On Assignment with with Peter Fleming
Peter Fleming is fated to forever be referred to by his full legal name, “Peter Fleming, Older Brother of James Bond Creator Ian Fleming.” Even those of us who come to praise Peter’s talents, as I do, can’t resist mentioning Ian. Never mind that Peter lived the sort of life his brother might have written about. While Ian himself spent much of his time behind a desk, Peter was plunging headlong into the jungles of the Amazon basin in search of lost explorers and walking across China, possibly in the service of the British secret service (he spends an awful lot of time documenting the location and movements of Japanese soldiers). Before Ian struck gold with Casino Royale, Peter was the star of the family, a successful writer and officer, while Ian was the prodigal screw-up, kicked out of every school he attended and fired from a good many jobs before he lucked into a position with Naval Intelligence. When Ian did get around to writing a travel book, Thrilling Cities, it was something of a wholly different spirit than Peter’s.
No matter how dire the situation or how grim the suffering, Peter could never manage to be anything other than affably self-effacing, dwelling with humorous light-heartedness on his own shortcomings as a writer, an adventurer, and a man. He was also brutally honest about the experience of travel. In a genre that trades in breathless passages about exotic wonders, in which nothing is so important as assuring the reader that every single moment was magical and thrilling and inspiring, Peter was more than happy to admit that he spent huge swathes of time bored and indolent and unable to muster much in the way of interest in museums and other marvels of the world. He freely admits his own ignorance, his own shameful British upper-class biases and prejudices, and while he doesn’t make a point of illustrating how his travels open his mind, they do. But in the end, Peter would rather, if for no other reason that for the sake of entertainment, remain the somewhat bumbling Bertie Wooster of the adventure world.
His first book of note was Brazilian Adventure, published in 1933. From the outset, Peter sets the stage by calling out previous tales of exploration and adventure for frequently exaggerating the peril in which the explorers found themselves. In contrast, he admits, his was a farce of an expedition in which he was never really in any danger and never suffered any particular hardship. Ironically, this itself seems like something of an exaggeration, as there are indeed several encounters which, Fleming’s breezy nonchalant language notwithstanding, do seem at least a tad precarious — especially after you’ve seen the photo of an emaciated, naked Peter Fleming proudly holding up a bit of game. Fleming also freely admits that he, like every person on the journey, was utterly unqualified. If Fleming has a saving grace in comparison to the others, it’s that at least he is well aware of his own ridiculousness. Also ironically, it was bumbling, goofy Peter who would be one of the men to last the longest and go the farthest.
The Bungle in the Jungle
The goal of the expedition was to discover the ultimate fate of famed explorer Percy Fawcett, a seasoned veteran of harsh Amazonian bushwhacking, who some years earlier had vanished while searching for a fabled lost city along with his son and his son’s best friend. Fawcett was one-of-a-kind to be sure, a hardened jungle adventurer who traveled light in an era when vast baggage lines trailed behind expeditions. He was also convinced utterly and in stark opposition to almost every other white explorer that the opinions, customs, and cultures of the natives were to be respected, and that in doing so you were far more likely to succeed and far less likely to get killed by a tribe who was unenthusiastic to have you clomping about in their home. He also struggled with his finances, and as he got older, became obsessed with mysticism and a story about a lost civilization deep within the Amazon, vast and on a scale no one had dreamed could exist. He disappeared in pursuit of this obsession, though decades later, LiDAR technology would indeed reveal the existence of a huge lost city not so far from where Fawcett was thought to be heading.
His disappearance was an international sensation. Expeditions to find, perhaps even rescue, Fawcett and his two-man crew were hastily mounted. Rumors abounded that he had been sighted in one small village or another, or had come wandering out of the jungle, or had been glimpsed as a prisoner of this tribe or that. The truth of the matter was probably the simplest answer: that he had run afoul of a tribe whose hostility he could not assuage, or that his luck at survival simply ran out and some illness or injury did them in. Whatever the case, it was big business for a while to set out in pursuit of the answer.
Such expeditions were fraught with complications, not the least of which being run-of-the-mill things like disease, floods, hostile terrain, and hostile tribes. It turns out that no one knew exactly where Fawcett was heading. He was deeply paranoid that someone with more money would follow his clues and claim the glory of finding the “lost city of Z” before he did. So he coded his maps and notes, and he created false itineraries. To a certain point, one could trace his steps based on the tribes he was known to have contacted and stayed with, but exactly which direction he was going when he disappeared was something at which people could only guess.
