If you want a taste of Jamaica, log on to the website of the Gleaner and scroll through the headlines. Ian Fleming, who wrote the Bond books at his house Goldeneye on the northern coast, made it one of the secret agent’s favourite newspapers, preferably perused over a breakfast of salt fish and ackee, the local staple.
Become an international Gleaner reader and you’ll get an instant mobile fix of day-to-day life in Jamaica: the tragicomedy of local politics, the dire economy, the high urban crime rate, the fierce national pride, as well as the poetry and sense of the absurd that characterises the language. Quotes are often in patois, and headlines irresistibly bizarre: ‘The bus can swim’, ‘Don’t count hub chickens, before they are hatched, JA told.’
Jamaica is a strange place, full of strange advice. After seeing a crocodile sunbathing on the banks, we were bemused when our cab driver started talking about the swimming opportunities afforded by the Black River. Crocodiles don’t just sunbathe, they periodically help themselves to anyone insane enough to get into the water. If you’re swimming in the Black River, the local advice is: ‘Make sure there’s someone swimming behind you.’ Welcome to Jamaica.
After the flight from London, you are a two-hour drive from Montego Bay through the Santa Cruz mountains. On the road the same endless combination appears in the mountain villages. Brightly coloured temples to godlessness, and to the fear of God, in each tiny place: a brothel, a bar and often a Seventh Day Adventist church with perhaps a barber’s and a beauty salon. This remoteness is part of the magic. You have to really want to get to Treasure Beach, a community of less than 4,000 with no all-inclusive ‘resort’ in sight.
Crocodiles aside, the rural south-west of the country — the parish of St Elizabeth’s — is relatively safe and peaceful. Treasure Beach, one of my favourite places in the world, is remote and wildly beautiful.
It’s easy to see how writers like Noël Coward in 1956, and Fleming ten years before, came and, in their imaginations, at least, never really left. Fleming wrote all the Bond books here (three of them are partly set in Jamaica) and their bewildering juxtaposition of extreme violence and extreme beauty arguably owes something to the world he discovered in the 1940s. With the exception of some urban areas, and as long as you are sensible, Jamaica is a safer place to visit today.
There are two other figures — not quite as well known as Fleming — who helped export a version of Jamaica to the world: Chris Blackwell, whose Island Records shared reggae (including that of Bob Marley) with the world, and the late writer and filmmaker Perry Henzell, whose 1972 film The Harder They Come made Jimmy Cliff a star and remains a classic.
Despite its tiny size, Treasure Beach is also home to two uniquely Jamaican cultural creations. The first is Jake’s Hotel, a 35-year labour of love on the part of Sally Henzell, Perry’s wife. In a travel industry where many make this claim, this simple but stylish idyll is truly a ‘boutique’ hotel. It’s by no means the fanciest or most indulgent hotel in the world, but that is part of the charm.
Unlike most boutique hotels, Jake’s really did grow slowly — the first of its 20 or so rooms were for fans of Sally’s restaurant, so that they could sleep over. New cottages and rooms have been added over the years. With names like Cockles and Octopussy, they are individually designed, built and decorated and collaged with coloured glass and shells: Sally Henzell’s Jamaican take on Gaudí.
One of the main attractions (aided by the London-Jamaica time difference) is waking up naturally early, and, half asleep, watching the sun come up over the sea. Jake’s is not a ‘bring-me-my-breakfast-in-bed’ type of place, but you’ll find wine and a couple of Red Stripes in the fridge, and a coffee machine (Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee will get you hooked; James Bond used to like that too). A mug of coffee, a cosy bed outside, regular 80-degree heat and a seascape that dwarfs you, what more could you want? ‘Da people like to make love looking dem stars’, is one of Sally’s more memorable design edicts.
While remaining authentic, and resolutely against Wi-Fi, phones or TVs in the rooms (why watch any of these devices when you could look at the sea or the sky?) the rustic charm has been sensitively modified in recent years by Sally’s son Jason and his wife Laura, who now run the business.
Treasure Beach’s second cultural destination is perhaps — given the remoteness — even more surprising. Calabash is a literary festival held once every two years that pulls in names to rival festivals ten times its size and is Jamaica’s major literary event. While Jake’s has a high-octane ‘gypsy set’ crowd (Kate Moss, Marianne Faithfull, Jude Law and co.), Calabash, founded in 2004, brings in the rock stars of the literary world, from Derek Walcott and Wole Soyinka to Sharon Olds, Billy Collins and Salman Rushdie.
One night we asked Sally what it was like going to dinner with the famously rebarbative Noël Coward. Her advice was much like the local tips for crocodiles. As a beautiful teenager she would happily go to dinner with him, but would always ask that she wasn’t sitting too near. These days literary encounters here are likely to be less fierce but there’s a good chance they will be as memorable. My most notable morning at Calabash 2014 was sun salutations in the company of Jamaica Kincaid, Paul Muldoon and Colum McCann.
Calabash started life as a set of writing workshops for Jamaican writers. The national literary scene remains its heart — it’s not about big names unless they have a book that will really connect with the audience. The poet Kwame Dawes, who co-founded Calabash with Justine Henzell (Perry and Sally’s daughter) and the novelist Colin Channer, sees a powerful connection between Jamaica’s literary scene and reggae, the island’s most famous cultural export. ‘The spirit of Calabash is a reggae aesthetic — rooted in the present space, in the present moment of Jamaican life and culture — but willing and daring to enter the wider world.’
The Jamaican fighting spirit embodied by Ivanoe Martin, Jimmy Cliff’s character in The Harder They Come, can achieve remarkable things. ‘In every Jamaican there is “I can — me — I can do that”,’ he told me, when I recently met him in London. ‘Take bobsleigh, I mean we don’t have any snow but oh, “I can do that, I can bobsleigh.” When that spirit is used in a positive way it can be marvellous.’ It’s hard to think of a better example of this than Calabash, nurturing a vibrant Jamaican literary scene.
The local word for immigrants (many to the UK) who left in the 1950s and 1960s but saved all their life to build houses they could retire to is a ‘returnee’. You see their half-started or half-finished architectural creations all over the island: the dream of a permanent move home being slowly improved and worked on over decades. Put Calabash 2016 in your diary, and you’ll soon discover that Jamaica makes returnees of us all.