Modernity Britain: Opening the Box 1957–59 by David Kynaston (2014)

Opening the Box is the first book in volume three of David Kynaston’s epic social history of post-war Britain.

It opens on 10 January 1957 as Harold Macmillan drops by Buckingham Palace to be made Prime Minister, and ends on Friday 9 October 1959 as the final results show that the Conservatives have won a staggering majority of 100 in the General Election: so the book covers about two years and nine months of British domestic history.

I say ‘domestic’ because there is no, absolutely no, mention of the British Empire, the independence struggles / small wars the British Army was fighting, or the impact of foreign affairs on Britain. The Suez Crisis was dealt with briskly and briefly at the very end of the previous volume: this book is utterly focused on the domestic scene.

In its end points Kynaston provides the usual bombardment of quotations from hundreds of diverse sources, from housewives and soldiers, social planners and architects, young and thrusting writers and crusty old critics, politicians idealistic and cynical, commentators on rugby, cricket, soccer and horse-racing – alongside summaries of scores of numerous sociological reports and surveys carried out during these years into all aspects of social life, and social policy – on housing and new towns and flats, consumer behaviour, ideas of class, the family, and so on.

Unlike a traditional historian Kynaston skips quickly past even quite major political events from the period (and even these tend to be viewed through the prism of his diarists and journal keepers) in order to measure their impact on the ordinary men and women caught up in them.

This is his strength, his forte, the inclusion of so many contemporary voices – experts and ordinary, powerful and powerless – that immersing yourself in the vast tissue of quotes and voices, speeches and reports, diaries and newspaper articles, builds up a cumulative effect of making you feel you really know this period and have lived through these events. It is a powerful ‘immersive’ experience.

But in this, the fifth book in the series, I became increasingly conscious of a pronounced downside to this approach – which is that it lacks really deep analysis.

The experience of reading the book is to be continually skipping on from the FA Cup Final to the Epsom Derby to the domestic worries of Nella Last or Madge Martin to a snide note on the latest political developments by a well-placed observer like Anthony Crossland or Chips Channon, to a report by the town planners of Coventry or Plymouth alongside letters to the local press, to the notes of Anthony Heap, an inveterate attender of West End first nights, or the thoughts about the new consumer society of Michael Young, to the constant refrain of excerpts from the diaries of Kenneth Williams, Philip Larkin and even Macmillan himself.

This all undeniably gives you a panoramic overview of what was happening and, like the reader of any modern newspaper or consumer of a news feed, to some extent it’s up to you, the reader, to sift through the blizzard of voices and information and opinions and decide what is interesting or important to you.

The downside is that you never feel you’ve really got to the bottom of any of the issues. Even the big issues, the ones Kynaston treats at some length (20, 30, 40 pages) never really arrive at a conclusion.

The housing crisis

The housing crisis existed before the war, as social reformers became increasingly aware of just how many millions of British citizens were living in squalid, damp, unlit, unventilated Victorian slums with no running water, baths and only outside toilets – the kind of conditions reported on by George Orwell among others. But the situation was, of course, greatly exacerbated by the German blitz on most of Britain’s major cities, from Plymouth to Glasgow. By 1957 it was estimated there were some 850,000 dwellings unfit for human habitation in the UK.

The result was city councils who were well aware of the need to modernise their cities, to get rid of the old slums and rebuild not only houses but, potentially, the entire layout of the cities. Arguably this was the key issue for a generation after the war and Kynaston reverts to it repeatedly. He quotes town planners and architects as they engaged in fundamental debates about how to go about this task, the most obvious division being between ‘urbanists’, who thought working class communities should be rehoused within the city boundaries, if possible close to or on the same location as the existing slums, once they’d been demolished and new houses built – and ‘dispersionists’, who thought a large percentage of big city populations should be moved right out of the inner cities to a) brand new model estates built on the outskirts of the city, like Pollok outside Glasgow or b) to new towns, overspill towns built 20, 30 or 40 miles away, which could be planned and designed rationally from scratch (places like Stevenage or Harlow).

This debate overlapped with another binary set of alternatives: whether to re-accommodate people in houses or in blocks of flats, with barrages of argument on both sides.

Proponents of flats made the simple case that building vertically was the only way to accommodate such large populations a) quickly b) within the limited space within city borders. They were backed up by zealously modernist architects who had an ideological attachment to the teachings of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus and thought, at their most extreme, that the new designs for living would change human nature and bring about a new, more egalitarian society. So aesthetics and radical politics were poisonously intertwined in the strong push towards flats.

Ranged against them were a) the tenants, who didn’t want to move into flats, pointing out that flats:

  • are noisy and poorly sound-proofed
  • have no privacy
  • have no gardens
  • so that the kids have to be penned up inside them (‘awful places for families to live in’ – diarist Marian Raynham)
  • the rents are higher

And b) the more conservative or sensitive architects and planners who recognised the simple fact – which comes over in survey after survey after survey that Kynaston quotes – that people wanted a house of their own. Interestingly, this wish turns out to itself be based on an even simpler idea – that almost everyone interviewed in numerous surveys, by writers and newspaper journalists – wanted privacy.

  • ‘I think that the natural way for people to live is in houses,’ Mrs E. Denington, vice-chair of the London County Council’s Housing Committee.
  • ‘Houses are preferred because they are more suitable for family life,’ Hilary Clark, deputy housing manager Wolverhampton

Kynaston emphasises that the years covered in his book were the tipping point.

1958 was the year when modernism indisputably entered the mainstream. (p.129)

During 1958 it became almost a cliché that London’s skyline was changing dramatically. (p.132)

Through the four books so far, and in this one as well, Kynaston gives extensive quotes from slum-dwellers, flat occupiers, new home owners, planners, designers, architects and the sociologists who produced report after report trying to clarify what people wanted and so help shape decisions on the issue.

But – and here’s my point – we never really get to the bottom of the problem. Kynaston quotes extensively and then… moves on to talk about Tommy Steele or the new Carry On film. But I wanted answers. I wanted to hear his opinion. I wanted a systematic exposition of the issues, history and debate which would lead up to conclusions about how we now see it, looking back 65 years.

But there is nothing like that. Kynaston just describes the debate as it unfolded, through the words of reports and surveys and sociologists and architects. But his debate never reaches a conclusion. And after a while that gets a bit frustrating.

Industrial relations

The 1945 Labour government famously nationalised a range of major industries and then, just as famously, ran out of ideas and lost the snap 1951 election.

As the 1940s turned into the 1950s industrial relations remained poor, with Kynaston repeatedly mentioning outbreaks of strikes, sometimes on a big enough scale (like the London dockers strike of 1949) to affect food supplies and spark a range of outraged opinions in the housewife diarists who are among his core contributors.

As the 1950s progress we get snippets of middle class people taking student or holiday jobs down among the working classes and being shocked by the widespread slackness and the culture of skiving which they discover. To balance the picture out, he also gives us, from time to time, vivid portraits of some of the ‘captains of industry’, heads of large companies who turn out to be eccentrics or egomaniacs.

