JUNE 9, 2015
THE PUBLICATION of Matthew Parker’s Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica (2015) is opportune for two reasons. The first is the much-anticipated release of the newest Bond film later this year. Its title, Spectre, harks back to the introduction of the recurring super villainous spy organization SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) in the franchise’s first film, Dr. No (1962). It does so in much the same way that Parker’s book mines the origins of James Bond at Ian Fleming’s Jamaican home Goldeneye. The book is also timely in its attempts to contextualize for readers Bond’s creation at the historical juncture between World War II and the Cold War, and on a British colony of which the Empire was in the process of divesting itself.
Goldeneye clarifies the image of Britishness that Bond projects for Britain, a nation, as Parker puts it, which has a “complicated relationship with [its] past, and [its] empire.” A significant part of this clarification concerns the role of Jamaica, Britain’s one-time colony, as a space for negotiating the complexities of a national history that inspired both pride and shame in British citizens. Parker’s exploration of Fleming’s time in Jamaica also presents James Bond as an exemplar of how nostalgia for empire is transformed in the mid-20th century into a different set of international economic relations.
Goldeneye traces in fascinating and often intimate detail the role Fleming’s home in Jamaica played not only in the creation of James Bond, but also in Fleming’s own relationship to his British identity at the sunset of Empire. For Fleming and the community of British expatriates to which he belonged, the still-colonized Jamaica of the immediate postwar period was “stuck in a comfortable time warp where imperial and social structures remained virtually unchanged from a hundred years previously.” Fleming’s Jamaica is a crucible of sorts, at once a discrete location in its own right and also a location where all the major events of the day — the Suez Crisis, the Mau Mau rebellion, and the Cold War — converge in Fleming’s winter writing retreats. Parker informs us that in order “to understand Fleming’s relationship with the place so crucial to his creativity, we need to explore the huge changes occurring as the island, a microcosm for the wider empire, transformed itself and its relationship with Fleming’s Britain.” For Parker, “the high-end jet-set tourism world in which his hero moves, the relentless attention to race, the aching concern with the end of the Empire and national decline, the awkward new relationship with the United States, even the Cold War — all these roads lead back to Jamaica.” Goldeneye’s exploration of Fleming’s relationship to Jamaica, and of Bond’s relationship to Jamaica in the novels, show how Fleming used Bond to negotiate patriotism at a time of national and international turmoil and nostalgia for the glory days of Empire.
My own reading of this book was, of course, shaped by a salient fact: I am not this book’s imagined audience. Instead, through collective pronouns like “we,” “our,” and “us,” the book addresses its exploration of Fleming’s Jamaica years and James Bond to a British audience. According to Parker, Bond reflects a relationship to the imperial past that is “at once a little proud, a little bit ashamed, and forever aware that our ‘greatest days’ are behind us.” Moreover, the complexity of this relationship to an imperial past, as it is expressed by Bond, “projects an image of Britishness that make us likeable to ourselves, and to the rest of the world.” This is not to say that as a reader who happens not to be British I felt excluded, or found Parker’s address to an imagined audience that may find itself still nostalgic for Empire inaccessible. On the contrary, the transparency of this book’s self-reflexive meditation about Britain’s relationship to her imperial past and post-empire future makes it more interesting than an egregious romanticization of the days of Empire, such as the one offered, for example, in Ian Thompson’s The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica (2009).
Parker clearly casts his depiction of Fleming’s nostalgia for Empire alongside Jamaicans’ desire for self-determination, and it is in this way that Goldeneye subtly sets itself apart from similar books by Englishmen that cover the same ground: the glorious days when sugar was king and the West Indian planter was the measure of obscene wealth; the anxiety about America surpassing British influence on a global scale and the rise of anti-American sentiments; the hand-wringing over the colonies’ lack of readiness for political sovereignty, their increasing economic strain on the British economy; the inevitable social, economic, and political collapse of postcolonial states, because they were not ready for independence; the inability of postcolonial nations, even a half-century later, to establish stable, protective, and productive economies for their citizens; the smug resignation that, really, colonial domination suited these spaces far better than self-determination. These books are often more about the shame of giving up Empire, and the difficulties this created for everyone involved, than anything else. As Thompson’s The Dead Yard shows, the desire to tell a story about loss, death, and ruin delimits what such books can tell us about the contemporary country, on its own terms.
