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A fickle jade

Kate Grimond on her father, Strix, former columnist of The Spectator

30 May 2007

3:28 PM

30 May 2007

3:28 PM

Strix would have been 100 on 31 May. Before he had decided on a screech owl as his nom de plume, he had been Moth, and occasionally Scadavay and Apemantus. He had joined The Spectator in 1931 as a bumptious young man with a first in English from Oxford, where he had also been editor of Isis and president of the OUDS. His name was Peter Fleming and his association with The Spectator lasted for nearly 40 years, though it is as a travel writer that he is now remembered by aficionados.

‘A relaxed and somehow amateurish atmosphere pervaded No. 99 Gower Street in 1931,’ he wrote, ‘and it was comparatively easy to introduce such revolutionary innovations as the appointment of a film critic (me).’ After a few months in the job, he — characteristically, as it was to prove — got leave to travel to Manchuria.

When I was half way across Russia, Britain went off the gold standard and in the ensuing economic blizzard The Spectator’s small staff was drastically reduced. But they couldn’t sack me, because nobody knew where I was. When I returned early in 1932 to the half empty offices everybody was non-plussed and in the confusion I was appointed Literary Editor. I also became the dramatic critic and wrote a weekly pseudonymous essay. Under the benevolent editorship of Sir Evelyn Wrench, who was often abroad, it was an idyllic existence. Every Tuesday Wilson Harris bounded into the office, produced from his despatch case — like a keeper releasing ferrets from a sack — a leader and a sheaf of paragraphs, and bounded out again. Apart from that the day-to-day running of the paper devolved largely on me, on a charming old man called Wilbraham Cooper and on Derek Verschoyle, who was then I think 21.

An ostentatious erudition marked his early writing. He could be flippant and scathing but he had a joie de vivre with which he invigorated a then lacklustre journal. It was after the war, in 1946, that he settled in to writing as Strix. The arrogant young man about town was tempered into the polished and ironic essayist with a detached and amused view of life, mainly from the country. His style, though flawless and never prolix, strikes the reader as leisured and relatively formal today. Sentences have since contracted and prose is more conversational.

He wrote about all manner of things, but his passions, which remained constant, were shooting, Shakespeare, the use of English and the countryside (a term he would have despised — it was ‘the country’ in those days). He had little interest in domestic politics and, unlike his brother, Ian Fleming, little in the good things in life, being impervious to comfort and uninterested in food. Short of small talk in person and ham-fisted in company, he was fluent and witty in print and could fashion an elegant confection out of a slender subject — the loss of a typewriter, the correcting of galley proofs, a heron on St Paul’s cathedral, the lack of post on Sunday (he described the postman as ‘the symbol of Method, the ambassador of Bureaucracy, the herald of Debt’). A discourse on the use of ‘in to’ and ‘into’, entitled ‘With Fowler to Chungking’, was characteristic.

‘Fame is a fickle jade,’ he wrote in an early piece about some new plays about writers, ‘and the author who entrusts his posthumous reputation to his works alone cannot be confident that he will escape neglect, for he who aims at the tastes of posterity draws a bow at a venture.’

‘Ordeal by Holiday’, from the Thirties, would come under a plus ça change tag.

The Holiday Spirit to … which so many references are made at certain times of year in the columns of newspapers, is something very different from the ‘free and holiday-rejoicing spirit’ of which Lamb once wrote . . . Whether he is advancing with all the abandon of a pebble in a glacier, in what the Americans — aptly enough — call a ‘traffic snarl’ seven miles long, or whether he is shuffling in a disgruntled procession to have his passport inspected, and wondering why his rulers call him a world-citizen when they clearly regard him as an international crook — in whatever form the Englishman is tasting the sweets of freedom and leisure, the Holiday Spirit of today can have no softening effect on his character.

On the flimsiness of theatre programmes:

Alas for the modern fashion in playbills! One hundred, two hundred years ago it would have been ‘Mrs Scott (friend to Lucy)’ or ‘Mrs Scott (a creature of the Duke’s)’ or even more categorically ‘Mrs Scott (a comical old fishwife, conceiving herself to be in love with Charles)’. Today you find none of these aids to memory. The name Mrs Scott suggests nothing. She may have been the hero’s mistress or his Member of Parliament: she may have been a governess or a go-between; she may have been all four.

There often lurked in his writing a parodic hinterland of stylised Victorian life, Edward- ian house parties, ‘gadzooks’ lingo.

Fleming’s travel books, in particular Brazilian Adventure (1933) and News from Tartary (1936), loaded with understatement and wry humour, epitomised the genre of 1930s’ travel writing. ‘Hitherto’, he wrote later, ‘travel-writers had been travellers first, writers second; but now manner became as important as matter, and sometimes more so,’ and in this he was something of a pioneer.

The first of these journeys — again with time off from the obliging Spectator — was to the Amazon to search for Colonel Fawcett, who had gone missing there seven years earlier. The trip failed in its purpose but succeeded in making Fleming a bestselling young author. Brazilian Adventure was greeted with enthusiasm by distinguished writers of the day. Evelyn Waugh, while full of praise (‘I am putting it in the highest class’), did criticise the self-consciousness of the writer.

News from Tartary, the account of an arduous seven-month journey that he made by foot, by pony and by camel with a formidable young Swiss woman, Ella Maillart, from China to Kashmir, brought further celebrity. It was a journey of 3,500 miles over remote and harsh land in which the final innings of the Great Game were being played. Noting that Fleming’s ‘own stylistic capacity makes him blush’, Harold Nicolson wondered whether he would ever shed his self- consciousness and ‘allow his love of writing to triumph’. Perhaps he never fully did.

He went on contributing to The Spectator, producing hundreds of fourth leaders (those light addenda to the leader page) for the Times, and writing books on historical incidents in countries through which he had travelled — The Siege at Peking, Bayonets to Lhasa — as well as an enjoyable early account of the preparations in place in 1940 for a German invasion.

In 1964, his birthday was omitted from the daily list in the Times. He claimed, in ‘Down a Peg’, that he had regarded his appearance on it with indifference.

My disappearance from it, however, is another matter. One knew … that one was going steadily downhill, losing one’s grip, getting dimmer and dimmer … one recognised the necessity for culling the top birthday folk …. One faced the situation, in fact, with a steady eye and a stiff upper lip. All the same .…

He finally laid down his pen for The Spectator at the end of the Sixties, being wilfully out of touch with that off-beat decade. One of his very first articles had been about duck flighting in South China; one of his last began, ‘I propose to write this week about game books.’ This may have been the last straw for the edit
or of the time.

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