Altogether, as usual, the reader has a vivid sense of the feel of the times and the experiences of a wide range of people living through them. But there are no ideas about industrial policy, trade union legislation, its impact on industry, the economy and the Labour Party which was often seen as being in thrall to stroppy and irresponsibly organisations.

In fact I did glean one idea from reading well over 1,500 pages of Kynaston’s history: this is that around about 1950, the British government and British industry had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to seize the industrial and commercial advantage across a wide range of industrial and consumer goods. German and Japanese industry still lay prostrate after the war and the Americans were focusing on their home markets. If the right investment had been channelled by a capitalist-minded government into the right industries, and if Britain had adopted German-style industrial relations (e.g. having worker representatives on the boards of companies) to ensure unified focus on rebuilding, then Britain might have anticipated what became known as ‘the German economic miracle’.

But it didn’t. The trade unions preferred the freedom of collective bargaining (i.e. found it more convenient to be outside management structure so that they could blame the management for everything and go on strike whenever it suited them), the Labour government was more concerned about a Socialist-inspired programme of nationalising industries in the hope of creating ‘the New Jerusalem’, and many managements found selling the same old products to the captive markets of the Empire and Commonwealth far easier than trying to create new products to market in Europe or America.

At all levels there was a failure of nerve and imagination, which condemned Britain to decades of industrial decline.

The catch is: this isn’t Kynaston’s idea – he quotes it from Correlli Barnett’s searing history of post-war failure, The Audit of War. In a nutshell, Kyanston’s wonderful books present the reader with a Christmas pudding stuffed with a vast multitude of factoids and snippets and post-war trivia and gossip and impressions deriving from an incredibly wide array of eye witnesses. But it is precious thin on ideas and analysis, and at the end of the day, it’s the big idea, the thesis, the interpretation which we tend to remember from history books.

The consumer society

This volume definitely depicts the arrival and triumph of ‘the consumer society’. I had thought it was a later phenomenon, of the 1960s, but no. By 1957 56% of adults owned a TV set, 26% a washing machine, 21% a telephone, only 12% a dishwasher, and 24% of the population owned a car. Aggressive new advertising campaigns promoted Fry’s Turkish Delight, Ready Brek, Gibbs SR, Old Spice, the Hoovermatic twin tub, Camay soap and Blue Band margarine.

People faced with ever-widening products to choose from need advice: hence the Egon Ronay Guide to restaurants, launched in 1957, followed in October by Which? magazine.

Even Mass-Observation, which started with such socialist ambitions in 1937, and has provided Kynaston with such a wealth of sociological material for the previous four books, had, by now, become ‘an organisation devoted to market research rather than sociological enquiry.’

Topics

1957

  • January – Bolton Wanderers beat Leeds United 5-3, the third series of Dixon of Dock Green kicks off, the Cavern nightclub opens in Liverpool, Manchester United beat Bilbao 3-0 to go into the semi-finals of the European Cup, Lawrence Durrell publishes Justine, Flanders and Swann open a musical review at the Fortune theatre, strike at the Briggs motor plant, 20-year-old Tommy Steele continues to be a showbiz sensation, end of the Toddlers’ Truce the government-enforced ban on children’s TV programmes between 6 and 7pm,
  • February – launch of BBC’s weekday new programme Tonight, publication of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, publication of Family and Kinship in East London by Michael Young and Peter Willmott (‘urbanists’ arguing that extended kinship networks in Bethnal Green provide emotional and practical support which Bethnal Greenites who’d moved out to new estates in Debden missed),
  • March – the Daily Mail Ideal Home exhibition visited by the Queen and Prince Philip, a Gallup survey showed 48% wanted to emigrate, start of big shipbuilding and engineering union strikes,
  • April – opening night of John Osborne’s play The Entertainer
  • May – Manchester United lose the FA Cup Final 2-1 to Aston Villa, petrol comes off the ration after five months
  • June – British Medical Council report linking smoking to lung cancer (reinforcing Richard Doll’s groundbreaking 1950 report) the government refuses to intervene; ERNIE makes the first Premium Bonds random draw, brainchild of Harold Macmillan; end of the pioneering photojournalistic magazine Picture Post founded in 1938, whose star photographer was Bert Hardy;
  • 20 July Prime Minister Harold Macmillan speaks at a Tory rally in Bedford to mark 25 years’ service by Mr Lennox-Boyd, the Colonial Secretary, as MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, and claims that ‘most of our people have never had it so good’; national busman’s strike; publication of Room at the Top by John Braine.
  • September – the Wolfenden Report recommends the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults in private; Ted Hughes’ first volume of poetry, The Hawk In The Rain, published; film version of Lucky Jim released, criticised for watering down the book’s realism
  • October – at Labour Party conference Nye Bevan comes out against nuclear disarmament, disillusioning his followers and creating a rift between the party and much of the left-leaning intelligentsia; 4 October Sputnik launched into orbit by the Russians; fire at the Windscale nuclear power plant; publication of Declaration, an anthology of essays by Angry Young Men (and one woman): Doris Lessing, Colin Wilson, John Osborne, John Wain, Kenneth Tynan, Bill Hopkins, Lindsay Anderson and Stuart Holroyd.
  • November – top of the charts is That’ll Be The Day by Buddy Holly and the Crickets; the Russians launch a second satellite, this one with a dog, Laika, aboard; the General Post Office introduces postal codes; Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament set up in response to Britain’s detonation of a H-bomb;
  • December – the Queen’s first Christmas broadcast, from Sandringham;

1958

  • resignation of the Chancellor Peter Thorneycroft after his insistence that government spending should be cut was rejected; launch if Bunty comic for girls
  • February – launch of Woman’s Realm magazine; 6 February the Munich Air Disaster in which a plane carrying the Manchester United football team, support staff and eight journalists crashed on take-off, killing 23;
  • March 1 BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop opens;
  • April – publication of Parkinson’s Law and Dr No; first CND march to Aldermaston; Balthazar, second volume in The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell; Raymond’s Revuebar opens in Soho; London bus strike;
  • May first performance of The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter and A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney and Chicken Soup with Barley by Arnold Wesker;
  • July The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates; introduction of Green Shield Stamps; the first Little Chef; the Empire and Commonwealth Games held in Cardiff;
  • August – release of the first single by Cliff Richard; Kenton and Shula Archer born; the Empire theatre in Portsmouth closes down, replaced by a supermarket; Notting Hill Riots, the most serious public disorder of the decade, petrol bombs, knives, razors, huge mobs chanting ‘Kill the niggers’ – the race problem Winston Churchill had fretted about in 1951 had arrive with a vengeance with about 165,000 non-white immigrants living in the UK; coincidentally, the launch of The Black and White Minstrel Show; Christopher Mayhew presents a TV series titled Does Class Matter?
  • September – Carry On, Sergeant, first of the Carry On films, released; publication of Culture and Society by Raymond Williams, which more or less founded ‘cultural studies’;
  • October – first editions of Grandstand and Blue Peter;
  • November – publication of The Rise of the Meritocracy by Michael Young;
  • December 3 National Coal Board announces the closure of 36 coal mines, as a result of falling demand due to coal being ‘brutally undercut’ by oil (p.236); 5 December Macmillan opens the 8.5-mile-long Preston bypass, first stretch of motorway in England, which will become part of the M6; John Betjeman’s Collected Poems published, representing one strand of middle class culture, while A Bear Called Paddington is published, first in a series of books, plays and films which continues to this day; 30 the government announces the full convertibility of the pound, meaning it won’t have to run down gold stocks defending it, but at the same time becomes vulnerable to speculation;

