Bella’s Book Club: A story of danger and daring in the Himalayas that never grows old
News from Tartary by Peter Fleming
This is a wonderfully atmospheric tale of travelling through Peking to Kashmir in 1935. It’s written by Peter Fleming, who was the older brother of Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond) and married to Celia Johnson (star of British cinema classic Brief Encounter.) He was a glamorous Old Etonian journalist, explorer and, by all accounts, an all-round heart throb.
We journey with Fleming and his female companion Kini (Ella Maillart), who was actually an intrepid traveller in her own right – a Swiss adventurer, travel writer and photographer who was also an Olympian. (Reading between the lines we come to realise that it is Maillart doing much of the hard work – dealing with sick animals, dishonest guides and foul weather – while Fleming does the manly bit in the foreground and gets to interview all the interesting people. I haven’t read her own account of the trip: Forbidden Journey, but I hear it differs quite a lot from his!)
I read this books years ago and again recently, and was quite stunned at what Fleming and Maillart put themselves through and just how dangerous it was. He undertook the journey as a correspondent for The Times, but he wouldn’t have needed the money and it’s clear he went simply because he wanted to. It’s a fascinating snapshot of intrepid travel, and a region, at a time when you could just up sticks do that sort of thing. You probably couldn’t do it now, and they could barely do it then, there were so many different factions warring in the region, all of them quite likely to shoot you if provoked.
Warning! Being written by a man and of its time, there is plenty of casual racism, animals have a very tough time, and attitudes, at least Fleming’s, are cheerfully, though not nastily, imperialistic.