The global choir of roosters

Dear readers,

I am on a train and have received an email from a follower of the blog who asks “can you help me find a passage in which Paddy describes a global choir of roosters crowing as the sun rises around the globe?”

My first thoughts are to Roumeli, but then perhaps Mani.

Can anyone help us both?

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 1926-2022

Queen Elizabeth II photographed at Windsor Castle in May 2022 CREDIT: Ranald Mackechnie /PA

Buckingham Palace has published the Order of Service for the State Funeral of HM Queen Elizabeth II, which will be held in Westminster Abbey today Monday 19th September 2022.

The service will be conducted by the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle, who will say in his Bidding: ‘In grief, to this House of God and House of Kings, where Queen Elizabeth was married and crowned, we have come from across the nation, from the Commonwealth, and from the nations of the world, to mourn our loss, to give thanks to almighty God for her long life, and lovingly, confidently to entrust her immortal soul to the mercy of God, our Maker and Redeemer.’

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend and Right Honourable Justin Welby, will preach the sermon and will lead the commendation.

Among the hymns will be The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended; The Lord’s my shepherd, which was sung at the wedding of the late Queen when she married HRH The Duke of Edinburgh in the Abbey in 1947; and Love divine, all loves excelling, in an arrangement first sung at the wedding of TRH The Prince and Princess of Wales in the Abbey in 2011.

Like as the hart, a setting of Psalm 42 by Master of the King’s Music, Judith Weir, and the anthem Who shall separate us?, drawing on words from Romans 8, by Sir James MacMillan, have both been composed specially for the service.

The Right Honourable The Baroness Scotland KC, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth will read from Corinthians 15; and the Right Honourable Elizabeth Truss MP, the Prime Minister, will read John 14: 1 – 9a.

The prayers will be led by the Abbey’s Precentor, the Reverend Mark Birch, and will be said by representatives of the churches of the United Kingdom.

Last Post will be sounded by the State Trumpeters of the Household Cavalry, before a two-minute silence observed in the Abbey and throughout the United Kingdom.

The service will be sung by the Choirs of Westminster Abbey and His Majesty’s Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, under the direction of James O’Donnell, Organist and Master of the Choristers of Westminster Abbey.

You can download the Order of Servce here.

In Full – Paddy on the South Bank Show 1989

Many of you have asked about, or searched for, this old video of Paddy talking to Melvyn Bragg at his home in Kardamyli. It was broadcast in 1989. We were able to offer you an excerpt in 2019, but now I have come across a video of the complete show.

As ever, we know these things can be swiftly removed due to copyright issues so if you wish to view Paddy in one of his best interviews I would advise taking time to view quickly.

Here is the direct link to You Tube.

As an alternative you might try to download the video. There are a number of programs available if oyu search on Google.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure – Slightly Foxed Podcast

Slightly Foxed produce the most beautiful books, and run a quarterly podcast which we have featured before. This one features Artemis Cooper and Nick Hunt discussing all things Paddy. Something to listen to in bed on a Sunday morning perhaps.

You can listen to the podcast on the Slightly Foxed site here or below.

Artemis Cooper, Paddy’s biographer, and Nick Hunt, author of Walking the Woods and the Water, join the Slightly Foxed team to explore the life and literary work of Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Equipped with a gift for languages, a love of Byron and a rucksack full of notebooks, in December 1933 Paddy set off on foot to follow the course of the Rhine and the Danube, walking hundreds of miles. Years later he recorded much of the journey in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. In these books Baroque architecture and noble bloodlines abound, but adventure is at the heart of his writing. There was to have been a third volume, but for years Paddy struggled with it. Only after his death were Artemis and Colin Thubron able to see The Broken Road into print.

The trilogy inspired Nick Hunt to follow in Paddy’s footsteps. What were country lanes are now highways, and many names have changed, but Nick found places that Paddy had visited, with their echoes of times past.

Following discussions of a love affair with a Romanian princess, Paddy’s role in the Cretan resistance in the Second World War and Caribbean volcanoes in The Violins of Saint-Jacques, we turn our focus to his books on the Greek regions of Roumeli and the Mani, and the beautiful house that Paddy and his wife Joan built in the latter, Kardamyli. And via our reading recommendations we travel from Calcutta to Kabul In a Land Far from Home, to William Trevor’s Ireland and to Cal Flynn’s Islands of Abandonment.

