East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Peter Fleming

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“São Paulo is like Reading, only much farther away.”

imageI admit a long-standing fascination for espionage at its most basic – not james Bond ultratech but Deighton spycraft, in other words.
Espionage as people, not gadgets.
From the Elizabethan Secrert Service to the black ops of recent years, I’ve collected books, handbooks, stuff.

And in terms of espionage, one has to wonder at the personnel of the WW2 British secret outfits.
David Niven and Christopher Lee working with commandos and Information Services…
Occult bestseller author Dennis Wheatley churning out plans and fake papers to be leaked to the Germans (including a complete plan for the invasion of Europe, written on a single weekend, fueled only by champagne and turkish cigarettes)…
Rosita Forbes travelling the world and taking notes, Elizabeth David (the food writer) wandering through the Mediterranean and Southern France…
John Blofeld, sure, and of course the Fleming Brothers, Ian and Peter.

fleming_gd01Now Peter Fleming was quite a character.
Anyone entering China with fake papers supposedly signed by Lenin to “see what’s going on over there” has to be quite a character.
A curious mix of adventurer and upper class fop, Fleming wrote about his travels in China and environs with a style that reminds us of certain P.G. Woodehouse heroes – slightly baffled, a little bit bored, somewhat amused and bemused.
And yet, his observations are always pointed and intelligent.

Before his Chinese adventures, Fleming had been through Brazil – on the tracks of the vanished Fawcett expedition.
Quite Indiana Jones-y, for a man of 25.
He wrote a book about it, called Brazillian Adventure, which is on my to-read list.

871I first met Fleming in One’s Company, the 1934 chronicle of his travel through Manchuria and other parts east.
This led me to track a copy of News from Tartary, about his travel, together with Ella Maillart, in Chinese Turkestan and Sinkiang.
There’s a lightness about the books which makes them easy reading, and the detail is enbedded in the narrative in such a way that at the end of every chapter, the reader might be surprised at the amount of information he has acquired.

Yes, it reads as exotic travel as if by Noel Coward, but it is a good foundation for anyone interested in the comings and goings in that sector of the map, in that particular time-frame.
According to Owen Lattimore – another character we’ll have to discuss further – his political interpretation of the situation was mostly wrong.
But the facts are there, and the spirit.

Also, considering the melancholy and tragic tone of Ella Maillart Forbidden Journey, one has to wonder at what the chemistry might have been between her and flippant Fleming.
My guess is, they laughed a lot.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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