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Peter Fleming at 100
by Ben Downing
A reexamination of the writer on his would-be centenary.
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In May 1938, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood found themselves near Meixi, inland from Shanghai, being escorted to the front of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Tyros to China, the two Englishmen were glad to be joined by a seasoned compatriot, a Times correspondent who handled everyone from coolies to generals with just the right touch and who, over dinner, “punctuated the conversation in truly Chinese fashion with a resounding belch,” as Isherwood writes in Journey to a War. Grateful for his expertise, Auden and Isherwood were also somewhat in awe of him, and rather tickled to be out on the road with “the Fleming Legend.” It wasn’t only that Peter Fleming was one of the most dashing and popular authors of the decade, but that they were seeing him so gloriously in character, embarked on a hastily launched trek of some danger in remote parts, marching “indefatigably ahead, with his tireless, springy stride, puffing at his pipe.” According to Isherwood, “Auden and I recited passages from an imaginary travel-book called ‘With Fleming to the Front.’” A few days later, after Fleming went his own way, “Auden said, summing it up: ‘Well, we’ve been on a journey with Fleming in China, and now we’re real travellers for ever and ever. We need never go farther than Brighton again.’”
Fleming was born, like Auden, in 1907—on May 31, to be exact—into a family with a pronounced spring to its own collective stride. His grandfather, Robert Fleming, one of those dauntless Scottish dynamos, bootstrapped his way up from humble farm lad to founder of a City merchant bank, whereafter he bought a large estate in Oxfordshire and built on it a pile of truly outstanding hideousness. As Duff Hart-Davis writes in his biography of Peter, Robert managed in a single generation “to graft the Flemings firmly on to the establishment of Edwardian England.” Just so, his son Valentine became an MP, counted Winston Churchill among his closest friends, and married a flamboyant beauty from a clan of solicitors and surgeons, Evelyn St. Croix Rose. Valentine was killed in action in 1917, wringing an emotional obituary from Churchill and leaving Evelyn to raise four boys, including Ian, the future creator of James Bond, who was born the year after Peter. (An illegitimate half-sister, Amaryllis, later joined the brood, courtesy of the procreation machine known as Augustus John.)
As for Peter, he breezed through Eton and Oxford but then found himself at loose ends. Hoping to nudge him into finance, his grandfather obtained for him a stockbroking apprenticeship in New York, which he began in the auspicious month of September 1929. Even had the markets not crashed he would have failed at the job, for which he was laughably unsuited, and he was allowed to return home, where he soon found far more congenial work editing and writing for The Spectator, at the time a tepid magazine. “Under his own name and the pseudonyms Moth, Scadavay and Apemantus,” writes Hart-Davis,
For all the keen pleasure of scandalizing vicars, his wanderlust, touched off by a jaunt the previous year to Guatemala, was sharper still, and in 1931 he persuaded Chatham House to send him to Shanghai as a delegate to the Institute of Pacific Relations. Here again his timing was less than ideal, for he stepped off the Trans-Siberian in Manchuria hardly a week after the Japanese invasion, with the country in turmoil. But China enchanted him, and the whole trip so stoked his restlessness that only a few months after returning to London he was preparing to set out again, this time on the journey that would make him famous.
Appropriately for a writer one of whose keynotes is foolhardy impulsiveness, it all began quite by chance. A devotee of the Times agony column, Fleming noticed there in April 1932 an item about a planned expedition to the Matto Grosso region of Brazil to search for Colonel Percy Fawcett, who had disappeared in 1925 in quest of a supposed lost city. The expedition was looking to fill out its ranks, and on a whim Fleming (along with his friend Roger Pettiward) signed up. The book that resulted, Brazilian Adventure, is both the funniest travelogue in the language and, to the best of my knowledge, the progenitor of the subgenre that I like to think of as bungle-in-the-jungle (whose variants include muddle-in-the-mountains, of which A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, by Eric Newby, is the classic example).
The book’s tone, with its bracing mixture of cockiness and self-mockery, is established in the foreword, where Fleming unleashes a furious series of disclaimers:
Furthermore, Fleming tells us straightaway, the expedition ended up throwing only “a little (but not much) light” on the fate of Fawcett. Besides this, and the discovery of “one new tributary to a tributary to a tributary of the Amazon, nothing of importance was achieved.”