Of all the expeditions that set out to find Fawcett, few were as ill-prepared as the one for which Peter Fleming enlisted. Brazilian Adventure revels in the self-important buffoonery that causes comical calamity before it even leaves London. Fleming is amazed every time they manage to accomplish something as mundane as getting down the street or checking into a hotel. They are poorly equipped but have lots of it. Fleming assumes that any expedition that would have him is doomed to failure anyway, and he reckons theirs will indeed be a swift collapse. As it went, they got a little further than he predicted…but not by much.
What makes Brazilian Adventure such a treat to read isn’t just the steady stream of mishaps and bungles. Fleming does a lot to let the air out of what can often be a pompous, self-aggrandizing field of writing (I recommend Teddy Roosevelt’s account of his own trip through the Brazilian wilderness — err, Through the Brazilian Wilderness — which by his standards was a constant parade of privation and near-death experiences, and which Percy Fawcett once characterized as being a reasonable stroll for an old man). He also subverts one of the most common traits of adventure books and travelogues written by white westerners. If there is an air of colonialism in some of what Fleming writes, he employs it primarily in the service of making himself and anyone else possessed of such haughty snobbishness seem absurd. He will look down his nose at the locals while winking at the reader and illustrating how much more capable the “savages” are than the brave white men in khaki jodhpurs. This isn’t’ to say that locals are exalted, especially government officials and soldiers (one of the many setbacks the party experienced was that the region was in a bit of a civil war the day they arrived).
At the same time, there are moments of genuine, poetic beauty. Fleming is quick to dismiss himself as a posh lout with no capacity for introspection, but that’s not actually the case. His introspection is disguised by self-effacing humor, and the experiences that strike him as profound and moving are nestled among tales about tedium and slapstick misadventures, but they are there nevertheless.
High Road to China
Brazilian Adventure proved a hit for Peter Fleming and cemented his position as a fresh, funny voice in a field overpopulated with stern, serious writers. He followed it up with an epic tale of a journey across China, recounted in two parts: One’s Company: A Journey to China in 1933 (published in 1934) and News from Tartary: A Journey from Peking to Kashmir (published in 1936). A third book, To Peking: A Forgotten Journey from Moscow to Manchuria, was published long after the fact in 1952 and recounted the trip Peter took by Trans-Siberian Express to actually get to China in the first place. When Fleming arrived in China, it was in a state of extreme upheaval. The 1911 revolution that overthrew the final dynasty had begun to collapse in on itself. Japan had invaded and conquered much of the north. Brigands, warlords, and communist insurgents divided up the countryside in an ever-shifting patchwork of territories.
Once again, Fleming acknowledges his inadequacy for the task which has been assigned to him, beginning his account with the passage, “The recorded history of Chinese civilization covers a period of four thousand years. The Population of China is estimated at 450 million. China is larger than Europe. The author of this book is twenty-six years old. He has spent, altogether, about seven months in China. He does not speak Chinese.” The selection of China as the young travel writer’s next adventure at a time of such importance has led many to speculate that Fleming was not just writing dispatches for a newspaper back home, but was, in fact, also collecting intelligence. In 1933, World War II was still some years away, but many could already feel the storm coming.
For the first leg of his journey, Fleming is under the care of Japanese military administrators who are in the process of realizing just how impossible it’s going to be to make China a colony of Japan. Wrapped once again in acidic wit and his keen ability at making himself look the fool, Fleming manages to put together, as best he can from such a limited vantage point, a nuanced understanding of the dynamics of Japanese-controlled Manchuria. Being, officially, neither friend nor foe to Japan, he has no issue admiring certain aspects of the Japanese presence while condemning others. He is, in a rare moment of raw emotion and frankness, horrified by the glimpse he catches of Korean sex slaves sent for use by the soldiers, and wrenched by his inability to do anything beyond report it back to his readers. He handles the tangle of Chinese nationals in much the same way, doing his best to decipher the hopeless jumble of freedom fighters, bandits, and soldiers. The one group to which he has the most limited exposure are the shadowy communists, who always seem to be maneuvering just outside the field of vision. The journey takes him through what were then the most developed parts of China, and so the bulk of the hardships he faces are administrative in nature. Still, between an occupying and increasingly paranoid foreign army and the rich tradition of Chinese bureaucracy, there is plenty of comedy to be mined.
