Given South Africa’s resources, the late Nelson Mandela had the power to become an even greater tyrant than Robert Mugabe. Instead, Mandela decided to become a secular saint. We can only hope that all leaders would act as he did. In 1962, Nelson Mandela was transferred from Pretoria to the prison on Robben Island, remaining there for the next 18 years. This snippet is from his Long Walk To Freedom:
“June and July were the bleakest months on Robben Island. Winter was in the air, and the rains were just beginning. It never seemed to go above forty degrees Fahrenheit. Even in the sun, I shivered in my light khaki shirt. It was then that I first understood the cliché of feeling the cold in one’s bones. At noon we would break for lunch. That first week all we were given was soup, which stank horribly. In the afternoon, we were permitted to exercise for half an hour under strict supervision. We walked briskly around the courtyard in single file.
Robben Island had changed since I had been there for a fortnight’s stay in 1962. In 1962, there were few prisoners; the place seemed more like an experiment than a full-fledged prison. Two years later, Robben Island was without question the harshest, most iron-fisted outpost in the South African penal system. It was a hardship station not only for the prisoners but for the prison staff. Gone were the Coloured warders who had supplied cigarettes and sympathy. The warders were white and overwhelmingly Afrikaans-speaking, and they demanded a master-servant relationship. They ordered us to call them ‘baas,’ which we refused. The racial divide on Robben Island was absolute: there were no black warders, and no white prisoners.
From the first day, I had protested about being forced to wear short trousers. I demanded to see the head of the prison and made a list of complaints. The warders ignored my protests, but by the end of the second week, I found a pair of old khaki trousers unceremoniously dumped on the floor of my cell. No pin-striped three-piece suit has ever pleased me as much. But before putting them on I checked to see if my comrades had been issued trousers as well.
They had not, and I told the warder to take them back. I insisted that all African prisoners must have long trousers. The warder grumbled, ‘Mandela, you say you want long pants and then you don’t want them when we give them to you.’ The warder balked at touching trousers worn by a black man, and finally the commanding officer himself came to my cell to pick them up. ‘Very well, Mandela,’ he said, ‘you are going to have the same clothing as everyone else.’ I replied that if he was willing to give me long trousers, why couldn’t everyone else have them? He did not have an answer.”
In March 1960, Ian Fleming had dinner with John F. Kennedy at the White House. In his book, The Life of Ian Fleming, John Pearson notes: “During the dinner the talk largely concerned itself with the more arcane aspects of American politics and Fleming was attentive but subdued. But with coffee and the entrance of Castro into the conversation he intervened in his most engaging style. Cuba was already high on the headache list of Washington politicians, and another of those what’s to-be-done conversations got underway. Fleming laughed ironically and began to develop the theme that the United States was making altogether too much fuss about Castro — they were building him into a world figure, inflating him instead of deflating him. It would be perfectly simple to apply one or two ideas which would take all the steam out of the Cuban.” Kennedy asked him what would James Bond do about Fidel Castro. Fleming replied, “Ridicule, chiefly.”
In March 1961, Hugh Sidey wrote an article in Life Magazine on JFK’s top ten favourite books designed to show that the president was both well-read and in touch with popular taste. The only work of popular fiction on the list was From Russia With Love. Up until then, Bond had not sold well in the US, but by the end of 1961 Ian Fleming had become the largest-selling thriller writer in America.
“The great trains are going out all over Europe, one by one, but still, three times a week, the Orient Express thunders superbly over the 1,400 miles of glittering steel track between Istanbul and Paris. Under the arc-lights, the long-chassied German locomotive panted quietly with the laboured breath of a dragon dying of asthma. Each heavy breath seemed certain to be the last. Then came another.” Ian Fleming, From Russia With Love
Following a forced and painful interruption, we’re ready to recommence reading Solo, the new James Bond thriller by William Boyd. At the end of the first chapter, 007 is at the Café Picasso in Chelsea in London. He orders a glass of Valpolicella and a portion of lasagne. This is followed by another glass of wine and an espresso. Now, note what follows: “He threw down a pound note and some coins to cover his bill and a tip, stepped out into the King’s Road and hailed a taxi.” Given London prices today, William Boyd is dealing clearly with a distant past in Solo.