Count István Pálffy, Hungarian aristocrat who fled the country in 1956 – obituary

Count István Pálffy (Image provided by The Telegraph)

Count István Pálffy, who has died aged 89, stood as a candidate in the Hungarian parliamentary election in 2018 aged 85. Though he was not elected, he was immensely proud of standing in a constituency that his grandfather had represented from 1872 until he died in 1933. He stood for Momentum, a party of young people which rejected the Right-wing policies of the prime minister, Viktor Orbán.

First published in The Telegraph, 6 July 2022

I am grateful to Daniel Bamford for bringing this to my attention.

Pálffy was born into one of the oldest aristocratic families in Europe. When writing his family history, he chose the somewhat tongue-in-cheek title The First Thousand Years. His great passion was history, and he liked to say that he received his education at the hands of the vagaries of history. The Second World War broke out on his first day at school; the Nazis marched into the territory of their Hungarian allies in 1944 and, soon after, he was to become a victim of Soviet communism.

Though born into the purple of Hungarian aristocratic life on both sides of his family, Pálffy only enjoyed the benefits which that station offered for a few years of his boyhood. By the time he was 15, he had been declared by the new Communist regime to be a class enemy and an enemy of the people. He was expelled from his private school and compelled to work as an unskilled labourer. He was later sent as a prisoner to a forced labour camp before escaping to England in 1956.

Count István Pálffy ab Erdőd was born in Budapest on 22 May 1933, the son of Count Ferenc Pálffy ab Erdőd and Countess Júlia Apponyi de Nagy Appony. His father’s family claimed descent from a Swabian knight who had settled in Hungary around the year 970.

His mother’s family was ennobled in the 13th century. His mother, who was related to Queen Geraldine of Albania, married Patrick Leigh Fermor’s great friend, Elemér von Klobusiczky, immortalised as “Istvan” in his book Between the Woods and the Water.

Both families produced legions of soldiers and diplomats in the service of Hungary. Therefore it delighted Pista Pálffy when he was press-ganged into the new communist-led army and given the lowest possible rank in the hope of humiliating him. This move did not have the desired effect. “You see,” he joked with friends, “I am the first Pálffy in history to be in the army and not be a general.”

In the long line of ancestors, in which he took pride, it was his maternal grandfather, Count Albert Apponyi, of whom he was most proud. It fell to him to lead the Hungarian delegation at the Peace Conference at Versailles in 1919; on his shoulders rested the terrible burden of returning to Hungary with the dictated terms of the Treaty of Trianon. This instrument reduced the ancient kingdom of Hungary to a mere rump state.

The outbreak of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 allowed him to escape Hungary. Tall, elegant and with a decidedly aristocratic roll to his pronunciation of the letter “r”, Pálffy cut an unusual dash at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he read Moral Sciences.

He felt comfortable in England. His great-uncle, Count Albert Mensdorff, had been Austrian ambassador. István already spoke English fluently, and there was a ready-made group of Hungarian émigrés willing to welcome him.

He was grateful to Cambridge for absorbing this exotic Hungarian aristocratic exile. At Trinity Hall, he had an unusual encounter with CS Lewis when, on an after-dinner stroll back to his rooms, the tongue-tied and slightly nervous Pálffy broke the ice by asking Lewis if he thought the English obsession with the weather had anything to do with the sinking of the Spanish Armada.

Lewis remained silent, but the next day sent Pálffy a note saying he had found a reference in a medieval play showing the English obsession with the weather predating the Armada’s sinking by several centuries.

On leaving Cambridge, Pálffy was at a slight loss as to how he might use a degree in Moral Sciences. A friend advised him to try advertising, “because that profession is not too fussy about degrees and probably considers Moral Sciences to be all about being a good person”. A few years spent in the advertising industry provided him with an income but little intellectual satisfaction.

He was a regular patron of London’s famous Hungarian restaurant, the Gay Hussar in Soho. He once arrived for lunch to find a delegation from the Hungarian Communist Party being entertained by some diplomats. The Hungarian head waiter, sensing the potential sensitivity of the situation, asked him if he wished to be seated as far away as possible from the group. Pálffy replied: “Not an inch, put me right up against them.”

He found his intellectual metier in the emerging computer industry and applied his intellect to designing information systems for libraries; as a private consultant, his clients were as diverse as the British Museum Library and the Shah of Iran. Before the fall of the Shah, he spent several years travelling to Iran to develop the computer system for a proposed National Library. He also advised the Iranians on how they might apply developing computer technology to modernise their blood transfusion service.

