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Philip Larkin on Octopussy and the Living Daylights

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#1 Revelator



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Posted 20 February 2014 - 10:52 PM

Widely regarded as the greatest English poet to arise after the second world war, Philip Larkin was also, like his close friend Kingsley Amis, a fan of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. In the following review, published in the July 8, 1966 issue of The Spectator, he reflects on the final Bond book.

Bond’s Last Case

Octopussy and The Living Daylights.


These two stories, according to the blurb, were written in 1961 and 1962 respectively, and would have formed part of a similar collection to For Your Eyes Only if the late Ian Fleming had lived to add others to them. As it is, they presumably represent the last hard-cover splutterings of his remarkable talent. I am not surprised that Fleming preferred to write novels. James Bond, unlike Sherlock Holmes, does not fit snugly into the short story-length: there is something grandiose and intercontinental about his adventures that requires elbow-room, and such Bond examples of the form as we have tend to be eccentric and muted.

                These are no exception. It would be difficult to deduce from them the staggeringly gigantic reputation, amounting almost to a folk-myth, that grown out of the novels.  Indeed, it would be difficult nowadays to deduce it from the novels. No sooner were we told that the Bond novels represented a vulgarisation and brutalisation of Western values than the Bond films came along to vulgarise and brutalise—and in a way sterilise—the Bond novels. With our minds full of Sean Connery in Technicolor, or whatever it’s called now, this study of a retired Secret Service major drinking himself towards his final coronary, and its cover-mate, an assignment for 007 in Berlin to out-snipe a sniper, seem sensitive, civilised, full of shading and nuance.

                How easy, for instance, to see in the career of Major Smythe an allegory of the life of Fleming himself! The two Reichsbank gold bars that the major smuggles out of the army on his discharge from the Miscellaneous Objectives Bureau are Fleming’s wartime knowledge and expertise; he emigrates to Jamaica and lives on them—selling a slice every so often through the brothers Foo (presumably his publishers), and securing everything his heart desires: Bentleys, caviare, Henry Cotton golf clubs. For a time all is well. Then he has a heart attack; his wife takes an overdose; he has another attack, finding himself unwilling or unable to follow the regimen his doctor specifies:


He was still a fine figure of a man, and it was a mystery to his friends and neighbors why, in defiance of the two ounces of whisky and ten cigarettes a day to which his doctor had rationed him, he persisted in smoking like a chimney and going to bed drunk, if amiably drunk, every night.

The truth of the matter was that Dexter Smythe had arrived at the frontier of the death-wish…


                However inappropriate to Fleming’s life the details may be, this evocation of a fifty-ish ex-service émigré, whose only interest now is tropical fish, going steadily to pieces has a genuine plangency. Bond figures in the story only as a shadowy emissary from ‘Government House,’ come to dig up the nasty business of how he got the gold bars in the first place.

                By contrast, the second story shows Bond as a kind of Buchan hero. Lying for three evenings on a bed covering the windows at the back of the Haus de Ministerien, Bond romances about a blonde cellist in a girls’ orchestra that regularly enters the building, presumably to rehearse. When finally the British agent makes a dash for the frontier, and the sniper appears at the window, it turns out to be—as if you didn’t know—the cellist.  Bond’s reaction is interesting. Instead of shooting the sniper before the sniper can shoot the agent, he deliberately alters aim (the agent escapes only by luck) so as to miss her, excerpt perhaps left hand. The Secret Service No. 2, who is him, is understandably annoyed:


You had clear orders to exterminate…You should have killed that sniper whoever it was.’


                But Bond is unmoved:


‘That girl won’t do any more sniping. Probably lost her left hand. Certainly broke her nerve for that kind of work. Scared the living daylights out of her. In my book, that was enough.’


                This is the moralist Bond, who toys with resigning in Casino Royale and is quite incompatible with the strip-cartoon superman of the film versions or of popular belief, but who fits well with Kingsley Amis’s suggestion, in his amusing and pertinent The James Bond Dossier, that Bond is a re-hash of the Byronic hero. Perhaps. But it would support equally well the Sunday Times’s simpler and more devastating diagnosis quoted on the paperback editions: ‘James Bond is what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like between her sheets.’ Or are these still just two ways of saying the same thing?




Larkin is perhaps the first critic to connect Major Smythe to Fleming, and at first glance, Smythe’s similarities to Fleming are many and obvious. Both are in their mid-50s and dealing with a sagging belly, heart trouble, and a soured marriage. Either could be described as “the remains of a once brave and resourceful officer and of a handsome man who made easy sexual conquests all his military life.” Both men are propped up by pills and lost in a melancholy fog of drunkenness.


Though “still a fine figure of a man at a cocktail party,” Fleming/Smythe is “in the process of drinking himself to death,” having been eaten away by the “termites of sloth, self-indulgence [...] and general disgust with himself [that] had eroded his once hard core into dust.”


Both men have found success, only to realize that it tastes like ashes. Having arrived “at the frontier of death wish,” they live in a state of profound accidie, the sin Fleming knew best and hated most. Smythe is “bored to death, and, but for one factor in his life, he would long ago have swallowed the bottle of barbiturates he had easily acquired from a local doctor.” A decade after Octopussy was published, Caspar Fleming took his life with the same drug.


Smythe and Fleming both adore Jamaica for being “a paradise of sunshine, good food, cheap drink, and a glorious haven from the gloom and restrictions and Labour Government of postwar England.” Each has a small villa, from where they swim daily, finding a refuge from daily life in the underwater world and its denizens. Major Smythe even considers becoming an author, though in far more heinous circumstances.


