Even the casual James Bond fan knows at least some things about Bond’s creator, author Ian Fleming. They at least know that some of Bond’s exotic and thrilling exploits have roots in Fleming’s own experiences. Goldeneye was Fleming’s home and property in Jamaica, where after he purchased the land and had his vacation home built in 1946, he religiously spent two months of the year (from about mid-January to mid-March) in Jamaica. Bond fans also know that every Fleming Bond story was written in Jamaica during those two months each year between 1952 (when ‘Casino Royale’ was written) until Fleming’s death in 1964.
So in a way this book makes a lot of sense. Jamaica and Goldeneye clearly are a big part of James Bond. It is safe to say that had Fleming not found Jamaica, James Bond would never have been. What Matthew Parker has accomplished here is impressive. Instead of a straightforward Fleming biography, his book is a biography of only two months a year of Fleming’s life in Jamaica. But it is much more. It is part biography. part Jamaican history, part travelogue, part rumination on the twilight of the British Empire, part salacious gossip, and part analysis of the creation and writing of the James Bond novels (although we don’t even get to the first Bond novel until about 125 pages in, that is fine because the other topics of this book are so well done).
None of this would work, of course, unless Ian Fleming himself weren’t so damn interesting. And fortunately, he was a pretty fascinating, if not likeable, character. He comes across here, and I have read this elsewhere as well, as an endlessly interesting friend and partner in having good times, but a horrible person to try to be closer to (say as a wife, son, etc.) He simply would not let people get too close, almost pathological about his solitude and need for freedom and space. He was also the perfect figure to use to look at the uncomfortable ending of an Empire, both as a figure clawing and scratching while being dragged into the sunset but also one who sees the reality of what is happening with a somewhat sardonic British humor. And that insecurity, of the once top dog on the block having to step aside for the Americans and Russians, permeates the Bond novels as well.
That is one reason the Bond novels resonated so much in Britain. In the wake of humiliations like the Suez Crisis, Bond was an escape for Brits to see themselves as still powerful. When in reality, they no longer were. More than anything else, the Bond novels are strong colonial/Imperial nostalgia, as well as a way to vent at the loss of strength and vitality (or Empire). Parker says “Even the thickest-skinned nostalgist could no longer deny [Britain’s] second-class status. But this would make the escapism of Fleming’s stories, in which, behind the scenes, Britain in the figure of super-agent 007 still bestrides the globe, more popular than ever. The world of Bond was rapidly becoming a place where the nation could congregate around a vision that denied Britain’s disappointing new reality.” And “ “Bond expresses [Britain’s] complicated relationship with [its] past, and [its] empire – at once a little bit proud, a little bit ashamed, and forever aware that [its] ‘greatest days’ are behind [it].”
Take the following remarkable passage from the Bond novel ‘You Only Live Twice,’ where in this dressing down of Bond by Japanese agent Tiger Tanaka, Fleming takes the opportunity to go through a cathartic dose of reality worthy of any monk’s self-flagellation:
Tanaka: “You have not only lost a great Empire, you have seemed almost anxious to throw it away with both hands…when you apparently sought to arrest this slide into impotence at Suez, you succeeded only in stage-managing one of the most pitiful bungles in the history of the world, if not the worst. Further, your governments have shown themselves successively incapable of ruling and have handed over effective control of the country to trade unions, who appear to be dedicated to the principle of doing less and less work for more and more money. The feather-bedding, this shirking of an honest day’s work, is sapping at ever-increasing speed the moral fiber of the British, a quality the world once so admired. In its place we now see a vacuous, aimless horde…whining at the weather and the declining fortunes of the country, and wallowing nostalgically in gossip about the doings of the Royal Family.”
Wow. Through Tanaka, Fleming is clearly venting and editorializing on the current state of Britain. He does that often through his books.
And who has taken Britain’s place? Fleming grudgingly admits it is the United States. While acknowledging the deep friendship between the U.S. and UK, there is still a startling anti-Americanism that shines through in the Bond books. It is interesting to look at Bond’s relationship with his CIA counterpart, Felix Leiter. Leiter is rather hilariously played by an array of actors throughout the Bond films (he was even black, along with most everyone else, in 'Live and Let Die'). “[Leiter’s] close and friendly relationship with Bond represents an optimistic, or even fantastic, model for Britain’s relationship with the United States. Leiter’s role is to supply Bond with technical support, hardware and muscle, as well as money. Bond – and by implication Britain – provides the leadership, intelligence and daring,” states Parker.
But Fleming is also often spiteful and jealous of America. In a private letter he discussed America’s “total unpreparedness to rule the world that is now theirs.” Other than Leiter, almost all of the Americans that Bond encounters in the novels are “surly, uncooperative and jealous of [Bond’s] success and panache.” In a travelogue book he wrote, ‘Thrilling Cities,’ Fleming describes beating the “syndicates” of Las Vegas, and having to “wash the filth of the United States currency off my hands.” Vegas is “ghastly,” New York is obsessed with the “hysterical pursuit of money,” and Chicago is “grim.”
One of the more interesting aspects of Fleming that Parker discusses is his views on race, ethnicity and nationality. First of all, it is important to remember both the times in which he lived and the fact that he was a Brit from the upper middle crust living in a colonial possession. Or, context. But anyone who has read his Bond novel ‘Live and Let Die’ cannot escape the racist tone throughout. Through Bond’s eyes, Fleming describes blacks as “easy prey to sickness and fear” due to “weak nerves.” Their “organs of sight and hearing are keener than ours,” feeding into the racist clichés of making blacks closer to the animal kingdom than whites. The black henchmen of Mr. Big are “clumsy black apes.” While in Harlem, Bond reflects that the smell of “negro bodies” is “feral.” Harlem is a “jungle.” And so on.
