Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Cuckoo In the House of James Bond's "M"

Helen MacDonald has a terrific piece up over at Aeon magazine entitled "Nest of Spies," in which she deconstructs and illuminates the life of MI-5 spymaster Maxwell Knight, who served as the model for "M" of James Bond fame.

James Bond, of course, was named after the author of Birds of the West Indies, first published in 1936 -- a book that happened to be on Ian Fleming's desk back in 1953 when he began to write Casino Royale in 1953 while staying at Golden Eye, his villa in Jamaica. 

The character of Bond, it should be said, was modeled after the playboy-gambler-spy Dusan Popov whom Fleming had seen gamble in Portugal, placing a massive bet in order to get a rival to withdraw from the baccarat table -- the very set-up used as a plot device in Casino Royale.

In any case, it seems that "M" -- Maxwell Knight -- was not only an observer and tamer of men for the spy game, but also a skilled naturalist who lived in a house crowded with crows, parrots, foxes and finches, and that he had a particularly interesting relationship with a tame cuckoo.  Read the whole thing.

One of the points that jumped out at me was when MacDonald writes that "during the war, British wildlife had become firmly embedded in myths of national identity" and that in Britain and in other countries "[n]ational and natural histories blurred."

National and natural identities were blurring not only in British hedgerows during this period of time, but in German ones as well.

German zoologists Lutz and Heinz Heck got wrapped up with the Nazis and their dream-scape of mythical Nordic animals of forest and field, and the two brothers worked to recreate the Auroch and the Tarpan by "back breeding" primitive-looking cattle and horses in order to recreate these fabled animals.

Dogs too were not immune from this drive to create national identity. 

One of the first dogs pulled into the frame was the German Shepherd -- a dog bought and named in one day, with a standard knocked out in short order based on a sample size of one, and whose principle purpose seems to have been to have the word "German" affixed to an "uber hund" which would be a paragon of athleticism and obedience.  Hitler would own one, and perhaps not coincidentally, his dog would be named "Blondi".

The Jadg Terrier followed -- a dog created by die-hard Nazis in a purpose-created breeding camp for the express purpose of creating an uber-terrier for the Fatherland -- something every bit as good, if not better, than anything the British had. The foundation dogs here were supplied by Lutz Heck -- the same Lutz Heck who was busy back-breeding mythical Nordic creatures for a thousand-year reich.

After the war, of course, nationalist trends continued as broken countries and people tried to cobble up and associate themselves with imagined or contrived greatness.

Various kinds of water dogs, gun dogs, and lap dogs, without much distinction or true history,  were suddenly deemed to be ancient breeds and symbols of place.

A Czech dog fancier created the Cesky terrier, for example, which was nothing more than a simple cross breed of two British dogs, while the Swiss-Italian fantasist Piero Scanziani created the Neopolitan Mastiff overnight from a dog he did not breed and based on sample size of one. 

And so it goes to this day. 

I have had some fun mocking these kind of just-invented canine histories associated with regional identities, creating the Kill Devil Terrier, the White-toed Minnesota Chipmunk Dog, the Shenandoah Mountain Cur and, just this week, the Genesee Valley Beaver Dog.

At the top of this week's post on the Genesee Valley Beaver Dog, I put up an absurd picture of "Grey Owl" a fake "Indian" who was actually born in England as Archibald Stansfeld Belaney, but who passed himself off as an indigenous native of Canada for more than 20 years. 

Surely this is the kind of "cuckoo" that Maxwell Knight would have loved!  And of course, Grey Owl was not alone as a native fake, was he?  Remember Iron Eyes Cody, the crying Indian in the "Keep America Beautiful" campaign?  He was a pure-blood Sicilian born in Louisiana! Which is not to say that he did not do good work for native people and causes -- a feature he shared with Grey Owl who preceded him by at least a generation. But were these men cuckoos?  Oh yes, in every sense of that word!

Archibald Stansfeld Belaney as a boy.


Jemima Harrison said...

Is that a rough collie, Patrick? In which case.. wow.. they've changed a bit.


PBurns said...

Yes --- before they became a hair dresser's dog.

Modern collies have coats so thick most could not do real field work (300 yard+ outruns, lifts and gathers, and the circling up of relcalcitrant strays where no fence is in sight) outside of the Artic unless scissored. Working Border collies have coats like the one you see here, and even these dogs jump in the stock tank after a hard run on a moderately temperatured day.

martha hoffman said...

Grey Owl was a fake- but he tried to acculturate, and loved the life he lived. His memoirs include stories of his pet orphaned beaver kit he raised. It lived in his cabin but constantly stole kindling sticks and dragged in mud and tried to stop up all cracks, doorways, and openings with misplaced dams.

I've read that the Rough Collie was developed by Queen Victoria crossing the original Border Collie type with Borzois.