OBITUARIES: Nichol Fleming

Jonathan Hope
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:01

Nichol Fleming was a paradoxical character of great charm and subtlety. He was shy, verging on the antisocial, yet a loving friend to many. Whilst his life appeared effortless, even lugubrious, he was the author of four published works of fiction, all in the "thriller" genre, during the late 1960s and early 1970s. These were inevitably compared with his uncle Ian Fleming's books. More recently, a serious work of modern history appeared, August 1939, which dealt with the weeks and events leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War. He was also a gifted journalist and wrote some excellent reviews for the Spectator in recent years.

Fleming carried out his responsibilities as a land-owning farmer with care and enthusiasm, and the rambling beech woods round Merrimoles, his Oxfordshire home in Nettlebed, remain as pristine as they were in the day of his father, Peter Fleming. Fleming senior had commissioned the architect Paul Phipps (father of Joyce Grenfell) to build this curious house. His sister Kate Fleming describes it as "a mixture of neo-Georgian and Lutyens" in her biography of Celia Johnson, their mother; and it was here that Nichol, Kate and Lucy Fleming grew up. After Peter's death at the age of 64, in 1972, while out shooting grouse in Scotland, the house and land became Nichol's.

Peter Fleming and Celia Johnson had married in 1935. He had already captured the country's imagination with his book Brazilian Adventure. News from Tartary appeared in 1936, recounting his extraordinary journey from Peking to Kashmir, following the ancient Silk Road, and became a classic. Celia Johnson was a great actress, best remembered for her role in David Lean's Brief Encounter. On the screen, she embodied an essentially English femininity; delicate and down to earth. On the stage, her range was enormous and her touch was light.

The glamour and fame of these parents probably explains Nichol Fleming's lack of personal ambition and his self- effacing, throwaway style. His wit was never cruel but could be gently deflating. Pomposity was anathema to him, and a friend's rather florid account of a trek through some of the wilder reaches of Tibet was politely curtailed with the words: "You have had a super hol."

Much of his life was shared with Christopher Balfour, a merchant banker. They met when both were in their early twenties and Nichol had prematurely come down from Oxford. They complemented each other perfectly, and were both keen "outdoorsmen", passionate about tennis and riding. Fleming would not kill anything, it must be said; such was his love of animals. They kept a pair of horses called Agatha and Christie, and perhaps he was happiest cantering over the Chilterns like a lone Cossack, with his father's somewhat Russian physiognomy.

Jonathan Hope

Nicholas Peter Val Fleming, writer: born London 3 January 1939; died Nettlebed, Oxfordshire 9 May 1995.

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