October 14, 2014

HACK ATTACK:

The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught up with Rupert Murdoch

by Nick Davies

448 pages, Chatto & Windus

Review by Pat Black

Hack Attack, Nick Davies’ investigation of the News Corp hacking scandal, is a compelling true-life political drama exposing crime, corruption and fear at the very highest levels of British public life.

The story begins in 2006, with the exposure of mobile phone hacking by The News of the World’s royal correspondent Clive Goodman, carried out by a private investigator named Glenn Mulcaire. A police inquiry was launched after suspicions were raised about hacking among the royal household, and the pair were eventually jailed after a trial.

Goodman’s editors and employers at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp claimed that the News of the World’s royal correspondent was a rogue reporter, having gone off-script in order to get stories and bolster his fragile standing among the tabloid’s staff. This was broadly accepted. Hands were washed. The Metropolitan Police carried out no further inquiries. News Corp’s close relationship with the most powerful people in the land continued.

Except… Not everyone believed it. Journalist Nick Davies and others exposed the truth: that far from one man acting alone, the criminal interception of mobile phone answerphone messages was a well-known tactic within the News of the World newsroom, long seen as a legitimate way of gathering stories in the ultra-competitive tabloid market.

Davies’ uncovering of the true picture eventually led to the closure of The News of the World, with former editor-turned-Downing Street spin doctor Andy Coulson and several others being jailed for conspiracy to intercept voicemails at the Old Bailey this year.

Hack Attack is not just the story of how criminality flourished in a newsroom. It goes into very uncomfortable territory, looking at how senior personnel at The News of the World and elsewhere in Murdoch’s global media giant engaged in very close relationships with people at the highest levels of public office - ties formed, as I see it, mainly through fear on the part of public servants that the organisation might come after them some dark day.

Dissidents including past and present Labour MPs Tom Watson, Clare Short and Chris Bryant were targeted for daring to speak out against the Murdoch papers, or indirectly challenging their commercial and political interests. Bryant’s homosexuality was seen as an open goal to the tabloids; finally, humiliating pictures of him in his underwear were published. There was also a bit of a scrum to find pictures of outspoken anti-Iraq war MP Clare Short in a nightdress, taken when she was 20, although they never appeared.

Key lesson; if you want to take on the tabloids, and there’s a picture of you in your pants existing anywhere in the world, then rest assured it will appear in a newspaper. Ditto if you’ve ever done anything wrong, or simply pissed anyone off, whether that’s family, friends, work colleagues or former partners. If they’re after you, they will get you.

But News Corp’s tentacles don’t just extend to political figures. There is also evidence of strong links with senior police officers, somewhat cosy relationships which the public were unaware of until recently.

Even more worryingly, it seems that, for reasons which have never been made clear, the Metropolitan Police sat on evidence of widespread criminal activity, in spite of repeated denials from the men at the top. The Met had the names of hundreds of victims of phone hacking, from MPs to celebrities to ordinary men and women – and in one infamous case, a child, Millie Dowler, who had been abducted and murdered. But they took no action, and in many cases they failed to warn people who had been targeted.

All the while, senior figures at Scotland Yard including former assistant commissioner John Yates deflected and denied, repeatedly claiming that no further criminality had been exposed, despite a mountain of evidence suggesting otherwise. At this time, some senior policemen were dining and drinking with News International executives.

It’s well-known that coppers never rat each other out; the same is true with journalists. We should not be totally surprised that there is some cross-pollination involved.

As well as the criminal proceedings which culminated earlier this year in Prime Minister David Cameron’s former press secretary Andy Coulson being jailed, the Leveson Inquiry was set up to examine the phone hacking scandal. It called the prime minister, senior government figures, former premiers and cabinet ministers, a hundredweight of celebrities, Britain’s top policemen and Rupert Murdoch himself to find the truth of what was going on.

At time of writing, others are awaiting trial on criminal charges, and just in the past fortnight the nominally left-wing Trinity Mirror group has admitted using phone hacking to find stories.

It’s one thing to hear about celebrity Dick having gotten down with celebrity Jane, but targeting ordinary people – and those whose loved ones were victims of appalling crimes, at that – is another matter entirely.

Public opinion in this country hardened when it turned out that News of the World reporters had hacked Millie Dowler’s voicemail. The reasons for this are unclear, but Nick Davies suggests that it was based on a false hunch that Millie was still alive and had got in touch with an employment agency about work – the end goal being for courageous and clever reporters being seen to have “found” the missing girl.

In actual fact, 13-year-old Millie had been abducted and murdered by a maniac called Levi Bellfield in the summer of 2002. Her body would not be discovered until months later. The “job hunting” line was down to a data processing error.

Davies, writing for the Guardian, alleged that reporters had been responsible for deleting voicemails on Milly’s phone, which had raised hopes among Millie’s family that the girl was still alive. Some doubt was cast on this claim later – there is a contention that Millie’s phone was programmed to delete voicemails automatically - but the fact of the matter, as nailed down by Leveson, was that the girl’s phone had been hacked.

Once advertisers joined the clamour of disgust at this revelation, The News of the World’s fate was sealed.

No-one should be surprised that a tabloid newspaper might resort to less-than-honourable tactics to get to a story. As they’ll readily tell you, a free press is a cornerstone of a free society. This is consistent with Orwell’s dictum about journalism being the publication of material which someone else does not want you to read. Like it or not, newspapers should have the right to pursue any story they wish without fear or favour, if it’s in the public interest.

However, the “without fear or favour” and “public interest” parts of that statement are the keys to the whole matter.

Even in recent years, the tabloids have wreaked havoc in ordinary people’s lives on a false perception of public interest. Chris Jefferies, a former teacher turned landlord, found himself on the front pages of several British newspapers over Christmas 2010 when one of his tenants, a young woman called Joanna Yates, was found murdered after vanishing from her flat. The man’s life was torn apart in the press, with his supposed “weirdness” being highlighted again and again for the judgment of the British public.

In actual fact, Chris Jefferies had nothing to do with Joanna Yates’ death; she was murdered by a neighbour, Vincent Tabak, who was subsequently jailed for life. A sober analysis of the facts of the case at the time would have pointed roving reporters towards the truth of the matter. Tabak fled his own flat next door to Joanna’s just after she disappeared, heading home to the Netherlands; Chris Jefferies did not fit the template of a sexually-motived killer targeting a young woman. Not that you read any of this kind of speculation as the case progressed over that frigid Christmas period.

Jefferies won substantial libel damages for the level of intrusion and innuendo he suffered. Can you imagine how that poor man felt? Not only having to deal with the horror of someone he knew having been killed, but also that he was being treated as a suspect and subject to the vilest suspicion from the general public, with his private life burst open like a suitcase on a baggage carousel… Yet he had nothing to do with it.  

