Writing Portfolio


When Samuel Pepys went treasure-hunting

On 30th October 1662, a party of men arrived at the Tower of London. Their leader was a short man who was obliged to surrender his sword to the guards; unwilling to proceed unarmed without a cloak, for a gentleman of the time was not considered to be properly dressed without one or the other, he retreated to a nearby pub while his servant ran home to fetch said garment. Luckily for the servant, the man lived on Seething Lane, just to the west of Tower Hill. Once properly attired, he proceeded into the Tower where he met with Sir Henry Bennet, the Secretary of State. Bennet was there to give the man the King’s warrant to search the Tower.

The man was Samuel Pepys, Clerk of the Acts at the Navy Office, and he already knew what he had been sent to look for. Earlier that morning he had met with his patron, the Earl of Sandwich, who had told him that an acquaintance of theirs called Thomas Wade had reported that a cache of gold, silver and jewels with an estimated value of £7000 was buried somewhere in the Tower’s grounds. Sandwich had arranged for Bennet to obtain the necessary warrant to enable Pepys to carry out a search. The fact that he was delegated with this task can be seen as a sign of Sandwich’s increased confidence in his abilities.

Whatever information Wade might have had about the money’s exact location was, alas, unreliable. “We went into several little cellars,” Pepys would later record in his diary, “and then went out a-doors to view, and to the Coleharbour; but none did answer so well to the marks which was given him to find it by as one arched vault. Where after a great deal of counsel whether to set upon it now or delay for better and more full advice, we set to it; and to digging we went to almost 8 a-clock at night – but could find nothing.”

He was back at the Tower two days later, along with Robert Lee (Bennet’s agent), Wade and some workmen, “to make one triall more”. Digging, he recorded, “was now most confidently directed; and so seriously, and upon pretended good grounds … but we missed of all, and so we went away the second time like fools.” Later that day, Pepys met with Wade and a Captain Evett who claimed to have been told of the location of the treasure by a confidante of the man who had hidden it. Pepys appears to have been convinced by Evett’s account, even though he was dealing with what was at best third-hand information.

Unfortunately, the one man who might have been able to state with confidence where the treasure could be found – the man who had apparently hidden it – was dead. That man was John Barkstead, who had been the Lieutenant of the Tower under Oliver Cromwell. As a younger man, Pepys himself had supported the Parliamentarian cause and his entry into what we would now call the civil service in the 1650s had been due to the patronage of a distant cousin, Edward Montagu, who had fought for Parliament in the Civil War and had risen to become one of Cromwell’s generals-at-sea. In the political uncertainty following Cromwell’s death, Montagu had switched his loyalties and played a crucial role in restoring the monarchy, for which Charles II had rewarded him by making him the Earl of Sandwich.

Barkstead had also fought for Parliament but he had then been a commissioner at Charles I’s trial and had therefore been one of the signatories of the latter’s death warrant. He owed his position at the Tower to Cromwell, who approved of his efficiency and even knighted him in 1656. After Cromwell’s death, though, he had been dismissed amid accusations of his having fleeced the prisoners in his care, and he had fled the country at the time of the Restoration – only to be captured and sent back to England along with two of his fellow-Regicides, Miles Corbet and John Okey. Charles II may have been lenient towards some repentant ex-Parliamentarians, but for surviving Regicides there was little mercy. All three were hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 19th April 1662.

Barkstead, who Pepys also refers to as Baxter, is not known to have mentioned any hidden valuables at his former place of work following his arrest, but rumours about this started after his execution – many doubtless remembered the accusations that he had used his position to line his own pockets – and it is perhaps surprising that it had taken six months for these rumours to reach someone (Sandwich) with the power to order a proper search. Even with the treasure not yet recovered, it had already been decided that the estimated £7000 would be split three ways: £2000 for Wade for reporting it to the proper authorities, £2000 for Sandwich and £3000 for the King. Pepys reckoned that he might get between £10 and £20 from his patron for his efforts.

The Tower at the time was in a parlous state – the structure had been neglected for some time, and Cromwell had considered demolishing it. Some parts of it had been partially dismantled prior to the Restoration, and one of these was the Coldharbour Tower – what Pepys referred to as the “Coleharbour”, which stood next to the White Tower. In many respects, Pepys and his workmen were digging for what is known to history as Barkstead’s treasure among ruins.

