Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born – Ian Fleming’s Jamaica
By Matthew Parker
400 pages $27.95
By Michael D. Langan
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
“My own life has been turned upside down at … the small house named ‘Goldeneye’ I built on the north shore, and by my life in Jamaica.” – Ian Fleming, 1963
“Upside down” is one way to put it. “Feet first” might have been just as apt, given Fleming’s questionable health habits.
It’s a minor miracle that Fleming lived as long as he did. He spent two months every year from 1946 until his death 18 years later, swanning about Jamaica, “in a Bond-like life of tropical oblivion fueled by vodka and cigarettes.” In his “prime,” our man smoked 70 cigarettes a day.
When he died, his friend Noel Coward wrote, “It is a horrid but expected sadness … he went on smoking and drinking in spite of all warnings … I loved him and he loved me.”
We’ve seen the films if not read the books that demonstrate Fleming’s proclivities. Remember “Casino Royale,” “Live and Let Die,” “Moonraker,” “Diamonds Are Forever” and “From Russia, with Love?”
I never numbered Ian Fleming among the literati. Most of Fleming’s novels about 007 and James Bond are adolescent larks prolonged into middle age. They’re about menace and the macabre. Sex is in overdrive.
Fleming has had his share of critics. By the time “Dr. No” was published, Paul Johnson of the New Statesman called the novel “without doubt, the nastiest book I have ever read.” Not to put too fine a point on it, Johnson indicated that the novel involved “three basic ingredients in “Dr. No,” all unhealthy, all thoroughly English: the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical, two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude, snob-cravings of a suburban adult.”
So what can “Goldeneye,” Matthew Parker’s account of Ian Fleming in Jamaica, bring to the mix of remaining mysteries about 007’s author?
First, a note about the author: Parker was born into an expatriate family in El Salvador in 1970. His education was English. This is his fifth book, his first being “The Battle of Britain.”
I think Parker has written a sophisticated history of how Fleming’s character developed or didn’t. The author tells us the back stories, as well as giving us some interesting information about the books and films.
• Parker tells us that Fleming’s mother Eve was a “striking bohemian beauty, she was vain, self-centered and extravagant … frightening, beautiful and immaculate, she pierced you with beady eyes … she had a tendency publicly to humiliate her sensitive second son.”
• Fleming’s father, Valentine Fleming, came from a banking family. He was a member of Parliament, entered the war in 1914 and served as a major in the Oxfordshire Hussars. He was killed in May 1917, holding the outpost of Guillemont Farm in Picardy.
• In 1921, Ian entered Eton and acquired a reputation for being aloof, with a self-destructive streak.” Fleming’s good friend Robert Harling contends that the sadism and violence of the Bond books go back to the “imprisonment of emotions” of English boys sent to boarding school. Fleming was no success there. He was intelligent and did well in sports, but otherwise, not much.
• Later he attended Britain’s West Point, Sandhurst, and briefly the universities of Munich and Geneva. He wasn’t a high achiever in school, but he was clever, in that English sense. He might have made a good soldier, but, as Parker tells us, discipline wasn’t for him. He “bunked off” as much as he could, and missed a term in school because of contracting gonorrhea from a London prostitute, resigning in 1927.
Fleming’s older brother, Peter, “went from triumph to triumph, publishing in 1933 one of the most brilliant traveling books of the century, “Brazilian Adventure” “…while Ian languished, gaining a reputation for arrogant charm and a sophisticated manner but little accomplishment outside the bedroom.”
But Fleming’s smoothness, bravura and usefulness to military higher-ups greased his way up the pole of preferment during World War II. Fleming was recruited by naval intelligence to work for Admiral Sir John Godfrey, as his personal assistant with the rank of commander. He was never tested by combat. “It was the perfect job for his character and attributes – his fantastical imagination, his love of travel and gadgets, his curiosity and attention to detail.”
This is the beginning of the story of how Fleming and Jamaica, that desultory duo that generated Bond novels, first made contact.
It started in July 1943, with a high-level Anglo-American war conference to take place in Kingston, Jamaica. The rumor was that German U-boats were causing havoc in the Caribbean, sinking vital shipping, according to Parker.
To the rescue came Ian Fleming, “Assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence, to help deal with the pressing problem.” Parker tells us “that there were wild rumors that Axel Wenner-Gren, the millionaire Swede supposedly linked to Hermann Goering, had built a secret submarine base on Hog Island, his private paradise isle near Nassau.
Off went Fleming and his lifelong friend, Ivar Bryce, also in British intelligence, to attend the conference. They stayed at Bryce’s current wife’s place, a famous plantation “Great House,” Bellevue, perched 1,500 feet above Kingston. (Later Fleming built his own house.)
Parker relates that “Blanche Blackwell (née Lindo), who would become Fleming’s lover and closest companion in Jamaica, visited Bellevue as a teenager in the late 1920s.” She was one of many lovers. Add Muriel Wright, killed in an air raid in 1944. Include Ann O’Neill, whom he met in the French resort of Le Touquet, and many more.
After the conference, as Fleming and Bryce’s plane climbed over Jamaica, “Fleming suddenly snapped his briefcase closed and turned to Bryce, announcing, ‘Ivar, I have made a great decision. When we have won this blasted war, I am going to live in Jamaica. Just live in Jamaica and lap it up, and swim in the sea and write books.’ ”
By the time Fleming settled on Jamaica, “He was a man then of multiple, sometimes conflicting characteristics, the product of his age and background but somehow distanced, never fully at ease with either, someone in need of a place away from it all where he could at last be himself and whole,” Parker relates.
How successful Fleming’s writing became – a world almost in bondage to Bond – was evident at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games.
Matthew Parker relates that at the Games there was no mention of empire or slavery. Instead, he explains, Britishness – quirky, creative, tolerant – was demonstrated at the climax of the show by having the “two great British anachronisms,” Bond having an audience with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, and then together seeming to parachute into the Olympic stadium, to the accompaniment of the most recognizable theme music in movie history.
As they say, “the crowd went wild.” No explanation as to how Royal insiders got the Queen to appear with this fictional character who poked fun at her age, and whom a double of her over the stadium parachuted down with Bond, clutching a handbag into the Olympic venue.
Compare this incredible ending to what Fleming had originally considered. Fleming wanted OO7 to look like the buttoned-down Hoagy Carmichael, the American composer, pianist and actor who wrote “Stardust.”
Good thing Fleming changed his mind.
Michael D. Langan is a frequent News reviewer of British books.