Monday 28 April 2014

One's Company

Looking for china in one of our sheds, I found a number of boxes full of books. My primary feeling was sinking heart - that I had buried these books for 16 years in conditions that were far from ideal and that I had survived for all that time without missing their physical presence. Books like that are just clutter. But I was delirah to discover in the same box three books of 1930s travel which are worth reading again because they did so delight me when I read them first.  The first two were a matching pair of Patrick Leigh Fermor's trilogy A Time of Gifts and Between Woods and Water, which I've recently tribbed.  With commendable synchronicity I was chatting just recently about the third of these re-found books with my US pal P.  It is One's Company by Peter Fleming.

All of these books have two things going for them: they give an idiosyncratic and evocative view of events distant in both time and place and they are really well written.  People who have been taught to write grammatically correct English tend to snicker at the Da Vinci Code and other books by Dan Brown: the illiteracy is sometimes enough to stop the flow of the racing narrative because you can't follow who is doing what to whom.  When Fermor left England with a copy of Horace as one of two books to carry him across the continent it was in Latin. Before dropping out of his fancy school he had been formally educated in the ancient tongue.  That meant that he could recognise a gerund, a subjunctive clause, a preposition or a phrasal verb in either Latin or English.  The Horace for a contemporary 18 year old to take Inter-railing round Europe would be more likely Rumpole of the Bailey.  I also went to a fancy school but was useless at Latin and I was unable to translate its formality into better writing in English. Having O'Manch staying with us for 4 months learning English as foreign language has been an education for us all. When I was at school I thought all that grammar was just an impediment to the communication; I now realise that grammar is essential for communicating your ideas unambiguously.

Fleming also went to a fancy school - his grandfather was a merchant banker so there was plenty of money sloshing about the family. They still give a Peter Fleming award at that school to recognise excellence in literary composition and he went on, effortlessly, to snag a first class honours degree in English from Oxford.  He could have stayed at home in the world of the London literati writing, say, for The Times and the Spectator and he did that, but he also left England and travelled into the interior of South America (Brazilian Adventure), China (One's Company) and Central Asia (Travels in Tartary). These, particularly the first, are the funniest, most laconic and least pretentious travel books you are ever likely to read. Unless you follow them up with A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush or pretty much anything else written by Eric Newby.  If you like your upper lip to be stiff while reading, these are the chaps to follow.

I've had occasion to remark about our unconsidered certainties - the background that cannot be seen and so is never questioned: that homosexuality is a kind of curable disease, that it's okay to hit children with sticks, that life is sacred, that boxing is a sport in which civilised people might engage. It would not be true to say that there is a vein of anti-semitism in One's Company - nothing compared to what central Europe was getting geared up to in the 1930s - but casual use of Jewish racial stereotypes (salesmen, clever) has modern readers brought up all standing. Nobody nowadays thinks that a pipe is an essential piece of kit to take to the Brazilian jungle. You will notice this of many books written before WWII. It would be about as true to say that Peter Fleming or Agatha Christie was anti-semitic as to say that the Iona Institute is homophobic or that the driver of the Clapham omnibus (and most of his passengers) is racist. After WWII, of course, in Europe there was rather less point in uttering casual racial stereotypes about Jews because there weren't any.

There's a nice critical tribute by Ben Downing to celebrate Peter Fleming's centenary. And here's an attempt by Robert Ryan to bring him out of eclipse by his younger and ultimately more famous brother Ian '007' Fleming.  But forget all that, go and get any of Fleming's books out of the library: real life on the edge trumps fantasy however fantastic.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for reminding me of Flemming and Newby's somewhat self embarrassed travel books, what I love about them is that they themselves are all too aware of the danger of sounding like TRAVEL writers, when really they were just writers writing about their travels. All you have to do is read Eric's chapter about learning about rock climbing for two days in Wales in preparation for what was considered one of the most inaccessible mountain regions of the world, and Peter and his friend talking in "explorer" speak in the wilds of South America in gentle mockery, to realise that they knew it was about the experience and not the having experience. A good travel writer can describe walking what is for us the normal experience of visiting a local supermarket and describing in a way you have never experienced. There's my rereading covered for the next month.