Although Goldeneye also flirts with the romanticization of ruin, it critiques this quality through balanced depictions of how the realities of non-white Jamaicans differed from the lives of expatriates (like Fleming) and white Jamaicans (like Blanche Blackwell and her son Chris Blackwell of Island Records fame). Thus after Fleming finds the ideal site for his house in Oracabessa, where the ruins of banana cultivation shaped the coastal landscape, Parker gives the reader two different kinds of memories of the same place: “a writer on the Gleaner remembered the ‘attractive sea-weedy-cum-banana-trash smell — a smell that holds all of the lush and potent Tropics.” In contrast, “Paddy Marshal, a local laborer, had a less romantic memory of having to walk a long way to the port, and then ‘work night and day to make any money and the money was so small […].’” Parker’s balance of nostalgia for empire and struggles against colonial rule contrasts with Thompson’s reliance on ruins and his predictable conclusion that “the burden of Jamaica’s post-colonial political failure lies not with the United States or with slavery or British imperialism, but with the Jamaican people themselves.”
Goldeneye, by contrast then, doesn’t make nostalgia for Empire contingent on a patronizing devaluation of postcolonial sovereignty. In many ways, the revelation of this narrative possibility alone, for a book in this nonfictional field, is the particular coup of Parker’s book. It is the fullest, or perhaps most expansively considered, narrative of this geopolitical juncture that I have read, in its insistence on the local and global contexts for its detailed imagining of Fleming’s writing process. This is a consistent feature of the book: at no point does either perspective — imperial nostalgist or Jamaican nationalist — negate the other. Thus, we find dual constructions like this throughout: “Fleming’s view of Jamaican history as exciting and glamorous was in sharp contrast to the heavy psychological burden Jamaican nationalists felt it imposed on the people.” Goldeneye in this way participates in a genre committed to romanticizing empire through colonial nostalgia, but manages not to offend those who don’t share such nostalgia in the process. Indeed, my only complaint is Parker’s barely veiled romanticization of Fleming himself, despite his portrayal of Fleming as a cad of a colonial apologist. But here again, maybe this is just Parker’s evenhandedness at work. Or perhaps — one begins to suspect — Parker, over the course of writing his book, developed attitudes about his subject that did not entirely comport with the expectations of his genre (or his publisher).
Throughout Goldeneye, excerpts from letters communicate many of the fascinating and often scandalous details of Fleming’s life, details that also inspired the Bond books. In particular, Parker compiles a few voyeuristic bits that give witness to every phase of Ann and Ian Flemings’ tumultuous relationship. The intense passion of their extramarital beginnings are communicated in a letter Ann writes to Ian after a secret getaway in Dublin: “I loved being whipped by you and I don’t think I have ever loved like this before … I love being hurt by you and kissed afterwards.” Their mutually unenthusiastic approach to marriage four years later (Ann is finally divorced but pregnant for Ian) is communicated in a letter Ian sends to Ann’s brother Hugo: “We are of course totally unsuited. […] So china will fly and there will be rage and tears. […] I shall never hurt her except with a slipper.” In a letter to Hugo and his wife, Ann notes the inevitable difficulties marriage would pose to a man like Ian, who had lived a solitary bachelor’s life for almost three decades: “I fear Ian’s martyrdom is imminent […] the immediate future looks rather chaotic.”
Directly after he married Ann, Ian implemented a writing routine at Goldeneye that gave him a solitary retreat, behind closed doors and windows. The first Bond novel, Casino Royale (1953), is a product of this writing routine/retreat, and the rest of the books were composed in a similar fashion. Much to Ann’s chagrin, Ian’s stock answer for questions about the inspiration for Bond was “the hideous spectre of matrimony.” Parker adds context to this rejoinder, however, giving a fuller sense of Fleming’s inspiration for the Bond books as “a wider crisis for Ian that included concerns about money, his health and the state of his country and empire.” What the excerpts from letters reveal is not only the extent to which the Bond novels were inspired by Fleming’s time at Goldeneye, but also his tumultuous relationship with his wife Ann, Blanche Blackwell, and women in general, and — at least in the latter novels — his alcoholism and declining health. They also, more importantly, speak to the political worldview of English citizens who were witness to the demise of its Empire.