So much for suspense. What follows is, in part, a sort of anti-travelogue, impishly played out against a backdrop of Victorian conventions and animated by “the spirit of burlesque.” One might expect this parodic formula quickly to grow tiresome, yet somehow Fleming keeps ringing clever new changes on it. Here, for instance, he and Pettiward, out alone in a canoe, run across an English missionary:
But, Fleming admits, the silence was soon shattered: “It was I (to my shame) who hailed our fellow-countryman. He answered in a cultured, amiable voice.”
Despite Fleming’s insistent shrugging off of perils and hardships, the middle section of the book, aptly titled “Hand to Mouth,” has its hair-raising moments. When the expedition’s leader, Major Pingle, gives up on finding clues to Fawcett’s fate after only the most perfunctory search, Fleming and a few others, feeling compelled to make an honest effort, break away and continue up the Tapirapé River on their own. Ill-equipped, inexperienced, and venturing into the territory of isolated and potentially hostile tribes, this reduced party was fortunate to survive. What finally persuades them to turn back is the start of the rains, which Fleming, having climbed a tree to get the lie of the land, spies looming on the horizon. Even his rigorously counter-hyperbolic manner breaks down before the Armageddonish spectacle he takes in from on high:
But Fleming isn’t left to face this apocalypse alone, an unlooked-for companion having swooped down to join him:
To me, that last sentence in particular is one of the imperishable little gems of the genre.
When Fleming and the rest rejoin the main group, relations with Major Pingle, already strained, quickly descend to open warfare. Fleming’s party ends up racing Pingle’s to Belém, where they are to catch their ship home, each side wanting to lay hold of funds there and preemptively denounce the other to the world. And so the whole third section of the book —perhaps the funniest of all—consists of one long, petty, spiteful, undignified scramble, ultimately won by Fleming and company.
Not only did Fleming beat his nemesis to Belém, he was soon to enjoy the sweet vengeful triumph of seeing Brazilian Adventure, published the following year, receive rave reviews and go on to become the single most popular travel book between the wars. By the time it appeared he was already on the move again, having convinced The Times, for whom he’d reported from Brazil, to send him to investigate the situations in Manchuria, still occupied by the Japanese, and in southern China, where the Communists had entrenched themselves. Though the book that came out of the trip, One’s Company, sold briskly and was warmly reviewed, it seems to me a classic example of the sophomore curse. To be sure, there are many delightful passages, such as this one about the crash of the Trans-Siberian train on which Fleming had been riding:
Yet the book lacks the unity of Brazilian Adventure, and Fleming’s relentless facetiousness, which had earlier served him so well, all too often comes off here as knee-jerk or labored.
His next book, however, marked a sparkling return to form. Published in 1936, News from Tartary recounts a seven-month, 3500-mile journey—substantially on foot, though also by truck, horse, and even donkey—from Beijing to Kashmir. Once again he got The Times to foot the bill, his mission being to find out what was going on in the remote province of Xinjiang (then known as Sinkiang), where, it was rumored, the Soviets were up to their usual nefarious mischief. His Chinese visiting cards, which helped smooth the way, proclaimed him the “Extra Special Correspondent Officer” for the “Newspaper-for-the-Englightened-Apprehension-of-Scholars.”
This time around Fleming travelled neither solo, as he had in One’s Company, nor plagued by nitwits such as Major Pingle, but with a partner every bit his equal. Ella “Kini” Maillart was a champion Swiss skier and hockey player who had recently branched into Asian travel; mettlesome, phlegmatic, resourceful, and with two popular books to her credit, she was to an almost uncanny degree Fleming’s female counterpart. “By all the conventions of desert island fiction,” he remarks, “we should have fallen madly in love with each other; by all the laws of human nature we should have driven each other crazy with irritation.” In the event, they made perfect, mutually respectful colleagues, and part of the pleasure to be had from News from Tartary lies in watching them smoothly cooperate, Maillart handling many of the chores—cooking, repairing equipment—and Fleming, a dab hand at languages and red tape, dealing with negotiations and bureaucracy. (As Hart-Davis observes, he had an instinctive understanding of Chinese ways: “in his patience, in his even temper, in the impassivity of his features, and above all in his skill in calculating, preserving or yielding degrees of ‘face,’ he met the natives on their own ground.”)
