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An entertaining but infuriating book about British post-war history

A while ago I briefly referred to a book by Simon Winder about Britain in the decades immediately following the Second World War. The book takes the idiosyncratic approach of looking at post-war Britain through the prism of Ian Fleming’s James Bond adventures. I cursorily flicked through the pages and it appeared to be an amusing and quite cleverly-done piece of work. Winder seems to have added something fresh to what is already a crowded cottage history of Bond studies. Winder’s book, at first glance, looked like a zany and rather affectionate recollection of what it was like to grow up as a young English middle class boy in the era of Meccano toys, WW2 comics and James Bond film premieres.I can identify with some of Winder’s own upbringing and views. So I bought the book and sat down to read it to pass away a few hours. What I read was in fact rather different, more serious and more annoying than what I had expected.

Winder makes a lot of astute points about post-war British history but a lot of his book is spoiled by an insistent, splenetic hatred of the English upper classes and Britain’s colonial history. He is determined to lay it on a bit thick, in the manner of a rather earnest sixth-former trying to creep up to his leftwing history master.

In fairness, he does grasp how Britain, victorious in the war but materially and financially shattered, rapidly lost its global position, overtaken not just by the already-mighty USA but also by France, West Germany and Japan. While Konrad Adenauer was helping to turn the devastated western half of Germany into an economic dynamo – with a little help from Hayek-influenced economics minister Ludwig Erhard – Britain built its ‘New Jerusalem’ of a welfare state, nationalised industries, crushingly-high income taxes, currency controls and a still-heavy military spending burden. Winder gives an easy pass to the Labour government after 1945 and is savage to the Tories under the elderly Churchill and his deputy, Anthony Eden. For Winder, the Tories are a bunch of old pin-stripped duffers more used to shooting grouse in the Scottish highlands than wrestling with Britain’s supposedly rightful position as a meek European power. His attacks on the Tories seem to be more about their accents and backgrounds than on what they actually did or did not, do. He misses the chance to make what I think is the really serious charge against the Tories of the time, as made for example by historian Andrew Roberts in Eminent Churchillians: these men failed to even make the slightest dent in the Attlee socialist creation. They accepted, for example, the trade union legal privileges and regulations that helped pave the way for the economic near-collapse in the 1970s and early 1980s. It is a harsh charge, but Winder does not make it as it would not, I think, occur to him to do so if my judgement of his political views is accurate. The class-fuelled disdain dominates to a tedious degree in the book. Here is a passage that makes me wonder if Winder is slightly unhinged:

Looking at (Ian) Fleming’s life in the 1930s I feel a little Red commissar inside me thumping his desk and waving around a revolver. The sheer, imbecile levels of privilege, the thoughtlessness, the parasitism are astounding. Fleming wandered through life as a sort of walking reproach to capitalism as a rational system based on competitive Darwinian struggle.

Oh, give me a break. There is no attempt made to consider the argument that life is not, if you can afford it, about working in some ‘competitive Darwinian struggle’ (a false interpretation of what the classical liberal argument for capitalism and property is). Surely one of the arguments for acquiring great wealth is that one’s offspring can enjoy a different, hopefully better life than before. If the wealth makes possible the lives of artists, writers, scientific dabblers and adventurers, then we may be all richer for it, even if the good fortune of such folk may grate or some of them muck about and spend all their time skiing or sailing boats. The wealth of a Fleming does not mean there is less cake left for the Winders (FA Hayek, in The Constitution of Liberty, made the consequentialist case for inheritance of wealth, not least because he saw it as fostering innovation in ways of living, an argument that is hardly ever made but worth making).

Winder also repeats the rather unoriginal charges of how the British Empire was a monument to exploitation, racism and conquest. Many of the charges do stick. There was the hideous slave trade, for instance, but again, there is a lack of balance in Winder’s viewpoint. This nation ended the slave trade and enforced its end through military means. There is none of the recognition, made by historian Niall Ferguson recently, that the Empire left a legacy not just of resentment but also of law, an international language – ie, English – and trade. The idea of an enduring and potentially benevolent Anglosphere, to use Jim Bennett’s expression, does not get a look-in. It is all about bloodshed and grinding the faces of non-white people.

