North from Kabul & News from Tartary.
Staying at the home of Cardiff bookdealer Nick Willmott, over the New Year, (my father-in-law) I came across two amazing travel books that told stories, twenty years apart, of daring and adventure, and of vanished times and cultures, that have lessons for today, three quarters of a century after the first. Both books involve plucky young Brits in turbulent parts of Asia, who spend a great deal of time doing things that make it look like they are spies, and telling us that they might look like spies but they are not spies. I think that Peter Fleming wasn't a spy then, but became one, and that Andrew Wilson probably was a spy (but he might have been a bona fide travel journalist, as Fleming was some of the time – for The Times).
Peter Fleming sets off on an amazing journey across China from Peking to India, without any official permission or resources, going from Japanese occupied coast, to the heart of Republican China, to lands threatened by Communist revolutionaries in the south and Soviet Union backed statelets in the north. (News from Tartary*). His arrogance is breathtaking – "how dare these foreign bureaucrats stop me going where I want despite there being a war on, and a civil war (or two) and it being dangerous and me wanting to cross military lines and borders without any good reason." That is the repetitive refrain. But there was something very familiar about this dashing young man who set off with a feisty Swiss female adventurer, Kini, a rook rifle, and a bottle of Worcester sauce. (1). The name also was very familiar. Of course it was the brother of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. And my Rough Guide to James Bond soon explained one theory that older brother, Peter, was an inspiration for our own 007. (2).
Peter Fleming starts off travelling with Ella Maillart (a reporter for French papers), and two White Russian companions, the Smigunovs, who are turned back from their goal of reaching Sinkiang. (Many of the place names are not on my modern or older atlases making it very difficult to check exactly where they correspond with in modern China, and even the region and city names were often unfamiliar to me – a few slight variations in spelling can make place names look very different). One realises this is less than twenty years after the Russian revolution and that very many Russian exiles are in China where they fled as opponents of the Communist seizure of power. It is a poignant reminder that the official histories of countries may rule out the many people that do not fit their narrative – particularly the many exiles after changes in power. We think of White Russians living in France or Turkey and the Balkans but I'd never thought of them in China. The White Russians in Peter Fleming's story are a people trying to find some home, and bullied as a stateless people. (3).
Most swashbuckling of these characters is Borodishin who had fought with and followed anti-Communist general, Annenkov, from Siberia through Tien shan into China, and was trapped cut off from his family, a fur trader in Sinkiang, on the wrong side of a closed border and another Communist takeover. He helps our travellers on a key leg of their journey.
Fleming and Kini take a train, walk and ride, skirting north of the Tibetan plain, travel with a Mongol prince through Tsaidam, hear news of the Panchen Lama en route to Llahsa, reach nearly as far as Afghanistan and drop down unexpectedly into British India through Baltit into Kashmir. British officials do seem to pop up with post in the most unlikely of places (most towns having a British aksakal, a kind of honorary consul). (4). As do missionaries, usually helpful ones. Andrew Wilson on the other hand travels from Persia / Iran into Afghanistan, a country which he has some previous knowledge of. He travels to see the modernisation of Afghanistan in 1959. (North from Kabul**). Ostensibly he is a travel writer but he seems determined to find out both about real life in Afghanistan (as travellers want to) and about the extent of Russian technical and military influence in the country (which seems to be straying close to the wind). Doing the latter to the extent of pretending to be Russian and travelling past Russian built military airfields seems like the height of stupidity for an ordinary traveller. Though it does get Monty Pythonesque at times.