One 3rd November Pepys met with Wade and Evett again, and found that their “prime Intelligence”, the person in whom Barkstead had apparently confided the treasure’s location, was a woman. They resolved that the next time they tried, she would “be there in a disguise, and confirm us in the place”. She was duly there when Pepys returned to the Tower four days later. By this time the treasure’s estimated value had risen to £50,000 (so Pepys records), and after the unnamed informant pointed out the cellar in which it was apparently hidden (“in butter-ferkins”), the digging-party once again set to work. Once again they found nothing, and by now Pepys was starting to have his doubts. “I do believe there must be money hid somewhere by him,” he mused, “or else he did delude this woman in hopes to oblige her to further serving him – which I am apt to believe.” His dashed hopes cannot have been helped by his domestic arrangements that day; he was “very much displeased” because his wife had gone to stay with relatives while his house was being cleaned. The next day, he compensated for this by working late.

Pepys met with Wade and Evett again the following week (“I have great confidence that there is no cheat in these people, but that they go on good grounds, though they have been mistaken”) but he does not record any more attempts at searching for the treasure until 19th December, when the workmen were set to dig “in the corner against the Mayne-guard [Main Gate], a most unlikely place”. It being a cold day, Pepys spent much of it inside, reading and conversing with Lee by the fire in the Governor’s residence while the labourers toiled outside. Once again, nothing was found, “and having wrought below the bottom of the foundation of the wall, I bid them give over; and so all our hopes ended.”

Thus ends Samuel Pepys’s search for buried treasure at the Tower of London, a tale that might seem to be little more than an historical curiosity, to the extent that it is usually edited out of the abridged versions of his famous diary. The story of Barkstead’s treasure, though, has had a surprisingly long life, with the last attempt to find it taking place in 1958. Whether it ever existed at all is doubtful.

But the fact remains that there was buried treasure beneath Restoration London, not at the Tower but on Cheapside. In 1912, a stash of jewels dating back to the mid-seventeenth century was found there, buried beneath the cellar of a building that was destroyed in the Great Fire. It is not known who put it there, but the most likely theory is that it was buried during the Civil War. The Cheapside Hoard was exhibited at the Museum of London from October 2013 to April 2014.

The unknown person who buried the Cheapside Hoard certainly wasn’t the only person to have buried valuables in seventeenth-century London. As the Great Fire took hold in early September 1666, Pepys himself famously buried his wine and a Parmesan cheese, and witnessed two others doing likewise (his house survived the blaze, but whether he was able to recover these delicacies afterwards remains unknown).

The Tower had its buried secrets too, of a much more macabre nature than some supposed ill-gotten gains. In 1674, Charles II finally got around to ordering that some of the more decayed parts be cleared, including a turret by the south wall of the White Tower– not far from the ruined Coldharbour Tower where Pepys had been searching. In the foundations of this, workmen uncovered the skeletons of two children; no-one at the time doubted that these were the remains of the boy-king Edward V and his brother – the Princes in the Tower who had disappeared in 1483. Pepys had by this time ceased to keep a diary, so we do not know if he, on hearing of this, thought about his unsuccessful treasure hunt. Four years later, Charles II ordered that the remains be buried at Westminster Abbey, where – following an examination in the 1930s that verified beyond reasonable doubt their identity – they lie to this day.

Arthur Bryant, Samuel Pepys: The Man in the Making (Granada, 1984)
Christopher Durston, ‘Barkstead, John’, p. 908, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (vol. 3) (OUP, 2004)
Nigel Jones, Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London (Windmill, 2012)
Robert Latham & William Matthews (eds.), The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Volume III 1662 (Harper Collins, 2000)

Steve Roud, London Lore: The Legends and Traditions of the World’s Most Vibrant City (Random House, 2008)


The Capital Ring: Beckenham to Crystal Palace

Back at Beckenham Hill, and ready for the next part of my Capital Ring walk, I quickly made my way to Beckenham Place Park and was soon taking in a wooded path that took me over the railway. It didn’t take long before I heard – and even managed to see – a ring-necked parakeet, which I took to be a good sign that I’d see more birds than on my previous walk.

