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Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, died of a heart attack in Sandwich, Kent, on August 12 1964. He was 56. A month later, Bondmania would take off in earnest with the film premiere of Goldfinger, Sean Connery’s third outing as the British secret agent.
Half a century on, the franchise shows no sign of fading. In 2008, the centenary of Fleming’s birth was marked by a new Bond novel written by Sebastian Faulks ( Devil May Care) and a 007 exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London. Surprisingly, little attention was paid at the time to Jamaica – yet to understand the birth of James Bond, one has to look at the Caribbean island that Fleming made his home for two months of each year from 1946 onwards. Without Jamaica, it is safe to say, there would have been no Agent 007.
Matthew Parker sets the record straight in Goldeneye, his superb account of Fleming’s Jamaica. In that sun-warmed pocket of the British West Indies, he argues, Fleming could savour his remoteness from dreary austerity Britain and convince himself that he had risen above the ignominy of his country’s imperial demise. Fleming had long wanted to be a writer but felt that he lived in the shadow of his older brother Peter, a successful travel journalist. Jamaica, according to Parker, provided the space and leisure for the novelist to flourish.
Goldeneye takes its title from the Jamaican property that Fleming built on a plot of land he bought in 1946, naming it after a wartime intelligence operation he had masterminded in the navy. Situated above the old banana port of Oracabessa on the north coast, Goldeneye was so lacking in creature comforts that Fleming’s neighbour Noël Coward dubbed it “Goldeneye, nose and throat”.
It was in this spartan retreat, nevertheless, that Fleming wrote all 12 of his Bond novels and immersed himself in a Bond-like life of tropical oblivion fuelled by vodka and cigarettes (of which, like 007, Fleming smoked 70 a day). While only three of the Bond novels – Dr No, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun – are set in Jamaica, the island is mentioned by name in many of the Bond plots.
The 007 extravaganzas were all written with the jalousies at Goldeneye closed so that Fleming would not be disturbed by the sunlight or bird life. What he grew to love about Jamaica, apart from its antique social hierarchy, was an image of “romanticised decay”, writes Parker. Dr No, the sixth in the 007 series, is saturated in descriptions of plantation ruins and the melancholy of the Jamaican dusk.
According to Parker, pre-independence Jamaica, with its class-bound social order and aristocracy of skin colour, preserved the way of life Fleming remembered from the Britain of his privileged youth. It was a long way from the reality of his postwar homeland where, as we read in Dr No, “people streamed miserably to work, their legs whipped by the wet hems of their mackintoshes”.
The Goldeneye visitors’ book reads like a Who’s Who of English letters and privilege. Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, the London Magazine editor Alan Ross (Commander Ross of The Man with the Golden Gun), Stephen Spender, Cecil Beaton and Anthony Eden all stayed there.
Fleming married Ann Charteris (previously the wife of the second Viscount Rothermere) in March 1952, with Coward as a witness. The previous month, as a distraction from what Fleming called “the hideous spectre of matrimony”, he had begun his first 007 novel Casino Royale. The name for his action hero, Parker reminds us, was borrowed from the author of an ornithological classic dear to Fleming, Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies.
Cracks soon began to show in Fleming’s marriage. Ashamed of her husband’s success as a thriller writer (the Bond novels were “pornography”, she told friends), Charteris began to stay away from Jamaica. In her absence, Fleming grew friendly with a white Jamaican woman of Anglo-Jewish descent called Blanche “Birdie” Blackwell, now more than 100 years old and interviewed by Parker, who says she remains “a lively adventurous spirit”.
Through his affair with Blackwell, Fleming gained an unlikely connection with the new black-empowered Jamaica as it emerged in the popular music of Rastafari. Blanche is the mother of Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records (and since 1976 the owner of Goldeneye, now a holiday resort) who “discovered” the rock-reggae of Bob Marley and the Wailers. Parker portrays Fleming as a man sympathetic to ordinary Jamaicans and (unlike most white expatriates) integrated into local life.
This well-researched, excellently written book tells of a rapid literary decline. After the first five stylish Bond novels the prose had become tired; The Man with the Golden Gun, published posthumously in 1965, showed an author enfeebled by a lifetime of booze, if still head over heels in love with Jamaica.
Goldeneye: Where Bond was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica, by Matthew Parker, Hutchinson, RRP£20, 400 pages
Ian Thomson is author ‘The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica’ (Faber)
Photograph: Peter Wesley Brown