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Armchair travel with James Bond

Family summer holidays in my childhood were always spent in seaside bed-and-breakfasts or rented rooms. We never stayed in hotels and we certainly never went abroad. Hotel were too expensive and ‘abroad’ was impossibly exotic. Besides, neither of my parents had a passport. It was the same for the extended family. Although an (child-less) aunt and uncle, who had good jobs with British Rail, once went to Spain for a week. I remember a single, very small, photograph of them being passed around at a family gathering. I guess it must have been taken by a beach photographer because neither of them owned a camera. There they were, pink-faced and fully-clothed, sitting in deck chairs, smiling at their sheer good fortune. The most remarkable thing about the picture to my childish eyes was how very hot and sunny it looked. Nothing like Bognor Regis or Clacton-on-Sea.

Foreign travel wasn’t really something I really thought about until, as a teenager, I read my way through the James Bond corpus. I managed to acquire the complete set of Pan paperbacks, with the classic Raymond Hawkey covers, at school jumble sales. Bond went everywhere, flying BEA or BOAC, on Her Majesty’s secret service. Of course, these were business trips rather than holidays. But whether it was the France of Casino Royale, the United States of Diamonds Are Forever, the Jamaica of Dr No, or the Turkey of From Russia With Love, I was fascinated with Bond-world. Not just the exotic locations, but the hotels, the food, the drink, the cars, the weapons, the villain’s lairs — and, of course, the beautiful, mysterious women.

Bond was a dedicated secret agent who worked hard and risked everything in the line of duty, but knew how to enjoy life, from his cigarettes — ‘a Balkan and Turkish mix made for him by Morlands of Grosvenor Street’ — to his battleship-grey convertible coupé — ‘one of the last of the 4½-litre Bentleys with the supercharger by Amherst Villiers’. Ian Fleming was very good at this kind of practical detail. From Casino Royale, to take one example, I learnt how to navigate a casino, how to play baccarat, and how a dry martini should be made, or rather, how Bond thought a dry martini should made.

The Covid-19 lockdown made me think again about armchair travel, about how the mind can wander abroad even when the body is constrained, and about the extent to which books can both feed and satisfy the urge for new vistas and new experiences. Though real life is never like books, even non-fiction ones. Now I’m older and more experienced, I’m as familiar with the boredom and inconvenience of travel as I am with its pleasures. I’ve never experienced the dangerous glamour of a Bond jaunt and I’ve never dealt with hazard and hostility as capably as he did. Bond, the original Bond, an example of unapologetic twentieth-century masculinity, is deeply unfashionable now, not to say despised. But not by me.

Paris window

Opening the windows

On a recent trip to Paris, I experienced one of the simple pleasures of travelling abroad, which is the ability to fully open the windows of the hotel room you’re staying in. I can’t remember when the guardians of public safety in this country began locking down hotel room windows, and two different search engines haven’t helped me. Was it about twenty years ago? Or more? I do remember the move was prompted by one or two unhappy people throwing themselves to their deaths on hotel premises. There was the usual urgent need to do something — ‘two deaths are too many’ etc. And so millions had to put up with stale or conditioned air on our travels, just in case one or two among us had suicidal urges. Health and safety gone mad etc.

I don’t know how many other countries have gone on to adopt this practice. The French, being generally sensible on such matters, certainly haven’t. As I recall, American hotels are as locked down as ours, though over there it’s driven by the national cult of air conditioning rather than any safety considerations. I suspect though, that any hotel in any country that welcomes large numbers of British package holidayers, will make sure their windows are locked. Those Brits, you know, can’t trust ‘em. Only have to see a hotel window and they want to throw themselves out of it.

The UK’s long descent into safety coddling — let’s put a strip of yellow and black tape on that step so people realize it’s a step and it’s right in front of them, let’s put put a label on this hot drink stating that it is indeed hot — has been driven as much by fears of litigation as by genuine safety concerns. Corporations fret that if they don’t do it some idiot will sue them for not anticipating their idiocy. And they’re probably right. Still, one must exercise one’s freedoms where one finds them. And so it was, with the indomitable spirit of the freeborn Englishman, that I flung open the windows of my hotel room and enjoyed a deep draught of the intoxicating, unsavoury air of the Rue de Lyon.

Anthony Burgess

Tools of the trade

Without Qwert Yuiop’s willingness to submit to my punishing fingers I doubt if I could have sustained the profession of author. I know how to use a pen, but ever since I took my last written examination, the pen has always been for me a musical instrument: I still write orchestral scores with it but, associating it as I do with the shaping of notes and dynamic signals, I find it difficult to put it in the service of any written statement longer than allegro ma non troppo…

Qwert Yuiop in his traditional form…not only relates authorship to artisanship; he separates the written from the writer (a pen is too close to the heart) and brings him closer to that objectification which only the final printed copy can bestow. A writer does not pour out his heart or even talk on paper. He creates an artifact.

(Homage to Qwert Yuiop – Anthony Burgess)

In the extract above, Anthony Burgess is talking about his his trusty manual typewriter when he talks about ‘Qwert Yuiop’. Burgess was writing in 1986, before advent of the mass-produced, general-purpose personal computer, but a time when special-purpose word processors were beginning to edge out the typewriter. Burgess himself, as he says in the same essay, had just ordered his first such machine: ‘As I write, an IBM word processor with daisywheel sits malevolently waiting for me in a customs shed’. Burgess had thereby skipped a generation of technology by refusing to engage with electric typewriters. He had another seven years of life left and published four novels in that time, though, as far as I know, he never recorded his experiences with the malevolent IBM device.

