Our editor Jon Sutton reviews ‘Love and Let Die: Bond, The Beatles and the British Psyche’, by John Higgs.
31 August 2022
By Jon Sutton
In James Bond’s 1953 debut novel Casino Royale, an agent sent to help Bond says ‘People are islands. They don’t really touch.’ This seemed to reflect author Ian Fleming’s own worldview, at odds both with poet John Donne’s ‘No man is an island’ and the Beatles ‘Love me do, you know I love you, I’ll always be true’ (in their first single, released the same day as the first Bond film). It’s also oceans apart from John Higgs himself: here is an author who constantly reaches out to the reader, grabs their attention and doesn’t let go, finding connection in the most unexplored places.
I am largely indifferent to both Bond and the Beatles, and yet I was gripped throughout this ‘account of how two outsized cultural monsters continue to define our aspirations and fantasies and the future we are building’. That’s perhaps because this book, although perfectly titled and meticulously researched, is not really about Bond and the Beatles. It’s about working class liberation and establishment control; male identity; and (like all the most engaging books) about change.
For psychologists, there’s plenty to ponder. Bond represents Thanatos, the Freudian death drive: ‘Bond films were, and always will be, about selling people death’. The Beatles are Eros, the Freudian drive to lose your limited self and become part of something larger. ('The four of them are really one person, almost', said George Martin.) Action cinema and music are the ideal mediums to express Thanatos and Eros: playing out over a 60-year period, '...the most public struggle for the soul of a culture ever’.
But what Higgs does brilliantly, in virtually all his books, is set up these contrasts and then gradually reveal how they are ‘not just rigid opposites, but positions that can be bridged’... by a never-ending stream of synchronicities, things (George Harrison’s Dr Evil talking doll!), and people (including Christopher Lee – what a guy – and even by Beatle George Harrison himself).
That type of approach to writing requires imagination, which Higgs clearly has in spades. He finds beautiful threads everywhere – and if they’re arguably barely there to be found, he chucks in the odd ‘It is tempting to see…’ which is always convincing enough. Imagination drives the narrative. ‘This is the story of our internal lives,’ he writes, ‘the tales that people are drawn to and share, and what they reveal about our dreams, beliefs and attitudes. To focus on imagination rather than power offers a deeper portrait of a population.’ Imagination is ‘something we can hide in and also something that will allow us to grow – depending on whether it is wielded by the opposing forces of love or death.’
The consideration of both Bond (and Fleming) and the Beatles in terms of gender, relationships and sexuality is thoughtful and (perhaps frustratingly) still essential some six decades after the emergence of either. Fleming’s time at boarding school led to an ‘unashamedly unemotional masculine fantasy’, a ‘mid-life crisis put to good use’. Bond was seen as 'the pinnacle of masculine wish-fulfilment in the Western world', even by the Beatles. Yet their own world was one in which they ‘spoke directly to the emotional part of their audience, in simple terms’. Performances were a ‘feedback loop of escalating emotions’, with Beatlemania is the ‘unchallenged archetype of hysteria’.
As ever, Higgs then shows it’s not that clear-cut. Over the decades, Bond would slowly – ‘almost imperceptibly’ – become aware of its own darkness, the psychological blind spot, the Jungian ‘shadow’. And although Arthur Janov said of John Lennon, 'the feeling in John's voice – I don't think that it's matched by anybody today. He was loaded with feeling...', John’s own son Julian once commented 'Dad's always telling people to love each other, but how come he doesn't love me?’ Childhood looms large: as Arthur Janov noted, ‘With the actors and rock stars that I've seen, they've almost all been rejected in childhood.’ Lennon perceptively tells Yoko Ono, 'I always expect too much. I'm always expecting my mother and I don't get her.'
Perhaps what I love most about Higgs’ books is how they are packed with small details and big ideas. Tea and football, and how both Bond and the Beatles responded to them, become examples of how the country of England, and what the establishment calls ‘England’, are different things. Hair takes on a life of its own: it might be a bit histrionic, Higgs notes, for psychologist Timothy Leary to describe the Beatles as ‘evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with mysterious powers to create a new human species’; but I find it pretty telling that Lennon once said: ‘Changing the lifestyle and appearance of youth throughout the world didn't just happen. We set out to do it; we knew what we were doing.’
So the clash between ‘new things’ (Bond) and ‘new attitudes’ (the Beatles) begins to bleed into one beautiful complementary mess. Isn’t it for the best that ours is a world where Elton John sends the latter-day Lennon a card which begins ‘Imagine six apartments, it isn’t hard to do’? As Higgs notes, with the wry humour that characterises all his work, 'It takes some doing to be such an excessive consumer that Elton John feels moved to comment on it.' And I appreciate anyone who manages to pull off the trick – as the Beatles, Bond and arguably Higgs do – of taking themselves both seriously and not seriously at all.
For psychologists, it’s a reminder of how any psyche feeds off and into a cultural, historical, political context… of how ‘stories of the mind’ play out in the material world. ‘Life was different after the Beatles’, Higgs notes. But was it, really? For a writer who is fundamentally a futurist, Higgs is fond of pointing out that the journey there is a circuitous one (tomorrow never knows, dies, or even comes, perhaps?). That particular long and winding road takes in Noel Gallagher’s cup of tea with Tony Blair, the 2012 Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, and (ominously) Vladamir Putin’s implacable face during a ‘Hey Jude’ singalong.
Like 'No time to die' or 'A day in the life', the book builds to a crescendo. Higgs ponders the meaning of life, and the shifting sands of male identity in relation to Fab Four personalities and how Bond has changed (and could continue to do so). I cheered out loud to 'There is no reason why you can't be emotionally intelligent behind the wheel of a really fast sports car'. The key to the ‘ever-shifting dream’ could be, as Alan Partridge may or may not say, ‘the best of the Beatles’ and ‘getting Bond wrong’.
- Love and Let Die: Bond, the Beatles and the British Psyche is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 15 September.
- Find more on Bond in our archive, including this article from Professor Neil Martin. We feel sure someone could write a decent article about the use of the Beatles in Psychology research…