1959

  • January Henry Cooper becomes British and British Empire heavyweight champion;
  • February 3 Buddy Holly dies aged 22; film version of Room at the Top released marking ‘the start of the British new Wave in the cinema’; debut of Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be at the Theatre Royal Stratford East; March To Aldermaston a documentary about the 1958 march, edited by Lindsay Anderson with Richard Burton reading Christopher Logue’s script;
  • March release of Carlton-Brown of the Foreign Office starring Terry-Thomas; the year’s most popular film, Carry On Nurse; Goldfinger published, the seventh James Bond novel; march from Aldermaston to London; expansionary Budget;
  • May: C.P. Snow gives his lecture about the two cultures (ie most people who run things knowing masses about the arts and nothing about science); Sapphire directed by Basil Dearden is a whodunnit with strong racial overtones; 17th a black student Kelso Cochrane is stabbed to death in Notting Hill leading to raised tensions in West London and ‘Keep Britain White’ rallies and worried reports about the lack of ‘racial integration’ in Birmingham;
  • June
  • July: The Teenage Consumer, a pamphlet by Mark Abrams defining them as aged 15-24 and unmarried;
  • August: Cliff Richard number 1 with Livin’ Doll; President Eisenhower makes a state visit and is on TV chatting with Harold Macmillan;
  • September: City of Spades by Colin McInnes and Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse published;
  • October: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe; Noggin the Nog created by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin; and the General Election: Conservatives win 49.4% of the vote and 365 seats, Labour 43.8% and 258, the Liberals 6, giving the Conservatives an overall majority of 100.

Studies and surveys

Being a list of the studies and surveys carried out during the period by sociologists, universities, newspapers and polling organisations:

  • 1954 Early Leaving a study of who left state school early, and why (children of the unskilled working class made up 20% of grammar school intake but only 7% of sixth forms)
  • 1957 Abrams study of 200 working class married couples (they lacked the ambition required to push their children on to further education)
  • 1958 Edward Blishen survey of TV’s impact on families (too much violence; difficult to get the kids to go to bed afterwards)
  • 1958 J.B. Cullingworth surveyed 250 families who’d moved to an overspill estate in Worsley from Salford
  • 1959 J.B. Cullingworth surveyed families who’d moved to Swindon
  • Floud et al study of grammar schools in Hertfordshire and Middlesborough (over half of working class parents wanted no further education for their children after school)
  • Margot Jeffreys interviewed housewives in an out-county LCC estate in Hertfordshire (1954-5)
  • 1957 Maurice Broady conducted interviews on the huge Pollok estate outside Glasgow
  • Eve Bene survey of 361 London grammar school boys on attitudes and expectations (45% of working class kids wanted to stay on past 16, compared with 65% of middle class pupils)
  • 1958 Ruth Glass investigation of racial prejudice
  • 1958 Geoffrey Gorer study of television viewing habits (families don’t talk as much)
  • 1958 Television and the Child by Hilde Himmelweit (kids routinely watch TV till it stops, TV is a great stimulator but fleetingly, shallowly)
  • 1962 Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden Education and the Working Class a study of 88 working class kids in Huddersfield who went to grammar school (charts the parents’ progressive incomprehension of what their children are studying)
  • 1958 The Boss by Roy Lewis and Rosemary Stewart, about the social background of captains of industry e.g. family connections and public school still paramount
  • 1959 The Crowther Report, 15 to 18 (children of unskilled working class over-represented, the kids of non-manual workers under-represented: i.e. they were a sink of the poorest)
  • 1959 Ferdynand Zweig survey of working class men and their attitudes to washing machines
  • 1960 Michael Carter survey of 200 secondary modern schoolchildren as they left school
  • 1961 William Liversidge survey of grammar school and secondary modern school leavers

Patronising and condescending

Although Kynaston several times harps on the fact that Macmillan (Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963) was an Old Etonian, that his first Chancellor, Peter Thorneycroft, was another old Etonian and when he was sacked he was replaced by Derick Heathcoat Amory, another old Etonian, that in fact nearly half of the Macmillan cabinet went to Eton – there turns out to be surprisingly less condescension and patronage from these phenomenally upper-class toffs as you’d imagine. In fact the reverse: Macmillan’s diaries worry about all aspects of the political and international scene but when he tours the country and meets people, I was rather touched by his genuine concern.

No, the really condescending and patronising comments come, as so often, not from the politicians (who, after all, had to be careful what they said) but from the intellectual ‘elite’, from the writers and cultural commentators and architects who all too often looked right down their noses at the ghastly taste and appalling interests of the proles.

Housing

Throughout the book, most of the modern architects regard themselves as experts on human nature, experts on what people want, and are bravely, boldly undeterred by the actually expressed opinions of real people in places like public meetings, letters to newspapers and suchlike bourgeois distractions. Alison and Peter Smithson were among the leaders of the British school of Brutalism. For them architecture was an ethic and an art. As Alison wrote: ‘My act of form-giving has to invite the occupiers to add their intangible quality of use.’ They helped to develop the notion of ‘streets in the sky’, that ‘communities’ could be recreated on concrete walkways suspended between blocks of flats, a form of ‘urbanism that abandoned the primacy of the ground plane in favour of a rich spatial interplay of different layers of activity’.

No matter that the overwhelming majority of ordinary people opposed these plans. The architect knows best. And the planners. Kynaston lists scores of chief architects and planners in cities like Glasgow, Birmingham, Coventry, London, who oversaw a quickening pace of mass demolitions, of slums, of old buildings of all kinds, in order to widen roads, create urban dual carriageways, build new blocks of flats, taller, more gleaming, more visionary, streets in the sky! And if the poor proles who would then be shepherded into these badly built, dark, leaky, anti-social blocks murmured their reluctance, they were ignored, and patronised. Kynaston quotes an article written by Raphael Samuel on the Labour council of Aberdare in South Wales who devised a plan to demolish a third of the town’s houses despite vehement opposition from the inhabitants.

The Glamorgan planners did not set out to destroy a community. They wanted to attack the slums and give to the people of Aberdare the best of the open space and the amenities which modern lay-out can provide. It did not occur to them that there could be any opposition to a scheme informed by such benevolent intentions; and, when it came, they could only condemn it as ‘myopic’. (quoted page 320)

My point is – neither the planners nor architects who refused to listen to ordinary people were Old Etonians; the opposite; they tended to be locally-born, Labour-voting architects and administrators which made their frustration with their own people’s obstinacy all the more pointed.

