12 February 2008

On Peter Fleming’s rook rifle

Comments & Replies

‘Mr. Money-Coutts evidently belongs to the “keep a bullet for the woman” school, and has no doubt shot his way out of many a tight corner among the savage nomads of Hertfordshire…’

A correspondence from The Times, London, 20 November – 2 December, 1935.

Peter Fleming (1907-1971) was a well-born English traveller and the brother of Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels. At midnight on February 15, 1935 he left Peking together with Ella Maillart, a Swiss athlete and writer, with the aim of following the old silk route over 3,500 miles to India. There had been a party that night, and the travellers were accompanied to the railway station by expatriate friends in fancy dress. Remembering how they were waved off by ‘pierrettes and apaches in fur coats and burnt cork’, Fleming declared Peking like Oxford in being so ‘characteristic’. He was also struck by a feeling of trepidation as one well-wisher ‘renowned for his collection of portraits of missionaries in stations likely to be bandited, took our photographs in a somewhat ghoulish manner; and the train rumbled dubiously off into the night’.

This was indeed a dangerous undertaking. No westerner had successfully completed the journey since the American Owen Lattimore, who had travelled overland through the province of Sinkiang (Xinjiang) in 1926-7. Though no longer ravaged by ‘bloody civil war’ between communists and nationalists, Sinkiang was now closed to western visitors by its Soviet-friendly provincial government (it was, so Maillart would write, surrounded by a ‘Chinese wall’). They had to proceed by stealth, and without ever really expecting to succeed in their adventure.

On returning to London after completing the seven month expedition, Fleming, like Maillart, wrote a best-selling book about the experience.  Before that, however, he produced a series of articles in his role as special correspondent for The Times. The following passage from the first of these prompted a number of seasoned Englishmen to pick up their pens…

The Times, 18 November 1935, 15.

We travelled light; the paraphernalia and accoutrements which contribute to the comfort and efficiency of a proper expedition would have been the death of ours. Large quantities of baggage, stores, and tents would have stimulated the curiosity – and the cupidity – of frontier officials to a dangerous degree: and the event proved that we should often have found it impossible to get animals to carry the stuff. Our staple foodstuffs we bought or shot as we went along; apart from clothes and a few books we took with us from Peking only the following supplies: – 2lb. of marmalade, four tins of cocoa, six bottles of brandy, one bottle of Worcester sauce, three packets of chocolate, 1lb of coffee, some soap, and a good deal of tobacco, besides a small store of knives, beads, toys, &c., by way of presents, and a rather scratch assortment of medicines. Our armament consisted of one .44 Winchester rifle, with 300 rounds of pre-War ammunition of a poorish vintage, which was not worth firing; and a second-hand .22 rook rifle, which surpassed itself by keeping us in meat throughout the three months during which there was anything to shoot. The four of us, with all our effects were easily accommodated in one second-class sleeper on the Peking-Hankow Railway…

The Times, 20 November 1935, 15.

Sir – I always enjoy reading an article from the pen of Mr. Peter Fleming, but feel slightly annoyed at the inefficiency with which he obtains the rifles which he carries on his expeditions. Readers of his ‘Brazilian Adventure’ will remember that a rook-rifle stood between Mr. Fleming and an untimely death on that occasion. Does Mr. Fleming never learn from experience? A second-hand .22 rook-rifle has again ‘surpassed’ itself it appears. Readers of The Times rejoice, but why did Mr. Fleming when conducting an experiment in ‘travelling light’ bother to take a .44 Winchester (the kind of thing Allan Quartermain used to use) ‘with 300 rounds of pre-War ammunition of a poorish vintage not worth firing’?

I feel that The Times might present him with a nice .256 Mannlicher. If he felt that fortune would then be too heavily weighted in his favour, I can only suggest that he should acquire a bow and arrow, when he would be able to travel lighter still.

Yours faithfully.
The Bras, Berkhamsted, Herts. Nov. 18.

The Times, 23 November 1935, 15.

Sir. – Mr. T. B. Money-Coutts’s suggestion that The Times should present me with a .256 Mannlicher is an admirable one. The rest of his letter is nonsense.

