May 16, 2007

Book Review: The Young Bond Rough Guide to London

The Young Bond Rough Guide to London was issued as a free giveaway with copies of The Guardian purchased in the London area the first weekend of April, 2007. Bond fans around the world subsequently paid through the nose to get copies on Ebay, and their money was well spent. The Young Bond Rough Guide to London is no mere pamphlet, but a full, squarebound, 64 page book the size of other Rough Guides, like the full-length Rough Guide to James Bond. I’m not sure how big the print run was (but I’d be curious to know!), but due to the limited area in which it was available, and due to the perceived disposability of such material (many Guardian readers no doubt threw it out with the trash come Monday), it’s likely to become one of the rarer modern titles sought after by James Bond collectors, perhaps even moreso than the limited editions of Charlie Higson’s Young Bond novels. It’s also the first published guide of any sort to Higson’s contributions to the Bond canon, edited by Paul Simpson, editor of The Rough Guide to James Bond and co-author of The Bond Files, one of the more comprehensive texts on 007 in all his incarnations.* And, as a final note for collectors, it is the first English language book to depict Young Bond himself on the cover, using an illustration by Kev Walker previously available on the website and on promotional items.

Beneath the attractive but incongruous cover depicting Walker’s version of young James Bond in his 1930s attire standing in front of a stylized, modern-day London cityscape, the Guide is a quick and informative read. Like all Rough Guides, it’s divided into sections. The first, "The Back Story," contains a short overview on Ian Fleming and his creation of James Bond, then outlines how the Young Bond series came to be and briefly profiles Charlie Higson, including some choice quotes from the author. There’s an interesting one-page interview with Higson in which he reiterates some thoughts he’s shared fairly frequently (like not wanting all of his villains to be deformed so as to avoid unfairly stereotyping disfigured people as evil) and shares a few thoughts I hadn’t read before.

Next come synopses of the three extant Young Bond novels (similar to the ones given of Fleming’s books in The Rough Guide to James Bond), with the most space devoted to SilverFin. There are some misprints, such as a line that implies that Bond’s schoolmate George Hellebore is "horribly deformed," rather than his benevolent uncle Algar, but there can’t have been too much time for proofreading this project, so to me such infrequent oversights are forgivable. The most essential trivia is cited, like how the opening of SilverFin echoes Fleming’s famous opening lines of Casino Royale, or how young Bond briefly encounters the strongman father of his later From Russia With Love adversary, Red Grant. There will probably be nothing new to true Young Bond experts, but I, for one, didn’t realize that SilverFin’s villain, Lord Hellebore, was named after a poisonous buttercup! Very appropriate, if you’ve read the novel.

The first section closes with two pieces on London, one giving an overview of its more famous espionage incidents, the other outlining the explosive social conditions that gripped the city in its prewar years. This part is actually quite fascinating, and, with further contributions from Higson, makes a great companion to Double Or Die, in which he paints a fairly vivid portrait of the extreme gap between rich and poor, between London’s posh Cumberland Terrace and poverty-stricken East End docklands at the time. Some of the political background given here may go over the heads of Young Bond’s youngest readers, but like the novels themselves, the Guide for the most part works as an all-ages resource, and should prove equally readable to fans young and old.

The bulk of the book is formed by the middle section, "On The Trail," which retraces James’s Double or Die journey through London for the benefit of a modern-day tourist. Like most of the Rough Guide travel books, it makes an entertaining and informative travelogue. The writers do a great job of mixing specific references to and even quotes from Higson’s book with pertinent historical facts and tips for today’s tourists. It’s even up-to-date enough to mention the gravesite of poisoned Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in Highgate Cemetery, surprisingly located just "a stone’s throw” from Karl Marx’s final resting place!

Helpful sidebars highlight specific places of interest or historical events, and all prove captivating. Reading Double or Die, I wondered if the 1917 Brunner Mond docklands explosion Higson mentions was real. I assumed it was, but I’d never heard about it. This book answers all my questions on the subject! In fact, the whole Young Bond Rough Guide to London serves as much as an especially readable set of notations to Double or Die as it does a travel guide. You could easily refer to it again and again while reading the book.

I expected to flip around, as you do with most guides of this nature (or with annotations), but I found all the entries intriguing enough that I quickly ended up reading the entire thing straight through. On top of the London locations, it goes on to outline "Day Trips" to nearby Young Bond locations including Eton, Cambridge and Bletchley Park. Interestingly, it also includes Windsor, to which James hasn’t yet traveled in Higson’s books (I have, and hold fond memories of the place), but may soon, it seems! "The visitor is more likely to be struck by the lonely, grey splendour of Windsor Castle, the world’s largest inhabited castle which will play a key role in the fifth Young Bond novel." I guess Paul Simpson knows something we don't! Nice of him to share.

The final portion of the book is entitled "Time Off" and identifies London locations that don’t directly pertain to James Bond, but that a fan of the books might be interested in. It’s mostly the regular touristy stuff, like Madame Tussaud’s, the British Museum and London Dungeon, but still with a clever Bondian spin. The Guide duly notes, for example, that the Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum "wouldn’t be Bond’s cup of tea – he loathes the stuff – but he might have appreciated this museum’s intriguing coffee exhibits." And special attention is given to a Q-like gun designed to shoot around corners on display at the Imperial War Museum. Clearly, this information isn’t merely rehashed from the regular Rough Guide to London; it’s been carefully selected and edited.

The Young Bond Rough Guide to London may have been intended as just a piece of publicity material, but it’s really so much more than that. It succeeds both as a travel guide (it really makes me yearn to see London again) and as a compelling companion to the Young Bond novels–particularly Double or Die. Since it’s a little bit surprising so much work and obvious dedication would go into such a slight publication, I sincerely hope this turns out to be a sampler for a full-length Young Bond Rough Guide, which provides the same sort of information for all the locations James visits in Higson’s ultimate five book cycle. That way, all Bond fans would eventually have easy access to this great material (and more!), and not just the ones willing to pay foolish fortunes to savvy speculators. Such a reference book would also be a great way to create a fun educational tie-in to the popular young adult series, which has to be appealing to Penguin. (Anything to get it in more classrooms and school libraries, I would think, and hook more readers, maybe even in America!)

*Despite its unimpressive appearance and total lack of illustrations, this mass market paperback is highly recommended to all Bond fans. Covering Bond in print, films, comics and more, it’s in-depth enough to satisfy even the most knowledgeable readers, but also easily organized enough to serve as a good primer for the uninitiated. Granted, it owes a lot to Kingsley Amis’s trail-blazing The James Bond Dossier and Raymond Benson’s definitive work on the subject, The James Bond Bedside Companion, but it covers enough new ground to still be worth getting for people who have both of those. (After all, the Bedside Companion is now twenty years old, and neither Benson nor Amis covered Bond in comics.) It may contain a few errors, but I’ve yet to see a Bond tome that doesn’t. And while some fans complain about how opinionated Simpson and co-author Andy Lane are, I find that refreshing. There are more than enough books out there that simply list the girls, the gadgets, the cars, etcetera, that to me it becomes the opinions that make any book on the subject worth reading. Consequently, books like The James Bond Files and Deborah Lipp’s Ultimate James Bond Fan Book rise to the top of a very crowded field. I also recommend The Avengers Dossier in the same series (from Virgin Books), for the same reasons and with the same qualifications, which I know is a rather unpopular stance in the Avengers fan community.

1 comment:

zencat said...

Excellent review, Tanner. Thank you.