Cartoons, pop songs and film all tend to show management as evil, organisations as places which crush the soul, and work as something to be escaped from. Even in shows which present work that we are supposed to admire – doctors, firefighters, the police – there is corruption and conspiracy, which mean that the bosses can rarely be trusted.
You might think that the stories about the most famous secret agent in the world would conform to this pattern. But they don’t.
It is easy to forget that the James Bond novels (and films) are about work. They contain realistic signed and dated memos and appendices and they often begin with corridors and offices. We learn that Bond is paid £1,500 a year, “the salary of a Principal Officer in the Civil Service”, as well as an extra £1,000 tax free.
A modest salary in today’s money. He goes on missions two or three times a year and has office hours between ten and six.
But Bond is different from many of the spies and detectives who follow him from the late 1960s onwards. In the novels he very rarely makes any criticism of his employers, and the threats he deals with are all external to his organisation – the fictional Soviet counterintelligence agency SMERSH and sinister crime group SPECTRE. Though Bond does begin to change as the films go on, in the novels and short stories published between 1953 and 1966 he is a model employee.
His boss, M, is the unquestioned object of Bond’s admiration, a shrewd father figure with a background in the navy who continually plays with his pipe. M is hard to please – and refuses sentimentality. But Bond is always waiting for his call to escape from the soft life. He obeys, sometimes cursing and resentful, but always does what he is asked.
There was a creak from M’s chair and Bond looked across the table at the man who held a great deal of his affection and all his loyalty and obedience. The grey eyes looked back at him thoughtfully. M took the pipe out of his mouth. – Diamonds Are Forever
Later in the same novel, Bond suggests that he couldn’t marry a woman because he is already married to a man: “Name begins with M. I’d have to divorce him before I tried marrying a woman.” Bond and his boss are both loyal organisation men. Learning difficult skills, following rules, being an obedient white-collar worker are all part of a noble vocation.
If we compare the novels to the later films we can see that Bond gradually becomes an employee who is critical of the means and ends of the organisation that he works for, even to the extent of going rogue to fulfil his mission. This tells us something about the ways in which work and organisations were understood in the 1950s, and how they changed from the late 1960s onwards.
The Bond books occupy an unusual period, one in which the activities of businesses seem to have been regarded as relatively benign. Fleming was writing during a moment in which the organisation was a backdrop for romance in films, or the source of wealth and expertise. Work might be boring and there might be stupid bosses and irritating colleagues, but the legitimacy of the organisation itself was never in doubt. The system worked, and the armies and factories of the allies defeated the fiendish schemes of the enemy.
Bond’s loyalty to M’s clear blue eyes really does begin to look anachronistic compared to the world that we live in now, a world in which managers and corporations are understood to be the generators of conspiracy, not the solution to them. This is better reflected in the 007 we know today, who has become an action anti-hero.
But the paperback Bond reminds us of a time when workplaces and organisations were imagined as places for authenticity and salvation. They show us that places like the Secret Service will save us from the evil schemers of SPECTRE, and that men behind desks can also be men of action.
What we catch here is a glimpse into a moment in British understandings of the organisation man and the redemptive possibilities of work. The relationship between Bond and M, between loyal employee and gruff but kindly father figure, is simply no longer believable – a sad comment on the contemporary world of work.