Once, aged eight or so, probably at Christmas, I asked my father why the women dancing around behind the opening credits of The Spy Who Loved Me weren't wearing any clothes. After thinking for a while, he said that not wearing any clothes made it a lot easier for them to dance around. I was completely satisfied by this answer, but after a few years further questions stacked up: was it really true, as an MI6 analyst claims in one of Ian Fleming's novels, that gay men can't whistle? Is mass quasi-lesbianism inevitable as a "consequence of giving votes to women", as James Bond thinks in Goldfinger? And why does Bond, despite his on-screen mastery of so many different languages and cultures, seem to have it in for so many types of foreigner?
In The Man Who Saved Britain, Simon Winder focuses on the strangeness of Bond's continuing existence, which he sees as an enjoyable but debilitating symptom of a national pathology. Bond's original appeal to adults isn't hard to pin down. Created by Fleming in the early 1950s, he celebrated the pleasures of sex, food, drink and travel for a British readership ground down by postwar austerity, before becoming a global superstar in the emerging consumer culture of the 1960s. The bizarre tortures and sexual politics, slightly toned down in the films, sprang chiefly from Fleming's ill-concealed private enthusiasms, but the cold-war paranoia and - for British audiences, at least - the deference shown to Bond by his American allies probably had a less specialised allure.
Fleming also wrote well when he could be bothered, though he tended to get bored and mess up his endings. ("The pile of typed paper is nearly the right height - time for a big drink," Winder writes.) And the early films all have flashes of genius: Monty Norman's Bond theme, John Barry's arrangements and music, Ken Adam's sets, Sean Connery's hairpieces, the gun-barrel opening shot. Winder has no problem with any of this, and sees the faceless, cat- caressing Blofeld of From Russia With Love as a figure "to be treasured until the end of human history". What amuses and disturbs him is the extent to which Bond held on to a vestigial political role long after the films had mutated into camp but hugely profitable pantomimes in the late 1960s.
As originally conceived, Bond is very obviously the consolatory fantasy of a nostalgic conservative appalled by Britain's collapse as a great power. Outwardly a golf-loving and rather fussy business traveller with an inexhaustible fund of boozy complaints about "the cheap self-assertiveness of young labour since the war" (Thunderball), he is actually the secret king of sex and violence, backed up by the powerful yet invisible machinery of the British state and its unshakeable international prestige. In reality, meanwhile, Fleming's three best novels, From Russia With Love (1957), Dr No (1958) and Goldfinger (1959), "were written, published and hugely read during the final implosion of the old British imperial state with Macmillan's post-Suez decision simply to bail out, at all costs, from empire".
This aspect of Fleming's work has already been mapped out in some detail by David Cannadine, and Winder says straight out that he's not planning to compete with academic historians. Instead, he combines a funny, impressionistic account of imperial decline with autobiographical passages and knowledgeable but not-too-nerdy appreciations of Bondiana. As well as being entertaining, this approach lets him dwell on Bond's slightly spooky entanglement with the history of his age, without having to rig up some kind of shaky theoretical framework. And, as he says, many of the coincidences are almost too good to be true: after the Suez adventure, for example, Anthony Eden chose to go on holiday by installing himself in Fleming's Jamaican home.
Winder's real target, though, is the durable set of attitudes and prejudices that made Bond a vital figure during his 1970s boyhood. Having grown up with the tragicomic spectacle of a nation's fondest dreams of itself coming to rest "on Roger Moore's safari-suited shoulders", he writes evocatively about the odd childhood sub-world of Second World War nostalgia, Daily Express editorial cartoons and benighted prep schools that made Live and Let Die seem to him the pinnacle of sophisticated viewing. He also throws in thoughtful, funny mini-essays on Willard Price, scuba-diving, Fu Manchu and Fleming's habit of amusing himself by giving M short speeches "that imply he is mad" (notably, a disquisition "on how the Swiss manage their beatnik problem").
The only criticism it's possible to make of this almost ridiculously enjoyable book is that, had Winder grown up in the 1980s, he might have been more open to the idea that the Bond franchise still mirrors public life in eerie ways. Since Connery's retirement, it might be argued, the series has flourished when political momentum is behind an aspiring leader who's keen on overseas adventures. The arc of Pierce Brosnan's tenure as Bond tracks Tony Blair's as Labour leader with frightening accuracy, while Roger Moore made the part his own only after Margaret Thatcher had replaced Edward Heath. She even phones him up in For Your Eyes Only (1981), and there's surely a demented thesis to be written about North Sea Hijack (1979), in which a grateful Mrs Thatcher rewards Moore with a basket of kittens.