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William Boyd on writing his first James Bond novel

William Boyd poses with his new James Bond novel Solo. Picture: Getty

William Boyd poses with his new James Bond novel Solo. Picture: Getty

  • by David Robinson
 

The name’s Boyd, William Boyd, and he’s just taken the world’s most famous spy back to his Scottish roots in his first Bond novel

If you’re looking for James Bond, allow me to let you into a tiny secret. In London, he lived in a small tree-lined square, its railed-off central garden little more than the width of two pavements, the surrounding late Georgian four-storey stucco terrace houses each with a price tag of more than £6 million.

But there are no blue plaques on Wellington Square, just off the King’s Road in Chelsea, because Ian Fleming never gave the number of the house in which Bond lived. He never formally named the street address (though in the books he gave directions precise enough for anyone to realise it couldn’t be anywhere else). Yet if you really want to find out more about James Bond and the tenuous links between fact and fiction, the best guide lives just a couple of hundred yards away.

William Boyd opens the door of his Chelsea house and I follow him up to his first-floor living room, in which a bust of Scott surveys walls packed with serious art. I’ve been there before, the first time in 2002 to interview him about Any Human Heart, which I still think of as his masterpiece. In it, his protagonist is recruited by Ian Fleming into the Naval Intelligence Division and sent on a mission to Lisbon. The fact Boyd has now been recruited by Ian Fleming Publications Ltd to write the next James Bond “continuation novel” should therefore come as no surprise.

He got the call two years ago, and accepted almost immediately. He wanted to forget all about the camp ridiculousness of the film Bonds and go back to the more gritty, realistic Bond of Fleming’s books. His Bond wouldn’t be an empty-headed killing machine but more of a well-read, boarding-school-educated Scot. Although he doesn’t say it, more like himself.

At that first meeting in his literary agents’ office, he told the IFPL people that he’d set the book in 1969. In “Africa,” he told them.

West Africa, 1969. The years before a writer starts writing, Boyd once observed, are the seedcorn on which he will draw for the rest of his life.

In 1969, William Boyd was 17, still in pre-writerly chrysalis. School was Gordonstoun in the Scottish Highlands: he was in the first year of the sixth form. Home was Ibadan, Nigeria, a multi-stop BOAC flight away for the Christmas holidays. He’d been born in Ghana, but moved there at 11 when his father – who introduced him to Fleming’s Bond books – got a job teaching tropical medicine at the city’s university.

That Christmas holiday, something happened that changed the way he looked on life. In Boyd’s new James Bond novel, Solo, there’s a small echo of it.

It was the time of the Biafran War (1967-70), when Nigeria’s south-eastern province tried unsuccessfully to secede. In Solo, Biafra is thinly disguised as the breakaway republic of Dahum, and Bond is tasked with the mission of ensuring that the rebels’ genius military commander – the so-called “African Napoleon” – is somehow taken out of the fighting so that the Zanzarim government will win and the civil war end. In this, Bond is helped by the beautiful Blessing Ogilvy-Grant, MI5’s young Zanzarim head of station. On their way to Dahum, they encounter a roadblock, at which Blessing defuses a potentially difficult situation.

That scene has a mirror, Boyd explains, in an episode which was his first great lesson in the randomness and fragility of life. “We were on a back road and my father had just driven through a roadblock manned by four drunken Nigerian soldiers with AK-47s. They were angry, and shouting. They’d been drinking beer all day, and I could see how easily things could have gone wrong. They could have smashed my face with a rifle butt, beaten us up, torched the car, and no-one would have known. As it was, my father effortlessly diffused the situation by berating them for building such a useless roadblock that he hadn’t been able to see it. He made them laugh, we got back in the car and drove off. I wasn’t terrified, but certainly there was that nasty moment when they advanced on us with their guns levelled, shouting at us to get out.”

It took Boyd two months to figure out a plot that would take Bond into and out of Africa and then on the linked solo mission in the US that gives the book its name. Before then, though, he had re-read all the Bond books in chronological order, looking out for evidence that his interpretation of him was on the right tracks. “I was looking for evidence of Bond’s thought processes, for his inner life, and it’s actually quite revealing. He weeps a lot, for example – and you don’t see Sean, Daniel or Pierce (he’s on first-name terms because all three have starred in films he’s either written or directed) doing that in the Bond movies, do you? And vomiting too.”

