The first and obvious question was: why? Why would William Boyd, an acclaimed, award-winning novelist choose to become a sort of ersatz Ian Fleming by writing a James Bond novel? Because that’s what he has just done – his book Solo, the 33rd 007 adventure written by assorted authors since Fleming’s death, reaches its climax this week on Boot at Bedtime.
He seemed surprised by the question. “Well,” he said, “you’re not asked to channel, imitate or pastiche Fleming at all. You are given a completely free hand to write your own novel. They [the Fleming Estate] kind of make you a gift of the character, so to have them saying out of the blue, ‘Would you like to write a novel about this iconic and most famous spy in the world?’ you’d be a fool to say no.”
As it happened, he had already written two spy novels himself. “But if I hadn’t,” he admitted, “I might have thought ‘I’m above my pay scale here.’”
So no worries about that, then, but what kind of Bond has he created? Well, Solo begins with Boyd’s 007 celebrating his 45th birthday in 1969, alone in a glitzy hotel, with a dinner that includes a bottle of champagne and then a bottle of bordeaux accompanied, it goes without saying, by numerous cigarettes. The non-smoking, moderate-drinking Bond of all recent movies is but a distant relative.
That’s because in researching his book Boyd didn’t watch the films, arguing that they have little to do with Fleming’s creations (“the movie Bond isn’t remotely as interesting a character as the literary Bond”), being now more action-adventure stories than tales of espionage. Instead, he studied every novel and short story Fleming ever wrote about 007 “to find out who is James Bond? What’s his nature? What are his weaknesses, what are his dreams? And it’s all there. It was a very interesting read.”
He did this so thoroughly that he now reckons he could choose 007 as his specialist subject on Mastermind, although he doesn’t see the character in the same way as its creator did.
Fleming maintained that he wanted Bond to be “a dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened – a blunt instrument.”
Boyd said: “I don’t know what on earth made Fleming say that. I think the Bond books became a kind of albatross round his neck. You can see his interest flagging, where the plot is creaking or he pads it out. But the Bond of the novels is a very complex individual. He makes terrible mistakes and suffers real lows. He’s a very suffer- ing human being and a lot of the women he is attracted to are equally damaged.”
A great deal of this is reflected in Solo, in which Bond is sent to M to foil a revolution in an African country and, if necessary, assassinate its leader.
“I wanted to write a gritty, realistic spy novel with no gimmicks or gadgets, nothing fantastical, about a man on a mission. I wasn’t interested in a game of golf at Sunningdale or a night playing blackjack in Monte Carlo or whatever.”
He does, however, pay lip service to Bond’s luxurious lifestyle by having him drink dry martinis and lose “£100, which was a lot of money then” in a casino before his birthday dinner. But that’s pretty much the end of the high life. For Boyd the African scenes required little research; he was born and raised in Ghana and has lived in Nigeria, so... “It was all in my head. I was living in Nigeria during the civil war, which had a profound effect on me. I thought ‘I’ll send him on a variant of the Biafran War and see what emerges.’”
What emerges is a tale of skulduggery and double-dealing that takes 007 from London to the fictitious African country of Zanzarim and also Washington, and includes a mysterious millionaire and a traditional Bond villain, a disfigured, psychopathic mercenary called Kobus Breed. And naturally there’s a fair bit of sex, too, both in London and the jungle.
In writing his book Boyd gave himself a checklist of points to include. “Obviously you have to have a certain amount of sophistication, a certain amount of eating and drinking, a certain amount of obsession with clothes and cars and you have to have at least two very attractive women for him to have affairs with.”
All these are nicely ticked off in Solo where what Bond eats and drinks and smokes are carefully detailed (Boyd even invents a recipe for Bond’s favourite salad dressing) as is his obsession with cars – in this case a Jensen FF.
“His [the original Bond’s] only real pleasure, his obsession if you like,” said Boyd, “is his car. So he’s a petrolhead.” Not then somebody Boyd, himself a non-driver, would like to meet? Well, with Bond’s emphasis on cars, “I don’t know if the conversation would last more than half an hour or so.
But he could talk about food and drink for a long time.” No doubt he could. During his researches Boyd said he was “like a fretting wife with an alcoholic husband! I used to note what Bond drank. I did a count where he has at least eight double bourbons and a bottle of champagne in an evening, so he is a massive drinker – as was Fleming, of course. Fleming was a 60–80 cigarette-a-day man, and there’s a great line in one of the novels that reads, ‘Bond lit his 70th cigarette of the day’.”
Only in the image of Bond that Boyd carried in his mind while he wrote did the films influence him, and they were the early films starring Sean Connery. “Because he was the first Bond I think he is almost irrevocably lodged in the heads of many people of my generation as the ultimate Bond.”
Why did he think Bond has lasted so long? Fleming’s first novel Casino Royale was written in 1953 and here’s old 007 still going strong after 60 years, 23 movies and all those books.
The films, Boyd thinks, are clearly the real reason for this longevity. But, perhaps more importantly, Fleming did something that had not been done in quite the same way before.
His novels were published in the 1950s and early 60s before the Beatles, Swinging London and the miniskirt, and while Britain was still in an age of austerity. Boyd’s theory is that Fleming “lifted the lid on a world that nobody knew existed and that’s not the world of espionage but the world of the rich upper classes, the world Fleming came from. Now we know everything about everyone, but in those days the elite of British society was walled off. Nobody knew what they did.”
Fleming told us what they did – skiing in Gstaad, shooting pheasants in Scotland in August, wintering in Jamaica, gambling in casinos, lapping up the best food and finest wines in private clubs.
“What Fleming did,” he said, “was to allow you to join the club for the duration of the novel and that, in the 1950s and 60s, was monstrously glamorous, exotic and fascinating.”
A touch of that, of course, still imbues the films where, along with the action and adventure, Bond leads the kind of life that even now only the wealthiest can dream of.
And so 007 lingers on with more movies and probably more books yet to come. Boyd, though, doubts that Solo will be turned into one of these movies, because all the films are set in the modern day and his story is not. “I wanted to set it completely in Fleming’s era,” he said. Which is to say an era when 007 could lunch on lasagne, two glasses of wine and a coffee in a Chelsea restaurant and pay for the meal with a pound note and a few coins. Ah, those were the days.
Incidentally, just a thought: if Bond was 45 in 1969 he would be 99 now, though watching Skyfall you’d never know it, would you?
Book at Bedtime: Solo Moday to Friday at 10:45pm on Radio 4
Solo, a James Bond novel by William Boyd, is available in hardback for £14.99 (usually £18.99) including p&p. Call 01603 648176 or visit radiotimes.com/bookshop