Published in The Times
When William Boyd was commissioned by Ian Fleming Publications Ltd to write a new James Bond novel, he talked about the gig as if it were the fulfilment of a life’s dream.
He had, he said, first fallen in love with 007 when he was a boarder at Gordonstoun and a copy of From Russia with Love was passed around his “pre-adolescent coevals as if it were some form of rare samizdat pornography”.
As a novelist, he had introduced Fleming into his novel Any Human Heart, making him responsible for recruiting the protagonist, Logan Mountstuart, to naval intelligence during the Second World War. No fewer than three Bond actors – Daniel Craig, Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan – have appeared in films for which Boyd has written the scripts.
Indeed, the 61-year-old writer even said that Bond would be his subject if he were ever on Mastermind. And so, when I get to his home in Chelsea, London, an end-of-terrace just five minutes off the Kings Road, taking a seat on a living room sofa, only to get up and move to an armchair because the piles of books on the tables between us mean we can’t actually see one another, I begin with a quiz.
“Question one: what in Fleming’s original novel was Pussy Galore?”
“She is a lesbian,” comes the instant reply, Boyd’s sombre delivery rather going against the triviality of the query, and his voice not matching his looks at all. The large figure in the author portrait makes you expect a certain degree of cockiness, but he expresses himself with the softness and precision of an Oxbridge tutor – which is exactly what he was once, lecturing at St Hilda’s between 1980 and 1983.
“Question two: what is Q’s full name?”
Slight hesitation. “Well, there isn’t a Q persona in the books. There is Q Section or a Q Branch, with someone called Boothroyd in charge.”
“Correct,” I yelp. My answer sheet says: Major Boothroyd. “That will do.”
“Question three: what did Bond study at university?”
An extended pause this time. Long enough, at least, to take in the sash windows, one of which is obscured by foliage growing up the side of the house, some of the hundreds of books which make the house feel like a second-hand book shop (authors ranging from Graham Greene to Russell Brand), and a record player with Tom Waits’ Blue Valentine sitting on it.
“Well, Bond didn’t go to university.”
“Oh.” My answer sheet says Bond studied oriental languages at Cambridge.
“Ah. Well, that might be the case in the films, but Bond’s biography in the films is a kind of nonsense, and doesn’t tally with the biography in the books at all. In Skyfall, for instance, Bond visits his parents’ graves in Scotland, but, if you go by the books, they died in 1935. Which would make Daniel Craig’s Bond 88 years old. Also, they didn’t die in Scotland; they are buried in Switzerland in the books.
“And, to get back to the question, if you go by the details and chronology of James Bond’s life that were published in the ‘obituary’ in You Only Live Twice, Bond leaves Fettes, the Scottish public school, at the age of 17 and does not attend university.”
Boyd scratches an ear lobe bearing the faint signs of what looks like an earring hole, but which, when I check, turns out to be the traces of an infected insect bite. “The problem is that the literary Bond is seen through the filter of the movies. When I say I am writing the new James Bond novel, people say, ‘Is Daniel Craig going to be in it?’”
Boyd laughs, and I realise that not only has he provided a comprehensive answer to the quiz question, but he has also answered a bigger question: namely, why a writer of his stature, with a Costa Book Award, Prix Jean Monnet and a CBE under his belt, with books that have been translated into more than 30 languages, would want to write a Bond continuation novel in the first place.
As Howard Jacobson put it to the London Evening Standard: “I don’t get it… As a writer you have a voice and you work through that voice. That’s the point.”
What Jacobson doesn’t appreciate is that Boyd is a Bond geek. A 007 nerd. And as he begins talking about Solo, his new Bond novel, it becomes clear that it was this geekery that inspired the Fleming estate to commission him in the first place, that got him through an 18-month writing process that required him to run synopses and drafts past them, and that might get him through publication.
What is the book like? Well, the contents have been one of the most fiercely guarded literary secrets of the year, right up there with the identity of a certain Robert Galbraith. All we have known till now is that it would be called Solo (the two o’s echoing 007), that Bond’s mission would take “an unexpected turn while forcing him to go ‘solo’ on a trip to America”, that it would be set in the late Sixties, that Bond would be aged 45 (the same as Daniel Craig) and living in Wellington Square, just a few hundred yards from Boyd’s home.
