The Best Bond: RIP Sir Sean Connery

And so it starts again, lights going out across out metaphysical universe and the dark closing in, just as it is in our physical Universe of reduction and isolation. One day a beloved footballer, another a film star who created a world around him and a fame that never perished.

Sean Connery, the first James Bond, the best James Bond, demanded the eye whenever and where he was on film. The world will remember him for Ian Fleming’s cold, cruel but above all effective spy, but Connery was both more and less than that. As Connery the man he bore the shame of his belief that it was ok to hit a woman, as long as you only used an open palm. As Connery the actor, he excelled in more that just the elegant yet earthy spy.

For me there was his role as Indiana Jones’ in the third film, in which I will never forget the exact, uncopiable intonation of his voice as he greets his son as, “Junior!”

And there is the story of his small role in Time Bandits, when the producers sent him the script, openly confessing they couldn’t afford him as king Agamemnon but asking him just to read it. And he phoned up, said, “How much can you afford?” and agreed to do it – brilliantly – just because he loved the role.

That’s the manner of the man, the bedrock security in himself. he never lived to see his beloved homeland gain independence but he lived to see it nearer than ever since 1701. Rest in Peace Sir Sean.

Some Books: Ian Fleming’s ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’

This is an occasional series, about books I read many years ago, usually but not always from Didsbury Library, that I seek out to re-experience, to see if the things that appealed still affect me the same way, and to measure the change in myself between then and now.
Back in the days when I had first been allowed to cross into the Adult Library, I read all the James Bond books, give or take the odd short story here or there. I don’t remember much about them now. I presume I enjoyed them, then, but more importantly, I read James Bond because he was one of the keys to adulthood, almost as much as smoking, and probably just as bad for your health.
I never touched the first of these: I had already learned to dislike the atmosphere in a household in which both parents smoked but more importantly a father dying of cancer when I was in my early teens was an impenetrable barrier to starting that.
Down the years, the James Bond book that I remembered most was the odd-one-out, the penultimate novel, the experiment that nobody liked and that Fleming came to hate, demanding it neither be reprinted nor appear in paperback in his lifetime. This was The Spy Who Loved Me. I’ve just re-read it, curious to see what I think of it a lifetime later.
I didn’t remember all that much about it from long ago, but I did remember enjoying the book, and being intrigued by it as an experiment. The Spy Who Loved Me is about, and is ‘written’ by Vivienne Michel, a French-Canadian woman in her mid-twenties, escaping from a couple of failed love affairs in London, to which she was sent to Finishing School. Vivienne winds up looking after the Dreamy Pines Motel in the Adirondacks which is closing down, but it’s a scam in which she is to be killed as cover for an insurance claim, but not before she’s treated sadistically by the two hired thugs.
Fortunately for Vivienne, a stranger stops at the Motel, refusing to accept that it is closed. This is Bond, travelling between missions. He recognises the situation, intervenes to rescue Vivienne and dispose of the thugs, fucks her to a peak of ecstacy and goes on his way, leaving her behind.
That’s the story. It’s not necessarily much of a story, but I enjoyed the unusual angle of it. I thought it daring to write a series book in which the main character is a minor figure, passing through, seen from a purely external viewpoint by an unconnected stranger. Off the top of my head, the only other book I can think of which uses a similar technique is Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday, in which the newly-introduced Callums show us the Walkers and the Blacketts from outside, not necessarily to their credit.
Does the book hold up in any way? It is broken into three unequal sections, Me, Them and Him. The first section sets up Vivienne’s situation, left alone at the Motel with a storm raging, before back-tracking over her life’s history in London. This is Fleming writing as Vivienne and it doesn’t quite work.
The autobiography is, in thriller terms, complete filler. It occupies roughly half the book and the amount of action in it is minimal. There’s an opening chapter to set-up the situation and implant the notion that something fishy is going on, followed by chapters of Viv’s life-story, with the emphasis first upon her being out-of-step because she’s French-Canadian at an English Finishing School, and secondly upon her sex-life.
This comes in two phases. The first is Derek, a public school boy in a summer between finishing school and going up to Oxford. He and Viv meet at a party, they wind up snogging (or might it have still been spooning back then?), with Viv allowing him to put his hand on her breast because every time she moves it away, he puts it back, so clearly she’s in the wrong.
This leads to an end of summer cinema visit where he persuades her to let him fuck her in a private cinema box, only for them to be interrupted by the manager with a torch whilst Viv is on her back with his skirt round her waist, showing her pussy (hey, it’s Fleming who’s insisting on these details, not me), and they’re thrown out in no uncertain and public terms, but it’s alright because they nip down to a nearby riverbank where everyone does it, Derek sticks it in, Viv’s no longer a virgin, and he promptly disappears into the sunset, never to be seen again, as if we hadn’t all but Viv seen that coming from Quebec.
Two years later, working a job at which she is very competent and is earning good money, Viv ends up counselling her boss, the German Klaus about his plans for marriage and a happy sexual life, only to wind up his mistress when his fiancee marries someone else. This time it’s good, satisfying sex with Teutonic efficiency, but no love, until Viv makes the mistake of getting pregnant.
For this, she gets two things from Klaus: a Swiss abortion, and a month’s wages in lieu of notice. So Viv buys a scooter, returns to Canada and sets off on a pre-Easy Rider tour, until she winds up at the Dreamy Pines, just as someone’s knocking at the door.
