O’er the hills and o’er the main Through Flanders, Portugal and Spain. King George commands and we obey Over the hills and far away.
English 17th century folk song adapted by John Tams
I was in reflective mood as I headed out of Jougne, past the chapel dedicated to St Maurice, a 3rd century Roman legionary who had refused to participate in sacrifices to the gods and imperial subservience, and had consequently been martyred.
Having spent the last 6 weeks walking through France, it was a bit of an eye opener to be on the cusp of crossing the border into Switzerland and leaving “La Belle France” behind me.
The relationship between England and France is a complicated one. In some ways we are blood brothers in others we are ‘Perfidious Albion’. Separated by 22 miles of sea, we have so much on common and yet so many differences. Having visited Contalmaison, where my great uncle died in 1916, I certainly feel closer to France than I did two months ago. Blood (shed) is thicker than water as the old saying goes.
For whatever reason, I can’t help thinking about that iconic image of Steve McQueen on his motorbike from the film ‘The Great Escape’, whenever I think about crossing the border into Switzerland.
As a boy at prep school in Northamptonshire, one of the few redeeming features of the Dickensian educationsl upbringing were ‘Film Nights’. These, if memory serves me right, normally took place on midweek evenings. The usual fare was either war films or Bond movies. As a result I became hooked on ‘Where Eagles Dare’ (“Broadsword calling Danny Boy”) and Bond movies, especially ‘Gold Finger’ .
Whether it was the subliminal impact of watching the Korean Oddjob decapitate a statue at Sandwich Golf Club, that subsequently led to a love affair with the country and its culture that saw me living and working there for 15 years is unclear, but film nights had an impact on my outlook on life, that is for sure.
My love for Bond and Ian Fleming novels may also have had something to do with the fact that my father owned a complete set of Bond first editions. It was another thing we shared in common besides literature, poetry, sport, fly fishing, travelling, gardening, a love of the great outdoors and receiving the same educational framework.
As an undergraduate at Oxford, I was infatuated not so much by Ian Fleming as his younger brother Peter Fleming. If there is one book that sewed the seeds of travel in me then it was ‘Brazilian Adventure’ by Peter Fleming.
In April 1925, a fifty-seven-year-old British explorer named Percy Harrison Fawcett trooped into the Brazilian jungle for the last time. Fawcett had spent much of his adult life under mosquito netting there, and he had become convinced that the region held the remnants of a great lost city—the stronghold of a vanished civilization. Hobbled by age and by poverty, he nonetheless convinced his financial backers to give him one last chance to prove his claims. Equipped with little except a reputation as the man whom the jungle could not kill, Colonel Fawcett and two younger companions set off on a path that would lead them deep inside the remote and rugged region known as Mato Grosso. The party was never heard from again.
Over the next several years, the world press speculated wildly on Fawcett’s fate. He had been murdered by hostile Indians; he was being held prisoner; he had lost his mind and gone native; he had been made into a god. Seven years after the explorer’s disappearance, a young British journalist set out to find him.
Peter Fleming wasn’t the first to go looking for Fawcett, but he was almost certainly the least prepared. A twenty-five-year-old literary editor at the Spectator, recently graduated from Oxford, he was a man of the pen, not the machete. He had a taste for adventure, as young men do, but had indulged it sparingly, and had little experience with map-making, Portuguese-speaking, piranha-avoiding, or any other skill that might prove useful in the jungle. His companions—wealthy sons of Eton, men of good breeding and bad judgment—were similarly young and green. “There are, I suppose, expeditions and expeditions,” wrote Fleming, and “it looked as if ours was not going to qualify for either category.”
Of the expedition, the best that can be said is that nobody died. Fleming and his cohort were slowed at the first when they arrived in the middle of a revolution, and slowed later on by argument and insurrection. Their cartographic ambitions were thwarted when they ditched their surveying equipment, finding it too heavy to carry. They found neither the lost colonel nor his lost city, although they did encounter assorted missionaries, Dutchmen, and “young men of good birth from São Paulo.” As Fleming put it: “Beyond the completion of a 3,000-mile journey, mostly under amusing conditions, through a little-known part of the world, and the discovery of one new tributary to a tributary to a tributary of the Amazon, nothing of importance was achieved.”
It did, however, produce Brazilian Adventure, Fleming’s enduring account of the misbegotten journey, which made it all worthwhile. A best-seller upon its initial appearance, the book stayed in print for decades on the strength of Fleming’s pungent wit and observational powers.
Almost eighty years later, the book is nearly forgotten, and Fleming’s reputation has been eclipsed by that of his brother, Ian, the creator of James Bond. In David Grann’s recent The Lost City of Z, which introduced the Fawcett story to a new generation, Fleming merits only one direct mention. But in its day, Brazilian Adventure was hugely influential. With a journalist’s eye and an ironist’s heart, Fleming wrote plainly and honestly about his misadventures, his unprecedented candor and self-deprecation reinvigorating a literary genre that too often trafficked in banality, fatuity, and romantic bombast.