Unlike Brazilian Adventure, which is pure frivolity, News from Tartary is of considerable cultural and geographical interest, taking in a wide range of ethnic groups and landscapes. And Fleming’s reportage from Xinjiang is both acute and, by his standards, serious. All the same, the book remains irrepressibly comic, as when Fleming writes of the fate of his and Maillart’s chance-acquired reading material, “a substantial paper-backed supply of the works of MM. Maurice Leblanc and Georges Simenon”:
Boots, in fact, loom rather large in this book of endless trudging, and once he reaches Kashmir Fleming decides to put his own out to pasture. The occasion prompts a valedictory ode that serves as both a summary of the previous few years of his life and as an example of his prose at its most exuberant:
Though not exactly superstitious, Fleming had great regard for the laws of luck and fortune—another basis, no doubt, for his Chinese affinities. That he himself led a charmed existence was evident to Maillart, who states in Forbidden Journey, her own account of the trip, that what “put the seal” on her decision to travel with Fleming was the fact that “Peter, from what I knew of his life, had been born under a lucky star.” In 1936, with three critically acclaimed bestsellers to his name in four years, that star was at its apogee, even as Europe’s began to plummet. “Peter stood out more and more as a figure of romance and escapism,” writes Hart-Davis. “To many people he seemed to have stepped straight from the pages of a Buchan novel.” He had become, in short, Isherwood’s “Fleming Legend.”
Nor was his domestic life any less blessed. The previous year he’d married the talented and beautiful actress Celia Johnson, who’d waited patiently while he dossed down in tents across Central Asia with another woman. (Johnson is now best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in Brief Encounter.) The marriage seems to have been a happy one and produced three children, the whole family living contentedly at Nettlebed, the Flemings’ Oxfordshire estate, which passed to Peter in 1938. As a crowning touch, the following year he installed his best and oldest friend, the publisher Rupert Hart-Davis (father of Duff), in a house on the estate. Despite the fact that Rupert had dumped Celia for another actress, Peggy Ashcroft (to whom he was briefly married), just before Celia took up with Peter, there were apparently no hard feelings or triangular tensions to poison the arrangement, which lasted a quarter-century.
And yet his literary career, as if truly dependent on the talismanic power of those boots, now stalled. No longer in a position to go haring off to the back of beyond for months at a stretch, he wrote no more travel books. Some of his energies went into fiction, for which he had less aptitude. His most successful venture in this line, written during the Phoney War, was The Flying Visit, which imagines Hitler crash-landing in England, with absurd misadventures ensuing. Somehow a few copies found their way into Germany, for Missie Vassiltchikov reports in Berlin Diaries that the book “is being passed from hand to hand and makes us all roll with laughter.” (Of course, Rudolf Hess made his own flying visit in 1941, and Fleming’s prefigurement was much noted at the time. His “involuntary excursion into prophecy,” as he termed it, was to be followed by others—this least mystical of men was a Nostradamus malgré lui.)
Primarily, though, he turned out journalism. For The Times he was a war correspondent and, later, a producer of so-called fourth leaders, which Duff Hart-Davis defines as “witty and epigrammatic comments on the more abstruse items of the day.” For The Spectator, meanwhile, he wrote, under the pen-name Strix (Latin for “screech-owl”), dozens of whimsical little notebook essays, many of them about country pursuits; a typical one, “The Methodical Stoat,” begins, “You can generally (I maintain) tell when a rabbit is being hunted by a stoat, because it moves in a stiff, tucked-up, preoccupied way.”
Hunting, indeed, became almost his chief occupation. Even by the standards of the British upper class, Fleming had always been a fanatical hunter, and his travel books are stuffed with accounts—zoöethically incorrect by today’s standards—of birds and beasts brought down with his signature rook rifle. (Isherwood: “Fleming eyed the copses for signs of game and delighted us by exclaiming: ‘How I wish I had a rook rifle!’”) Maillart recalled that, in Xinjiang, “Peter seemed less afraid of finishing up in the depths of an Urumchi prison than of getting home too late to shoot grouse in Scotland,” while Rupert Hart-Davis commented that “Shooting is like a religion to him—something solemn and ritual, which can scarcely be joked about. When I occasionally suggest that it’s a very expensive form of self-indulgence he is pained and shocked.” Having come into Nettlebed, a good part of which was known as “the partridge ground,” he could now blast away with squirearchical abandon in his own back yard.
