Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Goldeneye for Beginners


“I was forcibly struck by a marked similarity of many West Indian bars, waterfronts, personalities and even incidents described by Ian Fleming, to those Jim had related to me as his own experiences. I felt that my husband was being shadowed in a fantastic, surreptitious fashion…” Mary Wickham Bond (How 007 Got His Name, Collins, 1966)

The opportunity to visit Ian Flemings Jamaican estate Goldeney presented itself in the spring of 1990 when I joined a friend on a holiday jaunt to Montego Bay. James Bond had died the previous year, so I couldn’t check in with him as promised.

While my friend’s main interest was playing golf, I intended to visit Goldeneye, some sixty miles east of Montego Bay, on the north coast highway.

Fleming seasonally spent two months a year in Jamaica, in January and February, escaping the cold and damp English winter for the island sun and private beach.

I first went there in March, 1990, for only a short excursion. I discovered right away however, that it doesn’t take long to learn everything you have to know about Jamaica to enjoy it to its fullest.

Bob Marley tunes played on the Air Jamaica flight out of New York, and native girls in flower print dresses danced and sang a welcome tune as we disembarked at Montego Bay airport. A small bus met us at the door and took us to our hotel, the Wyndam Rose Hall, which was selected mainly because it sports an in-house golf course with links to the ocean.

When we arrived a doorman outfitted with a white safari hat opened the door and a sharp featured, friendly bell hop with an engaging smile grabbed our bags and put them on a dolly. Then he slapped his feet together, in true Gunga Din fashion, and introduced himself, “I’m Billy Love. Welcome to Wyndam Rose Hall. If I can be of any assistance, just let me know. You can contact me at the desk.”

“Billy Love,” his engraved nameplate read, as I thought how Fleming would have certainly loved that name and appropriate it for one of his more engaging characters.

“Yes,” I said to Billy Love, once we were settled into our room, “I’ll need a car and a driver to take me to Orcabessa in the morning.

“I’ll have the best driver on the island ready for you,” Love promised. “Just call the desk shortly before you have breakfast and he’ll be waiting for you at the door when you’re ready.” And Love didn’t let me down.

My old high school friend Mark, a New York corporate attorney, read the Daily Gleamer, Jamaica’s daily newspaper, as we enjoyed breakfast on the patio overlooking the pool and the beach. I had picked up two books at he hotel gift shop, a rare whitebound hardcover edition of James Bond’s “Birds of the West Indies” and a copy of Timothy White’s biography of Bob Marley, “Hold A Fire.”

A friendly blackbird, eating the leftover toast on a tray a few feet away, seemed to be mocking us with a laugh. I opened up my newly acquired copy of “Birds of the West Indies” and quickly found Bond’s description of our tormentor.

Bond reports that this is a “GREATER ANTILLEAN CRACKLE,” that’s also known in scientific circles as a “Quiscalus niger,” but had such coloqual local names as “Tinkling and Cling-cling,” and in Jamaica, “Ting-ting,” based on the mocking sound it was making at us. It’s also known as a “Ching-ching” in the nearby Cayman Islands.

Bond’s fitting description: “1-12 inches. Male: Black with a violet or steel-blue gloss; iris light yellow, appearing white. Female: Smaller and duller than the male. Immature individuals have light brown irides. Crackles have a V-shaped tails, most evident in the male. They are gregarious.”

Gregarious. Gregarious is a fitting description of all Jamaica.

While my friend went off to play a round of golf, I went to the front desk, where Billy Love introduced me to Mr. Douglas Scott, “the best driver on the island.”

The doorman in the white safari hat handed Scott a similar white hat and chastised him for not wearing it, as I got in the front passenger seat of a quite old but well kept classic station wagon. He took the hat off as soon as we turned the corner. The first stop was just over a mile away, the roadside stand of a local “doctor,” manned by his son, a ten year old boy. The good doctor came out and sold me some natural herb medicine, including some suntan lotion, vitamins and a sex potion, which I didn’t know if you took internally or applied locally, but was too embarrassed to ask. Then it was back on the road, as we had about a sixty mile ride to Orcabessa, just east of Ocho Rios.

