James Bond: Ambassador for post-war Britain
Ian Fleming's fictional and well-travelled spy James Bond harboured some odd prejudices against the US, but the post-war high life was right up his street - reports the BBC
There must have been a time when the business of business travel in the United States was a pleasure. But whenever it was, it is not now.
You are these days downtrodden more than you are upgraded.
You are squashed into your seat on the plane beside someone who makes Hardy look like Laurel, so you feel like you are sharing a ski-lift with a rhinoceros.
Purchase a snack and you get thin, miserable slices of salami, as cold and hard as the pennies off the eyes of a corpse.
Now, there was a time when it was not like this - when your linen napkins were snowy of fold and your flight attendants dewy of eye. Your oeufs a la neige had just enough neige.
In this lost universe of comfort, the greatest business traveller of them all was James Bond.
I found myself re-reading the Bond books as I boxed them up to ship them home from America and I noticed how often he had been here and how much thought he had given the place.
In fact for a man who consecrated his life to the epic war of ideologies with Soviet Communism, 007 spent a surprising amount of time in Jamaica, Florida and New York.
You can almost hear the dark mutterings of 00s one to six inclusive as they covered for him in Sverdlovsk or Simferopol.
Bond was conceived in an age of post-war austerity, of exchange controls and rationing and so in a way he was Britain's ambassador to a world of indulgence reporting back on the better times to come.
The butter on his broiled lobster oozed and dribbled on behalf of us all. The astringency of the shavings of lemon peel in his martini refreshed the nation.
Firm of jaw and purpose, hard of heart and stomach, 007 was a coded signal to the United States that clapped-out, threadbare old Britain remained a force to be reckoned with in the post-war world. A supplier of courage, ingenuity and experience to set alongside American stockpiles of guns, money and broiled lobster.
That is not to say that he could not be a little sniffy of course.
Naturally taciturn, Bond reckoned you could pass yourself as a North American by communicating in laconic grunts. "Huh", "hum", "hi", "guess so", "that so" and "sure" he reckoned would meet most contingencies.
I find it hard to reconcile that with my own experience with the cheerful loquacious nation.
But then Bond was a character who thought the best things about the United States were oyster stew and chipmunks - where, if I had to choose, I would probably go for the constitution and the national culture of hospitality.
It was food in general though that brought out a touchingly pooterish quality in Bond.
Surely no-one could listen to him ordering a martini without feeling like thumping him, but he exhibited a whim of iron elsewhere on the menu too.
He was quick to notice the notes of strawberry in the bouquet of a glass of pink champagne, but he noted sniffily that Americans put milk in their scrambled eggs and that bad coffee in the US was the worst found anywhere.
Part of the fascination of course lies in Bond's magisterial way with casual judgements based on nationality.
Americans made boring cars for example, the only bread rolls worth a damn were to found in France or Italy, and he personally could identify Germans and Russians by the way they smell.
To modern ears there is something bracingly illicit in that swashbuckling small-mindedness. And it comes from a man poetic enough to notice that when twilight comes to American skies, the darkness rises, rather than falls.
His oddest prejudice - leaving the chipmunks aside - was against the old.
When he visited the retirement capital of the South in St Petersburg Florida, he was fascinated by the frailty of the inhabitants with their clicking dentures and their over-75s baseball teams.
He shared his horror of the bald, bony heads of the men and the fluffy sparse balls of blue hair of the women.
And somewhere beneath the uncomfortable edge of disdain, you sense a certain vulnerability. It is almost as though the man whose every footstep was dogged by a dark sense of danger cannot bear to be brought face to face with the prospect of his own mortality.
Maybe that is why we can forgive him his extravagant ways. Between battling her Majesty's enemies and paying her tobacco taxes you sense Bond was never destined to make old bones.
At one point when a daring underwater operation calls for a supreme act of athletic conditioning, Bond's response was to cut down to 10 cigarettes a day.
You find yourself instinctively not worrying about the long-term cost of his public sector pension.
All men, it is said, want to be like Bond, although the closest I will ever get is a shared enthusiasm for the bread rolls of France. But reading his views on American life I did feel a certain stab of recognition.
He is not the only person to find that the things that matter start to look different as you look at them from different places.
Or that the old world comes into clearer focus when you see it from the new.
I bet he never packed his own books when he moved house though.
"From Our Own Correspondent" broadcasts on Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)
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