When war broke out, Fleming longed to divert his bullets from partridges to Germans. Before long he was given the chance, as part of the expeditionary force sent to the Norwegian port of Namsos. The force was soon routed, but Fleming did enjoy the Twainian distinction of having his death exaggeratedly rumored: “AUTHOR KILLED IN NORWAY,” ran the Daily Sketch headline. Still very much alive, he formed a private army, known as Yak Mission (a nod to News from Tartary), whose first assignment was to recruit Italian POWs in Egypt for a hypothetical “Garibaldi Legion” to accompany the Allied invasion of their homeland. This going nowhere, Yak Mission was dispatched in early 1941 to train resistance groups in northern Greece—and was promptly sent scrambling by the Nazi invasion. In Athens Yak Mission scooped up the family of the British chargé d’affaires, Harold Caccia, who’d been left to close up the embassy and who happened to be one of Fleming’s oldest friends. The whole group fled for Crete aboard a requisitioned yacht—and was promptly blown out of the water by the Luftwaffe. Several men died, and Fleming was (as he might put it) not altogether unseriously wounded.
Though none of these fiascoes was Fleming’s fault, he was starting to feel jinxed. His luck improved in 1942, when the great Archibald Wavell requested his presence in India. As head of a Delhi-based strategic deception program, he intrigued for the remainder of the war to put all manner of tricks over on the Japanese. These sometimes had a distinctly Flemingesque comic touch, as when he dreamed up “the inebriated colonels,” described by Duff Hart-Davis as “an imaginary group of officers whose alleged enslavement to alcohol furnished the Japanese with a rich mixture of real and bogus information.” While the effectiveness of military ruses can be hard to measure, there is ample evidence that some of Fleming’s succeeded brilliantly. If he came away from the war frustrated at having so little exercised his trigger finger, the Allies certainly benefitted from his tireless taxing of his devious brain.
There was, of course, another Fleming engaged in deception and intelligence in World War II. No less than his brother, Ian was a wellspring of guileful schemes, some of them—such as Operation Goldeneye, for the defense of Gibraltar—put into practice, and others—such as Operation Ruthless, for capturing Enigma—never tried. Legend asserts that he even had his own tenuous connection to Rudolf Hess: supposedly Ian proposed having Aleister Crowley, the sinister occultist, interrogate Hess to determine the extent to which other top Nazis were influenced by astrology.
Yet in other respects the brothers were nearly opposite. “Ian had grown up in the shadow of just about the most promising young man in the country,” writes Mark Amory, editor of the letters of Ian’s wife Ann. (Brimming with vivid gossip, her letters are, by the way, highly recommended.) Instead of pointlessly trying to compete, Ian became a dilettantish—not to mention rather sadistic—playboy. Only in his mid-forties, with the publication of the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1953, did he suddenly vault into a prominence that surpassed Peter’s in the 1930s; the wunderkind had been outstripped by the late bloomer.
However rivalrous Ian may have been, Peter seems to have welcomed his brother’s delayed success. Before publication, Ian would always send his manuscripts to “Dr. Knittpik” (Peter), who inevitably caught errors that had slipped by everyone else. After Ian died in 1964, Peter was closely involved in his estate and leapt to his defense when Malcolm Muggeridge launched a cheap posthumous attack. And, not least, Peter supplied Ian with one of his more memorable names: Miss Moneypenny, of James Bond fame, was originally a character in Peter’s unfinished novel The Sett.
But Peter’s own literary career was far from finished, for in 1957 he resurfaced in the guise of a historian. Invasion 1940, which recounts both the German plans to invade Britain (more nearly implemented than is commonly realized) and those laid by the British to repel and frustrate the enemy, became, in fact, the most profitable book he ever wrote. It’s not hard to see why. The wry Fleming sensibility is everywhere on display, as in this passage about the Home Guard:
Gone, however, is the pervasive smartass manner of the travel books, and there are a number of grave, magnificent passages—on Dunkirk, the Blitz, and the peerlessness of Churchill—in which Fleming rises to a grandeur worthy of Gibbon and a stirring rhetorical power to equal Churchill himself.
