Retracing Ian Fleming`s haunts in Jamaica
'The first law for a secret agent is to get his geography right," Ian Fleming wrote in "The Man With the Golden Gun." And so it is for anyone following the trail of the man who created the world's most famous secret agent through his adopted island of Jamaica, a journey that starts near Kingston on the tiny spit of beach called the Palisadoes that connects the city to the international Airport, writes David Allan for IHT
If you steer westward, snaking around the contours of dunes on the poorly paved street toward the peninsula's dead end, you'll find Morgan's Harbour Hotel in Port Royal.
Only 8 kilometers, or five miles, from the airport, you are already deep into Ian Fleming's Jamaica. Fleming, the British intelligence officer turned newspaper man turned spy novelist born 100 years ago this year, spent winters on his Caribbean getaway for almost two decades. The airport and the Palisadoes both feature in James Bond novels; the hotel is where Bond chose to lay his head in "Golden Gun." It was on Jamaica that Fleming wrote more than a dozen novels and short stories featuring Agent 007. Of these once best-selling volumes of action pulp, "Dr. No," "Live and Let Die," "The Man With the Golden Gun" and the short story "Octopussy" are largely or partly set in Jamaica, and the films based on the first two were also shot there.
The island was Fleming's retreat, artist colony and passion, and he repeatedly sent Bond, an incarnation of Walter Mitty-esque wish fulfillment, on assignment there. The legendary spy experienced the island as Fleming did - beautiful and underdeveloped with enough exoticism, history and potential for danger to justify it as a backdrop for postwar espionage adventure.
Fleming's Jamaica is a Venn diagram of three overlapping spheres: the author's actual Jamaica of the 1950s and early '60s, when the island was a British colony rapidly becoming a hot spot for the rich; the semi-fictional Jamaica as seen through James Bond; and Jamaica as a location for the 007 film franchise.
While the rural interior of the country has changed little in the last 50 years, the huge resorts and a blighted Kingston, once high on the jet-setters' dance cards, would now discourage Fleming.
In 1947 Fleming wrote a portrait of his adopted home in Horizon magazine, influential enough to fuel a postwar tourist boomlet among well-heeled Britons and Americans. "I have examined a large part of the world," he wrote. "After looking at all these, I spent four days in Jamaica in July 1943. July is the beginning of the hot season, and it rained in rods every day at noon, yet I swore that if I survived the contest I would go back to Jamaica, buy a piece of land, build a house and live in it as much as my job would allow." He did just that, as foreign manager for Kemsley Newspapers.
The Palisadoes at night is still as Fleming described it in "Dr. No," a "long cactus-fringed road" with "the steady zing of the crickets, the rush of warm, scented air ... the necklace of yellow lights shimmering across the harbour."
Kingston, reached by the road used in the first car chase in "Dr. No," sits beside bright blue waters and beaches littered with broken boats and the rusting remains of bygone industry. It feels like an early Bond film - vibrant, colorful and a bit disconcerting. What Kingston does not resemble, for the most part, is itself from the Fleming days. Justine Henzell, a Kingston native whose father, Perry, was a writer of the reggae-fueled movie "The Harder They Come," was my guide to the city. As we wandered downtown, Henzell pointed out the urban shadows of former elegance, including an empty lot by the water where the Myrtle Bank Hotel, once one of the Caribbean's most glamorous, had stood. The vacant space borders a parking lot where hundreds of young people reveled to loud dancehall beats on a Sunday afternoon.
When Fleming made his first visit to the island - 65 years ago - he chose to stay in the cooler climes of the Blue Mountains. I followed his lead that evening and took the B1 road, which curls itself up into the mountains. My destination was Strawberry Hill, an 18th-century coffee plantation turned resort owned by Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records. A Jamaican native, Blackwell is part of Fleming lore himself, thanks to his mother, Blanche Blackwell, who was, depending on your source, either the writer's close friend or his mistress and muse.
Most of Fleming's days in Jamaica were spent on the northern coast, best reached by the A3, or Junction Road. Bond and his local sidekick Quarrel travel the route in "Live and Let Die" to get to the secret island lair of the villainous genius Mr. Big.
The mountainous interior of the island is a constant pull on the steering wheel, back and forth through little villages. It's a relief to reach the other side and spill into the ramshackle town of Port Maria, which inspired Surprise Island, the fictional hideout of Mr. Big.
Fleming and his wife, Ann, were married in Port Maria's town hall, which still stands. She didn't share her husband's love of Jamaica. But his best man and neighbor, NoÃ«l Coward, was smitten with the place. Coward was a island resident and a tax exile who died there in 1973. The home he built, Blue Harbour, is a compound of seaside bungalows overlooking Port Maria's bay. Guests can now stay there.
Judging by the dÃ©cor and electrical wiring, Blue Harbour has pretty much been left untouched. But despite its rough edges, provincial food and generally musty condition, it has a perch over the sea, a cliffside saltwater pool and a rich history. You can imagine a rotating cast of celebrities like Errol Flynn, , Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, James Mason and Laurence Olivier, all lounging poolside.
Fleming's haven, about 16 kilometers west, was Goldeneye, named for a wartime operation he was involved in, and now one of the most exclusive resorts on the island. Between the two writers lived Blanche Blackwell, at Bolt.
Of his mother's relationship with Fleming, Chris Blackwell simply told me that she was a good friend of his and was very fond of him. As a thank-you gift for a stay at Goldeneye, Blackwell gave Fleming a small boat she had christened Octopussy. She may have also been an inspiration for Honeychile Rider, the Bond girl from "Dr. No," who, like Blackwell, was the Jamaica-born child of an old island family.
Goldeneye is the mecca of any Fleming pilgrimage, but not the heart of it. In Horizon, he wrote about the other elements that made his life in Jamaica fulfilling, from the food to the weather, calypso and, most important, the people.
But even in Fleming's lifetime, Jamaica was evolving. By the time he wrote his final Bond novel, "Golden Gun," in 1964, the island had gained independence from Britain, and Fleming's nostalgia for the colonial era is channeled into his spy. Waiting in the Kingston airport for a flight to Havana, the secret agent recalls his "many assignments in Jamaica and many adventures on the island ... the oldest and most romantic of former British possessions." As he reflected on his escapades in "Dr. No" and his love affair with Honeychile Rider, "James Bond smiled to himself," Fleming wrote, "as the dusty pictures clicked across his brain."
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