Snobbery with violence

Culture

28 Mar 2015

The ginger-haired man in the three-piece suit had been standing at the bar all night, ordering gin and tonics in a proprietorial voice that conveyed unvarnished delight in belonging to a gentleman’s club.

To each his own, thought Bond. He was fond of Blades, the rakish and exclusive establishment off St James’s to which M belonged. But this club was not in that league. Despite its grandiose premises in Pall Mall, the place reeked of suburban self-importance. The word ‘pardon’ hung in the air, even if most members had long since removed it from their vocabulary. It was, as his old friend Alan Clark would have said, a club that bought its own furniture.

Bond glanced at his Rolex Submariner. He had been stood up by his contact. And, since he was only a guest, he was obliged to leave. That was a relief. He would slip out before the ginger bore noticed. ‘You seem lost, dear fellow.’ Too late. The man had leapt from the bar stool and was pressing a clammy, ladylike hand into his. ‘But you look familiar. We were at school together, surely?’ The word ‘school’ was said with a slight emphasis: no need to name it, eh?

Bond didn’t bother searching his memory. He could use his eyes and ears. The Windsor knot. The chain store suit with its telltale ‘collar gap’. The plasticky shine of his brogues. The meticulously practised ‘posh’ vowels. This was not even a good fake.

‘School? I think your memory must be playing you tricks,’ said Bond, and headed gratefully for the door.

Audi Canada Presents Post-Screening Reception For "Pride" - 2014 Toronto International Film Festival
Dominic West Photo: Getty

James Bond, like the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Mayor of London, is an Old Etonian. The Bond of the books, that is. Not the Bond of the films. But that may be about to change. Spectre, to be released in October, is Daniel’s Craig’s fourth and almost certainly penultimate outing as 007. There’s already speculation about his successor. The names of Damian Lewis, Dominic West and the Oscar-winning Eddie Redmayne have been mentioned. Three more different Bonds it would be hard to imagine — but they have one thing in common: they are all themselves Old Etonians.

Ian Fleming, himself an OE, tells us that Bond was at Eton for only a year before he was expelled for ‘trouble with a housemaid’ and transferred to Fettes. As William Boyd points out overleaf, Bond’s Scottish schooling is not mentioned until the last completed novel, You Only Live Twice, published in 1964, by which time Fleming wanted to capitalise on the success of Sean Connery in the role. But I can’t agree with Boyd that ‘deep down he really didn’t want James Bond to be an Old Etonian’.

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Whether ordering a Martini or skiing off a cliff, Bond never loses the insouciant self-confidence of ‘school’, as OEs refer to their alma mater. It’s almost impossible to fake. (My own attempts to do so, as a grammar school boy from Reading during the Sloane Ranger craze, were comically inept.) He knows how to deploy good manners as a weapon. And he is a snob — a ‘tremendous snob’, in fact, to quote Sean Connery’s description of Ian Fleming, who was initially horrified that his hero was being played by a former Edinburgh milkman.

This isn’t to say that most Etonians are snobs, but those who are tend to be very good at it. One thinks of Anthony Powell, whose merciless anatomy of English society in A Dance to the Music of Time is rooted in his obsession with genealogy — Etonian Shinto at its most intense. Another OE ancestor-worshipper was James Lees-Milne, whose diaries burst with delight at his friendship with David Somerset, now Duke of Beaufort, and his ‘heavenly’ wife Lady Caroline, daughter of the Marquess of Bath. Fleming knew the couple, too, and it’s no accident that, when escaping by train from Moscow in From Russia, With Love (1957), James Bond and his lover Tatiana use the cover names ‘David and Caroline Somerset’.

Very few readers will have picked up that little upper-class in-joke, but they will certainly have noticed 007’s constant ridicule of middle-class people pretending to be posh. On the same journey Bond meets Captain Norman Nash of the Royal Automobile Club. That’s three black marks: sporting the lowly title of Captain in civilian life, being called Norman and belonging to the unsmart RAC. Worse, his regimental tie (Royal Artillery — not for gents) is twisted into a Windsor knot. In the dining car, he holds his knife ‘like a fountain pen’. ‘Minor public school’, decides Bond. Later Nash is unmasked as a foreign Soviet spy, which one can’t help thinking redeems him in 007’s eyes.

Also, Bond quite often goes in for the sort of low-key intellectual showing off that some OEs deploy — subtle references to the clever side of his schooling. At the end of Dr. No, he’s in Jamaica, his arch-enemy is dead and his knockout girlfriend, Honey Rider, is about to leap into their double sleeping bag. And yet, despite being in tropical paradise, Bond longs for ‘the douce weather of England: the soft airs, the “heat” waves, the cold spells — “the only country where you can take a walk every day of the year”. Chesterfield’s letters?’

Bond is referring to Lord Chesterfield’s 18th-century Letters to his Son, which are only quite well known; i.e., it’s a classic putdown of anyone who hasn’t read them. And the question mark implies: ‘I can’t be bothered to look it up but I’m bound to be right.’

Bond’s (and Fleming’s) contempt for ‘Captain Nash’ and everything he represents can still be encountered today: it lies at the heart of David Cameron’s strained relations with the blazer-wearing Tory faithful. As I say, most OEs aren’t like that, but it’s a chilling thing to experience. Remember that James Bond is supposed to be cold-hearted. Given that technology has deprived us of any sense of wonder at Q’s gadgets, is it time to shock the series back to life with an authentic dose of snobbery with violence?

But a properly snobbish 007 would require an actor who recognises the tiny nuances of upper-class manners. So far, none of the screen Bonds has come close. ‘They all tried too hard,’ says the OE designer Nicky Haslam. ‘They lacked the flippancy which goes with having been at school.’ Both Etonian charm and snobbery have a taken-for-granted quality that’s far removed from the studied nonchalance of your typical screen Bond. Roger Moore may have been suave, but to an Etonian acting suave is common, especially if you have to resort to raising an eyebrow.

'Queen of the Desert' Press Conference - 65th Berlinale International Film Festival
Damian Lewis Photo: Getty

Could a genuine Old Etonian Bond provide that effortless poise? Damian Lewis seems to think he could. Having previously kept quiet about ‘school’, he’s recently taken to boasting that Eton was the ideal preparation for playing Henry VIII in Wolf Hall. ‘There is no question that it helps having had the kind of schooling I’ve had to play a king. It’s not such a leap, oddly,’ he told Desert Island Discs. One can imagine OEs all over the world wincing at those remarks and Ian Fleming turning in his grave. That is not how James Bond would have talked about school.

My colleague Mark Mason, author of The Bluffer’s Guide to Bond, is suspicious of the way Lewis ‘butters up journalists with his disarming style — and now Eddie Redmayne is up to the same trick. Also, you can’t play Bond if you’ve won an Oscar, and certainly not if your acceptance speech was a tedious string of overly emoted giggles.’ To put it another way, very few things can erase the stamp of Eton, but turning into a luvvie is one of them.

Which leaves us with Dominic West, who specialises in playing roles as far removed from his background as possible — a Baltimore detective and a West Country serial killer — but who, in private life, moves quietly in the same circles as his fellow Old Etonians. He is affable but keeps his distance from fans and social climbers. For my money, he’s the only actor who could play James Bond as his creator envisaged him – licensed to kill, famously, but also to cut people dead at parties
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