With the collapse of Communism in 1989, István Pálffy returned to his native Budapest, where he bought a flat on the Rózsadomb, a hill in Buda overlooking the city. There, in his book-lined rooms, he was regularly sought out by historians such as Norman Stone or by those who were simply curious to know about a man who had survived the vicissitudes of communism without bitterness.

A son and a daughter survive him. His wife predeceased him.

Count István Pálffy ab Erdőd, born May 22 1933, died July 2 2022

Prague to Dresden – a walk down the River Elbe

A view of the Elbe looking North towards the “Saxon Switzerland”

 

My Elbe walk was completed a couple of weeks ago. I walked about 160km in seven days, plus a rest day. I followed Paddy’s little paper boat and on the one occasion I was beside a boat paddled by two men, I was walking at the same speed, so that little paper boat would have taken a very long time to reach the sea at Hamburg, not to mention the hazards of passing through locks!

It was a varied walk. The first part being somewhat dull, with unvarying scenery, although I did hear at least five cuckoos. It has been more that ten years since I heard one in England. I didn’t follow the river all the time as I cut off some bends or sought out sites and interesting country by following countryside and forest tracks.

I have added a selection of photos to a Google shared album so that you might get a flavour. The journey starts in (very ) beautiful Prague, thence to Melnick, and some photos taken at Terezin, or as most of us would know it, Theresienstadt. Spending a night there was very peculiar; you can really feel the ghosts of those who suffered and died at the hands of the 20th century Nazis. The Bohemian and Saxon Switzerland (Sächsische Schweiz) was a very enjoyable change and I spent two days walking through some spectacular rock formations with equally amazing views of the river. I took a rest day at Bad Schandau. Dresden was the real surprise. We know it suffered devastating bombing, but the restoration is outstanding. Lots of grand baroque buildings and churches, as well as great food, with music in every square.

A final thank you to those who made donations to support the work of the Red Cross in Ukraine.

The selection of photos is here.

Obituary: Dervla Murphy

Dervla Murphy in 1990. She had a tolerance for hardship and a curiosity about everyday elsewheres, which she kept through half a century of advancing by bike, foot, mule and cart (she never drove a car) on and off road across four continents. Photograph: Gamma-Rapho/Getty

Travel writer who famously journeyed alone from her native Ireland to India on a bicycle, armed with a pistol and a compass

First published in The Guardian

Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle, published in 1965, is now as much a historical document of a gone world as a travel book, but its feeling of release, cycling towards a wide future while running away from a confined past, still exhilarates. Like notable 19th-century women travellers such as Isabella Bird Bishop, when at last released from a cage of domestic duty Murphy travelled, riding through the cold, snowy winter of 1962-63.

She went armed with a .25 pistol and basic instruction from the County Waterford gardai on how to use it, which she did to confront wolves and thieves, and also with the maps and compass through which she had explored the planet in her imagination since childhood. Most of all she had a tolerance for hardship (her total budget was £64) and a curiosity about everyday elsewheres, which she kept through half a century of advancing by bike, foot, mule and cart (she never drove a car) on and off road across four continents.

Murphy, who has died aged 90, wrote 26 books, many in the diary style of Full Tilt, approaching each day, person and place, fresh on the page as she had experienced it. That directness appealed to readers, along with Murphy’s viewpoint, which was novel because of her background: she was a voracious reader but with little formal education and, being from the Irish countryside, outside those higher levels of the class structure that dominated travel writing. Rural poverty around the globe was no surprise to Murphy, who had attended a village primary school with barefoot, hungry classmates, and knew families dying of tuberculosis.

She arrived alone at each destination without social introductions, was shy at home but en route talked with anyone who responded, and, in life as well as writing, downplayed risks and tribulations – from injury, sickness and assault to dirt and nothing for supper.

Aged 10, she had realised on riding her first bike that simple pedal power might one day take her to India, and on the way there she discovered how each day’s whizz of the wheels of her Armstrong Cadet cycle, Roz (short for Rozinante, Don Quixote’s horse), carried her forward to kind strangers’ hospitality. Coming fast down a mountain road always thrilled her; touring the Balkans in her 70s, she was clocked descending at 65mph by a military patrol and reproved for not applying her brakes.

