Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Dust all day like a fog

‘Bus at 8 on stomachs empty save for peanuts. Good seats and smuggled luggage. Bloody driver. Second bus constantly en panne. A Chinese attached to it savagely beaten up by Jap with starting handle. Lovely mountain passes. Hunting boxes in firs. A little snow. New untouched road. One concrete bridge made. No work going on elsewhere. Soup at Lungwha, where there is a good yamen, bright colours, much mistletoe. Dust all day like a fog.’ This is from an early travel diary kept by Peter Fleming, born 110 years ago today, on one of his several trips to Asia, and China in particular. Although his travel and historical books were best sellers in the mid-20th century, he is not well remembered today, unlike his famous brother Ian.

Fleming was born on the last day of May in 1907, one of four brothers. His father was a barrister and Member of Parliament, but he was killed in action in 1917. Peter was schooled at Eton, and often spent weekends with his grandparents at Nettlebed, Oxfordshire. He studied at Christ Church, Oxford, where he became president of the drama society and editor of Isis. He graduated in 1929 with a first-class degree in English. After a short period with the family firm in New York, and an expedition to Guatemala, he returned to London where, in 1931, he became assistant literary editor for The Spectator. Soon after, though he was given leave to attend an Institute of Pacific Relations conference, involving travel across Russia and China. In 1932, he joined a hair-brained expedition to Brazil, supposedly in search of a missing explorer, and persuaded The Times to take him on as an unpaid special correspondent. The journey led to his first book - Brazilian Adventure (1933) - which was well received in the UK and the US.

Two further journeys to Asia followed. After the first - during which he achieved an interview with Chaing Kai-shek (see also Chiang Kai-shek’s diaries) - he published One’s Company (1934). The second journey undertaken on foot and ponies with a Swiss traveller Ella Maillart and which took seven months, led to his 1936 book News from Tartary. In 1935, Fleming married Celia Johnson - an actress who would later become famous for her role in Brief Encounter (1945). They had three children. In 1936, he joined the staff of The Times, and subsequently travelled, with Johnson, to report on the Sino-Japanese War. During the Second World War, he served with the Grenadier Guards, but was seconded to intelligence duties, in Norway, Egypt, Greece and Burma.

After the war, Fleming settled at Merrimoles, a house he had built near his grandparents’ old home at Nettlebed, and in the middle of a large estate inherited from an uncle. There he continued to write for The Times and he contributed a column for The Spectator signed under the pseudnym Strix. Several historical books followed, as did his involvement with the running of Reading University. After the death of his brother, Ian, in 1964, he joined the board of Glidrose, which was managing the literary rights of the James Bond novels. Peter Fleming died in 1971. Further information is available from Wikipedia, University of Reading, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required) or the British Resistance Archive.

Peter Fleming appears to have been an intermittent diarist. Duff Hart-Davis refers often to Fleming’s diary in the biography of his godfather (see Googlebooks); and the University of Reading lists a number of diary manuscripts in its Fleming archive. However, the only diary extracts that Fleming himself prepared for print were in 1952, when his friend Rupert Hart-Davis (Duff’s father), a publisher, brought out A Forgotten Journey. This was reprinted in 2009, by Tauris Parke, as To Peking: A Forgotten Journey from Moscow to Manchuria (available to preview at Googlebooks). Here are several extracts taken from the 1952 edition.

6 September 1934
‘At 10 o’clock we set out for a kolhoz [collective farm]. It was a biggish village lying in flat but slightly rolling country. The white Ukrainian houses with thatched roofs and tiny unopenable windows looked very pleasant in the sunshine. We were soon taken in charge by the local party secretary, a tough, insular young man, the power in that place. We tasted their honey and prodded their pigs and Mogs drove one of their buggies. The farm produces mostly vegetables. 20% of its produce is sold at a nominal price to the Government, the rest in the open market. Fertiliser supplied by the Government had had a good effect. There was a small land tax. The most interesting thing was the degree of kulakism allowed now. Everyone had his own garden or allotment and was allowed to keep pigs or cows, though no one as it happened had more than two or three of either; potatoes were 3 kopeks per kg. to the Government, 50 in the open market; 70% of the workers were women. We saw rather polite children eating bortsch in the crĂȘche, and the cooperative store, which sold almost nothing except vodka, matches, and very shoddy clothes. Almost all the houses had the radio. In the one we went into the walls were prettily painted; Kaganovitch [then, and up to the time of going to press, a member of the Politburo] shared the wall with an ikon. Everything reasonably clean. We lunched in their eating-place off bortsch, black bread, potatoes, tomatoes, and melons.

When we got back George and I went over some flats with an architect, who said that the work done to his designs was about 30% unsatisfactory. Architects have a pretty free hand here. The flats all seemed to me good: light and spacious and cheap. In the first there was a man, a pre-war Bolshevik, who had done 13 years’ solitary confinement but conspicuously possessed a sense of humour. He had his shackles hanging up in his bedroom. Then there was one belonging to an architect with some rather amusing pictures done by the tenant; it was refreshing to find evidence of some sort of taste somewhere. He had Robinson Crusoe on his bookshelf. I heard some children exclaiming at it in a shop yesterday; it is in brisk demand here. Then there was another poorer flat, but still quite adequate.

After that we went to the races, which turned out to be trotting races. They were fairly well attended and there was some primitive system of betting. But not much enthusiasm. The jockeys were fantastic mid-Victorian figures, and had great difficulty in preventing the scratch horses from galloping, which they are allowed to do for only four strides. The jockeys are professionals, but the horses amateurs from the farms, which race against each other.

