“Jamaicas of Remembrance stir
That send me reeling in.”
—Emily Dickinson

Most visitors to Jamaica fly to Montego Bay on the north coast and head straight for the resort compound. Fating and drinking at an “all-in” price, confined to their bit of beach, pool, and garden, they are happily protected from reality. In January, I flew into Kingston on the south coast to visit my daughter, who was working there. We circled the whole island in a jeep. After two weeks, tired and rather depressed, I could have used a bit of security and peace. Maybe the package tourists are right.

Arriving in Kingston, I was struck by the contrast between the image conjured up by the famous figures who had lived on the island and the unnerving squalor and dense traffic of a Third World city. In the 1940’s and 50’s, Jamaica was still the sterling area of the British Empire. It attracted many wealthy expatriates and celebrities and radiated an aura of glamour. Clara Bow, Claudette Colbert, and Bette Davis owned houses there. But the image of the island was really created by three charming self-promoters—Ian Fleming, Noel Coward, and Errol Flynn—whose legends were greater than their achievements. All three built houses in Jamaica: Coward and Flynn in the hills of the north and east coasts, Fleming on the north shore. Far from the big tourist places, they all had spectacular views of the Blue Mountains, the white sandy beaches, and the shimmering turquoise sea. Compared to the splashy new-rich mansions of today’s Long Island and Beverly Hills, their houses are surprisingly modest.

In 1946 (before the astonishing success of the James Bond novels), Fleming built Goldeneye, near Oracabessa and east of Discovery Bay (where Columbus landed in 1494) and Runaway Bay, an escape route for slaves. Bright neon-blue gateposts mark the entrance to his house. Deliberately simple, even austere, Goldeneye has rough, locally made furniture, canvas-covered chairs, and a blue concrete floor. Coward, who rented what he called the “barracks” for £50 a week in 1946, called it

a perfectly ghastly house. We were very manly and pretended to like it. But I did get tired of the iron bedstead and the pictures of the snakes he had plastered all over the bedroom wall, and the banquette you sat on at the dining-room table, which was so narrow it bit into your bottom, and the cushions that felt as if they had been filled with chipped steel.

In 1951, after buying a small house for his guests on the coast at Blue Harbour, Coward built Firefly for himself and lived there in splendid isolation. Philip Hoare, his biographer, described the house as “part modernist 1930’s bungalow, part military fort. The house had few rooms: a studio, a modest music room, and a sitting room, with its open, unglazed window, framing a grandiose wide-screen view of Port Maria, the successive bays beyond, and the Blue Mountains in the distance.” Coward’s lover and heir Graham Payn gave the house to the Jamaica Heritage Trust in 1978, and since then it has been open to the public.

After a brief tour conducted by an indifferent, ill-informed guide and a video of the Queen Mother’s visit in 1966, tourists are left to strum the grand piano, wander through the grounds, see its covered-over swimming pool, and inspect the old pirate lookout, with thick stone walls and old flagged floors, which Coward used as a painting studio. They can view the concrete tomb where he is buried and the white marble slab that reads “Sir Noel Coward-1899-1973.”

I’m fascinated by Errol Flynn and have been thinking of writing a book about him. He bought the 4,000-acre Boston Estate, in Priestman’s River near Port Antonio, in 1948. When visiting the island he lived on his yacht, the Zaca, until he built his house in the late 1950’s. We drove through the entrance gate near the Castle police station, up the steep and very rough road, and past the mountain of coconut husks that looks like a heap of Khmer Rouge skulls. I had a long talk with Leslie Marsh, manager of the estate, who was born in Jamaica of English and Portuguese parents and had fought in the Middle East in World War II. He lives in one rather rundown hilltop house, and Flynn’s third wife, the actress Patrice Wymore, in another. The estate, which includes all the land from the crest of the hill down to the sea, is not doing well. It employs 60 workers and sells 25,000 coconuts a week. It also has 600 head of cattle that it cannot sell because the luxury hotels prefer to import duty-free beef from America.