Parker is very careful about putting unpopular political sentiments in Fleming’s mouth, often deflecting them instead through the words of others. In this way, the book conveys the intensification of Fleming’s concerns about the possibilities of a black revolution in Jamaica — concerns provoked by the invention of the West Indian Federation and the self-determination it portended for the West Indian colonies — by citing a conversation in Dr. No. When Bond meets Pleydell-Smith, the colonial secretary, who has also read about Bond’s adventures in Live and Let Die. Pleydell-Smith says to Bond,
I wish you’d start another bonfire like that here. Stir the place up a bit. All they think of nowadays is Federation and their bloody self-importance. Self-determination indeed! They can’t even run a bus service. And the colour problem! My dear chap there’s far more colour problem between the straight haired and the crinkly haired Jamaicans than there is between me and my black cook.
The progressive racial politics that Pleydell-Smith imagines he is espousing also underlie Fleming’s own relationship with the black Jamaicans he comes in contact with, who are for the most part employed by him in one service capacity or another. As Parker notes, “like almost all white expatriates, most white Jamaicans and certainly all tourists, Fleming did not have any real, equal status black Jamaican friends.” Fleming’s affectionate but paternalistic attitude to non-white Jamaicans comes through unaccompanied by authorial critique. Yet it nonetheless offers insight into the recurrence of simplistically obedient native characters like Quarrel in the Bond novels.
Another way Goldeneye distances Fleming from unpopular colonialist sentiments toward native non-white Jamaicans is by attributing racist condescension to others in Fleming’s expatriate circle, like Ann or Noël Coward, for example. I might have been perplexed by Parker’s lengthy reflection on the Samolans in Coward’s novel Pomp and Circumstance, for instance, if I was unable to imagine it as another way of arriving at a critique of the “affectionate condescension” of expatriate whites to the local population without directly indicting Fleming himself. But as Parker suggests, Coward’s fictionalized island colony Samolo, ostensibly in the South Pacific, “provided a fascinating take on tourism, empire, race and other Jamaican inspired concerns that would similarly become important to his friend Fleming’s Bond books.” The book’s romanticization of Fleming even as it describes him as a “lothario” and an “enthusiastic adulterer,” then, is also evident in its displacement of his questionable politics — a displacement that mirrors the way Fleming treated — and we still treat — his most famous creation.
But the book isn’t only about imperial nostalgia. Parker’s liberal reliance on excerpts from the Bond novels, diaries, letters, interviews, newspaper editorials and articles vividly renders not only Fleming and Bond, but a sometimes unfamiliar version of Jamaica. Many of the texts I have read about the postwar period through the achievement of political independence in the early 1960s have focused on the serious matters of postcolonial self-determination and decolonization. This is not to say that an exploration of Fleming and the jet set is a frivolous endeavor, but rather that combining such an exploration with the struggle for political independence fully contextualizes what was — geopolitically, socially, and economically — a pivotal decade in the island’s history. Indeed, Parker’s focus on tourism in particular allows us to see that many of the problems of material inequality that continue to attend national self-determination were galvanized in these two decades, through the tourism industry’s generation of and inequitable distribution of capital and wealth.
Goldeneye’s excerpts from Ann Fleming’s letters to her friend Evelyn Waugh don’t just communicate the tumult that characterized her marriage to Ian, but also an entertaining sense of her ambivalence toward Jamaica and Goldeneye, and her snobbish disdain for the Bond novels, as in her 1956 comment “I love scratching away with my paintbrush while Ian hammers out pornography next door.” They also offer insight into prevailing expat views about an independent Jamaica, and capture the burgeoning antagonism between political independence and the tourism industry. Ann does not return to Goldeneye after Ian dies, because “she had not liked what she had seen of the new post-imperial Jamaica on the 1964 trip; the old deference was gone.” In a February 1964 letter to Evelyn, Ann writes scathingly of Jamaica’s independence:
Independence has not improved the island … they have cancelled all the porters at airports, instead fascist black police rock with laughter while elderly exhausted white tourists feebly try to move their baggage to the customs table, where aggressive Negro customs officials enjoy themselves hugely by a minute examination of underclothes, displaying the curiosity of the savage in clocks or trinkets.
