The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

In search of 007th heaven: A travel yarn in three parts (Part 1)

We welcome Sebastian Doggart to The Displaced Nation as a guest blogger. Sebastian won one of our Alice Awards for a Telegraph Expat blog post entitled “Elegy to English shepherd’s pie.” Today, however, Sebastian will be giving Displaced Nation readers a break from our Alice theme, with the first in a three-part travel yarn about his chase after Goldeneye — the Caribbean retreat where Ian Fleming wrote all of his Bond books. Stay tuned for Parts 2 & 3 in the coming weeks.

On the northern coast of Jamaica, fringed by icing-sugar beaches and rocky coves, lies the holy place where Ian Fleming wrote all the James Bond novels. Now populated by the rich and famous in search of paradise, it is one of the most desired and exclusive oases on earth. Its name is GoldenEye.

Over the last two years, this secluded tract of land has been mysteriously shut to the world. The official story has been that the site has been undergoing a $75 million renovation. As with arch-villain Francisco Scaramanga’s private island, its inaccessibility has made it even more appealing as a travel destination. So when I heard that the legendary site was re-opening to a handful of invited guests, I was ready to risk life and limb to gain access.

I called the number listed on GoldenEye’s new Web site, and a lilting Jamaican voice gave me an email address for a London-based PR company. Its boss, whose broken English suggested she might in fact be the murderous Rosa Klebb, declined my request to write an article on the resort — unless I could come up with $21,000 a night.

I had neither the resources of Blofeld to satisfy her demand, nor a willingness to accept her rejection. With the ingenious forces of Q behind me, I devised a cunning plan to infiltrate the compound. Two friends were getting married and had been granted a honeymoon suite in GoldenEye. I would take my chances and show up on their doorstep for a celebratory cup of tea.

The name’s Bond. James Bond.

The approach to GoldenEye is a coastal road that passes the brand new Ian Fleming International Airport. Opened in January 2011 to cater for the super high-end tourist, it is specifically designed to welcome small jets. Rolling Stone Keith Richards, who has a house in nearby Ocho Ríos is a grateful new user.

I passed a sign marking the border of the town where GoldenEye geographically sits, Oracabessa. Once a banana port, it has fallen on hard times as Jamaica’s economy has struggled. Oracabessa’s name, a derivation from the Spanish oro cabeza, or golden head, is one of the various inspirations that Fleming has cited for his home’s own name.

No sign marked the entrance to GoldenEye. After driving past twice, I stopped and ask a local shopkeeper where the entrance was. She gave me a grave look of disapproval, as if I were complicit in a rich white man’s folly, but still had the grace to direct me to an unmarked iron gate, flanked by high walls. I pulled up and saw, hidden discreetly amongst the trees, a guard-post. I felt as nervous as if I were trying to break in to Dr. No’s lair on Coral Key.

As further ammunition to melt the guard’s heart, I was accompanied by two lovely ladies: my partner, Emily, who is even lovelier than Mary Goodnight; and my six-month-old daughter, who shares a birthday, November 11, with Bond himself.

“Good afternoon,” I said, breezily. “We’re here for tea with the Usmanovs.”

“Are they expecting you?” he asked, his wariness visibly dissolving as he glanced at my Bond girls.

“They are indeed. They’re the happy newly-weds.”

“One moment, please.”

The guard retreated into his bunker. With this level of security, I felt our chances were slim. Our friends would probably be out of their room, frolicking in the pool.

But we were in luck. The guard returned. “Drive through. Follow the path, keeping to your left. You will be escorted to the cabana of the Usmanovs.”

As the heavy gates swung open, and I scrunched over the gravel to within GoldenEye’s walls, my heart was pounding. The dream of seeing the birthplace of one my greatest heroes was about to come true…

Mr. Bond, it’s good to see you again…

The story of GoldenEye — originally spelled Goldeneye, without the upper case “e” — is an epic one. The estate’s first known owner was Henry Morgan, the 17th century Welsh pirate. He made use of its location, on a headland with a panoramic view, to look out for Spanish fleets heading for Havana. When he saw a new ship, he would send a signal to his own boat hidden behind an island, and its captain would then sail forward to claim their bounty.