The Dowlers’ case is well known, as is that of the parents of Soham murder victims Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, who were also hacked. And then of course, there’s the still-unsolved tragedy of the McCanns, an ongoing media circus thanks to the abduction of their daughter, Madeleine, from holiday apartments in Portugal in 2007.

The tabloids continue to feast on this dreadful case, but they were not always gentle in their treatment of Kate and Gerry McCann. Among the many hellish innuendos and heinous intrusions this couple suffered in their time of trial, Kate’s private diary – something she kept hidden even from her husband - was found and published by The News of the World, an act Kate described as “mental rape”.

To undertake some devil’s advocacy, the press would trot out the old excuse that if you’ve done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to hide. If public servants, politicians, police or anyone else is involved in corruption or criminality, then this deserves to be exposed to the taxpayer and the electorate. But this surely should not excuse criminality on the part of our guardians, except in the most pressing case of public interest. Again, “public interest” is key. Like the police, it all depends on who’s making the judgments. What the public should ask in turn is: who on earth are tabloid editors and journalists to be making these calls?

Perhaps we need to examine how we would define “public interest”.

“Something you should know about as a citizen, a taxpayer and a voter in a healthy democracy” might do, off the top of my head. However, “things the public wants to know”, could easily fit the description. And that covers the tabloid shite: the gutter stings, the exposure of drug-taking, telephoto-lens harvested images of breasts and always, always, the sex; in other words, the things we all gawp at in some form or other every single day.

The issue came up this very weekend, when Brooks Newmark, a Tory MP with a government role as, wait for it, minister for civil society, was exposed after having sent an explicit picture of himself to a woman he’d met online. In actual fact, he’d sent his picture to someone pretending to be a woman, a freelance reporter who had gathered half-naked pictures of people he didn’t know from the internet without permission in order to set up a sting.

Is the sting a legitimate tactic? No-one would deny Newmark, a married father-of-five, was foolish. But was this the first time he’d ever indulged in such behaviour? It’s like the old honey trap scenario; a man might well agree to go to bed with a woman who flattered him at a pub one night. But if the sting hadn’t been set up in the first place, and an alien, titillating scenario had never been placed in his very lap, would the man ever have misbehaved in the first place? Deliberately placing temptation in someone’s path never bodes well. The morality is murky, at best.

Indeed, is “private life” between consenting adults ever a matter of public interest? Is someone’s lawful recreational sexual activity ever going to impinge on how they carry out their jobs? You may say no, but still you read the gossip pages and scandal sheets; still it becomes common currency, the lingua franca of office chat and playground sniggering which we all indulge in. True morality, true probity in the work of newspapers and media outlets becomes cloudier the more we look into our own hearts and our own motivations.

Perhaps the start and end point to these considerations should be the law of the land. Adultery is not illegal. Phone hacking, however, is.

Nick Davies takes aim at the hypocrisy of many at News Corp for daring to expose so many affairs and drug-taking, despite their own dubious records on both scores. There are unsubstantiated rumours of seriously debauched behaviour, with lots of drug-taking going on even as The News of the World was denouncing the exact same behaviour on its front pages. The supreme irony for that champion muck-raker and kiss-and-tell clarion is that ex-editor Andy Coulson had been having an affair with Rebekah Brooks, a senior News Corp executive (herself a former Sun and News of the World editor), an entanglement that was unpicked in brutal fashion at the Old Bailey during their trial.

Rebekah Brooks, I should stress, was cleared of involvement in any criminal activity during her time at the News of the World, and her professional reputation remains completely intact.

Brooks continues to be a fascinating character. When the heat was on, Murdoch went on record as saying that protecting her was his top priority. It’s easy to see why men would be smitten by her. With her wild red curls and a certain icy self-assurance, Rebekah Brooks would have represented Christmas and birthday come at once for middle aged men in positions of authority. A former editor of The Sun and The News of the World, moving on to a senior executive role near the very summit of News Corp before she stepped down with the hacking furore at its height, Brooks was keen to get close to people in power. Former prime minister Tony Blair was known to have counselled her during the height of her travails, and she made a friend of Sarah Brown, wife of Blair’s successor at Number 10, Gordon Brown. This did not stop News Corp’s papers from delivering an immense kicking to Brown as he staggered towards defeat in the 2010 general election, nor did it prevent them from revealing that the Browns’ son was suffering from cystic fibrosis.

And yet, Brown cosied up with them, going to Brooks’ wedding in 2009, allowing Brooks to host a “pyjama party” at Chequers. You could say that Brooks demonstrates “emotional intelligence”, a strange quality which has come into vogue in the past decade. A seemingly altruistic characteristic prized and valued, but also something that can be a valuable tool for sociopaths trying to influence or upset people.

When it comes to the crunch, these people wield power. They know they can topple you – and perhaps they already have some dirt they might like to publish at a later date. So you’ll play ball, won’t you? Davies terms this latter scenario “whitemail”.

One area Davies misses out in his coverage of the story is the nature of information and how it has changed beyond all recognition in the past 15 years or so. Even as recently as the mid-to-late 1990s – it feels like an instant of time ago – gathering information was still a matter of committing something to paper or tape, or latterly, a computer disk. This is the analogue world of physical documents, recorded conversations, printed photos and voices on a telephone line. It seems quaint already. The Dark Arts of journalism were of course alive and well back then (the late Princess of Wales and her ex-husband knew all about that), but the information technology revolution changed the game forever.

Having a mobile phone or a computer – doing what I am doing this very second, typing something out while I am directly connected to vast data networks – makes it so much easier for people to pinpoint me. Who I am; exactly where I’ve been; what I’m interested in; who I know; what I’ve been doing with them; what I’ve been buying; what I’ve been looking at on the internet; private communications between friends, family, my partner; what I like and dislike; my bank details; the car I drive; where I work; what I think about all of the above. Basically, all that I am.

While most of us understand that we don’t amount to the merest scrotal pixel on the information superhighway, all of this information can nonetheless be accessed by someone with a little bit of money to spend, and perhaps an axe to grind. We would be appalled at the amount of information held on us by Google and Amazon alone, and yet we enter it so readily on our computer screens and smart phones. And that’s before we address the phenomenon of social media, which is still in its infancy. Facebook feels like it’s been here forever, but it’s only really been a fixture in most people’s lives from 2007 onwards. And yet, if the wrong kind of person was minded to look, it can detail your life even down to what you were eating for lunch that day – and all that information is provided by you, willingly, gratis.  

