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It was raining in the mountains on Easter Saturday.

We'd decided to take a couple of days break in the Blue Mountains and do some walking. But on Saturday it poured.  In the morning we walked two kilometres from Katoomba to more up-market and trendy Leura for morning coffee and got very wet.

After a train journey to Mount Victoria and back to dry out and then lunch in the Irish Pub, with a Cider and Guinness, we decided against another soaking and explored the Katoomba antique stores and bookshops instead.  In one I found and bought an unread James Bond book.  But not by the real Ian Fleming. 

Ian Fleming died in 1964 at the young age of fifty-six and I'd read all his so I knew 'Devil May Care' was new.  This one is by Sebastian Faulks, known for his novel Birdsong, 'writing as Ian Fleming' in 2008.

  

 

 

I first encountered James Bond the year Fleming died.  I was a fresh student at the University of New South Wales, where the Opunka Film Group showed weekly films in the Science Theatre.  Amongst more elevated offerings came Dr No, the first James Bond film, staring the relatively unknown Sean Connery. 

The film was something entirely new. It was not a comedy but not quite serious. The less than convincing sets and special effects gave it a slightly Si Fi feel but these were juxtaposed with a lot of realistic location footage in and around Jamaica.  Ursula Andress played Honey (Honeychile in the book) Rider (ride her - get it - wink, wink) James' special girl.

The extraordinary thing about Dr No was not the risqué name or Ursula in a bikini but that James Bond was not the conventional hero we had come to expect, nothing like The Saint, already being played by Roger Moore on TV.  Bond behaved more like an anti-hero in a Film Noir - Marlowe in The Big Sleep and he slept with the girls.  Some of this machismo was simply reflective of the times, or a Scotsman's interpretation of an upper-class English bastard and his appallingly rude and arrogant treatment of local people as 'cannon fodder', including his offsider Quarrel. 

But the most exceptional scene is when he demands sex from a woman he knows is plotting his death and therefore must comply with his demands, using her until he is satisfied. Then he has her arrested.  After that he waits to ambush her accomplice and shoots him in cold blood after the man has first emptied his gun into a pillow then told him what he wants to know.

It certainly gave us still rather intense students, with our film analysis pretensions, something to discuss afterwards. 

As a result, a friend lent me the first of the Fleming 'Bond books', Casino Royale, to read.  After that I was hooked and read all those published over the next few years, one after another.  Here we were in the liberated sixties and James Bond 'licensed to kill' and apparently to sleep with any woman he met, was a man of the times.  Conventional 'goodies' dedicated to saving a woman's 'honour' were out the door.

The next film: From Russia with Love was released in Australia later that year and we all rushed to see it. Unlike most of the later films, From Russia with Love still approximated the book.  We would have to wait for the second Casino Royale in 2007 for another film that so closely followed the book.

After the success of  the film Dr No Fleming changed James's hair colour from blonde to dark.  But there was no mention of a toupee to cover his receding hair.  In the movies he had acquired a Scottish accent and less establishment roots.  After From Russia with Love even his upper-class pretensions were in doubt.  In the next book the Bentley met with an accident and references to red wine with fish and Windsor knotted ties as indicators of a fake or worse: a middle-class, Englishman, no longer littered the script.

In the films, cars began to take centre stage and James became more resilient to any torture, invulnerable and jokingly fearless.   Roger Moore as the new Bond was even more jokey, a 'cunning linguist', and somehow less convincing.  As we watched him against the blue-screen and on-location in the snow fields we wondered: 'could the aging Roger ski at all?'  

After Bond's apparent death in the first act of the film version of From Russia with Love it was almost as if he knew, as did the audience, that Bond could do anything; take any risk; and still not get killed.  His opponents seemed always to prefer ridiculously convoluted ways of killing him, that inevitably failed, rather than a simple bullet to the head.

Gone was the vulnerable James Bond of the early books who had 'freaked out' when the airliner he was on ran into bad weather in the book version of  From Russia with Love.  Now the sets were much more convincing and the locations more varied and exotic but impractical and/or impossible gadgets maintained a Si Fi feel, reinforcing the message that this was all just 'Boys Own' fantasy.

As the cold war eased, the Russians were no longer the primary enemy. The only exception to this was during the Russian war in Afghanistan when the Mujahideen briefly became Bond's friends, presumably along with their allies like Usama bin Ladin.  In the early movies the enemy was 'SPECTRE', a sort of super Mafia; and in the later ones 'big business' led by megalomaniacs gone feral.

But throughout James remained both promiscuous and deadly as were the steady round of women who populated his world of gambling; drinking; no more smoking; and fast cars, boats or planes.

Like many young men of my generation James Bond appealed to my imagination and fantasies.  Like my friends I liked driving fast and girls.  My first car was a Morris Minor so I had difficulty keeping up with the MG's (TC's TDs and Magnets) of my friends but I somehow managed.  I demonstrated that the Morrie would do 85 (140) down a steep hill with a tailwind and then do, an otherwise uneventful, 360 degrees when it hit the sand at the bottom, prompting my passenger's reluctance to request lifts thereafter.  After an initial toying with a pipe, and cigars a bit longer, I never smoked again but I've always liked a good Malt or even, as an aperitif, a Martini - 'shaken, not stirred'. 

