His name is Bond. Easy to remember. This week the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the birth, on film, of the best-known agent on Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Some 23 James Bond movies later, we still ignore everything about Agents 006 and 008, but know much about the man operating under codename 007. Except, perhaps, his patronymic origin.
That question frankly had never crossed my mind until I stumbled in the late ‘70s into a remote forest station based in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains. The sea had turned quite nasty, and there was no point going on that day with my field work at the Discovery Bay Marine Lab. So I decided to explore the rugged east side of the island instead.
It took a while, I remember, to reach the forest cabin about mid-range, lost amidst the dense tropical vegetation. The place was not huge but it was well kept, providing vistas of the northern coastline, way down below, plus bird songs from every corner of the sky-high canopy. With patience, and a pair of good binoculars, one would soon be observing those birds real close — the hummingbirds, the woodpeckers, the mockingbirds, the parrots — one after another.
Biologists, ‘even’ marine biologists like me, like to put names on the animals they come across in the wild, and so I sought assistance from the forest ranger. He handed me a sizable field guide — ‘the very best’ he said. Actually there was no other choice: this was the only book on Caribbean birds available at that time, and for a long time (1). That copy had seen better days for sure; it was worn out, some pages were missing. But it contained hundreds of drawings and annotations depicting the diverse bird fauna of the Caribbean islands. A pioneering study. The name: Birds of the West Indies. The first year of publication: 1936 — there were many editions to follow. The author: a certain James Bond, a leading American ornithologist, working at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
James Bond! So there was a ‘second’ one, a serious ornithologist bearing the same name as ‘our’ Agent 007. Since the Park ranger knew his birds but nothing, absolutely nothing about spy movies, I did not pursue my line of questioning very long and quickly forgot all about it.
It was not until years later that I was able to put the pieces of the puzzle together. I had read somewhere that Ian Fleming, the British journalist who created and developed the fictional James Bond character through the course of twelve novels, was a keen birdwatcher who possessed a home in Jamaica.
Then it all came back to me, James Bond the leading expert on the Caribbean avifauna; the scenario of the first 007 movie, Dr No, based and shot in Jamaica; and in particular this ‘cultissime’ scene where a bikini-clad Ursula Andress emerges from the waves holding a conch. A scene perhaps, just perhaps responsible for more vocations in marine science than the full set of Cdt Cousteau’s documentaries…
A little bit of ‘research’ uncovered a few interesting points:
• Ian Fleming did start writing the Bond series in 1952, from his home base in Port Maria, north shore of Jamaica, where he worked as foreign manager of a newspaper group.
• Birdwatching was a serious hobby for the English author, who would often take to the outdoors, a copy of the Bond field guide tucked in his pocket.
• Fleming’s candid acknowledgment (2) that he had deliberately ‘stolen the name’ of that James Bond and used it, as he was looking for a ‘very flat name, without any romantic overtone’.
• He elaborated further, at a late stage of his life (3), that this was ‘the dullest name’ he could find, and thus perfectly suited for an anonymous, secret agent.
Today the bird fauna of Jamaica appears to be ok, thanks i) to a healthy allergy of the mountain islanders to mass tourism, mostly confined to coastal spots, ii) to the protection of large tracks of undisturbed forests, and iii) to the enactment of legal instruments. Jamaica is a biodiversity hotspot, ranking fifth in the world among islands in terms of endemic species. Let’s hope that Jamaica can resist the silly, growing pressures of our century for a very long time.
Happy Birthday, Mr Bond! Nobody does it better.
(1) In 1998 would appear A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies by H. Raffaele et al.; and recently Birds of the West Indies by N. Arlott in June 2010.
(2) see rare appearance on : youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=n_IzoKbNktY
(3) from an interview published in the 21 April 1962 issue of The New Yorker.