Meanwhile, Boyd’s assertion that “95 per cent of the imagination” in the book would be his created uncertainty about whether we would be getting something reminiscent of Fleming or a novel along the lines of Restless, Ordinary Thunderstorms and Waiting for Sunrise, Boyd’s recent spy trilogy.
And the first bit of news is this: Solo really does feel like a Bond book, in terms of mood and character. Within the first few pages, Bond is in the Dorchester ordering a massive breakfast, as is often the case in Fleming (“four eggs, scrambled, and half a dozen rashers of unsmoked back bacon, well done, on the side”), there is enough detailing about cars to keep even Jeremy Clarkson satisfied (although Boyd doesn’t drive and had to mine the experiences of one of his regular cabbies), and Boyd’s Bond is, as is traditional, forever consuming fags and vodka martinis (“I tried Fleming’s Vesper martini at Duke’s – possibly the most lethal drink I have ever drunk”).
We have to wait only a few pages before our hero says, “My name’s Bond, James Bond.” By page 86 Bond is in bed with a beautiful woman and together they are “prolonging their climaxes with all the expertise of familiar lovers”.
We get Fleming’s obsession with clothes (“He changed into a cotton khaki-drill suit, a short-sleeved Aertex shirt and a navy-blue knitted tie”), there is a traditional Bond villain with traditional deformity (a missing cheekbone) and a traditionally sadistic way of dispensing with his enemies (“hauling them on ropes, the dead bodies lifted aloft by their jaws with a hook… like fishing trophies”).
And, like all the Bonds, there is an outlandish plot (my favourite line: “It’s not every day a man can say he ended a war”), which is at times entertainingly difficult to follow.
However, at the same time, Solo is no pastiche. The plot, for instance, is more complex than Fleming’s tend to be (“I don’t think he was the greatest plotter in the world”) and the story strands are not tied up as neatly (“Because that is how I write my own novels”).
The prose is more lyrical (“It is as well-written as I would write my own novels”), Bond drives a Jensen rather than a Bentley or Aston Martin (“The Bentley is one of the anomalies of the Fleming chronology: it appears in Casino Royale, but when Fleming finally decided on the dates of Bond’s biography, he must have bought the Bentley when he was nine years old”), and it is longer than your average Fleming (“I think it might be the longest Bond novel at 336 pages,” says Boyd, pretending he doesn’t know this for a fact).
And, although Boyd disputes the analysis, his Bond comes across as more literary than Fleming’s (“I’m boring for England here, but in Fleming, Bond is described as having an extensive library in his flat…”).
Which brings us to the most striking departure from Fleming: the setting. At one point, Bond finds himself on a plane reading Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, hoping that the “West African novel might furnish some shrewder insight to the place”. For Solo’s central setting is Zanzarim, a fictional country, where a struggle between the “Lowele tribe” and the “Fakassa tribe” over the control of oil has sparked a civil war that is reminiscent of the 1967-70 Nigerian-Biafran War.
Of course, such a setting is not unusual for Boyd. Alexander, his father, specialised in tropical medicine and moved to Ghana in 1950 to run a clinic at the University of Legon in Accra. Boyd was born there in 1952; in the Sixties, when the country became independent, the family relocated to Nigeria, thinking it would be safer, and Alexander Boyd took up a position with the University of Ibadan.
From the age of 9, he was travelling between Africa and boarding school in Scotland. He now describes himself as an “Africanised Scot”, and several of his novels, including Brazzaville Beach and A Good Man in Africa, have been set in Africa. But Fleming simply couldn’t write about black people without lapsing into racism. Indeed, reading the original Bond novels, with open talk of “negros”, chapters entitled “Nigger Heaven” and swarthy ethnic villains, is a cringe-making business.
“Yes,” concedes Boyd. “It’s unbelievable to read now.” Does he think Fleming was racist? “I think if you were of that privileged upper class, born at the beginning of the 20th century, you were probably racist, sexist, right wing and anti-Semitic. And you would be outraged if anybody accused you of it. It is odd, because Jamaica for Fleming was his nirvana.”