Initially, when I saw Dr No and read the first of the books, Bond's sexual encounters were of primary interest.  But as one film followed another, I became more mature and experienced myself and the ridiculous and impossible gadgets and tongue-in-cheek jokes marred the story so much that I almost gave up.  Now it was mostly the 'Bond Girls' who kept me interested in the franchise. Bond himself changed so many times, seven I think, that I have difficulty remembering which actor played him in what movie.

For many years now I have gone along to each new Bond movie, more out of a collector's motivation, in the knowledge that I've never missed one, than with the confidence or even hope that I will enjoy the thrill of 'imagining myself in Bond's shoes' again for a couple of hours.  I'm like a poker-machine junkie.  Occasionally I get a payoff, as in the new Casio Royale or Never Say Never Again but mostly I suspend disbelief, am mildly amused or excited by the action and happily lose my money. 

I'm obviously not alone in this. 

Unknown to Fleming, the Bond franchise continued to grow as he could not have imagined after his death. He is among the best selling British authors of the late twentieth century and Jamaica's International Airport is named for him. Numerous screen writers and directors have tinkered with his stories, sometimes with several versions of the same story like: Thunderball and Casino Royale.

For a period it was erroneously reported that the Faulks story, 'Devil May Care', would be the basis of the next (24th) film, with Daniel Craig as Bond  (Addendum: It transpires that Spectre will take that place in 2015)

So here I was on a rainy Saturday afternoon back in our very comfortable Guest House, the previously overlooked Metropole, with its old world, colonial leaded glass windows; a traditional games room and lounge; a spacious Library; and enclosed verandas and sitting areas; all compensating for a relatively small room, albeit larger than a London hotel, with a modern LED TV, bar fridge, the usual coffee and tea making, and free WiFi.

Over the years we have often gone further up-market when staying in the mountains.  But the Metropole's comfortable bed and quality bed linen, together with functional ensuite, featuring an excellent shower with fast and unlimited hot water and large, thick cotton towels, made us wonder if little bottles of shampoo were really essential.  Had we previously been wasting money at The Carrington or Lilianfels?  But this was a totally different experience - a step back in time.

Lounging luxuriously, now warm and dry, before the homely faux-log gas fire on our top-floor landing I was about to consume the novel that might have inspired the latest Bond film.  Why did it not?  (Second Addendum: Spectre - Bond's lifetime nemesis - turns out to be a much better story).

Certainly the familiar structure was there: an arch villain billionaire intent on no good - specifically Britain's downfall by two somewhat conflicting means; an evil henchman devoid of conscience or pain; Bond called back from convalescence, again; a damsel in distress; M and Moneypenny; his old comrades René Mathis the Frenchman and the Texan Felix Leiter; all set back in the late 1960's before James was too old to survive the unnecessary excess of beatings and physical trials that Faulks hands out to him in this tale.  But where was the James I knew? 

No longer a citizen of the night, of the casino or the snowfields or the diveshop, James has somehow become a tennis player. Tennis - really!  A cut-and-thrust match of lawn bowels must be next.  And when a sexy girl invites him to her room he declines, until he knows her better!

Nevertheless I decided to persist.  I was comfortable, with a couple of hours to kill before we would crack our evening bottle of Champagne then head for a 'fine dining experience' in one of Katoomba's excellent restaurants. 

I found myself in Tehran with a friendly agent, Darius, who like Bond's friend, Ali Kerim Bey, in From Russia With Love takes him to a night spot, this time a Mammam with hot-and-cold-running naked girls. Surely several will be falling over themselves to bed the famous lover?  But no!  Again James is chaste, even when chased.

I didn't finish the book that night.  Katoomba was now enwrapped in a dense fog through which we found our way to a fine meal of duck with sweet potatoes blended with something else delicious, together with a bottle of very nice Pinot Grigio - more immediately engaging.

The following day, Easter Sunday, was bright and sunny.  So after another excellent traditional breakfast - cereal and fruit followed by bacon eggs and tomato, juice, coffee, toast and marmalade - we checked out then strolled the two and a half kilometres down to the Three Sisters' Lookout. 

 

ThreeSistersKatoomba
The famous and familiar view at Katoomba

 

After a quick confirmation that the view was unchanged we had another coffee before retracing our steps back to the Metropole, near the station, to collect the car and head for home.

That evening I completed the book. 

My imagined 'Bond, James Bond' was still nowhere to be found.  He finally beds a woman but only after he has virtually proposed marriage and she is choosing the china. 

Moreover some other plot elements were annoying:  two deaths result from an excursion to find a working phone but it's a trivial thing to restore a phone wire that has simply been pulled from its plug; a foray down the French Connection path of drugs in Marseilles reads almost like a sub-plot and the obsession with drugs simply serves to obscure the main plot which is surely the evil Doctor's plan to incite a war with Russia; meanwhile NATO is invisible; so there seems to be a chapter missing involving hurried liaison with the Russians to permit the proposed resolution; and I still don't understand the motivations of the man clubbed to death with a rock - The Quiet American?;  incidentally plot elements like 004 and the twins are far too obvious; and, by the way, proof-reader, sub-editor or whomever, a four cylinder car engine has four big end bearings, not one.

In the end I had to concede that this had been a good book to wile away a few hours on a rainy day, even if the main mental challenge had been to identify its faults.  In this case Faulks.  And if I'm honest, that as least it has in common with its real Fleming predecessors.

In the end, the real star of our weekend away was Katoomba in the rain and fog, some healthy exercise and several great meals.

 

 

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