Fleming, Fergus 1959–
FLEMING, Fergus 1959–
PERSONAL: Born 1959. Education: Attended Oxford University and City University, London.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Cassell, Orion Publishing Group, Orion House, 5 Upper St. Martin's Lane, London WC2H 9EA, England.
CAREER: Trained as an accountant and lawyer; became furniture-maker; freelance writer, 1991–.
AWARDS, HONORS: Winner of a British national poetry competition, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), at age ten.
Barrow's Boys, Granta Books (London, England), 1998, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 2000.
Killing Dragons: The Conquest of the Alps, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 2000.
Ninety Degrees North: The Quest for the North Pole, Grove Press (New York, NY), 2001.
The Cuban Missile Crisis: To the Brink of World War III, Heinemann Library (Chicago, IL), 2001.
The Sword and the Cross: Two Men and an Empire of Sand, Grove Press (New York, NY), 2003.
Cassell's Tales of Endurance, Cassell (London, England), 2004.
Contributor to periodicals, including New Statesman.
ADAPTATIONS: Barrow's Boys was adapted as a radio play, BBC Radio 4, 1998; Killing Dragons was adapted as a radio play for BBC Radio 4.
SIDELIGHTS: Fergus Fleming has made a career out of chronicling the foolhardy adventures of the brave men who mapped the far reaches of the world during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. "There are few people writing today who can capture the lunatic spirit of adventure that possessed these often suicidal missions so well," Chris Martin declared in Geographical. In a New York Times Book Review critique of Ninety Degrees North: The Quest for the North Pole, Jonathan Dore noted that one of Fleming's strengths as a writer is his "admirable detachment," which makes him "always ready to be amused by pomposity." Plus, Dore continued, "He has great narrative gifts, and his brief character sketches draw readers in while pithy summaries of each expedition carry us on breathlessly from one ice hummock to the next."
Fleming's first book, Barrow's Boys, takes its title from John Barrow, the man who was second secretary of the British navy from 1804 until 1845. The first decade of his career was consumed with organizing the navy to defeat Napoleon and his forces, but after that threat was finally defeated in 1815, the British found themselves with far more naval officers than missions for them. It was Barrow's idea to send these idle sailors off to explore the unmapped corners of the globe, particularly the Arctic, the Antarctic, and Africa. It was a noble idea, but by most measures it proved to be a spectacular failure. These missions were usually poorly planned and frequently brought gruesome deaths for the explorers, from Captain James Tuckey, who was sent out to explore the Congo in 1816 and died of yellow fever there along with his entire party, to Sir John Franklin, who disappeared, again along with his entire party, in the Arctic in 1845. (This was after Franklin warded off starvation on an earlier Arctic expedition by eating his own boots.) Plus, Barrow's missions failed to bring the expected commercial benefits to the British Empire: There was no Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean to be found, and the Niger River did not in fact flow into the Congo or the Nile as Barrow had hoped. As Anthony Sattin noted in the Sunday Times, the stories of many of these individual missions have already been told, "but Fleming justifies the retelling … by setting them in the context of Barrow's personal ambition and bringing them thrillingly to life." Washington Post Book World reviewer Grace Lichtenstein also praised Fleming's retellings, calling Barrow's Boys "a rollicking narrative" and "a riveting yarn." However, as Kathleen Gorman noted in the Journal of Popular Culture, the book also "combines the narrative appeal of the best of the adventure books with the historical context required by scholars."
Fleming continued his history of Arctic exploration in Ninety Degrees North. The book begins where Barrow's Boys ended, in 1845, and continues through the mid-twentieth century, when the first person who is positively confirmed to have reached the North Pole, the Russian Alexander Kuznetsov, arrived there. Despite the advances in scientific knowledge and technology since the missions covered in Barrow's Boys, grisly deaths during these missions were scarcely less frequent than before, and again, exceptionally negligent planning was usually to blame. Explorers were most commonly killed by scurvy—whose horrors "Fleming describes in full technicolor detail," Harry Mount noted in the Spectator—despite the fact that by this time it was common knowledge that lack of fruits and vegetables caused scurvy and canned produce capable of being taken on Arctic expeditions was readily available. Cold was another frequent killer, but the imperialistic British refused to accept that the native Inuit people might have something to teach them about how to survive in that weather, at least until Robert Peary came along and ordered his party to build igloos, rather than dragging along heavy and less efficient tents, and to wear furs instead of their wool uniforms. "Fleming teases out his material beautifully and at a perfect pace," Mark Cocker wrote in the Manchester Guardian, also stating: "Flemming is a born storyteller, and unravels this expeditionary sequence like a great saga of adventure."
Killing Dragons: The Conquest of the Alps tells the tales of the European explorers who conquered a snowy wasteland closer to home. Like Fleming's other books, it "addresses its subject with a droll, detached and sometimes pat tone of historical amusement," Elizabeth Hightower noted in the New York Times Book Review. The first booster of Alpine exploration, Marc-Theodore Bourrit, had to overcome the eighteenth-century certainty that the Alps were a horrible, accursed place inhabited by dragons and cretins and that the views from the highest passes were so awesome that they would drive people mad. Despite these beliefs, Bourrit succeeded in prompting enough interest in the Alps to convince some brave men to try to climb them, and by 1786 the summit of Mont Blanc (formerly Mont Maudit—Cursed Mountain) had been reached. The most popular challenge of the Alps, the Matterhorn, was finally summited in 1865 by Edward Whymper, but the achievement was overshadowed by tragedy when a broken rope cost four of the seven-person party their lives during the descent. The conquest of the Alps continued into the twentieth century, with several climbers losing their lives trying to complete the difficult the north face of the Eiger before it was successfully traversed in the 1930s. Killing Dragons is "energetic, wry," and "delightful," Lorraine Korman concluded in Forbes.