Marsh had known Flynn toward the end of his life. He described the actor’s lavish but rather joyless parties on Navy Island (which he once owned and is supposed to have lost in a card game) in Port Antonio harbor, opposite his other favorite hangout, the now burned-down Titchfield Hotel. Though scores of people swam, rowed, or motored out to Navy Island and got drunk at Flynn’s expense, he hardly knew them and was usually too drunk to recognize anyone. I’d heard rumors that Flynn had a look-alike illegitimate black son who drove a taxi in Port Antonio, and I was very keen to meet him. But both Marsh and Earl Levy, owner of the nearby Trident Hotel where Wymore had a boutique, assured me that no such person existed. Flynn died of a heart attack in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1959. Ehongh he wanted to be buried in Jamaica, he wound up, like so many film stars, in Forest Lawn—that Disneyland for spooks.

Just before leaving for Jamaica, I’d spoken to Flynn’s daughter Rory (by his second wife Nora Eddington), who urged me to visit the estate and let her know how things were going. I’d hoped to see Patrice Wymore, who had inherited the estate and had run it since Flynn’s death. I particularly wanted to ask her about his urge to self-destruction. But I arrived at a bad time. Wymore, now aged 72, had recently had a cataract operation, had just returned from a trip to Europe, and was still in bed at noon —exhausted by jet lag. Moreover, Amelia, her daughter by Flynn, had died five weeks earlier of a drug overdose. Though Wymore agreed to see me the next morning, she was still asleep when I phoned at the appointed time. Not knowing if she would ever appear, I had to press on to the next stage of my inexorable journey around the island.

In the interior, something of the old Jamaica still remains. The rivers, waterfalls, and jungly mountain scenery along the winding roads are spectacular. They provide a tremendous contrast to the tacky coast road where everything manmade is rundown and hideous. Eighteenth-century plantations have gracious mansions with splendid vistas, manicured gardens, and rough-hewn slave quarters at the edge of the bush. Greenwood Great House was built in 1790 by a cousin of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and George Orwell’s ancestor was the absentee owner of plantations and slaves in Jamaica. Some of these plantations now offer uncomfortable rooms and mediocre food at exorbitant prices.

On the northeast coast, the low, old-fashioned hotels set in lavish gardens and filled with tropical birds and flowers reminded me of the hospitality of colonial Africa. In the Dragon Bay Hotel in Port Antonio—a town that was, compared to Ocho Ríos and Negril, delightfully empty—the Jolly Boys Combo, an endearingly elderly quartet, played and sang traditional Calypso music while we drank Planter’s Punch on the veranda and watched the heavy toads hop slowly up the uneven steps. Port Antonio also has the Blue Lagoon, setting for the film of that name, in which Brooke Shields and her adolescent companion, on a desert isle far from the restraints of society, discover the innocent joys of sex.

The lobby of the Trident Castle near Port Antonio exhibited a with’ and fantastic painting in the naive style entitled Her Majesty Queen Victoria in the Company of Selected Inmates from the Portland Home for Bad Girls, Watches a Display of Precision Dwarf-Tossing [into basketball nets] by I Deal Dwarf Masters at the Castle Trident. Port Antonio. May 18, 1871. As we admired the painting and inquired about the imposing Trident Castle down the road from the hotel, the owner. Earl Levy, hospitably offered to give us a tour of his private domain. Its stone floors, high ceilings, sweeping staircases, trompe l’oeil murals, swimming pool, lavish gardens, and fabulous views of the bay and the sea reminded me of the mansions modeled on French châteaux that line Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island. Yet it seemed a comfortable, livable house, and the family now rents it out for weekend parties and luxurious weddings.

In Ocho Ríos, we had free tennis lessons and an all-inclusive price. Many guests made the most of a good deal, gobbling and guzzling until they passed out toward midnight. Idle more refined types (like myself), fearful of appearing too greedy, partook with restraint—and afterward regretted our delicacy. This hotel turned out to be my favorite—the most comfortable and civilized. I would have been happy to spend the whole time there, but we had booked ahead and had to keep moving.

As we bumped along the potholed roads, filled with muddy water after the tropical squalls, I was amused by the evocative expressions on signs, billboards, and walls: Sir Plucky Chickens, Fish Tea (soup). Mannish Water (virile goats’ testicle soup), Obey Your Thirst, Murder Mr. Trust (no credit), Don’t Piss on This Wall (someone, of course, was pissing against it), and Only God Himself Alone Can Judge Me.