Culture

The situation was different in the humanities where the most vociferous Marxists tended to have had staggeringly privileged upbringings. Take the Marxists historians E.P. Thompson (educated at the Dragon Preparatory School in Oxford, Kingswood private School in Bath and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge) and Christopher Hill (St Peter’s Private School, York and Balliol College, Oxford), they took it on themselves and their tiny cohort of like-minded communists and academics, to define what the working classes really wanted, and it turned out it wasn’t clean accommodation with hot and cold running water, a washing machine and a nippy new car out the front – Thompson and Hill knew that the working classes really wanted to create a new kind of man for the modern age!

Thus Kynaston ironically quotes E.P. Thompson ticking off Labour politician Anthony Crosland for the crime of suggesting, in his pamphlet The Future of Socialism, that after a decade of austerity and rationing what the people wanted was cafés, bright lights and fun. No no no, lectures Thompson:

Men do not only want the list of things which Mr Crosland offers; they want also to change themselves as men.

Says who? Says Edward Thompson, Kingswood School Corpus Christi College.

However fitfully and ineffectually, they want other and greater things; they want to stop killing one another; they want to stop this pollution of their spiritual life which runs through society as rivers carried their sewage and refuse throughout nineteenth-century industrial towns.

‘This pollution of their spiritual life’ – Thompson is talking about television, specifically ITV, which was polluting the working class with poisons like Gunsmoke and Opportunity Knocks. The actual working class has always been a terrible disappointment to men like Thompson and Hill. Kynaston details at length their agonising about whether to leave the communist party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and then how they go on to set up independent Marxist magazines and write articles for other like-minded over-educated academics who fondly thought their little articles made a bit of difference to anything.

But it wasn’t just the privately educated Marxists, genuine men of the people like playwright Arnold Wesker, son of a cook and a tailor’s machinist, who had a really tough upbringing and meagre education in  Stepney and Hackney. He is quoted as attending a left-wing meeting addressed by Raymond Williams (grammar school and Trinity College, Cambridge), author of the pioneering book Culture and Society and then Labour front-bencher Richard Crossman (Winchester and new College), who wrote a column in the Daily Mirror. This is Wesker describing the meeting in a letter to his wife:

How could he, as a Socialist, support a paper [the Mirror], which, for its vulgarity, was an insult to the mind of the working class; a paper which painted a glossy, film-star world. (quoted p.143)

The point is that, at this distance, I admire Crossman for writing a column in the Mirror, the bestselling newspaper of its day i.e. the most-read by the ‘working classes’ – for addressing the world as it is, for making the most of it, and find it hard not to dislike Wesker for his arrogance: ‘the mind of the working class’ – where is that exactly? how does he, Wesker, know what ‘the mind of the working class’ is thinking, or wants?

A little later Kynaston quotes the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer (Charterhouse and Jesus College, Cambridge) who wrote a series of articles about television in which ‘he came down hard on working class viewers’:

Not only did they eschew ‘topical programmes, discussions and brains trusts, serious music and ballet,’ instead obstinately preferring ‘films and serials, variety and quizzes’, but almost half of them were ‘addicts’ (defined as watching at least four hours a night), with as a result ‘all sense of proportion lost in their gross indulgence, and their family life, if not wrecked, at least emptied of nearly all its richness and warmth.’ (p.152)

My point being that is it not Macmillan and his Old Etonian chums saying this; it was left wing architects, planners, historians, intellectuals, writers, anthropologists and sociologists who were most critical and patronising of the actual working class as it actually existed (despairing that ‘the workers’ were not the idealised heroes of communist propaganda, but lazy blokes who liked to drink beer from cans in front of the Benny Hill show).

Race

There is a similar sense of disconnect on the issue of race and immigration, which Kynaston explores in some detail à propos the Notting Hill Riots of August 1958.

He shows how almost all the reporters, journalists, sociologists and so on who visited Notting Hill and other areas with high immigrant populations (the West Midlands was the other hotspot) discovered, not the virulent hatred of the American South, but nonetheless consistent opinions that immigrants got unfair advance on the housing waiting lists, exploited the benefits system, lived in overcrowded houses and made a lot of noise – all leading to a strong groundswell of popular opinion that immigration needed to be controlled. (There were 2,000 immigrants from Commonwealth countries in 1953, 11,000 in 1954, 40,000 by 1957).

But all the leading politicians, and most MPs, stood firmly against introducing immigration restrictions and were careful not to blame or stigmatise the coloured communities, even when there were gross incidents of racially aggravated riots, like at Notting Hill. The politicians realised it would be very difficult to devise any form of immigration control which wasn’t, on some level, based on the fact that you were trying to stop people with black skins entering the country i.e. naked racism, tantamount to apartheid in Wedgwood Benn’s opinion.

The handful of Tory MPs who did call for restrictions accompanied were shouted down. At one parliamentary meeting, one Tory MP, Cyril Osborne, accompanied his calls with accusations that blacks were lazy, sick or criminal, and drew down such a tsunami of criticism that he was reduced to tears. All MPs observing this realised that immigration was not a topic to speak out on. If any mention was made of it, it must be in the most positive and emollient terms. Thus the political class, the men who ruled the country, painted themselves into a position where free and frank debate of the issue was impossible.

But the actual population of the country, ‘the people’ which all parties claimed to speak for, disagreed. There is a surprising paucity of sociological research, field studies and surveys on the subject (compared with the welter of research done into the endlessly fascinating subject of ‘class’). But Kynaston quotes a Gallup poll taken at the time of the riots, in August 1958, which revealed that:

  • 71% disapproved of mixed marriages
  • 61% would consider moving if significant numbers of coloured people moved into their neighbourhood
  • 55% wanted restrictions on non-white immigration
  • 54% didn’t want people from the Commonwealth put on housing waiting lists on the same level with locals

People’s opinions were simply ignored. The rulers of the country knew best. No attempt was made to limit immigration which continued to grow throughout the 1960s and indeed up to the present day, which has resulted in our present blissful political situation.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of fiction from the period

Goldfinger by Ian Fleming (1959)

Murder in Mexico

Bond dislikes killing and it gives him a bad conscience. He tries to persuade himself it’s just part of the job, he does it then moves on, but in reality he broods and worries. Thus Goldfinger opens with Bond in the departure lounge of Miami airport, obsessively going over his most recent job in Mexico. Fleming gives a brief description of how an informal heroin smuggling circle was set up by a posh, amateur Brit which led from poppy fields in Mexico via a courier to Victoria Coach Station and then distribution via Soho. Bond tracks the pipeline to its source and blows up the heroin warehouse, but then is approached in the street that night by an assassin hired by the gang, and after a brief intense fight, kills him. But Bond broods.

