Ian Fleming, enfeebled by a lifetime's diet of vodka and cigarettes, died of a heart attack in 1964 at the age of 56 after playing a round of golf on the Kent coast. The new Labour government under Harold Wilson (anathema to the Tory-minded Fleming) had been sworn in and Bond mania was about to take off with the premiere of Goldfinger. Fleming's endearingly absurd creation, James Bond, shows no sign of flagging. The centenary of Fleming's birth sees much attendant 007 hoopla; a pastiche Bond novel, BBC radio adaptations, exhibitions and films.
To understand the birth of Agent 007 one has to look at Jamaica, the Caribbean island which Fleming made his second home for 18 years. His Jamaican retreat, Goldeneye (named after the Carson McCullers novel Reflections in a Golden Eye), stands above the old banana port of Oracabessa on the north coast. The visitors' book reads like a who's who of English letters and privilege in the post-war years. Evelyn Waugh, Stephen Spender, Cecil Beaton, the London Magazine editor Alan Ross (Commander Ross of The Man with the Golden Gun), Anthony Eden and Graham Greene all stayed.
Without Goldeneye, it is safe to say, there would have been no James Bond. All 13 novels were written in the Jamaican home, though only three (Dr No, Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun) were partly set in Jamaica. In that sun-warmed outpost of the Empire, Fleming could savour his remoteness from cold, drab Britain and delude himself that he was above the ignominy of his country's imperial demise. In pre-independence Jamaica, the Britain of Fleming's youth, with its class-bound social order, was better preserved than in austere post-war Britain where, as we read in Dr No, "people streamed miserably to work, their legs whipped by the wet hems of their macintoshes".
What Fleming loved about Jamaica, apart from its antique social hierarchy, was I suppose its physical beauty. The fireflies and the melancholy of the tropical dusk ("Goldeneye, nose and throat", Noël Coward re-named the hideaway) detained him irresistibly. Fleming got married in Jamaica in 1952, with Coward as his witness, having begun his first 007 novel, Casino Royale, in January that year.
Where did James Bond's name come from? The most plausible speculation provides another link to Jamaica. Fleming found it on the cover of an ornithological classic dear to him, Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies by James Bond – a standard reference published in 1947.
Intriguingly, the 007 extravaganzas were written with the jalousies at Goldeneye closed so that Fleming would not be distracted by the sunlight and bird-life. Yet Jamaica is a presence in virtually all the Bond plots. In Casino Royale, set in northern France, Bond passes himself off as a "Jamaican plantocrat". Hugo Drax, the villain of Moonraker, was named after the Drax Hall sugar estate which belonged to William Beckford, the 18th-century Gothic novelist. Dr No, set partly in the West Indies, alludes to the Jamaican Governor-General Sir Hugh Foot (brother of the Labour politician Michael Foot).
A strain of Gothic horror runs through many British accounts of Jamaica, notably Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea. Jamaican plantation lands, with their romantic air of neglect and preponderance of "sex and machete fights", fascinated Fleming. He enjoyed exaggeration and things larger than life. His villains have bulbous heads or metal teeth; many are given exaggeratedly Jewish, Slavic or (the dastardly Mr Big of Live and Let Die) African-American features. Fleming, like many Englishmen of his class, was repelled by the notion of hybridity, and Dr No is distinguished by its disgusted (for the modern reader, perhaps disgusting) portrayal of Jamaica's half-Chinese community as yellow-black "Chigroes"; an impure race, no less.
Sebastian Faulks, in his fictional homage to Ian Fleming, creates a villain to rival the half-Chinese Dr Julius No. In Devil May Care, Dr Julius Gorner, a megalomaniac in the cruel lineage of Tamburlaine, plans to deluge 1960s Britain in a lethal tide of heroin. He has a horribly deformed hand and, like Goldfinger, is a refugee from the Baltic states with off-putting "Slavic features" (Faulks, to his credit, does not baulk at parodying Fleming's prejudices). The heroine, true to stereotype, is a glamorous Franco-Russian poppet, Scarlett Papava. Bond sets out to rescue her from the devilish embrace of Dr Gorner and his Oddjob-like sidekick, Chagrin.
Impishly, Fleming included elements of his friends (and enemies) in his fiction. Blanche Blackwell, the love of his later life, was supposedly a model for the Sapphic pilot and martial-arts expert Pussy Galore in Goldfinger. Ben Macintyre, in his glossy celebration of Bond and his creator (published to coincide with the Imperial War Museum's 007 exhibition), says Fleming rather ungallantly named the decrepit guano tanker in Dr No the Blanche. Nevertheless, Fleming adored "Birdie" Blackwell for her darting kingfisher mind and mischievous wit.
Bizarrely, through his affair with Blanche (a white Jamaican of Anglo-Jewish descent), Fleming was to provide a link with the new ganja-and-dreadlock Jamaica as it emerged in the music of Rastafari. Blanche happened to be the mother of Chris Blackwell, the Island Records impresario who, in the 1970s, "discovered" the rock-reggae of Bob Marley. One cannot imagine Fleming dancing to "Lively Up Yourself"; but Blanche did, frequently, after her son Chris had helped transform Marley into a Rasta star for white audiences. By a coincidence, Chris and his mother now own Goldeneye as part of a prohibitively expensive "007" hotel complex.
After the first five, incomparably stylish, Bond novels, the prose is tired; and then came the disappointment of The Man with the Golden Gun, published posthumously in 1965. Blanche Blackwell, for her part, now lives in exile from Jamaica in west London. "I'm afraid the sunset will be a failure", she told me the other day, as she drew the curtains over her Knightsbridge view: "it always is in London." Only in 007's Jamaica is the sun such a bright – Ian Fleming would say "blood-orange bright" – red, and it is unlikely to set for a very long time.
Ian Thomson is writing a book on Jamaica for Faber & FaberReuse content