Morgan used his piratic skills to help the British acquire Jamaica as a colony in 1658. He reveled in the pleasures of nearby Port Royal, “the richest and wickedest city in Christendom,” and would leave his name on every bottle of Captain Morgan rum.

Little is known of Goldeneye until the early 20th century, when it became a donkey racecourse. This is what Ian Fleming, then a commander in British naval intelligence, first saw in 1943, vowing to return after the war had ended. In 1946, he purchased the property from a powerful Jamaican land-owner, Blanche Lindo, with whom he began a life-long love affair. On the site of the racecourse café that once served banana dumplings and coconut oil, he built a white-walled bungalow.

Explaining its name in a later interview with Playboy, Fleming said:

I had happened to be reading Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers, and I’d been involved in an operation called Goldeneye during the war: the defence of Gibraltar, supposing that the Spaniards had decided to attack it; and I was deeply involved in the planning of countermeasures which would have been taken in that event.

Goldeneye became Fleming’s winter retreat, where he would spend at least two months a year. He hosted an increasingly illustrious group of friends, including Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton, Laurence Olivier, and Truman Capote. His friend Noël Coward, who built his own house, Firefly, a few miles away, described his first visit thus:

We arrived before dusk. It is quite perfect, a large sitting room sparsely furnished, comfortable beds and showers, an agreeable staff, a small private coral beach with lily white sand and warm clear water. The beach is unbelievable. We swam after a delicious dinner, and lay on the sand unchilled under a full moon.

Honey Ryder: “Looking for shells?” Bond: “No, I’m just looking.”

Like Bond, Fleming was a womanizer, and Goldeneye was a fine place to woo a lady. In 1948, he brought Lady Ann Rothermere, whose response was effusive: “The air is so clear of dirt or dust, there is an illusion of a vast universe, and the sea horizon is very round.”

Fleming gave Ann a gift, the latest edition of Field Guide to Birds of the West Indies, by an American ornithologist named James Bond. He nicked the name for the hero of his first novel, Casino Royale, which he began writing in 1952, soon after he had discovered that Ann was pregnant and married her.

When writing, Fleming closed Goldeneye’s glassless, wooden shutters called jalousies, to avoid the distraction of the Caribbean horizon. He went on to create all 13 of his Bond novels in those surroundings. He would write later:

Would these books have been born if I had not been living in the gorgeous vacuum of a Jamaican holiday? I doubt it… I suppose it is the peace and silence and cut-offness from the madding world that urges people to create here…. A wonderful escape from the cold and grime of winters in England, into blazing sunshine, natural beauty and the most healthy life I could wish to live.

The Flemings’ marriage deteriorated into bickering, and Ann stopped coming to Jamaica. Our hero’s attentions turned to his “Jamaican wife,” Blanche. She was herself married — to Joseph Blackwell, an heir to the Crosse & Blackwell food family; but that only added spice to the affair. Blanche Blackwell gave Fleming a romantic gift of a coracle named Octopussy with which to explore the surrounding coves. The boat’s name became the title of the fourteenth and final Bond tale, published posthumously as part of a short story collection in 1966.

A lover of the sea, Blanche was the inspiration for Dr. No’s Honeychile Rider, whom Bond first sees emerging from the sea — naked in the book, bikini-clad in the movie. She was also the basis for Pussy Galore in Goldfinger.

You only live twice, Mr. Bond…

Blanche had a son, Chris Blackwell, who would go on to become a location manager on the movie Dr. No. He would then found the indie record label Island Records, which launched artists like Bob Marley and U2. Chris describes his first visit:

I went with my mother to a party that Ian Fleming was giving for friends. Noël Coward was there. It was a casual affair — with lunch served under the almond trees and overlooking the beach — and what I remember most is a lot of laughter.

In 1964, two years after both the release of the movie Dr. No and Jamaica’s independence from Britain, Fleming came to Goldeneye to write his last and most nostalgic Bond novel, The Man with the Golden Gun:

My own life has been turned upside down at, or perhaps even by, [this] small house … that I built 18 years ago… I sat down at the red bullet-wood desk where I am now typing this and, for better or worse, wrote the first of 12 best selling thrillers that have sold around twenty million copies and been translated into 23 languages.

