After Andrew Lycett’s exhaustive biography of Ian Fleming (which is 20 years old, believe it or not), you may wonder what is left to learn of James Bond’s creator.
In his new book Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica, Matthew Parker proves there is quite a bit left to learn. Unlike the works of Lycett and John Pearson, which remain the two indispensable Fleming biographies, Parker’s book is not a straightforward life story. He instead focuses on Fleming’s love for Jamaica and the vacation home he built there, Goldeneye. Pearson and Lycett certainly acknowledge that Jamaica was a major part of Fleming’s life, but Parker has more time and space to devote to the author’s time in Jamaica, and he unearths aspects of the man not found by previous biographers.
Fleming first visited Jamaica during a conference in World War II while he worked for British naval intelligence. Before leaving he told his friend Ivar Bryce (who would later figure in one of the biggest dramas of Fleming’s life) that he would buy a home on the island where he would vacation and write. That home would become Goldeneye, on Jamaica’s north coast near Oracabessa. When Fleming secured a London journalism job after the war, he insisted upon and received two months paid vacation per year (when I was a teenager reading about Fleming, I found nothing remarkable about this. Today I wonder at his power of persuasion). Fleming would spend those two months, from January to March, at Goldeneye. Parker details Fleming’s life for those two months out of the year, remarkably pinpointing Fleming’s locations and activities during his time in Jamaica. In some ways, it is a biography of two months at a time, each chapter usually focusing on a single year.
Parker also delves into Jamaican history pertinent to the island’s hold on Fleming. Britain lost India shortly after the Second World War, but in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, Jamaica seemed a sunny, friendly outpost of the British Empire, something that appealed to the nostalgic imperialist Fleming and provided the perfect spot for him to create his imperialist hero, James Bond.
Although Fleming hinted at the end of the war he wanted to write a spy novel, he did not start banging away on his typewriter until his 1952 visit to Jamaica. This coincided with his impending marriage to his longtime mistress, Ann (pregnant at the time), and Fleming often blamed premarital jitters for the creation of Bond. But Parker finds evidence that Fleming was ready to write Casino Royale that winter regardless of his fleeting bachelorhood.
The portrait of the resulting marriage is familiar from Lycett’s biography. Ian and Ann Fleming were two people who loved each other deeply yet seemed addicted to damaging each other. In Parker’s book, Goldeneye itself becomes an obstacle between them after Ann begins to loathe Jamaica and refuses to vacation there with her husband. This allows Fleming to begin an affair with Blanche Blackwell, a celebrated member of Jamaica’s north coast society and, it is hard to dispute, a more sympathetic partner for Fleming. By this point Ann Fleming already was having a widely recognized affair with British politician Hugh Gaitskill.
Parker looks at the writing of each Bond book and the circumstances that surround their inception. He pays closest attention to the three books set in Jamaica – Live and Let Die, Doctor No and The Man With the Golden Gun – and how the island’s shifting political situation is reflected in each title.
Parker’s book is deeply researched but highly readable (a quality it shares with Pearson’s biography). Dozens of books have been written about Fleming and Bond, but new insights are hard to come by anymore. Parker’s Goldeneye is filled with them. It is a worthy supplement to Pearson’s and Lycett’s thicker volumes.