What an extraordinary difference there was between a body full of person and a body that was empty! Now there is someone, now there is no one. This had been a Mexican with a name and an address, an employment card and perhaps a driving license. Then something had gone out of him, out of the envelope of flesh and cheap clothes, and had left him an empty paper bag waiting for a dustcart. And the difference, the thing that had gone out of the stinking Mexican bandit, was greater than all Mexico. (p.7)

This passage, especially its portentous final phrase, reminded me of Fleming’s contemporary, Graham Greene (b.1904). (This brooding over the mystery of death, the extinguishing of life, also reminds of the shock Bond feels at the death of Darko Kerim, the one-man life force, in From Russia with Love, p.277.) At the end of the novel Bond will feel the same way about the broken rag-doll body of Tilly Masterton.

Bond stood and looked down at the little empty tangle of limbs and clothes. He saw the bright, proud girl with the spotted handkerchief round her hair in the flying TR3. Now she had gone. (p.205)

Death is the great mystery, the real puzzle, at the heart of these books.

Goldfinger exposed

As he sits worrying, Bond hears the announcement that his flight to New York has been cancelled, and then is approached by a middle-aged American. He introduces himself as Junius Du Pont, one of the couple who were sitting next to Bond during his climactic card game which forms the centrepiece of Casino Royale. Briefly, he is a millionaire but has a problem: he’s been playing canasta with a fellow millionaire, strange guy called Goldfinger, Auric Goldfinger, and has consistently lost, far more than the odds would predict, losing some $25,000. Having seen Bond in action and knowing him for an expert, he invites Bond to stay over in Miami a night, all expenses paid, then pose as a businessman come to visit Du Pont and in reality figure out how Goldfinger is cheating.

Excellent! This is just the kind of relaxing, easy, no pressure break Bond needs to take his mind off death and destruction. He goes with Du Pont in his chauffeur-driven car to a luxury hotel and has the best meal of his life: crab in melted butter with toast, washed down by pint mugs of pink champagne.

So Bond goes along next day to the poolside table where Du Pont plays and meets Goldfinger. As with all the Bond villains he is distinctively misshapen and ugly, really a kind of cartoon. Goldfinger is just five foot tall, tubby, with no neck and an enormous round moon-shaped head, topped by a crew cut of bright red hair. He is very rich and very cool. Bond is introduced and sits idly reading his paper and half watching the game. He watches Goldfinger win hand after hand of canasta, fleecing Du Pont, and eliminates all the usual card sharping tricks. When Goldfinger says he never moves from his chair because he doesn’t like the view over the sea, it gives him agoraphobia, Bond gets a clue. He realises Du Pont is sitting with his back to the hotel so someone in an apartment could, in theory, look over his shoulder and see his cards.

He gets a camera from his apartment and the well-connected Du Pont gets a pass key from the hotel manager. Then, during the afternoon game, while Goldfinger is fleecing Du Pont again, Bond sneaks into Goldfinger’s room to discover a beautiful posh English woman wearing only bra and panties (p.34, and is first seen from the back, just like Tiffany Case in Diamonds). She is looking through binoculars down at Du Pont’s hand and giving Goldfinger detailed instructions. This is how he wins so consistently.

Bond startles the girl by taking a flashlight photo of the set-up, then chatting to the (obviously) alarmed and scared woman, who gives her name as Jill Masterton (p.39). She is Goldfinger’s private secretary. As they chat, and Bond explains he’s working for Du Pont and simply wanted to discover the scam, she relaxes and even begins to warm to Bond. Having not told him the winning cards for quite a few moments, Goldfinger has begun to lose. Now Bond decides to put the finishing touches: he takes the radio microphone from Jill, and dictates his terms to Goldfinger: he will send the photo and full details of his scam to the police and FBI unless Goldfinger a) admits to Du Pont he’s been cheating b) writes and gives him a check for $50,000, including all the money he’s won off him as well as a tidy fee for Bond. And then, to rub it in, Bond insists Goldfinger pays for a luxury train sleeper compartment for him and Jill to New York. Reluctantly, Goldfinger agrees and does these things.

Bond gets effusive thanks from Du Pont, then takes the sleeper to New York (all told in retrospect) where he makes passionate love to Masterton, five times, apparently (p.43 – almost as soon as they met, she was looking at him with a look of submissiveness and longing, and later says she will do anything if Bond doesn’t hurt Goldfinger: ie she is much more quickly submissive than either the feisty Tiffany Case or distant Gala Brand, falling more into the ‘immediately seduced’ category of Solitaire, who fancied him straight off). But when they get to New York, Jill insists on going back to Goldfinger, despite both their misgivings about how he might react to having been so systematically humiliated…

Back in London

Cut to Bond back in the Secret Service building overlooking Regent’s Park, where he has been assigned night duty and is logging calls from stations round the world. Fleming has just explained how much he actually enjoys being up through the night, when he is called in for a breakfast meeting with M. Surprise surprise, it concerns the man he just happens to have met on Miami, one Auric Goldfinger who, M tells him, is the richest man in England. (It has rather the same effect as the way Sir Hugo Drax is introduced in Moonraker as the most popular man in England.)

The Bank of England

His name is mentioned as M describes having dinner with the Governor of the Bank of England the previous night and listening to his concerns about the drain of gold from England. A certain Colonel Smithers is Head of the Bank’s research department and an expert on the subject. ‘Go and meet him 007.’ So off Bond goes and submits to a long, detailed history of gold, its use, importance and why the Bank is concerned it is being drained out of the country. Smithers gives us the backstory to Goldfinger: refugee from Riga before the war, set up a chain of pawn shops which now operates round the country, paying cash for small gold trinkets; these are melted down in his smelting works / factory near Reculver in Kent, which also deals in fertiliser and other chemical works. Goldfinger had been exporting fertiliser to India for years but when one of his ships was wrecked off Goodwin Sands, scientists found traces of gold in a chemically treated form had soaked into the hold. Smithers deduced Goldfinger has been converting the gold into a brown powder which passes customs as fertiliser, then having it restored to gold and selling at a big profit in India.

Bond reports back to M at 6 that evening, where M has more to tell him. They know Goldfinger marks his ingots (out of vanity) with a tiny incised ‘Z’. The most recent ingots the Service has come across thus marked have all been recovered from SMERSH operatives! Yes! From being some cheating millionaire, Goldfinger has suddenly been revealed as SMERSH’s banker! Bond is ordered to find him, confirm his activities and stop him, so he motors down to Kent in a work DB III, along the way filling in Goldfinger’s backstory, mainly from speculation: trained and briefed by SMERSH, despatched to Britain in 1937, told to lie low and set up a network of pawnbrokers as a front; while all the time he was given greater and greater responsibility as SMERSH’s overseas banker. Who knows how many deaths, assassinations and terror attacks he has helped organise and fund (pp.62-64).

As Umberto Eco points out, unlike Sherlock Holmes, Bond rarely has to detect anything and certainly never discovers a baddie behind a criminal activity: the baddies are always identified early on in the text, Le Chiffre, Mr Big, the Spangled Mob etc, the only interest is what form the confrontation and final struggle will take. (In this respect, From Russia With Love is an exception, since Bond is unaware of the conspiracy to entrap him and doesn’t know who his opponents are – Klebb and Grant – until very near the end: maybe it’s this element of genuine puzzlement and revelation (for Bond) which explains why many people think Russia is the best Bond book.)

