The Lost Meaning of Casino Royale
by Virginia Postrel • Nov 21, 2006 at 5:19 pm
James Bond is a glamorous icon, but we don't notice some of his original glamour today, because we've forgotten what a constrained world his early audience inhabited. Simon Winder explains in his engaging new book, The Man Who Saved Britain:
Casino Royale is a book all about privilege, but privilege of a very marginal and almost grimy kind, and it shows the reality of British life with startlingly greater clarity than the Coronation. The action is entirely based in and around the dull, failing Normandy coastal town of Royale--a sort of hopeless Deauville. One can imagine that French casinos circa 1950 had been through rather a lot--the previous decade having seen a "mixed crowd" at the tables. The nature of Bond's privilege is to be at Royale at all. Currency and travel restrictions meant that the Channel, the barrier essential in 1940 to keeping the Germans out, was now quite actively penning non-military British people in. The very wealthy, or those with friends in France, could make arrangements to get round the restrictions (which stayed in place in various ways until the 1970s--yet another example of how strange the recent past was), but for virtually everyone France, even blustery, sour northern France, had become as exotic as Shangri-La. Fleming could not have chosen his location more cleverly: he would need to ratchet up the flow of exotica with each of the later books (until by the end Bond is mucking around with Japanese lobster eaten live as it crawls around his table), but Britain's frame of reference had shrunk so small by the early fifties that Royale was quite enough.
The book teems with now almost invisible digs--indeed the whole idea of the casino with its theoretically limitless stakes and winnings must have seemed derangedly heady to the book's first readers. And the Anglo-American relationship has never been better summed up than when Felix Leiter hands a broke Bond an envelope crammed with lovely new dollars, allowing him to carry on playing cards with the villain, Le Chiffre. For me the heart of the book, though, must be the scene when Bond tucks into an avocado pear. An avocado! These were exotic in 1939 but they could at least be bought. Avocados only really became available again in Britain in the late 1950s and had a desirability status akin to that felt (rather more democratically) for bananas by East Germans. The sense of the exotic which Fleming had to work for really hard in later books is won here with a mere oily tropical fruit on the windswept Channel coast. Oddly, during one of the many horrible, diarrhoeic currency crises that ravaged the international value of the pound (this one in the late sixties), avocados were specifically mentioned (along with strawberries and vintage wine) as imports to be restricted under the draconian "Operation Brutus," mercifully never implemented.
The 21st-century world of the movie is still dangerous, but far less suffocating. I recommend Winder's book: to both Bond fans (some of whom will find in infuriating) and anyone interested in the mentality of postwar Britain.