“Truth is a perishable commodity; considerable care must be exercised in shipping it across the world,” wrote Fleming. The first truly modern travelers’ narrative, Brazilian Adventure treated the hazards of the jungle as a matter for comedy rather than terror, and suggested that the strangest things about faraway, desperate lands were often the men who rushed over to explore them.
And so he devoured a notice in the Times of London in April 1932, promising adventure and amusement in the wilds of Brazil. “It is easy to attract public attention to any exploit which is at once highly improbable and absolutely useless,” wrote Fleming. The advertisement, which ran in the paper’s “Agony Column” devoted to missing relatives and friends, seemed to fall into both categories: “Exploring and sporting expedition, under experienced guidance, leaving England June, to explore rivers Central Brazil, if possible ascertain fate Colonel Fawcett; abundance game, big and small; exceptional fishing; room two more guns; highest references expected and given.”
Fleming felt that the ad had “the right improbable ring to it.”
Peter Fleming was not at all this sort of person. But he was greatly amused by those who were. And so he signed onto the expedition as a special correspondent for the Times. After securing a book contract and recruiting a companion—a lanky surveyor and Oxford grad named Roger Pettiward, who would later find fame as a cartoonist under the pseudonym Paul Crum—Fleming left his job at the Spectator (“the act of a madman,” he put it) and headed for Brazil with high spirits and low expectations.
The party sailed in the late spring of 1932, toting shotguns, revolvers, tear-gas bombs, a bull mastiff named Boris, a gramophone, the organizer’s father, the organizer’s father’s chauffeur, and several obsolete maps. At first, finding Fawcett was a secondary goal of the expedition. In fact, most members of Fleming’s party were under the impression that they were on a simple hunting trip. But after docking in Rio, Fleming insisted everyone sign a “gentleman’s agreement” asserting that their primary objective was to locate the missing colonel, to which his fellows uneasily assented. (“We shared a working knowledge of firearms, and a more or less keen interest in the habits of wild animals and birds: but by no stretch of the imagination could ours be considered a scientific expedition,” wrote organizer Robert Churchward in his apologetic account of the journey, Wilderness of Fools.)
Fleming and his companions reached São Paulo just as a revolution was breaking out in Brazil—which, characteristically, they did not notice. As the author recounts:
When we got back to our hotel, they told us there had been a revolution. . . . None of us had had any previous experience of revolutions; but from all we had heard of them, to be in the middle of one and not to know anything about it until eighteen hours after it had started seemed to argue a certain want of perspicacity.
Fleming would have none of it. Determined to bring a good story back for the Times, he and a few other men broke off from the group and marched toward the area where they had reason to believe that Fawcett was last seen. They found nothing. Then, running out of food and fearing the start of the rainy season, they turned back and rejoined the rest of the party.
Even though nothing much happened to Peter Fleming in Brazil, he still enjoyed himself thoroughly. He made lots of undergraduate jokes, picked up some Portuguese, got a little bit better at rowing, climbed some trees. He met some savages, who weren’t very savage, and dodged snakes, fish, and insects, which were annoyances rather than nemeses. All in all, the terrors of the jungle were fairly benign, and the genius of Brazilian Adventure is that Fleming made no attempt to hide this.
As a result, the book seems entirely real, even in its silliest moments. Fleming himself called Brazilian Adventure “probably the most veracious travel book ever written; and it is certainly the least instructive.” At no point does the reader sense that Fleming is exaggerating his adventures for dramatic effect, or dwelling too long on the dangers that he faced. (Instead, he occasionally goes too far in the other direction.) “There is little awe left current in the world, and little of that little is well bestowed,” he writes. Fleming seems determined to save his awe for those things that really deserve it.
The success of Brazilian Adventure set Fleming on a career as an international journalist and travel writer. In 1934, he would publish One’s Company, an account of his travels to China; News from Tartary, another book of his Asian travels, followed in 1936. He wrote reams of correspondence for the Times and other journals, and he turned to history later in life. But Brazilian Adventure, though his first book, remains his best. In it, he took a genre that was often stultifying and pedantic and infused it with grace and comedic understatement.
In contrast to ‘Brazilian Adventure’, today’s walk from Jougne to Orbe was a fairly tame if enjoyable affair! There were no customs checks at the Swiss border, so I was spared the need to re-enact a Steve McQueen style entry into Switzerland.
Once over the border into Switzerland, did I feel some fundamental shift in zeitgeist? If I’m being truthfully honest, the answer is no. Yes, a Swiss lady in Orbe did stop and ask if I was lost. I told her I was just waiting for the Curé to return to the Presbytery house and show me the ropes.
At 5pm the Curé did arrive. Father Jean-Luc Martin was the soul of discretion as he showed me around the Presbytery house in Orbes and deployed a Z-bed for my benefit.
There is a world of difference between a journey down the Amazon in search of a lost explorer and the walk I have experienced over the last couple of months. But some things we do share in common – a sense of the curious and the absurd, an all consuming spirit of adventure and a fundamental belief, that come what may, we shall survive the adventure and live to tell the tale!