A game of golf

In Miami, during the open social chitter chatter, Goldfinger and Bond had both admitted a fondness for golf, and even promised to play each other one day. Now Bond drives down to Goldfinger’s house in Kent and on to the famous golf course of Royal St Marks. Says hello to his old caddie and trainer, Blacking, and we learn that the teenage Bond was a golf prodigy who his trainer thought could have gone professional. While they’re chatting Goldfinger’s immense canary-yellow car comes rolling up the gravel drive, driven by the striking figure of a bowler-hatted Korean chauffeur. Bond makes like them bumping into each other is a happy accident and after some banter, Goldfinger challenges him to a round, with the stakes being the $10,000 he took off him in Miami.

Chapters eight and nine contain a very detailed description of each of the eighteen holes the two men play during the ensuing game of golf. Goldfinger has a good game so that it is very close, plus he cheats by a) putting Bond off his stroke b) tamping down the ground around his ball to make his shots easier. Eventually Bond and his caddy decide to cheat back and swap Goldfinger’s ball for a different make on the last hole. Thus at the moment that Goldfinger wins the round, Bond is able to reveal it is with the wrong ball thus, technically, losing the match. Goldfinger sputters with fury, almost declares Bond guilty of cheating, then contains his anger, and invites Bond to dinner at his house that evening.

Dinner at the Grange

1. Goldfinger welcomes Bond, but says he unfortunately just has to pop out to sort out some trouble one of his servants has got to in Thanet; back in 30 minutes. Bond sees this as a transparent invitation to go snooping round Goldfinger’s house. A doorway takes him into the overseer’s office of the factory, from where he looks down into a workshop and sees men fiddling with the door of Goldfinger’s Rolls. Back in the house he pokes around in the upper floors, coming across a male bedroom, all the way followed by a friendly ginger cat. Everything in the bedroom is pure and clean until he follows a whining sound to discover cine-camera film from three concealed cameras whirring round their spools in a concealed closet: obviously turned on when Goldfinger left, to monitor Bond’s movements. Bond deliberately exposes the film strips all to the light, then puts the cat into the container where the film had been spooled, as a feeble attempt to explain his sabotage.

2. Goldfinger returns and treats Bond to a quality dinner: curried shrimp and rice, with a Moselle, the Piesporter Goldtröpfchen ’53; roast duckling with Mouton Rothschild 1947; cheese soufflé and coffee.

3. Throughout the book there has been mention of Goldfinger’s Korean servants: he employs five of them. Now he gets his personal servant, Oddjob, to demonstrate his skills, and Oddjob proceeds to: slice through the wooden banister on the stairs with his bare hand; create a divot in the mantelpiece with a flying kick; destroy a wall fixture with his steel-rimmed bowler hat, thrown as a weapon.

Goldfinger explains that all five are Karate experts, Oddjob being one of the only three karate black belts in the world. (It is striking that Fleming feels he has to explain from scratch what karate is and give its history.) Goldfinger claims the Koreans are ‘the cruellest, most ruthless people in the world’. The cat which Bond left in the cinefilm basket? Goldfinger hands it to Oddjob and tells him he can eat it for his dinner.

Throughout there is the strong sense of menace and threat, while Bond plays his role of pretending he is fed up with Universal Exports and wants a way out, a way to make easy money. He even retells the story of the heroin business he foiled in the opening chapter, but casting himself as one of its organisers. Goldfinger listens impassively and hints that he may have a role for Bond in his organisation.

Across France

Goldfinger had mentioned that he was flying out of Lydd airport the next day, with his Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Bond gets the Service to book him a ticket on the next flight following. He drives up to the airport before Goldfinger is due and tells the Customs people he’s with Scotland Yard. They let him inspect the Silver Shadow after Goldfinger and Oddjob have boarded the plane, giving Bond the opportunity to insert a primitive homing device into it.

Two hours later Bond’s flight carries him and his DB III over to Le Touquet where he picks up the trail of the Silver Ghost. There follows a long knowledgeable tour across northern France, down to the Loire and then East heading towards Switzerland. Fleming knows his French Routes Nationales and shows off his acquaintance with the best hotels and Michelin restaurants along the route. On the first night Goldfinger stops at Orleans where Bond checks into the Station Hotel and enjoys ‘one of his favourite meals’: two oeufs cocotte à la crème, a large seule meunière and an ‘adequate’ Camembert.

Next day Bond tracks Goldfinger south and east along the N73 when he stumbles across the car pulled over for a picnic by a river. Bond just has time to drive off down a cart track and isn’t noticed, but after Goldfinger and Oddjob finish their picnic and drive on, Bond goes to investigate and discovers, under some freshly disturbed turf, a big gold ingot (with the tell-tale ‘Z’ scratched into it). He takes it with him a) causing Goldfinger and SMERSH inconvenience b) maybe saving lives in whatever schemes it would have financed.

Slowly he realises that another car is tailing Goldfinger, a nifty little Triumph driven by a pretty woman wearing a pink head scarf. Now he thinks about it he realises the same car was at Lydd airport. In the busy streets of Mâcon he sees it behind him and deliberately reverses into it, writing off the bonnet and fan belt. He apologises profusely while the pretty woman gets out and is livid, saying she must get to Geneva to play in some golf tournament. Bond discovers her name – Tilly Masterton – aha! she is the sister of Jill Masterton, Goldfinger’s confidential secretary. Bond offers her a lift and so they share the rest of the journey to Geneva.

Bond drops her at a hotel on the outskirts of Geneva, then trails Goldfinger’s Silver Ghost to a large mansion behind high railings, with a sign reading ‘Enterprises Auric A.G.’. He parks in nearby woods and doubles back to a vantage point where he sees technicians come out of a factory-like building and start to disassemble Goldfinger’s car. Then he drives on into Geneva and contacts the Service’s man there. 1. He hands over the gold bar and tells him to send it with a message confirming Goldfinger’s role as SMERSH banker, back to London. 2. The Service man knows about Auric Enterprises: it makes metal-work products, most notably chairs for Mecca Charter Airways planes, a company Goldfinger part owns and which flies to India. Aha.

Everything clicks into place. After his boat was wrecked and investigated off the Kent coast, Goldfinger abandoned gold smuggling by sea: now he fits his ‘armour-plated’ Rolls Royce with gold panels, drives it across France to his factory in Switzerland, where the panels are extracted from the car, and remoulded, with alloy, as airplane seats, installed in planes which are flown to India, there melted back to gold and sold at a terrific profit.