There is a point to setting out these brief details of Viv’s life, and I’ll return to it.
The second phase, just three chapters, is the two new arrivals, Sol ‘Horror’ Horowitz and ‘Sluggsy’ Moran. They’re supposed to be insurance adjustors for the owner, before the Motel closes down tomorrow, except it’s going to close down in a fire caused by the hopeless receptionist. After, that is, she has been thoroughly beaten, and comprehensively raped by Sluggsy.
The beating she gets from Horror: vicious, professional, brutal, expert enough not to leave a mark, especially after Viv has caused problems, first by resisting then trying to escape. She winds up stripped naked in the shower, preserving that essential association between sadism and sex that is the mark of a James Bond novel, but as yet unraped. But not for long.
Ah, I just mentioned James Bond, and this is a James Bond book, is it not? Phase two ends with the front door buzzer going, and guess who it is? Viv signals him to come in, desperate for help and unaware she couldn’t have done better. She alerts him to what’s going on far too easily for complete plausibility, Fleming relying on Horror and Sluggsy’s ultimate confidence that they have guns and know better how to use them.
In turn, Bond briefly explains why he’s here: he’s been out west preventing a Russian defector from being killed but failing to capture SPECTRE’s chief assassin alive for questioning, so he’s taking a few days breather driving east to his debrief. He’s here because his car has blown a tyre.
There’s no reason to be more than perfunctory about the action from here. Fleming spins it out by having Bond make mistake after mistake but in the end the expected occurs. Horror and Sluggsy are shot and killed, Bond fucks Vivianne roughly half the night and is gone in the morning, sending the authorities to clean up, look after Viv and, in the case of Police Captain Stonor, an unofficial piece of very good advice, father-daughter style, not to fall in love with someone like Bond.
Of course that’s wasted breath. Viv already has, even as she knows he doesn’t, won’t and can’t love her back, that she’s already accepted she will never see him again, but she’s going to wilfully reject the idea of someone else telling her to do that, because Bond is so magnetic a man that’s she’s never going to forget, and will always love The Spy Who Loved Her.
As I’ve already said, The Spy Who Loved Me is a very thin book as far as a thriller is concerned, and it’s subject, the saving of one woman’s life is a very low-key matter for Bond. I’ve read it in a 1967 paperback, full of newspaper blurbs that praise the book, and the character of Vivienne, in extravagant terms. Yet Fleming issued instructions to supress the book during his lifetime.
Overall, The Spy Who Loved Me reminds me very much of the late Dennis Wheatley novel, The Strange Story of Linda Lee. That too is a first person novel, purporting to be in the voice of a woman considerably younger than an author who is arrogantly Conservative, writing someone of an age that they were completely out of touch with.
The idea that Fleming can successfully represent the thoughts and opinions of a twenty-five year old woman is implausible, and I put the significance of her being French-Canadian, with no national characteristics of either blood, to be an attempt to account for any incapacity to make her realistic.
The sex side is ludicrous, but not more so than when Viv gets to drop them for James. Of course he gives her her first orgasm – you don’t think a bloody Jerry is going to be allowed to do that? And given that Fleming is evidently hot for sadism, we should try to avoid being shocked when Viv proclaims that “All women love semi-rape” (at least he put the ‘semi’ in there). He takes her brutally, what is it, five hours maximum after she’s been worked over by Horror. That’s bullshit, and should be called out as such.
But the thing about this book, and what’s the real reason Fleming wanted it suppressed, is that it’s too transparent. Fleming isn’t putting on the voice of Vivienne Michel, he is playing at being her because he wants the experience of being fucked by James Bond. That’s who the spy is supposed to love, not some unworthy tart.
Though it’s not part of the brief for this series, I’m in the unique position of having another version of this novel to compare. This is the Jim Lawrence/Yaroslav ‘Larry’ Horak adaptation serialised in the Daily Express between December 1967 and October 1968.
The strip version removes the experimentalism of the novel, making Bond himself the focus of the story throughout. Vivienne’s viewpoint disappears and she doesn’t even enter the story until midway through.
Lawrence constructs a new sequence for the first half of the story. It’s essentially the brief account Bond gives Vivienne in the book to explain, adapted to a story of SPECTRE blackmailing a pilot into giving details of a new radar-invisible jetplane (a ‘stealth-bomber’ two decades early), instead of merely protecting a defector. The action part of this account is followed very faithfully in the new context.
Bond then sets off cross-country in his car and the story switches to Vivienne at the Dreamy Pines motel. From hereon, Lawrence follows the novel very faithfully, whilst eliminating Vivienne’s internal monologue.
Of course there are changes. Horror’s sadistic beating of Vivienne takes place between two strips and when she’s dumped in the shower to be revived, the thugs observe the moralities by leaving her her (completely intact) frilly bra and knickers instead of stripping her naked. After they’re both killed, the sex with Bond is implied rather than depicted (and the words ‘semi-rape’ appear nowhere in the strip).
Lastly, Lawrence cuts the coda commendably short, removing Vivienne’s emotional turmoil and intercutting Bond for one last frame, as the two drive in opposite directions.
It’s a very skilful adaptation, and a much more commercial approach than Fleming himself took. It uses a surprisingly large amount of the book, and by focussing on that, it turns it into a conventional James Bond adventure. I think I prefer that.
Fleming’s idea for The Spy who Loved Me is an interesting experiment, and I’d enjoy seeing other authors tackle it in their series, but ultimately his failings as a writer and a man make it a noble, but a failed experiment. I shalln’t retain his version of the story.

