I was a troubled youth. A young man with more on his mind than in it. I hesitated to type the word ‘man’ then, for it was during those hybrid years between boyhood and manhood that I first came across the novels of Ian Fleming.
Perhaps you remember how it was? Dependent on the parental home of which you had grown ashamed for its petit-bourgeois pretensions, and its failure to live up to your own; fed and reluctantly clothed there, restrained by what the parents thought the neighbours thought, and lip-service to a shabby half-religion; ‘cabined, cribbed, confined’ (as someone I had yet to read had written four hundred years earlier).
I was not a child reader. There were no books to speak of in the house where I was a child, unless you count a slender volume of Burns given to my mother by a Scottish lover, and a Cow and Gate handbook on motherhood which always fell open at a paragraph on cracked nipples.
I never, in all my life, saw my mother reading. But there were occasional men, and some of them brought books. A much-thumbed Borstal Boy was left behind, under my mother’s bed. The irony was lost on me back then as I shop-lifted my first haul of paperbacks to sell to the less discriminating of my peers in the Lower Fifth. It would be neat for my story if I had spent the money on a seat in the circle for Dr No, the first Bond film. Not yet.
It was a dark and drizzly northern town of brutish men and brittle women where you kept your eyes down if you knew what was good for you. And it might have stayed like that forever had we not acquired a television set in 1955.
School mornings were now a marketplace of opinion on last night’s Highway Patrol or Dr Kildare, and Sunday afternoons soon became film school, specifically American film school.
I began to fill countless sketchbooks with drawings of sleek American cars; I wrote trans-Atlantic letters for brochures and photographs; I made every Airfix model car, again and again. Then painful poetry began to replace polystyrene cement and Humbrol enamels, and at night I listened under heavy bedclothes to All My Lovin’ on the Dansette Capri they’d bought me for passing the 11+. I wanted an army surplus greatcoat. Then I wanted a PVC mac, an Afghan coat, a military jacket. Soon, I just wanted.
There was Margaret Lee, and then there was Christine Burton, and then there was Linda Somebody who I think of whenever I hear See Emily Play. Their fathers hated me, could see into my soul; their mothers always thought I was a nice young man. I wasn’t. I was clearly ready for Bond.
The single copy of Casino Royale was in tatters by the time it got to me, the sex passages thoughtfully underlined by previous readers. Actually, the sex had to wait for the movies for me. It was the thrill of the cars, the excitement of foreign travel, exotic names, the plot, of course, and the ease with which Bond moved in a world which was sensational and, unlike our TV, in colour. It simultaneously aroused and fed all my appetites: I was drawn to the hand-made Morland cigarettes with Bond’s monogram, to the vintage Dom Pérignon, to the Savile Row suits and to the advantages of the Walther PPK over a Beretta. I longed to sip martinis in Moscow, to carnival in Rio, to sleep with my Russian lover on the Orient Express and, of course, to drive that car that way across the Swiss Alps. I was drawn to Bond himself, and I am quite happy to let Dr Freud have some fun with all of that.
I recently re-read both Casino Royale and Goldfinger (my favourite of the Connery-era Bond movies) and found both to be well enough written – better than I’d expected – and I’m unwilling to be too hard on the adolescent boy whose first full-length book was a Fleming thriller. The Bond novels spoke to me. They legitimised my naive aspirations. They showed me what I was ready to see, and they offered a vision of escape I needed to know was there. They were the opiate I needed to get me through the time I still had left to serve in the dark and drizzly northern town.
Stephen Keeler is an award-winning poet who live in the north-west Scottish Highlands. You can find him on Twitter @stephenkeeler