The stunning beauty of Jamaica jumps out at you from the moment you touch down, but it doesn’t really come alive until you leave the tourist areas and take a drive along the coast highway, Jamaica’s main road.

Although it is only a two-lane blacktop, it hugs the shoreline the entire circumference of the island of Jamaica. Off to one side there’s birds flying about colorful tropical trees that bend gently in the breeze, while on the other, waves break silently along the beach before the bright blue horizon.

One of the first visions that struck me was that of two scantly clad teenage girls wading knee deep in the gentle surf, pulling a net through the shallow tide, which I thought quite reminiscent of Fleming’s own vision of Honeychile Rider, played by Rachel Welch, the first Bond Girl in the first 007 movie, “Dr. No.”

Between the scenes of tropical beauty however, were stark reminders of the devastation raked by Hurricane Hugo. Although the storm had struck over a year earlier, many beachside cottages were left roofless and abandoned. Others didn’t seem fit for human habitation. Poverty and destitution run hand in hand along the beach in paradise.

Not all of the small cottages are derelict or primitive. Some are even rather stately, with gatehouses, servant’s quarters, and neat, well-trimmed gardens. Some of these private estates are leased out during the peak tourists season, which runs from November through March.

Besides the tourist hotels, small cottages and private villas, there are the large estates, former Great Houses that have been, for the most part, renovated and converted into gated resort hotels.

Wyndham Rose Hall for instance, where we were staying, is adjacent to the recently restored Rose Hall Great House, now a museum and tourist attraction that gives keen insight into the history of this part of Jamaica. Rose Hall, they say, is inhabited by the ghost of former resident, a matron who it is said murdered each of her three husbands.

There’s also Bellview Great House, which was owned by Fleming’s friend and business associate Ivor Bryce, an American.

There’s Bob Marley’s estate, Island House, at 56 Hope Road in uptown Jamaica.

Then there’s one of the most exclusive resorts in all of Jamaica, the Tryall Club, which sports a world class golf course near Montego Bay, and was once owned by Sir William Stephenson (aka INTREPID).

Many new resorts are periodically spaced along the coast road on the North shore, like Sandals, Couples, Hedonism, Boscobel Beach and Grand Lido. Some are geared towards singles, others couples and a few cater to families, and all are either all-inclusive or pay-as-you-go operations. They are surrounded by high, chain link fences, and are quite self-sufficent, containing everything a visitor on a holiday could possibly need – beach, pool, bar, disco, restaurant and room with a view.

But what they lack is a feeling for the spirit of Jamaica, the gregariousness expressed by the steel blue Crackle bird and the people on the street, which you can only experience by getting out and exploring the country.

Besides the major city of Kingston, the capitol, in the south, also a major airport, there’s Montego Bay, or “Mo Bay,” as the locals call it, and Ocho Rios, both along the scenic North Shore, where most of the tourist resorts are also located.

Ian Fleming’s Goldeneye is near the small town of Orcabessa, just a few miles east of Ocho Rios, and some sixty miles east of Montego Bay. My driver and native guide, Mr. Douglas Scott, slowed down as we approached the town of Duncan.

He pulled up in front of a small hotel, the Sober Robin Inn, which any bird watcher could appreciate, and had a large billboard sized marquee that advertised it as, “The Childhood Home of the Singer of ‘Island in the Sun.’”

“Of course you know who that is,” Scott said, making me wonder, then guess, but I just didn’t know, and I sensed his disappointment in my ignorance. After a long pause, “Harry Belafonte,” he says, before unnecessarily adding, “a very famous singer and actor.”

“I know who Harry Belefonte is,” I shot back with a hint of sarcasm, before I explained that, rather than from the song, “Island in the Sun,” a relatively obscure tune, Belafonte is best known in the United States from “Day-Oh,” or the “Bannana Boat Song,” and his civil rights and charity work.