After the bridge over the railway, the route took in a public golf course – the club-house of which is Beckenham Place, an 18th century manor house with an impressive portico that looks like it’s seen better days.

Not far from there was more by way of sports grounds – cricket this time, an out-ground of Kent CCC no less. From here, I could clearly see the TV transmission tower at Crystal Palace, my destination for the day. 

The route then took me onto a street of big suburban semis and an impressive church spire (St Paul’s, New Beckenham) then through a subway running underneath a railway station (New Beckenham). After this I detoured through a park, passing several secondary school children involved in such pastimes as talking loudly, illicit smoking and throwing each other’s shoes onto the grass; once again, I had inadvertently timed my walk to coincide with a school home time.

Despite having never knowingly visited Beckenham, I could not help but feel that the place was strangely familiar. The semi-detached houses, the way the parks were laid out and even the way a primary school looked all rang bells. Then it struck me; this was a London suburb that was built between the wars. Of course it was all familiar! I grew up in just such a suburb – the present-day Edgware and Mill Hill had for the most part been built at the same time. Funny how being in a completely different part of London should feel like walking a mere couple of blocks from my parents’ house.

It wasn’t long before the houses became a bit older, and walking through another park – this one gloried in the name of the Alexandra Recreation Ground – I came across a bowling green and a drinking-fountain that didn’t work (not the first time I’ve come across one of these that doesn’t dispense water in the past few months).

The ever-present TV tower was still in view as I reached another station (Penge East), this one crossed over by way of a footbridge, and just after that was a boarded-up pub with the unlikely name of Hollywood East. I followed the route onto Penge High Street. 

Funny name, Penge. It sounds like it should be a rude word (it isn’t, of course), but it is in fact of Celtic origin, meaning ‘wood end’. The ongoing theme of crossing over or under railways continued with the road passing under two large bridges, one of them dating from 1839 (this one carries the main line from London Bridge to the Sussex coast) and the other from 1854 (the branch line to Crystal Palace), before I entered Crystal Palace Park.

I could have made straight for the station but I wanted to have a look around. I have been to this park before, while I was doing the Nightrider, but that was while I was in the middle of a cycling event and it was the middle of the night. In broad daylight and with no pressing need to get back on my bike, I took my time.

Established in the mid-1850s when the massive glass exhibition hall that had been the centrepiece of the Great Exhibition of 1851 was moved from Hyde Park, Crystal Palace Park was one of the most popular tourist attractions of the mid-to-late 19th century (which explains the branch line); it declined over time, though, and in 1936 the palace itself burned down. One feature that still exists from that time is the Dinosaur Area, a series of sculptures of assorted extinct species – not all of them are of dinosaurs, although the collection does include the first dinosaur models anywhere in the world (they even pre-dated the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species). I also took in the ducks and geese on the pond, which took my bird-count for the day to over ten species; that parakeet earlier had been a good sign after all.

From the dinosaurs, I passed the athletics stadium and moved up to the terraces on which the palace once stood, now in the shadow of the TV tower that had acted as a beacon for much of my walk. 

These terraces, which are lined with a few sphinxes, afford a panoramic view to the east; I couldn’t be certain, but I was pretty sure that I could see the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford.

Only after that did I go to the station.


Watching the ball game

If there’s one London pub where you can guarantee that Canada-related sports events are being shown on the telly, it’s the Maple Leaf on Maiden Lane, just south of Covent Garden. Last year, it was where we saw the Winter Olympics women’s ice hockey final, during which a lifelong habit of refusing to leave a game before the final whistle was put to good use. Last Wednesday, I was having drinks elsewhere but ended up heading down there to join the crowds of expat Canadians watching the Toronto Blue Jays in a must-win game.

After seeing off the Texas Rangers in spectacular fashion the week before, the Jays had made it to the American League Championship, a best-of-seven series against the Kansas City Royals to decide who would get to play in the World Series. After four games, the other lot were 3-1 up so the Jays had to win in order to stay in.

