Fifty years after Ian Fleming’s death, Jonathan Thompson explores Jamaica, an island the writer loved so much it is stamped throughout James Bond’s DNA, in this article for London’s Telegraph.
It all began with a naked girl on a beach. Peering down from the clifftop as she emerged from the waves on to a pristine white beach, Ian Fleming’s friend Ivar Bryce knew he’d found the spot. “Tie it up tomorrow,” he said to the Jamaican fixer with him. “Ian will adore this place.”
Bryce had first introduced Fleming to Jamaica three years earlier, during a wartime naval conference in Kingston. As their return flight took off, Fleming slammed his briefcase shut and turned to his friend: “Ivar, I’ve made a great decision,” he said. “When we’ve won this blasted war, I’m going to live in Jamaica. Just live in Jamaica and lap it up, and swim in the sea and write books.” Those books, of course, would become his bestselling James Bond novels. But first that home would become Goldeneye – built on the clifftop overlooking that pristine white beach.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Fleming’s death, but the house he built – rather like the super-spy he created there – is still going strong. Pre-production is well under way on Bond’s latest movie outing, his 24th no less, but the little estate where he was conceived continues to grow too. And now a new book, Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born, Ian Fleming’s Jamaica, by historian Matthew Parker, looks to analyse the close links between the two.
“Would the books have been born if I had not been living in the gorgeous vacuum of a Jamaican holiday?” wrote Fleming, “I doubt it.” But Parker goes further, arguing that Fleming’s love for Jamaica was so great that it is stamped throughout Bond’s DNA.
At the heart of this love affair, of course, was Goldeneye, located midway along Jamaica’s north coast, next to the pretty little banana port of Oracabessa. Fleming designed the house himself, and lived there for two months every winter between 1946 and his death in 1964. A sleek, U-shaped bungalow with glassless windows looking out across the Caribbean, the property was named Goldeneye after a wartime plan Fleming had helped devise for the protection of Gibraltar. It was also as a nod (or wink) to Oracabessa itself, which translates as “Golden Head”.
Now, as then, Goldeneye is a wonderful spot, with a quaint sunken garden on the cliff edge (where Fleming would take his breakfast every morning), and 32 steps leading down to his private beach. Naked girl or not, Bryce was right: Fleming did adore this place. But what he loved most of all was the reef, just 20 yards from the shore, which teemed with “colour and danger”. As Parker explains, this reef fuelled countless Bond scenes, from the dramatic underwater action of Thunderball to character descriptions in many of the other novels. In Casino Royale for example, the villainous Le Chiffre watches Bond during the pivotal card game “like an octopus under a rock”.
On one occasion during a Jamaican sojourn, Fleming dropped a dead donkey off the reef to see what would happen. The resulting sound when a huge shark arrived and tore into the carcass, “a terrible snuffling grunt”, was then used to describe the similar demise of Mr Big in Live and Let Die.
Inevitably, the reef is not as vibrant as it once was, but in recent years local charities including the Oracabessa Bay Fish Sanctuary have been making major inroads into returning it to its former glory (including a reported 1,300 per cent increase in marine life since May 2011). As a result, snorkelling among the kaleidoscopic schools of angel, doctor and parrotfish here, as Fleming himself did daily, is a great treat. It’s hard not to hum John Barry’s famous Bond theme while gliding up and down the coral, or to avoid casting a wary glance over your shoulder for any harpoon-wielding henchmen.
Today Goldeneye has been reinvented as a luxury boutique hotel, with 18 well-appointed cottages scattered tastefully to the west of the main rocky promontory, connected via a wooden bridge. The gazebo that Fleming constructed later in life, in order to write undisturbed by his family, is now a fine-dining restaurant, while on the cottages side of the bridge, salt and freshwater infinity pools flank the breezy Bizot Bar.
While Fleming lived and wrote here, churning out a Bond novel every winter from his red bullet wood desk, he was also part of what was dubbed Jamaica’s “Gold Coast glitterati”. Contemporaries with homes here included Ivor Novello, Errol Flynn, Lord Beaverbrook and, above all, Fleming’s closest friend on the island, Noël Coward.
Nicknamed “The Master”, Coward was a frequent visitor to Goldeneye after building two properties himself nearby: Blue Harbour along the coast and Firefly in the lush, jungle-bedecked hills above. Today, Firefly and Goldeneye are both owned by Island Records producer Chris Blackwell, and guests at the latter are welcome to explore the former – which remains exactly as Coward left it on his death in 1973, and boasts some of the most spectacular views in the whole of the Caribbean.
A pastime Fleming and Coward particularly enjoyed here was rafting on Jamaica’s Rio Grande river – an activity started by Errol Flynn, who spotted locals shipping bananas from the highlands down to Port Antonio this way and asked for a ride. Soon his friends were doing the same, taking around four hours to descend the river, often with elaborate picnics. On one occasion, Fleming’s wife, Ann, was riding alongside Evelyn Waugh and enjoying a “stupendous” lunch of “wine packed in biscuit tins, cold roast fowls and legions of boiled eggs” when their bamboo raft overturned. Waugh, in blue silk pyjamas and a pink-ribboned panama, had to swim for the shore, much to the later amusement of Fleming and Coward.
Rafting the Rio Grande – which Fleming described as “an enchantingly languid… elegant and delicately romantic adventure” – remains excellent fun today (although the cold roast fowls are harder to come by). Fleming’s favourite boatman, Red Grant, is long gone, but his name lives on in villainy as the main protagonist in the fifth Bond novel (and second film), From Russia with Love.
Jamaica’s north coast is peppered with other landmarks from the 007 books and films – particularly the three stories set on the island: Dr No, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun. A 20-minute boat ride from Goldeneye is Laughing Waters beach, where Ursula Andress emerged from the surf during the first film. Nearby is Dunn’s River Falls, the place where Sean Connery’s Bond and Andress took a dip in the waterfall; hundreds of visitors now do the same every day. Just off the coast at pretty Port Maria (where Fleming and Ann were married in 1952) sits Cabarita Island – the model for Mr Big’s “Isle of Surprise” in Live and Let Die. Meanwhile, the gates of “Swamp Safari” still say “Trespassers Will Be Eaten”, exactly as they did when Roger Moore’s 007 escaped gun-wielding goons by leaping on the backs of crocodiles to safety.
Lit in the afternoon by a warm apricot glow, Jamaica’s Gold Coast was an enchanted oasis for Fleming: a place of recovery, sanctuary and creativity while London shivered itself through winter and “people streamed miserably to work, their legs whipped by the wet hems of their mackintoshes”. The great storytellers, the Cowards and the Flemings, may be gone, but all that inspired the Master and Commander remains. Here amid the “peace and silence and cutoffness” that Fleming so adored is the perfect place to escape when the real world is not enough.