“Day-Oh” is a song that stems from the “field holler” style that the cargo boat workers sang. It was even popular with the tourists to go down to the docks and take pictures of the heavily muscled, bare chest black men as they tossed around bundles of green bananas, and watch the women in their long dresses carrying bushels of fruit in baskets on their heads.

“Island in the Sun” on the other hand, is a song, equally melodic, that’s more of a love ballad. Little did I know at the time, as we passed the Sober Robin Inn, “Home of the singer of “Island in the Sun,” that the tune, its title, and the novel based on that name and theme plays a role in the mystery of Goldeneye.

Besides Belafonte’s song, and the book by the same name, by Alec Waugh, which was made into a major motion picture in 1957, and starred Harry Belafonte (as well as James Mason, Joan Fontain, Joan Collins and Michael Rennie), there’s Island Records, which takes its name from Waugh’s book and Belafonte’s song.

Island Records was founded in 1962 by Christopher Blackwell who, besides being Bob Marley’s manager, now owns Goldeneye.

The novel and the movie based on the book concern an American journalist who takes a working vacation to an unnamed tropical Caribbean island, which bears a striking similarity to Jamaica. It focuses on the disruptions that his stories make on the daily lives of the people who live in a poor paradise, and the interrelationships between the natives, aristocratic governors and the tourists.

My driver, Mr. Scott, explained at length, the on-going conflicts between these dynamic forces that are still at work. It being Saturday, market day, the streets of Duncan were filled with people taking goods to the market. There were carts filled with fruits and vegetables, men on bicycles and women with baskets on their heads. But native Jamaicans don’t like being the subject of tourist camera lenses any more than the men did at the Bannana boat docks, so I am careful of what I take pictures of.

Also on the coast road between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios are more popular tourist and historic sites, like Discovery Bay, where Columbus put ashore on his second voyage to the New World. There are also bauxite mines of rusty red girders – the scene of one of James Bond’s movie escapades filed on location in Jamaica.

As we pulled into Ocho Rios however, it was apparent that this town is being developed to cater to tourists. Most of the people on the streets were Americans and street vendors selling wood carved statutes, shells, wind chimes and other crafts.

Once on the other side of Ocho Rios we stopped a Rastafarian, distinctive because of his long, matted dreadlock hair and red, green and yellow knit hat, and asked him directions to Orcabessa. He tried to sell us an over-priced bag of coffee, then directed us down the road. A gardener, trimming the hedges of a large estate, told us that Goldeneye was just beyond Orcabessa, the next town down the road. “Make a left turn at the Esso gas station,” he said, “and Goldeneye is 50 yards down the street on the right.”

Orcabessa is a very small town, consisting of a post office, police station and general store, a place where the primary occupation seems to be sitting on the porch steps and talking with neighbors. It is a sleepy fishing village that is known primarily, as being the place where Ian Fleming built Goldeneye and wrote his James Bond novels.

Just as the old man trimming hedges told us, we made a left at the gas station, and found the gates to Goldeneye just off the coast road. As James and Mary Bond had found them twenty-five years before, the wraught iron gates were “hospitably ajar,” left open between the concrete pillars, one of which simply read: GOLDENEYE.

Mr. Scott pulled in and drove down the short, winding, gravel road and stopped before a clothes line, where multi-colored flower print skirts and dresses were drying in the sun. Scott got out and leaned against the hood of the car while I approached a black women sitting in the shade.

“Is Violet here?” I asked, wondering about Fleming’s long time maid and cook who I knew lived at Goldeneye.

“No,” she said. “Violet passed away two years ago.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I replied. “What about the owner, is he here at the moment?”

“Mr. Blackwell is in Ocho Rios on business today, but he will be back later this evening,” she said softly. Nor did she mind if I took some photos of the house and the grounds, as long as I didn’t disturb anything.

