Liz Carlyle, Stella Rimington’s fictional MI5 officer, is a bit of a puzzle to fans of sleuthing, spookery and old-fashioned cloak and dagger. The trouble, to begin with anyhow, is that in Secret Asset, ‘the second Liz Carlyle novel’ (Hutchinson, £12.99), inference and deduction are decidedly lowbrow skills. We can tell this right away from the information on the dustjacket: ‘Liz Carlyle learns from one of her agents that suspicious meetings have been taking place at an Islamic bookshop. She feels instinctively that a terrorist cell is at work.’
No one can accuse Liz of failing to see the wood for the trees. Luckily the story turns out to be more complicated. Rimington’s trio of misguided young Asians, Bashir, Rashid and Khaled – the Tom, Dick and Harry of a ‘Storyteller’s Guide to Names for Terrorists’ – are in fact being used by an intelligence insider, Tom (or is it Rashid?), who wants to discredit his colleagues at MI5.
For much of the time, Secret Asset is one spook short of a full Hallowe’en – but when was the last time a trick-or-treater appeared at your front door dressed as a ghost-writer? All the same, there’s something winning about learn-as-you-go spy-writing, and by the end of Secret Asset, we’re haring around Oxford with Rimington’s characters – quite a few of them muttering ‘May Allah be with you’ – and feeling she’s got the hang of it.
Oxford works well as the setting for her dénouement and allows her to make the hard-boiled point, dear to writers of related genres, that you needn’t be clever to be bright. As Blackwell’s is evacuated and the spooks and rozzers go in, Liz feels she’s walking through ‘a museum after closing time’. In the second-hand section of the shop, she registers the ‘faint aroma of old leather and dust’. It’s all intolerably fusty and stuck-up in this catacomb of printed matter. Where’s the display table – somewhere our heroine might take cover from armed villains – groaning with copies of ‘the first Liz Carlyle novel’ (Arrow, £6.99)?
The only gun, it turns out, is in the hands of a police marksman on the parapet of the Sheldonian and before we know it – a sign that the writing’s got better – we’re whisked aloft for a tense rooftop scene. There’s a bloke clambering perilously across a run of slate, crouching, pausing, heading for a fall and moments later, a body at the bottom of a college stairwell. It’s high suspense for a minute or two. Who is responsible? Are the bloke and the body connected? Is either of them John Bayley?
Rimington is an interesting figure and an amusing journalist. She knows a good bit about spooks obviously, and a good bit about spook fiction. She can’t bear 007: Bond ‘has about as much to do with the intelligence profession as Billy Bunter has with public schools’. She said this recently in the Times, in a sceptical review of The Man who Saved Britain (Picador, £14.99), Simon Winder’s book about the Bond phenomenon. Yet Winder is undoubtedly the greater sceptic. He sees 007 as part of a narcissistic repair job on Britain’s self-regard, which took such a pounding after 1945. Bond, as Winder understands (and loves) him, eased a generation of British readers into the realities of the postwar world – he calls this a long moment of ‘decompression’ – by offering a parallel universe in which the vision of their country as top-dog, a paragon of ingenuity, guts, ‘greatness’ and ‘glamour’, could still be glimpsed despite growing suspicions that America was scoring higher on all fronts.
Winder is more or less happy to suggest that empire was shoddy, that the end of empire was botched, that British intelligence in the Cold War era was incompetent and that ‘the wan, humiliated, failing country of the 1950s and 1960s’ was ‘propped up … by the monarchy, the Beatles and James Bond’.
You may not like the wall-to-wall assertion of decline, but Winder is proposing what he calls ‘an entertainment’ involving ‘British themes’, not a history. A more ‘entertaining’ tour of 007, and the period associations that get sucked into Winder’s great comic intelligence, is hard to imagine. He writes well about his own slavish devotion to Bond, his moments of embarrassing madness brought on by Bond-addiction, and better still about the books themselves. He floats above the films with a mixture of nausea and dimpled rapture like a queasy putto. The results, for Cubby Broccoli, are nearly always messy.
On the figure of Fleming and his habit of planting his own snobbish foibles in his hero’s spongebag, Winder excels:
One of Bond’s odder sides is his fussy particularity … Only one brand of handmade cigarette (Morland, three gold bands), one bath essence for visiting lady friends (Floris), one food for dinner (scrambled eggs fines herbes), one newspaper (the Times – ‘the only paper Bond ever read’), even a brand of little pots of jam. Far from being a merciless killer, at times Bond’s hands seem to flap around in a wilderness of fuss. Surely Oddjob or Klebb do not concern themselves with little pots of jam? But at almost every level Fleming is saying: that is why they are beaten. Backed by infinite helpings of scrambled eggs fines herbes and lakes of Floris … upper-class British wasters can take on the entire planet and win.
For Winder, the Conservative victory over the Attlee administration, the invention of Coronation chicken, ‘a dystopian dish involving curried mayonnaise’, and the publication of Casino Royale are all of a piece. They are quintessentially the early 1950s. Behind them comes Suez and the final shame.
Winder does Suez well. He also recalls the striking figure Eden cut about fifteen years later in an interview with Marcel Ophuls for his documentary Le Chagrin et la pitié. Eden’s French accent is ‘extraordinary, a sort of bleaty warbly noise’; his remarks about what Britain could and couldn’t do for a defeated France are ‘moving and thoughtful’.
When the BBC broadcast Le Chagrin et la pitié, a few years after Eden had finished publishing his memoirs, the interview was subtitled to render his perfectly grammatical French for a British audience. Those of us who were too young to have known him in his hour of failure were able to see him on a good day. By then the landscape was changing so fast that he’d probably have needed subtitles even if he’d done the interview in English. He was a man of the past and had been from the moment, in November 1956, that he flew off to the Caribbean, in desperate ill health, for a ‘holiday’ while Suez rumbled on. He stayed at Goldeneye, Fleming’s legendary villa in Jamaica, trying to break his ruinous amphetamine habit. Drugs are a part of the story that doesn’t seem to change. As Bond comments in Moonraker, ruing a long night of it, ‘Champagne and Benzedrine! Never again!’