The latest James Bond film, Skyfall, has just been released, and there’s been a lot of talk of British-ness. It seems that Bond has become synonymous with a certain concept of British-ness that begins with the Union Jack and Her Majesty and ends with Aston Martins and sharp suits. James Bond’s image is one of a stalwart protector, serving the greater good.
However is Bond really what we consider a “true Brit” or in fact the idealisation of what Brits are not? Last time I checked, us Brits were famed for our addiction to tea and dedication to the perfect queue, and yet James Bond invokes images of suaveness and seduction. Forgive me the blasphemy, but isn’t that meant to be Italian men?
Ian Fleming developed the character of James Bond after working in the Naval Intelligence Division during World War II. He said that Bond was an amalgamation of all the agents he met doing this work, and that there really was at least one agent who wore hand-stitched suits and was chauffeured around in a Rolls Royce.
However, I’d like to suggest a different literary spy as a bastion much closer to real British-ness and that is John Le Carré’s creation, George Smiley. Smiley was first introduced to readers in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as a middle-aged spy who, after being forced into retirement, returns to espionage in order to search out the Russian mole in the British Intelligence Service.
As a character he is superficially less exciting than Bond. Far from international playboy, Smiley is easily pictured as a small, grey, accountant-type figure whose wife has left him for someone more debonair. It’s this though that I think makes Smiley all the more the true Brit – despite his life crumbling around him Smiley faces it all with a stoicism and determination that reminds me only of the image of the British Bulldog.
In comparison, James Bond is just too flashy. He may be based around real agents but those were agents of a bygone era, of an overly privileged class whose work was mostly to protect the cosy gentlemen’s clubs that they all frequented. Le Carré presents Smiley’s real opposition in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as being just this type of agent. They are charming, sure, but one of them is the mole who is betraying their country. After all, this is what it comes down to, patriotism. Despite being betrayed by the service, George Smiley dedicates himself to finding the mole for his country. We know that all James Bond does is “for Queen and country”, but he seems to get a little too distracted by other women along the way.
Ultimately, I say that the true British spy is the one who is more likely to order a cup of tea than a martini, shaken, stirred or otherwise!
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