Right now, with the highly anticipated opening of Spectre just a few weeks away, there has been quite a lot of speculation about who will be the next Bond. The answer, I am happy to say, is you or me!
If it isn’t illegal and won’t kill you – a company will be on hand to arrange it
The new growth area in the leisure industry is “bespoke experiences”. Basically, you name it and – if it isn’t illegal and won’t kill you – a company such as Exsus Travel will be on hand to arrange it. It could be anything from a private jet tour of the Australian outback, acting lessons with an A-list celebrity in Hollywood, or zip-wiring through tropical rain-forest… “If it’s bonkers we love it,” product manager Alison Hentley tells me. “Just make sure you’re insured.”Daniel Craig as James Bond "Spectre" Photo: Susie Allnutt/Sony
I discovered all this on a mission to Prague, which I carried out not as a holiday maker but as a secret agent. Perfect timing: I was just finishing my James Bond novel, Trigger Mortis, and here was my chance not just to write about the world’s most successful secret agent but to be him, joining an organisation called the Special Ops Agency (SOA) for a day of live-fire weapons training. I would be firing Glock 17 – 9mm pistols – and VZ 58 semi-automatic machine guns (closely modelled on the more iconic AK-47). Finally, my skills would be put to the test in a “dynamic scenario” modelled on the real-training undertaken by the Special Forces in the UK. My trainers would, themselves, be drawn from the inner ranks of the Army and the SAS, many of them working at the very highest level. I decided to take my 25-year-old son with me: useful back-up when the bullets started flying.
I confess that I had my doubts about the whole thing. I write fantasy, I don’t live it. And my first meeting, in the decidedly unglamorous basement of a Prague hotel, worried me. Our James Bond-style briefing was a touch half-hearted, our Top Secret dossiers unconvincing… not helped by the advertising material and endorsements at the end. But then we went for dinner on the Matylda, a floating restaurant on the Vltava River, and over good food and copious quantities of wine, I got to know the SOA operatives a little better and saw that they were quietly professional and highly experienced people who were very serious about what they do."I decided to take my 25-year-old son with me: useful back-up when the bullets started flying"
I spoke to “Nick” who had operational experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. He didn’t call himself a spy (“It’s too big a word… I was an intelligence operative”) but even his family didn’t know what he was doing until he left. Was his work dangerous? “I’m not really sure. It’s only dangerous when things go wrong.”
Forget James Bond. These people were the real thing. They were open and approachable – and it was extraordinary to be given such an insight into their world.
That sense of reality stayed with me the next morning as we arrived at the Anti-Terrorist Training Academy on the other side of a very ordinary town called Stod, about an hour from Prague. Once a Soviet early warning station and still used to train special forces, this compound was tucked away in some of the most desolate countryside I’d ever seen. The sky was an iron grey. As the gates slid open and the barriers rose, I really did feel my pulse quickening – and this was before I was kitted out with bullet-proof vest, holsters, ear defenders, etc, in the Zbrojnice – the armoury.I've been expecting you, Mr Horowitz
A long, sinister tunnel with a slanting roof and camouflage netting on the sides led us to the arena where we would spend the day: a sunken, circular quarry, lined with rubber tyres and looked over by a suitably sinister radio mast. There were eight of us sharing the experience and we were split into teams – half with guns, half with rifles. Over the next four hours we fired hundreds of rounds, standing and kneeling, while being shown “the textbook double tap” and being urged to “inflict multiple entry wounds”. Our targets were, of course, paper, and safety standards were impeccable. But these were real weapons, real bullets and after writing about them for 30 years, it was a thrill to be shown how to use them.
And how well did I do? Let’s draw a veil over that. But I will mention that my son, Nicholas, came first when all the points were added up, showing a predilection for violence and assassination that had only been hinted at when he was a toddler.
We had lunch on our feet: hot goulash eaten out of plastic tubs, plus mountains of chocolate bars. Again, more Bourne than Bond. I chatted to the founder of SOA – Sean Crawford – who spoke to me about empowerment and adventure, “the idea of being a 12-year-old again”. And he’s right. This experience would make a brilliant stag (or hen) party. It would be perfect for corporate bonding. All you really need is imagination, testosterone and quite a lot of money. I loved it.
The climax of the day was unforgettable. Now divided into pairs, we were given a “mission”, rescuing a hostage from an enemy enclave. This involved being driven at high speed in two incredibly beaten-up cars and deposited in the arena with screeching tyres, live fire, smoke bombs and flash bangs exploding all around us, running forward, shooting as we went. I can honestly say it was two or three of the most exciting minutes of my life, a glimpse of how things might have been if I’d ever had to fight a war.
You might question the morality of all this. You’ll certainly have to think about the price. But for sheer fun and exhilaration, it was unbeatable.The Charles Bridge, Prague Photo: AP/FOTOLIA
That night we had a black-tie dinner in Prague, beginning, of course, with Martini cocktails. My son and I were very much part of the company by now – he went off with the others, drinking into the small hours – and this is certainly another benefit of an experience like this. As Sean Crawford had told me: “We bring perfect strangers together, and at the end of the day they’re best friends.” It’s not the sort of result you’d get lying beside a pool.
It would, of course, be foolish to travel to Prague without seeing something of this charming, perfectly preserved city. Nicholas and I had two more days to explore, so Exsus arranged a two-hour “Segway movie tour” for us. I feared we were going from supercool to supernaff but, in fact, the machines were delightful, the tour was an amazing experience, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. We travelled miles with a very pleasant, young guide and although I don’t necessarily need to know where Tom Cruise kissed the girl in Mission Impossible, it gave us an overview of the city which we were able to explore on foot the next day.
I had last visited Prague 30 earlier and feared that westernisation – the advent of Starbucks and McDonald’s – would have spoiled its middle-European charm. But, in fact, the new world has been folded very discreetly into the old and the city is more vibrant and welcoming than ever. We spent three hours walking around the glorious Prague Castle as well as taking in the Jewish quarter and, of course, the Old Town Square. Finally, I dragged Nicholas to the opera. There’s more to life than booze and bullets, you know. Prague has so much to offer in terms of culture (and the tickets were incredibly cheap).
We stayed at The Alchymist, a perfect jewel box of a hotel close to the Charles Bridge. Every room is exquisitely furnished, the service was delightful and, quite honestly, the home-made chocolates left on your pillow every night would alone make this pllace my first choice when I come back to Prague. On the subject of food, we ate far too much. The Czech diet has no respect for your waistline. However, the Korníra (Horse Barn) Brasserie close to the hotel was a real find . And you must try the Café Savoy, a little farther down the river. Eating in this beautiful, belle époque room is an experience in itself. The Special Operations Agency (SOA) also runs experiences in other European destinations – and I’ll certainly be packing my bulletproof vest.