The nature of information and how it is stored and used by corporations is an unstoppable juggernaut as technology becomes more sophisticated, its integration with our flesh and blood lives ever more seamless. Computer hacking is a constant threat in cyberspace, and I believe that there is a crisis to come. At some point, encryption at banks or some kind of public institution will be sprung, and for a brief period of time anyone who wishes to will be able to check out your bank account details, or the data police hold about you, or your medical records. It seems inevitable that it will happen. We might look back with some nostalgia on the good old days of intrusion characterised by paparazzi photos of someone with their top off on a beach.

“Sharing” is becoming a bit of a dirty word. Too much of it is automatic; it should be something you decide to opt into, not out of. A little less sharing might do you some good. On the other hand, if you wish to remain truly private, then there is little room for you in the digital world. Phone hacking is the inevitable conclusion of our lives being committed to digital records, minute by minute. Someone, somewhere, is interested in you, and not for any ostensibly positive human reason. Most likely they want your money. They might also want your time and attention. They might want to learn your dirtiest secret, and they might take pleasure in sharing it with the world, to put you in a state of fear and alarm. Or to ruin you.

The good thing about this sudden sea of information is that platforms exist for us to get to the truth of some matters rather more quickly than a tabloid newspaper might. There are two fantastic recent examples of news events and grassroots uprisings which took place entirely outside of the traditional media enclaves: the civil rights protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following a police shooting which might otherwise have gone quietly from the headlines, and the drive for Scottish independence, which almost triumphed from a standing start and a 20-point opinion poll deficit, despite almost zero support from the mainstream media (the Sunday Herald being the one honourable exception).

The game has changed. We are all journalists now, at the touch of a button. We are all photographers, broadcasters and publishers. 

Newspapers, especially in Britain, still set the agenda. People in power still dance to their tune. But their days are coming to an end. Circulation is plummeting among most titles. In the past decade alone, their sales have seen stomach-churning drops, even among the big beasts of the jungle. They’re feeling the strain. Some newsrooms which teemed with activity a decade ago are now ghost towns; staff levels at many titles have been decimated. At a local level, the effect is quite simply catastrophic. Most regional papers are struggling.

Online, churnalism abounds. At best this is a harmless distraction, but at worst, it hand-feeds corporate interests by playing on public apathy. Today, you probably clicked on a link to some top 10 or other, or a regurgitated showbiz gossip piece. You possibly had a look at the first few seconds of a viral video of someone’s 15 minutes of public humiliation. But you probably didn’t check what’s happening in your own town, in your own community – or if you did, it wasn’t a priority. This apathy is bad for democracy and bad for society. It breeds ignorance, which plays into the hands of corporations which would much rather you didn’t take any interest in them at all.

Newspapers and media groups were painfully slow to embrace online platforms. One national newspaper which could count on colossal daily sales as recently as 12 years ago has still to fully grasp basic concepts of interactivity, message board commenting, playable videos and live pictures. For much of the Noughties they jealously guarded their content in the hope that people would “always buy a paper”, and that the internet was some kind of fad. That newspaper’s circulation is now about a third of what it once was.

There’s no chance of the genie going back in its bottle. The future is digital. Some big names in our media world will be gone in 10 years’ time unless they adapt, and adapt radically.

As Davies stresses, not everyone who works on tabloid newspapers is a bad person. I could point out plenty of lovely, brilliant, talented people who earn a living with them. As in any other workplace, they’re not the ones you need to worry about. They’re not the ones Davies is taking aim at. In a confessional opening to the book, he reveals that he was bullied when he was younger, and those experiences have led him to seek out and confront bullies. This is honourable. Where do you find true honour in public life?

There is a common perception of journalists as being “street fighters” – tough, seasoned, Chandleresque individuals, fond of a drink, not averse to a ruck, and happy to administer a knee in the balls or a stab in the back as the occasion dictates. This doesn’t apply in the vast majority of cases. Many are decent, hard-working people with a genuine interest in the truth and keeping the public informed. I guess you’ll find one or two street fighters in the mix, somewhere, and not a few drinkers. But the worst specimens I’ve encountered from that world aren’t street fighters at all – they’re the shitbags who might hover around the edges of a fight, before darting in to plant a kick in the teeth of someone lying on the deck. Often, standing up for what is morally right or decent is nothing like as important as delivering this kick, or parading around with the stained underwear they stole off the line the night before.

Hack Attack is an exciting read, taking on the tones of a thriller as the author tackles the dark figures ranged against him. Nick Davies’ peroration in this book’s epilogue is a wonderful thing – a rebel yell against the corporatist forces which seek to dictate public policy, remove regulations, safeguards and scrutiny and ultimately harm democracy and our free society. Like Orwell’s work, I will return to that piece of writing whenever the world – perversely, never so bright, never so closely connected – grows a little too dark for my liking.

And yet, as Davies concedes, Hack Attack does not mark a victory. The exposure of the hacking scandal is not a Death Star moment; in fact it barely qualifies as an Endor shield generator moment. The Emperor remains in his throne room. These events did not cast the Murdoch clan out of the public sphere. It did not lessen their influence. It did not even cost them money; during the hacking scandal, News Corp’s shares rose sharply in value.

It has not completely removed the possibility of News Corp increasing its control over BSkyB, which would make it the biggest, most powerful media company the world has ever seen. Going by the front page reactions to David Cameron’s speech in Birmingham in recent days, it has not lessened the company’s influence in political life.

The News of the World was staked through the heart, but, like Christopher Lee’s Dracula, it soon emerged from the smouldering ashes in a predictable sequel as The Sun on Sunday – same paper, effectively, but with a different name.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, allowed a criminal into the heart of Downing Street, despite concerns being raised about the hiring of Andy Coulson as his press secretary. Cameron insists all background checks and protocols had been followed to the letter, but the fact remains. Incredibly, he has escaped serious censure for this oversight. In parliament, Ed Miliband was scathing in his criticism of the Prime Minister, but the Labour leader failed to ask Cameron for his resignation, as he should have done.

Cameron and the Tories will most likely win the 2015 general election. Lurking behind that outcome, the grinning spectre of Boris Johnson looms large.

Andy Coulson’s head was duly served on a plate, but anyone smacking their lips over such a spectacle might reflect that he was one of the few working class boys involved in the bigger picture.

The hacking scandal and the subsequent inquiry failed to provide any statutory underpinning to tackle unacceptable behaviour by the press – in the wake of, we must be fair, legitimate concerns about state regulation of the media.

Under the new Independent Press Standards Organisation, the media industry in the UK will effectively continue to regulate itself, meaning we have learned nothing from the failures of the defunct and now almost completely discredited Press Complaints Commission.


