Thursday, June 25, 1987

James Bond's Island

I visited Jamaica in June 1987, and soon write this for my excellent editor at East-West, Bill McCoy, one of the three fine magazine editors I encountered. (The other two were Chris Hunt of Travel & Leisure, and Kevin Buckley of Geo and Playboy.) East-West ran this piece the following year. Not surprisingly, Goldeneye is now a boutique hotel. Eric Ambler, the great British thriller author, wrote me that he "never stayed there, but heard it was damned uncomfortable."

The road to the beautiful little banana port of Oracabessa, along Jamaica’s north coast, takes one swiftly away from the tourist colonies of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. The fruit-stands by the roadside proliferate; dripping fish are for sale soon after their demise. The road breaks and expands and contracts in the jungle vegetation, the Blue Mountains steaming just inland. Oracabessa is part gimcrack shacks, part ramshackle Victoriana. There are no tourists, no foreigners in this tiny Caribbean village.

It was in this unlikely setting, deep in the heart of the Jamaica only Jamaicans know, that Ian Fleming—once commander in British naval intelligence, later foreign manager for a London-based chain of newspapers—decided to build a house shortly after the war. It was here, then, that James Bond was born.

“The shadows crept from behind the house and marched across the lawn and enveloped him. The Undertaker’s Wind that blows at night from the centre of the island, clattered softly in the tops of the palm trees. The frogs began to tinkle among the shrubs. The fireflies, the ‘blink-a-blinks’, as Quarrel called them, came out and began flashing their sexual morse. For a moment the melancholy of the tropical dusk caught at Bond’s heart.”

It is safe to say that, without Jamaica, there would’ve been no agent 007. When Ian Fleming built his simple house Goldeneye near Oracabessa in 1945, he was hardly a writer. After a respectable war career (in which his duties resembled M.’s rather than Bond’s) he settled down to the world of journalism, with the proviso that he be given two months’ leave each winter.

Fleming had passed through Jamaica during the war with a millionaire friend who owned property and, despite the seasonal monsoon, fell hard for the island. “I’ve made up my mind,” he announced. “I’m going to live the rest of my life in Jamaica.” He was to spend every winter there until his death, from 1946 to 1964.

The island’s dream-quality was to prove crucial in the incubation of the Bond thrillers. “I suppose it is the peace and silence and cut-offness from the madding world that urges people to create here,” he wrote years later. “Would these books have been born if I had not been living in the gorgeous vacuum of a Jamaican holiday? I doubt it.” It was only on his seventh sojourn, just before his marriage, that Fleming first conjured his secret agent, this man of action who was a vicarious dream-self.

As the late poet and critic Phillip Larkin has pointed out, Bond “was his creator in a way that Tarzan or Sherlock Holmes... clearly weren’t theirs. It was Fleming who smoked seventy cigarettes a day, wore dark blue Sea Island cotton shirts and loved scrambled eggs and double portions of orange juice for breakfast; Bond was a kind of doppleganger sent out to enact what Fleming himself never achieved….”

Of Scot ancestry, Fleming had been an energetic athlete on the playing fields of Eton, not a shining student. Soon outshone by his elder brother Peter, the explorer who wrote one of the great travel books of the Thirties, Brazilian Adventure, there was already a reputation for girls and cars by the time he left Eton. After a term he dismissed himself from Sandhurst.

Like most writers in the process of forming there was a good deal of the actor in him. For a year in the Austrian Tyrol, then Geneva and Munich, he skied and played at being a young intellectual on the way to a career in the Foreign Office. But he failed the exam. It was as a young Reuters correspondent that he traveled to Moscow and the seeds of “Smersh” got sown. By 1933 he was back in London, a junior partner in one of the better brokerage houses, where he remained until the war.

All this time he was known for his philandering ways; he was far less protective toward women than Bond. His brother’s success, his past as something of a black sheep still followed him about. But as John Pearson puts it in his extremely perceptive biography, The Life of Ian Fleming, “the trouble lay deeper even than this. It lay in that solitary dream world which he had constructed… in this world of unreality he could never risk revealing himself to another human being. Ultimately there was no relief from the interminable ego.” Until the war came, that is; for after the war he built Goldeneye.

There is a characteristically fine description of the house in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s classic book on the West Indies, The Traveller’s Tree, published in 1950. It must have made the ambitious homeowner (and designer) proud: “Here, on a headland, Ian Fleming has built a house called Goldeneye that might serve as a model for new houses in the tropics. Trees surround it on all sides except the sea, which it almost overhangs. Great windows capture every breeze, to cool, even on the hottest day, the large white rooms. The windows that look towards the sea are glassless but equipped with outside shutters against rain: enormous quadrilaterals surrounded by dark wooden frames which enclose a prospect of sea and cloud and sky, and tame the elements, as it were, into an overhanging fresco of which one could never tire.”