Why then, with all these attractions, did I find the atmosphere so repellent? The change from the glamour of colonial times, symbolized by Fleming, Coward, and Flynn, to the grim squalor of contemporary Jamaica was effected, after independence in 1962, by the fanatical socialist and nationalist prime minister. Michael Norman Mauley. He forced out the American owners of the bauxite industry (still the most profitable business on the island, but suffering from international competition) and ruined relations with the United States. His policies quickly destroyed the economy, raised unemployment to unprecedented levels, and caused mass emigration. Violence drove out most of the English residents and frightened away the tourists.

The economic condition of the country is desperate. A white Jamaican who owned a successful insurance agency told me that the economy is bad and going to hell. Foreign investors are wary of opening factories because of the high cost of electricity, restrictive labor unions, and difficulties of dealing with the government. An American Peace Corps volunteer, working as a sewage engineer, told me it was hard to get anything done because of typical Third World problems: bureaucratic obstruction, government corruption, and ingrained resistance to change.

Apart from marijuana, rum, and coffee (inexpertly roasted and very expensive at more than $20 per pound), almost nothing is exported from the island. Almost all manufactured goods, from packaged food and toilet paper to clothing and electronic equipment, have to be imported at very high prices. Anyone who can afford a plane ticket shops in Miami. Crowing ganja is a flourishing industry, and drug-smuggling a major source of income. Americans posing as tourists try to get in on the action and frequently land in Jamaican prisons.

There’s 75 percent unemployment among men and massive emigration from the overpopulated and apparently hopeless country. Two-and-a-half million Jamaicans live on the island, and two million are in America. American visas are in great demand and difficult to obtain. Jamaican employees at the U.S. Consulate were arrested for selling them for $2,000 each. The crime rate is extremely high, violence is endemic, and most of Kingston—a hideously squalid town—is too dangerous to visit, even in daytime. Security (private guards, dogs, alarms) is one of the few growth industries, which suggests both the climate of fear and the widespread distrust of the corrupt and inefficient police. The radical change from the pleasantly old to the menacingly new Jamaica is reflected in novels about the island: from Richard Hughes’ High Wind in Jamaica (1929) and Alec Waugh’s Island in the Sun (1956) to V.S. Naipaul’s Guerrillas (197S) and Russell Banks’ The Book off Jamaica (1980).

The road out of Kingston was littered with rotting vegetables, squashed papayas, and pancaked roadkill. The menacing mood and somber scene, and especially the contrast between the luxury hotels and local tin-roofed shanties, once again reminded me of Africa. Drowsy looking men, idling around the shacks on the side of the road, stared dully—perhaps resentfully—at us as we jolted by in our new jeep.

Tin cans, glinting in the bright sun, decorated the points of spiky cacti. Vultures, flapping heavily away at our approach, pecked out the eyes of dead dogs. Next to a sign that read “J.P. Stewart, Painter,” J.P. himself was standing at an easel at the side of the road. One young man, dressed only in brightly colored underpants, had wandered out to the middle of the road as he brushed his teeth, and cars swerved around him. Someone else ran by in a hurry, carrying two macabre cow’s legs, sawn off above the hoof and dripping with blood.

Far from welcoming tourists as a source of jobs and revenue, the impoverished and discontented people—notably lacking good humor or natural gaiety— were touchy and volatile. Except for hotel employees who were paid to be polite or touts trying to wheedle something out of you, they were sullen at best, and often quite hostile. Most restaurants, bars, and shops subjected their clients to “Street Thunder,” a brain-shattering blast of reggae music, the legacy of the local god, Bob Marley. Asking anyone to turn down the sound was considered a mortal insult.

Most of the staff at expensive hotels were poorly trained, and the service was often ludicrous. A waiter at one hotel showed us a bottle of wine without a label, which had fallen unobserved into a bucket of melted ice. A porter at another place tipped our luggage off the cart and onto the wet grass while attempting to transport it from the lobby to our room. The cook who came with one villa and couldn’t be dismissed insisted on serving dinner at her convenience, not ours, and transformed the spaghetti into a glutinous mush. A waitress who dropped a syrup-laden knife between my daughter’s bare legs exclaimed: “Look where it done choose to fall!”

