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Charlie Higson is mad about the boy Bond

19-Mar-2007 • Young Bond

Charlie Higson, who writes the Young Bond novels, knows what's going on in the heads of boys aged 10 to 13 - reports Times Online.

Charlie Higson, at the age of 48, is a Renaissance man: co-creator and star of the cult Fast Show comedy series, former lead singer of an indie pop band, television producer and bestselling novelist, which includes the Young Bond adventure series. But he is also a boy.

As the author of three highly successful novels featuring the young James Bond, and the father of three boys, Higson has a unique perspective on what happens inside a boy’s head between the ages of 10 and 13. And at a time when playgrounds are swathed in cotton wool, and every hint of wild boyish behaviour is frowned on and suppressed, he has rediscovered a psychological formula that stretches back to the Boy’s Own Paperand beyond: answering the animal imaginations of semiferal ten-year-old males and getting them to read at the same time. His most recent Bond book, Double or Die, went straight into the bestseller charts.

So what do you do with boys? Not little boys, not adolescent boys, but the ones in between? Boys who like breaking things and bashing each other, and making those exploding noises that girls can’t make. (For several years, according to my mother, I communicated only in exploding noises.) Boys who are full of overexcitement, and puppy-violence, and shouting.

If you don’t like the noise, I suppose you can fill them full of Ritalin. You can buy them a Game Boy and watch their eyes cloud over in concentrated thoughtlessness. You can buy them The Dangerous Book for Boys (which my boys say is not nearly dangerous enough since they read it hoping to find a really effective hangman’s-knot, and were disappointed). Or you can introduce them to the world of James Bond. Bond is boys’ stuff for men, but it is also men’s stuff for boys: Higson’s boy-Bond experiences just enough excitement, just enough violence, just enough exploding noises, and no girls, snogging or other yukky stuff. If you happen to be 10, and a boy, this is the perfect intellectual cocktail.

I meet Higson at the Casino Royale in Monte Carlo. He is wearing an impeccable dinner jacket, with diamond shirt studs, leaning on the bar with a Martini in one hand, and a pouting nymph in the other. OK, that’s not quite true. We meet at the Rustique Literary Café in Tufnell Park, North London, which smells of boiling vegetables, and Higson is wearing a battered overcoat. No one in the café recognises him. I hardly recognise him. He would, on reflection make quite a good spy. He orders a large cup of hot chocolate, which has been neither shaken nor stirred, but crowned with a dollop of whipped cream the size of a cricket ball.

Higson immediately strikes me as shy, and a little mournful, somewhat like the characters he played in The Fast Show: Colin Hunt the cringe-making office joker, and, above all, Ralph, the tongue-tied, tweedy landowner unable to express his love of the whiskery Irish farmhand, Ted, played by Paul Whitehouse.

In the Fleming novels, Bond is an orphan. Higson, too, lost his mother to cancer when he was 18; his father, an accountant, then remarried and moved to Hawaii. He disapproved of Higson’s pop music, disliked his early novels and hated his appearances in The Harry Enfield Show. Although one of four boys, Higson spent a solitary childhood at an all-male school. Bond is loner and maverick determined to prove himself: Higson may have more in common with him than first appears, and what seems like shyness may really be seriousness. Like many comics, Higson is intensely earnest.

“Why do boys stop reading at a certain age?” He asks the question and then immediately answers it. “In the 1950s and 1960s all children’s literature was aimed at boys, but when I started writing the young Bond books, apart from the Alex Rider series [by Anthony Horowitz] there was very little.”

With three sons, Frank, 8, Jim, 12 and Sid, 14, Higson has a ready-made audience, which knows what it likes. He reads each finished section to his sons, and then absorbs the feedback, which can be blunt. Halfway through Blood Fever, the second in the series, one of Higson’s sons interrupted: “When’s the story going to start?” Higson was briefly baffled. The sections he had read contained plenty of plotting, characterisation and changes of scene. “Then I realised what he was really saying was: ‘When is there going to be more fighting?’ As far as he was concerned the rest was just filler.” The fighting duly recommenced.

Higson’s formula is straightforward, but then boys of 10 are not, on the whole, particularly complex organisms: “Deliberately keep the language simple. Stripped-down and hard-boiled. Not 12 pages of internal monologue.” Boys aren’t big on internal monologue. Unless it also involves exploding noises. “We didn’t want to encourage violence, but I have tried to show the consequences of violence,” says Higson. To judge from the response of his sons (and mine), the result feeds directly into the central cortex of boy brain: action, suspense, gadgets, threat, fights, escapes, jungle survival, evil baddies and plenty of guns. My sons devoured each of the novels in the same way that I consume adult thrillers, in great, unreflective, purely enjoyable lumps.