We were to have flown to Rostov tomorrow, but the wind is considered too high. So we must catch a train at 3 a.m.

It didn’t of course turn up till 4, and proved to be without the advertised dining car. We boarded it stupid with fatigue, after wandering about the streets for a long time. They were empty save for a certain number of indefinite night-watchmen sitting on chairs in front of doors. There was also an old man who suddenly stooped, picked up a fragment of newspaper from the gutter, and put it on a window sill. I thought he was going to roll a cigarette, but he produced instead a little bird from his pocket and wrapped it up in the paper. It had hit the telegraph wires and cut its head. He was very sorry for it, but I don’t know what good the newspaper was. The head waiter at the hotel was a romantic figure, an effective ex-prospector, ex-East Side waiter, ex-stage dancer in U.S.A. The depression had driven him back to Russia. Got to sleep about 5 in the morning.’

7 September 1934
‘Started at 10 for a big agricultural implement factory. Here work appeared to be proceeding rather spasmodically, under conditions which are very enlightened on paper. The things that interested me most were that 43% of the workers are women; that each shock brigade, controlled by its own brigadier, pillories bad workers by name with bad caricatures on its notice-board - another echo of the Moscow Park stuff; that every worker’s rest period of an hour is preceded by 5 minutes compulsory P.T.; that Shock Workers have a silly little banner on their bit of machinery. Chiefly, in fact, the Montessorian atmosphere. In the club library questions and answers were posted on the notice-board. One was, “Where can I study man’s struggle for existence?” The answer was “Fill up a form and in the meantime read these books.” Another was “Why no books by Jules Verne, Mayne Reid, and Fenimore Cooper?” The answer was that Verne was all to the good, but Cooper and Reid misrepresented American exploitation of the indigenes and were chauvinistic and imperialistic. We saw also workers’ flats and a closed shop, where white bread was selling for 60 kopeks instead of 10 roubles and meat for 3 roubles instead of 9. Had the usual dilatory lunch, then George went to interview a judge while Mogs and I sat in a public garden and read and talked.

Then we all went on the Don in a motor boat with the director of Intourist, an insufferable young American-educated candidate for the Communist party. This is holding a purge tomorrow, and he is therefore aggressively orthodox. He also seems unhappy here. We bathed in shallow black mud, very nice though I spiked my foot on a fish bone and lost a cuff link. The sky was lovely coming back. I had a glass of sour wine with Boris, who told me he got 60 roubles an hour for coaching actors who had to play the part of foreigners - e.g. Cooper in Tempo. There is a lot of money to be made in the theatre, and it seems to hold a pretty high position in cultural life.

After dinner we went to a cinema, probably the worst I have ever seen. It began with a black blurred picture of salvage work in the Black Sea, devoid of interest or comprehensibility. Then there was a fearful comedy, sooty and prehistoric. We walked out.’

1 December 1934
‘Wasted the morning waiting for Tumanov the detective, who had promised to take us round the opium dens. Met Yankovsky from N. Korea, who had some wonderful hunting photographs and was nice. Also the Vremya journalist, who seemed perplexed about Roerich having been run out. Also the Red railway worker, who said he was going to stay in Harbin but that 80% of the others were going back: a very vague man. The nice desk man, having applied for a rise on 40 dollars, is going after 9 years to turn porter in the hopes of earning more. The Italian consul turned up, a charming droll with an eyeglass and an inexhaustible fund of anecdotes. We bought some presents for Debedeev’s family and had an enormous lunch with Bryner and his kind wife, talking till dusk about Kolchak, whose betrayal Bryner’s brother, then in British uniform as a liaison officer, knew all about; and about Roerich and about Kaspe. Then K. saw the doctor and was forced to go to bed, and I wrote some letters and gave them to Lady Muriel Paget, who was going through on the express and seemed very nice and effective. She had one amusing rumour about Mme. Chiang. A local journalist turned up, a truculent and gloomy man, possibly drunk. He blamed Chambon over the Kaspe business.’

19 December 1934
‘Bus at 8 on stomachs empty save for peanuts. Good seats and smuggled luggage. Bloody driver. Second bus constantly en panne. A Chinese attached to it savagely beaten up by Jap with starting handle. Lovely mountain passes. Hunting boxes in firs. A little snow. New untouched road. One concrete bridge made. No work going on elsewhere. Soup at Lungwha, where there is a good yamen, bright colours, much mistletoe. Dust all day like a fog. Took streets too fast. Carts on ice. Camels. Suddenly came on Chengteh. First the club-shaped rock, then Tashi Lumpo (now fronted with Manchukuo barracks), then palace pagoda. Gave names and ages to Military Mission man, then walked through busier fuller [than on my last visit in 1933] streets to Conard, who was delightful and lodged us in luxury. The sad Lewisohn also there, leaving tomorrow. In clover, but police on our trail.’

16 December 1934
‘Good Chinese breakfast with Chow. First meal since light lunch yesterday. Drove to bus station (one pagoda, one big Jap restaurant). Via Mission. Saw Mrs. B_, drawn mouth, sandy, bad with Chow. Bus starts late. Slow, uneven journey, delayed by breakdowns of truck. Mountains and donkeys. Sweet cakes at one halt. Peanuts and Manchus at another. One man has a little owl in a cage. Boy holds new-born calf by its tail. All stare. Soldiers in bus friendly. Fat Jap hits Chinese for no great cause. Lovely blue at twilight. Pass long bulbous caravan of donkeys, mules, and ponies carrying cotton. Alternately sleepy and exalted. Thick with dust.’

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