Bread and Circuses

All Saints Day.  60 years ago today, at the Old Bailey, a jury of nine men and three women found Penguin Books not guilty of offences under the Obscene Publications Act.

I was covertly reading Lady C – the wives and servants edition – under my desk, when I became aware of the diminutive form, at my elbow, in the tired, faded blue pinstripe suit.  Wee Peem glanced at the Penguin on my lap, raised a quizzical eyebrow, and held out his hand.  I bit my lip and handed over the book, thinking, this is the end of the world as I know it.  I will be reported to the highest authority.  The headmaster will come on the blower and announce to the school that I am a filthy fellow.  I will be placed on some kind of register. 

There was a long and electric silence.  The entire class held its breath.  Peem opened the book at random and thoughtfully read a paragraph.  He then intoned:

“…burning out the shames, the deepest, oldest shames, in the most secret places… the same on the Greek vases… the deep, organic shame…”

Peem closed the book, and handed it back.   

A silver lining to the Covid cloud – the cancellation of Halloween.  Actually it was such a foul night that I doubt if anybody would have gone tricking or treating even at the best of times.  (Earlier in the day I had walked up Dumyat at the western end of the Ochils and been nearly blown off my feet.  It certainly blew away a few cobwebs.)  And now, with any luck, Guy Fawkes will also turn out to be a damp squib.  I haven’t yet heard any whizz bangs in my neighbourhood. 

Then Remembrance Sunday promises to be a low-key affair.  And already the politicians and the scientists are united in glooming us up for a blue blue Christmas.  It’s all sheer balsam for the curmudgeon.  So long as there’s bread, never mind the circuses.  I suppose people will do their best to have some kind of virtual midwinter festival.  I’ve frequently heard it said that Covid has allowed the digital world to come into its own and show its worth.  But it seems to the curmudgeon in me that quite the opposite is true.  It is as if Mother Nature has said to us, “So you think it is better to exist virtually than to be living breathing flesh and blood in a living world?  So let it be…”  And then we were inflicted with a pestilence.  We are all castaways on our own arid desert island, of radius two metres, listening to our desert island discs, on Spotify. 

I was driving my car on Halloween when BBC Radio 4 announced the death of Sir Sean Connery.  I confess I had to pull over.  It’s not that long since I raised a glass to him, on his ninetieth birthday on August 25th.  And now he is gone.  Unaccountably I recalled another sombre car radio announcement from forty years ago.  As a medical student in 1980 I was driving from Edinburgh through to Monklands Hospital in Lanarkshire (it was a paediatric attachment) and I paused in the Meadows to pick up my friend Thor.  As Thor got into the car the radio announced that John Lennon had been murdered.  Now why should I connect the quiet culmination of a long and rich life with the sudden and violent demise of a man of peace who, it seems increasingly to me, had an awful lot still to give to the world? 

The answer lies in the 1960s.  The fact is that the two great phenomena of popular culture in 1960s Britain were Bond, and the Beatles.  That in itself is strange.  Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, was born in 1908, and the Beatles were all born during the Second World War.  They were a generation apart.  Bond was really a creation of the 1950s.  It’s true that Bond books sold well from the start – Fleming wrote one a year – and each successive novel drew increased attention, to the extent that From Russia with Love was one of President Kennedy’s professed ten favourite books.  But it was really the Bond movie franchise that brought Fleming to the world’s attention, and brought his creation global fame.  And this started in 1962 with Dr No, starring Sean Connery.  Ian Fleming was initially dubious about the choice of Connery for the role, but he increasingly came to admire Connery’s interpretation.  He certainly admired the box office success.  It has always struck me that Fleming’s swiftly deteriorating health in the 1960s must have been all the more bitter for him, with the realisation that his literary creation was about to make him a phenomenally rich man.  

Dr No was released on the same day as Love Me Do.  There is nothing in the Bond canon that in any way presages or reflects the Beatles.  The only reference to British pop music comes in Thunderball when Bond takes a taxi ride from a young man who Bond imagines to be a beatnik who admires Tommy Steel.  Bond treats the young man with courtesy but there is no denying the sense of class distinction.  Bond, like his creator, was an old Etonian, albeit briefly.  I rather imagine that that taxi driver would turn out to be wild for the Beatles, but that the Beatles would largely pass James Bond by.  And now Bond 25 (or is it 26?  I confuse it with COP 26) is on ice.  Maybe it will end up going “straight to video”. 

President Trump has called Sean Connery “a great actor and an even greater man.”  He says Sir Sean helped him get planning permission for a “big development” in Scotland.  Something to do with golf, I think.  Trump, Connery, Fleming, Bond, Goldfinger.  All golfers.  Who knows where truth ends and fiction begins?  I wouldn’t like to make a confident prediction of the outcome of the US Presidential election, except to say there will be some kind of muddying of the waters, a hanging chad.    

Disparate thoughts on Margate sands.  “Only connect.”                                            

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