The absence of deferential service, which was perhaps the only thing that made interactions with Afro-Jamaicans palatable, mars Jamaican independence for Ann. In this way, Parker often presents her as the overtly racist half of a couple who were both unapologetic acolytes of Empire. One gets the sense that using Ann in this way allows Parker to offer a more sympathetic if not sentimentalized perception of Ian. Indeed, the romance within which Goldeneye shrouds Fleming seems to rely on exactly this kind of foil.
Parker’s relationship to his subject aside, these expatriate attitudes toward Jamaica and Jamaicans adumbrate Goldeneye’s useful history of 20th-century developments in tourism. The shifts occurring in Jamaica’s tourist industry in the ’50s and ’60s, which also ran parallel to Jamaica’s political transformation to an independent nation, made conditions less ideal for “empire nostalgists [for whom] Jamaica seemed a delicious slice of old imperial certainties, where their comparative wealth, Englishness and fair complexion gave them extra-special status.” We can compare Ann’s musings about the postcolonial airport scene with a letter she wrote to Hugo in 1950, where she casts Goldeneye as a prelapsarian paradise. For her, the onset of winter puts her in the mind of “the last two years where [she] was able to anticipate sunshine and an Eden shared with an Adam.”
The book’s view of these shifts through the Flemings’ eyes reflects shifts in consumerist logics that attend the decline of the British Empire and the rise of American imperialism. Of Negril in 1956 Parker notes that Fleming “described the bay at Negril as ‘the most beautiful I have seen in the world … the classic back-drop of Stevenson and Stacpoole.’” For Fleming, “a large part of the attraction was the unspoilt, undeveloped nature of the spot.” He goes on to accurately predict, “one dreadful day this remote corner of Jamaica will be as famous a sunshine holiday-resort as any in the world.” The decaying relics of a plantation society, nestled in verdant and fecund tropical landscapes, didn’t conjure memories of its brutal reliance on slave labor, but rather Empire’s heyday. Expansions in touristic tastes meant, ironically, that the tourism industry preserved — and expanded to a new, middle-class clientele — the prerogatives that once attended the Empire in the process of passing away.
Tourism in Jamaica dates back to the 1870s, when banana boats doubled as tourist ferries. Runways built in Kingston and Montego Bay during World War II for military purposes offered more frequent and convenient travel options in the immediate postwar period. Goldeneye describes the 1947 opening of the Sunset Lodge Club in Montego Bay as “ a seminal moment: the birth of what would become the ‘North Coast Jet Set.’” The owner, Carmen Pringle’s ingenious advertising strategy of inviting “the great and good of Britain and America to come to the beachfront hotel free of charge” (bar bill excepted) was a great success. According to Blanche Blackwell, “it was the moment when Jamaica was discovered by the international rich who had previously holidayed in the South of France.” The Sunset Lodge Club soon was followed by other resorts in Ocho Rios that catered to the likes of Katharine Hepburn and her partner Irene Selznick, and Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, who honeymooned in Jamaica in 1957. By 1951, Jamaica hosted 100,000 visitors, mostly from the US, a figure that was nearly triple the figure in 1946. Included in this figure were “the cream of British aristocracy, and the brightest and richest of the United States’ and Europe’s business, theatre, literature and secret service elites. You weren’t a proper Hollywood star until you had been photographed in Jamaica.” Parker notes that Fleming “was ambivalent about this invasion of the decadent jet-set. In this he had much in common with a number of Jamaicans watching with despair the rapid changes happening to their island.”
Parker’s history encompasses not only the shift from expatriate to middle-class and jet-set consumers, but also Jamaica’s erstwhile role as the hub for wealthy gay vacationers. Indeed, where the Flemings and others found an untouched paradise, a burgeoning and highly visible north coast homosexual community, “led by Coward and wealthy fashion designer Edward Molyneux,” found in Jamaica “the freedom to be themselves denied at home in Britain.” This particular facet of the mid-century tourism scene is fascinating, given Jamaica’s dubious contemporary designation as “the most homophobic place on earth,” according to Tim Padgett. Expanding the country’s history in this particular way complicates the geopolitics on which such declarations depend, especially to the extent that they are geared toward influencing national politics for more hospitable tourist environments. Despite the fact that “most Jamaicans were religious, strait-laced and strongly opposed to homosexual activity,” in colonial Jamaica expatriates nonetheless were able to carve out hospitable enclaves on the island’s north coast. As more hotels went up all over the island’s coastline, however, increased occupancy capacity meant less exclusivity and privacy for expatriate homeowners. Jamaican independence also presented obvious and additional obstacles to these freedoms.