Murphy’s attitude to gender and social norms was also uncommon at the time. Tall, deep-voiced, muscled, practical and with a decisiveness accrued from constant solo choices, she was often taken for a man by other societies, and occasionally romanticised the restricted roles of those societies’ womenfolk, which she would never have put up with herself.

Dervla Murphy in India

She was sure of her own life’s direction, if uncertain of its meanderings. She never intended to marry, but once able to support herself through writing, did want a child. Her daughter, Rachel, deliberately conceived with Terence de Vere White, the literary editor of the Irish Times, was born in 1968, and her mother raised her alone, never naming the father publicly until after his death in 1994.

Rachel had her fifth birthday in Kodagu (then called Coorg), south-west India, on the first of her journeys with her mother; they later went to Baltistan, Peru, Madagascar and Cameroon. Until Rachel reached puberty, when the people they met travelling began to regard her as an adult who shared a sealed bubble of foreignness with her mother, she was an asset, a connection to families, though also, sometimes, a distraction, interrupting Murphy’s communion with the deep, pre-modern silence of the Himalayas or Andes. Their relationship could be difficult, but it lasted, and in time Murphy, Rachel, and Rachel’s daughters, Rose, Clodagh and Zea, all dossed down together on a Cuban beach for a three-generation trip on the usual shoestring, in 2005.

Murphy’s own hard family situation had formed her, she wrote in Wheels Within Wheels (1979). Her parents went from Dublin to Lismore in Waterford when her father, Fergus Murphy, was appointed county librarian. Soon after Dervla’s birth, her mother, Kathleen, contracted a rare rheumatoid arthritis that crippled her: perhaps in compensation she nurtured Dervla’s daring, giving her that first bike despite money always being short. But, aged 14, Dervla was withdrawn from the Ursuline convent boarding school in Waterford to serve as Kathleen’s carer for 16 years. Kathleen encouraged her brief bike jaunts to England and Europe, though Dervla had to return from each few weeks’ freedom to burdensome duty.

Fergus died in 1961 and Kathleen the following year, leaving Murphy with a house, books (her lifetime collection grew to 9,000), strong convictions about political and social injustice, and her freedom. After Full Tilt, based on diaries published only because of a chance meeting in Delhi with Penelope Chetwode, John Betjeman’s wife, came Tibetan Foothold (1966) and The Waiting Land (1967), which grew out of work with Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal. From the late 1970s, the purpose of her travels shifted to inquiring into the effects of recent history on people and places, beginning with A Place Apart (1978), a bike ride round Northern Ireland, then at an implacable stage of its Troubles.

On a Greyhound bus crossing the US, she passed close to Three Mile Island, the site in 1979 of the US’s worst nuclear power accident, which inspired Nuclear Stakes, Race to the Finish (1982), the first of the books in which her politics mattered more than the travelling, through Kenya and Zimbabwe during the Aids epidemic, Romania after its revolution, Rwanda after genocide, the Balkans after a decade of wars.

These culminated with an unfinished trilogy on Palestinian territorial fragments – Gaza Strip, West Bank, Jordanian camps – researched as ever over coffee in crowded tenements or tea on tent floors. She was strongly for socialism, and against almost everything else, especially mass tourism.

A hip replacement after a fall in Jerusalem, aged almost 80, plus arthritis and emphysema, finally confined Murphy to her austere base in Lismore, the remnant of a 17th-century cattle market plus eccentric outbuildings, where she organised a travel-writing festival and received pilgrims, including Michael Palin, visiting for a television documentary, Who Is Dervla Murphy?, in 2016. She asked him to join her daily skinny dip in the River Blackwater.

Her daughter and granddaughters survive her.

Dervla Murphy, traveller and writer, born 28 November 1931; died 22 May 2022

In the wake of Paddy’s paper boat

I’m in Prague. I have my battered, and much marked up copy of A Time of Gifts with me, and I’ve been struck just how wrong Paddy’s memory was! That section, whilst beautifully written as usual is a bit of a nonsense.

Anyway. Why am I here and not in England celebrating the Jubilee of our gracious Sovereign Elizabeth?

Many months ago I got the idea in my head to walk one of Germany’s great rivers. I have never been to Saxony and that appealed well enough. Then I discovered an area called Saxon Switzerland and knew I had to visit this beautiful sandstone landscape. So a walk down the Elbe seemed to fit. There’s a route for cyclists which is my guide and it starts in Prague and finishes Dresden. I’ve only discovered in the last couple of days that this “German” walk is actually 80% in the Czech Republic but that just adds to the enjoyment. 225 km in nine days. Easy peasy.

