Why Am I Reading Bond?


Not ‘why (you should) read Bond’, but ‘why (on earth) am I reading Bond’?

They’re as dated as you might expect. Bond is a terrible spy, mainly achieving his goals by stumbling into coincidences or being invited to work for the villain (at least once once in an admin role, of all things). Dei ex machina all over the place. The sexism and racism are indefensible, a product of another age maybe, but still appalling. So I should have a pretty solid reason for ploughing through the oeuvre, right? If only.

It’s the covers.

Vintage did a great job with these covers, IMHO – and despite what this guy sez – fulfilling their brief of emphasising the “cool and clever nature of Bond” (hmm but ok).  They work brilliantly as a set.

The designs are plain, the typography fantastically inventive – see the negative space jewel in Diamonds Are Forever or On Her Majesty’s “Secret” masked by “Service”. The influence of Saul Bass is clear.

Those covers had leapt out at me when trawling through Foyles, but I only picked up Casino Royale. But then I stumbled across For Your Eyes Only in a second-hand bookshop, and the damage was done. How could I have books 1 and 8 in a series and not fill in the gaps?

They are an easy enough read, a curious window into the post-war English psyche. They’re packed with lavish descriptions of quality clothing, food and drink. The phrase “and a round of hot buttered toast” will be uttered by Bond at least twice per book. God help me, whenever Fleming turns to driving action, I can’t help but hear the words in the golden tones of broadcaster, Alan Partridge.

The hard part is the attitudes of the time. The sexism is cast in that ancient mode of misogyny-masquerading-as-idolatry. The racism is jingoistic, imperialist, Bond looking indulgently down on black people, all Americans, and Italians alike. Fleming uses the fig leaf of tokenism, always an admirable exception, the worthy Turk who nonetheless slips willingly into sidekick-hood.

(There’s no explaining away these two issues, they do leave a bad taste in the mouth. And this shows me how far my completist nature will push me to a) complete a set and b) finish a book I’ve started. Can’t not be done.)

It’s interesting to note how different Fleming’s Bond is from the movie version, how fallible or human he is, crying with relief, getting drunk (his champagne/Benzedrine hangover seems the worst), even giving up and longing for death. To be fair, that last happens after a giant squid attack – so in *some* ways the movies are more realistic.

This is a cartoonish world where the gangsters are named Billy Ring, Jed Midnight, and “Mr Helmut Springer of the Detroit Purple Gang”. It’s baffling how little time separates these often corny tales of derring-do from the complex physiologies and intricate, all-too-plausible plotting of early Le Carré.

Anyways, gotta go, Penguin just dropped a dope set of classic sci-fi covers


The Elements of Typographical Style

Reiffel Bird Sanctuary, March 1996

First, let’s get one thing straight: this is a typography manual. And it’s one of the most surprisingly wonderful books I’ve ever read.

Beautiful to look at, of course – it’s a masterpiece both about and of typographical style. Beautifully printed and bound, to boot. But beautifully written too, and quietly revelatory, peppered with illuminating asides on letterforms or the history of printing.

Like this note, that the 26-character, vanilla Roman alphabet of the ASCII character set is “the aphabet not of the real world nor of the UN General Assembly but of NATO: a technological memento of the them-and-us mentality that thrived in the Cold War”.

On text figures (a.k.a. hanging figures, i.e. numbers that descend or ascend from the line like lower case letters; to be contrasted with titling figures, which align with the upper case):

They are basic parts of typographic speech, and they are a sign of civilisation: a sign that dollars are not really twice as important as ideas, and numbers are not afraid to consort on an equal footing with words.

Or the analogy between the mixing of roman/italic faces and the system of linked major/minor keys in music, and the observation that both were inventions of the Baroque period. Huh.

Okay, okay – I picked this up when I was possessed by a sudden obsession with fonts typefaces, and a passing interest in the typographical arts is no doubt essential to enjoying this book.

But it’s just so fantastically written! Every paragraph, no matter how technical, has harmony and flow. Insight and wisdom spring from all kinds of places. In a sidenote on justification through the distortion of glyphs:

But the fact is, all justification involves distortion (…). And distortion, like poverty, is less painful when spread around.

Turning to the bibliography of the author, Robert Bringhurst, it seems he might just be the most interesting man in the world. Not just a typographer, but an author, editor, and poet too – now the poetical tint of his prose makes sense. And the list of his translations includes classical Greek and Latin as well as Navajo and Haida*.

(* While there was controversy around his Haida translations, the accusations seem overstated – with a broadcaster, CBS, claiming Bringhurst hadn’t consulted any Haida speakers, when in fact he’d spent a decade working with the community.)

Anyhoozle. The book is stuffed with lucidly rendered and wholly convincing prose:

One good typeface is better and more useful than fifty thousand poor ones. Here as always, good means several things. It means that the letterforms themselves are clearly envisioned, lucidly rendered and, beyond all that, convincing. It means they make mute, irrefutable sense to both body and mind. It means that the fabric in which these letterforms are held is well made too. If the type is metal, it means that the metal is well cast – hard, sharp, free of bubbles or sags – and evenly dressed…

That quote could’ve gone on. It’s all good stuff. And the book is doing what it should, bringing a subject I know little about into the light of understanding. I’m sure I could study typography for years and still be learning from this book.

Last word to Prof. Bringhurst. On the well-made page:

The well-made page is now what it was then: a window into history, language and the mind: a map of what is being said and a portrait of the voice that is silently speaking.

That being so, The Elements of Typographical Style is one hell of a window / map.