Book Review: Goldeneye
by Matthew Parker
Pegasus Books, 2015
Flush with money and professing to want an escape from the desperate, somewhat scrappy glamor of the postwar London society whose slightest glance he so assiduously coveted, thirty-something writer Ian Fleming instructed various friends and acquaintances to scout out a likely bungalow down in the Tropics where he could periodically get away from It All.
Machinations eventually settled on a ramshackle Jamaican property on Rotten Egg Bay. Fleming paid 2000 pounds for it and sunk another 2000 pounds into basic renovations that didn’t at first include either hot water or modern sanitation. He promptly changed the name of the place to Goldeneye, and Goldeneye – and the life Fleming lived there a few months out of every year from 1946 until his death in 1964 – is the subject of Goldeneye, the sparkling, lightweight new book by Matthew Parker, whose Monte Cassino: The Hardest-Fought Battle of World War II was very, very good and dealt with matters just a touch more significant than how accurately a paunchy, middle-aged Brit could ape the Ugly American down Jamaica-way.
Parker sees, God help us, literary significance in the place: Fleming’s first James Bond book came out in 1953, and Parker convincingly traces the impact Goldeneye had on the creation of this deplorably iconic fictional figure:
Bond was created not only a long time ago, but also far away. For two months of every year, from 1946 to his death eighteen years later, Ian Fleming lived at the house he build on Jamaica’s north coast on a point of high land overlooking a small white sand beach with a coral reef close by. This is the recurring birthplace of the patriotic imperial hero who puts Britain back on top and projects British power across the world.
Much like P. L. Travers’ “Mary Poppins” stories, Parker has here crafted a very amusing narrative about the most thoroughly appalling people. Louche ex-Etonians bustle about like robins in a hedgerow in the story Parker relates; hard-drinking women of the ex-pat horsey set drop by for tennis and some quick grapple-hook infidelities; monocled figures called “The Colonel” are propped up in rattan patio chairs and filled to the gills with candy-flavored rum by houseboys who hate them; Sean Connery cuts a swath, sporting wavy black hair, an enormous smile, and a penchant for the quick post-coital slap; Noel Coward filters in as inevitably as San Francisco fog; Errol Flynn speaks for the quorum when he says “I cut an imperial figure along the north shore of Jamaica.” As Parker gamely puts it, “Men like this, in their refurbished and lavishly staffed Great Houses, saw themselves as inheritors of the old plantocracy.”
At the center of it all is Fleming himself, “The Commander” (saw that coming, didn’t you?), chain-smoking, venomously drunk by noonsies, and typing away at his Bond novels, in one of which he describes that ersatz plantocracy with a concision that’ll turn your stomach: “Pleasant enough members, wonderful servants, unlimited food and cheap drink, and all in the wonderful setting of the tropics.”
Parker does a very good job following the fates of those Bond books; indeed, if he’d spent more time on publisher contract negotiations and less time on bare knobby British knees in khaki shorts, this might have been a more contentious book, though perhaps a less entertaining one (and entertainment can have its own costs: these pages contain far too much excuse-making for Fleming’s revolting sexism and racism). As it is, he tracks the composition and reception of each Bond volume to rattle off the typewriter, and he pauses to tell the oft-told story about the big break that happened when he gained a certain American fan:
Jack Kennedy would have an immense impact on Ian’s career. Fleming’s books had so far sold respectably in the United States but not on the same level as in Britain. Then on 17 March 1961, Life magazine ran a piece on the President’s favourite books. In ninth place, just above Stendhal’s Scarlet and Black, was From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming. It is hard to overestimate the importance of the article. From that moment, the Bond boom in the United States began.
That Bond boom is of course the reason at the back of a book like Goldeneye; nobody would buy a year-by-year account of the little place in Vermont where Bellow wrote Herzog. But a book about the creation of James Bond, especially one as full of great quotes and salacious gossip as the one Parker has written? Well, Fleming summed up such books himself, in a note he included in the copy of Live and Let Die he sent to Winston Churchill: “Its is an unashamed thriller and its only merit is that it makes no demands on the minds of the reader.” The Commander would be pleased.