But Bond as a reader? Surely he was too busy helping the Sixties to swing to curl up in bed with a good book? “There’s not much mention of Bond actually reading,” says Boyd, “although in Casino Royale he is described as having a ‘book-lined flat’ And if you look through the novels there are actually lots of literary references – sometimes Bond will quote a line of poetry without attributing it (Boyd tracked one down to Emerson). He didn’t go to university but Bond is actually quite well-read.”

Bond is also, as many Scottish readers will know but most English ones don’t, a Scot. “He’s a Scottish public schoolboy, just like Tony Blair,” laughs Boyd, “and again there’s plenty of evidence in the novels. It’s not just the fact that he doesn’t make Bond an Old Etonian (though that was Fleming’s old school) but an Old Fettesian. There’s also a line that M always had an unusual respect for all things Scottish. So I thought I’m going to reclaim him for the hameland – and I gave him the line “I’m not English!” which may shock some readers.”

But even though the emphasis on Bond’s Scottishness, bookishness and adventures in a fictionalised Biafran war may mark a new departure for 007 purists, it’s the skilful way in which Boyd handles Bond’s Second World War service that really sets this book apart. It opens with Bond dreaming about those days in 1944 when he and his AU30 Commando unit were tasked with moving ahead of the armies invading Normandy, raiding German command posts to get hold of intelligence documents before they were destroyed.

“In the world of Bond studies,” says Boyd with a boyish grin, “what he actually did in the Second World War has always been a bit of a grey area. There’s a line somewhere about ‘machineguns in the Ardennes forest,’ and he talks about Berlin in 1945 and the excitement of hot war. But I took my lead from Fleming and attached him to AU30.” That’s a typically neat Boydian trick. So much of his fiction involves treading that murky line between fact and fiction, and it’s good to see that he can still do it, even when dealing with such an iconic figure as Bond.

So here’s how Solo opens, and it shows Boyd’s brilliance as a novelist straight away. It’s 1969 and James Bond is in bed at the Dorchester dreaming of the summer days of ’44, with their heady mixture of terror and excitement, when he was just a 19-year-old lieutenant who hadn’t yet killed anyone. That afternoon, as he’s taking a Jensen FF for a test-drive, he catches the smell of woodsmoke from an early evening bonfire in Chiswick and it takes him right back to 1944: a German soldier is burning some papers in an orchard. Lt Bond comes up behind him and orders him to stop. The German ignores him, so he fires his Sten gun in the air as a warning. But it’s jammed, and the German has picked up a discarded pitchfork, and rams it straight at Bond’s chest. And the traffic lights at which he was stopped turn from red to green, and he accelerates off, realising that perhaps the reason it had all come back to him was the fact that this was the first time he had stared death in the face and now it’s become all too common...

Already you’re starting to realise that this is an entirely different Bond from the one you’ve grown used to on the big screen. This is a Bond who’s 45, still smoking 70 Morland’s a day, still knocking back the booze at levels we’d mark down today as those of a barely functioning alcoholic. An old school soldier being made to feel even older by the King’s Road trendies.

So why have the Fleming’s books all lasted so long? “My theory is that it’s not really to do with the books but with Bond’s world. I think that what Fleming did was to lift the lid on the world he knew – which wasn’t just espionage, but the whole world of the privileged English upper classes. In the 1950s, reading those novels must have been like an invitation to a secret world. It’s all there: Fleming’s clubland life and his obsession with food and drink.

“So he gave Bond all his tastes, all his likes and dislikes, and almost inadvertently created this global phenomenon.”

So let’s get back to Wellington Square, SW3, where as William Boyd has shown us, a more reflective James Bond than we are used to lived. Such a man from such a street turns right up the King’s Road in his 1930s 4.5 litre convertible coupe in battleship grey, heading towards Sloane Square and clubland.

What he does there, where he goes next, mere proles like me can only guess. But I can tell you this: William Boyd does a superb job of following him.

• Solo is published by Jonathan Cape, £18.99. The author will be discussing Solo at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, on Monday at 7:30pm. Tickets, £15, are reduced to £10 for Scotsman readers, tel: 0131-248 4848 and quote SCOTSMAN5OFF or visit www.lyceum.org.uk and type in 
the code when prompted.

 

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