But Parker makes an interesting point. “It is also important to note that Fleming – and Bond – looked down on pretty much everyone who was not British and perceived people of all colours in terms of negative stereotypes of race and nationality.” Parker quotes from several Bond books: in ‘Moonraker,’ Germans have “the usual German chip on the shoulder.” The Japanese in ‘You Only Live Twice’ have “an unquenchable thirst for the bizarre, the cruel and the terrible.” The Italians in ‘Diamonds Are Forever’: “bums with monogrammed shirts who spend the day eating spaghetti and meatballs and squirting scent over themselves.” The Afrikaners in DAF: “a bastard race, sly, stupid and ill-bred.” The Chinese in ‘Dr. No’ are “hysterical.” As Parker says, “No villain in the Bond novels is ever British. Even when they are British citizens…they turn out to be of foreign racial origin.” In a letter to his wife discussing America, Fleming once simply said “all foreigners are pestilential.”
That being said, for his time and station, Fleming did have a better view and relationship with the local Jamaicans than many of his compatriots. Like the Bond of the novels, Fleming “loves the spontaneity, the physicality and…sexy exoticism of it all. His affection is genuine, then, but based on what we would now see as racist clichés.” All of Fleming’s relationships with native Jamaicans were with tradespeople and servants of some sort, but the evidence shows that they genuinely liked Fleming, at least when compared to the other Brits on the island. Fleming’s relationship with most of the native Jamaicans he knew were of the “captain/first mate” sort. Where there is respect and even room for debate, but in the end the captain is in charge. Jamaicans who worked for Fleming called him “Commander” (from his rank in the navy), and he apparently relished the title.
A perfect model is the character of Quarrel, the Jamaican sidekick Bond has in several of the novels. “So here we have Fleming’s ideal colonial relationship. There is no challenge to Bond’s superiority – rank, as on a ship, is taken as read; Quarrel is unmistakably ‘staff.’ But with mutual respect established and power relations solidified by history and custom, there is no need for coercion. Quarrel will ‘follow Bond unquestioningly.’” Quarrel will even instruct Bond in certain skills, like spearfishing. But in the end, Bond sets the agenda and Quarrel will make every effort to help Bond succeed.
One question many people have with any sort of interest in Fleming or Bond, is how much of Bond is really also Fleming? Fleming did have some dashing adventures during World War II. One of the keys, argues Parker, lies in Bond’s birth at Goldeneye in Jamaica. Fleming was more at home in the tropics than back in England. He came alive there. The book wonderfully captures the decadent last days of partying by the British elites as the sun sets on the British Empire. There is a shocking lack of morality amongst these people. Marriage vows are not to be taken seriously. Fleming, like Bond, was a serial womanizer. When he got married, that changed very little. Fleming wrote of Bond in ‘Casino Royale’: “the lengthy approaches to a seduction bored him almost as much as the subsequent mess of disentanglement.” The same could have been said of Fleming.
In case you don't understand why Fleming was smitten, try this one:
Fleming was not your typical English stuffed shirt. He came alive in Jamaica, and loved physical danger. He was an obsessive snorkler off his private beach at Goldeneye, and thrilled in swimming with sharks and barracuda. He explored every inch of the island, the seedy parts as well as high society. He despised social gatherings of the British elite, preferring the saucier company of his good friend, playwright Noel Coward. As Parker says, “Jamaica seemed to Fleming the perfect mix of British old-fashioned imperial influence and law and the dangerous and sensual, of reassuring conservatism and the exciting exotic: in effect, the same curious combination that would make the Bond novels so appealing and successful.” When asked about his formula, Fleming once stated “What I endeavor to aim at is a certain disciplined exoticism.”
Writing of Bond, Fleming could also be talking about himself. Bond is often described as cold, cynical and ruthless, but also always trying to control emotions and passions boiling just under the surface. “Like all harsh men, cold men, he was easily tipped over into sentiment.” Bond is a hero for the new, “increasingly classless, jet-set age.”
Parker addresses Fleming’s uncomfortable self-awareness that he was producing what we would today call pop culture for the masses, as opposed to great literature. Fleming often gives a knowing wink within the novels themselves. There is a fascinating and often told anecdote of Fleming coming home one evening to one of his wife’s many high society dinner parties of English artistes, and as he was sneaking through the back so as not to have to socialize, he overhears the guests mockingly reading passages from one of his Bond novels. His wife often dismissed the books as “Ian’s pornography.” These books never were high art. Then again, today we probably don’t know the names of most of those dinner guests, do we?
Like his character Bond, Fleming lived fast and had sort of a death wish. He smoked heavily, drank even more heavily, and ignored years of doctor advice to slow down. Parker points out that in the last several Bond novels, Fleming has Bond suffer this deterioration as well. In the last few books, Bond struggles more physically to accomplish his daring feats. Bond is often winded and reflects that he didn’t used to feel this way. Bond also smokes all the time and drinks recklessly. In ‘Thunderball,’ Bond is even ordered by M to go detox at a clinic. (Although this is more a spa where he beds the attractive nurse). In fact, in the Bond universe, “abstinence is the sure sign of villainy.” When Bond is thought dead in ‘You Only Live Twice,’ his secretary suggests the epitaph “He didn’t waste his days trying to prolong them.” Appropriate for Ian Fleming as well, dead at the age of 56.
If you have an interest in Bond, British Imperialist twilight, Jamaica, or any combination thereof, then **** out of *****.