The second reason for my non-clock-watching is simple. I’ve been warned that Blackwell – music pioneer, record-label impresario, owner of GoldenEye – will be sleeping in. The afternoon before, I receive an email from one of his team. He will be, it says, dashing to the capital Kingston – a 60-mile, two-hour drive south – to watch the young, fast-rising Jamaican reggae artist Chronixx play a gig. “He’s not on stage until 11, which will mean midnight, so we’ll be back early hours,” the missive reads cheerfully. “Rock ‘n’ Reggae!”
No one should be begrudged a lie-in after a loud night. Not a teenager, not a partygoing 20-something. And, definitely, not an octogenarian. Chris Blackwell is 80 years old.
When he appears, he looks neither tired, nor his age. His outfit (a long-sleeved denim shirt over a T-shirt; a cap pulled down low) betrays only a lifetime spent in the Caribbean – long enough, certainly, for this Westminster-born gentleman to have developed a belief that this warm day might be a little chilly. He talks like a far younger man – apologising for his pre-arranged tardiness, ordering a coffee, then enthusing about the 25-year-old he has just witnessed – with whom he has signed a publishing deal. “Chronixx is amazing,” he grins. “It’s always exciting to see someone emerge. He’s big in Asia now. Reggae was never big in Asia, apart from Japan – now he’s taking it there. It happens so quickly now.”
Blackwell’s exuberance is understandable. For 40 years, he was the spiritual guardian of Island Records, the label he founded in Jamaica in 1959, and owned until 1989, when he sold it to PolyGram (he would stay on as CEO until 1997, when he retired from the music industry). He was 22 when he launched his endeavour, and would base it not on business experience, but on a love of Jamaica, its people and music – engendered by spending his teenage years on the island (he moved across with his mother after his parents’ divorce in 1949). This start-up would blossom into a creative force.
Although Island would reach its commercial peak under his stewardship in the Eighties when U2 were added to the roster, it found its soul in the Seventies, signing and showcasing the major players of Jamaica’s reggae scene – such as Toots and the Maytals, and Bob Marley and the Wailers. It is feasible to suggest that, without Blackwell, Marley would not have become the generational icon he still is, 37 years after his death. Blackwell even produced some of the Wailers’ records.
When Blackwell talks about this – he is not a man prone to reminiscence – it as if he is discussing a dream. Music is his past; the deal with Chronixx a slight return to a true romance, but no more than that. “Music has changed,” he sighs. “It’s not something you can do now unless you’re in London, New York, Los Angeles or Paris. It’s not a place for an 80-year-old.” Instead, he devotes himself to GoldenEye, which he bought in 1976 and has run as his main project since 1997 – transforming it into one of the planet’s most chic retreats. It has become a relaxed playground, 49 huts and cottages dotted across 52 acres of verdant Jamaican landscape. He has plans for further expansions in the next two years.
Anyone who thinks this is sacrilege – that Blackwell has taken the sanctuary where Ian Fleming carved fiction’s most famous spy and forged a hotspot for sun-and-sea breaks – is missing the point. Fleming set up GoldenEye for just this sort of escapism, and did so in close connection to Blackwell, whose mother Blanche was part of the Lindo family, which accrued large reserves of land in the sugar era – including around Oracabessa. She was Fleming’s muse, a regular visitor to GoldenEye to swim in soft tides. When, in 1976 – 12 years after Fleming’s death – it was on the market, she asked her son to buy it for her.
The tale of how Blackwell acquired GoldenEye is another reminder of his pivotal place in Jamaican music history. “I didn’t have the liquid capital when my mother wanted me to purchase it,” he says. “So I suggested to Bob [Marley] that he buy it. And could he maybe let my mum swim there, as she often had? He agreed. But just before the sale went through, he came up for the first time. He’d never seen it, didn’t like it, thought it was too posh for him. He asked if there was a way out of the deal. By that point, I had the cash…”
Fleming’s vision lingers. His house is still there, and available as accommodation – concealed in a grove that safeguards the privacy of the celebrities and high-fliers who tend to be its guests. Everything is subtle, discreet. A veranda room just beyond the reception pays understated respect to the Bond legacy – a few copies of Fleming’s books, photos of the author in conversation with Sean Connery, black-and-white images too of Blanche splashing on the shore. Even the resort entrance is discretion itself, unmarked on the highway. You would drive past the gate if you didn’t know what it was.