Fleming died soon after, undramatically, of a heart attack, and was buried in Wiltshire, where he would later be joined by his son Casper (who tragically died of a drug overdose, aged 22) and his wife Ann.

The Fleming family held on to Goldeneye, which gradually fell into disrepair, until 1977, when they put it on the market. Bob Marley was interested, but eventually decided it was “too posh”. Encouraged by his mother, Chris Blackwell himself stepped in and purchased the property. He bought further land, increasing the estate from 16 to 100 acres and building what he called “a model for residential tourism” — a network of luxury villas that hosted celebrities including Naomi Campbell, Quincy Jones, Rachel Weisz, and Martha Stewart.

Two years ago, Blackwell shut it all down to embark on a $75 million renovation, with the goal of creating “a community of free spirits dedicated to living an inventive, balanced life where the imagination and the environment could co-exist in perfect harmony.”

We were now some of the first people to assess whether he had achieved this dream with the latest incarnation, GoldenEye.

STAY TUNED for Part 2, in which Sebastian continues his search for 007 — and for Monday’s post, where we’ll return to Wonderland for further scrutiny of its sense of humor (or the lack).

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7 responses to “In search of 007th heaven: A travel yarn in three parts (Part 1)

  1. Kate Allison June 18, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Sebastian, how fascinating this is! I confess to knowing hardly anything about Ian Fleming – other than he was also the creator of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – and to realise that so many elements of his stories were based on real places, names, chances sightings of girls emerging from the sea, and so on, is surprising. Having only seen the films, I want to go away and read the books now.

    Looking forward to Part 2!

  2. awindram June 18, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    Very much enjoyed this Sebastian. Looking forward to part 2 also.

    Kate, the novels are worth giving a go, though I’d argue Fleming’s Bond is very different from any of the cinematic versions. I’m a terrible flyer and find I can’t read anything too heavy when on a plane, as you’ve probably gathered by now I’m a bit of a pretentious git so this is a bit of a problem for me. My solution has been to pig out on Fleming; the Bond novels have really been great for getting me through turbulence-induced nerves.

    • Kate Allison June 20, 2011 at 6:23 pm

      Any particular one better than the rest to read first?

      • awindram June 20, 2011 at 9:18 pm

        I think it’s fine to start with Casino Royale, the first novel. It does work well as a good introduction to the literary character of James Bond. From Russia With Love is my favorite (also my favorite of the films) and you may want to try that next and skip over Live and Let Die and Moonraker.

  3. ML Awanohara June 19, 2011 at 9:34 am

    Like Kate, I find it fascinating to hear more about Ian Fleming’s expat life in the Caribbean. Though we think of him as terribly English and of the Bond stories as universal (thanks to the films?), it’s obvious from the quote Sebastian provides from Fleming himself — and also from his biography (especially the detail about his flamboyant “Jamaican wife”) — that he derived inspiration for the Bond series from that part of the world.

    Having lived in England myself, i can relate to his wish to escape to sunnier climes during the dark and dreary winter months. But was closing the jalousies the key to his success? Had he left them open (as I myself would have been tempted to do), maybe he would have produced a lot less?

  4. awindram June 20, 2011 at 12:56 am

    He certainly should have metaphorically left the jalousies open, Live and Let Die, the second Bond novel and the first to use Jamaica as a setting, is problematic for its crude racial caricatures and language. Expat life in the Carribean for someone in Fleming’s social circle would have still been a “terribly English” experience.

    It’s actually the British scenes that I find interesting in the Fleming novels. Thats where the sometimes tiring exoticism is dropped and a brief glimpse of austerity Britain may be seen. In the opening of Thunderball Bond is off to Shrublands health clinic on the orders of M. He’s been driven to the clinic by a young local man, something of a Teddy boy. I find the exchange interesting as it’s as if a character from a John Braine novel, an angry young man, has been placed into Fleming’s world.

  5. Pingback: Goldeneye’s Midas Touch | Artistic License Renewed

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