I roll my eyes. I have been to Goldeneye, the Jamaican estate where Fleming wrote the Bond books. Stunning place, but with a decidedly colonial feel. “Well, there is a kind of familial, patriarchal love of the Caribbean which you might say is patronising and folksy, but Fleming was absolutely typical of his caste and time.
“I just thought West Africa was a great place to put Bond down. I knew the atmosphere there in 1969; I was going to Nigeria regularly at that time and it was, in hindsight, one of the most profoundly life-changing experiences I have gone through. Not because I was in mortal danger, although I did have AK47s pointed at me, but because everything I thought I knew about warfare was thrown out of the window.
“I remember being strip-searched at Lagos airport, being stopped on roadblocks by drunken soldiers. It was not what I saw in movies. It was on the verge of chaos and anarchy.”
The other respect in which Boyd mercifully veers away from Fleming is when it comes to women. Solo features some of Fleming’s trademark casual lechery – we see Bond on page 15, for instance, sitting in a café in Chelsea admiring “the small-nippled breasts of the girl on the next table”.
But it pulls short of the sadism and borderline rapes that were criticised even in Fleming’s lifetime, with the critic Bernard Bergonzi saying his work contained “a strongly marked streak of voyeurism and sado-masochism”, and the author’s own wife, Anne, dismissing it as “pornography”.
“Yeah,” says Boyd. “The sex can veer from terrible Barbara Cartland romanticism to almost sadism.” Then there is the casual misogyny – rants about women getting in the way of a man’s work. Whereas Boyd’s Bond not only finds himself happily working alongside a woman on a mission, but a mixed-race woman to boot (although I don’t think it would class as a spoiler to say that he ends up sleeping with her).
“It’s not all cut and dried when it comes to women in Fleming,” says Boyd, sipping the sparkling mineral water he has brought into the room for refreshment. “You get the token arm-candy girls, but I do think there are more complex issues. Bond’s relationship with his housekeeper, May, for instance.
“But the advantage of taking Bond five years on from The Man with the Golden Gun [Fleming’s last Bond novel, set in 1964] is that times have changed. You know, the Swinging Sixties didn’t really start until 1966. Britain in 1962 was 1952 or 1942 even. There is an argument that Bond would have changed a bit.”
I’m sceptical, but tell him he writes the sex well. “Well, I deliberately wrote those scenes as I would write them myself, not in the way Fleming would write them.”
This is a running theme in Boyd’s conversation: “There is no attempt to write a pastiche Fleming novel, which I couldn’t do and wouldn’t do”; “It’s in my own voice; I’m dealing with things and subjects I am interested in”; “It is very much my novel; it just features these characters invented by Fleming”.
However, Boyd is equally insistent that the book is in tune with vintage Bond, saying that it is “scrupulously rooted in the world of Fleming’s novels” because he was aware of “the army of pedants” who will be waiting to “scrutinise” the book, that he had several geeky arguments with the Fleming estate over the plot line (“They were concerned about Bond being seen as an assassin, but I would argue Bond is sent on an assassination mission in at least four Fleming books”) and about Bond’s relationship with M (“They weren’t happy with it, felt it needed more focus and precision”).
There is a case to say that this isn’t a contradiction: Boyd has simply taken what he once described in a literary essay on Fleming as “the now familiar blend of snobbery, sex, ludicrous violence, exotic travel and superior consumer goods” and written his own book. And it works on its own terms. It’s a fantastic read, which I ripped through in the time it would take to watch Skyfall, as it happens, and I found it significantly more enjoyable.
But it is inevitable that some people will consider that it is not Fleming enough, some will think it not Boyd enough, and accusations will inevitably fly that it is too “politically correct”.
Indeed, with more than 100 million Bond books having been sold, the films together having grossed more than $6 billion (£3.8 billion) around the world – Skyfall alone has made more than $1 billion (£637 million) – more than half the world’s population having seen a Bond film and diverse actors having portrayed him, there is as much consensus about the character of Bond as there is about Hamlet.
Meanwhile, one cannot help but notice that the act of writing a Bond continuation novel more often than not ends in disappointment. Kingsley Amis, who wrote the first one, Colonel Sun, under the pseudonym of Robert Markham, is reported to have described it as a “thankless task”. John Gardner, the thriller writer who produced 16 Bond stories before retiring in 1996, described the experience as bruising and “a no-win situation”.