He charges me, in the first place, with inefficiency because I attempted a journey through Central Asia armed only with a rook-rifle and a useless .44 Winchester. The answer to this charge, and to the implication that I do this sort of thing as a stunt, is that these two weapons were the best I could get. Sporting rifles and ammunition are practically unprocurable in China. My own preparations were made in Peking in the brief intervals between journeys to Shanghai, Tokyo, and Inner Mongolia; time was short, and much of it was devoted to obtaining passports, getting inoculated against typhus, writing articles for The Times, and other sordid activities. In the end, having ransacked Peking without success, I wired to a resourceful friend in Shanghai, who got the rook-rifle from a lighthouse-keeper: even so, the train bringing it up to Peking was wrecked and it only arrived at the last moment. The .44 was kindly but rashly lent to me by Sir Erich Teichman and now awaits the imminent arrival of its owner in Kashgar. I took it with me largely for reasons of ‘face’; anything with a magazine commands great respect among people who are mostly matchlock owners. From his reference to Allan Quartermain, your correspondent seems to imagine that a .44 Winchester is an elephant gun, or something very like it. He should brush up his ballistics; my .44 weighed about 5 lb.

Mr. Money-Coutts writes from Berkhamsted and can perhaps be forgiven for his ignorance of the armaments market in North China. But when he complains that in Central Asia, as in Brazil, only a rook-rifle ‘stood between Mr. Fleming and an untimely death,’ he is being less venially fatuous. Mr. Money-Coutts evidently belongs to the ‘keep a bullet for the woman’ school, and has no doubt shot his way out of many a tight corner among the savage nomads of Hertfordshire. Further afield, however, such heroics are suicidal; the last foreigners to enter the Tsaidam – two Frenchmen – did not survive to earn Mr. Money-Coutts’s approval of their adherence to the traditions of melodrama.

As for the question: ‘Does Mr. Fleming never learn from experience?’ the answer is: ‘In this instance, yes.’ It was precisely my experience in Brazil that convinced me of the value of a rook-rifle in country where the game has little reason to dread the rare human beings that it sees, and is more puzzled than alarmed by the discreet report of a .22. The first shot from a big rifle or a shotgun is liable both to clear the ground of fauna for some distance and to attract the unwelcome curiosity of the local inhabitants; and shotgun ammunition is, of course, extremely heavy.

But, after all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I should like to know how Drake, after circumnavigating the globe, would have answered those critics who felt ‘slightly annoyed’ at his inefficiency in not providing himself with a larger and more commodious vessel than the Golden Hind.

It may reassure Mr. Money-Coutts to learn that Mlle Maillart started on the journey in possession of a large automatic pistol. This weapon was left behind in Lanchow: whether in a fit of intrepidity or of amnesia, I see no reason to disclose.
I beg to call your attention to the first sentence of this letter, and remain, dear Sir,

Yours expectantly,

The Garrick Club

P.S. – To forestall further accusations of inefficiency in not bringing a battery of rifles out from England, I should perhaps add that before starting on the Central Asian journey I had been travelling continuously for six months through the Caucasus, the Soviet Republics of Central Asia, the Maritime Province, Manchuria, and Mongolia. If I had set out from England with a rifle I should indeed have escaped the wrath of Mr. Money-Coutts; for I should still be filling up forms somewhere between Samarkand and Sinkiang.

The Times, 26 November 1935, 15

Sir. – I too have much enjoyed Mr. Peter Fleming’s articles, but, fearful though I am of rushing in where travellers fear to tread, I cannot stand by and see an honest fellow-reader bludgeoned so hybristically by Mr. Fleming’s epistolary conceits.

Why did Mr Fleming venture upon his perilous enterprise on his own admission so doubtfully equipped? We are prepared to believe that it was either because owing to the pressure of his travels he had had no opportunity of equipping himself with a more reasonable weapon, or because the report of such a weapon would have been ‘liable to clear the ground of fauna,’ &c., or because the possession of such a weapon would have embarrassed him with frontier officials (perhaps ‘somewhere between Samarkand and Sinkiang’).

But when all three reasons are urged at once we are reminded of the naïve device of the juvenile truant who on the morning after asserts (1) that he had to attend his grandmother’s funeral; (2) that he thought there was a school holiday that day; (3) that he had been confined to bed with a bad cold. At least, since Mr. Fleming seems taken with the prospect of being presented with a .256 Mannlicher, it may be suggested that his tactics are hardly conducive to that end. Before you, Sir, recommend that The Times should present so noble a weapon to its faithful emissary, it would be as well to make sure that it would be used for the heroic purposes to which the gift is directed. Or, if such a weapon is likely to embarrass Mr. Fleming in the presence of native authorities or, worse still, to scare away the game on which his existence may depend, would it not be the greater kindness to withhold it?