There are girls, but barely a hint of sex. In the original Fleming books, Bond is thrown out of Eton for an incident involving a housemaid, but Higson has no intention of recording that fictional incident in his fictional recreation. “I don’t want to write about 13-year-olds having sex,” Higson says crisply.

I decided to test out whether a sexless Young Bond works by asking my ten-year-old son whether he felt there should be kissing of girls in the Higson books. He gave me a pitying look and told me to grow up.

There is something intensely boyish about Higson, too, when he talks about weekends with the boys in their country cottage in Wales, without telephone or television. “Whatever they do they always complain, but once they get a stick to use as a gun, they're happy.”

Higson, who lives in North London with his wife Vicky, a graphic designer, was privately educated in Sevenoaks, Kent, but has chosen a state school in Tufnell Park for his sons. “I’d rather my kids felt comfortable in the environment they are in.” And are they comfortable? A pause and then a wry smile. “Actually, they’re pretty scared some of the time.” But a little fear, like a little danger, is part of the Higson psychology of boydom.

Higson, who is now about halfway through the vast lump of cream on his hot chocolate, delights in reciting Bond’s various feasts: the soft-shell crabs and steak he consumes in Gold-finger; the wildly exotic yoghurt and figs he eats in Turkey in the pages of From Russia with Love. As a child he was a fussy eater, something Higson is encountering with his three sons. “Fleming was not a very adventurous eater. A lot of the foodie stuff came from his editor. Fleming would just leave a gap, and the editor would fill in the details.”

There is something about Higson’s enthusiasm for the Bond world (“It’s been fantastic. I’m part of the James Bond family”) that suggests something more than escapism. Higson has described how his alternative personas offer relief from the real world. “I hide behind my characters,” he said in one interview. “The people I do tend to put on a big front to cover a deep-seated inadequacy and inability to cope with things.”

The same, I suspect, may be true to some extent of his Bond obsession. He would not be alone in that. How many millions have escaped from being “carpet salesmen” (his words) to being sharp-suited Lotharios with a licence to kill, at least until the film ends, or the last page?

I, for one, am delighted that my boys have read Bond before seeing it. Higson’s boy-Bond works: he is cool, and brave, and inevitably old-fashioned, but boyish to the core. He is also infectious, and immortal.

As we leave the Rustique, we are still discussing Bond gadgetry and the final escape scene in Thunderball. And suddenly, for the first time in three decades, I am seized by the overwhelming urge to make exploding noises. So, I do.

Boys’ brains

Size matters Boys aged between 10 and 13 love doing boy things together because it’s better than being looked down on as a lesser species by girls. On average, boys lag two years behind girls in terms of puberty. Girls have a clear two-year head start in growth, thanks to the way that their oestrogen boosts the effect of the growth hormone being produced in industrial quantities at this age. Boys, by comparison, start their growth spurt later, but grow for longer so that they end up being taller. Boys, therefore, always seem puny to girls at a young age.

Teen peaks There are several brain development studies showing that the brain undergoes a sudden reorganisation that peaks at about 13 for boys and 11 for girls. The difference is to do with puberty timing for boys and girls. The brain regions that undergo this development are cortical areas such as the frontal lobes. These areas are responsible for our self-identity and for socialisation and empathy. One effect of this brain reorganisation is a 20 per cent dip at puberty in the ability to gauge emotions from faces. This is likely to make teenagers less able to read social situations or recognise when they are treading on dangerously thin ice with authority figures.

Builder hormoneThe first hormone event in boys takes place, unseen, between 6 and 8 and involves the adrenal glands, which sit atop each kidney. They step up production of male hormones, particularly one called DHEA, which the body uses as construction material for other hormones. These hormones prime follicles for pubic hair growth and make the skin greasy.

Testy testosterone A lot of a boy’s appearance and behaviour during puberty is owing to raging hormones. Spots are caused by skin sensitivity to testosterone. Fridge-raiding is caused by higher levels of the hormone cortisol, which sharpens the appetite and makes adolescents seek the food that they need for growth. Not getting up until lunchtime is caused by alterations in the secretion of melatonin.

Here comes sexUp to 50 times more testosterone is racing around a boy’s body after puberty. It sculpts their bodies and jawlines, increases their muscles and makes them think about sex every other minute.

Macho man Basic sexual instincts do not really begin to have an effect until 11 or 12. It is at this age that fights between boys become serious. One could speculate that like many young male mammals, young male humans need to fantasise about male role-playing and engage in mock fights that fit them for life, without being exposed to the injury potential of genuine tussles.

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