Words by Revelator
After reading Mathew Parker’s book it will be impossible to over-estimate the importance of Jamaica to James Bond. Beginning with Fleming’s wartime discovery of the island, Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born is a chronological countdown of his years there, interlaced with a concurrent history of country.
Goldeneye, Fleming’s Jamaican residence, mirrored the mix of Puritanism and Epicureanism in his books: set in one of the lushest parts of the north coast, it was small, spartan, and uncomfortable. Only there was Fleming able to practice the strict routine that allowed him to write the Bond novels, starting work after breakfast with an afternoon swim as a reward. “Here there is peace and that wonderful vacuum of days that makes one work,” he wrote of the land where he was most at home, relaxed, and free to be himself. It was all thanks to “Dr. Jamaica,” to use a phrase from Noel Coward, his friend and neighbor. The good doctor also gave a place for refuge and recovery to James Bond, when he visited in Live and Let Die, Doctor No, and The Man With the Golden Gun.
Imperial Jamaica embodied the mix of “reassuring conservatism and the exciting exotic” that Parker finds in Bond. Only after six years of living there did Fleming feel prepared to reinvent himself as a spy novelist, and Jamaica is never far from the surface of Casino Royale, his first book, where Bond poses as a “Jamaican plantocrat” and Le Chiffre watches him “like an octopus under a rock”—a characteristic piece of close observation from Parker, who shows how the reef beyond Goldeneye inspired the many underwater scenes in the Bond novels, among Fleming’s most intense and memorable writing. Details such as the sound of a shark feeding in Live and Let Die (a “terrible snuffling grunt as if a great pig was getting its mouth full”) were drawn from real life.
In contrast to Casino Royale, the most Graham Greene-like and subversive Bond adventure, Live and Let Die is “really an old-fashioned Boy’s Own” adventure story,” to quote Parker, who considers it “possibly Fleming’s best” book and points to its major inspirations: the colonial government’s (unjustified) worries of communist infiltration of Jamaica and Fleming’s witnessing a voodoo funeral. Parker is refreshingly upfront about the novels’s headache-inducing racial attitudes. Fleming shows undeniable racism with sentences like voodoo is “primevally ingrained in the negro subconscious.” But as Parker notes, Fleming dumped on every non-British nationality and race, yet treated black Jamaicans and African Americans with unusual affection, though that affection was also condescending (see M’s speech) and built on racial clichés (such as shared love of jazz). In real life, Fleming was liked by Jamaicans and treated them honorably, but did not “have any real, equal-status black Jamaican friends.” Parker astutely identifies Quarrel as Bond and Fleming’s “ideal black person”: earthy, in touch with nature, good-and-simple-natured, and posing no threat to Bond’s unspoken authority. A colonial relationship at heart.
A Colonial Relationship at Heart
Romantic Imperialism informed Fleming’s conception of Jamaica. The real history was anything but romantic. Columbus stumbled on island in 1494, dooming its Arawak natives to eradication by slavery and disease. The English invaded in 1655 and imported slaves to harvest sugar, turning Jamaica into what Parker deems the “most brutal of all the British slave colonies,” complete with a bloody record of slave rebellions. Fleming instead focused romantic and gothic lore. He was fascinated by the old English families that landed on the island during Cromwell’s heyday, such as the Havelocks in “For Your Eyes Only,” who Parker calls Fleming’s “exemplary white Anglo-Jamaicans: they are tolerant of the clumsiness of their servants, appreciative of nature and snooty about Americans.” Their daughter Melina is one of several Creole Bond girls, along with Solitaire and Honeychile Ryder.
Unlike white aristocrats like the Havelocks, most Jamaicans desired independence, and Parker observes Fleming’s fearful suggestions of revolt in Doctor No. Of the Queen’s Club, based on a real bastion of the white elite, Kingston’s Liguanea Club, Fleming writes that “One day it will have its windows smashed and perhaps be burned to the ground.”
