Peter Fleming (writer)

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Peter Fleming

Robert Peter Fleming, OBE (31 May 1907 – 18 August 1971) was a British adventurer and travel writer.[1] He was the elder brother of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.

Early life[edit]

Peter Fleming was one of four sons of the barrister and MP Valentine Fleming, who was killed in action in 1917, having served as MP for Henley from 1910. Peter's younger brother was Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books. Fleming was educated at Eton College, where he edited the Eton College Chronicle. The Peter Fleming Owl (the English meaning of "Strix", the name under which he later wrote for The Spectator) is still awarded every year to the best contributor to the Chronicle. He went on from Eton to Christ Church, Oxford, and graduated with a first-class degree in English. He was a member of the controversial Bullingdon Club during his time there.[2] In 1935 he married the actress Celia Johnson (1908–1982), best known for her roles in the films Brief Encounter and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.


In Brazil[edit]

In April 1932 Fleming replied to an advertisement in the personal columns of The Times: "Exploring and sporting expedition, under experienced guidance, leaving England June to explore rivers central Brazil, if possible ascertain fate Colonel Percy Fawcett; abundant game, big and small; exceptional fishing; room two more guns; highest references expected and given." He then joined the expedition, organised by Robert Churchward, to São Paulo, then overland to the rivers Araguaia and Tapirapé, heading towards the last-known position of the Fawcett expedition. During the inward journey the expedition was riven by increasing disagreements as to its objectives and plans, centred particularly on its local leader, whom Fleming disguised as "Major Pingle" when he wrote about the expedition. Fleming and Roger Pettiward (a school and university friend recruited onto the expedition as a result of a chance encounter with Fleming) led a breakaway group.

This group continued for several days up the Tapirapé to São Domingo, from where Fleming, Pettiward, Neville Priestley and one of the Brazilians hired by the expedition set out to find evidence of Fawcett's fate on their own. After acquiring two Tapirapé guides the party began a march to the area where Fawcett was reported to have last been seen. They made slow progress for several days, losing the Indian guides and Neville to foot infection, before admitting defeat.

The expedition's return journey was made down the River Araguaia to Belém. It became a closely fought race between Fleming’s party and "Major Pingle", the prize being to be the first to report home, and thus to gain the upper hand in the battles over blame and finances that were to come. Fleming's party narrowly won. The expedition returned to England in November 1932.

Fleming's book about the expedition, Brazilian Adventure, has sold well ever since it was first published in 1933, and it is still in print.

In Asia[edit]

Fleming travelled from Moscow to Peking via the Caucasus, the Caspian, Samarkand, Tashkent, the Turksib Railway and the Trans-Siberian Railway to Peking as a special correspondent of The Times. His experiences were written up in One's Company (1934). He then went overland in company of Ella Maillart from China to India on a journey written up in News from Tartary (1936). These two books were combined as Travels in Tartary: One's Company and News from Tartary (1941). All three volumes were published by Jonathan Cape.

According to Nicolas Clifford, for Fleming China “had the aspect of a comic opera land whose quirks and oddities became grist for the writer, rather than deserving any respect or sympathy in themselves”.[3] In One's Company, for example, Fleming reports that Beijing was “lacking in charm”, Harbin was a city of “no easily definable character”. Changchun was “entirely characterless”, and Shenyang was “non-descript and suburban". However, Fleming also provides insights into Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state in Manchuria, which helped contemporary readers to understand Chinese resentment and resistance. In the course of these travels Fleming met and interviewed many prominent figures in Central Asia and China, including the Chinese Muslim General Ma Hushan, the Chinese Muslim Taoyin of Kashgar, Ma Shaowu, and Pu Yi.

Of Travels in Tartary, Owen Lattimore remarked that Fleming, who "passes for an easy-going amateur, is in fact an inspired amateur whose quick appreciation, especially of people, and original turn of phrase, echoing P. G. Wodehouse in only a very distant and cultured way, have created a unique kind of travel book". Lattimore added that it "is only in the political news from Tartary that there is a disappointment," as, in his view, Fleming offers "a simplified explanation, in terms of Red intrigue and Bolshevik villains, which does not make sense." [4]

Stuart Stevens retraced Peter Fleming's route and wrote his own travel book.[5]

Wartime Service and After[edit]