The second leg of the journey is markedly different. For his journey to the west, an attempt to travel overland to India (coincidentally, an interesting route to explore if one was attempting to, for instance, assess its feasibility as a passage for troops with an appetite for invading the crown jewel of the dwindling British Empire), Fleming is forced to eventually abandon modern modes of travel and rely on horses, camels, and donkeys. As fate would have it, while attempting with little success to navigate the labyrinth of official permits and letters of introduction he would need to make the journey, he ran into another westerner attempting the same. This was Ella Maillart, a singularly fantastic and infinitely interesting Swiss adventurer who agrees, perhaps against her better judgment, to join forces with Peter Fleming and make the journey together. As Fleming is quick to point out, she proves far more capable than him at almost every leg of the journey.
As he did with his jaunt through the Brazilian rain forest, Fleming is quick to diminish the hardship he, Maillart, and their cranky rag-tag band of local guides endured, though once again he’s probably being coy about things. It is, by any measure, a grand adventure however, and like many grand adventures, there are long stretches of boredom as they trudge across desert landscapes. Fleming and Maillart do their best to amuse one another, but you can only do so much with a portable photograph and the few records you can carry with you. Unfortunately, this also means the narrative lapses into occasional stretches of tedium in a way that did not happen in the brisker Brazilian Adventure, where they had less open ground to cover. Still, as with travel itself, the grand moments are worth the occasional slog across a salt flat. Although Fleming is adamant that he is doing a terrible job as an anthropologist, he still manages, to the best of his limited ability, to paint an interesting picture of the many different cultures that make up what was then and still remains a region of China considered remote and unknown even by many people in China. Shanghai and Kashgar tend to be pretty different.
Ella Maillart wrote her own book about the trip, Forbidden Journey – From Peking to Cashmir, in 1937. It was her second travel account, having written Turkestan Solo – One Woman’s Expedition from the Tien Shan to the Kizil Kum in 1934. Hers was a remarkable life, especially at the point in which it intersected with that of a woman named Annemarie Schwarzenbach, a period during which the two traveled by motor car from Geneva to Kabul. But just as Peter Fleming deserves to be (but never is) discussed without pushing him into the shadow of Ian, so too does Ella deserve to be written about as something much more than the intrepid woman who kicked across central and western China with Peter Fleming, so let’s save her for her own post.
Predictably, there are moments where once again whiter European bias seeps in, but for the most part the butt of most of Fleming’s jokes is Peter Fleming. I’d even put forth that, in his unflattering description of certain places and people, he’s doing more to humanize them than many travel writers who hold locals up as some sort of enlightened, magical source of inspiration, so free and pure compared to us decadent westerners. In Fleming’s eyes, even devout monks in remote temples are, for the most part, just another bunch of guys with the same good and bad as everyone else. If he encounters rascals and con artists, it’s because the world of full of rascals and con artists, no matter where you go.
And perhaps that is how Peer Fleming sees himself as well: a bit of a rascal, certainly a bit of a con artist who got away with something that by all rights he shouldn’t have. They wouldn’t have made it to the end of their journey if he and Ella hadn’t been willing to indulge in a bit of chicanery. That trait, no matter how tiny the village, no matter how baffling the culture, embodies the theme lurking beneath the humor and the occasional grumpy marches: we may all be different in many ways, but in many more ways we are the same. We are a species of hustlers, dreamers, comedians, villains, thieves, heroes, and people just trying to make it through the day. Against the vast backdrop of China, in the midst of world-changing political events, Fleming sees the tiny slices of every day that concern the people who, be they a seedy camel salesman or a sturdy guide, have no say in Big Events but keep moving forward regardless.
Peter continued to write, and write well, including books on history and even a short story about a werewolf. However, nothing quite reaches the sublime levels attained by his first three books, all of which (along with To Peking, which is by Peter’s own admission more of a supplement than a fleshed-out work of its own) were recently reprinted (though sadly without the photographs that appeared in the original editions). News from tartary and One’s Company have also been combined into a single volume, Travels in Tartary – One’s Company and News from Tartary.
By Peter Fleming
- Brazilian Adventure
- Travels in Tartary – One’s Company and News from Tartary
- To Peking: A Forgotten Journey from Moscow to Manchuria (Tauris Parke Paperbacks)
By Ella Maillart
- Turkestan Solo: A Journey Through Central Asia (Equestrian Travel Classics)
- Forbidden Journey: From Peking to Kashmir
- The Cruel Way: Switzerland to Afghanistan in a Ford, 1939
- Thrilling Cities by Ian Fleming
- The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
- Through the Brazilian Wilderness by Theodore Roosevelt (free for Kindle)
- The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard