Friday 1 February 2019

Stirred, Not Shaken: The London of James Bond

In 2008 I visited London and attended a James Bond memorabilia exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, entitled For Your Eyes Only. 

To flesh it out into a travel feature, I then arranged to join tour guide Simon Rodway's on-demand James Bond tour of Mayfair and St James.

I met Simon [pictured right] a few times over the years after that, taking his 2011 tour about the history of the area around the new Olympic stadium, and corresponding about other matters. 

We got on well, so it was a shock when I discovered last year that he'd passed away from cancer in 2015; you can read his obituary in The Guardian.

As a tribute to Simon's memory, here's the account of his James Bond tour I wrote up in 2008...

Simon Rodway of Silver Cane Tours is a one-man walking tours company, an agent with a licence to stroll. Among his repertoire of walks around the British capital is The London of James Bond, though it focuses more on the life of author Ian Fleming than his fictional creation.

“I don’t know if many people read the books now,” says Rodway as we meet outside Marble Arch tube station, pointing out the author’s work has been overshadowed by the cinematic James Bond’s adventures.

As a result, the walk through well-to-do Mayfair and St James gives Rodway an opportunity to highlight the connections between Fleming’s lesser-known life and the literary 007.

Starting on Park Lane, we head into Mayfair, passing the house where Fleming was born. After that, we pass by Grosvenor Square, home of the American Embassy, a surprisingly hideous concrete fortress.

It’s not hard to imagine spymasters and their agents meeting in this neck of the woods during the Cold War days. In fact, forget the Cold War – Rodway points down the street to the hotel where Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with a radioactive substance in 2006.

A stop outside the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve club prompts Rodway to speak of Fleming’s wartime role and the way it planted the seeds of James Bond in his mind.

Particularly influential was Fleming’s role as planner for an elite unit of commandos who specialised in intelligence gathering.

According to Rodway, the author was also inspired by Sydney Cotton, a Queenslander in the RAF who was well known for his technical brilliance and innovative gadgetry.

Cotton may well have been the author’s model for Bond’s gadget man ‘Q’.

We stroll through Berkeley Square, beneath its attractive plane trees, to the Fleming Collection.

This family-owned art gallery usually showcases the work of Scottish artists, but today is hosting an exhibition of Bond novel covers from around the world, as part of the the centenary of Fleming's birth. It’s a striking visual reminder of how far and wide 007 has been received over the decades.

As we pass from Mayfair into St James, Rodway mentions an old saw: “St James for the gentlemen, Mayfair for the ladies”.

It’s true that St James Street has a certain masculine identity, with solid, dignified buildings housing gentlemen’s clubs like Boodles, of which Fleming was a member.

It also contains a series of shops outfitting said gentlemen with handmade shoes, fine wine, and hats.

There's even an outlet of Italian firm Beretta, a name familiar to Bond fans as the first gun favoured by the secret agent. There's no sign of weaponry through the ground floor windows - only clothing – but Rodway tells me there’s a gun shop upstairs.

Finally, we reach Dukes Hotel, a tasteful establishment discreetly tucked into a side street.

There's an elegant restraint about the hotel’s decor, its cocktail bar featuring low blue velvet chairs at small circular tables.

It’s a cosy refuge, much favoured by Fleming as he sipped cocktails here, chatted to the waiters and devised the famous line “shaken, not stirred”.

Intriguingly, our waiter, a tall white-jacketed Italian from Elba, tells us firmly that their signature Bond-related cocktail should be stirred, not shaken.

Apparently the agitation would spoil the flavour of the vermouth in the Vesper, a martini devised by Fleming for the first Bond novel.

He then proceeds with a flourish to make the concoction at our table, pouring from vast frosted bottles of Beefeater gin and Potocki vodka from Poland.

It’s a potent brew, a strong, bitter cocktail for sipping rather than gulping, served with style (and some tasty green olives).

“This bar was where Sean Connery came in 1961 when he’d landed the movie role, for one of these babies,” says Rodway, holding his cocktail aloft. “Then Pierce Brosnan followed in 1995.”

As I sip my Vesper, I decide I'd rather be a hero than a  Bond villain. Heroes don't get to take over the world, but they do enjoy the better drinks.

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