James Bond's Jamaica
Unpredictable, sensual, and exotic: three things that James Bond and Jamaica have in common.
Once I realized that Ian Fleming had written all his novels and stories at Goldeneye, the house he built on Jamaica’s north coast, I started seeing the island everywhere in James Bond.
Jamaica is the vivid setting for three of Fleming's novels and a number of short stories, and it's referenced in almost all of Fleming’s other books. More than that, the spirit of the island—its exotic beauty, its unpredictable danger, its melancholy, its love of exaggeration and grotesques—infuses the stories.
In fact, many of the ‘ingredients’ that Fleming threw together in the warm bedroom of Goldeneye to create Bond (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) are all roads leading back to Jamaica.
Fleming loved the island and never failed to spend at least two months of the year there from 1946 until his death in 1964. He was an awkward character and could be distant, aloof, and moody. But Fleming found something in Jamaica that smoothed off the rough edges and let his creativity flow. A friend noted that only in Jamaica could Fleming "relax, be as much of himself as there was."
A visitor later wrote that "in Jamaica Ian seemed perfectly at home" and was "at his mellow best," though Goldeneye still had guard dogs and Fleming kept a gun in the house.
As with much of Fleming’s habits and personality, this love of Jamaica is passed on to James Bond, who is at his most relaxed when on the island. Like his creator, Bonds loves the "velvet heat" and the "soft-green flanks" of the mountains in Britain’s "most romantic colony."
There is also a sensuality about the place. On his last visit in The Man with the Golden Gun, Bond has a morning swim and then lets "the scented air, a compound of sea and trees, breathe over his body, naked save for the underpants."
The Goldeneye house is simple, with clean lines and two enormous windows looking out to sea. In Fleming’s time, it was very simply equipped, even Spartan. A sunken garden leads from the house to the cliff-top, where stone steps descend to a small, enclosed white-sanded beach. A short distance offshore lies a reef, where Fleming spent hours floating or hunting for lobsters or seeing off the odd barracuda. His adventures underwater at Goldeneye would inspire some of the very best Bond scenes.
He also loved the birds of Jamaica, naming two of his heroines, Solitaire and Domino, after them. This, too, is passed to Bond: if anyone kills a bird in one of the stories they end up deservedly dead. So it is more in keeping than you might think that James Bond got his name from an expert on West Indian birds.
Fleming was horrified at the rapid collapse of the Empire after the Second World War, and created Bond as a consoling fantasy that the British could still punch above their weight and project power across the world. One of the attractions of Jamaica was that in 1946 it could almost have been 1846—it was an imperial throwback.
When asked about his writing style, Fleming professed that he aimed for ‘disciplined exoticism.’ In the same way, Fleming saw Jamaica as a mixture of British old-fashioned imperial conservatism and the dangerous, sensual, and exotic. Writing about the island in 1947, he described it as "a middle way between the lethe of the tropics and a life of fork-lunches with the District Commissioner’s wife." Bond himself is at once very modern, with his self-indulgence, casual violence and brand-fetishism, but also old-fashioned in his politics and his dutiful patriotism.
This was the formula—which could have sprung from no other soil but Jamaica’s—that was the secret to Fleming’s immense success.