There is also a puritanical side of Winder, always blaring out of the book, and it produces what is possibly the stupidest paragraph of all, jarring my nerves in the light of current world events:

So many of the signs and symbols in the Bond films – the effortless ability to master languages, culture and womenfolk – must in other contexts act as a virtual Radical Islam recruiting poster… Bond’s enormous, sybaritic Las Vegas hotel room in Diamonds are Forever alone should goad even the most backsliding madrasa student to feel insulted.

Well, that is a new one! Bond is so good at mixing with the locals and bedding their women that it is driving mild-mannered Muslims to wild radicalism! Seriously though, this sort of cultural cringe, the feeling that we should be ashamed of the material abundance of the West because it might turn folk into mass killers, would be funny if it were not actually written by an intelligent man like Winder.. In fact, the thought that 007 might be provocative to the nihilists out there only raises Ian Fleming in my estimation. How he and his old friends would have laughed at this scold.

Things do improve, however, particularly in Winder’s appreciation of Ian Fleming’s books and the films made out of them. There is a lovely section on how Fleming created whole new worlds for us to delight in such as the wonders of scuba diving, epic gambling matches and his wonderful descriptive skills. Winder is obviously a 007 junkie, familiar with the plots, villains, beautiful women and above all, with the bundle of contradictory qualities of toughness and pleasure-loving that went into James Bond himself. Despite Winder’s own professed disdain for the privileged ‘waster’ who created him, Winder cannot hide his admiration for what Fleming produced: a fizzy tonic for a grey and weary nation recovering from the war. Most of Winder’s appraisals of the books and films are insightful.

To confess these days to enjoying the Bond stories as a teenager and to liking the subsequent early films (the Connery ones, not Roger Moore, f’crissake, although I liked Brosnan) is something that I guess puts Simon Winder and yours truly in Britain’s early-middle-aged bracket. We grew up gawping at Ken Adam’s fantastic sets, thrilling to the musical scores of John Barry, delighting in the suave wit of Sean Connery as he dispatched some sinister SMERSH agent, and comforted that the crusty old admiral, M, was sitting at his desk, smoking his pipe and figuring out how to beat the Soviets. It is all magnificently silly of course, but delight in a certain higher nonsense is part of what makes the world go round. The myth of Bond almost attached itself to the tawdry reality of our Secret Service, although as Winder brutally puts it, this attachment appears to have been killed by the intelligence debacle over Iraq.

Winder cheekily suggests that a statue of Fleming should be erected outside the old Admiralty building off Trafalgar Square. What a grand idea. If such an eccentric thing were put up, I hope the statue holds a Turkish cigarette in a holder in one hand and a vodka martini in the other. Cheers, old chap, for a lot of wonderful stories and to hell with the puritans in our midst.

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7 comments to An entertaining but infuriating book about British post-war history

  • Jim

    So… would it be fair to say that the book left you feeling shaken, but not stirred?

  • If you want someone by whom to judge the impact of growing up comfortably well off in England, consider Sir Charles Algernon Parsons, whose invention, development and application of the axial-flow turbine was the greatest engineering accomplishment ever by an individual. The Scientific American article about him credits having been privately educated by tutors on his father’s estate with contributing to the breadth of his achievement.

  • Nick M

    So, if I’m reading this right, The July 7 London bombs were the direct result of a fictional British spy having a large hotel suite in Las Vegas.

  • As a typical self-centered Yank, my knowlege of the ins and outs of post-WW2 British history is a bit light, but it does seem to me that the Churchillians would have met with disaster after the war. While Winston was the perfect leader for war, it would appear that his image of Britain was too 19th century to survive the wreckage of the war. Colonialism was definitely on the way out, and there was no way a bankrupt UK could regain its former status.

    This is not to say that Labor (excuse me Labour) was the right answer, but it was the only available alternative to many people. Maybe the best expression of this was in the 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven in the US). When asked his politics, hero David Niven replies, “Tory by inclination, Labour by experience.” Of course, now you have much more experience.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    . Colonialism was definitely on the way out, and there was no way a bankrupt UK could regain its former status.