The Sword and the Cross: Two Men and an Empire of Sand also focuses on European exploration and colonialism, but unlike Fleming's earlier works it describes French rather than primarily British aspirations. The "two men" of the title are Henri Laperrine and Charles de Foucauld. Both were graduates of the prestigious St. Cyr academy who joined the Chasseurs D'Afrique and became enthusiastic participants in the French colonial project, specifically the conquest of northern Africa, although later in life they took different paths toward this goal. Laperrine rose through the French army to become the founder and commander of the "camel corps," a camel-mounted cavalry designed for desert fighting. Foucauld, on the other hand, became a monk; he lived as a semi-hermit in the Sahara desert, sometimes teaching the native Tuaregs about Christianity and French culture and sometimes providing his friend Laperrine with information and help in combatting the Tuareg resistance.
Critics again praised Fleming's writing. An African Business critic declared The Sword and the Cross to be "a vivid, haunting and sharply witty history," while Booklist reviewer George Cohen wrote that it "reads like the finest fiction."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
African Business, May, 2003, review of The Sword and the Cross: Two Men and an Empire of Sand, p. 64.
Antioch Review, spring, 2004, Catherine Kord, review of The Sword and the Cross, p. 369.
Booklist, April 1, 2000, Gilbert Taylor, review of Barrow's Boys, p. 1427; January 1, 2001, Taylor, review of Killing Dragons: The Conquest of the Alps, p. 903; September 15, 2002, George Cohen, review of Ninety Degrees North: The Quest for the North Pole, p. 202; October 1, 2003, Cohen, review of The Sword and the Cross, p. 295.
Bookseller, September 6, 2002, review of Ninety Degrees North, p. S10; December 13, 2002, Benedicte Page, "Desert Madness," review of The Sword and the Cross, p. 28.
Boston Globe, February 5, 2003, Bob MacDonald, "In Cold Detail, Engaging 'Ninety'Follows Treks to North Pole," p. D5.
Forbes, March 5, 2001, Lorraine Korman, review of Killing Dragons, p. 116.
Geographical, November, 1998, Melanie Train, review of Barrow's Boys, p. 85; October, 2001, Chris Martin, "Northern Exposure," review of Ninety Degrees North, p. 84; December, 2004, Sarah Crowden, review of Cassell's Tales of Endurance, p. 101.
Guardian (London, England), November 10, 2001, Mark Cocker, "All Points North," review of Ninety Degrees North, p. 9.
Journal of Popular Culture, summer, 2002, Kathleen Gorman, review of Barrow's Boys, p. 182.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2002, review of Ninety Degrees North, p. 931; August 15, 2003, review of The Sword and the Cross, p. 1056.
Kliatt, July, 2002, Michael P. Healy, review of Killing Dragons, p. 43.
Library Journal, February 15, 2000, Stanley Itkin, review of Barrow's Boys, p. 177; August, 2002, Sheila Kasperek, review of Ninety Degrees North, p. 125; December, 2003, Jim Doyle, review of The Sword and the Cross, p. 136.
Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2004, Zachary Karabell, review of Barrow's Boys, p. 66.
New Statesman, December 4, 1998, Roz Kaveney, review of The Sword and the Cross, p. R9.
New York Times Book Review, May 21, 2000, Susan Reed, "Another Fine Mess," review of Barrow's Boys p. 17; January 7, 2001, Elizabeth Hightower, "Thin Air and Thick Men," review of Killing Dragons, p. 7; November 3, 2002, Jonathan Dore, "Snow Jobs," review of Ninety Degrees North, p. 19.
Publishers Weekly, February 21, 2000, review of Barrow's Boys, p. 73; November 20, 2000, review of Killing Dragons, p. 54; August 26, 2002, review of Ninety Degrees North, p. 55; August 18, 2003, review of The Sword and the Cross, p. 65.
Spectator, September 29, 2001, Harry Mount, review of Ninety Degrees North, p. 36; March 29, 2003, Sara Wheeler, "Serving Christ and Colonialism," review of The Sword and the Cross, p. 50.
Sunday Times (London, England), November 1, 1998, Anthony Sattin, "Captains Courageous," review of Barrow's Boys, p. 8.
Time, November 11, 2002, Lev Grossman, "Blinded Me with Science: Two Gripping Tales about Daring Men Who Went to Extremes in the Pursuit of Nature's Secrets," review of Ninety Degrees North, p. 73; December 30, 2002, review of Ninety Degrees North, p. 152.
Wall Street Journal, April 18, 2000, Geoffrey Norman, "Bold, Eccentric Journeys through the Polar Ice," review of Barrow's Boys, p. A16.
Washington Post Book World, July 31, 2000, Grace Lichtenstein, "Going to Extremes," review of Barrow's Boys, p. 3.
Granta Online, http://www.granta.com/ (April 5, 2005), "Fergus Fleming."
Orion Books Web site, http://www.orionbooks.co.uk/ (March 14, 2005), interview with Fleming.