’s Bond.
          If I start writing spy novels now, and I write them at a rate of two every three years, and I’m sufficiently successful with the first ones to keep being published and keep getting better, and I make an international success with the fourth and do well enough with the fifth and sixth and seventh to consolidate my international reputation, there is a possibility than in a little over twelve years’ time, with luck and careful lobbying from my agent, I might have a chance to write an official Bond novel. Just the thought of it makes me feel like a small boy looking at a bright screen in the cool darkness with my dad beside me, watching a man ski off a cliff with a parachute in his backpack. If only I knew how to write spy novels.

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User Comments:
Re: The secret agent within my head - by biobot
August 12 2013 12:31:24

Roger Moore was the best because he was wittiest. Like that time he locked the baddie in the closet holding a cigarette case which he convinced the baddie was a motion-sensitive explosive device. That was funny as kak.

Re: The secret agent within my head - by Darrel
August 12 2013 12:38:24

Roger Moore always said thank-you when someone made him a drink. Also, he looked good in a safari suit.

Re: The secret agent within my head - by Pat
August 12 2013 17:30:40

Roger Moore was my favourite Bond. I also loved him as the Saint!

Re: The secret agent within my head - by NAtascha
August 28 2013 14:57:55

Love this post!
Just like you, I also have fond memories of watching Bond-movies with my dad. And Roger Moore was my favourite too. I miss the original Q and his clever gadgets.

Re: The secret agent within my head - by Roddy Louther
January 24 2014 14:10:12

What a great piece Darryl. I saw myself inside this blog. My father taught at a high school n Graaff-Reinet and was tasked with the project operating duties on movie night at the school. So as a young boy, I saw all those fabulous Bond films, and to this day I feel giddy when rumors of a new film starts to circulate. Well done and thank you!!

PS: Daniel Craig in Casino Royal, the best ever?

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