Gone but not forgotten

I'm a big fan of Peter Fleming, the travel writer. I've loved his work ever since reading News from Tartary while stuck in a blizzard on Paddington Station. Guess the difficulty of that journey gave me a bit of a feeling of oneness with his own incredible journey.

Peter was the older brother of the now, more famous, Ian, creator of James Bond. Peter although in some ways the more adventurous brother (his trips through Manchuria and Russia in the 1930s were partly as a journalist, partly providing material for the British Secret Service) was also ultimately the more conventional of the two. Solid, dependable, married to the epitome of the stiff upper lip, the actress Celia Johnson, and a happy family man.

A forgotten journey (sometimes published as To Peking : A forgotten journey) contains Fleming's diary entries from a trip taken shortly before News from Tartary, and in preparation for it. I found it a rather odd read, although it purports to be unedited (except for a few spying related excerpts), it becomes fairly clear that the work is substantially edited, with many diary entries being amended. (It's not clear how long after the event).

For a journey that should be exciting - overland from Moscow to Shanghai, it's oddly boring. Penned as straight diary entries with none of the padding out that you have with the travel writing, there's something missing. Fleming seems remarkably oblivious to the scale of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and even more oblivious to the brutality of the regime. A brief mention of the Japanese controlled army brothels made me sit up, having read recently about the Chinese and Korean "comfort women". He seems more concerned about the stupidity of the Japanese administration than the evils of the regime.

One thing that is clear from the diary is how much the world has changed. What's odder though, is that in some ways the world seems to have got bigger not smaller. Never mind the global village - Fleming is tripping over old Etonians, and upper-crust chums all over the place. And what do upper-crust chums do when they get together? Why, they shoot things of course. So off he goes on a duck-shooting odyssey (along with anything else that crosses his path). To a modern (and not upper-crust) mind this seems plain weird. Also weird (to a modern mind) is the casual attitude towards opium. China still has licensed opium dens, and not much seems to have changed since the days of Sherlock Holmes, except that now the Japanese have a monopoly on it.

It's certainly not brilliantly written, it's disjointed, and definitely "touched-up" after the event. It's like looking at a photo from the turn of the twentieth century and finding it hard to believe that those people ever lived like you, and thought and even possibly acted like you. It's not great writing, it's frequently irritating (even for a Fleming fan), but there's something oddly compelling about it nevertheless.


Popular Posts