As you can see from the extract from ATOG, Paddy imagined a little paper boat making its way downstream. I shall be following in the wake of that little boat.

I also thought that it would be a good excuse to ask you, dear readers, for some money. If you would like to sponsor me please make a donation to the British Red Cross and the Ukrainian Red Cross Society (URCS) to support those who are suffering in Putins war of aggression against a peaceful sovereign state.

I’ll try to update you.

The link to donate is below. Maybe add a comment on the blog when you have done so. It would be nice to hear your thoughts.

https://donate.redcross.org.uk/appeal/ukraine-crisis-appeal

Following in Paddy’s footsteps – they still keep coming

Noah Chamberlain arriving in Bratislava

It was great to hear from Noah Chamberlain about his walk in Paddy’s footsteps. He’s walking all the way to Constantinople during his gap year. Last I heard he was in Sighisoara in Transylvania and having a ball.

Noah contacted me by email …

Dear Tom,

I have been a lurker on your blog for a couple of years now and I just wanted to get in touch to thank you for all the research you’ve put together concerning all things Paddy! I also thought you (or your readers) might be interested to hear of my own Paddy-inspired walk.

Back in February 2021, I was in my final year of sixth form, and, in yet another covid-induced lockdown, I picked up A Time of Gifts having listened to my dad rave about it nonstop over the years. I was hooked. I’d already decided that I wanted to take a gap year and go travelling before university and Paddy found me at the perfect time. So, in late January earlier this year, a caught a ferry across the North Sea from Harwich to Rotterdam and set off. I’m writing to you from Sighisoara in central Transylvania, and will soon be heading off as I trek to Fagaras and then Brasov. The last three plus months of solo travelling across Europe have been nothing short of brilliant. I’ve met so many interesting people, visited hundreds of varied places, and learnt so much about foreign worlds and about myself. Simply put, I’m loving it.

I hope to reach Istanbul in early July, but who knows where my travels might take me before then. If you’re interested, I’m also keeping a blog of my travels at www.noahachamberlain.com

Best wishes,
Noah Chamberlain

So, if you missed it first time around, catch up with Noah’s journey and his wonderful photos here.

Seeking monastic peace from the world

Rievaulx Abbey was a Cistercian abbey in Yorkshire (Photo: Getty/Andrea Pucci)

Rievaulx Abbey was a Cistercian abbey in Yorkshire (Photo: Getty/Andrea Pucci)

This interesting item which I’ve had ready to go for over a year reminds me a little of A Time to Keep Silence. Given the state of the world now, it is perhaps even more relevant.

By Sarah Sands

First published in inews.co.uk

As editor of the Today programme, I was addicted to news – but now I’m seeking monastic peace from the world. Sarah Sands believes there is a forgotten wisdom in monasteries that provides an answer to the tumult of our times – monks and nuns have acquired a hidden knowledge of how to live.

On a winter’s day, in which the sky hangs like a flat sheet over Norfolk, I look out at the remains of a 13th-century monastery wall. It’s in the field at the edge of my garden – all that remains of Marham Abbey, a Cistercian nunnery destroyed by Henry VIII.

The king found nothing of note in the abbey – the total loot was worth £46 – yet its last remnants exist as a centre of gravity in my life. The lessons of monastic life are contained within this wall, lessons that have increasingly offered guidance and inspiration for me in times of stress.

The great English Cistercian monastery is Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire, a five-hour drive from my home. Deciding that I needed to learn more about the community who built my wall, one day in 2019 I set off with an inexplicable sense of purpose. I drove past miles of skeleton trees, descending into a remote valley of the river Rye in the North Yorkshire moors. The hidden nature of Rievaulx makes its revelation all the more heart stopping.

St Aelred, abbot of Rievaulx monastery, once said, ‘everywhere peace, everywhere serenity and a marvellous freedom from the tumult of the world”(Photo: Getty/Ian Forsyth)

St Aelred, abbot of Rievaulx monastery, once said, ‘everywhere peace, everywhere serenity and a marvellous freedom from the tumult of the world”(Photo: Getty/Ian Forsyth)

There, alone, I wandered through the vistas of columns and framed views of stirring countryside. I imagined the first monks who sheltered there under the rocks of the valley and among the elm trees. The remoteness of monasteries – best viewed from the heavens – is in their essence; it is a rejection of the material world, its rhythms and its values.