The Dark Arts, you suspect, will continue to be practised by their adepts. Ordinary, blameless people and those who wish to conduct their own private lives, privately, will continue to be eaten alive by the beast in the same mouthful as the corrupt, the criminal and the craven. Who will stand up for them? 

October 7, 2014

DISRAELI AVENUE

by Caroline Smailes
170 pages, The Friday Project

Reviewed by J. S. Colley

Disraeli Avenue is a companion piece to Smailes’ full-length novel, In Search of Adam, which centers on child sexual abuse. The protagonist in the novel is a girl named Jude. The setting of the novella is the street where she lives.  Each chapter opens a door to one of the row-houses lining the street and reveals a secret—sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, sometimes frightening, something uncomfortable, and sometimes evil. You can live next to a person your entire life and never really know them. Everyone harbors secrets, no matter how significant or trivial.

I haven’t read In Search of Adam, but I’ve read some of the reviews. The varied reaction doesn’t surprise me. For people who’ve never experienced abuse—sexual, physical, or psychological—it’s hard to fathom. But statistics don’t lie: one in four children will be sexually abused at some point in their lives. For those readers who don’t think the stories are realistic, who have been fortunate enough to be one of the three out of four, then I will repeat what a pediatric nurse friend of mine once said, “We live in la-la land.”  

The statistics are disturbing, and one with which I have some first-hand experience. While my story isn’t very horrific, it did have an effect on me. In fifth grade, I attended a Catholic school in central Florida. It was a small school and the janitor also served as bus driver for those of us who lived outside the city. Each day the driver would pass the last two bus stops (two sisters and myself) and head for the country store where he bought us a cold chocolate soda before circling back and dropping us off. You get the picture.

Around that same time, I was chosen to create all the calligraphy for the school and the annual science fair was only a week away. I went to the school on a Saturday to finish lettering the banners when I realized I needed more India ink. I headed for the supply room, which was set back from the outdoor breezeway. I met the janitor/bus driver there and he started to chat. I remember feeling nervous, for reasons I didn’t understand, and then, suddenly, my back was pressed against the girl’s bathroom door and the man was kissing me. To this day, I don’t remember how I got from standing in the middle of the alcove to inside the bathroom. I snapped out of whatever fog I was in, pushed the man with all my might, and ran back to the classroom.  

The most horrific thing about it was that I didn’t tell anyone. Not my teacher. Not the principal, who I was on good terms with (her Feast Day and my birthday were the same). For all my youth, I had a foreboding prediction that if I spoke up all hell would break loose, and I would receive much unwanted attention. While I was confident the principal would believe me, there were other adults around me that I didn’t trust.

For years, I lived with guilt because I didn’t speak up. In my defense, just before we moved I cautioned my friend to watch her younger sister around this man—a parting warning.  I noticed that he often called her up to stand by him while he was driving and he’d put his hand on her leg. The thought of it makes my stomach turn. How could I have not told anyone? It’s something I have to live with, but it is also something that far too many children do—keep quiet. And this is what the pedophiles count on. How to educate our children without explaining too much too soon and shattering their innocent years? I wish I knew the answer.

Even though nothing horrible happened to me physically, the incident had a profound psychological effect just as I was entering that stage in life when one becomes interested in the opposite sex. I don’t feel sorry for myself, though, because others have had much, much more to overcome.

So, please, if there is a child in your life—a sister, brother, niece, nephew, or friend—who suddenly changes, becomes quiet or angry, ask questions. Ask if there is something bothering them that they want to talk about. A child’s natural state is not to be sullen and withdrawn. Don’t put your head in the sand.
                                                                                                                
I could have left out the personal anecdotes in this review but that would have been cowardly. I wanted to speak up, however late. The author of Disraeli Avenue, Caroline Smailes, is speaking up, and she’s giving away the royalties earned on the sale of this novella to the One in Four charity, founded by, and for, those who have experienced sexual abuse.  I’d urge you to buy the book. It’s available in both the UK and USA. You can’t lose—a compelling read, plus contributing to such a useful and, sadly, necessary cause.


September 30, 2014

THE DEAD OF JERICHO

by Colin Dexter
320 pages, Pan

Review by Pat Black

We take another stroll through Oxford’s dreaming spires and foaming dives with our most curmudgeonly detective, Inspector Morse. The Dead of Jericho places Morse in the early 1980s, at some remove from the raging sexism of the mid-70s, but not that much.

It’s got a spooky beginning. We meet a nameless man at a party, casting his predatory eye over a slew of ladies with a view of taking one of them – any of them – to bed. He focuses on one particular lady, and they get on well, but his intentions don’t quite seem honourable.

It’s only after a reference to drinking cask ales the whole day long and being “over-beered” as the party draws to a close that we realise this man is not a potential murderer, but Morse.

The inspector continues to behave in a shadowy fashion. He drifts through the early part of the narrative dealing with the death of the lady we meet at the party much like Sherlock Holmes’ silhouette haunts the moors in The Hound of the Baskervilles. He does eyebrow-raising, if not jaw-dropping things – like wandering into the house of the woman at the party uninvited when he tries her unlocked door, driven by a compulsion we’d rather not consider in too much detail. He is probably the last person to cross Anne Scott’s threshold before she is found hanging in her room. This could be a tad problematic for Morse.

You don’t quite feel at ease with the great detective.  His hands always seem a little grubby.
Our cryptic clue: one across, Father Green, missing some Endeavour? (7)

Morse isn’t the cause of this tragedy, but he is firmly locked in its orbit. It takes all of his celebrated skills to unravel the mystery of Anne Scott’s death, especially when her neighbour, handyman and full-time stalker also turns up dead.

This my second dip into Morse’s world after his debut, and again I was struck by the contrast between the academic Mecca he lives in and whose cerebral matters he thrives upon, and the relatively low circumstances and sordid expirations he investigates. There’s a lot in the mix, as usual, with a blackmail plot, some voyeurism, petty neighbourhood gripes contained within a bridge school unguent with spitting cobras and of course, Morse’s permanently thwarted priapic quests. In considering a crime scene, Morse notices a pile of pornographic magazines, and idly flicks through them with the bulging-eyed wonder of a plooky teen.

Morse is a wonderful curmudgeon, both in Dexter’s source material and in the TV series starring John Thaw, which fixed him permanently in the public consciousness. But in the TV show he was a frustrated romantic, whereas here he’s a seedy wanker. Sergeant Lewis, stolid, loyal and long-suffering as a mistreated donkey, is on hand to counter Morse’s irascible tendencies and to help him escape the confines of his own raging ego to see the flaws in his lines of inquiry.

One saving grace is that Dexter is keen to point out Morse’s flaws. The great detective makes mistakes, and falls for the red herrings as readily as the reader. Another plus point for the book is its brevity – a couple of hundred pages and out (or 300-odd, depending on which edition you have), with barely a breath in between chapters.