Just before war was declared, Peter Fleming, then a reserve officer in the Grenadier Guards, was recruited by the War Office research section investigating the potential of irregular warfare (MIR). His initial task was to develop ideas to assist the Chinese guerrillas fighting the Japanese. He served in the Norwegian campaign with the prototype commando units - Independent Companies - but in May 1940 he was tasked with research into the potential use of the new Local Defence Volunteers (later the Home Guard) as guerrilla troops. His ideas were first incorporated into General Thorne's XII Corps Observation Unit, forerunner of the GHQ Auxiliary Units. Fleming recruited his brother, Richard, then serving in the Faroe Islands, to provide a core of Lovat Scout instructors to his teams of LDV volunteers. When Colin Gubbins was appointed to head the new Auxiliary Units, he incorporated many of Peter's ideas, which aimed to create secret commando teams of Home Guard in the coastal districts most liable to the risk of invasion. Their role was to launch sabotage raids on the flanks and rear of any invading army, in support of regular troops, but they were never intended as a post-occupation 'resistance' force - having a life expectancy of only two weeks.[6] Peter Fleming later served in Greece, but his principal service, from 1942 to the end of the war, was as head of D Division, in charge of military deception operations in Southeast Asia, based in New Delhi, India. He was awarded the Order of the Cloud and Banner, a Chinese military honour, and in 1945 he received an OBE (Military Division) for his services.[7][citation needed]

After the war Peter Fleming retired to squiredom at Nettlebed, Oxfordshire. He is buried in Nettlebed Churchyard. His gravestone reads:

He travelled widely in far places;
Wrote, and was widely read.
Soldiered, saw some of danger's faces,
Came home to Nettlebed.

The squire lies here, his journeys ended -
Dust, and a name on a stone -
Content, amid the lands he tended,
To keep this rendezvous alone.


After the death of his brother Ian, Peter Fleming served on the board of Glidrose, Ltd, the company purchased by Ian to hold the literary rights to his professional writing, particularly the James Bond novels and short stories. Peter also tried to become a substitute father for Ian's surviving son, Caspar, who overdosed on narcotics in his twenties.

Peter and Celia Fleming remained married until his death of a heart attack in 1971, while on a shooting expedition near Glencoe in Argyll, Scotland. He was also survived by their three children:

  • (Valentine) Nicholas Fleming (1939–1996), known as Nichol Fleming, writer and squire of Nettlebed. He deposited Peter Fleming's papers for public access at the University of Reading in 1975. These include several unpublished works, as well as the manuscripts of several of his books that are now out of print. Nichol Fleming's partner for many years was the merchant banker Christopher Roxburghe Balfour (b. 1941), brother of Neil Balfour, second husband (1969–78) of Princess Jelizaveta of Yugoslavia. Nettlebed is now jointly owned by his sisters. (Source: obituary in The Independent and
  • (Roberta) Katherine Fleming (b. 1946), writer and publisher, is now Kate Grimond, wife of Johnny Grimond, foreign editor of The Economist. Johnny is the elder surviving son of the late British Liberal Party leader Jo Grimond, and grandson maternally of Violet Bonham-Carter, herself daughter of the British Prime Minister H. H. Asquith. Kate and John have three children, Jessie (a journalist), Rose (an actress turned organic foods entrepreneur) and Georgia (a journalist at The Economist online).
  • Lucy Fleming (born 1947), now Lucy Williams, is an actress. In the 1970s she starred as Jenny in the BBC's apocalyptic fiction series Survivors. She was first married in 1971 to Joseph "Joe" Laycock (d. 1980), son of a family friend Robert Laycock and his wife Angela Dudley Ward, and was on honeymoon at the time of her father's sudden death in Argyllshire. Lucy and Joe had two sons and a daughter, Flora. Flora and her father, Joe, were drowned in a boating accident in 1980. At the time of their deaths Lucy and Joe were separated on good terms. Lucy later married the actor and writer Simon Williams. Her sons are Diggory and Robert Laycock.

Peter Fleming was the godfather of the British author and journalist Duff Hart-Davis, who wrote Peter Fleming: A Biography, published by Jonathan Cape in 1974). Duff's father Rupert Hart-Davis, a publisher, was good friends with Peter, who gave him a home on the Nettlebed estate for many years and gave financial backing to his publishing ventures. (Source: "Celia Johnson", retrieved 17 September 2013).


The Peter Fleming Award, worth £9,000, is given by the Royal Geographic Society for a "research project that seeks to advance geographical science".[8]

Fleming's book about the British military expedition to Tibet in 1903 to 1904 is credited in the Chinese film Red River Valley (1997).