Captured

That night, after checking into a Geneva hotel etc, Bond drives back out to the woods above the Goldfinger mansion. He is creeping towards a good vantage point when he sees a slender figure in black lying by a tree ahead of him: it is Tilly. He jumps her from behind, putting his hand over her mouth, then slowly freeing her once she knows it is him. Furious she tells him her story: Jill Masterton returned to Goldfinger after her train trip of passion with Bond in the early chapters, and Goldfinger killed her, in a typically macabre Fleming way: he had her body painted with gold paint all over so her pores couldn’t breathe, evacuate sweat etc, poisoning her. (Fleming adds the gruesome detail that Goldfinger likes sex once a month with prostitutes who Oddjob paints with gold, but leaving their backs free to ‘breathe’ before the furious animal act. Then Oddjob sluices them down in a chemical shower to retrieve the gold.)

Well, Tilly is Jill’s sister; so she has come here with a rifle to take revenge. While they’re still squabbling about who is getting in whose way a crossbow bolt thwacks into the tree above them. Oddjob and some other Korean guards. Bond tries to make light of it, claiming Tilly is his girlfriend and they’ll call in on Goldfinger tomorrow, but the Koreans shepherd them down through the fence and towards the house, through the front door and into the main room where Goldfinger is waiting. Now Goldfinger knows Bond is an enemy agent and spy, and after a bit of banter, orders him to be taken to ‘the Pressure Room’.

Bond throws himself across the table, head butting Goldfinger in the chest, and gets as far as throttling him with his bare hands, when Oddjob hits him very hard and the lights go out.

Sawn in half

Bond awakes to find himself tied to a large table with a circular saw designed to cut right across it, up between his legs and carve him in half. ‘Talk,’ says Goldfinger, ‘or you’ll be sawn in two; and then the girl will be handed over to the Koreans for their sport.’ Bond swears (he’s taken to swearing four letter words a lot in the last few books –  e.g. ‘You can go —— yourself’, p.149). As if the saw wasn’t enough, Bond is worked over by Oddjob who knows exactly how to hurt him very much. Fleming, as so often, takes us into Bond’s mind as he tries to master the pain, control the pain, rise above his body…

Next thing we know it’s a new chapter and Bond thinks he’s died and gone to heaven, complete with white lights, nice music, warm woozy feelings. Slowly he interprets the succession of lights and faces to mean he’s been doped up and flown somewhere, the American accents suggesting the USA. Eventually he regains consciousness in some kind of sealed accommodation, in a bed in a room with his clothes and case all carefully returned. Goldfinger enters with a handgun and explains: he was on the verge of wiping Bond out when he realised he may actually be of some small use in his next and final crime. Like all Bond villains Goldfinger has to unburden himself of his plans and so tells Bond that he plans to go down in history for pulling the biggest crime ever, and stealing the entire American supply of gold from Fort Knox! —Fleming always thinks with a kind of cartoon, bravura excess, egged on by his uninhibited villains.

The preparation

Briefly, Bond and Tilly have been kept alive to act as secretaries to the organisation of the job. The building they’re in is some kind of warehouse near the river in New York. At Goldfinger’s instruction, Bond types out and copies the agenda for a meeting with the six biggest organised crime gangs in America. When they arrive they are a suitably florid and ugly bunch, but the stand-out member is one Pussy Galore, leader of a lesbian gang in New York.

Goldfinger gives these men and Pussy a detailed explanation of  his plan: to slip sleeping powder into the water supply of Fort Knox; to put the word out that there’s been some kind of attack or medical emergency; to organise a special medical emergency train to go into the danger zone, staffed by his own Korean and German guards along with selected members from each gang; to secure the perimeter of the Knox building, then to blow open the stainless steel doors of the vault with a small nuclear device!

Nuclear device!!

At this point Bond realises Goldfinger is a megalomaniac genius, and the reader realises how preposterous the entire scheme is. This warhead has been bought through bribery and corruption from the US Army in Germany, and is – allegedly – one of a new generation of fallout-free weapons. Yes. So the first men in will need radiation suits but will be able to pass the gold safely out to the gangsters waiting in their long lines of lorries to take their share of the gold wherever they want to.

Five of the gangsters sign up for the deal on the spot. The fifth says he’s not interested and leaves. Moments later Goldfinger tells the assembled hoods, the leaver has met with an unfortunate accident, fallen down some stairs and is dead.

After the hoods have gone, Goldfinger reveals that a) it is not going to be sleeping chemicals his men slip into the dam, but a deadly nerve gas which will kill the entire 60,000 population of Fort Knox, b) he is in fact going to take his $5 billion of gold to the coast where it will ship onboard a Russian submarine. The money will be used to fund SMERSH operations for decades. (For some reason, for the first time, the way everything comes back to SMERSH seemed silly to me, and also very small-minded: oh it’s another SMERSH operation.)

Next day Goldfinger, Oddjob, Tilly, Bond and others take a charter jet to fly over Fort Knox and check everything is as per the detailed map he had displayed at the meeting. In fact this is a plot device to allow Bond to scrawl a very long detailed account of the plan, roll it into a tight tube, write a warning message on the outside, that anyone taking this document to Felix Leiter at the Pinkerton Agency in new York will get a reward of $5,000 on the spot, and sellotape it to the underside of the toilet seat.

For the rest of the flight, and then for the next few days, Bond is in an agony of uncertainty, not knowing whether the message will be found at all, whether it will be acted on, or whether it’ll be found by Goldfinger’s people and he can expect a bullet in the neck at any point.

D-Day

In the event, on D-Day, the poison is put into the drinking water, news gets out and Goldfinger and his team man the rescue train into stricken zone posing as medical emergency team. As it enters Fort Knox they see cars which have crashed, people fallen across their lawns and washing lines, prone bodies everywhere, even with pinkish foam at the lips. Bond’s heart sinks. My God he is responsible for the deaths of 60,000 people; he should have murdered Goldfinger before this, even at the cost of his own life, done anything. (Bond is prone to a lot of self-doubt and worry and even guilt, throughout the books.)

The bluff

But it’s an immense con trick. A maroon warning flare is shot into the sky and thousands of people, including a lot of US Army troops spring to their feet and begin a terrific firefight with Goldfinger’s people and the assembled crooks. Bond jumps off the cab of the train which he had been viewing everything from, along with Tilly but they’re immediately pursued by Oddjob who has been tasked with keeping tabs on Bond throughout. Tilly turns to run back to Pussy but is immediately killed by Oddjob using his steel-rimmed bowler hat, and then throws himself into a flying karate kick at Bond, knocking him to the floor. He is moving in for what will no doubt be the kill when the train starts to pull out and Oddjob runs and jumps on to it. At that very moment Bond’s old pal Felix Leiter emerges with half a dozen soldiers and a bazooka which Bond seizes and fires at the escaping train, damaging the rear engine but not the front one and it steams over a river bridge and is gone.

Bond walks back down the track and looks down at the poor, huddled rags of the dead Tilly.

On the plane

Days later, after a full debriefing over the phone to M, then the FBI and then an embarrassing 15 minutes of thanks from the President himself (!), after a lot of joshing and ragging with Leiter, Bond is dropped at the BOAC terminal outside New York, checks in his bag etc but is then told he has to have a vaccination jab (!). No sooner is he injected than he passes out. When he awakes it is tied by the wrists and arms to the seat of an airliner which is airbound and next to the ever-vigilant Oddjob. Goldfinger comes strolling down the aisle: ‘Well, Mr Bond, I underestimated you’ etc.