The front cover of my omnibus is of a piece with the TV show, bearing the bonnet of Morse’s burgundy Jaguar. The original paperbacks, if you check them out online, betray its less noble lineage - slim volumes with slightly seedy covers befitting its insalubrious subject matter. Morse is a fascinating character, and one I enjoy returning to, with all his perverse complexity.


September 23, 2014

THE SEA INSIDE

by Philip Hoare
374 pages, Fourth Estate

Review by Pat Black

The Sea Inside was an impulse buy – a symptom of the book-hoarding instinct I have which puts me in the same bracket as shoe addicts, philatelists and kleptomaniacs. Philip Hoare’s award-winning cetology book, Leviathan, was ready to topple off the shelf and plop onto my bedside table. Teetering, it was. Then I saw the follow-up in Waterstone’s, with its lovely green and white cover and quirky animal drawings, had to have it, and… yeah (whale whoop).  

I’m getting help, honest.

The book doesn’t fit readily into any category. It is part travel book, part memoir, part natural history document. Its rough structure sees the author examining several different seas, figurative and literal, starting with the drizzly English Channel before heading to the cerulean waters of the Azores and Antipodes.

We begin with the author taking a swim in the sea off Southampton in a scene out of Turner, chilled in the gauzy dawn of a cold morning. From there he examines the wildlife he meets on the beaches and cliff tops, from seals to oystercatchers to squawking ravens. The latter creatures enthral Hoare, and he pays particular attention to their Encephalitic Quotient, determined by their high brain-to-body ratios (“my favourite animal”). We look at the raven’s mythological background, that great favourite of writers throughout the centuries in all her gothic finery.

This might then spin off into a quick biographical sketch of less-well-known naturalists of the past, all the way back to St Cuthbert on the Farnes, who loved the birds with the ardour of St Francis of Assisi while dodging Viking arrows.          

Hoare also looks at the lives of people who collected or sought to document animals, and the occasionally immoral methods employed to help advance the boundaries of scientific knowledge. He takes us through early efforts at setting up animal menageries in Victorian London, and our hearts break at the plight of poor Chunee the elephant, kept in a cage equivalent to a human being “cooped up in a coffin”, for the great unwashed to gawp at for the price of a penny or two. In scenes lovingly rendered in the newspapers of the day, the giant pachyderm accidentally crushed an attendant, and was peppered with bullets and skewered with spears for his trouble. In scenes that foreshadowed a similar miserable end in George Orwell’s “Shooting An Elephant”, the big guy didn’t die until hours later, and his very flesh and bones suffered further indignities. Compassion is not always our strong suit when it comes to our relationship with the natural world. But there were some people outraged at Chunee’s treatment, and attitudes slowly changed as a result of this great wrinkly martyr.

Cruelty, cultural superiority and immorality also extend to our fellow humans, and Hoare also examines the disgusting treatment meted out to the Australian aborigines, with collectors offering big prices for their skeletons to display in polite society.

Forgotten creatures are sketched for us, too, including the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, as well as the monstrous giant Moa bird of New Zealand – real creatures thought to be extinct, but still rumoured to be living in forgotten parts of the world. Hoare tempts us with titbits of cryptozoology, examining encounters with these supposedly long-gone animals (but never within reach of a camera, unfortunately). Hoare’s reasoning in including this material is that we know a narwhal exists, though we’ve never seen it, while people dismissed the first specimen of platypus as a hoax. Life contains infinite possibilities, he suggests. 

The author can’t stay away from his beloved whales, and there are numinous encounters with these great flesh-bergs, from sperm whales off the Azores to the gargantuan blue whales surfacing near Sri Lanka. Hoare’s fine prose reaches a crescendo in encountering these surreal, unhurried giants, and I viewed the prints of him snorkelling near a sperm whale and her calf with some envy.

There’s also time to examine the hilariously over-sexed world of the dolphin, some of whom form teeming erotic frescoes that would rival the walls of an ancient Roman brothel. Hoare’s curiosity also delves into the very guts of whales – the sea inside them – and efforts to classify these great beasts in the 19th century when carcasses were very difficult to come by for dissection.

The Sea Inside doesn’t follow any conventional lines. Perhaps that’s a big reason why I loved it so much. It cuts across the dimensions, a feeling akin to going snorkelling or Scuba diving with dull gravity’s anchor lifted, and the joy this immersion can inspire. Although we’re never far away from the author’s thoughts and feelings, his past does not take up too much of our time compared to his experiences above and below the surface of seas around the world. It’s a wonderful piece of work, in terms of its scholarship as well as the sheer pleasure it invokes of time spent in commune with the natural world.   

It’s a strange journey, and a pleasant surprise. It reaffirmed the idea that, no matter how brutal it might seem to us, the consolations of the natural world, like art, are endless. I would place The Sea Inside in the same pacific place as Tim Ecott’s Neutral Buoyancy - an indispensable piece of work for people with an interest in the natural world, particularly the element that covers most of our planet.

Onwards now to Leviathan.


August 15, 2014

MR. MERCEDES

by Stephen King
405 pages, Hodder & Stoughton

Review by Pat Black

If you’ve never read Stephen King, and you’re wondering what the fuss is about, I would urge you to sample the opening chapter of Mr Mercedes.

It doesn’t feel like too long ago that I reviewed Doctor Sleep, and it wasn’t. In that time, King has released this new novel, there’s a fresh one on the way, and for all I know he has another half a dozen torpedoes ready to fire whenever his publishers catch their breath. “Prolific” doesn’t seem like a strong enough word.

Mr Mercedes starts off in a foggy night in 2009, with an overnight queue outside a jobs fair in a large Midwestern US city. This is right at the point where the western world’s financial rollercoaster plummeted downwards – not exactly a thrill-ride, although plenty of stomachs dropped. The people who bed down in sleeping bags at the head of the queue are poor, they’ve had back luck, and they’re struggling in lots of ways.

We focus on two characters: a middle-aged guy, divorced, with some uneven road behind him, and a single mother with a newborn baby at her breast. In a very few pages we get to know them. There are some short stories which cover half as much story in twice the space. We might start to believe we’re seeing a new future for this pair as a couple; that miracles can happen.

Then King reminds us: this isn’t an age of miracles.

The chappie in the title is already on his way, cutting through the fog in a prime piece of German engineering. He deliberately drives the stolen car through a jobs fair queue – a premeditated act, a means of doing something, in the Trent Reznor sense, that matters.

They do not stand a chance. Eight are killed, including the man, woman and baby you’ve just met, and fifteen more are injured.

