Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Love and Let Die, by John Higgs

I really enjoyed this wide-ranging ramble through Bond, the Beatles and the British psyche. It charts the interweaving histories of the Fabs and 007, not just in their 1960s heydays but up to the present and beyond, exploring disparities and connections, and how our interpretations have changed. In detailing shifts in what Bond and the Beatles mean, it's a history of our changing mores and anxieties. It's a fun and provactive read - a book about connections that really connects.

"That's as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs," quips Sean Connery's Bond in Goldfinger (1964), a moment before someone hits him. Yet less than a decade later, ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and ex-Beatles producer George Martin provided the soundtrack for Bond movie Live and Let Die (1973). I've long thought this was evidence of seismic shifts in contemporary culture over a very brief period, but not got much further that that. This is the territory Higgs dives into in his book, with lots of fresh insight and stuff I didn't know, for all that the subjects are so familiar.

How strange to realise that I've been part of these historical changes. I was at university in the mid-1990s when the Beatles enjoyed a resurgence in things like the Anthology TV series, and well remember debates had then about who was best: the Beatles or the Stones. How disquieting to realise, as Higgs says, that we don't make that comparison any more, without ever being aware of a moment when things changed.

Higgs is also of his (and our) time in rejecting ideas that I can remember used to hold considerable sway, such as that John Lennon was the 'best' Beatle, or the band's driving creative force. As the book says, there's growing recognition of what the four Beatles accomplished together rather than as competing individuals. There's something of this, too, in the way Higgs positions Bond to the Beatles. Initially, they're binary opposites, Bond an establishment figure Higgs equates with death, the Beatles working-class rebels all about life and love. By the end, it's as if they synchronise.

This might all sound a bit highfalutin but the insights here are smart and funny. As just one example, here's what Bond's favourite drink reveals about who he is.

"Bond's belief that he knows exactly what the best is appears early in the first novel Casino Royale, when he goes to the bar and orders a dry martini in a deep champagne goblet. Not trusting the barman to know how to make a martini, he gives him specific instructions. 'Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel.' When the drink arrives, he tells that barman that is is 'Excellent,' then adds, 'But if you can get a vodka made with grain instead of potatoes, you will find it still better.' Most people who have worked in the service industries will recognise a customer like this." (pp. 242-3)

Amazing - Bond as an umarell

I especially like how free-wheeling and broad this all is. There's stuff on shamanic ceremonies from the ancient past, stuff on Freud and the fine art world and Putin. At one point, Higgs talks about the damaging effects of fame in disconnecting a rock star (or anyone else famous) from everyone else.

"Drugs and alcohol appear to mask this disconnect, but in reality, they exaggerate it - cocaine in particular acts as fascism in powdered form. It erodes empathy and keeps the focus on the ever-hardening ego." (p. 294)

It probes the less palatable bits of popular history, grappling head on the complexities of our heroes' objectionable behaviour and views. Our heroes are not always good people, yet by framing this all as a study of how attitudes and culture have shifted, the book avoids making them all villains. 

I nodded along to lots of perceptive stuff, like the thoughts on why Spectre (2016) didn't work precisely because it used screenwriting structures that usually do well in other movies. But I'm not sure Higgs is always right. He argues that a derisive response to a particular CGI sequence in Die Another Day (2002) led to a serious rethink by the Bond producers, which included sacking Pierce Brosnan. I suspect a more pertinent reason was that - as I understand it - Brosnan injured his knee while filming the hovercraft chase and first unit production had to be postponed while he underwent surgery. That would have been expensive and an ongoing risk for an ongoing series of action movies. The fantasy of a Bond who is, over 60 years of movies, always in his prime, must square up against the practicalities of ageing. And that's in line with what Higgs argues elsewhere.

But I don't make this point to criticise. It's more that I found myself responding to the book as if it were a conversation, inviting the reader to engage - and argue. Most potent of all is the final chapter. Having delved so deeply into the past, the author maps out how Bond should develop from here. Yes, absolutely, a younger, millennial Bond who'll appeal to a new generation, and one big on fun and consent, and whose partners don't all die. But also -

[Thankfully, Simon is dragged off-stage.]

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