Bond asks to be served Bourbon and ice to free his hands. To his surprise the coaster the drink arrives on has a message from Pussy reading ‘I’m on your side’. This gives him the courage for a desperate plan. He pretends to drowse and nod of and slowly Oddjob eases his supervision so that, with a sudden lunge, Bond leans across him and stabs the dagger concealed in the heel of his trick shoe, through the perspex window. It shatters and all hell breaks loose, the cabin depressurising, the plane going into a nose dive and Oddjob, sitting next to the window, is very gruesomely sucked into it and then squeezed through it like toothpaste.

When the plane has levelled out Bond undoes his seat belt and encounters Goldfinger in the aisle, for once in his life going into a complete berserker frenzy and strangling him to death in a hard-fought physical battle. He takes Goldfinger’s gun into the cabin of frightened pilots, gets the radio, establishes they don’t have enough fuel to get to any dry land, and contacts a radio ship in the north Atlantic, asking it to put out a flare landing path (?). It does this and an hour later the airliner hits the choppy sea, almost immediately breaks up, Bond and Pussy just having time to escape through an emergency exit with a life raft. The plane, with its cargo of $5 billion, and the crew, breaks up and sinks to the bottom of the Atlantic.

An hour later, picked up by the crew of the radio ship, Bond and Pussy are clean and in spare clothes. Pussy comes into his cabin wearing only a fisherman’s sweater. Get into bed, he orders, and she is meek and compliant. She explains she was a lesbian all her life because she was raped and abused by an uncle in the Deep South. Bond explains that all she needs is TLC (it is interesting that he has to explain that this stands for Tender Loving Care) and he commences his version of it by slipping his hand up over her flat belly to feel the curve of her breast and its hard nipple, then kissing her hard.

Lesbianism and lameness

Thus the novel ends on the ‘curing’ of Pussy’s lesbianism. Obviously, this is insulting to real life lesbians, then again Pussy is as realistic a character as Goldfinger, ie the entire thing is a preposterous fantasy. Nevertheless, even in its own terms, I think it is a shallow, lame ending.

You could possibly draw a graph showing the number of hours Bond puts into a relationship before he sleeps with a woman, in each of the novels. Thus Casino Royale invests a huge amount of time and energy in the relationship with Vesper Lynd which, unfortunately, ends up so tragically. We are in the company of Solitaire, Gala Brand or Tatiana Romanova for long stretches of their respective novels and we get to know them and share Bond’s thoughts and developing feeling for them over many chapters, before he gets anywhere near taking them to bed.

Goldfinger feels like the first novel which reflects the ‘easy-lay’ philosophy of the movies. Bond’s whirlwind romance with Jill Masterton feels shallow and porny, the way that, just five minutes after Bond bursts into her hotel bedroom to find her wearing only pants and bra, she is looking at him with need in her eyes, and offers to do anything for him – this insults, I think, both the reader and Bond as a character, when he is at his best and most feeling.

But the way a supposedly confirmed, hardened, man-hating lesbian crime leader like Pussy can – over the course of just half a dozen casual bantering exchanges in rooms full of other mobsters or Goldfinger and his gang – abruptly realise that Bond is ‘the first real man’ she’s met in her life, and therefore end up presenting herself on a plate for Bond and the reader’s pleasure, seems to me a forced and superficial ending to this book.

This is the first Bond novel which failed to convince me, even on its own pulp, comic-book level. For me the realistic descriptions of Jamaica, of meals and showers and scenery and settings, the prosaic details of Bond’s day-to-day living, along with a lot of his thought processes, in the earlier books, outweighed the silliness of the plots. This is the first one where the balance shifted and the preposterous, cartoon, wish-fulfilment elements outweighed the interesting and good descriptions.

And the ‘curing’ of Pussy stands as a fitting emblem of this tipping-over into the absurd.


Comments

Timeframe

The novel is divided into three distinct sections, taking a supposed saying of Goldfinger’s as an organising principle: ‘Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action’ – and so the three parts are named Happenstance, Coincidence and Enemy Action, as Bond encounters Goldfinger three times, with mounting antagonism.

None of this is earth-shattering, but I admire Fleming’s restless drive to vary the format and structure of his fictions: sure, the fundamental narrative arc remains remarkably samey (baddie, girl, fight), but that makes it all the more interesting to note the themes and variations he plays on it.

Food

  • Du Pont treats Bond to the most delicious meal he’s ever eaten (p.22): fresh stone crabs with melted butter and thick toast, washed down with two pints of pink champagne (Pommery 1950) served in silver tankards.
  • Next day for lunch Bond and Du Pont have shrimp cocktail, native snapper with tartare sauce, roast prime ribs of beef au jus, and pineapple surprise. (p.32)

Personification

A new element enters Fleming’s writing in this book, the use of personification ie giving inanimate objects intention and agency. As Colonel Smithers warms up to deliver his lecture about gold,

Bond felt boredom gathering in the corners of the room. (p.50)

In general Fleming’s style is blunt and factual. I think it works best this way though, of course, he has been criticised for this as for just about everything else in the books. For example, back in London after the Mexico trip, Bond is on night duty:

Bond stood at the open window of the seventh-floor office of the tall building in Regent’s Park that is the headquarters of the Secret Service. London lay asleep under a full moon that rode over the town through a shoal of herring-bone clouds. Big Ben sounded three. One of the telephones rang in the dark room. (p.40)

Admittedly this passage personifies London, but in a traditional way most readers don’t register. What counts is the diminuendo towards the short factual sentences, which mimic Bond’s cold, calculating decisive actions, when he is on his mettle. Compared with all that, the half dozen personifications in Goldfinger strike a new, almost Dickensian, note.

Bond got slowly out of the car and stood looking at the house. Its blank, well-washed eyes stared back at him. The house had a background noise, a heavy rhythmic pant like a huge animal with a rather quick pulse… The quiet watchful facade of the house seemed to be waiting for Bond to do something, make some offensive move to which there would be a quick reply… The silence, helped by the slow iron tick of a massively decorated grandfather clock, gathered and crept nearer. (pp.96-97

Bond facts

M wears a stiff white collar and a loosely-tied spotted bow tie (p.46).

The Secret Service employs 2,000 staff (p.54).

For the first time Bond drives a Service Aston Martin DB III. For the first time in the series there are gadgets: the front and back lights can change colour and appearance; reinforced steel bumpers in case of ramming; a long-barreled Colt .45 in a secret compartment; and plenty of concealed space (p.62).

Bond is bored so he is working on a book to be titled Stay Alive! about all the known methods of unarmed combat from around the world (p.42) though, interestingly, he is sickened by some of the things he reads, especially in the Russian manuals.


Credit

Goldfinger by Ian Fleming was published in 1959 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 1961 Pan paperback, 1964 edition (price: 3/6).

Related links

Other thrillers from 1959

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

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