We are privileged to welcome Matthew Parker in from the cold, to discuss his latest book about Ian Fleming and his beloved second home in Jamaica. Matthew is in the unique position as someone who has lived in the Caribbean and is a successful author of many books including about the Battle of Britain, the Panama Canal and Monte Cassino.
Drawing on extensive interviews with Ian’s family, his Jamaican lover Blanche Blackwell and many other Jamaicans, and timed to be released around the 50th anniversary of Fleming’s death, Goldeneye… is a thoroughly researched and original account of a comparatively neglected but crucially important part of Ian Fleming’s life and work.
1. What inspired you to write about Ian Fleming specifically within the context of his life in Jamaica?
Jamaica has a fascinating, vivid and shocking history, as I discovered when researching my last book, The Sugar Barons. It was for a hundred years the most important place in the British Empire, and more than anywhere else made Britain rich in the eighteenth century through its sugar crop, grown by enslaved Africans. It was also the cruelest and most brutal place in the Empire.
While researching The Sugar Barons, I discovered Goldeneye. I hadn’t known that Fleming spent so much time in Jamaica, or that he had written all the James Bond novels and stories there. So I looked again at the books and found Jamaica everywhere, not just in the siting of three of the novels – Live and Let Die, Dr No, and The Man with the Golden Gun – but in the underwater scenes (Fleming’s best moments), the pirates (mentioned in seven of the novels), the jet set milieu Bond moves in (the North Coast in the 1950s was the most glamorous place in the world to take a holiday), the obsession with race and much more.
James Bond is an imperial hero, projecting British power across the world, putting Britain back on top. I think it is fascinating that he was created in colonial Jamaica, which was changing from imperial throwback to independent nation in the time that Fleming was there, providing a microcosm of the decline of empire that is such a big part of the tone of the Bond novels.
2. Did you discover things that previous biographies had not?
I hope that by focusing on the context of the creation of the Bond, where and when this national icon came into being, I have provided a fresh angle from which to look at Bond.
And of course, I explore his two months a year there in much more detail than has been done before, including conducting extensive interviews with Jamaicans who knew him there, including Barrington Roper, Blanche Blackwell and many local people from Oracabessa.
More than anything, I bring my knowledge of Jamaica at that time – its politics, art, music and general atmosphere – to explore Jamaica’s influence on Fleming’s life and his writing.
3. What is your overarching view of Fleming after completing your book?
Fleming’s background and family had made him a complex, prickly character.
He had many male friends from different parts of his life, but he struggled to sustain relationships with women, was distant, aloof, moody and melancholic.
But he found something in Jamaica that smoothed off some of the rough edges. His friend and first biographer John Pearson, who visited Goldeneye in the year after his death, noted
‘This really is Flemingland. It is the place he wrote about. His ghost is stronger here than anywhere else.’ Only in Jamaica, Pearson concluded, could Fleming ‘relax, be as much of himself as there was.’
This echoes a comment by Peter Quennell, who was that rare thing – a friend of both Ann and Ian, and who knew Fleming in England and in Jamaica, as he was a regular visitor to Goldeneye:
‘In Jamaica Ian seemed perfectly at home,’ Quennell wrote, ‘if he could be said ever to be really at home in place he inhabited.’
So there are two Ian Flemings – the London, golf and bridge playing, hard-drinking prickly character, and the Fleming in Jamaica: relaxed, friendly, calm and, of course, creative. This is the Fleming I got to know, and sharing his love of Jamaica and Jamaicans, I rather got to like him.
4. How much of a lasting influence did he leave in Jamaica?
Reporting his death, the Gleaner, Jamaica’s long-standing national newspaper, commented that he was:
‘a great friend of Jamaica … wherever he went, he sang the praises of Jamaica; and through his books, films and articles he did more perhaps than any other single person to give the country extensive and favourable publicity abroad.’
There’s no doubt that Fleming played a part in making Jamaica the most popular destination for the jet set in the 1950s, bringing a host of writers, film stars and the super-rich to the North Coast.
Those days are long gone now, of course. Only at Goldeneye, with its nearby Ian Fleming Airport, are the super-rich still entertained and pampered. The house is now part of an expensive and glamorous hotel, whose visitors include rock star and entertainment royalty – a little piece of 1950s Jamaica amongst the mass tourism packages that now dominate the rest of the north coast.
5. Do you haver a favorite Bond novel and why?
It has to be either Live and Let Die or Thunderball. Both play to Fleming’s great strength as a writer: his wonderful underwater action scenes inspired by the many hours he spent on the reef at Goldeneye. As Kingsley Amis commented:
‘All writers possessed of any energy annex some corner of the world to themselves, and the pelagic jungle roamed by ray and barracuda is Mr Fleming’s.’
Live and Let Die is pure boy’s own adventure, mining Fleming’s boyhood reading with the plot hinging on the discovery of the lost treasure of buccaneer Henry Morgan. It is also tautly written, which each short chapter dragging the reader onto the next. It is infused as well, with Fleming’s passionate love for Jamaica, or at least his version of it.
Thunderball, of course, introduces Blofeld, Fleming’s greatest villain. The plot strikes just the right balance between excitement and credibility, and Bond’s relationship with Domino – named of course like Solitaire after a West Indian bird – is touching and credible.
Matthew was born in El Salvador in 1970 to an expatriate family and while growing up lived in Britain, Norway and Barbados. He read English at Balliol College Oxford, then worked in a number of roles in book publishing in London from salesman to commissioning editor.
His first book, published in 2000, was about the Battle of Britain. Then followed Monte Cassino: The Hardest-Fought Battle of World War II; Panama Fever, which was one of the Washington Post’s Best Books of the Year; The Sugar Barons, which was an Economist Book of the Year and now Goldeneye.
He is currently working on a new book, due to be published in May 2015, that tells the extraordinary story of Willoughbyland, the forgotten seventeenth-century English colony in Surinam that was exchanged with the Dutch for New York. He lives in England.
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