As many commentators have observed the period just before the progressive King was ousted by a left wing revolution was probably in retrospect a golden age of stability and development for Afghanistan. (5). As happened in Russia (and Spain), a peaceful left wing / liberal revolution was followed by a Communist takeover. The Communists wanted to modernise and bring equality (as no doubt did the earnest followers in Sichuan decades before). If the USSR had kept its intervention as economic aid our future could have been so different. Even in the late '70s British backpackers could journey overland through Iran and Afghanistan. I know as my Uncle and Aunt-in-Law, Sue and Geoff of Nottingham, did it – young backpackers on a break from town planning, eventually reaching Australia. As always so many mistakes of the past are repeated. (6). A friend's father, Gerry Jackson, before the Iraq War said he'd been in Basra in World War 2 and he didn't think it was wise to be going back. My wife's great grandfather had been at Khan Baghdadi in the previous war (7). While Toby Harnden's Dead Men Risen about the Welsh Guards in Afghanistan is an impressive example of the powerful but very sad recent history which gives day to day detail on personal accounts of fighting and death of British servicemen and their interaction with local people and places in the modern foreign 'peacebuilding' wars. (8). Reading Harnden's work over Easter I couldn't understand why foreign leaders keep making the same mistakes period after period in Afghanistan. Nick Willmott's conclusion was the best way to avoid making the mistakes in Afghanistan was not to make them in the first place – not to intervene there. Military intervention and reconstruction and support have clearly not gone or been able to go hand in hand. Leaders – civil and military – should have listened to wise counsel from those with experience of both, such as Paddy (Lord) Ashdown's peacebuilding approach. Neither politicians or academics in the most part seem to listen to those with practical experience. (9).
Michael Griffin's account in Reaping the Whirlwind (10) explains the complexity of Afghanistan's development, and its people's misfortune to be at a central Asian cross roads and misused by others with their own agendas, up until the invasion and toppling of the Taliban after September 11. North from Kabul's conclusion would not sound unfamiliar to Griffin, or to Tariq Ali or to Imran Khan, or other modern commentators on Afghanistan. Wilson foresaw both the possible Soviet intrusion, and the likely consequences of it. Despite being a partisan of 'the West' (just as Peter Fleming was; suspicious of Soviet involvement, influence or incursion), Wilson was concerned for the people who could suffer in clashes of geo-political titans.
Andrew Wilson wrote of the Afghan local municipal officials who were proud of their town getting a cinema and a football pitch, who championed school facilities and educational opportunities; the representative who highlighted the first women working in a factory. He talks of proud local police chiefs, or poignantly of the Indian English teacher diligently fulfilling his contract for an aid project despite poor conditions and being desperate to return home. He talks of the PhD student denied a return exit visa to marry his fiancée in Germany and the opportunity to complete his education abroad. Peter Fleming and Kini Maillart also met many earnest young officials working hard trying to modernise their parts of China – improve health and education – and thereby give opportunity to the people in their charge (usually officials of the Kuomintang government, sometimes of opponents). What happened to those optimistic forward thinking modern officials? Hopefully they felt that they made a difference and helped the lives of their countrymen before their countries were torn apart by civil wars, warlords and foreign invasions (even well meaning ones).
"My only conclusion – then, as now – was that if they were to survive, a new attempt must be made to resolve the difference between Afghanistan and Pakistan over the Pakhtunistan question; an attempt to restore Afghanistan, with all its blemishes and corruption, some freedom of manoeuvre – to re-open the door to the south and west before it was too late." Page 185-6.
One of the pleasures of reading about inland China and central Asia is the 'rediscovery' taking place in Britain of its links with the Orient and the Silk Road and new discovery of the diversity of these huge regions. Some of this has been political and travel writing but much of it has been by the new campaigners and commentators – television chefs. Most notably the recent BBC cookery programmes by Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang have celebrated the diversity in China's wide regions, including minorities, that we rarely hear or hear positively about. (11). The wonder of travel and discovering new cultures and food and places, the benefits and exchange and trade, hopefully these will win out over destruction and War as peaceful mutually beneficial occupations. Leaders – civil, political and military – would be wise to read what past visitors and travellers have written, and consider what is still relevant, before embarking on 'new' adventures.
Notes and references.
* News from Tartary: A Journey from Peking to Kashmir, Peter Fleming (Jonathan Cape, London, 1936). Copy from the stock of Nicholas Willmott, bookdealer, Cardiff.
(1) Kini (Ella) Maillart. They slept in a small tent for three months but we're assured nothing happened. The very different approaches of Fleming and Maillart, and their difference accounts of the journey are highlighted by Professor Charles Forsdick, an expert on Ella Maillart. "one manifesting a sensitive intercultural awareness, the other a nonchalantly colonising approach". 'Peter Fleming and Ella Maillart in China: travel writing as stereoscopic and polygraphic form' (2009) 13 Studies in Travel Writing (4) 293. Forsdick is "currently working on another article for the same journal on the cluster of travel writers who produced accounts of journeys in Xinjiang in the 1930s" email to author 1 September 2013. Examples of other journeys, old and new, are given in the notes. See also his review of in the same edition for a brief summary of Maillart's work. Page 394 para. 2. Reviewing The Travel Narratives of Ella Maillart: (En)gendering the Quest, by Sara Steinert Borella. Journal courtesy of University of Liverpool library.
