Above photo of the Fleming Villa at Goldeneye by Peter Brown
Bond. James Bond.
No other phrase has crossed the generational divide so suavely, delivered with equal aplomb by 007 on the pages of the Ian Fleming novels, as by Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, and now Daniel Craig (let’s never mind about David Niven and Timothy Dalton). It would perhaps require a battery of cultural studies profs to fully explicate the unduplicated phenomenon of the world’s greatest ever secret agent. But Matthew Parker’s riveting new book Goldeneye, Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica, serves up perhaps the most intricate insights yet on how Bond became Bond.
And as we come to learn, James Herbert Bond was very much born of sweeping postwar geopolitical and social upheaval. In the wake of WWII, British naval officer Fleming retreated to Jamaica, still then a colony of the inexorably fading British Empire; and the exoticism and danger of the island combined with the escalation of Cold War anxieties to create in the author’s imagination the flawed but larger than larger than life hero/anti-hero (he was loyal, but coldly violent, and often recalcitrant) that still electrifies the screen and rakes it in at the box office today.
With Goldeneye hitting the shelves this month, we caught up for an illuminating chat with Parker about 007 and the place his creator called home—now an authentically preserved resort run by Chris Blackwell’s Island Outpost.
What was it about the English and Jamaica? It seemed to be a place of particular allure and influence.
It’s a hugely important part of British history. For a hundred years, Jamaica was by far the most valuable colony in the Empire; British families made vast fortunes from its sugar crop, money which directly stimulated Britain’s rise to industrial and commercial preeminence in the nineteenth century. When Fleming first went there, it was an imperial throwback, with the certainties of empire that had disappeared elsewhere still reassuringly intact.
Did Jamaica’s mix of exoticism and intrigue particularly inspire the development of the character of James Bond?
Fleming saw Jamaica as a mixture of British old-fashioned, imperial conservatism and the dangerous, sensual and exotic. Bond himself was at once very modern – with his self-indulgence, casual violence and brand-fetishism – but also old-fashioned in his dutiful patriotism and dislike of much of what modern Britain was becoming.
Image courtesy of The Island Trading Archive
What was Fleming’s general attitude towards the Jamaican people? After all, it was still a colony until a few years before his death in 1964.
Fleming didn’t exactly hold back when it came to dishing out racist clichés: the Japanese, he wrote, were ‘cruel’, Chinese ‘hysterical’, Italians ‘bums’, Americans brash and materialistic, Germans had chips on their shoulders, and so on across every race Bond meets. But in Diamonds are Forever we learn ‘Bond had a natural affection for coloured people.’ Near the end of his life Fleming wrote that he had ‘learned about living amongst, and appreciating, coloured people – two very different lessons I would never have absorbed if my life had continued in its pre-Jamaican metropolitan rut.’ Jamaicans, he wrote, were ‘full of goodwill and cheerfulness and humour.’ Although Fleming is still remembered with affection in the village next to Goldeneye, I think we would now characterize his attitude to Jamaicans as affectionate condescension. His last novel, The Man with the Golden Gun, shows that he thought Jamaica’s independence was a bit of a farce.
Fleming’s intention seemed to be to create Bond as a sort of tabula rasa, onto which the anxieties and intrigues of the Cold War could be written. Could he have been created now?
Actually Fleming tired of using the Cold War, which he found a dispiriting business; hence in Thunderball he introduces us to Spectre, apolitical villains merely looking to make a lot of money. His best villains were always gothic grotesques like Mr Big, Blofeld or Dr No. Would that still work if Bond was launched now? A very tricky question.
Did the Bond books succeed because so many had returned from the prodigious grandiosity, danger and heroism of WWII to what were predictable little postwar lives? Was it perfectly timed and composed escapism?
I think that’s a very interesting and valid point. In From Russia with Love, Bond sees some wrecked German trains and thinks ‘nostalgically’ of the ‘excitement and turmoil of the hot war.’ He reflects the general pride in Britain’s achievement in defeating Germany, and the regret that victory left the country bankrupt and unable to hold onto its empire. The timing on this is perfect as well: in the figure of Bond, Britain is still a major power, bestriding the world…a consoling fantasy when the reality was of rapid decline.
Image courtesy of Island Trading Archive
Do you think Fleming’s depression bouts were partly due to the reality that he was writing and cavorting in his Jamaican paradise while he made Bond go out and do all the dirty work? Did he wish that he could be 007 in real life?
Ian grew up in the shadow of his brilliant and charismatic brother Peter; and certainly he regretted that while Peter’s war involved derring-do undercover work in the Balkans, he was behind a desk. And he felt guilt for his younger brother’s death at Dunkirk. Bond, of course, gets all the action that Ian didn’t. As far as his depression, and that of his wife, is concerned, well, we still don’t understand what causes it in some people. I’m pretty sure today they would both be diagnosed as depressive.
Do you have a sense that the sort of louche glamour that characterized life at Goldeneye led to Fleming’s crippling alcoholism?
In the early years at Goldeneye, Fleming was part of the party set, cavorting at beach parties at the glamorous new North Coast hotels. But by the time of his marriage, child and first book – all in 1952 – he had tired of the scene, and preferred to spend time with guests from England or his neighbor Noël Coward. By this time his life in Jamaica was probably healthier and soberer than his life in England; but obviously not enough to save him.
What do you think of Goldeneye (pictured below) in its current incarnation?
The house has been very well looked after, and apart from the addition of outside bathrooms and a small swimming pool, is pretty much as Fleming built it. There are a number of chalets nearby that can be rented, and a very charming staff. The greatest disappointment is the reef, which from pollution and overfishing has none of the teeming life that Fleming so enjoyed. However, there are measures being taken today that, I hope, will return it one day to its former glory.
Photo by Mark Painter