When Bond confronts Smythe and awkwardly gives him a chance to commit suicide, one recalls John Pearson's assertion that 007 drove his creator into the grave--Fleming having also decided “to oblige the Bond man.” Such is the association one is tempted to create between Smythe and Fleming. But let’s remember Conan Doyle's poetic request to an uncomprehending critic:


So please grip this fact with your cerebral tentacle

The doll and the maker are never identical.


Unlike Ian Fleming, Major Smythe was a genuine man of action. The Miscellaneous Objectives Bureau (MOB) is a clear analogue for Fleming’s "Red Indians", the 30 Assault Unit, but this more closely links Smythe to the commandos that inspired Bond rather than Bond’s creator. What's more, Smythe betrays his country, becoming a “cop turned robber.” In “Octopussy” Fleming always identifies the charcater as “Major Smythe”—a reminder of the rank he so vilely abuses.


That is not the only reason to believe that Fleming heartily despised Smythe. “Throughout all Bond's adventures nobody English does anything evil” wrote Kingsley Amis in The James Bond Dossier. "Octopussy" seems to be the exception to rule, until we remember why Smythe speaks excellent German: his “mother had come from Heidelberg.” Aha! Not fully British after all!


As anyone familiar with Fleming’s world knows, any sign of German ancestry signifies inherent evil (as in the "American" Milton Krest). The only good German in the Bond books is actually an Austrian--Hannes Oberhauser, who Major Smythe treacherously shoots in the back, before ironically justifying the deed with very British bigotry (“After all, it was only a bloody Kraut.”)


Oberhauser is a father-figure to Bond: “He taught me to ski before the war, when I was in my teens. He was a wonderful man. He was something of a father to me at a time when I happened to need one." And he is clearly based on a father-figure of Fleming, Ernan Forbes Dennis, who tutored the teenaged, fatherless Fleming in Kitzbühel, the same town Oberhauser hails from. Fleming revisited it throughout his life. “He clings to youth and dreams of the days when he was the Kitzbühel Casanova,” Ann Fleming wrote to Evelyn Waugh in 1961, while vacationing there with her husband.


Smythe defiles Fleming’s beloved town with his crime. He marches into Kitzbühel, abuses his authority, and murders Bond and Fleming’s father figure. After this, Major Smythe's similarities to Fleming begin to fade. With his MOB background, one might be tempted to call Smythe a James Bond gone to seed, but even that is dispelled when Fleming brings in the “real” Bond--who, as it turns out, shares Fleming's background. The autobiographical resonance in Smythe is ultimately transferred to Bond. “Octopussy” is more than a self-portrait of its author in decline. As in The Spy Who Loved Me, Fleming artfully draws on his life, reworking and distributing his memories, attributes, and experiences among multiple contrasting characters. That’s what authors do.




"Octopussy" makes use of three of Fleming’s great interests--gold smuggling, the underwater world, and physical pain. The last two are combined in Major Smythe’s agonized trek to feed Octopussy after his scorpionfish encounter. She becomes an instrument of vengeance, not just for Oberhauser but for Smythe’s betrayal in offering her a deadly meal. Sadly, Octopussy’s own fate is to be brutally killed and eaten by the Jamaicans who find Smythe’s body...


Today we ate saffron rice with octopus conch and lobster, caught by me; I was sad about the octopus, the entrance to his lair was scattered with exquisite seashells, he had eaten the contents and was holding them with his tentacles as a protective front door. I prized them from him one by one, put them inside my bathing dress, put both hands in the hole and with tremendous courage pulled and pulled, he poured forth black ink which strengthened my resolve, I was the stronger and collected him at the cost of a few scarlet railway lines round the wrist.

-- Ann Fleming to Evelyn Waugh, Feb. 7 1954,


Ann Fleming’s letters suggest that Octopussy was based on the octopuses (or “octopdes,” according to Waugh, who chided Ann for using “octopi”) that lived off Goldeneye. Though Mary died before Major Smythe, it was Ian who predeceased Ann. Her involvement in readying the story for posthumous publication led to Waugh teasingly addressing her as “Octopussy" in his letters. It was a light note in the otherwise onerous process of dealing with 007’s legacy, since Ann had loved Fleming and hated Bond. It was another octopus that brought Ann solace, as shown in a letter from 1969:


I am very out of touch, and will write a better bulletin soon: depression is in the ascendant, induced by having to pass what Kingsley Amis has written about Ian for the Dictionary of National Biography, and being assailed by the BBC for material for the Omnibus programme they are doing on Ian - I want to kick them all and burst into tears. Improbably, the Beatles have put my quandary into words - a song that goes


I want to be at the bottom

of the sea

In an octopus's garden in the shade


How do the Beatles know octopuses have gardens? I thought only I knew that, there must be more to them than meets the ear.

Edited by Revelator, 21 February 2014 - 01:51 AM.

#2 Major Tallon

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Posted 21 February 2014 - 01:43 AM

An outstanding essay, Revelator.  A keeper for my folder.  Thank you!

#3 Jim


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Posted 21 February 2014 - 06:26 AM

Fascinating; thanks

#4 JamesBondBlog



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Posted 21 February 2014 - 03:14 PM

Fantastic, as always!

#5 Revelator



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Posted 21 February 2014 - 11:39 PM

Fantastic, as always!


Thanks! The same phrase can be applied to your superb blog, which is the next best thing to seeing a period adaptation of the Bond novels.

#6 glidrose


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Posted 22 February 2014 - 09:21 PM

There's another thread about this here.

#7 Revelator



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Posted 22 February 2014 - 10:15 PM

There's another thread about this here.


Yes, but Spynovelfan (who is much missed) was only able to post the first two paragraphs of Larkin's review, and as I have hopefuly demonstrated the third paragraph is the most interesting one of all.