The success of Invasion 1940 spurred Fleming to write three more military histories over the next six years, all dealing with Asia in the early twentieth century. First came The Siege at Peking, about the 1900 attack on the Legation Quarter; then Bayonets to Lhasa, about the British invasion of Tibet in 1903–1904; and finally The Fate of Admiral Kolchak, about the Allied intervention in the Siberian theater of the Russian Civil War and the corrupt White régime, fronted by Kolchak, that briefly held sway in Omsk. Each of these episodes is, in its way, ugly and disgraceful. Though Fleming takes a certain relish in their sordidness, he also brings out the entangled streaks of heroism and nobility, and all three books are models of balance, detachment, and sober judgment. Yet they are also shot through with turns of phrase and metaphors, at once cutting and buoyant, that set them apart from lesser specimens of the genre. This paragraph from The Fate of Admiral Kolchak, for instance:
For Fleming himself the party was nearly over. After this second burst of inspired productivity, he retreated to the nail-paring notations of his Strix column, which was past its heyday; as Duff Hart-Davis glumly comments, “Almost every sentence seemed to be weighed down by asides, qualifications and withdrawals.” In April 1971 he appeared poised to kick into high gear again, Whitehall having finally authorized him to write the official history of strategic deception during World War II. He set eagerly to work, but the book, which might have been the capstone of his career, wasn’t to be, for in August he dropped dead from a heart attack while out, appropriately enough, shooting grouse in Scotland. The last two items on his list of funeral requests say much about him:
While I cannot imagine Peter Fleming doing anything so hackneyed and histrionic as spinning in his grave, I can easily picture him giving out, at the thought of his centenary celebrations, a slight, almost imperceptible wince. “All human endeavour is in some degree laughable,” he once wrote, and his own was no exception; devoid of the pushing egotism that consumes most writers, he had scant regard for his work. In this, if nothing else, he was sorely deluded. He seems to me unsurpassed as a popular historian. As a travel writer, meanwhile, he belonged to a uniquely great generation—Robert Byron, Norman Lewis, Wilfred Thesiger, and Patrick Leigh Fermor were all born between 1905 and 1915—and could hold his own with any of them. Posterity has rightly singled out for preservation Brazilian Adventure and News from Tartary, which remain as fresh and funny as the day they were written, yet even One’s Company has its charms and merits.
What makes Fleming so very readable? Besides his exciting subject matter, the obvious answer is his prose. Published when Fleming was all of twenty-six, Brazilian Adventure is very much a young man’s book, but undergirding its waggishness is a prose style of formidable elegance and precision. That style, which changed little over the years (though it was subdued somewhat for the histories), is on the surface not the least bit idiosyncratic. Yet it is unmistakable, for every page is peppered with formulations that could only be Fleming’s. I think of the moment in News from Tartary when Fleming, fed up with his refractory porters, “abused them in the dregs of three languages” (namely Chinese, Russian, and Turki), or his evocation in Bayonets to Lhasa of the filth of the Tibetan capital: “Pigs and ravens competed for nameless delicacies in open sewers.” And who else would think to describe a slow train as Fleming does in One’s Company? “It was the most irresolute of trains. After maintaining for perhaps twenty minutes its maximum speed of eighteen miles an hour, it would suddenly lose heart and draw up in a siding for a period of introspection.”
The real distinction of his style lies, however, in the faithfulness with which it mirrors his bicameral character. In part, Fleming was the quintessence of a certain public school type: understated, outdoorsy, a bit philistine. Allied to this was a mind as lethally accurate as his rook rifle, cool, nil admirari, immune to cant and received ideas—not for nothing did Ian dub him Dr. Knittpik. But he also had a wild, reckless, zany side that popped up when he was in high spirits, especially those brought on by difficult and perilous travel, which had a nitrous-oxide effect on him. Somehow he manages to convey this manic jubilation without for a moment sacrificing the discipline and hard felicity of his prose. For the reader, the result is a jolt of pleasure almost as intense as Fleming’s own, like a mountaintop puff on his hallmark pipe.
While working on this article, I discovered that a friend of a friend grew up around Fleming. Clarissa Pryce-Jones (née Caccia) was two years old when, with her parents, she boarded the Kalanthe, the aforementioned yacht sunk in the Aegean in 1941. She doesn’t remember the shipwreck, but she does remember Fleming from later in life, and she described him to me as a “brave, tough, sporting, old-fashioned landed gentlemen of a sort that has now vanished. He had a quiet, unpretentious, humorous, sardonic view of the world, and I recall that he spoke in a slow, careful manner, with a curl to his lip.” All of which confirms my own sense of the man, but the curling lip, undetectable from photos, was a new and telling detail. I now picture it not as a sneer, still less the stiff upper lip of cliché, just a subtle but firm imparting of shape. Because the Fleming Legend, in his person as in his prose, was nothing if not definite.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 May 2007, on page 16
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