Natural Born Heroes: The lost secrets of strength and endurance

An interesting new perspective on SOE, the kidnap, why the SOE guys and gals were able to cope with the hardships of their particular kind of warfare, and how it may help us all live healthier lives. Well that appears to be the claim which we could take with a pinch of apparently unhealthy salt! A review of Natural Born Heroes: The lost secrets of strength and endurance
by Chrisopher McDougall.

by Chris Maume

First published in the Independent, 9 April 2015.

One of the most daring, madcap episodes of the Second World War was the kidnapping by Patrick Leigh Fermor, dirty trickster supreme, and his band of British eccentrics and Cretan hard men, of the German general Heinrich Kreipe.

Seventy years later, youngsters in inner-city London and the suburbs of Paris were becoming experts in parkour, using the urban landscape as an obstacle course to be negotiated with joyful freedom and intense physical discipline.

Christopher McDougall connects these two points, and many in between, in a heady confection that encompasses, among other subjects, military history, archaeology, Greek mythology, neat ways to kill a man and ideas on health and fitness that might just change your life. A line from an old M People song kept coming to mind as I read on, the one about searching for the hero inside yourself.

The Kreipe caper involved an insane trek across the murderous Cretan terrain, which by then should already have done for the motley crew of poets and classicists who had been tasked with detaining on the island German soldiers who would otherwise have been marching on Stalingrad. Had they failed, the progress of the war may have been very different, as Winston Churchill would later acknowledge.

Few of the Special Operations Executive men who joined Leigh Fermor in the Mediterranean could be described as hero material, however: they tended to be, like him, romantic misfits, many of whom might not even have got into the regular army. They proceeded by brain-power and imagination, but on the rugged island of Crete they also needed to hack it physically. And McDougall thinks he knows how they did that.

“The art of the hero,” he contends, is the art of natural movement,” and his answer to the question of how the Cretan mob were able to achieve so much boils down to two basic strands: one is the idea that true physical strength comes not from muscle power but from the fascia profunda, the net of fibres that envelopes our bones and muscles and imparts the energy of “elastic recoil” that allowed us to spring across the savannah in pursuit of lunch, as well as chuck the rocks or unleash the slingshot that killed the lunch for us.

Learn to use your fascia profunda, says McDougall, and you’ll find yourself able to do things you never thought possible. The Cretans, skipping across peaks and valleys like mountain goats, do it naturally, and the SOE boys, he says, learned from them.

The other ancient secret which Leigh Fermor and Co unwittingly accessed, according to McDougall, was the idea of using fat, rather than sugar, as fuel. The fatty-meat, low-carb diet which sustained our hunter-gatherer ancestors until agriculture came along and spoiled everything, has resurfaced from time to time (remember the Atkins diet?), and McDougall believes it’s the way to go.

Cut out those grains, all that pasta and anything remotely sugary, and get some flesh inside you, he recommends. Do that while preventing your heart rate exceeding a certain mark (for which there’s a simple formula) and soon you’ll be lean, lithe and fighting fit. The guru of carbo-loading for distance runners, Dr Tim Noakes, he reminds us, eventually recanted – and, McDougall notes, the SOE boys and their local comrades could cross the mountains on little more than a few nuts and a drop of wine.

He constructs a fascinating edifice of ideas around these two notions, and eventually finds a modern-day hero of his own. But the pleasures of the book are as much to do with the fascinating panoply of characters, war heroes all, British, Commonwealth and Cretan, whose exploits contributed so much to Hitler’s downfall.

Buy Natural Born Heroes: The lost secrets of strength and endurance

Remembering Gallipoli

A small tribute to remember those on both sides who fought and died in Gallipoli, a bloody campaign that started 100 years ago today.

The words of the great Mustafa Kemal Atatürk resound clearly today:

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours … You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

The video below includes an extremely moving song by Eric Bogle and is mixed with pictures from Gallipoli with past and present Canadian troops.

Initial fundraising for Kardamyli

The PLF Society has been moving forward quickly in its dealings with the Benaki over Paddy’s house. Achieving its restoration, and Paddy and Joan’s goal of turning it into a writer’s retreat is one of the main aims of the Society. Today they report on progress and are making an appeal for initial funds to finance critical works at the house until funding for the long-term work has been raised. The Benaki have come up with a plan which encompasses many uses which if achieved would meet the goals of Paddy’s bequest.

A summary of the PLF Society’s appeal is below, with further details to be found on the attached PDF.

Steady progress is being made on the Kardamyli house. The Benaki Museum has now sent us a document that sets out its plans and we have finalised the team that will look after the interests of the Society and its members: our lawyers Watson Farley & Williams are now supported by an experienced architect and we have appointed Grant Thornton as accountants.

You will see from the attached summary that we are now able to proceed with raising 20,600 € (about £15,000 or US$24,000) for preliminary things that need to be done at the house. As the amount of this initial fundraising is relatively modest, we are hoping that it will be possible to raise it from our members and others associated with the Society.

In July the Benaki will know if it has been successful in raising finance for the main renovation works planned for the house which are expected to cost some 630,000 €. In the event that some or all of these funds are not raised by the Benaki, the Society has pledged to find the remainder and for this we have made contingent plans to extend the fundraising to include external sources.

Read the full initial fundraising PDF here.