A la Recherche du ‘Spare Ribs’ Perdu – Part 1

A long, long time ago, I can still remember…
This begins with not remembering, not remembering something I used to know, that I’d held in mind for four decades and which, I suddenly found, had slipped out of my mind.
But this is the Internet Age. Whatever you want to know, whatever you need to remember, just go on-line: the information is out there, somewhere.
Except that it wasn’t. What I wanted to know, what I wanted to be reminded of, was something sufficiently obscure that, as yet, no enthusiast with access to the Web had yet seen to post details. Even though a person very famous in his field was involved, directly, no accounts of his career, of his achievements, made more than the most fleeting of mentions of this topic.
But that’s the thing about the Internet: all the information is there because someone with enough passion and eagerness has chosen to upload it. Part of this story is that someone turning out to be me.

Given my general left-soft-liberal political leanings, I imagine that you’d be surprised to learn that I practically grew up on the Daily Express. My parents had the Sunday Express delivered each weekend, and my grandparents in Droylsden (where we went for Saturday dinner, week-in, week-out) took the Daily. Not that I actually read the paper, as such in those days. Once I became interested in football, and cricket, I’d start to read the Sports pages. But in the Sixties, when I was a kid, the Express interested me only for its cartoon strips.
Not Rupert the Bear, unless perhaps when I was very young, too young to remember. And certainly not the interminable Gambols by Barry Appleby, which ran on the back page in a solus.  But in the Sixties, the Express had a cartoon page that was the envy of Fleet Street, featuring Gun Law by Harry Bishop, the strip version of the TV Western, Gunsmoke, Sydney Jordan’s classic Jeff Hawke at its peak, as written by Willie Patterson, and James Bond, adapted by Jim Lawrence and Yaroslav ‘Larry’ Horak. What a line-up! There wasn’t a paper in the UK that coud better that combination!
So each week at Droylsden, I would gather together a week’s papers and catch up on the stories in each of these three strips.
This line-up ran throughout the Sixties and into the Seventies, and was only broken when Jeff Hawke ceased in 1974. It was the beginning of the end of the great daily adventure strips, and both Gun Law and James Bond would themselves be cancelled, in quick succession, in late 1976. By Xmas of that year, the Express’s cartoon section would consist entirely of humour strips. The first strip to make this breakthrough was Spare Ribs.