The monks lived by sunrise and sunset and spent their time between in learning, meditation and manual labour. This inner concentration buoyed them in an extraordinary weightlessness. In the 12th century, St Aelred, abbot of Rievaulx monastery said: “Everywhere peace, everywhere serenity and a marvellous freedom from the tumult of the world.”

When I returned from Rievaulx, I was changed. I saw my wall in a different light. My sense of kinship with it deepened and my curiosity tingled. I saw that it was part of a network of monasteries across the country; ruined, silent, consigned to history, they all had stories to tell.

I began travelling to more and more of them, exploring them one by one – and travelling to monasteries around the world, too, from Greece to Egypt, from Japan to Bhutan, journeys I’ve been since reflecting on for my book The Interior Silence.

There was wisdom in these institutions. There was medicine. From the monasteries came both universities and hospitals, and the monks showed an early understanding of what we now call mental health.

The monastic way of living intrigued me – it had become a secret corner of my life. My work is in London, but Norfolk is my place of sanctuary. The wall represents something antithetical to my London life. It is the still small voice that provides a contrast to the needy, WhatsApp-ing, power-conscious world of politics and media.

‘Today’ and tomorrows

The job that I held when I visited Rievaulx was editing the BBC’s flagship news and current affairs show, the Today programme, during the most politically and socially fractious of periods. People were angry about whether or not Britain should leave the EU, and Today was a lightning rod.

I was responsible for the running order of the show, which was a work in progress over 24 hours. My phone beeped incessantly. There were months when it buzzed hysterically between 3am and 5am, until I realised that, apart from all the journalistic messages, I had somehow become the switchboard for all the taxis ordered by the BBC news department.

Skimming six hours sleep a night and ever part of a jittery and constant news conversation, I was finding it hard to switch off.

One night, during which I simply could not sleep, I picked up a book. It was a slim volume, called A Time to Keep Silence, by the great adventurer Patrick Leigh Fermor. Published in 1957, it is an account of his sojourns at three wonderful French monastic buildings: the Abbey of St Wandrille, Solesmes Abbey and La Grande Trappe.

In the book, Leigh Fermor confessed to depression and anxiety; he yearned for peace and stillness. “In spite of private limitations I was profoundly affected by the places I have described,” he wrote.

“The kindness of the monks has something to do with this. But more important was the discovery of a capacity for solitude and (on however humble a level compared to that of most people who resort to monasteries) for the recollectedness and clarity of spirit that accompany the silent monastic life.”

There is a wisdom in the monasteries which answers the affliction of our times (Photo: Getty/Ian Forsyth)

There is a wisdom in the monasteries which answers the affliction of our times (Photo: Getty/Ian Forsyth)

He also experienced a higher plane of sleeping: “After initial spells of insomnia, nightmare and falling asleep by day, I found that my capacity for sleep became more remarkable and my sleep was so profound that I might have been under the influence of some hypnotic drug… Then began an extraordinary transformation: night shrank to five hours of light, dreamless and perfect sleep, followed by awakenings full of energy and limpid freshness.

Can you imagine this? City sleep resembles an operating theatre of lights, movement and bleeping devices. We seek instant remedies for sleep, as for everything else. Of course, I am not going to give up alcohol, but I will throw in a herbal tea at the end of the evening. And I know to close the day with a book, although every few paragraphs my hand slides towards my iPhone, just to check messages or to Instagram.

Sometimes I try to meditate for a few minutes, which only jolts my memory of the emails I should have sent. This is not the path to the dreamless and perfect sleep of which Leigh Fermor writes.

The following day, I bumped into my friend Tom Bradby, the ITV news anchor who had been off work for many months, suffering from extreme insomnia. He had recovered but had not forgotten his state or the causes of it. He had a new awareness of the meaning of what he called “the worried mind”.

I reflected again on what Leigh Fermor had written: “In spite of private limitations, I was profoundly affected [by the monasteries].” This was how I felt about my Norfolk ruins. I knew they touched me deeply but did not know why and certainly did not attribute it to any virtue on my part.