By the time I got there, they were about half-way through the game but the pub had stopped serving as it was past eleven o’clock, not that anyone was leaving; above the din, the barman explained to me that they’d saved the late licence application for the World Series itself (I admired his boss’s optimism). Outside, a Canadian TV crew had set up an outside broadcast, the man with the microphone being none other than John Tory, the Mayor of Toronto who happened to be in town – in addition to visiting the Crossrail sites, being impressed by Canary Wharf and speaking at Canada House, he found the time to take in the game. A sports-mad city like Toronto would expect no less of its mayor, especially as it’s been a while since the Jays got this far.

I, naturally, managed to get to the pub mere minutes after the four-run sixth innings which more or less guaranteed that the Jays won, thus living to fight another day. Friday, to be precise. Allison and I pondered going back to the Maple Leaf for game six … before realising that, as it was scheduled to be an evening start in Kansas City, that would mean that it would start at one in the morning in London. We didn’t stay up – like the Maple Leaf and their late licence applications, we said we’d reserve that kind of behaviour for the World Series.

It was not to be, sadly – although if there’s any consolation, the Toronto Star reckons that sports fans do get some sort of reward even if their team loses; they’ve even got a neuroscientist to talk about what that means. Scant consolation? Still, there’s always the Leafs in the NHL…


Bond in Motion

A recent museum visit has been to the London Film Museum for Bond in Motion, an exhibit which was meant to have closed months ago but which is still going due to popular demand. This is a collection of vehicles from the Bond movies - cars, boats, aircraft and assorted props. If you're a fan of the series, or if you're vaguely interested in that sort of thing, it's worth going.

On entering, we're confronted with a scale-model helicopter that was used in the explosion-laden attack on 007's childhood home in Skyfall. Upstairs are some storyboard sketches from the films, but downstairs is where the hardware is to be seen.

First off, we're confronted with two Rollers; Goldfinger's one from, err, Goldfinger and the one from A View to a Kill - you remember, the one that Christopher Walken and Grace Jones pushed into a lake, and Roger Moore managed to survive by using one of the tyres as a makeshift aqualung. You don't remember? That's fine, because this exhibition has flat-screens on the walls next to each exhibit showing the scenes from the film each vehicle appeared in.

Next up is a plane - the mini-jet from Octopussy that ran out of petrol; nearby is the reversible jacket used in the same pre-credits sequence. 

What's that red car over there? It's Tracy's Mercury Cougar from On Her Majesty's Secret Service, complete with skis on the back, and the chase sequence on the accompanying flat-screen shows that it was Diana Rigg's character who got to do the driving, with George Lazenby relegated to the passenger seat.

Just along from here are the BMWs from the Pierce Brosnan era, including the remote-controlled repmobile from Tomorrow Never Dies (fun fact: the chase sequence was filmed in the car park at Brent Cross shopping centre), parked opposite the villain's Jag and the 'disappearing' Aston from Die Another Day. Further along is another Aston, the V8 Volante from the Timothy Dalton era, with the cello-case they used to escape propped up nearby.

Moving on, there's another aircraft, the 'Little Nelly' gyrocopter from You Only Live Twice (a big screen behind it shows us the airborne action sequence) alongside assorted motorbikes, the tuk-tuk from Octopussy and the Renault that got taken apart in the Paris chase in A View to a Kill.

What about the boats? They're here somewhere ... the speedboats from Live and Let Die and The World Is Not Enough are present and correct, and there are underwater bits and bobs from Thunderball, For Your Eyes Only and Never Say Never Again (yes, the unofficial one's here too). As far as sub-aquatic Bond is concerned, though, the one everyone really wants to see is the Lotus that turns into a submarine in The Spy Who Loved Me.

But that is of course merely the second most famous of Bond's vehicles. What of the silver-grey Aston Martin DB5 driven by Sean Connery in Goldfinger that became part of 007 folklore to such an extent that two of his successors have driven it too? It's here, more or less in the middle; no exhibition of Bond vehicles is complete without a DB5.

There are two modern Astons as well, both of which show evidence of having been well-used to say the least. The DBS from Casino Royale, the one that got rolled multiple times, is next to the DBS from Quantum of Solace that is missing a door on the driver's side and although it's roped off there's a sign on the seat saying that no-one is allowed to sit on it (yes, I was tempted). Both of these, by the way, have the steering wheel on the left-hand side - all previous vehicles (the ones supplied by Q-Branch, at any rate) have had the wheel on the right, British style. Daniel Craig's blood-stained dinner jacket is displayed nearby.

