Goldeneye by Matthew Parker, book review: Fascinating look at Fleming's Jamaican roots

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The Independent Culture

As Matthew Parker was no doubt aware, there is already a book called Goldeneye. But it's not one of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels; it is a novelisation (by John Gardner) of the film that rebooted the 007 franchise after legal difficulties kept the series on hold for several years. Parker's book is subtitled Where Bond was Born: Ian Fleming's Jamaica, signalling something of a new approach to the man responsible for the longest-running franchise in cinema.

Parker's record of a key period in the life of the writer makes a fascinating read – even though it is actually two books in one, with the separate parts non-homogeneous.The jacket image suggests Fleming's privileged Old-Etonian lifestyle, with a sybaritic streak indulging in things that were not available to most Britons in the 1950s when the 007 books began to appear, from foreign travel to prodigious sex.

Fleming smiles, puffing on one of the pleasures that would kill him – along with his Olympian alcohol consumption – at 56. Through his windows, we see the palm trees and blue waters of his beloved Jamaica.

The writer's self-destructive lifestyle is out of fashion today, as – one might have thought – are the thick-ear heroics of his secret agent. But Fleming provided shameless escapism, channelling his expertise as a travel writer; the sheer narrative drive (and fascinating overload of consumer detail) is irresistible in such books as From Russia with Love. However, it is Parker's balanced assessment of Fleming's writing skills that creates a problem here set against the biographical character of the book.

The evocation of the writer's voluptuous existence in Jamaica (and the unspoilt island itself) is nonpareil. Fleming visited Jamaica in the war, and became convinced that it was a place where he wanted to live, writing books when not plunging into the warm ocean. After building the eponymous Goldeneye estate, he negotiated with the Sunday Times (for which he was foreign manager) that he might spend two months there every year. His neighbour was Noel Coward, and despite the very different sexual predilections of the men, they became great friends.

Fleming's mistress, now wife, the uninhibited Ann Charteris (who had ended her marriage to Viscount Rothermere), helped host legendary parties with Coward. Nude sunbathing was encouraged, and Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier were to be seen disporting themselves au naturel. Sexual indulgence was on the menu and a picture of this prelapsarian way of life was to be found in a roman-à-clef play that Coward suppressed in his lifetime, Volcano.

All of this is skilfully detailed by Parker, conjuring a different era with a cool, uncensorious sympathy. But then – about halfway through Parker's book – Fleming writes the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, and thus begins a series of lengthy dissections of the novels. Though sharply written, these exhaustive analyses belong in a book which regards only the work (such as the first attempt to analyse Fleming's novels, Kingsley Amis's James Bond Dossier); Parker might have been wiser to keep these sections brief, and to have devoted his considerable expertise to his chronicle of Fleming in Jamaica.