Semi-colons are for the weak

Colin Burrow

  • Solo: A James Bond Novel by William Boyd
    Cape, 322 pp, £18.99, September 2013, ISBN 978 0 224 09747 5

‘Morning dearie’. Bond heaved himself awake. A set of teeth was grinning at him from the glass next to his bed. He was in an Innov8 2000 Profiling Hospital Bed with full electronic tilt control. Two tubes ran out of his side to drain the cavity where his right lung used to be.

The nurse was trying to put her arm around him to help him sit up.

‘Now Jimmy … ’

‘My name is … ’ What the devil was it?

‘Don’t mumble, Jimmy. There’s a parcel for you.’

Bond clawed at the parcel with a hand on which he could still see the white outline of the skin-graft he’d had between Casino Royale and Live and Let Die. These physical details from his past made him feel real.

‘Let me,’ sighed the nurse.

Basic parcel protocol flashed into his mind. He muttered ‘Bomb’.

‘That’s no word to use to a lady, you naughty old thing. Look, it’s a book. I don’t think we’re up to it today. I’ll just put it here next to your tooth glass.’

When the nurse had left the room he ignored the rubbery hospital eggs and the dark liquid that they passed off as coffee and tried to make sense of the book.

He was half his real age. Forty-five and past it. Had a birthday dinner. Sensible to spend it at the Dorchester on your own. He flipped on through a lot of standard Bond stuff. Kit? Jensen Interceptor II a vulgar choice of car. And as for a hired Mustang … Skirt? Good to see that every other nipple is still ‘pert’ after all these years, or better still ‘perfectly round, like coins’. Mission? Off to Africa this time. But reading Graham Greene on the flight? What kind of pansy does this Boyd fellow think I am? Nasty civil war to sort out. Oil money at stake. That’s more like it. Juicy little coffee-coloured girl who turns out to be the local section head, too. Or does she?

There had been a time when Bond made his way in prose like a stealthy cat. Short sharp runs were punctuated with sudden pounces. He always acted decisively though he didn’t always get things right. Short clauses. Main verbs up front. Or no main verbs at all. A sprinkling of commas were reserved for the rare subordinate clause. And semi-colons? They were for the weak. His past was limited to the odd dark penumbra of recollection, which, along with the occasional out-of-register word like ‘penumbra’ or ‘chatoyance’, gave him psychological depth and reminded readers that they should have read the previous books too.

He could confess that in his novels he had been too much of a boom and bonk merchant. He enjoyed himself more in his short stories, where there was less need for a hyperventilating blockbuster climax and more time for the real Bond experiences: for waiting, for anxiety, for anger and social resentment, for adversaries who were dark reflections of himself, and for exact physical description. When in ‘The Living Daylights’ he was stuck in a tiny room in Berlin from which he was supposed to shoot a sniper before the sniper shot a Western agent Bond had time just to be Bond – to read a bad German thriller, to eye up the girls, to watch the curtains, to feel the boredom and unease of being ordered to kill. ‘Octopussy’ released sour guilt among the tropical fish, and allowed Bond himself to be no more than a blank force of retribution who caused the death of a man who was effectively his alter ego. He liked that. But even in the novels there were some set-piece descriptions of which he could still be proud. Some of them were little masterpieces, like the sea scenes in Live and Let Die, where each fish became a stealthy predator, and the whole world of man and beast seemed driven by a relentless desire to kill. It was a pure Bond-world of controlled sadistic destruction all the way down to the plankton: ‘Then he would focus his eyes on the phosphorescent scribbles of the minute underwater night-life and perceive whole colonies and populations about their microscopic business’. That was damn fine writing.

Bond could deliver little shots of irony back then, along with the .25 calibre slugs. As he escaped from the US in Diamonds Are Forever he entered ‘the great safe, black British belly of the Queen Elizabeth’. Yet even the black British womb of queen and country turned out to be infiltrated by American gangsters and assassins. Empire on the turn and all that. His favourite moment, though, had to be seeing the naked Honeychile Rider on the beach in Dr No (none of that kitsch swimming-costume of that terrible film), when she combined the pose of the spinario with the breasts of Botticelli’s Venus. Bond smiled as he remembered the perfect line with which he had introduced himself to her: ‘I’m an Englishman. I’m interested in birds.’

