Reviewed by Victoria Best
One of the reasons Ian Fleming wrote such good plots was because his time in Naval Intelligence during the Second World War meant that he lived them. His first visit to Jamaica occurred in 1943 when he was called to attend a summit on U-boat raiders in the Caribbean. There were fears that a rogue Swede had built a secret submarine base on a private island near Nassau; the sort of plot twist that would be oh-so-familiar to Bond. Fleming never saw any actual fighting – the information he carried was too precious to risk near the enemy – but he was privy to all the suspicions of a war rich in spies and clandestine activities. At the time, however, it was Jamaica that impressed him most. On the plane going home, he swore he’d return once the war was over and find a way to laze in the sun and write novels.
And that’s what he did. In 1946 he found a piece of land with its own private beach and arranged construction of a house on it, a modern bungalow with only the most basic of features. Visitors from home missed creature comforts but Fleming was the kind of man to despise curtains. You might argue that Goldeneye was the first manifestation of glamping. Fleming was there for the heat, the booze and the snorkelling and, to some extent, the company. At this time, Jamaica was a small piece of colonial paradise, one of the jewels in the crown of the British West Indies that had yet to be auctioned off. It attracted only the well-heeled seeking peace and the resplendent beauty of nature. Noel Coward was Fleming’s nearest neighbour for all his time there.
Initially, Jamaica was the scene of Fleming’s turbulent love life. He had been having an affair with Ann Charteris, a married aristocrat who lived a bohemian lifestyle, and who described Fleming as a ‘handsome and moody creature’, ‘godlike but unapproachable’. Both had grown up in the kind of tight-laced family that showed little overt affection. Ann emerged highly strung (a friend said that she ‘provokes extreme reactions as a wasp provokes panic’). Ian emerged withdrawn and self-reliant. When Ann’s first husband was killed in the war she expected him to propose. When he didn’t she married another of her lovers, Viscount Rothermere, but maintained her relationship with Fleming. For the next few years, Fleming would tempt her to join him in Jamaica when he was out there: a newspaperman after the war, his employer, The Sunday Times, allowed him a generous yearly vacation of the months of January and February. While post-war austerity Britain counted ration coupons and shivered in the cold, Ian Fleming gradually beguiled Ann with tropical splendour until it seemed inevitable they should marry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the games they had to play to get there, matrimony was not a state in which either flourished.
Meanwhile Jamaica played a hypnotic rhythm on Fleming’s sensibilities:
Jamaica seemed to Fleming the perfect mix of British old-fashioned imperial influence and law and the dangerous and sensual, of reassuring conservatism and the exciting exotic: in effect, the same curious combination that would make the Bond novels so appealing and successful.
Matthew Parker makes a convincing case for the spirit of Jamaica as spawning James Bond by parthenogenesis: its sense of being the last outpost of all that made Britain once great was frequently undercut by the rising threat of independence and confused by the appearance of a new breed, the jet set, on its pristine beaches. Jamaica was a beautiful place of conflicted desires, a land bewilderingly crisscrossed by ‘its creative spirit and cocktail of luxury, melancholy, imperialism, fantasy, sensuality, danger and violence.’ By 1952, Fleming was feeling ready to write. He withdrew into Goldeneye, drew the shutters fast and worked at his typewriter for hours every day. The result was Casino Royale and James Bond, a classless but charismatic hero, a man who could be brutal and cold but also hedonistic and charming. And also, given the era in which he was created, xenophobic and neanderthal when it came to women: no one’s perfect. But the mix of qualities that made James Bond memorable and – Parker argues – iconic to a British audience that knew its imperial powers were waning, all came from the Jamaica of the 50s and 60s.
The Bond novels enjoyed global success. Once JFK had listed From Russia With Love as one of his favourite books, America went wild for Bond. Fleming’s paperback publisher, Pan, ‘would later affirm that no fewer than ten of the first eighteen-million-selling UK paperbacks were Bond novels.’ When the first of the films appeared – and Fleming had been trying for years to get an adaptation sold, believing they were well suited to cinema – it was one of the biggest hits of 1962-3, bringing in £60 million worldwide. But Ian Fleming did not live to witness the subsequent massive success of his creation: he died of a heart attack in 1964, aged only 56. The smoking and the drinking had killed him, as well as the misery of his marriage. Ann was one of the few whom Bond did not charm – she termed the books Ian’s ‘horror comics’ and thought they were ‘pornography’.
This is a fascinating portrait of a writer and his milieu, but it’s a game of two halves. The first part of the book focuses on Jamaica and the socio-political situation there, the second on the Bond novels as they appeared. For me, the biography came alive when the books appeared on the scene, but I can imagine others feeling the contrary. But if you have any curiosity about writers and their work in general, and the strange, driven man that was Ian Fleming in particular, this is a gripping account of an iconic era of fiction.
Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books Editors.
Matthew Parker, Goldeneye. Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica (Hutchinson, August 2014) 978-0091954109, 400 pages, hardback.