Fancy a coffee? Displayed in the cafeteria (and yes, they are playing Bond themes on a loop) are the helicopter and armoured train models from GoldenEye and a glass cabinet displaying an array of tie-in toys.

Then there's a collection of props in a glass cabinet near one of the Astons; contents include a Walther PPK with a silencer, a sliver money clip and several passports issued to various incarnations of 'Bond, James'; did the makers really go to this amount of detail? There's even an old-fashioned paper driving licence which shows that Bond has four penalty points!

Well, given how many of the afore-mentioned vehicles ended up getting damaged in some way, you wouldn't expect the world's greatest fictional spy to have a clean licence, would you?


Baseball and Back to the Future

This Wednesday will be 21st October 2015 – an auspicious date for those of us versed in the films of the 1980s, for that is the date on which the time-travelling DeLorean arrives in the year 2015 in Back to the Future Part II. I’m not going to go into a list of the predictions for what was then the future that the film-makers got right or wrong, but I am going to focus on a joke that was perhaps lost on British viewers – the bit where Marty McFly learns that in 2015, the Chicago Cubs win the World Series.

The joke is that the Cubs hadn’t, and still haven’t, won baseball’s annual championship since 1908 – the longest not-winning streak in American sporting history. Funny thing, though, because they are in fact in with a chance of winning it this year.

I’ve been following baseball with slightly more than a passing interest over the last couple of weeks. This is not because I needed a major sporting event to follow after England’s embarrassingly early exit from the Rugby World Cup but because, for the first time in over two decades, the Toronto Blue Jays have made it into the post-season play-offs (and it gets better on the Toronto sporting front; over at the football, Toronto FC have made the MLS play-offs for the first time ever).

Victory over the Texas Rangers (the final game was, shall we say, not without controversy) put them into the American League Championship Series, a best-of-seven affair against the Kansas City Royals that is to all intents and purposes the semi-final of the World Series. Whoever wins this will get to play against the winners of the National League – which will be either the New York Mets or the afore-mentioned Cubs.

This is in itself an interesting state of affairs, for none of those teams have won the World Series for over two decades (of the four, the last ones to do so were in fact the Blue Jays in 1993). In baseball terms, it looks as though 2015 is the year of the underdog.

What with the whole Back to the Future thing, I’m sure there are many who’d like to see the Cubs win it this time. Not me, though – I chose which baseball team to support some time ago, and I’m sticking with them.

Go Jays!! 


The Capital Ring: Falconwood to Beckenham

Getting from East Finchley to Falconwood (the first, but probably not the last, place that I will visit on the Capital Ring that I’d never previously heard of) was surprisingly easy; Tube to Charing Cross, then a train to Dartford that happened to stop at Falconwood station. Strange, that, as getting back home from Falconwood after the last stage hadn’t been that simple.

This time, I was armed not with a print-out from a website but a book, The Capital Ring by Colin Saunders (Ordnance Survey, fully revised and updated in 2012). This taught me a couple of things I’d wished I’d known about the Woolwich-Falconwood stage; for example, the dry docks I’d been so dismissive of are actually stocked with fish so that local people can go fishing, and the decaying mosaic, which depicts the signs of the zodiac, had been installed by a society which helps people whose needs have not been met by education.

Stage 2 takes in the stretch from Falconwood to Grove Park (also previously unheard-of by yours truly) and is 3½ miles. Suspecting that I may wish to do more than that, and mindful that the next stage is more than double that, I was glad of the book which told me that Stage 3 has several options which allow the walker to duck out and get to a station. Before that, though, Stage 2 promised something interesting – while the previous stage had a castle, this one had a palace.

Having walked the short stretch from the station to where I’d left the path several months ago, my first act on re-joining the Capital Ring was to cross the bridge over the railway and the A2 to enter Eltham Park South – an open park in contrast to the mostly wooded Eltham Park North. With grey clouds overhead (rain had been forecast but in the event it didn’t materialise), I passed through a park with only a couple of dog-walkers for company, emerging onto a suburban back-street just as a hearse was driving along the road.