Here’s the cover of the fourth Ian Fleming 007 story, Diamonds are Forever, which was published in March 1956 in Britain by Jonathan Cape. The creator of the cover art is to be credited with making an effort to match the author’s attitude.
“Before a man’s forty, girls cost nothing. After that you have to pay money, or tell a story. Of the two, it’s the story that hurts most. Anyway I’m not forty yet.” Ian Fleming, Diamonds are Forever
Amazon has delivered and once some upcoming unpleasantness has been successfully weathered, we’ll be enjoying Solo, the new James Bond thriller by William Boyd. Can’t resist a quick peek at the first sentence, though. Here goes: “James Bond was dreaming.” Hmmm. Sounds, er, promising. Meanwhile, here’s the cover of the third Ian Fleming 007 story, Moonraker, which was published in April 1955 in Britain by Jonathan Cape. The cover art, if one can call it that, marks one of the low points in the history of design. Between the covers, though, the author was splendidly un-PC.
“Unless she married soon, Bond thought for the hundredth time, or had a lover, her cool air of authority might easily become spinsterish and she would join the army of women who had married a career.” Ian Fleming, Moonraker
One would think that in these dramatic days of data mining the old-style espionage thriller would find it hard to compete, but the opposite is the case. Three new novels suggest that there’s a lot of life left in the genre yet:
An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris explores the Dreyfus Affair through the eyes and ears of Colonel Georges Picquart who, as head of the Statistical Section, a clandestine intelligence unit, gains access to the secret evidence used against Dreyfus. Parallels between the resolution of the Dreyfus Affair in 1906 and recent events revealing the power that intelligence agencies wield is not coincidental.
Solo by William Boyd is a continuation of the James Bond saga. M sends 007 to a West African state split by civil war over oil reserves with the mission of destabilizing the rebel movement under the cover of a journalist for a French press agency (France, unsurprisingly, supports the insurgents). So, in 1969, Bond departs for the Dark Continent equipped with Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter and some toiletries. “He who travels lightest, travels furthest, Bond supposed, and that included weaponry. Into a war zone with a can of talcum powder and some aftershave.”
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan deals with the experiences of its protagonist, Serena Frome, during the early 1970s, when Britain is being torn apart by industrial unrest and terrorism. After graduating from Cambridge she is recruited by MI5, and is sent out to combat communism in the intellectual world. But Cupid strikes and Serena is forced to abandon the first rule of espionage — trust no one.
Reading all three will take some time, but they’re on the list. That same list has been reduced by one with the recent completion of Paranoia by Joseph Finder. Although it was published in 2004, the theme of industrial espionage is as relevant as ever. The problem with the book, however, is that it has aged radically, although it’s less than a decade old. The pace of technological change is so relentless now that a story where LexisNexis is the cutting-edge search engine sounds absurd to our ears. Joseph Finder cannot be faulted for this, but there is a lesson here for would-be novelists and over-reliance on communication gadgets as plot drivers. Robert Harris, Ian McEwan and William Boyd cleverly fix their recent spy stories in the 20th century, which allows them to look back — cynically, humourously, skeptically — at what was once considered the acme of progress and sophistication.
Joseph Finder’s Paranoia was given the opportunity to refresh itself recently via a Hollywood adaptation but the reviews have been universally awful. Describing it as “a ho-hum thriller about corporate spying in the high-tech world,” SF Gate says it “comes off as a lot more preposterous than paranoid, and it takes no more than a few frames for the eye rolling to commence.” Much of the blame lies with the vapid Liam Hemsworth, who was dreadfully miscast as Adam Cassidy, the mischievous, brilliant, vulnerable narrator of the yarn, but the inclusion of Gary Oldman as the villain, Nick Wyatt, is another serious blow to the credibility of Finder’s original. “He had a deep tan, shoe polish-black hair gelled and combed straight back. His teeth were perfectly even and Vegas-white. He was fifty-six but didn’t look it, whatever fifty-six is supposed to look like.” That’s very not Gary Oldman and an over-egged London accent does not make him a convincing corporate shark, either. Ah, well. Solo is sure to be better when it is filmed.Tweet
In 1980, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, then living in exile in California. Although he served as a post-war cultural attaché of the newly formed People’s Republic of Poland in Paris and Washington DC, Milosz became increasingly disillusioned with Stalinist dogma and in 1953 he wrote The Captive Mind, which exposed the pernicious effects of Marxist orthodoxy on his generation of idealists. “Written before the Berlin Wall went up, The Captive Mind was a key factor in eventually bringing it down,” noted the critic Clive James in Cultural Amnesia.
When the Polish intelligentsia was being “wiped out half by one set of madmen and half by another”, Milosz found strength in the Bible because it “provided a standard of authenticity against a much more dangerous language, the language of legalized murder,” writes James, a confirmed atheist. Of his own position regarding the Good Book, he declares: “But without the scriptures we poor wretches would be lost indeed, because without them, conscience itself would become just another disturbance of the personality to be cured by counselling. We are surrounded by voices telling us that everything will come right if we learn to love ourselves. Imagine the torment of Jesus in his passion, if, on top of the sponge of vinegar and the spear, they had offered him counselling as well.”Tweet
A quick look at the New York Times Bestsellers earlier in the week — Hardcover Non-Fiction — showed Jesus topping and tailing the list. In first place was Killing Jesus, an account of the life, times and crucifixion of our Saviour by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, and in tenth position, Zealot, a biography of the revolutionary Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. And there was even more faith in fourth position with I Am Malala, which is about a Pakistani girl who was shot by the Islamist Taliban, while in fifth place was My Story, in which Elizabeth Smart tells of being kidnapped from her Utah home in 2002 at age 14 by a couple noted for their “religious idiosyncrasy”.
All this brings us to Amos Lee, whose fine new album, Mountains Of Sorrow, Rivers Of Song has come into our possession via iTunes. Although the name may not be familiar to all, Lee has built a sterling reputation by touring with Adele, Willie Nelson, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. Along with composing his own songs, he’s a superb interpreter and his version of Fred Neil’s A Little Bit of Rain is splendid. This is from the Mission Bell album.Tweet
Amazon is about to deliver and soon we’ll be delving into Solo, the new James Bond thriller by William Boyd. As we prepare for this thrilling treat, let’s ponder the cover of the second Ian Fleming 007 story, Live and Let Die, which was published in April 1954 in Britain by Jonathan Cape. It has to be said that it does not represent a triumph of art. Given that the action-packed adventure catapulted Bond from the jazz joints of Harlem to the emerald waters of the Everglades in pursuit of the ruthless Mr Big, the flatness of the cover is even more perplexing. Perhaps it was the Fleming/Bond philosophy that baffled the designers.
“No, when the stresses are too great for the tired metal, when the ground mechanic who checks the de-icing equipment is crossed in love and skimps his job, way back in London, Idlewild, Gander, Montreal; when those or many things happen, then the little warm room with propellers in front falls straight down out of the sky into the sea or on to the land, heavier than air, fallible, vain. And the forty little heavier-than-air people, fallible within the plane’s fallibility, vain within its larger vanity, fall down with it and make little holes in the land or little splashes in the sea. Which is anyway their destiny, so why worry? You are linked to the ground mechanic’s careless fingers in Nassau just as you are linked to the weak head of the little man in the family saloon who mistakes the red light for the green and meets you head-on, for the first and last time, as you are motoring quietly home from some private sin. There’s nothing to do about it. You start to die the moment you are born. The whole of life is cutting through the pack with death. So take it easy. Light a cigarette and be grateful you are still alive as you suck the smoke deep into your lungs. Your stars have already let you come quite a long way since you left your mother’s womb and whimpered at the cold air of the world. Perhaps they’ll even let you go to Jamaica tonight. Can’t you hear those cheerful voices in the control tower that have said quietly all day long, ‘Come in BOAC. Come in Panam. Come in KLM’? Can’t you hear them calling you down too: ‘Come in Transcarib. Come in Transcarib’? Don’t lose faith in your stars. This happy landing at Palisadoes Airport comes to you courtesy of your stars. Better thank them.” Ian Fleming, Live and Let Die
Starting in November 1976, Monday through Friday, Andy Warhol phoned his secretary Pat Hackett each morning and told her about the happenings of the previous day and night. After transcribing the monologue onto paper, Hackett would then type up the pages. Apart from wishing to document his life and times, Warhol had an ulterior motive for keeping a diary: satisfying the tax man. The Internal Revenue Service audited him annually and he liked to present his minute side of the story to the accountants.