In these years Fleming had considerable work done on the property, originally the overgrown site of a donkey racetrack. He had part of the garden just before the blue-trimmed white house sunken-in, and stone steps cut down to the little horseshoe of private, cliff-held beach. Goldeneye became a modest fantasy, masculine in its plain creature comforts; it lacked only a wife.

It is significant that when Fleming’s shell finally cracked it was for another man’s wife, Lady Ann Rothermere, formerly Lady O’Neill, née Charteris. (For a time Fleming was nicknamed “Lady Rothermere’s Fan” in journalism circles.) And possibly to ward off the nerves brought on by her scandalous divorce and their impending marriage, in the winter of 1952 at Goldeneye, Fleming first sent forth James Bond. He got the name from “the cover of one of my Jamaican bibles, Birds of the West Indies, by James Bond, an ornithological classic.”

Fleming followed a writing regime inspired by the place itself, and nearly impossible elsewhere—certainly in sleeting London going to a newspaper office the other ten months of the year. As Violet, his housekeeper, described it to a recent visitor, Fleming would rise at eight, breakfast, stare at the sea until nine from his sunken garden, then go inside and write until twelve-thirty at the red bulletwood desk backed, curiously, with a mirror, that dominates a corner of the master bedroom. The long windows look spaciously out on the garden and the sea, but he wrote “with the jalousies closed….so I would not be distracted by the birds and the flowers and the sunshine outside until I had completed my daily stint.”

He would bathe on his beach until one, lunch, then nap until four; take the standard bath of the Englishman in the tropics; then write until six-thirty, when it was time for the first drink of the evening. These evenings were clearly Fleming’s favorite part of the Jamaican day, most lovingly described in the books.

As Larkin puts it, “The ease with which Bond appeared (Fleming, forty-three, never having written a novel before, sat down and wrote Casino Royale in eight weeks) suggests the tapping of deep imaginative springs.” In fact Fleming had only limited personal experience to draw upon. He was energetic about turning to others for professional advice about the specifics of guns, cars, places. But he gave it all a sheen of deep realism, as if he’d lived it all himself. It is this instinct, the famous mania for detail (“shaken not stirred”) so easily parodied, that keeps the books alive. In part it arose from the sensual life that the writer’s paradise of Goldeneye allowed.

Fleming was to follow this daily routine for twelve more Bond books. Five have Jamaican settings, and they make clear Fleming’s deep love and knowledge of the island: the affectionate descriptions of real locations, the birds and flowers, the locals who were part of his life at Oracabessa. “I first learned about the bottom of the sea from the reefs around my property... and I learned about living amongst, and appreciating, coloured people....” By the second book, Live and Let Die (written 1953), Fleming turned to Jamaica for plot inspiration, a search for the lost gold of the pirate Henry Morgan that leads to an invented Isle of Surprise along the coast by Oracabessa.

Though Fleming was a veteran clubman in London, and wrote knowledgeably of the colonial life in Kingston, he spent most of his holidays sequestered at his house, preferring the company of neighbors like Noël Coward. He often rented or loaned out Goldeneye when he was away. The Visitors’ book reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary English letters: Coward, Fermor, Peter Quennell, Evelyn Waugh, Truman Capote, Graham Greene, Stephen Spender, Cecil Beaton. After the 1956 Suez crisis, the Prime Minister Anthony Eden and his wife convalesced there.

One of Fleming’s paradoxes as a writer is that generally his characters are cardboard dummies, humorless Bond included; the women are all the same, each “a bird with one wing down.” After the vivid action scenes, it is the landscapes that, always, quicken to life. And, curiously, the background characters are vivid.

Perhaps the best of these, introduced in Live and Let Die and killed in Doctor No, is Quarrel, the Cayman Islander who acts as a sort of Man Friday for Bond on Jamaica. Fleming based Quarrel on an Oracabessan named Aubyn Cousins, whose father had previously owned Goldeneye’s property. In his bachelor years Fleming often snorkelled with Cousins on Goldeneye’s teeming reef; Cousins was particularly able at lassoing sharks. Undoubtedly Bond’s education undersea by the faithful Quarrel echoes Fleming’s by Cousins.

“He spoke exactly but without expertise,” Fleming writes in Live and Let Die, “using Jamaican language in which plants ‘strive’ or ‘quail,’ moths are ‘bats,’ and ‘love’ is used instead of ‘like.’ As he talked, he would raise his hand in greeting to the people on the road, and they would wave back and shout his name.”

