Monday, July 20, 2009

Pistols and Peter Fleming

A closing bookstore is always a sad sight, but that sadness is mitigated significantly when the closing is driven by a desire to retire rather than a failure to profit, and it's further mitigated by a last-days free book bonanza . . . especially if one of the books on offer is by Peter Fleming!

That's what rocketlass happened across at a used bookstore in South Haven, Michigan last week when we were off on a family vacation, Fleming's My Aunt's Rhinoceros and Other Writings (1958), a volume of essays and short pieces. I've championed Fleming--Ian's less well-known older brother--in this space before, but you needn't take my word for it: he's recently turned up in posts on the wonderful Times Archive blog and, in honor of his just-passed centenary, the Telegraph.

I know him primarily as a writer of travel books, the best example of which is his Brazilian Adventure (1933), in which he, like many before and after him, goes off three-quarters cocked in search of Percy Fawcett's lost expedition. His rackety, danger-courting, pre-liability insurance adventures are a pure joy, their occasional somewhat dated imperialist pretensions more than made up for by Fleming's very British self-deprecating dry wit.

I've not yet read My Aunt's Rhinoceros, but the following passage from it, which rocketlass, in a neat reversal of roles, couldn't help but read aloud to me, is a nice distillation of Fleming's charms as both writer and traveling companion:
"Have you," said the note from a friend, "a spare revolver I could take with me to Kenya?" Obscurely gratified by the assumption underlying this request, which was that I am the sort of chap who (a) owns several revolvers and (b) needs at least one of them in the conduct of his day-to-day life, I fell to pondering on pistols and on how they have come down in the world. They are still carried by criminals and by army officers; but they have, I think, ceased to be a gentleman's weapon.
He continues from there to Anthony Hope and Bulldog Drummond all the way to Martians in the space of less than two pages. Really, why are you still reading this rather than ordering yourself a copy? Are you not convinced? How about this, from his essay "Hero-Bashing":
One of the worst occupational hazards of being a modern hero, whether self-made of State-manufactured, must be that your doings become--and remain--news. In the old days, after slaying your dragon, you married the king's youngest daughter and rested on your laurels. You were not immediately involved in a number of activities--such as being interviewed, writing your autobiography,, making after-dinner speechers and advertising ball-point pens--for which you had neither aptitude nor relish. You were not, in other words, either exploited or encouraged to exploit yourself.
A sentiment to which his brother's great creation, James Bond, would surely at least give an agreeable raised eyebrow.

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