Link

Capture1A broadcast on France Culture radio featuring Paddy speaking his best French, supported by Artemis Cooper and her father John Julius Norwich. Lovely to hear Paddy speaking and also to brush up some of the old French given that we all know the context. With contributions from others. Click the picture above to visit the site and then press the play icon. The player will open in a new window and can be a little slow to load so just be patient but the quality is fine and worth the wait.

Interesting that with this and the TV interview alongside the brilliant Nicolas Bouvier, the French are running neck and neck with the BBC for airtime about Paddy. Watch Paddy here (he appears around 29 minutes.)

Eric Newby and Paddy: Two events in London this week – your reminder

Tuesday 14th April.

Eland publications are pleased to announce that the Traveller’s Film Club is back! It is held at Waterstone’s, 203-206 Piccadilly, London W1.

Benedict Allen introduces the 2008 BBC documentary on Eric Newby from the Traveller’s Century series he presented, directed by Harry Marshall (Icon Pictures; this is a definite one for me! Again doors will open at 6.30pm, the screening begins at 7.00pm.

All screenings at 7pm, doors open at 6.30pm. Please book a free place at Piccadilly@waterstones.com

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Thursday, 16 April

Historian and travel writer Alan Ogden, writer and journalist Tom Fort, as well as some of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s friends belonging to the Romanian exile in London – Michael de Styrcea, Şerban Cantacuzino and Marie-Lyse Ruhemann, discuss the famous writer’s fascination with Romania, examining his vivid and meaningful perceptions and observations, backed by solid historical, cultural and linguistic knowledge.

The Enamoured Way: Patrick Leigh Fermor and Romania, Romanian Cultural Institute in London, Thursday, 16 April 2015 from 19:00 to 22:00.

Preceded by: The Opening of ‘Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Romanian Romance’

The exhibition follows, through a collage of old photographs and emblematic excerpts, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Romanian escapades recalled in his hugely successful travel memoirs Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road, depicting people and landscapes that were at the root of the author’s lifetime attachment towards Romania.

Free entry. Reserve your place via Eventbright.

El último aventurero romántico

A profile in Spanish from El Pais. The Spaniards appear to have a great interest in Paddy and his works, possibly encouraged by the translations of Dolores Payás, the author of Drink Time! which many of us enjoyed last year.

By Jacinto Antón

First published in El Pais, 3 July 2013

Es el efecto que provoca el recuerdo del viejo aventurero romántico, ¡diablo de hombre! Mientras hablamos de sir Patrick Leigh Fermor (Londres, 1915- Dumbleton, 2011) evocando sus hazañas, sus líos de faldas, sus viajes, la belleza de sus escritos, sus grandezas y debilidades, la admiración y, sí, el amor, que sentíamos por él, su amiga y biógrafa Artemis Cooper se pone de pie extemporáneamente y se pone ¡a bailar una danza griega! Yo diría que un sirtaki.

La escena resulta inesperada y sorprendente en esta tarde londinense en la pequeña librería Nomad Books de Fulham, donde tomamos los dos un té en tazas con portadas de Penguin rodeados de libros y silencio. La librera y los demás clientes nos miran con disimulo. La historiadora y editora Artemis Cooper, autora de la extraordinaria biografía Patrick Leigh Fermor, una aventura, recibida con unánimes elogios en Reino Unido y recién aparecida en España (RBA), es bien conocida en el barrio, donde vive con su marido, el célebre historiador militar Antony Beevor (inmerso, por cierto, en la batalla de las Ardenas), y su arrebato es recibido con británica flema. La observo danzar aferrado a mi cuaderno de notas, sin saber si he de sumarme al baile.

Hablábamos de la vitalidad de Leigh Fermor, el sensible y curioso adolescente que cruzó Europa andando en los años treinta, codeándose con aristócratas y domadores ambulantes de osos, el oficial de inteligencia, el valiente soldado de operaciones especiales que secuestró en un golpe de mano audaz al comandante de las tropas nazis en Creta, el guapo amante que conquistó a tantas bellas mujeres, el refinado, culto y políglota escritor que nos ha dejado libros tan hermosos como El tiempo de los regalos, Mani, Roumeli o Un tiempo para guardar silencio, el filoheleno émulo de Lord Byron que rescató las zapatillas del poeta y cruzó nadando el Helesponto a los 69 años. “Al entrar él en una habitación, todo el mundo se sentía más vivo, ligero”, recordaba la escritora. “En Atenas, cuando era pequeña, íbamos por las tardes a las tabernas y él hablaba con la gente, y pasaban cosas. Empezaba a cantar, canciones griegas que interpretaba de manera fenomenal. Y se ponía a bailar. Bailaba maravillosamente”. ¿Como Zorba?, le he preguntado interrumpiendo sus recuerdos. “Exacto. Mejor. Anthony Quinn bailaba de manera algo dejada, abandonándose. Paddy era más decoroso. Sus movimientos, majestuosos, enérgicos”. Y es entonces cuando Artemis Cooper, una mujer madura (1953), atractiva, culta y de refinada elegancia –no en balde, nacida como la honorable Alice Clare Antonia Opportune, es hija del segundo vizconde Norwich y nieta de Lady Diane Cooper– , ha retirado su silla con resuelta determinación, se ha levantado y ha ejemplificado cómo danzaba Leigh Fermor poniéndose ella a bailar. Observo que calza deportivas.

Read more here.