After following the path down a concrete track I encountered a brick structure called Conduit Head. This unprotected yet apparently listed structure used to house the sluices that controlled the flow of water to nearby Eltham Palace. After a church, a mini-roundabout and a school named after Thomas More I turned down a road called North Park which was lined with big detached and semi-detached houses from the inter-war period, some done up in the mock-Tudor style. This led onto a smaller street called Tilt Yard Approach – presumably named due to the nearby palace.

Eltham Palace, which I merely passed by, was the main country residence of English kings between the 14th and mid-16th centuries (Henry VIII wasn’t that interested in it, preferring Hampton Court after seizing the latter from Cardinal Wolsey). It was later ransacked by Roundhead troops during the Civil War and rebuilt in the 1930s – the current manor house incorporates the Great Hall, said to have the third-largest hammerbeam roof in England, from the original. It has been run by English Heritage since 1995.

From there, I followed a footpath called King John’s Walk which ran alongside a field with some horses in it, from which I had a lovely view across to the buildings of both the City and the Docklands. 

After passing over a railway line (had I wished to end my walk here, Mottingham station was just half a mile away), I crossed the A20 and passed a riding school called Mottingham Farm. “Around the turn of the 20th century”, my guidebook told me, “it was the home of Farmer Brown, a local character who adopted the typical farmer’s garb of smock and tall hat, and set a fine example by living to the age of 102 on a diet of whisky, ale, steak and cigars.”

A narrow footpath took me between paddocks and playing-fields, the latter belonging to Eltham College. A concrete channel carried a stream which I was intrigued to learn was called the Quaggy River, a tributary of the Ravensbourne (which in turn flows into the Thames). As this met a road, Stage 2 of the walk ended; from here I could have walked to Grove Park station and gone home, but I wanted to carry on for a while longer.

The road took me past a hospital – or rather, a former hospital that’s been redeveloped as a residential area. I was also starting to encounter a lot more fellow-walkers, although these were not Capital Ring enthusiasts but young mothers collecting small children from a nearby primary school, interspersed with the odd secondary school pupil eating from a bag of chips while on his way home. Some of these were going my way, down a footpath called Railway Children Walk (the author of the eponymous novel lived nearby) which passed through a nature reserve and then over – appropriately – a railway line.

Once over the bridge, I noted a change of scenery – I was now passing through a built-up area comprised of inter-war local authority housing, although one of the roads did have a wide, grassy strip running up the middle; road names like Bideford and Ilfracombe led me to wonder whether the councillors who had this estate built had Devon connections. 

Rather intriguingly, the route of the Capital Ring led to a tarmac footpath called the Downham Woodland Walk (also part of the Green Chain Walk which the Capital Ring was still following) which consists of a narrow strip of woodland running between the streets, a remnant of the Great North Wood which stretched across these parts until the suburbs started to expand. This path crossed several roads and at one point followed the Meridian Line for a few hundred yards. The number of such small paths that are linked by the Capital Ring is truly impressive – with it, these paths are all part of a wider, larger entity.

After crossing the Bromley Road, the route – still the Capital Ring following the Green Chain Walk – led down to Beckenham Place Park, once a private estate but now open grassland and a nature reserve (for the first time, I wondered at the small number of birds I’d seen – a few pigeons mostly, though I had spotted a jay on the Downham Woodland Walk). 

At this point I opted to call it a day – Beckenham Hill station wasn’t too far off, and what with that being on the Thameslink line I reckoned it would make getting home a fairly simple task – despite the guidebook warning me that “this is not a formal Capital Ring link”. I’d just have to do this informally, then.


James Bond and the Second World War

Reading Solo by William Boyd recently got me thinking. Specifically, I latched onto the Normandy flashback at the start, and wondered about what clues Ian Fleming gave about his creation’s war experiences. It is well known that the Bond character was based on a number of wartime secret agents and commandos with whom Fleming (a desk-bound naval intelligence officer) was acquainted, and it was with this in mind that I realised that in Fleming’s novels the Second World War is for the most part conspicuous by its absence. From the start, Bond was introduced as a secret agent of the Cold War, with little detail given about how he came to be where he was.

