Is it acceptable to be both happily married to a living man and physically attracted to a long-dead author? I know I’m not the only one. I have one friend who goes weak at the knees when she shows me photos of the late Patrick Leigh Fermor, and another who has a lasting physical pash for Joseph Banks (1743‒1820). Mine is for Peter Fleming (1907‒71), older brother of Ian.
The good thing about being in love with a dead person is that you can’t be unfaithful; nor can you feel too jealous of the person’s love affairs with other people. On the contrary, it’s almost a pleasure to luxuriate in imagining those love affairs. So I think: lucky, lucky Celia Johnson! In real life, the man who adored her was not Trevor Howard of Brief Encounter but Peter Fleming of the joyously laughing smile, the sinewy forearms and the sublime prose. While Fleming was halfway through the seven-month journey from Peking to India in 1935 that he would immortalize in News from Tartary, Celia received a letter from him that included the words, ‘My darling Celia, whom I love . . .’ I like to imagine her opening the envelope and reading and rereading those words, in his handwriting.
I also derive a guilty pleasure from luxuriating in the fact that Fleming was very much not in love with the rather masculine woman he was travelling with on that journey – the woman who would also immortalize it, in her book Forbidden Journey. That woman was Ella Maillart (1903‒97), nicknamed Kini, an international skier and Olympic sailor who also played hockey for Switzerland. The two had met in 1934 when they found themselves drinking beer together in a London nightclub; Kini had casually asked Fleming, ‘How do I get into the Soviet Republic in South China?’ and Fleming had replied, ‘You don’t.’ The exchange turned out to be
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Is it acceptable to be both happily married to a living man and physically attracted to a long-dead author? I know I’m not the only one. I have one friend who goes weak at the knees when she shows me photos of the late Patrick Leigh Fermor, and another who has a lasting physical pash for Joseph Banks (1743‒1820). Mine is for Peter Fleming (1907‒71), older brother of Ian.The good thing about being in love with a dead person is that you can’t be unfaithful; nor can you feel too jealous of the person’s love affairs with other people. On the contrary, it’s almost a pleasure to luxuriate in imagining those love affairs. So I think: lucky, lucky Celia Johnson! In real life, the man who adored her was not Trevor Howard of Brief Encounter but Peter Fleming of the joyously laughing smile, the sinewy forearms and the sublime prose. While Fleming was halfway through the seven-month journey from Peking to India in 1935 that he would immortalize in News from Tartary, Celia received a letter from him that included the words, ‘My darling Celia, whom I love . . .’ I like to imagine her opening the envelope and reading and rereading those words, in his handwriting. I also derive a guilty pleasure from luxuriating in the fact that Fleming was very much not in love with the rather masculine woman he was travelling with on that journey – the woman who would also immortalize it, in her book Forbidden Journey. That woman was Ella Maillart (1903‒97), nicknamed Kini, an international skier and Olympic sailor who also played hockey for Switzerland. The two had met in 1934 when they found themselves drinking beer together in a London nightclub; Kini had casually asked Fleming, ‘How do I get into the Soviet Republic in South China?’ and Fleming had replied, ‘You don’t.’ The exchange turned out to be the catalyst for embarking on a journey together to prove the statement false. When Fleming introduces Kini in News from Tartary, he describes her as ‘tall, rather good-looking, with a brown face and fair hair’. Not ‘very good-looking’ or even plain ‘good-looking’. ‘Rather good- looking’ is brutal, a scarcely veiled euphemism for ‘unattractive and looks like a man’. Did Kini’s heart sink when she read that description? Fleming was even more open about his lack of attraction to her in a letter to his friend Rupert Hart-Davis, quoted in the biography of Fleming written by Duff Hart-Davis and published while Kini was still alive: ‘The Swiss is bearing up well, and we remain on speaking though not always in my case on listening terms; she is an honest soul and quite useful.’ But, ‘As far as the Affections go, she will never mean more to me than a yak.’ But, strangely, it worked. The two intrepid travellers were united in their determination to complete the journey. ‘When we got to Peking,’ Fleming writes, ‘it was at once apparent that the chances of reaching India overland were infinitesimal.’ To do so required passing through Sinkiang (now Xinjiang), a vast province that had been cut off from the rest of China since the civil war of 1934, during which the Soviets had taken over, pushing out the Tungan (Chinese Mongol) rebels. Any European who had tried to enter Sinkiang in the past year had either been imprisoned or murdered. Fleming wanted to find out exactly what was going on in Sinkiang and to write about it for The Times, before publishing it in book form. But would he and Maillart be allowed in, and once in, out? On every page, the dread of being sent back is palpable. But border officials everywhere seemed to turn to putty when confronted with Fleming’s Etonian charm. Setting out on a ride of 3,500 miles, Fleming writes, is ‘like sitting down to read The Faerie Queene right through, only worse’. We’ve all tried that, so we know what he means. Travelling on bucking pony, on bony camel, on ignoble donkey and on tired foot, sometimes with just a guide, sometimes as part of a huge Mongol caravan, they edge their way round the vast salty lake of Koko Nor, and across thousands of miles of the Tsaidam marshes and the Taklamakan desert. Depending on the weather, the scene looks like either ‘a couple of chapters out of Exodus’ or ‘the Retreat from Moscow’. As with Tolkien, the reader lives every minute of the desolation, empathizing with the exhausted load-bearing beasts, and relishing the longed-for arrivals in friendly villages, even if some of them turn out to be no more than half a dozen dilapidated yurts. When Fleming and Maillart eventually lumber into Kashgar, in the far west of Sinkiang, they discover they’ve been officially reported as missing. Kini talks a lot, and sometimes she yodels. At a happy moment on the journey she writes, ‘I could have shouted for joy, and the echoes rang with my Alpine songs.’ Oh, Kini, how I feel for you! You shared a tent with Peter for months, crossing thousands of miles of desert à deux, washing your faces in the frying-pan; he let you use his gun-cleaning rod as a skewer to cook the meat he’d shot; you mended his clothes and cooked him a delicious curry on his twenty-eighth birthday; he was utterly charming to you throughout the journey; but the only time he laid hands on you was when he massaged you to soothe your lumbago. The only times you touched him – I counted – were (1) when you caught him and saved his life when he nearly fell out of a lorry, (2) when he asked you to give him a haircut, and (3) at this moment in the middle of the Taklamakan desert:
That is a poignant moment: poignant, because it becomes clear in Maillart’s account that she is a solitary and rather unloved soul. While Peter chafes at any delay, impatient to stride homewards as fast as possible to his life of popularity as an acclaimed Times writer – and to get back to Scotland in time for the grouse season – Kini writes: ‘I wanted to forget that we had inevitably to return home . . . I should have liked the journey to continue for the rest of my life.’ We glimpse her isolation when, after six months of travelling, with no communication whatsoever from home, they meet some Swedish missionaries.
In the middle of the night I woke with a start and in the darkness made out the head of a baby camel resting on my knees. I could not believe my eyes and put my hand out to stroke the woolly head. But it proved to be Peter’s hair.
They said [wrote Peter] that there was a telegram waiting for me at Gilgit, and this news – for I am a kind of specialist in anticipation – was almost better than receiving the telegram itself.There was indeed a telegram waiting for him, as well as a pile of letters – but there was no mail at all for Kini. Did Peter let on to Kini that he had a glamorous actress girlfriend back in London? I don’t think he did. Celia Johnson certainly had no idea that Peter was travelling with another woman. He had teased Celia the previous year, pretending to be smitten by a glamorous Swiss international skier – and he could not bring himself to admit that he was now travelling, albeit platonically, with that very woman, let alone sleeping in the same tent. So we have the complicated telegram he wrote to Hart-Davis just before his return: ‘DUE MONDAY DEBAG SWISS CAT IF CELIAS COMING CROYDON.’ In other words, ‘Let the cat out of the bag to Celia that I’ve been travelling alone with another woman for the past seven months.’ As you will have gathered, while other people might read the two accounts of the journey as pure travel books, I read them as gripping psychological dramas in which both writers betray more than they mean to about their inner lives. It’s accepted wisdom that Fleming’s News from Tartary, published in 1936, is the classic and readable account of the journey, and that Ella Maillart’s account (first published in French in 1937 as Oasis interdites) is the boring one. News from Tartary was a runaway bestseller; Forbidden Journey was only a modest success. Again, poor Kini! Her informative, carefully descriptive prose doesn’t have a chance against the verbal acrobatics of Fleming. He would never use (as Maillart does) classic travel-book expressions such as ‘Legend has it’ or ‘As if we had not troubles enough’. He would never (as Maillart does) begin a sentence with the history-lesson phrase, ‘In the eleventh century’. Nor would he ever (as she does) actually say that something was funny. Instead, he concocts perfectly formed sentences like this one, describing a hair-raising downhill lorry journey:
The Chinese, either ignorant of or impatient with the orthodox sign-vocabulary, declined on their notice-boards to commit themselves to the exact nature of the peril in wait for the motorist, and merely painted a bold and arresting exclamation mark. As we hurtled downwards the recurrent ‘!’ atoned for its inadequacy as a warning by its charming aptness as a comment.And this one, about a desolate village called Dzunchia that ‘looked, felt and smelt like the end of the world’:
The desert is clean and comfortable, and the Ritz is clean and comfortable; it is on the first of the stages from the desert to the Ritz that you find the real dirt, the real discomfort.And this one, summing up another hopeless Chinese village:
As we arrived at the inn, the building next to it . . . quietly and rather sadly collapsed, crumbling to rubble in a cloud of dust. It was one of those days.Every paragraph contains a gem or two of comic observation like those; Fleming can’t write without being funny about absolutely everything. Reading the two accounts in succession, though, I came to like Maillart’s more serious and less show-offy way of describing things. Fleming’s book, in a way, is about his prose. He revels in his desire not to bore us, or himself, with too many facts or Chinese words: at the forefront of his mind, I think, was the desire to make the editor of The Times roar with laughter. ‘The politics of Asia’, he writes, ‘are richly encrusted with polysyllables scarcely pronounceable, and so similar in their outlandish unfamiliarity that the ordinary reader has the greatest difficulty in distinguishing between a place, a political leader, and a prevailing wind.’ Maillart’s prose is a window on the journey, and nothing more or less. She does occasionally bore us, dividing her chapters up with dreary sub-headings such as ‘Religious Cross-Roads’ and ‘The Gorges of the Altyn Tagh’. She’s fascinated by the political situation in China, cares deeply about it, and wants us to care too. She notices women with bound feet, and maltreated animals, and describes them with great compassion. Whenever she and Peter arrive at a village, the locals crowd round and ask her to cure them of their various illnesses, and she gets out her medicine chest and does her best. When she begins sentences with ‘I caused much hilarity . . .’ that’s a sure sign that what she’s about to write is not going to make us laugh. But there’s more to life than hilarity. I felt for her when she wrote: ‘In his imperturbable wisdom Peter looked on human beings as characters in a comedy. He was bored by my craving to understand the thousands of diverse lives that make up humanity.’ Both carried Leica cameras, and both books are full of evocative photographs. Peter’s photographs are a comédie humaine of stock characters whose antics he has nailed; Kini’s bring out the kindness and sweetness of the people they met. Fleming boldly devotes a whole chapter to describing how the two of them got on. ‘By all the conventions of desert island fiction,’ he writes, ‘we should have fallen madly in love with each other; by all the laws of human nature we should have driven each other crazy with irritation. As it was, we missed these almost equally embarrassing alternatives by a wide margin.’ It’s a touching chapter, expressing the genuine respect and liking they felt for each other. Kini’s book has no such chapter; but she does occasionally let rip: ‘Peter returned from his hunting, happy at having had a good day while I minded the house.’ Or ‘I made no bones about telling Peter what I thought of people who travelled too fast and took no time to learn anything about anything.’ I gaze at the final photograph of them at the end of Forbidden Journey, captioned: ‘Delhi: the expedition breaks up.’ They’re side by side on the tarmac at the airport, smartened up, Peter thin and smiling with a pipe clamped between his teeth, Kini also smiling and wearing a skirt after months in trousers. They’re about to go their separate ways: Peter to be blissfully reunited with Celia, whom he would soon marry; Kini to go home to a life of spinsterhood. ‘On the road,’ Peter writes, ‘we had, I think, found much the same kind of happiness in much the same kind of things; and I would have liked the end of the road to have given us both equal pleasure.’
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 54 © Ysenda Maxtone Graham 2017
About the contributor
Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s grandparents had Peter and Celia Fleming to supper in Chelsea in the 1930s, the lucky things. Ysenda’s latest book, Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools, 1939–1979, is available from Slightly Foxed.