I too beg to remind you of the first line of my letter.

Yours, &c.,
Shrewsbury, Nov, 23.

The Times, 28 November 1935, 15.

Sir. – Perusal of recent letters to yourself leads me to take up arms in defence of poor Peter Fleming against the onslaught of Mr. T. B. Money-Coutts.

In the business of keeping myself alive, in many quarters of the earth where this in itself is a business, I have long considered that the .22 rifle is the best single weapon. For the man who had to carry all his worldly goods, including stores, for months in a small compass (e.g., on his back), a heavy rifle is a burden. At those times you want something to boil in a two-quart kettle – not a whole buffalo. A duck or a partridge can generally be found.

I spent two summers in the American arctic, with everything on my back; the first summer burdened by a heavy rifle. I was always overloaded by the rifle itself, and more caribou-meat than I needed, or else ruining the soft bodies of ptarmigan and arctic hares with .303 expanding bullets. The second summer I had learned wisdom from the Indians. I took a .22, and neither carried meat nor ever lacked it.

A firearm is useful only in so far as it does what is required of it. For big game a .22 is little use; but for keeping one or two people fed, in the intervals of preserving themselves from hazards nearer than starvation, it is the best of weapons. A revolver of medium calibre is even better, of course, provided that one can shoot with it. But so few people can hit anything with a revolver that it must remain the weapon of the minority.

I therefore suggest that you spare yourself the expense of presenting Peter Fleming with a .256 Mannlicher (he would only leave it at home; the ammunition is unobtainable in most places), and that he be encouraged to continue with a .22, thereby ensuring himself a pot-supply of ducks, rabbits, wild geese, and tame chickens; ridding his camp of marauding dogs and amorous cats; discouraging and, if necessary, disabling truculent miscreants, and having all his armaments in the smallest compass possible.

I am, Sir, yours faithfully,
Eynsham Hall, Witney, Oxon, Nov. 25.

The Times, 30 November 1935, 15.

Sir, – Of all the unreasonable and unreasoning attacks which, over a long term of years, I have known to be made through your columns on any individual, the ‘hybristical’ attack on Mr. Peter Fleming for daring to cross remote Asia with no better weapon than a .22 rifle takes the cake. I am glad to see in your columns to-day that his is defended on the best ground of all – that a .22 rifle is in fact the best weapon for such a purpose. But if it were the worst, is it not Mr. Fleming’s own business and no one else’s? If he took a risk it was his own life or comfort that he risked, and surely he was entitled to do what he liked about that. And he got through alright.
I wonder how those who look on a .22 rifle as a childish toy would like to make a target of the plump part of their own back view at 100 yards – or even 150 – for a good .22 cartridge.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
G.A. ANSON, Lieutenant-Colonel.
Naval and Military Club, 94, Piccadilly, W. 1, Nov. 28.

The Times, 2 December 1935, 15.

Sir, – The argument about Peter Fleming’s outfit proves very little. Fleming got through and brought out, no doubt, material for another first-class book. He was neither living off his rifle nor looking for fights; and travelling in style might well have made him a mark for the avaricious.

If his next trip is to the Arctic I should advise him to consider a few points that Mr. Michael Mason does not emphasize. Travelling light there implies living off a rifle and/or fish-net. To keep going on meat exclusively a man requires 8lb. to 10lb. a day, on fish 12lb. to 15lb. a day! Ptarmigan and Arctic hare unless helped out by wolf fat, caribout fat, or ‘whiteman’s grub’ are starvation diet. Indians, fat from feasting at a trading post, or packing flour or dried meat or fish, or making short trips from their lodges, may carry only a .22, but no Indian or Eskimo attempts to live off one.

Even my late partner John Hornby, ‘Hermit of the Arctic,’ who specialized for years in out-Indianing the Indians, and who took a pride in his ability to withstand hardship, never depended on a .22. Master hunter and trapper though he was, he eventually starved to death.

I am, Sir, yours faithfully,
45, Eaton Place, S.W.1, Nov. 28.

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 12th, 2008 at 1:14 pm and is filed under Englishness and British national identity, Found Objects. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.