What makes it worse is that the situation already felt like an atrocity before Mr Mercedes applied pedal to metal. These were desperate people, struggling thanks to the efforts of some bankers, deep-mining their humanity. King even references The Grapes of Wrath.

And then… wallop.

If you don’t want to read Mr Mercedes after this opening then drive on, brothers and sisters, straight ahead past this review, and on until dawn. I’ll happily call it the author’s best opening since little Georgie Denborough’s paper boat sailed down a storm drain.

We leap forward a couple of years for an introduction to retired cop K. William Hodges. The K stands for Kermit. For all I know, Kermit might well have been a popular name in the United States before The Muppets mna-mna’d their way onto our television screens. But seeing it here felt like that moment you discover you have a crack in your filling. While eating peanuts.

But (like the peanuts), we’ll pass.

Hodges is retired, divorced and bored, utterly exhausted with daytime TV, piling on weight, and having little to do with the outside world apart from conversations with Jerome, the Harvard-bound 17-year-old who cuts his lawn.

Hodges has a few medals in his drawer, but he never closed the Mercedes killer case, and this bothers him. He’s also taken to fiddling with a revolver while he sits in his chair – a habit noticed by the Mercedes killer, who has begun stalking him.

The killer, a troubled young man named Brady Hartsfield, inadvertently relights Hodges’ fire by writing the corpulent ex-copper a letter, reminding him of his failure. Brady intends to goad and guilt-trip Hodges into suicide – much like he did with the woman he stole the Mercedes from.

This plan backfires. Hodges’ instincts kick in, and he begins an investigation under his own steam, seeking to play the killer at his own game and entrap him. In this quest he enlists Jerome, a smart cookie with computers and much else besides, while his expenses are paid by Janey, the hot sister of the Mercedes’ tragic original owner.

Mr Mercedes is King’s attempt at a classic American murder mystery, a world away from his supernatural output. I suspect he has always wanted to write an Ed McBain/John D Macdonald style thriller ever since The Dark Half; I reckon he enjoyed creating Alexis Machine. Who wouldn’t?

There are a couple of references to King’s own work running through Mr Mercedes. I found these cute, although King’s penchant for intertextuality can be annoying. I loved it in one novel (was it Pet Sematary?) where a character driving through the night gets the chills when they pass a signpost for “Jerusalem’s Lot”.

However, I don’t love what he did with The Dark Tower and other stories, cramming in references to his other novels in a bid to make them all connect. It’s his toybox - but for me, this renders those tales slightly less than the sum of their parts.

In Mr Mercedes this is done obliquely, starting with a reference to the Mercedes having screamed out of the fog “like that movie with the old Plymouth Fury”. Furthermore, the killer behind the wheel wears a mask, which Hodges is told “looks like the clown in that show with the monster in the sewers”.

This is different from the way King normally refers to his own work in that he is acknowledging it as fiction, and not a component of the new world he’s creating. He seems to be making a statement: “That was fantasy; here’s some stuff that’s a bit closer to real life.”

The present tense style is punchy and immediate. But rather than a terse tough-guy narrative, a sprawling whodunnit or a plodding police procedural, this novel is a surprisingly intimate creature, happy to slip its genre leash and allow us to spend time at home with the characters.

Jerome the teenage computer genius is black, and he starts off the story by addressing Hodges in a mock Jim Crow accent under a comic persona. King gets away with this through sheer cheek, but is wise enough to dial it down before it gets too irritating.

I didn’t buy into Hodges’ romantic entanglement with Janey quite so much. It happens conveniently fast for the pair, although great credit must go to King for addressing something of a taboo in written romance: the anxiety and awkwardness of a big-bellied man going to bed with a fit woman.

(flesh duvet)

The author is never afraid to get his hands dirty when it comes to seamier content. In outlining the lifestyle of our killer, King isn’t so much getting his hands dirty as rubbing the grime into the carpet; grease, bits, beasties and all. Brady – literally, a basement-dwelling computer geek – lives with his alcoholic mother, a manipulative character who enjoys a perversely close relationship with her “honeyboy”.

She’s yet another entry in King’s pantheon of monstrous, controlling parental figures. Mrs Hartsfield is a close relative of Carrietta White’s bible-thumping mother and Annie Wilkes, Misery Chastain’s “Number One Fan”.

This awful figure crops up rather a lot in King’s stories, but I don’t think it was ever so overtly Oedipal before (are we counting that dreadful Vampire/Cat People movie King made about 25 years ago… Sleepwalkers?). This lends texture to the characters, much like mould does to a shower curtain, but I dunno if we needed to know about Brady and Mrs Hartsfield’s unique mother-son bonding experience. Wasn’t it disgusting enough that Brady skittled those poor people?

Part of me wonders if King moulded the idea for this book out of little nuggets unearthed from his recent short stories. In his taunting communications with Hodges, Brady reminded me of the letter-writing serial killer, Beadie, from “A Good Marriage” in Full Dark, No Stars. In the OCD tendencies of the doomed Mercedes owner, I wondered if King was returning to ground he’d already covered in “N”, from Just After Sunset. It rang a wee bell, anyway.

A bit like the old Columbo teleplays, the question to be answered in Mr Mercedes is not whodunnit (we meet our rogue early on), but: how will they catch him? It’s not a foregone conclusion. There is what I would term a “Nick Andros moment” that punches us in the guts halfway through, before events build up to a tense finale as Brady seeks to commit another atrocity at a teenybopper concert.

It isn’t a great novel; it’s tense, but loses its way a little when it brings three too-unlikely crimefighters together. And Hodges’ behaviour wasn’t plausible – I liked him as a character, but I refused to believe he would have kept all that new evidence to himself rather than sharing it with his police pals.

But – truism time – King can engineer a story better than most. It’s what he does for a living. You should expect no less. His books are always a smooth drive.

I see he’s got another book out in November, Revival. Also - evidently pleased with his handiwork here - King has said that we’ll probably see the surviving cast of Mr Mercedes return in a couple of sequels.

Our author is a busy boy. Stephen King is working full tilt, machine-gunning us with new titles. He seems to be writing them quicker than I read them.

That’s the way it goes; that’s the way it has to be. We wouldn’t want it any other way. Floor it, brother. 

August 7, 2014

THE WHITE TOWER

by Dorothy Johnston
232 pages, Wakefield Press

Review by Bill Kirton

Progressively, computer mysteries are establishing themselves as a powerful strand of the modern crime genre, but while Dorothy Johnston’s sleuth, Sandra Mahoney, and her partner Ivan have the necessary skills and expertise to hunt through servers, online identities and all those other esoteric things which are way beyond my comprehension, their actions and investigations are founded in a solid, tangible place peopled by very real characters.