Although I would have enjoyed meeting Mr. Christopher Blackwell, I was glad I didn’t since I would have been embarrassed for not knowing then what I know now. That he was Bob Marley’s manager, founder of Island Records and one of the most prominent businessmen in all Jamaica.

The shutters of the glassless windows were open so I could see inside the living room, where a movie poster of a 007 film hung on one wall. A bar was set up, and the sparsely furnished house looked much like it was described by Mrs. Bond and it seems that it has been maintained very similar to the way Fleming kept it.

Outside there seemed to be little evidence of the destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Hugo. Some of the roof had been repaired and the canopy that covered the patio walk was gone, but otherwise, Goldeneye seemed much the same as when Fleming lived and worked there.

The patio walk leads to an iron railing, where you can stand and view the steps that descend to the private beach cove, and overlooks the scenic small boat harbor and horizon. Just beyond the beach is the reef, which keeps the sharks out and provided an abundance of sea life for Fleming to probe when he snorkel dived in the cove.

Leaving Goldeneye, we drove down the coast road away from Orcabessa and Ocho Rios and towards Noel Coward’s home Firefly, not far from Goldeneye. Firefly, I had learned, was now a museum and tourist attraction where Coward’s butler still resided. We never made it to Firefly however, because we stopped at a small café to have a cold drink.

As I had a Red Stripe beer Douglas Scott drank a soft drink as we talked with the barmaid. She had known Violet, in fact was her niece, and she talked about the native dishes Violet prepared for Fleming and his guests, like conch gumbo and fried octopus tentacles with tarter sauce.

I asked the barmaid about Aubyn Cousins, the local fisherman, son of a native Jamaican and a Belfast schooner boat captain who often took Fleming shark fishing out beyond the reef. Cousins, who Fleming’s first biographer John Pearson called, “…the nearest to the original for James Bond’s faithful Cayman islander Quarrel….” Unfortunately, he too had died a few years earlier.

But his brother was still alive and living nearby, and the barmaid sent a little boy off to get him while she entertained us with some local gossip. Christopher Blackwell, she said, was well known as Bob Marley’s manager. Less known was that Marley himself had purchased Goldeneye from Ian Fleming’s widow. After Fleming died, his wife wanted to sell Goldeneye. She never really liked Jamaica, and only went there with Fleming. She wanted to sell Goldeneye, but not to Blackwell, whose mother Blanch Blackwell was an acquaintance of Fleming. In fact, Blanch Blackwell was the real life counterpart to Pussy Galore, and too close of an acquaintance to Fleming for his wife to appreciate. So her son Christopher Blackwell used Bob Marley as a straw buyer to purchase Goldeneye, and then resell it to him.

When the young boy returned with old Mr. Cousins, I bought him a beer and asked him about Fleming, who he referred to as, the “Commander.” Cousins had nothing bad to say about the Commander, and “very fine man,” still revered in the community.

His brother Aubyn, he said, would take the Commander shark fishing, with a lasso. They would attract the sharks with fresh meat, then lasso one with a rope from the end of a bamboo pole. Tying the rope to the front of the small boat, they would then let the shark take the boat on a “Nantuckett Sleigh Ride,” as the old whalers called it.

But Fleming would never let Cousins kill the shark. After their fun they would let the big fish go on its way.

Mrs. Blackwell they said, lived at Bolt House, not far down the coast road towards Port Maria. Leaving the café, we passed Coward’s Flyfly, intending to stop back there some other day, and drove up to the sprawling green grass hill to Bolt House, Pussy Galore’s residence.

Although described as a mansion, it is actually not unlike Goldeneye – a small, one story, Spanish style home with a panorama view of the ocean on three sides. Mrs. Blackwell, however, was visiting the Cayman Islands at the time we visited.

So we headed back to Montego Bay, along the same north shore coast road that provides so much beautiful scenery, my eyes washed by the setting sun, and my mind reconsidering the mysteries of Goldeneye and the role Christopher Blackwell plays in the whole affair.

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