Book: Peter Fleming’s Forgotten Journey

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To Peking: A Forgotten Journey from Moscow to Manchuria 
by Peter Fleming

Published by Tauris Parke Paperbacks (originally published by Rupert Hart-Davis in 1952) 

“Well, we’ve been on a journey with Fleming in China, and now we’re real travellers for ever and ever” (WH Auden)

Peter Fleming was older brother of Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels. 

His travel writing career was short but distinguished and brought him worldwide fame long before Ian had penned the James first Bond book.  The period in which Fleming made his reputation lasted from just 1932 to 1935, while he was in his mid-20s.  In later life, he referred to it as the part of his life he spent  “swanning” around.

Fleming’s “swanning” began after his education at Eton and Oxford, when he travelled to the US to pursue a financial career.  His arrival, just a fortnight before the Wall Street Crash, coupled with an indifference to the world of finance, meant that Fleming seized an opportunity to go to Guatemala.  After that, he abandoned finance and returned to London in 1931 to began a literary career at the Spectator magazine. 

Within a few months, Fleming was off to China on behalf of the Royal Institute of International Affairs to a conference organised by the Institute of Pacific Relations.  Again his timing was inauspicious as the Japanese had just invaded China.  

After returning to London and the Spectator, Fleming’s big break came after he joined an expedition to Brazil to search for Colonel Percy Fawcett.  His travel writing career was born and Brazilian Adventure, a success on publication in 1933, is still in print. 

Fleming’s next journey was another trip to China on behalf of the Times newspaper.  This led to his second book, One’s Company, and although he later described it as “much worse than the first”, it was a success nonetheless.

In 1934 Fleming set off for China for a third time, this time overland via Russia.  This is the trip featured in A Forgotten Journey.

Now reprinted by TPP as To Peking, A Forgotten Journey is Fleming’s diary of his journey from Moscow to Peking between August 1934 and January 1935.  That trip was anterior to his main purpose, a journey overland from China to India (later published as News from Tartary).  As a mere prelude, Fleming’s diary remained unpublished until 1952.  Few alterations have been made to the original text which was published more or less “as it stood”.  Less polished than his other books, it still makes good reading. 

The first part of the book recounts Fleming’s journey from Moscow to the Caucasus to get some shooting with his friends Lord and Lady Gage. (Shooting was one of Fleming’s lifelong passions, as the frequent references in his diary attest. Perhaps fittingly, he was on a grouse shoot when he died in 1971).

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After leaving Lord and Lady Gage at Baku, the second part of the book finds Fleming continuing his journey across the Caspian Sea, through Ashgabad, Samarkand and Tashkent before turning north to join the transiberian railway to Vladivostok.  From there he embarks on a farcical and unsuccessful shooting trip in search of a Siberian tiger. 

Fleming then heads to Manchuria (which had been invaded by the Japanese in 1931) where he meets up with Ella (‘Kini’) Maillart (the Swiss explorer and travel writer) before exploring Manchuria and Jahol and spending Christmas and New year in Shanghai and Peking. 

While not his most highly regarded book, the diary is nevertheless an interesting account of China and travel in the region at a particular period and told with Fleming’s dead pan humour.   

The diary in A Forgotten Journey ends shortly before Maillart and Fleming began their 3,500, 7 month overland journey from Beijing to Kashmir via the Chinese province of Xinjiang in February 1935 (their accounts of that trip were published as News from Tartary (Fleming) and Forbidden Journey (Maillart)).  

Looking back on his ’swanning around’ period, Fleming reflected:

Three years; three interesting, fairly hard journeys. Three books which all fell on their feet.  […] It was all great fun.  The feeling that you had the run of the world.  […]  The chance of leading an almost entirely out of door life. But what good did it do anyone, except me and, I suppose, my publishers.  Perhaps a few sick or lonely people whose lives were made briefly less intolerable by the stuff I wrote.  I should say precious little probably none at all and I’m quite prepared to believe that I would have turned into a more useful citizen if, instead of just ’swanning’ I’d spent my middle twenties studying chartered accountancy or quantity surveying or grassland management but, well, I didn’t and there it is. – from BBC’s Travel Writers (The Spoken Word)

A Forgotten Journey is the less well known fourth book from the same period which also saw Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Robert Byron all making journeys which resulted in classic travel narratives; a period Paul Fussell later called the British literary diaspora of the inter war years.

Fleming’s travels were not over by 1935.  After returning from his trip with Ellie Maillart, Fleming married actress Celia Johnson (Johnson went on to successful collaborations with Noel Coward and David Lean during the 1940s, most famously in Brief Encounter starring opposite Trevor Howard).

Fleming turns up in China again in 1938 (this time with wife, Celia) at a party in Christopher Isherwood and WH Auden’s Journey to a War.  (The party was also attended by British Ambassador to China, Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, whose next posting was to Russia in 1942 where he penned the famous ‘Dear Reggie’ note).  Isherwood describes Fleming “with his drawl, his tan, his sleek, perfectly brushed hair, and lean good looks” and concludes “he is all together too good to be true – and he knows it.”   However, the pair were impressed with Fleming’s charm, physicality, linguistic and organisational skills, not to mention his Chinese habits, and eventually drop their defensive attitude (which they admit to being a “blend of anti-Etonionism and professional jealousy”).

In the postwar period, Fleming seems to have been outshone by Ian’s success with the James Bond books.  However, for any lover of travel writing, as for Isherwood and Auden, he will always be “the Fleming Legend”.

Further biographical information on Fleming and his work can be found in this article in the Telegraph and this article in the New Criterion.

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