Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer and board member of the National Book Critics Circle.
By Matthew Parker
388 pp. $27.95
Long before Goldeneye was a James Bond movie, it was a sparse modern house perched above a private beach in Oracabessa Bay on Jamaica’s north shore, its windows open to the breezes as well as the insects and tropical rains. Built in 1946, it was a beloved escape from London winters for its owner, Ian Fleming, who created there the ultimate alter ego in secret agent James Bond. Against a backdrop of the island’s evolution from colonialism to independence, Matthew Parker tells the story of Fleming’s Jamaican retreat, of the psychological fallout of the end of the British Empire and of how Bond parachuted in to offer solace in the form of escapist fantasy.
Fleming knew plenty about the desire to escape. The second son of a wealthy Conservative lawmaker, he was dispatched to boarding school at the age of 7, where the routine bullying and cheerless communal living fostered “a lifelong, almost neurotic craving for time on his own.” After his father’s death on active duty in World War I, young Ian went on to Eton and Sandhurst military academy, then failed at several career efforts — the foreign service, journalism, banking — while succeeding easily with women.
The drifting playboy was “rescued” by World War II, recruited into naval intelligence and given James Bond’s rank of commander, the title by which his faithful household staff at Goldeneye would always know him. After the war, thanks to a bridge-playing pal, he landed a job at the Sunday Times — with two months’ paid leave each year to spend in Jamaica.
It’s hard to feel much sympathy for Fleming as an individual and less for him as a type: the self-appointed elite, failing upward through the goodwill of friends and arrogantly convinced that the welfare state is making the country lazy and soft. In the Caribbean, awash in gin and nostalgia for the vanished plantation era, his aristocratic neighbors in their great houses were no less hypocritical. Like them, Fleming was unable to conceive of a world not structured and stratified according to race, in which a person’s “blood” dictated his or her character more powerfully than any other force. Small individual kindnesses, such as the mutual devotion of Fleming and his Jamaican housekeeper Violet Cummings, hardly mitigate the impact of this racist mind-set. It’s almost a relief when the tourist caravan rolls in in the early 1950s, supplanting the vestiges of the sugar and banana trades and bringing a parade of celebrities to enjoy, in Winston Churchill’s words, “soft breezes and hard liquor.”
Fleming was “ambivalent about this invasion of the decadent jet-set,” although mainly for how it disturbed his peace. He didn’t share the moral and political objections of locals who complained that prostitution was rife and that the exclusive resorts were effectively segregated. He knew that the appeal of the James Bond books depended on these glimpses of Jamaica’s sybaritic glamour, offered to readers who could not afford to visit. Parker is astute on this aspect of Bond’s appeal: His pleasures and diversions “are the consumer sports — skiing, golf, gambling” — rather than aristocratic hunting or working-class soccer. His conservatism is not rooted in aristocracy or party politics, but in the warm subsoil of nationalist sentiment. Detached and secure in his conviction of British moral superiority, Bond moves easily through a world that was becoming “increasingly classless” — provided you could buy your way in.
In February 1952, Fleming began his first novel, “Casino Royale,” at Goldeneye. The previous summer the double agents Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean had fled to Moscow, sending a “seismic shock” through the British intelligence services. Fleming’s masculine isolation was about to be similarly shaken, by marriage to his longtime lover Ann Rothermere. Her husband had at last agreed to a divorce, and she was pregnant with Fleming’s child. Some indication of the groom’s mood can be gauged in his claim that he began to write as a distraction from “the hideous spectre of matrimony.” For her part, Ann was publicly contemptuous of the Bond books, referring to them as “pornography.”
Fleming’s writing days followed a pattern (an early swim, then writing behind closed shutters until lunch), as did his writing years — he composed feverishly during the winter in Jamaica, edited proofs in England in the spring and in the fall cast around for new ideas. While he wrote, the world — and Britain’s place in it — was changing dramatically. After the Suez Crisis of 1956, embattled Prime Minister Anthony Eden did himself no favors by escaping to Goldeneye to recuperate, though the publicity helped raise Fleming’s profile. A few years later, after the newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy listed “From Russia, With Love” among his favorite books in a Life magazine profile, Bond was on his way to global bestseller status. Then, amid Jamaica’s preparations for independence in 1962, the first Bond film, “Dr. No,” was shot on the island. Sean Connery’s performance, not to mention Ursula Andress’s bikini-clad emergence from the sea, firmly established the character as a global symbol of adventure and luxury and the island as a mass tourist destination.
Bond’s creator, however, was in free fall. After a first heart attack at the age of 52, he was advised by his doctor to change his habits if he wanted to live; in response, “Fleming cut down to fifty Morlands a day, and switched to bourbon” from gin. He died four years later, in the early hours of Aug. 12, 1964, his son Caspar’s 12th birthday; Caspar committed suicide at age 23, his short life shadowed by drug addiction. With Goldeneye now a luxury resort and the public appetite for Bond movies undiminished, Parker’s book is an astute reminder of the price we pay for fantasy.