Colonial Secretary Pleydell-Smith is dismissive of Jamaican aspirations for self-rule (“they can’t even run a bus service”), and Fleming was similarly flippant in his journalism, dismissing Norman Manley—who launched the socialist People’s National Party—as the “white hope of the Harlem communists.” Manley became Chief Minister in 1955, guiding his country to independence in 1962. Two years later, in The Man With the Golden Gun, Fleming pretends Jamaica is still a colony. The competent authority figures remain either British or British trained, with Jamaican authorities treated as self-important children, leaving Bond to rescue the sugar industry from Castro’s meddling, prospective race riots, and bad-mannered Rastafarians.
Beyond Fleming, Parker profiles other notables from the final years of colonial rule. Standing in for the well-meaning but clueless part of the white elite is Molly Huggins, wife of the postwar governor-general. Deciding illegitimate births were a root cause of poverty and dysfunctional families, she arranged over 2,000 weddings, despite being a chronic adulteress. Parker also views Jamaica from the perspective of Noel Coward, Goldeneye’s first paying guest, who came to enjoy a remarkably close friendship with Fleming. Buying his own estate, Coward wrote repeatedly about Jamaica, treating the locals with “affectionate condescension.” His play Volcano features thinly veiled versions of Ian and Ann Fleming in a bitter love triangle with Blanche Blackwell.
Hailing from one of Jamaica’s richest families, the down-to-earth Blanche fit Fleming’s description of his ideal woman (“thirtyish, Jewish, a companion who wouldn’t need education in the arts of love”). Like Ian and unlike Ann, she loved Jamaica and its natural wonders, and Parker notes that similarities between her and the Creole Bond girls (and even Kissy Suzuki). As Ian’s marriage deteriorated, Jamaica became an even greater refuge.
After one of his worst fights with Ann, who’d grown to hate Jamaica, Fleming fled there in 1962 and wrote “Octopussy,” notable for its portrayal of a shattered marriage and crippling alcoholism. Fleming ended his life caught between different countries and women who symbolized them. “Jamaica and me: we could have kept him alive,” claimed Blanche. After reading this book, you believe her.
Where Bond Was Born engages in biographical criticism on an unprecedented scale, and Parker’s command and close-reading of Fleming is truly impressive, rivaling what Kingsley Amis displayed in The James Bond Dossier. Parker is superbly attentive: Picking up on Fleming’s ecological leanings, he notes that “anyone who does kill a bird in a Bond story invites Bond’s fiercest anger and always winds up deservedly dead.” Dealing with the unglamorous and unpopular The Spy Who Loved Me, he calls Vivienne Michel “by some way Fleming’s most realized and credible female character” in “his most ambitious and literary novel.” He aptly notes that though Fleming gave John F. Kennedy suggestions on how to ruin Castro, they were tongue-in-cheek; his real feelings were expressed in The Man With the Golden Gun, which argues the Americans had made too much of Castro and would benefit from making a friendly gesture.
Parker tracks multiple thematic strands throughout the Bond books, including Fleming’s love for the the Royal Navy (Admiral Nelson served in Jamaica, and M credits Bond with “the Nelson Touch”) and his fascination with piracy. Not stopping with Sir Henry Morgan, whose Jamaican treasure glitters in Live and Let Die, Parker finds references across the canon. Tracy, Bond’s bride, says “I wouldn’t love you if you weren’t a pirate.” Emilio Largo, the villain of Thunderball, is described as someone who “would have been a pirate” two hundred years ago, “a bloodstained cut-throat who scythed his way through people towards gold.” His cover story even involves a pirate’s map.