Spare Ribs was a gentle, office based daily humour strip, set in a London Department Store and centring upon the daily life of four young secretaries. It was written by Frank Dickens, who was already famous for his Bristow office-based strip in the London Evening Standard, which has since gone on to be the longest running UK strip produced by a single creator, and was drawn by Don Roberts.
I don’t remember much about the strip from the days it was running. I liked it, and enough to have decided that I would like to have kept it, clipping it out each week. But I’d decided that too late for the first few weeks, and as I couldn’t have a complete selection, I decided to wait, and buy the strip when it was complied in book form.
That intention demonstrates not only a serious liking for the strip, but an optimism that not so much bordered on naiveté as shared an Open Border Pact with it. This was the mid-Seventies, and the number of British newspaper strips being collected could be counted on the fingers of one hand. The Daily Mail‘s Fred Bassett, The Perishers from the Daily Mirror and the terminally unfunny Gambols appeared regularly. But if the Express had never thought, in all those years, to capitalise upon its big three adventure strips, what likelihood was there that Spare Ribs would be thus honoured when it had run for long enough?
Sadly, that never became an issue: one weekend at Droylsden, I collated the papers and was shocked to find that, without warning or explanation, Spare Ribs was gone. In its place was tEMpS, a humour strip on a similar basis, but this time written and drawn by Dickens, and frankly it was awful. All the wit of Spare Ribs, all the elegance of Roberts’ drawings, the easy, written humour were sacrificed to accommodate Dickens’ primitive cartoons of short, round, wholly unrealistic figures, with very little room for dialogue.
Thankfully, the previous week’s papers had not yet been thrown out, and I was able to clip and keep the last week of continuity. A pitifully small representation, but all I was ever going to see of a strip I’d really enjoyed, and that deserved a far longer run than it received: not even a full year.

I kept those half dozen strips, taking them out at intervals to read through that last, representative week. I still have them, somewhere, but that’s where this story begins. Spare Ribs was, as I said, about four young women, secretaries all, and I remembered their names and characteristics long after the strip had faded into oblivion. Until, a few months ago, I realised that I had not looked at that handful of clippings in several years, that whilst I certainly wouldn’t have thrown them out, I had no idea where to find them, even in my pokey little flat and, worse of all, I couldn’t remember the names of the two principal girls of the strip.
So I turned to the Internet, and Google. A search against Spare Ribs produced nothing in relation to the strip, not even when paired with Dickens and/or Roberts’ names. Dickens is obviously famous, and has an official site as well as other sites referring to his work, but Spare Ribs is not even mentioned on any of these. A search against Roberts turned up a short biography of him attached to the sale of some original art, which mentions his collaboration with Dickens on Spare Ribs as if it were well-known. But nothing and no-one, as I pointed out above, could give me any information about the series, and it certainly couldn’t fill that gap in my head as to the names of the two principals. There were four girls: the two ‘junior’ stars were Maisie and Kelly, but who were the other girls?

If you can’t find it on the Internet, you have to go back to more basic forms of searching. In the past, researching background elements for novels set in past years, I had spent time at Manchester’s Central Reference Library, poring over microfilm copies of old newspapers. Central Ref had been closed for refurbishment for years, but now it was newly unveiled. Spare Ribs had run in the Daily Express: how else to find out about it than to go and read the Daily Express?
This was not as simple as it sounded. The old Central Ref had metal cabinets all round the Reference Library: if you could find a free microfilm viewer, the microfilms were there to be unspooled and read. Now, though, it was necessary to book in advance, by at least one full working day, and specify what you wanted to read so that it could be brought in from off-site in readiness. The second problem was that I didn’t know exactly when the strip had run. Less than a year, certainly, and from one year into another, of that I was confident, but of which two years I was far from sure. In the old Central Ref, it would have been simplicity itself to grab single reels from enough Decembers until I tracked the series down, and then back-calculate to find an approximate start date, based on the strip numbering. Instead, I had to ask for the December microfilms for four years – 1974 to 1977 inclusive – in the hope of finding which one was relevant.
I knew it couldn’t have been as late as 1978, when I was living in Nottingham and not regularly spending Saturday afternoons in Droylsden, and I doubted it would be as early as 1974, but included that year because it would have been frustrating to have to make a second visit just to date the series if my memory was that far out. However, I found the strip at my third attempt, in December 1976, giving me a running time of 1976/7.
What then? I could use the strip numbering to make a rough calculation as to when Spare Ribs had started, though getting to grips with the strip from its beginning would have to be a matter for my next visit. I hadn’t thought much further than the dating exercise but the afternoon was young yet, so why not take the opportunity to read the strip for the first time in nearly forty years. And answer the most important question of them all. Would I still find it funny?

