Quite often, I read a book and think to myself that I need to find a class where I can teach the book. Sometimes that’s easy: there’s quite a range of work I can throw into my class on the history of consumerism and commodities, for example.
Simon Winder’s book of essays about the historical moment in British history, specifically British imperial history, that led to Ian Fleming and James Bond, is one of those books, and I don’t really have a course into which it would readily fit. I could teach it the week of my Honors seminar on modern Africa that deals with decolonization, but it is ever so slightly too far away from that. So the book gives me a slight extra motivation to teach a course on the history of the British Empire or on the cultural history of European colonialism, both classes I’ve toyed with teaching in the past.
Not because it’s an absolutely great book. Both stylistically and substantively, it has some real problems. Winder is basically focused on how British society worked through the years from 1945 to 1975, both in terms of the economic and social pain of postwar life within the United Kingdom itself, the grey dullness and complacency that so many returning expatriates and ex-colonial bureaucrats complained about, and the complicated transformation of British identity through the end of empire. He sees Fleming as a distinctive kind of upper-class degenerate trying to work through his revulsion at postwar, postcolonial England by escaping to Jamaica and creating Bond, and he ties the consumption of Bond novels and films as both a reaction to postwar Britain and a tool for making a new kind of British identity in global culture.
It’s a very funny book in many respects, but it also has a very distinctive, stimulating take on decolonization. Particularly if you’re familiar with either British history or with imperial history (or both), it’s often laugh-out-loud amusing, but Winder also has a kind of barely-checked outrage simmering under the surface.
It is, unfortunately, a horrible mess in other ways. There’s about half a book here, and the rest is repetition of the same jokes, arguments, and details. It would be an unkind book to hand to an American reader who likes James Bond but knows nothing about British or imperial history. I even think a young British reader who likes Bond would find some of it baffling. The book often shades into being shrill as well. I’m not one for indulging in the usual hobby of bashing non-academic writers for allegedly simplifying matters best left to academics, but I don’t think it takes a Ph.D to acknowledge that the disastrous partition of India and Pakistan was both the result of extraordinary bungling by key British leaders and a complex event with deep and far-reaching causes. Winder really only sees it as an occasion to describe the entire British political class as vicious dunderheads. There’s a lot of that from Winder, where even when I was quite enjoying the splenetic dressing-down of various historical figures, I couldn’t help but think it was a bit much.
That’s why I want to teach the book, however. One of the things I learned early in my career is that extremely good, careful works of scholarship are mostly not good for teaching undergraduates, or they’re only good if they’re heavily interspersed by wrong books, crazy books, fun books, wildly original books. Winder’s book is such a good read at most points that I completely forgave him the unevenness, the overlooking of some angles on Bond as a cultural property, and the occasional heavy-handedness of his perspective on empire. In a class where there was some context to help my students read the book, I can see it generating a memorable discussion.