The setting is the Australian capital which (at least for this northern hemisphere reader), added to the slight disorientation that threads through all good mysteries. Being reminded that spring arrives in October challenges one’s perceptions and increases receptivity to the sensation that all’s not right with the world.

Sandra’s quest is to find the truth behind the apparent suicide of Neil Howley. Neil worked in a hospital but spent many of his leisure hours online in a role-playing game. Johnston creates structures, hierarchies and circumstances in both his workplace and the game which reflect one another very cleverly; indeed his actual ‘suicide’ more or less coincides with the ‘execution’ of his character in the game. The master of the game destroyed Neil’s avatar because he thought he was trying to steal his source code while, in the real world, his superiors at the hospital had begun to mistrust him. All of which gives Johnston the chance to create two narrative layers between which Sandra moves, trying to separate ‘virtual’ motives from ‘real’ ones, interviewing real people but also the creators of avatars, teasing out the threads of two separate but eerily linked stories. Effectively, she’s pursuing parallel investigations which prove strikingly similar.

But in case this begins to sound fanciful, don’t worry, these characters are real. Johnston gives them distinct features and voices, her dialogue is as assured as her descriptive narrative. They all have secrets, resentments and other personal ‘truths’ that get in the way of the ‘truths’ she's seeking. And Sandra herself is far more than an investigator, she’s a partner and a mother. Not only that, she has a baby to feed, and Johnston even manages to use that special relationship to anchor her character even more firmly in the real world.

Immediacy is the watchword here. We’re forever in an intense present, each moment is filled. The double narrative dispenses with the need for sub-plots since they’re inherent in its structure. It's an intelligent, careful construction. Nothing is contrived, there are no clumsy clues or blatant red herrings; Sandra manages to unravel the mystery by her sensitivity to nuances and the application of reason.

And, all the time, there are the delicious little signs of a writer in control of her material. Johnston uses innocuous, seemingly irrelevant details to ground her narrative, the ‘little, true facts’ so beloved of Stendhal. At one point, Sandra ‘turned from the computer to stare out a window at a square of grass. A magpie hopped across it, dragging a tangled piece of string’. Neither the magpie, nor the string reappears. They’re there as a part of the incidental reality in which we all live. A skirt is the ‘colour of mustard that has been in the fridge too long’, some ducks ‘quacked appropriately’ – all delicate little touches that add to the pleasure of a very satisfying read.

The White Tower is one of a quartet of Sandra Mahoney mysteries. I’ll definitely be reading the others.




August 3, 2014

JAMES BOND: THE SPY WHO LOVED ME

by Christopher Wood
176 pages, Ian Fleming Publications (Kindle version)

Review by Pat Black

When I’m on the motorway and the traffic gets a bit hairy, I pull a Roger Moore squint.

It’s for no-one else’s benefit, and I only do it when I check the wing mirror - even though I can’t see my face.

I glance to the side, set my jaw… and squint.

This is a primping technique, essentially – a silly psychological tic employed to give me a little bit more confidence.

It’s on the same wavelength as some sub-Partridge saddo, putting on a tuxedo in his hotel room ahead of a corporate do, striding along the length of a mirror, turning on his heel, and

James Bond: The Spy Who Loved Me is a novelisation of the 1977 Bond movie – and certainly not the “original canon” novel by Ian Fleming, a total oddity which would take a Booksquawk post of its own to explain.

The movie is Sir Roger Moore’s best outing as 007 and arguably the high point of the entire series. It’s the one with Jaws, the metal-mouthed henchman; the undersea base that swallows submarines; the shark chute; the amphibious Lotus Esprit; and the disco ski chase culminating in the union flag parachute base-jump – the greatest stunt ever filmed.

Then there’s the sublime theme song, Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” (can we ever be sure of her sincerity?), and perhaps the two greatest Bond girls in Barbara Bach and Caroline Munro (though my heart still aches for Carole Bouquet in For Your Eyes Only).

Nearly 40 years on, despite some incredible advances in special effects which were unimaginable back then, few if any of these elements have been topped in the series. Small wonder The Spy Who Loved Me is such a favourite of Alan Partridge. It’s hard to take in any way seriously, it’s deeply flawed - but it’s still kind of awesome.

Alongside Alan Dean Foster’s take on the original Star Wars from the same year (though George Lucas still gets the credit on the cover), Christopher Wood’s book was one of the first great mass market novelisations – an entirely new piece of literature that takes a cinema film as its source, rather than the other way around. This book – adapted from Wood’s own script, co-written with Richard Maibaum – retains only two elements from Ian Fleming’s source novel: the title, and a villain whose dentist who was a bit over-zealous when it came to fillings.

This project would have represented an open goal for any writer, but Wood makes a fine achievement of what could have been a simple hack job. The story follows 007 as he investigates the disappearance of a British nuclear submarine. He is joined on his mission by Major Anya Amasova, a Russian agent who is also on the trail of a similarly-misplaced Soviet sub.

There’s a bit of added tension in this Iron Curtain-spreading relationship after it emerges that Bond killed Amasova’s lover, right before his base-jump heroics in the knockout opening scene. Amasova swears revenge, once their mission is over. But if there’s one man who can charm his way out of that predicament, it’s Bond.

The pair link the missing submarines to Sigmund Stroemberg, a megalomaniac industrialist with an underwater base and some pretty left-field civic planning ambitions. Lunging at this odd couple from the shadows is Stroemberg’s button man, Jaws, whose teeth have been replaced with metal fangs, which he puts to gruesome use.

The globe-trotting adventure takes Bond and Amasova to Egypt and Italy, before a final showdown at Stroemberg’s hi-tech Atlantean base.

Wood didn’t have to do so, but he makes a valiant effort at linking this Bond to Ian Fleming’s original creation. Although Sir Roger Moore will always be synonymous with the title, I read Wood’s rendering of the character as more like Fleming’s 007 – a curiously humourless thrill-seeker with very expensive tastes. The shift in tone is striking; many of Bond’s one-liners from the film - such as “Egyptian builders!”, “What a helpful chap!” and “How does that grab you?” - are not to be found here.

There are also references to previous Bond adventures, with nods to his “treasure” of a Scottish housekeeper, the evil spy network SMERSH and the death of 007’s wife at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Indeed, Bond is attracted to Amasova chiefly because her figure and demeanour reminds him of Tracy. This seems to imply that Bond has a definitive preference in types of women, which I didn’t buy. He may have been a bit one-dimensional when it came to cocktails, but with women, Bond liked to work his way around the menu. However, having Bond’s heartstrings tugged at the memory of his wife was a nice link between the past and the present.

Take some advice, though, James: do not mention this to her.