In all, Warhol dictated more than 20,000 pages. Published in 1989, the 807-page Andy Warhol Diaries begin on 24 November 1976 and ends 11 years later on 17 February 1987, just a few days before the artist’s death. Here’s today’s entry:
21 October 1980: “I ran into a boy whose job is to go shopping for John [Lennon] and Yoko [Ono], to buy them clothes and things. I asked him if they’d ever made him bring anything back and he said just once. I asked him if they ever wore any of the clothes they bought since they don’t go out, and he said, ‘They’re going to make a comeback. They’ve been wearing them to the studio.’ Oh, and the best thing he said was that when he started to work for them he had to sign a paper that said, ‘I will not write a book about John Leonnon and/or Yoko Ono.’ Isn’t that great? He said he loves his job. I should find somebody to help me shop — show me where all the good new things are.” Andy Warhol
Six weeks later, on the night of 8 December 1980, Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon four times in the back at the entrance to his New York apartment in the Dakota Building. Lennon was declared dead on arrival at nearby Roosevelt Hospital.Tweet
The order has been placed with Amazon and the delivery van will soon be on the way carrying Solo. We’re talking the new James Bond thriller by William Boyd. While we wait, impatiently, let’s enjoy the cover art of the first 007 adventure, Casino Royale. By the way, all the Bond books were published in Britain by Jonathan Cape between April 1953 and June 1966 and the cover art ranged from classic to catastrophic. Snippet:
“There’s a Good Book about goodness and how to be good and so forth, but there’s no Evil Book about how to be evil and how to be bad. The Devil had no prophets to write his Ten Commandments, and no team of authors to write his biography. His case has gone completely by default. We know nothing about him but a lot of fairy stories from our parents and schoolmasters. He has no book from which we can learn the nature of evil in all its forms, with parables about evil people, proverbs about evil people, folklore about evil people. All we have is the living example of people who are least good, or our own intuition.” Ian Fleming, Casino Royale
When it came to the future of his native city, James Joyce claimed that if Dublin was destroyed you could rebuild it from the detail in Ulysses. The New York author Paul Auster makes no such lofty claims regarding his hometown, but many of his books are maps of the Big Apple, particularly his adopted Brooklyn. Auster is more than urban fiction, though. His books also contain humanity in all its fragility. Anyone who has fought back from major illness will feel at home in the introduction to Oracle Night:
“I had been sick for a long time. When the day came for me to leave the hospital, I barely knew how to walk anymore, could barely remember who I was supposed to be. Make an effort, the doctor said, and in three for four months you’ll be back in the swing of things. I didn’t believe him, but I followed his advice anyway. They had given me up for dead, and now that I had confounded their predictions and mysteriously failed to die, what choice did I have but l live as though a future life were waiting for me?
I began with small outings, no more than a block or two from my apartment and then home again. I was only thirty-four but for all intents and purposes, the illness had turned me into an old man — one of those palsied, shuffling geezers who can’t put one foot in front of the other without first looking down to see which foot is which.”
As our narrator gets stronger, his wanderings take him as far as a stationary shop in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn and he buys a blue notebook, which then puts him under its spell. The rest is a story about haunted lives.
Those who do get a second bite of the cherry of life and survive serious sickness will relate to this passage towards the close of Auster’s novel: “I had my face in my hands and was sobbing my guts out. I don’t know how long I carried on like that, but even as the tears poured out of me, I was happy, happier to be alive than I had ever been before. It was a happiness beyond consolation, beyond misery, beyond all the ugliness and beauty of the world.”
The ugliness and beauty of the world as captured by writers will feature in two cities this week: Frankfurt, where the annual Book Fair begins today, and Stockholm, where tomorrow the Nobel Prize for Literature will be announced. Prior to that, in our continuing urban week, we’ll look at the city as the battleground for future conflicts.Tweet