Every writer has their tools of the trade, and for most of us now it’s a computer. The manual typewriter may have gone the way of the quill pen but there are still some who prefer to write longhand, especially for the first draft. Colm Tóibín was on BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Please programme a couple of weeks ago. Tóibín has a considerable reputation as a novelist but has also published verse. I was intrigued when he said that his novels are all written longhand but his verse is typed on a computer. This surprised me because it seemed to reverse the usual way of things.

Yet why should I think that? I suppose because I have an unexamined assumption that writing verse is more emotional, more intimate, less objective, than writing a novel or short story. Poems, it seems to me, come from the heart in a way that novels don’t. Of course, I’m generalizing — there are always exceptions. But a computer is surely designed for the heavy construction of novel-writing, not the delicate contriving of verse.

I’d guess that almost all commercial fiction writers, and most literary ones, apart from those of a certain age, take the Burgess approach rather the Tóibín one to novel writing — ‘a pen is too close to the heart’. Poets on the other hand should surely favour the pen. So I’d guess Tóibín is the exception in both spheres.

I’m old enough to remember when there was a certain sniffiness about word processing and fiction writing. I remember too once reading AS Byatt say that she could always tell when a book was written on a computer. She didn’t intend it as a compliment. But people once said the same about typewriters. For many traditionalists, the computer is an alienating technology, an inhuman intermediary between the mind and the page. It’s never felt like that to me. I couldn’t give up my laptop and I’d find it very difficult to produce a book with pen and paper. Still, people managed it once upon a time.

Leaving aside the pen, it astonishes me now that the old pulp writers (and indeed prolific writers of literary fiction like Burgess) hammered out their words and works on manual typewriters, unable easily to correct or amend or insert. What an incentive for a clean and coherent first draft that must have been. The tools make the writer, I suppose. The word processing program is an invitation to endless, and eventually self-defeating, rewriting and reworking. I think, more and more, that it encourages sloppiness of thought and expression. It’s so easy to type mediocre or even bad prose and tell yourself, ‘I’ll sort it out on the next draft’. Yes, I’m talking about myself here.

[Photograph of Antony Burgess at his typewriter © International Anthony Burgess Foundation.]

Anima Mundi - Robert Fludd

Before and after ‘Science’

A couple of weeks ago, the Quite Interesting Twitter account posted a photograph of a paragraph from a paper by Robert Boyle, presented to the Royal Society in 1666. The topic of the paper was potential areas of research into England’s coal mining industry. One of the questions that Boyle posed was, ‘Whether the Diggers do ever really meet with any subterraneous Dæmons; and if they do, in what shape and manner they appear; what they portend; and what they do &c?’

Those early moderns were odd people, weren’t they, with their strange mix of scientific rationalism and religious superstition? Boyle, after all, is regarded as the first modern chemist. And yet he regarded the truth revealed in the Bible as the unshakeable foundation for his intellectual enquiries, and he wrote as extensively on theological matters as he did on scientific ones. No wonder he was concerned about the possibility of encounters with those subterraneous Dæmons.

I grew up when the secular myth of the rational disinterested scientist, unbeholden to religion or politics, was probably at its height. It wasn’t until I read Arthur Koestler’s book The Sleepwalkers that I realized just how un-modern the metaphysical assumptions of the early modern scientists were. Johannes Kepler, who formulated the laws of planetary motion, was inspired through all his cosmological investigations by the conviction that God had constructed the universe on an invisible framework of geometrical figures: the triangle, the square, the pentagon, the hexagon, and so on.

Isaac Newton spent as much time, perhaps more, studying theological and occult texts than he did astronomy and optics. He was certain that the Bible contain hidden mathematical and alchemical meanings. In one of his notebooks he wrote, ‘A certain infinite spirit pervades all space into infinity, and contains and vivifies the entire world’. There are many other examples of this combination of scientific and occult thinking. The most widely-read work of John Napier, the inventor of logarithms, was a book titled Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of Saint John. The natural world and the spiritual world were both as real as the other, and both entwined.

The complex God-infused worldview of the likes of Boyle, Newton and Napier was only really left behind in the nineteenth century. What most of us think of as Science, that is the secular, rational, and somewhat detached investigation of the material world, was practiced from the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 until the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. Of course I’m simplifying. That age of science was never wholly value-free, nor should it have been. But something has changed in the last twenty years.

Boyle and his contemporaries could not divorce science, or natural philosophy as they called it, from theology. The twenty-first century scientist, in contrast, cannot divorce science from politics. Indeed, referencing power structures and relations is regarded as a mark of sophistication.

The most egregious recent example that comes to mind was during the Black Lives Matter protests, when the Covid19 counter-measure for social distancing, which all right-thinking scientists had been arguing for as a matter of life and death, was suddenly deemed not so important by the medico-scientific establishment in the US and the UK. Almost all those accredited experts took the line that the demonstrations were justified because racism was viewed as more damaging to public health than Covid-19. The ‘science’ changed under the political pressure of events.

Though Boyles’s subterranean demons have been banished from the scientific sphere, it seems increasingly that the ontological space is being filled with newer demons, psychic demons such as ‘White Privilege’, ’Patriarchy’, and ‘Heteronormativity’.

[Image of the Anima Mundi from Robert Fludd’s Utriusque Cosmi Historia courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]