(2) The Rough Guide to James Bond, Paul Simpson (ed.) p. 10, p. 23. (Rough Guides / Haymarket Customer Publishing / Penguin, London, 2002).
(3) The same applied to Chinese exiles just a couple of decades later. Just as today the huge number of anti-Ayatollahs Iranians (Persians) who live outside of Iran are no doubt ignored in official narratives of a regime that denies the wealth of Persian / Iranian culture unless it fits a narrow religious ideology. What happened to Stepan Ivanovitch and Nina Smigunov, who could not return to their former home in the west of China, and to Borodishin whose exile seemed even more complete?
** North from Kabul, Andrew Wilson (George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1961).
(4) The aksakal – patriotic, diligent and usually a native or non 'White British', never having been to Britain.
(5) Mohammed Zahir Shah or Muhammad Zahir Shah, 'The King of Afghanistan' Obituary, the Daily Telegraph 24 July 2007; and in the Guardian online as Mohammad Zahir Shah, obituary by Sandy Gall, 24 July 2007. Maillart herself travelled in Afghanistan in 1939 near the start of Zahir Shah's reign.
(6) Germany invested heavily in the Balkans before World War II. A country could have had influence through trade and development rather than the death and destruction unleashed by the Nazis. This also applied to the Russians (Soviets) themselves in the far West of China. The same as the British in China or India, or Napoleon in Europe who could have triumphed through ideas and trade rather than occupation.
(7) There and Back Again: The First World War Diary of Frank Leonard Willmott; and There and Back Again 2 relate to the British / Indian Army's Mesopotamian campaign.
http://nicholaswillmott.tripod.com/index_l.htm and http://nicholaswillmott.tripod.com/id44.htm (covering the battle of Khan Baghdadi) edited by Nicholas Willmott, 2001 / 2002; viewed online 30 April 2013.
(8) Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and the real story of Britain's war in Afghanistan (Quercus, London, 2011). Harnden's book won the 2012 Orwell Prize for political writing (books). Sniper One by Sgt. Dan Mills (Michael Joseph, London, 2007) is a less intellectual but quite detailed and similarly raw account from Iraq.
(9) Paddy Ashdown Swords and Ploughshares: Bringing Peace in the 21st Century. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2007).
(10) Reaping the Whirlwind: The Taliban Movement in Afghanistan (Pluto Press, London, 2001). See also 'Five books on terrorism you aren't allowed to read' Spiked review of books, 26 October 2007. http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/4002#.UiNYFY3oyJR There is much writing on Afghanistan in English over the period from 2000, as well as accounts of the West's earlier power games, such as Peter Hopkirk's classic The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia, (John Murray, London, 1990). Thanks to the Jenkins family for this reference. Tariq Ali The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (Simon & Schuster, London, 2008). Thanks to Pat Reid for this reference. For one energy policy take on the modern 'Great Game' see 'The Pipelineistan Power Game' by CHARLIE_EAST_WEST, 23 April 2013 published on: All that's left 'a blog for surviving the Coalition' http://www.allthatsleft.co.uk/2013/04/the-pipelineistan-power-game/
(11) Ken Hom and Ching-He Huang Exploring China: a culinary adventure. The book explores eight culinary regions of China, through 100 recipes and commentary and discussion by either of the chef duo. (BBC Books / Random House, London, 2012). Courtesy of Liverpool libraries.
Borodishin. Postcript 23 October 2013.
(12). In his 1963 book The Fate of Admiral Kolchak Peter Fleming included a dedication to the memory of PIOTR SERGEIVICH BORODISHIM a former sergeant in one the Siberian armies (under anti-Communist leader, Admiral Kolchak). "In 1935 he helped two young travellers on a difficult adventure; they last saw him 'riding back along the way we had come, hunched on his camel, eternally sucking at his long Chinese pipe' .. Two years later he was murdered by bandits."
Fleming's gallant endorsement is a fitting tribute.
North from Kabul and Dead Men Risen also borrowed from the stock of Nicholas Willmott, bookdealer, Cardiff.
Kiron Reid, Cardiff, 1 January, and Liverpool, 2 May and 1 September 2013.