The book is notable also for a brief description of Negril before the tourist developers came in. It would be scarcely recognizable now, as “...five miles of white sand sloping easily into the breakers and, behind, the palm trees marching in graceful disarray to the horizon. Under them the grey canoes were pulled up beside the pink mounds of discarded conch shells, and among them smoke rose from the palm thatch cabins of the fishermen in the shade between the swamplands and the sea.” Like all writers, Fleming wrote best about what he knew best, and in the Jamaican settings he didn’t have to rely on anyone else’s expertise or depth.

Doctor No begins with the Queen’s Club, “cool and quiet and withdrawn from the hot, vulgar sprawl of Kingston.” The book is unusual in its portrayal of Jamaica’s powerful Chinese community, rarely recognized in most local fiction. For the background of the girl, Honeychile Rider, Fleming turned to the vague histories of the many ruins of “great houses”—plantation mansions—that tumble along the coast. He was careful to work in a measure of contempt, on Bond’s part of course, for the workings of the British government on the island.

But after the first five thrillers Fleming was already starting “to run out of puff.” This was partly the old Fleming ennui and partly ill health; Bond’s smoking and drinking justified his creator’s bad habits. The short stories “For Your Eyes Only” and “Octopussy”—in books of the same names—have Jamaican locales (especially the latter, which is full of Goldeneye’s atmosphere). It was in his twelfth book, barely completed before his death from a massive coronary in 1964, that Fleming best portrayed his beloved second home.

Most of The Man With the Golden Gun takes place along Jamaica’s south coast, rarely visited by tourists and almost never in fiction. “It is a long hundred-and-twenty-mile hack over very mixed road surfaces from Kingston to Savannah La Mar,” wrote Fleming, and indeed it still is, though it takes you past some of the prettiest little forgotten townships on the island. The seedy bar/bordello in Sav’ La Mar where Bond made Scaramanga’s acquaintance may be found today, spruced up as a medical clinic. Fleming called the address “3 1/2 Love Lane,” but it is now officially Norman Lane. Though a lignum vitae tree still blossoms in the garden (across the lane squats a new police station), no one remembers the house as the Dreamland Café.

By Fleming’s death, film-Bond had inevitably caught up to book-Bond. Fleming had a hand in the first film, Dr. No, made largely in Jamaica—at the old Palisadoes Airport, Queen’s Club, and Government House (Kingston); at Morgan’s Harbour (Bond meets Quarrel); on Kinsale Street (Strangways). The mangrove swamps of Falmouth were used as Dr. No’s territory, and the film crew’s hotel, the Sans Souci, became the mountain cottage where Sean Connery seduced Miss Taro. It was on the beach of the private estate appropriately-named Laughing Waters, near Ocho Rios, that Ursula Andress did her impersonation of Botticelli’s Venus.

Goldeneye today, with its gate crowned by carved pineapples, is virtually unchanged since Fleming’s era. The curved desk still commands a corner of the master bedroom, the Doctor’s Wind and the Undertaker’s Wind graze the lawn, the path descends to the little beach. The mahogany furniture with seashell handles, the furnishings of great restraint, are as Fleming had them, preserved by the current owner, a record and film producer who rents the house by the week. The staff is still presided over by Fleming’s housekeeper, Violet Cummings, who fondly remembers ‘the Commander.” (Anyone wishing to rent Goldeneye should get in touch with the owner’s U.S. rep, Barbara Cuddy, at 212-535-4515.) I called, and it is a fax machine.

Often today the popular myth of a writer’s life overshadows his work. But the Bond myth has provided a worldwide role model for the man of action for twenty-five years now, thanks to the films. And in a sense Bond has erased Fleming. To visit Goldeneye, to imagine all that fuss starting at this unimportant lovely place, brings on a nostalgia for the simpler time when Anne Fleming could write of leaning over the cliff railing after sunset to watch “the spray of the reef or the high bright stars” and that “Ian remains longer than any of us,” having done his requisite 2,000 words that day.

Neither Fleming (never a businessman) nor his heirs would receive much of the big payoff, the film-money. But Bond has entered the realm of Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes, of creations far larger than their creator; he is everywhere. In a recent Bulgarian bestseller, a bloc baddie bests Bond.

And not everyone has forgotten where it all started. Not too long ago, in a small Jamaican town, I heard the Kingston radio station play through a scratchy 60s record of themes from several of the films, anonymously souped-up for big band. The announcer referred to 007 as “our own.” Fleming may be gone, but Jamaica will always be James Bond’s island.

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