Bond’s creator the star here
007 came to life at Ian Fleming’s Jamaica retreat
While the pleasure of reading Ian Fleming’s James Bond thrillers never diminishes, the irony is that 007’s creator is actually the more compelling figure of the two. The Bond novels were once described by Fleming’s biographer John Pearson as exercises in “the autobiography of dreams.”
So the spy who goes into battle with diabolical masterminds and gets soppy over women such as Galatea Brand and Tiffany Case is the wish-fulfilment of an author who was forced to stay behind a desk at Naval Intelligence throughout the war. Fleming’s knowledge of Britain’s greatest secrets (including the Bletchley code-breaking triumphs) meant that capture in the field could never be risked. But throughout Matthew Parker’s account of Fleming’s postwar sojourns in Jamaica, and how they shaped his fiction, we can imagine Bond himself looking on and feeling a perverse stab of envy.
Not that Parker glamorizes: The story of Goldeneye, the house that Fleming built, is shot through with melancholy and creeping mortality. In the later stages of the war, Fleming became infatuated with Jamaica. This was still a colonial world, though independence was fast approaching. Immediately after the war, in 1946, he found a plot of land and arranged to have a stark property constructed — plain bedrooms, hard floors, rudimentary plumbing that “hissed like vipers and ululated like stricken bloodhounds.”
The point of Goldeneye was communion with the fecund life outside, as well as a retreat from freezing, grey Britain — a refuge in which Fleming could write books. It was an uncompromisingly masculine place. Fleming’s wife, Ann, more used to the comforts of Belgravia, initially found it hard to adjust.
She once suggested curtains; the idea was instantly dismissed.
That Fleming’s 007 books sold so well — and so quickly, from the publication of Casino Royale in 1953 — never seemed to give him any comfort. By the third novel, Moonraker, Fleming already felt out of inspiration. But there was the glowing sea, the teeming life beneath the waves, and the warm black nights, all of which made their way into the Bond novels. Think of the scuba-diving episodes, or the jeopardy of Live and Let Die’s coral reefs, or Dr. No’s Crab Key lair.
And it was a life of sophistication. One neighbour was Noel Coward, and there are cameos from Evelyn Waugh, Lucien Freud and, in the aftermath of the 1956 Suez crisis, the prime minister Anthony Eden and his wife, Clarissa, who used Goldeneye as a sanctuary. But there were strains in the Fleming marriage: His drinking and smoking did little to blot chronic depression; her health was fragile. They played upon each other’s nerves, she referring to the Bond novels as “horror comics” and “pornography.”
Parker tells a wider story, that of an island and its people at a turning point in their history. He has talked to Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, whose socialite mother, Blanche, was Fleming’s lover in his latter years. And, through other interviews with locals who recall Goldeneye in that period, we see that Fleming, even in the midst of his postwar efflorescence, somehow came to mirror an ailing Britain — just at the point when his beloved Jamaica was finding fresh vigour.
Read the Bond novels in sequence and you will see 007 sink into depression and then mental breakdown. You might think of the British establishment suffering similar trauma during those years.
Fleming saw his creation praised by President Kennedy in 1961, and then make the leap to film the following year; and that propelled Bond into another realm.
Yet Fleming seemed to take little pleasure from all this. He died in 1964, aged 56, just before the film Goldfinger became a worldwide hit.
Ian Fleming’s life in postwar Jamaica was reflected in many of his 007 novels. His writing retreat, Goldeneye, was a decidedly masculine enclave, which created tension with his wife.
Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born, Ian Fleming’s Jamaica Matthew Parker Random House