In my navy Budd shirt and Italian mint green trousers, I convinced myself that I was about to become murder victim 525.
I am here in Jamaica as a guest of the government. In short, the country has a serious PR problem. Despite its jaunty tourist marketing slogan, 'Once You Know, You Go' (the country is obsessed with alliterative rhymes), the problem is that not enough people want to risk it – especially Brits (as opposed to Americans) who increasingly equate Jamaica with crime.
The figures – which are updated every morning after the latest killing above the banner headline of The Gleaner, the main newspaper of Jamaica – are truly awful. Over 517 people have been killed on the island this year alone. A staggering 2,175 have been murdered here in the last 476 days – making the murder rate worse, I believe, than Colombia.
Although my taxi driver, Keith, who picked me up from Kingston airport reassured me that “We only kill our own – we don't tend to kill tourists – bad for business,” as he drove with one finger on the wheel and texted with his other hand as he sped along, I still felt mildly nervous about venturing out for dinner on my own on my first night in Kingston, where I was staying at the Spanish Court Hotel, a gated business traveller fortress less than a javelin's throw from the British High Commission.
After consulting a New York Times travel article on Kingston, I deliberately chose the closest restaurant I could find to my hotel – a blues bar called Redbones, just a few minutes walk away – and informed the hotel concierge.
Before heading out of my room, I sat down at my desk and wrote an email to a friend along the lines that if I didn't make it back tonight, and was found shot in alley on Emmanuel Road – the main through road that I had to walk along for a few hundred yards to make it to the turning to the restaurant – at least I had gone the way any true foodie would want: trying to find the best restaurant in town.
Then I had to remind myself that if I had covered the LA riots in 1994 by driving into the middle of South-Central LA to report on the flashpoint of the violence (I was shot at and had a huge rock hurled through my windscreen), I could surely survive a short walk to a restaurant in New Kingston.
After five minutes of walking in the darkness, as cars with tinted windows and blaring music (and certainly not Bob Marley, I should add, who is very declasse amongst the drug gangs here) roared past me with their windows open, I had a major Sherman McCoy attack of the 'gloaming' and convinced myself that I was about to become murder victim 525 of the year.
I promptly turned around – I was wearing a navy Budd shirt and Italian mint green trousers – ran back to the hotel to take a $5 cab ride. In the opening scene of Bonfire of the Vanities, McCoy takes the wrong exit off the freeway back to Manhattan in his black Mercedes 380 Roadster and ends running over a black honour student who tries to help him – who he can't see in the fading light of the freeway ramp traffic light – after deciding that the student and his friend are a couple of black murderous ghetto thugs.
After beginning my visit to Jamaica with a stay at the Ritz-Carlton in Montego Bay, which is little more than an up-market Sandals full of tatooed golfing Americans (on the my first night the bar was full of American jocks swigging down beer as they watched the NFL football draft live on TV), I'm starting to like Jamaica a lot more after staying at Round Hill, the famous international demi-monde hotel and exclusive private villa resort, which is the Sirenuse of the Caribbean.
Noel Coward bought one of the first villas – or cottages as they are called there – after sitting next to founder John Pringle on a plane to New York when he was looking for his first buyers (Coward previously owned a villa near Port Antonio, the former jet set resort of Jamaica close to where Ian Fleming lived at Goldeneye). JFK chose Round Hill for his honeymoon and other visitors and residents include Alfred Hitchcock, Grace Kelly, Oscar Hammerstein, and the Rothermere family.
I knew I was going to like the place at lunch when the hotel's highly amusing and charming managing director Josef (also the Austrian Honorary Consul on Jamaica) casually dropped the word 'plantocracy' into our conversation, referring to the old local families that remain as 'beach club' members. Then I read a framed obituary of John Pringle (the Mark Birley of the Caribbean) which revealed that he insisted that the housekeeping staff individually clean the inside of every guest's toothpaste cap.
Like Colin Tenant, Pringle never made any money out of the place – and ended up exiled in Switzerland – despite having all villa owners (there are only about 20 privately owned villas and cottages) sign a lease that requires them to only stay in their own houses for a maximum of up to six months a year; the rest of the time they are obliged to rent their properties (they get 20 per cent cut) as a way of bringing in guaranteed revenues to the Round Hill Company.
Ralph Lauren has got around the lease by simply buying two houses – so he can switch from one residence to another and never has to rent out either. That's what I call style.