And though Goldeneye conveys Fleming’s disdain for mid-20th-century developments in tourism, it also suggests how his most famous creation translates Fleming’s differently touristic relationship to the island into the Cold War and post-Cold War imaginations. Bond sees the world like Fleming sees Jamaica: through the lens of late-19th-century adventure tourism. Amidst declining sugar fortunes, the British colonies in the West Indies, Jamaica in particular, were narratively and visually recast as romantic sites for escape and adventure travel. Fleming’s birth in 1908 meant he was among a generation of Englishmen who were raised on stories that imagined the West Indies, not as a site of ordered cultivation and productivity, but rather a wildly exciting adventure ground. Accordingly, “Fleming’s Jamaica, or at least his first impressions of it, […] awoke in him the adventure stores of his childhood,” and in this way, his boyhood affinity for Boy’s Own adventure stories form the imaginative template for the Bond books. What Parker allows us to see in Goldeneye is Fleming’s imagining of “Jamaican history as exciting and glamorous,” a vision which “was in sharp contrast to the heavy psychological burden Jamaican nationalists felt it imposed on the people.” Goldeneye allows us to see how Live and Let Die’s “lost pirate treasure, sharks and killer centipedes and black magic […] is really an old-fashioned Boy’s Own adventure story,” and how this brand of storytelling remains vital and profitable today.
Parker’s book offers a specific, but by no means unique, context for thinking about how present-day iterations of the Bond franchise — the new film Spectre in particular — continues to serve as a point of negotiation for national politics beyond the British isle, one that is explicitly inflected with a logic of tourism. The Bond franchise’s relationship with tourism ended neither with the Bond novels nor with Fleming’s death in 1964. Though Parker notes “that Bond never goes to Africa or South America — both at the time associated with poverty,” the 1979 film adaptation of Moonraker includes a subplot in which Bond goes to Brazil under the pretense of taking vacation leave. Crucially, this subplot was added after Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli had gone to Rio on vacation. The scenes from Spectre’s Mexico City sets, which include Day of the Dead celebrations, resound obviously with Moonraker’s touristic scenes from Carnival. When compared to Goldeneye’s discussion of Dr. No’s modest budget of $1 million, Spectre’s gross budget — in the mid $300 millions ($50 million higher than Skyfall) according to MGM president Jonathan Glickman’s leaked emails — makes it “one of the most expensive films ever made.” According to the website Tax Analysts, which reports on global tax news, these budgetary concerns merge with governmental production incentives via tax breaks. A memo with the heading “Elements needed to preserve Mexican deal” explains how, through four different incentive programs, Mexico offered $20 million in tax breaks in exchange for a more sensitive portrayal of its nation and people. Mexico’s requests include casting a Mexican Bond Girl (Stephanie Sigman from the film Miss Bala), changing the nationality of the assassin Sciarra from Mexican to Italian, and revamping the film’s four-minute opening sequence to portray more modern aspects of Mexico like Mexico City’s skyline.
These incentives make sense in the context of a nation whose global image has struggled for a decade because of the violence of drug trafficking. In the last year alone, the disappearance of 43 students in the Mexican state of Guerrero served as yet another blow to the image of a nation that relies on tourism dollars and, perhaps even more importantly, its reputation as a reliable international business partner. If Mexico is concerned with its representation in the film, it is not because of nationalist pride, but because of its place in a global economy within which tourism, among other industries, plays a central and to some degree paradigmatic role. In this context, the great contribution of Parker’s Goldeneye may be the way in which it makes obvious that the Bond franchise was not only about (falling) imperialism or (rising) nationalism, but also, even in its earliest incarnations, about the global economy that has succeeded both.