  • "Public opinion in England is sharply divided on the subject of Russia. On the one hand you have the crusty majority, who believe it to be a hell on earth; on the other you have the half-baked minority who believe it to be a terrestrial paradise in the making. Both cling to their opinions with the tenacity, respectively, of the die-hard and the fanatic. Both are hopelessly wrong." – One's Company
  • The recorded history of Chinese civilization covers a period of four thousand years.
The Population of China is estimated at 450 million.
China is larger than Europe.
The author of this book is twenty-six years old.
He has spent, altogether, about seven months in China.
He does not speak Chinese.
Preface, One’s Company

Fleming's works[edit]

Fleming was a special correspondent for The Times and often wrote under the pen-name "Strix" (Latin for "screech owl") an essayist for The Spectator.


  • 1933 Brazilian Adventure — Exploring the Brazilian jungle in search of the lost Colonel Percy Fawcett.
  • 1934 One's Company: A Journey to China in 1933 — Travels through the USSR, Manchuria and China. Later reissued as half of Travels in Tartary.
  • 1936 News from Tartary: A Journey from Peking to Kashmir — Journey from Peking to Srinagar via Sinkiang. He was accompanied on this journey by Ella Maillart (Kini). Later reissued as half of Travels in Tartary.
  • 1952 A Forgotten Journey — A diary Fleming kept during a journey through Russia and Manchuria in 1934. Reprinted as To Peking: A Forgotten Journey from Moscow to Manchuria (2009, ISBN 978-1-84511-996-6)
  • 1955 Tibetan Marches – A translation from French of Caravane vers Bouddha by André Migot
  • 1956 My Aunt's Rhinoceros: And Other Reflections — A collection of essays written (as "Strix") for The Spectator.
  • 1957 Operation Sea Lion — an account of the planned Nazi invasion of Britain in 1940.
  • 1957 Invasion 1940 — an account of British anti-invasion preparations of the Second World War.
  • 1957 With the Guards to Mexico: And Other Excursions — A collection of essays written for The Spectator.
  • 1958 The Gower Street Poltergeist — A collection of essays written for The Spectator.
  • 1959 The Siege at Peking — An account of the Boxer Rebellion and the European-led siege of the Imperial capital.
  • 1961 Bayonets to Lhasa: The First Full Account of the British Invasion of Tibet in 1904
  • 1961 Goodbye to the Bombay Bowler — A collection of essays written for The Spectator.
  • 1963 The Fate of Admiral Kolchak — a study of the White Army leader Admiral Kolchak who attempted to save the Imperial Russian family at Ekaterinburg in 1918.


  • 1940 The Flying Visit — A humorous novel about an unintended visit to Britain by Adolf Hitler. Illustrated by David Low.
  • 1942 A Story to Tell: And Other Tales — A collection of short stories.
  • 1952 The Sixth Column: A Singular Tale of Our Times
  • The Sett (unfinished, unpublished)[9]
Short fiction
  • "The Kill" (1931)[10]
  • "Felipe" (1937)[11]


  1. ^ "Obituary Colonel Peter Fleming, Author and explorer". The Times, 20 August 1971 p14 column F.
  2. ^ David Cannadine (2004). In Churchill's Shadow: Confronting the Past in Modern Britain. 
  3. ^ Nicholas J. Clifford. "A Truthful Impression of the Country": British and American Travel Writing in China, 1880-1949. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. pp. 132-33
  4. ^ Pacific Affairs 9.4 (1936): 605-606 [1]
  5. ^ Stuart Stevens (1988). Night Train to Turkistan: Modern Adventures Along China's Ancient Silk Road. Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 978-0-87113-190-4. 
  6. ^ Atkin, Malcolm (2015). Fighting Nazi Occupation: british Resistance 1939 - 1945. Barnsley: Pen and Sword. pp. 24, 26, 31,–2, 56–61, 66, 72, 76–7, 87, 172, 181. ISBN 978-1-47383-377-7. 
  7. ^ "Author bio], I.B. Tauris Publishers. Retrieved 2010-08-11.". [dead link]
  8. ^ "Peter Fleming Award". Retrieved 2010-10-27. 
  9. ^ Hart-Davis 1974, p. 316.
  10. ^ "Bibliography: The Kill". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. 
  11. ^ "Bibliography: Felipe". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. 
Cited works
  • Hart-Davis, Duff (1974). Peter Fleming: A Biography. London: Jonathan Cape. ISBN 0-224-01028-X. 
  • Clifford, Nicholas J (2001). A Truthful Impression of the Country: British and American Travel Writing in China, 1880-1949. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0472111973. 
  • La Gazette des Français du Paraguay - Peter Fleming Un Aventurier au Brésil - Peter Fleming Un Aventurero en Brasil - Numéro 5 Année 1, Asuncion Paraguay.

External links[edit]