Thursday, November 30, 2023

The most famous Jamaican: James Bond’s Caribbean roots

By Vikas Datta

What would have happened if during the Second World War, an Anglo-American naval conference on tackling the growing menace of German submarines in the western Atlantic had been held somewhere else other than Jamaica? It is quite probable that a quintessential British icon, the spy with a penchant for martinis shaken, not stirred and a licence to kill, would never have been created – at least in the form we know.

Among the participants of the 1942 conference was a Royal Navy intelligence official who was so taken in with the island’s charms that he resolved to spend a part of his year there after the war. And in 1945, Ian Fleming bought land, overlooking a scenic bay and a pristine white beach, on Jamaica’s northern coast and his house ‘Goldeneye’ – quite scant in its creature comforts – came up there next year.

It was here that Fleming, now a journalist but spending every January and February in Jamaica (a stipulation in his work contract) till the end of his life, wrote the 14 James Bond works (12 novels and two collection of stories) from “Casino Royale” (1952) to “Octopussy and The Living Daylights” (1966).

And British author Matthew Parker makes a compelling case that it was the atmosphere of Jamaica in the 1950s that produced 007, apart from parallels from Fleming’s own life and to stave off, fictionally at least, the declining power of his country, slowly relinquishing its empire and status. (As the book reveals, one of Goldeneye’s most unexpected guests was British Prime Minister Anthony Eden to rejuvenate himself soon after the humiliating Suez crisis in 1956.

But still among Britain’s proud imperial possessions was Jamaica, one of the oldest colonies, where old-fashioned conservatism and values persisted – in strange combination with a heady atmosphere of danger and languid sensuality. To this, the island added its picturesque but unpredictable natural beauty, a tendency to dramatic exaggeration, and a feeling of nearly Gothic wistfulness. Topping it all was a lively social scene featuring quite a bit of the international jet-set crowd that would help Fleming to forget his cold and austere homeland.

It is not very difficult to ascertain all these themes in the James Bond novels. Nor is it surprising that Jamaica is the primary setting for three of the most iconic novels – “Live and Let Die” (1954), “Dr No” (1958) and the final, “The Man With the Golden Gun” (1965) as well as the short stories “Octopussy” and “For Your Eyes Only”. No other country has been so favoured (even Bond’s homeland only figures so in “Moonraker”).

Jamaica was also chosen for filming the first Bond cinematic adaption – “Dr No” (and the story of its making is dealt with at length here) as well as for “Live and Let Die” – Roger Moore’s first foray in the role – as the fictional San Monique.

Drawn from extensive interviews with Fleming’s family and associates, Parker’s book (his fifth after works on the Battle of Britain, Monte Cassino’s desperate struggle, the Panama Canal’s making, and the sugar barons of the Caribbean) is not only about Goldeneye but also seeks to explain why James Bond endures as well as provide an overview of imperialism’s last years, of the glamorous set that would take its place as well as the wider story of both Fleming’s tortured life and the beautiful, bounteous island which never fulfilled its potential or was able to meet its people’s hopes after independence.

It also convinces you that if you are asked to name most famous Jamaicans, then James Bond figures automatically with Colin Powell, Bob Marley, Michael Holding, Usain Bolt, Malcolm Gladwell, and Naomi Campbell.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])

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