Another strand involves Fleming’s growing unease with the rise of American power, which often occurred at Britain’s expense. In Goldfinger, Bond saves Fort Knox but bemoans American indifference to Britain’s gold. In Moonraker (a “hymn to England”), Bond and M worry about American belligerence. In “The Hildebrand Rarity” Milton Krest, Fleming’s ultimate Ugly American, views the U.S., China, and Russia as playing poker for world domination and excluding Britain. (Parker astutely uncovers an interview where Fleming views America and Russia as “two big poker players” who are “evenly matched” and might “finally decide to call the game off.”) Americans even begin infiltrating Bond’s turf in Jamaica. New York transplant Dr. No has a “slight American accent” while the Cuban hitmen in “For Your Eyes Only” escape to America in a boat waving the stars and stripes (the locals presume they’re American film stars). By the time of The Man With the Golden Gun, the CIA is freely operating in Jamaica, and the American-accented Scaramanga is promoting tacky Americanized resort hotels with “tropical jungle” dining rooms.
What Fleming called the “crazily inflated tourist boom” owed much to American influence. Tourism overtook sugar as Jamaica’s main industry, with American-style luxury hotels popping up in the 50s (including the Sans Souci, featured in the films of Dr. No and Live And Let Die). Catering to Americans, they practiced segregation. When Black journalist Evon Blake jumped in the pool of Kingston’s Myrtle Bank Hotel, whites scrambled out; the pool had to be drained and refilled before they re-entered.
Fleming resented America for prompting the death throes of the British Empire, yet it was to his profound benefit. After Eisenhower swept the rug out from under the British during the Suez Crisis, Prime Minister Anthony Eden sought to recover with a vacation at Goldeneye. Britain’s last Imperialist leader stayed at the birthplace of Britain’s the last Imperialist hero, the secret agent described as a “one-man Suez Task Force.” The visit was a disaster for Eden, who was ousted three weeks after his return, but a sales boon for Fleming, bringing his books mass attention. The Empire’s loss was Bond’s gain.
Parker’s only blind spot as a critic involves the metafictional touches of “self-awareness and self-deprecation” found in the Bond novels. One example is Le Chiffre telling Bond “The game of Red Indians is over…This is not a romantic adventure story in which the villain is routed and the hero is given a medal and marries a girl. Unfortunately these things don’t happen in real life.” Parker writes that such “self-consciousness prevents Fleming from being considered a truly great thriller,” but Le Chiffre is perfectly correct—Bond does not get the girl or a medal. What he tells Bond warns the reader that Casino Royale will be more realistically brutal than earlier thrillers.
Parker believes Fleming is “forever reminding us” of his books’ fictional nature, though such references are few and far between. From Thunderball he quotes two Bondian quips; “planes with atomic bombs don’t get stolen in real life” and “It’s a damned good sequence for a comic strip.” But in context the dialogue is up to something different than mere winking. Bond listens to Felix Leiter’s deductions about the theft of the atomic bombs and tells him “You’ve been taking mescalin or something. It’s a damned good sequence for a comic strip, but these things don’t happen real life.” Felix retorts with “Planes with atomic bombs don’t get stolen in real life. Except that they do…How many people would believe the files on some of the cases you and I have got mixed up in? Don’t give me that crap about real life. There ain’t no such animal.”
Felix is telling the reader that “real life,” cleverly tied to his and Bond’s previous cases, is stranger than fiction, to the extent of collapsing the difference. Thunderball’s plot was considered more far-fetched in 1961, and Fleming increases its plausibility through Leiter’s attack on “real life,” which can be very unreal indeed (and in the case of the cold war, often surreal).
Parker concludes that that “self-awareness and silliness” is the “fatal flaw of the Bond books as serious spy fiction, but their greatest strength as enduring British cultural properties.” Perhaps outlandish elements such as SPECTRE are not as “serious” as “Le Carre’s seedy safe houses with their instant coffee,” but Parker doesn’t give enough credit to the strength of Fleming’s imagination, and to how Fleming’s pacing and attention to detail help make SPECTRE vividly credible, thanks to what has been called “the Fleming sweep” and “the Fleming effect.” Unlike, Le Carre, whose realism calls for less in the way of invention, Fleming triumphed at making his imagination’s wildest fancies entrancingly possible on the page.