Curious, I delved into the books for details and came up with the following, which has been published on the James Bond Dossier website:


The literary James Bond: Solo and Moonraker

Much though I like James Bond – the books as well as the films – I don’t tend to go for the ‘continuation’ novels much. These are the ones that have been written by authors who aren’t Ian Fleming and there have been a lot of them; a parade of thrillers of varying quality where the hero happens to be a British secret agent by the name of James Bond, agent 007, licenced to kill, etc. Some, like the films, are set in the present day (present day when the book in question was written, at any rate) while others are set within the character timeline as laid out by Fleming (1950s-60s); the latter are usually better. The people who make the Bond films have never gone for adapting one of the continuation novels for the big screen.

That said, my ears pricked up recently when I heard that Anthony Horowitz had written a Bond novel; I rather liked what he did with Sherlock Holmes so I will get round to reading Trigger Mortis at some point. This was at the back of my mind when I came across a copy of Solo by William Boyd in the library and so I thought I’d give that a go. I’ve had Boyd recommended to me several times and while I doubt the recommenders had his Bond novel in mind, that’s what I went for.

(By the way, this contains spoilers – regarding Moonraker (the novel) as well as Solo. You have been warned.)

Boyd kicks off with a foreword that states that he’s sticking with the chronology of Bond’s ‘life’ as laid out in You Only Live Twice, the last novel to be published when Fleming was still alive and the one which included an obituary of Bond (missing presumed dead following a mission to Japan). This dates Bond to having been born in 1924 (although there is apparently some debate among ‘Bondologists’ regarding the literary character’s precise age as Fleming did change the timelines a bit over the course of his twelve novels and two collections of short stories), and it’s with this in mind that Solo kicks off with some rare war reminiscences on the part of 007 before introducing Bond in 1969 on his 45th birthday.

After an evening of dining, drinking and mild flirtation, Bond test-drives a new car (a Jensen FF; nice) and is given a new mission – there’s a civil war going on in the West African state of Zanzarim (a thinly-disguised version of the Biafran War in Nigeria; Boyd himself grew up in West Africa which must have helped with the setting). Quite simply, M wants Bond to go there posing as a journalist and take out the main rebel leader. It doesn’t entirely go according to plan (although the rebels are nonetheless defeated) and Bond is shot and left for dead by his supposed MI6 contact in the country (she’s also one of the two love interests here) and a sinister Rhodesian mercenary. After a brief convalescence, he decides to ‘go solo’ in order to get revenge.

Travelling to the United States on a false passport, he manages to track down the people he’s after with surprising ease, although things get complicated when it turns out that the American authorities (among them Felix Leiter’s nephew) are also after the surviving rebel leaders as they’ve set up an aid agency which is actually a front for a massive drug-smuggling operation. As per a lot of Fleming’s villains, the Rhodesian mercenary character is physically disfigured, in this case as a result of his previous fighting experience.

Bond out for revenge: This has been done before in the films – Licence to Kill, Quantum of Solace – but not really in the novels although a running theme, especially in some of the earlier ones, is Bond’s desire to bring down SMERSH after what happened in Casino Royale. Here, the character is older and wiser, but also more impulsive while still being prone to acts of extreme violence when he’s in the mood. He is, after all, a killer.

There are a few aspects of Solo that are rather formulaic of Bond; what he wears, what he eats, what he smokes and what he drinks (I suppose that these details have to be in place so that we can be sure that this is James Bond; authors dealing with Fleming’s creation do have to use some Fleming-esque details). The women with whom he is romantically involved seem to be there for no better reason than because they have to be there in a James Bond adventure (as soon as his contact in Zanzarim is revealed to be a woman, you know it’s only a matter of time before he has sex with her). It gets better outside the Bond comfort zone.

I found the civil war descriptions to be the best part of this novel, while the war reminiscences – Boyd has a young Lieutenant Bond of the RNVR serving in Normandy with 30 Assault Unit, which had been set up by Fleming himself – are a very clever tribute to Bond’s creator. Bond going for a spot of personal vendetta is also a good way of taking the character out of the usual comfort zone (see above). I tend to steer clear of Bond continuation novels for a reason (the formulaic feeling aside, some of them got a bit silly, and I wasn’t much impressed with the Sebastian Faulks one a few years ago) but this was pretty good; I’ll certainly be looking to read more William Boyd novels as a result.