Back in the day the girls had valleys of cleavage, and usually the ones he fancied were not afraid to hold his gaze for a second before their grey or blue eyes fell demurely. People said his women were infantilised. He could see now that it was an odd coincidence that so many of them had been raped at least once in their past. And when James had taken them to bed so that he could console them for the wrongs inflicted on them by life they usually got badly hurt soon afterwards. Or killed. That was a shame. But Honeychile displayed true grit in Dr No when she said (after her unfortunate experience with the giant crabs): ‘Of course it wasn’t very nice having my clothes taken off and being tied down to pegs in the ground. But those black men didn’t dare touch me.’ How could people say his fiction was sadistic? Honeychile had taken it all in the right spirit.

As Bond leafed through the new volume of his adventures he realised that it was all over. He was stuck in prose that creaked with the weary energy of pastiche. The girls had to have surprising inner resources as well as great tits. These days he had to suffer not just from the regrets of a trained killer but from post-traumatic stress. He had to spend weeks stranded in an Africa that was a standard issue decaying postcolonial playground for mercenaries, with the odd pathos-filled episode in which children starve slotted in to show that this was a thriller with a conscience. He was relieved to see that he was still allowed baddies who were physically deformed, but he was nauseated by the amount he was forced to eat. Meal after meal, most of it with a tasteless dash of local colour, or ‘surprisingly tasty, peppery fish stew with dago-dago dumplings’. It was a relief when he was reduced to eating pawpaw in the jungle. There seemed to be some funny stuff going on in the old tummy too: ‘He felt a little, animalistic quiver of desire low in his gut and his loins.’ Must be all that steak and scrambled eggs. It was true that there was a recipe for Scrambled Eggs James Bond in the rather weary short story ‘007 in New York’. But a footnote in Solo explaining how to prepare the James Bond salad dressing? Bond could see that this might be good for market-share, but otherwise remained unconvinced.

As he read on he had to accept that even his food scenes had gone limp. He flicked forward to the moment when he finally got it together with the ripe-bodied starlet Bryce Fitzjohn – though surely that should be Fitzjames, he thought with a grin. Maybe there was, as this Boyd person claimed – he just couldn’t stop those clichés rolling – ‘life in the old dog yet’. Or maybe there wasn’t:

They both knew exactly what was going to happen later and that knowledge provided a satisfying sensual undercurrent to their conversation as they ate the meal she cooked for him – a rare sirloin steak with a tomato and shallot salad, the wine a light and fruity Chianti, with a thin slice of lemony torta della nonna to follow.

Bond confessed to himself that he had in the dark days of the 1960s succumbed to a glass or two of Chianti. But ‘light and fruity’? He gritted his gums. He accelerated on to the sex scene: ‘They made careful love in her wide bed, Bond relishing the smooth ripeness of her body. Afterwards, she sent him down to the kitchen for another bottle of champagne and they lay in bed drinking and talking.’ ‘They made careful love’? What the hell did that mean? Protected sex? Tender sex? Both? Bond snorted. And the mere idea that he of all people would go to the kitchen like a scullery-maid to get more champagne. At least it was Taittinger and not Tesco’s bloody Finest. He coughed out a bitter laugh. He was full of hatred for the modern world. Its caringness. Its warm unspecificity. That stuff would get you killed.

It was then he felt the kick in his chest. It was as though a donkey had coiled up its back legs and whammed him. He felt for a moment fully alive. Energy flooded into him. He sat up. Then his eyes filmed over. He fell back. The nurse came back into the room. A weak smile spread across his face.

A young man with aquiline features and a well-cut suit came that afternoon to look over Mr Bond’s affairs. Nurse Moneypenny was anxious to tell him everything. ‘I came in just as he was, you know, passing.’

With a gloved hand the young man deftly slipped the copy of Solo into a decontamination sack so it could be tested for toxicity before it was shredded. He then swept the rest of Bond’s possessions into a bin-bag: the bound copies of Mayfair, the battered Rolex Oyster Perpetual, the copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Traveller’s Tree, and the Beretta .25 with the skeleton grip which had been rusting beneath Bond’s mattress during all those rounds of chemo. Bit of a lady’s weapon, thought the young man. Can’t think why he hung onto that.

Back at headquarters racks of servers flickered into life. In a bunker deep beneath the Virginia countryside young Desdemona Leiter casually monitored the stream of intercepts from GCHQ. As ‘007’ flashed before her eyes she thought to herself ‘Poor old bastard.’ Then a message from her man in Baqubah blipped onto the screen. She swept back her blonde hair. Code Green. Leiter uncrossed her elegant legs and swivelled on her Kneelsit ergonomic computer chair to face another monitor. There was a drone to dispatch. Life was such a drag.