The first half of Where Bond Was Born is its most engaging, thanks to the carefully interwoven stories of Fleming’s discovery of Jamaica, and his setting up on island, involvement with Ann, befriending Noel Coward, and invention of Bond. Starting with its discussion of Moonraker, the book settles into a pattern of dutiful plot summaries interspersed with further bits of Jamaican history and the familiar accounts of the decay of Fleming’s marriage, and Bond’s rise to fame. Parker has less fresh information to give in these areas, and like some of the Bond novels, his book can feel a little hurried toward the end. His Jamaica-centric approach also means he occasionally has little to say about the novels set elsewhere—his deals with Goldfinger in a single page. Parker espouses the familiar idea that Bond appeals because he salves the British ego (“Bond expresses our complicated relationship with our past, and our empire—at once a little bit proud, a little bit ashamed, and forever aware that our ‘greatest days’ are behind us”) but this doesn’t explain Bond’s popularity in America and the rest of the world.
The book has a few small errors—Raymond Durgnat (who coined the phrase “one-man Suez task force”) was an English film critic, not a French theorist. Raymond Carver is twice confused with Raymond Chandler. Parker also repeats the canard about David Niven being Fleming’s first choice for Bond, but Richard Burton enjoys that honor.
Despite these quibbles, Parker’s book is required reading for anyone interested in Fleming. Beyond a trove of fascinating facts, such as the real life inspiration for “The Hildebrand Rarity,” it offers a many never-before seen pictures. Parker depends on Lycett and Pearson’s Fleming biographies, but he also makes expert use of Fleming journalism’s for Horizon, The Spectator, and The Sunday Times. Best of all, he has interviewed Blanche Blackwell, still kicking at 102 years old. For Ann Fleming’s side of the story, Parker relies on the collection of her letters published by Mark Amory. One wishes he had access to Ian’s letters and notebooks, which Amory quotes from. Henry Chancellor makes similar use of “the Fleming Archive” in James Bond: The Man and His World. Parker surely deserved equal access.
Where Bond Was Born leaves a melancholy wake. Post-60s Jamaica veered between left and right-wing governments; today tourism remains the number one industry of this troubled country, but globalization has left massive debt. Fleming would have horrified at the fate of the man who inherited Goldeneye, his son Caspar. By 1973 he was a gifted but spoiled and drug-addicted Oxford drop-out. Visiting Goldeneye for the first time since 1960, he was overwhelmed by his father’s legacy.
After a week he swam into the bay beyond Goldeneye, where Ian had enjoyed some of his happiest moments, intending never to return. Like Tracy Bond, he was rescued: Blanche Blackwell, faithful to last, had him airlifted to a hospital. Her kindness only delayed the inevitable. Goldeneye was eventually purchased by her son Chris Blackwell, and became a high-end resort for celebrities, with guests ranging from Bono to Pierce Brosnan. One can imagine Fleming blanching at the luxury trappings of his once-modest home.
Whatever his faults, Ian Fleming was “a great friend of Jamaica,” in the words of his friend Morris Cargill, columnist for The Gleaner, Jamaica’s oldest newspaper and James Bond’s favorite. The novels Fleming set in his adopted island have become an indisputable and unforgettable part of its literary heritage. Jamaica’s mangrove forests resound with the roar of Dr. No’s dragon, just as the waters of Cabrita Island, “the Isle of Surprise,” still part for Mr. Big’s yacht on its way to a midnight keelhauling. But perhaps the memories of the Jamaicans who shared their lives with James Bond’s creator are an even greater tribute: In the words of Violet Cummings, the formidable housekeeper of Goldeneye, Ian Fleming was “the best man I ever met, better than all the men in Jamaica, and in the rest of the world, too.”
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, Panama Fever, The Sugar Barons and Goldeneye. He is currently working on a new book, due to be published in August 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.
The US version of Matthew’s book is available to buy after March 15th.
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