Something I have picked up in my reading is that there was, once upon a time, a cadre of people who would retire from government service to the British Empire. With their pension, they could move to some imperial outpost in an economic backwater and live quite comfortably for the remainder of their days. Some, obviously, chose to use that life of leisure to write, thus giving me the impression that such a thing was commonplace.
Certainly if I could be spending my mornings on some island in the Pacific writing this blog, with my afternoons and evenings to convalesce, I would jump at the chance. I suspect that, to the extent this really happened, it is an artifact of a bygone world.
When Ian Fleming wrote Casino Royale, he did so from Jamaica. He also wasn’t entirely at his leisure. While he retired from his wartime, military service, post-war he obtained a management position with The London Times. Tasked with oversight of the publisher’s foreign correspondents and blessed, apparently, with a generous vacation policy, he was able to spend three months out of every year in Jamaica. He continued to work as a in this role, at least part time, into the 1960s, well after the publishing and commercial success of many of his James Bond novels.
Shortly after writing Casino Royale, but before its release, Fleming and his wife traveled to Jamaica via New York City. In taking the Silver Meteor from NY to St. Petersburg, the couple followed the route that Fleming had taken during World War II when he visited Jamaica for the first time. This trip, as well as some of Fleming’s other personal experiences in North America, became the basis of his second novel, Live and Let Die, which he wrote over the following few months.
Ironically, given my own introduction to the book, Bond (that is, Fleming), remarks extensively on the retiree culture of St. Petersburg and how Americans gathered there to live off of their pensions. His commentary likely has more to do with the style of living rather than the source of the funding.
Fleming tried to put more gravitas into his second book relative to his first effort. The distinction fades under the shadow of the film treatments of the novels. Live and Let Die (the movie this time) was the eighth James Bond story to be made into a film and the first with Roger Moore as the lead actor. Leaving out the transport of the story twenty years into the future and Moore’s particular interpretation of Bond, the film is only loosely based on the novel. It also comes well into a well-established movie “universe” (as we say today) rather than playing the introductory part of the book. After all, Live and Let Die was written before anyone, except of course Fleming and his editors, knew who James Bond was*.
I did watch Live and Let Die, more than once. Perhaps mercifully, I recall little of it. I do know, from my rating on Netflix, that I didn’t much care for it. Reading the novel, imagery from the Dirty Harry movie The Enforcer spring into my mind, particularly in the novels early chapters, rather than the Bond film. The parallel is, of course, the Harlem-based criminal network operated as an all-black concern.
My other thought, reading this novel, is that you couldn’t publish it today.
In part, the book is something of a “travelogue.” Fleming, the Englishman, through Bond (the Englishman) witnesses the “exotic” culture that is Harlem, gulf-coast Florida, and the black (largely poor, service-industry) subculture of the United States. Then we travel to the Caribbean islands for the “island” culture of superstition and strange religion. For the modern American, the description of New York City becomes more of a time-traveling trip than a visit to a strange land. In either of these roles, the book does so through unflattering stereo-types, cartoonish distortions, and the use of words that are no longer allowed to be uttered. It might be tough for some to “read through” this, to see the story behind the forbidden language. Indeed, the 1950s voice of the narration may well be impenetrable for the modern reader, raised in a world from which such language has been all but redacted. In my opinion, however wrong the use of brushstrokes, the painting itself is not mean-spirited. Black Americans are portrayed as exotic, compared to the English, but not particularly negatively. Yes, they are the Badguy, but it a Cold War spy novel, there are good guys and bad guys. It’s circumstantial, not racial.
I’ll emphasize that the language of the book, shocking as it seems, is within the norms of the early 1950s. Fleming doesn’t stand out with his racial stereotypes or his use of forbidden language. Pre-1960s literature will probably shock anyone who suddenly begins delving into older works. It all makes one wonder what role this plays in the modern effort to redefine the Western canon of literature. It becomes tough to reshape the culture through neuro-linguistic programing if your subjects are simply going to pick up the books of their grandparents and reabsorb the culture you’re trying to squeeze out of them.
Fast forward to 1973 and a very different era. Live and Let Die (the movie, now) was released in an era where “black culture” was portrayed exaggeratedly and provocatively on film. Among our “acceptable villains” of that time, the Black Panther -like organizations were a stock antagonist, a la Dirty Harry. While the book and the film are distinct stories, as well as being distinct in their portrayal of the race issue, this still matters. As I said, my visualization of the book is still bent through the lens of the 1970s, where these themes were introduced to me. There is a power of culture to alter even the black-and-white words printed on the page that you’ll never see if you’re not looking for it.
Behind all the culture shock, we have a fairly decent and engaging Cold War spy novel. There is none of the superhuman physical feats or exotic technology of the James Bond movies. We just follow the path of an agent trying to get to the bottom of a Soviet funding source in the heart of British and American North America. The title is a reference, and perhaps commentary, on the difference between American and British culture, not to mention policy. The CIA agent comments that if Mr. Big (a simple acronym of Bond’s nemesis, Buonaparte Ignace Gallia) is naught but the leader of a crime syndicate, the CIA policy is to “live and let live.” Bond, and by extension England, cannot allow this chaos to advance through the world and prefers a motto “live and let die.”
God save the Queen.
*James Bond was, actually, the author of a bird watching book which Ian Fleming owned. Fleming was an avid bird watcher and when he was trying to come up with just the right name for his spy/hero, the name of this American expert on Caribbean birds fit the bill. One might go on to speculate that Fleming learned from Bond about the Rufous-throated solitaire (Myadestes genibarbis), a Caribbean songbird after which he named the main female character in Live and Let Die, Solitaire.