Then there was Sebastian Faulks, whose Devil May Care sold 44,093 copies in its first four days in 2008 and became Penguin’s fastest-selling hardback fiction title at that time, but which was panned by Bond fans and critics such as Christopher Hitchens, who suggested that Bond had been “cheapened” in the novel. Faulks himself said the experience was “like asking someone who writes complex symphonic music if they would like to write a three-minute pop song”.
Boyd takes the analogy and gives it a positive spin. “For me, it was someone who writes symphonies being commissioned to write a symphony.” Did Boyd like Faulks’s version? “I thought he did a really good job. But maybe I am on a hiding to nothing as well. We shall see.”
Which brings us back to the big question: why would Boyd want to write a Bond novel in the first place? The geeky fascination with Fleming and Bond explains a lot. But it is hard to imagine another writer of his stature – Kazuo Ishiguro, for instance, who appeared alongside Boyd in Granta’s 1983 list of its 20 most promising young writers – subjecting themselves to what he describes as the “benevolent surveillance” of the Fleming estate in the course of writing a novel.
And it’s not that Boyd needs the money – as he says, “All my novels are in print. [The payment for Bond] is sort of in the parameters of what I would hope my next novel will get anyway.” And he is certainly not doing it for the attention.
The last Bond continuation novel, Carte Blanche by Jeffery Deaver, was delivered to the author by abseiling Marines as part of a publicity stunt in St Pancras station, and while Solo comes with press releases announcing promotional events such as a special Bond breakfast at the Dorchester, Boyd refuses to don a DJ for theTimes photoshoot (“I made it clear, I am not jumping through any of those hoops”), has already declined numerous invites and says he will only flog the book for a month.
“I know there will be a monstrous amount of interest, because we are coming on the coat-tails of Skyfall. But there is no point me showing up in Moscow selling Bond.”
But as one hour of conversation turns into two, another explanation comes to hand: William Boyd is the most intensely driven man you will find this side of a Goldman Sachs banker. This is evident not only from his biography, which includes a stellar list of screenwriting credits, from Chaplin (1992) to Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy (2001), alongside the line-up of prize-winning novels, but also from his striking self-confidence.
He is not, like so many writers, prone to self-deprecation, remarking that he is “very pleased with” Solo; that “my books do extremely well in France”; that “I was working to deadline, which I am very good at doing”; and when asked if he would be a good spy, he says no, “because I am not intrepid”, but adds confidently that he “would have been quite a good spy-catcher”.
Then there is the sobering fact that having just finished his 13th novel, he is already thinking about writing novel 14 – which he says will not be a spy novel, but a “life” along the lines of Any Human Heart and The New Confessions, “in a format I have never attempted or done before. It will be out spring of 2015.”
Having just finished my first novel and second book (which, ominously, is out the same day as Solo), I feel sick at the prospect of having to do a third book, let alone a 14th.
Boyd continues: “There is no guarantee if you have published five successful novels that your sixth is going to be equally successful.” Somehow, I find this even more lowering than the revelation that Boyd gets five new books sent to him every day by publishers eager for a blurb.
Is he a workaholic? “I don’t regard myself as a dynamo of production. One novel every three years is hardly…” Yes, but he does a million other things at the same time – the Bond book, for instance, is something that he just squeezed into his schedule.
“Look, when I started, my ambition, like most serious novelists, was to be able to live by writing; as Martin Amis said, ‘To think that you can go into your study and live the bourgeois life.’ But then as you get older the question is: how do I keep the show on the road?”
I look around the room – in this gorgeous house, in a lovely part of Chelsea referred to in Solo as “that leafy tranquil cultivated spielraum”. He and his wife of 37 years, Susan, have owned it since 1988; they also have a pad in the south of the Dordogne, and they have no children to support. He tells me, when I ask if he is ever recognised, that one of the rare occasions was in a casino in Biarritz.
He deserves it all, but he is more than keeping “the show on the road”. “There is no guarantee,” he insists. “I have elderly novelist friends who are in their eighties, highly acclaimed, have written 20 novels and you can’t buy their books any more. Unless you go to an antiquarian bookseller. It is increasingly hard to have a long career as a novelist. Earning your living as a writer of fiction is tricky. There really is no guarantee at all.”