    Of course, and I don’t deny Winder’s thesis that is the pain of accepting the inevitable decline of Empire that explains some of the angst of post-war Britain, especially keenly felt among a generation of people, like Fleming, who probably felt jealous about the might of America, all the more painful because America was an English-speaking former colony itself.

    One problem with the Winder book is his rather tiresome political correctness. For example, he gets rather exercised by the fact that almost all of the villains in Fleming’s world were non-Anglo foreigners, apart from the odd dodgy American gangster. Well, given that Britain’s principal enemies after WW2 were from the Soviet Union and its proxies, this is not very surprising. 007 is hardly going to spend all his time fighting stockbrokers from Surbiton, is he? Of course Fleming shared some of the prejudices of his time, including a rather condescending attitude towards coloured people, for example. But he is hardly any worse than many more “liberal” people of his time in that regard.

    It is funny when you get mixed feelings about a book. On one level, it is a great read and has its hilarious moments. Winder is capable of poking fun at himself. But alas he falls too often into the trap of condemning a generation of people in not sharing his own straightjacket of Guardianista opinions.

  • Kim du Toit

    As a fan of both Bond (Fleming’s Bond, not Cubby Broccoli’s) and Churchill, allow me to make the following points:

    1. Churchill and his lot allowed the post-war socialism to proceed apace because they were gentlemen — and simply could not grasp the cynicism behind the Socialist ideal. The Churchillians saw it as a means for preventing “horrible poverty” (to use Churchill’s phrase), but that this splendid ideal could be so abused was, I propose, beyond their comprehension. Gentlemen do not behave that way, would have been their thought, and who would stoop to do so much to undermine Britain and the Empire? Well, we all know the answer to that: the Socialists are not at all gentlemen, and they realized that a strong, confident Britain with a booming trade would not be a nation which would be beholden to the State.

    2. Fleming’s Bond was, above all, a Puritan, even though his own tastes in food, drink, smoking and women were, shall we say, epicurean. But when faced with egregious evil (whether personal, eg. Largo, or Communist, eg. Le Chiffre) , Bond had no hesitation in being quite ruthless. It was the social evil he abhorred, not the personal indulgence, which he espoused.

    In fact, the one feature which stands out about Fleming’s Bond stories is that of austerity — his weapons are primitive (even for the technology of the time), and his budget always constrained (even in Casino Royale, M moans about the quite modest cost).

    My greatest wish is that the Bond movies could be remade into something more like the novels, where the characters are the thing, not the damn gadgets.

    Don’t get me started on the degeneration of Fleming’s Bond into Broccoli’s Bond, or like Winder, I’ll be forced into writing a damn book, and it won’t be pretty.

    As for the post-WWII rebuilding of Europe and Britain, let us never forget that where Germany used US aid money to rebuild its shattered infrastructure, Attlee’s Labour Party wasted America’s loan to nationalize whole industries, for no other purpose than to further the socialist ideal.

    Churchill was horrified at that, but once done, it could not be undone (at least, not immediately).

    Boy, do we need Churchill today.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    My greatest wish is that the Bond movies could be remade into something more like the novels, where the characters are the thing, not the damn gadgets.

    Kim, well said sir. The books are much better than the literary types give them credit for. Casino Royale, From Russia With Love and Live and Let Die are my favourites.

    I also kind of share your “gentlemanly” thesis. It is also goes wider: many of the post-war Tories and Labour MPs had both served in the armed forces together, and I guess that created a sense of their being all “good chaps together”. Attlee, of whom I am no fan, was nevertheless a hard anti-communist, as was the former trade union leader and great foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin. There are a lot of criticisms that one could and should make about the immediate crop of politicians after the war, but one has to recall that these men had fought through horrors most of us can only guess at. That surely must go into the mix. To be fair to Winder, he occasionally acknowledges that. After all, even Ian Fleming’s father, Valentine, was killed in the First World War. This sort of stuff did funny things to the minds of a whole generation of young people, especially young boys robbed of having a father figure to guide them. I have been blessed by having a loving dad to guide me in my life. A lot of people, in a more repressed age, did not.