Wood is fully immersed in Fleming’s milieu and writing style. He takes great care to describe Bond’s tailoring, as well as the food and drink he consumes on his travels. All that’s missing is a high-stakes gambling duel with his nemesis to complete the job.

Our author’s career is a fascinating one. Before hitting the jackpot with Bond, Christopher Wood already had a successful, if curious CV under the pen-name of Timothy Lea with his comic-erotica Confessions books - later made famous on the big screen by seventies jackanapes Robin Askwith.

Wood also wrote the similarly-naughty Rosie Dixon: Night Nurse, as well as dabbling in aggro-lit (also extremely popular during the seventies) with Soccer Thug, under the pseudonym Frank Clegg.

Christ only knows how he got from there to writing Bond. There’s hope for us all.

One scene in particular might have been excised from one of Wood’s Confessions novels: the part where Major Amasova rubs suntan oil into her lovingly-described breasts, before chiding herself for indulging in bourgeois luxuries like sunbathing and bikinis and pledging to read some Engels as penance.

This passage conjured a brief image of Robin Askwith in a tuxedo, falling off a ladder outside her window. It could only have been written by a man - and a man in the mid-1970s, at that.

Wood is no hack, though. The book’s tone is different to the movie; there are a few laughs in The Spy Who Loved Me, and even its silliest concoctions are imbibed in deadly earnest.

Beartrap-mouthed Jaws is given a detailed backstory as well as a plausible explanation of how he came to receive his defining dental characteristic. When Bond tangles with this foe in the film, there’s an element of slapstick; here, it’s played straight, even when Jaws tries to bite his way into a van Bond is driving.

The villain, Stroemberg, also benefits from a textured, if disturbing history that places him in the same bracket as Fleming’s classic rogues’ gallery. He ticks all the boxes: sexually odd, megalomaniacal, psychotic, and with a curious deformity (in this case, webbed fingers).

Much like Fleming, Wood packs in a lot of prima facie low-rent content, but writes it beautifully. There were some phrases that leapt off the page. In a grisly scene where a treacherous secretary is served up to a hungry shark, Wood describes an “obscene candy floss of blood” erupting from her severed leg. A lift which Bond takes in a hotel “stops to collect itself like an old lady preparing to cross a road”. After killing a couple of henchmen, Bond wonders how long it will take for “armies of homeless vermin” to stream from their bodies in the hot Egyptian climate. And in pondering a possible sexual conquest, Bond ruminates on whether “the mind of the puritan” is more lubricious than that of the libertine – a canny nod, perhaps, to vicarious thrill-seekers getting their jollies second-hand from cinema screens or 200-page paperbacks.

The Lotus Esprit submarine convertible is given a lot more to do in this version, dodging a motorcycle sidecar which turns into a missile. It’s also called into more action beneath the waves than you see on screen - scripted activity almost certainly cut for budgetary reasons.

Also excised from the final draft of the screenplay is a torture scene in which James Junior is imperilled. This is of a piece with the corporal punishment 007 endures in Casino Royale - except that this time, instead of being clobbered with a carpet-beater, 003-and-a-half literally gets a short, sharp shock via some delicately-placed electrodes.

Moonraker? Legcrosser, more like.

It’s a quick read, ideal for the beach, and a nostalgia trip for people over a certain age. I’d be interested to know what today’s twenty-something men think of this novel (and its source) in comparison to modern-day spy stories, where technology is as much a driver of the plot as deception. What do they make of this jovial, suave Bond; would they ever in a million years model themselves on dear old Sir Roger? An undoubtedly handsome man, but he looked old enough to be your dad even then.

This amounts to blasphemy coming from a Scot, but Sir Roger is my favourite Bond. It helps that he was in the job when I was a boy. Like your favourite Doctor Who, there’s an imprinting mechanism at work when it comes to “your” Bond. You follow him like a newly-hatched duckling.

For me, Bond was never better than when he was played tongue-in-cheek. Moore never intended anyone to take James Bond seriously – he understood better than anyone before or since that the role is simple escapism and male fantasy, no more reflective of real espionage or geopolitical tensions than Sherlock Holmes is of detective work.

The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moore’s Bond, has a distinctly British quality peculiar to that era, which I noted after the sad passing of Professionals star Lewis Collins last year.

I call it rugged naffness. It’s hard to think of an American leading man of this time who could possibly have played Bond the same way.

You don’t really buy Moore as a tough guy, although I can picture him as a 50-year-old lothario, the apple of many a yacht club trophy wife’s eye, immaculate in his navy blue jacket and gold slacks. He’s the sort of charming bugger who might make a Russian oligarch or dot-com billionaire just that wee bit insecure.

And yet, there’s a certain something in his portrayal of Bond that an untutored part of the male psyche might seek to emulate, no matter how silly. Not a thug, but wins fights; has his pick of the women; carries a subtle, but distinct, stench of money.

Nowadays, looking the part isn’t just a matter of dressing expensively, or staying in just enough shape to blag it from a certain camera angle (forgive me, Sir Rog, but you don’t half wear a lot of black in these films).

Now, leading men have to thrash themselves into almost grotesque shape through laser-guided gym regimes and dietary interventions that would rival those endured by Olympic athletes. Young men are following this trend. I’d guess younger fellows would probably be sceptical about 007’s eating, drinking and smoking habits in this book – a sure way of killing your athletic prowess and swaddling those abs, lats, pecs n’ biceps in fat.

I’ve heard very few straight ladies or gay gentlemen complain about this sort of body sculpting extremism with regards to Daniel Craig – indeed, they suffer themselves near silence when he emerges from the sea in Casino Royale - but I find it curious to note the mutation of what leading men must look like in today’s entertainment world. Will we see Bond with tattoos, soon? Will he put away the old-fashioned pommel brush and razor blades shaving kit and let the stubble come in? Will he swap the midnight blue Saville Row suits for a pair of low-slung, ironically-worn Chinos, or whatever the hell it is hipsters wear now?

That British side-parting-cum-comb-over has already gone, thank goodness.

Perhaps the objectification of Daniel Craig’s body is some form of recompense for all the blatant, brutal sexism in these stories. There’s still a lot of it about. It’s curious to note that although Amasova ends up having to be rescued by 007, she’s still better than just about any Bond girl who followed her. I bought her as a capable, flint-hearted spy much more than I did Halle Berry’s Jinx, 25 years later.

James Bond: The Spy Who Loved Me allows us a fresh look at a piece of art familiar from screenings at Christmas or, latterly, on ITV2 seemingly every second Sunday. It’s also a fine homage to the style of 007’s creator.


A host of suitors have taken a stab at James Bond in the past couple of decades, the famous and unknown alike. But I should be surprised if anyone does it better than Christopher Wood.