Style | Swellboy

Swellboy… a new James Bond novel

The ghost of Ian Fleming walks again – but must he wear a tie with a short-sleeved shirt?

Swellboy… a new James Bond novel

July 21 2011
Nick Foulkes

I salute the author Jeffery Deaver for his new James Bond novel, Carte Blanche. It cannot be easy stepping into another author’s shoes and assuming his voice, further complicated as it is by the cultural overlay of the films. And there are moments when Deaver really seems to be channelling Bond’s creator; the description of Puligny-Montrachet as “the highest incarnation of the chardonnay grape” has the ring of Fleming about it, even if the wine snob might have suggested Bâtard-Montrachet as a slightly more exclusive white burgundy.

I suppose that the difficulty for anyone following Fleming is that Fleming made a lot of this stuff up – not the wine and so forth, but the genre of brand-specific literature. Without him there would be no Brett Easton Ellis, perhaps even no Peter York (a frightening thought).

Fleming is the laureate of the branded era; novelists did namecheck makers of things before – Balzac was certainly not above a little product placement, although the status-conferring objects that he favoured tend to be works of art and antiques; brands were few in those days. But Fleming had the good fortune to live and work in an age when the brand was supreme. Quite how the galley slaves in the advertising factories got any work done in between all the smoking, drinking and flirting we see in Mad Men is beyond me, but clearly they did, as a tsunami of often misleading images and statements were placed before a public learning to be affluent after the world war and the grim Marshall Plan years who, with relaxed hire purchase restrictions, were doing their best to live up to Harold Macmillan’s maxim that they had never had it so good. Nor are luxury goods always centre stage; for instance, the first brand mention in Moonraker is of a Ventaxia fan – genius; the quotidian alongside the costly.

However, I wonder just how much of Fleming’s own personal style I would adopt myself. The sandals I could live without. Then there is his habit of wearing short-sleeved blue shirts with a dark polka-dot bow tie. Fleming was big on the bow tie and in particular the way it was knotted; according to his biographer, Andrew Lycett, he once requested that a journalist interviewing him substitute the word “loosely” for the descriptive construction “with Churchillian looseness”.

I have nothing against loosely-fastened bow ties and I concur that, seeing as the Duke of Windsor has his own knot, the very least posterity can bestow on the man who saved England from fascism is an eponymous knot in his neckwear. No, my issue is with the short-sleeved shirts worn with a tie – I have enough problem working with a short-sleeved shirt when I am in resort mode, and as for wearing one with a tie: well, I can only say that the perfect accessories for such a look are a breastpocket of prestige writing instruments, a clipboard and perhaps some form of telephone headset. The short-sleeved shirt and tie combo is something that I might have been able to tackle in my youth, but for which I would lack the moral strength and philosophical flexibility to attempt today.

However, there is one element of the Fleming wardrobe with which I wholeheartedly concur, and that is the lightweight tropical suit. I seem to recall that Fleming’s suits were so lightweight that when he worked in newspapers his colleagues used to jest that every time one wore out he would take the buttons back to his tailor and get a new suit attached to them. This of course opens a debate about the correct button-to-fabric weight ratio. My tip, when working with a fabric of seven ounces or under, is to use thin mother-of-pearl buttons, either in their naturally opalescent hue or smoked to an iridescent inky darkness. The trouble is that I will insist on breaking my own rules and on one occasion I was so taken with the handsome corozo-nut buttons of the yacht club in Naples to which Mariano Rubinacci belongs that I had him attach them to a suit he made for me. They look great, but they more or less double the weight of the garment – I dread to think what the extra load would have been like had I had a three- rather than a one-button front.