When a book opens with the author reading the London Time’s Agony Column, and the author is English I am pretty sure I am going to enjoy it. The Agony column, a favorite of Sherlock Holmes, was a sort of advice column mixed with miscellaneous random or statements
That is how Peter Fleming starts out One’s Company: A Journey to China, a journal of his trip to China in 1933 as a special correspondent of the London Times. The book is basically dividend into two segments. The first is about his departure from England, travel through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway and his time in Japanese occupied Manchuria.
On his way to Manchuria he stops and visits his brother Ian Fleming, a reporter at that time just returning from Moscow where he was covering the Metro-Vickers Trial and who later working for the British Secret service and then authoring the James Bond books. His train trip is interrupted with a derailment but is relatively uneventful.
In Manchuria he visits cities and goes out on an anti-guerilla campaign with Japanese and local forces. I picked up a good deal of history from that era. It was an era of warlords and he meets people that served with or against many and drops names such as One-Arm Sutton, Chan Tso-Lin (Zhang Zuolin), Henry Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China and Feng Yu-hsiang (Feng Yuxiang) among others.
Leaving Northern China he heads south to where the Nationalists and Communists are at each other’s throats. He manages to get to the front lines twice, but just misses any action. He does however meet Chiang Kai-Shek, who was one of the few officials or officers to impress him.
I love Fleming’s writing style and his ability to frame a scene. He does not go in for flashy language or overheated prose. Overall it is rather droll. He is constantly wishing for excitement, a fight with bandits, and battle with the Red Army, or anything. His one brush with danger is with a bounding boulder. His travels take him to areas in China that were at that time so remote and rarely visited by non-Chinese that in one case he is mistaken for being Japanese.
The book is just an enjoyable snapshot of a time prior to World War II where a huge part of the world was already at war and the West simply was not paying much attention.
Years ago I had read a previous book by Fleming, Brazilian Adventure, about his joining an expedition to find the lost explorer Percy Fawcett. The Lost City of Z is a recent movie about Fawcett. The trip failed but I loved the book. Sadly all I can really recall about the book is that I enjoyed it. An interesting note is that he is discussing the adventure with a fellow traveler in One’s Company when they find a scrap of newspaper that mentions another expedition has returned in failure after searching for the lost explorer.
Fleming was quite a traveler in his youth and it is interesting that he notes in the book that he dislikes sightseeing, does not describe scenes well and dislikes traveling with others, hence the title.
There are some odd things that I enjoyed about this specific version of the book. Inside was a cutout picture of the author from what appears to be a French magazine. He is looking over his shoulder wearing a fur lined parka and smoking his pipe, somewhere in the Far East. The cover has him playing what appears to be solitaire on a small trunk while also smoking his pipe. He looks very engrossed in the game.
On the inside of the cover is a bookplate that says “Ex Libris Mach and Mike Heimlich.” The version I have was printed in the U.K. and this has made me wonder who owned the book previously. I gave a quick attempt to track down the owners on line. A couple of hits but nothing I would hang my hat on. Then the book has a note written in red ink in the back saying to copy some pages for Judah B.
Two minor things I disliked about the book. The lack of maps is first and foremost. He visits a lot of small villages and towns and it is very hard to trace his steps. The second is the lack of photos. He talks a bit about taking numerous pictures; it would have been nice to see them.
One’s Company is a nice addition to my collection of travel books. I think I have always enjoyed this genre ever since I read a children’s version of Robinson Caruso as a young child. I know that technically it is not a real travel book but it is what ignited the flame.