I decided to follow this Bond literary experience up by going back to the original: Ian Fleming. I thought I’d read all of those years ago but it would seem not; while clearing out some old books recently I came across an Ian Fleming omnibus containing three Bond novels. Judging by the position of the bookmark (a card from a scuba-diving club!), it looked as though I hadn’t got as far as the third one, Moonraker. Post-Solo, that is what I read. I remembered that the film was one of those so-bad-it’s-hilarious ones (if you haven’t seen it, four words – Roger Moore in space – will tell you all you need to know), but as the novel was first published in 1955 I doubted whether it went that far. I already knew, thanks to reading a book about the afore-mentioned wartime commando unit that Fleming set up, that the villain of the piece is a former Nazi who changed his identity in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The story begins in London where we find out that Bond is 37 years old, as he reflects that he’s eight years away from hitting 45, at which point he will cease to be a Double O agent and get a desk job instead (evidence here of Fleming changing Bond’s chronology over time, as previously mentioned). He’s flirting with the secretaries, although the principal flirtee is not Miss Moneypenny but one Loelia Ponsonby, secretary to the Double O Section (evidently the makers of the films thought that one secretary was sufficient). Anyway, time for a briefing from M: Sir Hugo Drax is a millionaire businessman who is bankrolling a British missile project known as Moonraker, an act for which he’s been knighted. Not much is known about his background but he’s a member of M’s club, Blades, and M thinks he might be a wrong ’un because he cheats at cards. There follows a card-table confrontation, the sort of thing that Fleming did so very well, as Bond – who, in addition to being the Secret Service’s best card player, also happens to know all there is to know about card-sharping – gives Drax a very expensive taste of his own medicine (£15,000 from a single game of bridge, and that’s at 1950s prices). Drax, foreshadowing several other villains who get bested by Bond in a club or casino, advises him to “spend the money quickly”.

Bond then gets assigned to Drax’s Moonraker project HQ down in Kent, where there’s already an undercover agent called Gala Brand, a Special Branch officer who’s posing as Drax’s secretary. So far, names aside, this seemed more like the basic plot to Die Another Day (which was bad without being funny) rather than Moonraker; proof that there’s always something in the films that can be traced back to the original source material. Between them Bond and Brand find out that Drax (who, by the way, has a facial disfigurement) is up to something, almost getting killed by part of a cliff falling on them in the process; they sort-of figure out what Drax is really up to, and there follows a car chase across Kent (Bond’s vehicle here is a pre-war supercharged Bentley; like many of its successors, it gets wrecked) after which Drax reveals his evil plan to the pair of them (the rocket that’s going to be test-fired actually contains a Soviet-supplied atomic warhead that’s going to destroy London) before leaving them to an elaborate death (specifically, they’re imprisoned close enough to the rocket that they’ll be killed when it launches) from which they are able to escape and foil the plans in such a way that this also results in Drax’s own demise.

Already knowing that Drax was an unrepentant Nazi before reading the book probably didn’t help in terms of the suspense but there are many clues that point the reader to this (all of the rocket technicians and henchmen are German, and Drax even drives a Merc). For an audience reading this in the 1950s, the combination of Nazis and nuclear annihilation would have been a potent mix. However, the main reason why I’ve chosen to divulge so much of the plot is to point out the main thing that I learned from reading Moonraker, which is the extent to which the component parts of your average Bond film can be found here: Early encounter with the villain at a card table, bonkers plan, car chase, ruthless henchman, full explanation of said plan for the benefit of 007 and his attractive female companion prior to elaborate but somehow escapable death – they’re all here.

Moonraker, though, also has a few elements that are not typical of a Bond adventure. It is set entirely in England, and we get to see some of the action from the woman’s point of view as well as that of Bond – and she, not Bond, is the one who actually finds out that Drax is going to fire the missile at London. And there’s a twist at the end – she doesn’t end up getting romantically involved with Bond (this may explain why ‘Gala Brand’ has never been a character name in the films). In creating James Bond, Ian Fleming came up with a winning formula but that didn’t mean that his thrillers had to be formulaic.