Blackwell’s plans are no less restrained. He intends to build a performance space where bands can play – and a tranche of new chalets on unused land west of the current resort. But he has no ambitions for enormity. “Some people say a hotel of under 200 rooms is a waste of time,” he says. “But some hotels are precious.” This sentiment finds form on the other side of Bizot Bar, where Button Beach is the more affordable part of the resort, its 26 cottages aimed at families. There is happy noise here – and certainly no hint, in the delighted screams of children running to the surf, that GoldenEye only wishes to cater to a gilded elite. “We want people of all ages here,” Blackwell adds. “People make a place.”
Holding a conversation with him as he wanders the property can be a faltering affair. He pauses to address minor details. When we play a game of table football (he wins 10-five, with a practised hand) he asks a staff member to look at one of the players, which seems to be loose. He is not in thrall to his achievements, instructing the servers at Bizot Bar to change a Marley album that has been spinning on repeat. “Obviously, we have to have Bob Marley,” he laughs. “But you can’t have Marley all the time.” He halts regularly to chat – asking one group, staying for a 40th birthday, how their party went; inquiring after another guest, who has had a dizzy spell. The staff address him affectionately, as “Mr B”.
He spends six months of the year at GoldenEye, in his own hut tucked on to the lagoon that dissects the property. We stop here, at a seating area on the water. For a minute, he sounds his age, complaining of a cataract; answering a question on Marley with a wistful, “well, Bob would have been 73 this year”. Momentarily, he looks the Englishman abroad, carefully pouring tea from a pot, letting the liquid stream into the china cups. But then the Caribbean snaps back in. “Jamaica is special,” he remarks. “It has so much variety. The best coffee in the world is Jamaican – fruit as well. You can live well here – so healthily.”
His affection for the country shines in his thoughts on its economy. “We need to get away from all-inclusivity,” he argues. “People come to Jamaica, go to their hotel, eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, never leave. We encourage our guests to see people and places. It’s bad for our balance sheet – but it’s important to get out, to understand that where you are is a community, not just a destination.”
This attitude is borne out by a booklet in my room, listing nearby restaurants, and those who run them, on first-name terms – Deidre at Sugar Pot, Lisa at “seaside fish shack” Dor’s. He is worried, too, about the adjacent Ian Fleming Airport. What was a basic airstrip has been modernised, and will begin welcoming flights from the US east coast in 2019. This will be a boon to GoldenEye’s guests, providing a more convenient option than the three-hour transfer from Montego Bay. But it will also alter the area. “This coastline is practically untouched,” Blackwell says. “It’s almost as it was when Columbus landed. It’s about managing the change. I’m talking to people in the government. What we don’t want is a raft of all-inclusives that excludes local Jamaicans.”
It is easy to grasp why he is so protective. We go two miles uphill, to one of his favourite places. On the peak, Firefly was once the Caribbean residence of Noël Coward – another of Blanche Lindo’s pals. The playwright so loved it that he’s still here, buried in the lawn. The vista he admires from eternity is incredible, a sweep of sky and ocean. Blackwell has a lease on the property, and is keen to use it to host events for GoldenEye guests – but is precluded by the state of the road up, which is barely more than a series of ruts. For now, Firefly is in limbo, Coward’s books still on his desk, his LPs stacked by his record player.
A similar stasis cloaks Port Maria, a village to the east. Blackwell indicates the Anglican church in whose graves several of his ancestors lie, then directs the car to Fort Haldane, a relic of the colonial era, built in 1759, now lost in the tree line. He is seeking a Rastafarian friend, “a remarkable chap” who lives in the semi-tumbled (yet habitable) structure. He is out – so Blackwell shows me instead the rusted 19th-century British cannons that still monitor the bay. I ask him, as we watch the light fade across the Blue Mountains in the distance, if he relishes the hotel business as much as he did the music industry. He smiles. “When you work on a track and it becomes a hit, that’s fireworks,” he says. “It’s the same seeing people come here, and enjoying themselves. It’s the same feeling – a fine feeling.”
British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com) serves Kingston from Gatwick. Virgin Atlantic (0344 874 7747; virginatlantic.com) flies into Montego Bay, also from Gatwick.
Rooms at GoldenEye (Newspaper Update/tt-goldeneye-hotel) start at about £320 a night.
More information at visitjamaica.com.