Consider the circumstances. When Spare Ribs had originally run, I was twenty, turning twenty-one, at Law College cramming for my Solicitors’ Part II Final Exams, unaware that I was about to start almost a full year of unemployment as I struggled to get the necessary Articles of Clerkship that would enable me to qualify. I’d spent three years at University, but whilst living at home, depriving myself of the social benefits of the process. I was young and naive and I liked my entertainment light and simple.
And here I was, looking at the back-end of my fifties from a closer range than I felt comfortable, after a series of reverses that had thrown my life off the course of many years. I was many times more cynical than my young self had been, prey to depression, my tastes jaded by over-exposure to things light and simple.
Other than those half dozen clipped strips, I had not looked at Spare Ribs in all that time. I was only too aware that memory might be lending a golden glow that made the cartoon something more than it had been, that the humour might have evaporated along with my naïve young self, that it might well be too much a product of its times to be funny in these later days. Was I expecting too much? Would this be nothing but a deflating experience?
Actually, no. Debbie (Debbie! Of course!) was interested in the new Xmas temp but unable to tell if he was tall, dark and handsome, given that he was dressed in a Santa Claus suit and beard. Her colleague (no, she wasn’t named in any of the five weeks continuity I had available, but her name was Suzi) was gently mocking of Debbie’s eagerness/desperation towards her non-existent relationships, and I was smiling, and giggling again (or as much as one can giggle when in a serious Research Room at a serious Library).
It had held up. I was going to enjoy these re-readings.

It was odd to come in in the middle, but I dutifully compiled notes about the strips I had before me, taking me up to New Year’s Eve 1976. From there, I back-calculated to establish the start of the strip. Unfortunately, I calculated wrong, working on a basis on five strips a week when there were actually six (Monday to Saturday). At least it meant I have a good look at what lead in to Spare Ribs‘ debut, with as little warning or explanation as its eventual demise.
Two further sessions enabled me to catch up to the December strips, and thereafter I proceeded in batches of a month at a time, intending to keep the process going as long as possible. This worked well until the very end of my fifth session: I was examining the reels for 7 February to 6 March 1977 and was enjoying myself until the very last strip of this batch, Saturday 5 March, stopped me in my tracks.
I recognised it instantly. Each image, each line. It was the beginning of that final week, those clipped strips that are still somewhere here. I don’t know which was worse: that the end had come so soon, or that I would still need to make another trip for a single week of papers.

I enjoyed re-discovering Spare Ribs after all that time, but the research was a time-consuming process, especially when fitting it around my shifts. Visit Central Ref alone means the best part of two hours travel by bus and tram, and though the Library itself has been impressively refurbished, they’re still relying on the old microfilm viewers. These are perfectly usable, but the controls that are supposed to scroll the reels up and down don’t work properly, making it easier – and faster – to wind things by hand. Especially when you get a reel that’s been wound on wrong way round, so the papers are ordered backwards.
As for the microfilms, these are designed to be comprehensive records of each publication, meaning that there are multiple versions for each date: first, second, third and later editions, the variations in the Scottish Daily Express and the Irish: multiple pages to wade through, and quite often the cartoon page appears two or three times over before you can move on to the next day’s edition.
Worst of all, these microfilms have been shot as negatives: I have read the entire run of Spare Ribs in white on black, twisting my eyeballs to try to see Don Roberts’ graceful, indeed elegant art as it was meant to be seen, without ever really succeeding.

And then I found them. It was an accident, in both senses of the word: in tidying a bookcase, I knocked a stack of Doonesbury strips to the floor, and had to re-collect and re-order these. And then I realised: that was where I’d stored my precious handful of Spare Ribs strips. And sure enough, I found them. In black and white, not white and black, and all the better for it, for I can see more clearly how skillful Roberts was with expressions, using minimal lines and the angle of a head to turn cartoon figures into living beings.
Had I been thinking more clearly, would I have gone into such research if I had been able to satisfy my curiosity over Debbie and Suzi’s names? Probably not. But the oversight proved to be to my advantage, in taking me back to the whole strip and reminding me of the fun it represented.
Stand by to share in that knowledge, if you are curious.