We began each morning and evening at our luxury-priced but quite funky hotel in Treasure Beach with a cockroach hunt, competing intensely for the largest bag. Though the place had advertised a beach, the sand had disappeared in the last hurricane and left jagged rocks that made it difficult to enter the water. Inspired by the well-intentioned but naive concept of Community Tourism, the management encouraged the local inhabitants to wander through the gardens, splash noisily in the tiny swimming pool, and blast the reggae music. Some of the guests were frightened by the unfamiliar interlopers. When one of them tried to teach a young American child to swim and put on her hat to keep it dry, she exclaimed, “take my hat off your stinky head!”

Jamaica is very churchy. On weekends, long processions of women in their flowery and flouncy Sunday or (in the case of Seventh-Day Adventists) Saturday best head for the abundant houses of worship. Large crowds gather outdoors to hear the Bible-thumping hellfire preachers. Despite the strong dose of religion, Jamaican attitudes to sex, marriage, and fidelity are elastic. Illegitimate children are common, and there’s no stigma attached to them. It’s not unusual for a couple to live together for years, produce a brood of children, and then marry, complete with white dress and huge party.

The government does not recognize the existence of the AIDS epidemic that, according to a public-health worker I spoke to, is ravaging the island. Nevertheless, the locals prey on the tourists, and many foreign girls feel their holiday experience is incomplete without a brief “romantic” encounter. One truly broken-down man approached my young daughter on the beach and brazenly said: “I give you my attentions. Keep yo’ body clean and ready.” Dodging the evening dope peddlers on the beach at Negril, I saw a Jamaican stud standing up behind a fruit stall and having sex with a tourist girl, who seemed oblivious to the small audience gathered to observe them.

More sinister events also take place on the beach. A middle-aged American, on holiday with his wife and child, was found at 3:00 A.M., face down on the beach, his lungs filled with sand. His wallet and Rolex watch had been stolen, but the police—anxious to avoid bad publicity—claimed he had fallen down drunk or high and asphyxiated himself. The results of the autopsy were inconclusive, and no one tried to determine if his wife (sole beneficiary of a large insurance policy) was involved in foul play. When a second autopsy showed evidence of strangulation, a Jamaican was arrested and charged with murder.

Every night, we would watch the evening news to keep up with the latest horrors. The bulletins were read by my daughter’s friend, who would then ring her cell phone to get her approval rating. There were three recurrent stories. Shootings by and of the police were very popular. The second concerned the grisly car accidents on horrendous roads: “Two Ladas collide and kill six people, who were taken to the Kingston Public Hospital and pronounced dead.” The last showed roadblocks to protest the state of the roads, burning tires, and looting the Jamaican idea of a good time—and interviews with enraged shopkeepers who had once again lost their entire stock.

While I was there, Jamaica seemed about to explode—and soon did. In April, the government suddenly increased the gasoline tax by 50 percent, without adequately preparing the public or explaining that the money would (supposedly) be used for road works and public transit. Protesters, going back into action, set up street barricades in Kingston, where four people were killed and 140 arrested. The authorities attempted to deal with the looting and violence by imposing a curfew and ordering soldiers into die streets. Airlines canceled flights, and die U.S. Embassy warned American residents and tourists to stay off the streets.

Under British rule, Jamaica was poor and rural, but it had a stable currency and an efficient administration. Today, the people are still poor, but expectations have been unrealistically raised by independence and Manley-type nationalism. Everyone wants to leave, and the most talented and ambitious young people have gone to America and England. Since the wealth from tourism does not trickle down very far, those who remain are sullen, edgy, and aggressive. These traits don’t lead to the sort of skilled service one gets in Europe, where such jobs have a distinct tradition and status. The vacuum caused by high unemployment and deep discontent has been filled by drugs; and Jamaica, like Haiti, has become a criminal conduit from Latin America to the United States and Europe. No Jamaican would want to return to colonial rule. But it will take a miracle, or a host of well-run industries, to stem the tide of emigration, renew the economy, and make the island attractive enough to bring back large numbers of tourists. Right now, it’s more like an African country than a Caribbean paradise.