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Altogether Too Good to be True.
Paul French (author) is a great admirer of Peter Fleming and shares his insight of this interesting man.

Fleming in Tartary looking, well frankly, very cool..In 1939 Faber & Faber, the publishers of WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood, persuaded the two writers to go on a tour of China and report back. They did, somewhat reluctantly, and the result was the short, but powerful, book Journey to a War. While there they spent several days near the frontline observing the fighting between Japanese and Chinese soldiers with the Special Correspondent for the London Times, Peter Fleming. They were much impressed and Auden, characteristically tongue in cheek, declared, 'Well, we've been on a journey with Fleming in China, and now we’re real travellers for ever and ever. We need never go farther than Brighton again.'

Fleming was certainly the epitome of a foreign correspondent – he certainly looked the part! Auden admired Fleming, '... in his khaki shirt and shorts, complete with golf stockings, strong suede shoes, waterproof wristwatch and Leica camera, he might have stepped straight from a London tailor's window, advertising Gent's Tropical Exploration Kit'.

Indeed Fleming was dashing. The older brother of Ian Fleming he was technically the Squire of Nettlebed, the family’s ancestral village and 44-bedroom stately home, Merrimoles, in the Chilterns. He was from good stock — wealthy Scottish bankers who’d made a fortune in Dundee jute, founded a bank and invented the investment trust. His father, Valentine, had been an MP, but was killed in action in 1917 and posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Winston Churchill wrote his obituary. Peter was Eton- and Oxford-educated, handsome, exuding glamour and married the British movie star Celia Johnson of Brief Encounter fame.

He started out as the Literary Editor of The Spectator, often under the by-line Strix (Latin for a screech owl), contributing to the magazine for over 40 years. He specialized in travel pieces and traipsed, ill-prepared, across Brazil in search of the long-lost explorer Colonel P. H. Fawcett. He didn’t find him, but returned safely, wrote it all up as a bestselling book — Brazilian Adventure — and made his name. After a few months at The Speccie, he was given leave to head to Manchuria and immediately started filing stories, one of the first being an in-depth examination of duck fighting in southern China.

After a brief experience working for the BBC, Fleming soon realised he wouldn't advance in the corporation: his accent was deemed too posh even for Auntie in the 1930s! His thoughts turned to the East once again. In 1933 he returned on a trip financed by the Times, through Russia into China. In One’s Company, the story of his trip via the Trans-Siberian Railway to China, Fleming appeared flippantly detached from events and characteristically scathing while able to cope adequately with deprivation (due to a childhood illness, he had no sense of smell or taste).

He stumbled into a meeting with Chiang Kai-shek and quickly managed to think of three questions to ask China’s leader at a crucial time in the nation's history. The interview was an accident. Fleming turned up at Chiang's mountain retreat and Madame Chiang wondered who this strange foreigner was and invited him in for tea. Fleming was infamously clueless about politics. However, he did make one very pertinent comment that seems to have drawn him back again and again to the Middle Kingdom: 'In China there is always something worth watching'. But his writing had style, wit and flair and One's Company made him an overnight star and a schoolgirl's pinup in England.

Fleming A few years later Fleming returned to China in search of adventure and got what he wanted — bandits, warlords, beggars and some pretty rough living. Travelling 3,500 miles from Peking to Kashgar (the furthest extent of the British Empire’s reach and where the Great Game with Russia was alive and well) the trip culminated in his arrival at the British Consulate whereupon Fleming was annoyed that the Piccadilly-bought tropical suit he had saved for the occasion (and carried the entire way!) had somehow turned green and that he had to present himself to the British Consul, 'disguised as a lettuce, looking like something that had escaped from Devil's Island ... and letting down the Raj'. He was also keen to contact staff at the Times who had no idea where he was for six months. London cabled back to Kashgar, 'ALL IMMENSELY RELIEVED YOUR REAPPEARANCE'. His subsequent book of the journey, News From Tartary confirmed his reputation as a dashing and a daring adventurer.

Later in life Fleming was to write a number of notable books about history that were extremely popular – a retelling of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in The Siege of Peking, the ill-fated British invasion of Tibet in 1904 (Bayonets to Lhasa) and a biography of the leader of the White Russians in their fight against the Bolsheviks (The Fate of Admiral Kolchak). Like his soon-to-be more famous brother, Peter worked in intelligence during World War Two and later wrote a study of Hitler's planned invasion of Britain (Operation Sea Lion), an invasion the War Office partly tasked him with preventing. But Auden and Isherwood can have the last word on Peter Fleming – their parting vision of him in China in 1939 as he walked, rather nonchalantly, directly towards the fighting while they hastened away from it to the relative safety of the well-stocked bars of Shanghai - 'He is altogether too good to be true — and he knows it'.

See the full range of Peter Fleming audiobooks at Audible.

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