There is a wisdom in the monasteries which answers the affliction of our times. Renouncing the world, the monks and nuns have acquired a hidden knowledge of how to live. They labour, they learn and they master what is described as “the interior silence”. Some orders are in permanent retreat, but others are expected to maintain the stillness of self in the midst of public bustle.

How can they do that? Is the virtue of interior silence something that can prevail in an era of peak technological distraction? I was beginning to question my 5G life. The connectivity, the drip feed of news, the superficiality of politics.

As Radio 4 listeners will know, in the middle of the Today programme is Thought for the Day, a three-and-a-half-minute sermon by a religious figure. It is an anomaly in a daily news show, but I have come to appreciate it as an oasis of reflection. News counts but meaning matters more.

I experienced that juxtaposition of connectivity and meaning at a dinner for the tech industry in the same week that I had read Leigh Fermor’s book from cover to cover – properly read it, rather than speed-read it as I usually do.

The conversation at the tech gathering was all about pace of change and personal realisation. We are driven by multiples of success and scale. Meanwhile, at my table, a broadcaster was looking furiously at her Twitter feed because a political joke had started a bush fire of condemnation. By the end of the evening, her resignation from the BBC was being demanded. This was a time of maximum hubris, before the arrival of the great reckoning.

The ubiquity of news media is a form of hubris, at odds with monasticism. Aggravated by social media, the journalistic impulse is exhibitionism and noise and entitlement.

The former Conservative strategist Lynton Crosby, who campaigned for Boris Johnson as London mayor and later as prime minister, said to me that people were motivated by jobs, money and family. His candidates won, he said, because he and they understood this. The remarkable thing about the monasteries is that they are inspired by none of these things. They are there on behalf of humanity, suspended between heaven and earth.

What if I were able to step away, I thought, even in the midst of political and media battle? There is a history of spiritual retreat after all.

Lockdown isolation

After three years of editing the Today programme, I left the BBC last September. I had made the decision at the start of 2020. The addiction to news had become corrosive to me and I had learned how to exist outside the news cycle, thanks to contemplative trips to monasteries. My hectic, distracted mind had experienced stillness.

News is generally regarded as a form of enlightenment but it is often just information wrapped in judgement, or worse, incitement. News demands drama and hyperbole. I remember when I was the editor of The Sunday Telegraph more than a decade ago, looking at a headline claiming local ‘fury’ over a piece of planning permission. I remarked to the news editor that having read the quotes from residents it seemed more a case of mild irritation than fury. The news editor responded wryly: “Irritation isn’t a headline word.”

I was planning to visit more monasteries ahead of my departure. Easter week was meant to have been spent in Salzburg, at the Nonberg Abbey – otherwise known as the setting for The Sound of Music – but in March last year lockdown arrived. Flights were halted, hotels closed. Monasteries continued in their customary state of self-isolation, and I was unable to reach them.

The Government demanded that the population return to their homes: mine was in Norfolk, in the remains of Marham Abbey. A monument to mortality and the futility of secular ambition. Henry VIII destroyed this monastery but could not destroy its meaning; perhaps because its endurance was based on acceptance of powerlessness.

Newspapers carried photographs of vats of beer and wine being tipped away. This was the London economy – bars and coffee shops. Farewell to my working life.

The existence that I was trying to escape suddenly seemed unbearably delightful. I watched television scenes of dinner parties or concerts as if through a looking glass. My bank statements read like an historical archive. Soho House, Joe the Juice, Caffè Nero, Daniel Galvin and, in the final days, Wigmore Street Pharmacy, Boots, Boots, Boots.

The Today programme was being produced remotely, and I spent hours pacing the garden on Zoom. What were the latest death figures? What was the state of the Prime Minister’s health? The country staked its identity on the principle of caring for the sick. A principle begun in its monasteries. Indeed, St Thomas’ Hospital in London, where the Prime Minister was treated, grew out of a priory.

Like everyone else, I was separated from what and whom I knew and loved. My younger son FaceTimed me from Hong Kong. He told me that he would not be coming home for his summer break because of the strict rule of quarantine. My elder son sent me a photograph of my grandson, only 20 miles away, but beyond reach now. My daughter went into lockdown in London, the epicentre of the virus. Every family had a story to tell of separation.

Monasticism teaches that you can love and participate, while being absent. This was what I had to learn; to appreciate relationships in the abstract. To delight in the existence of others without physical engagement in their lives.

I would describe the feelings I associated with the wall in my garden during those weeks of isolation as intense serenity and a sense of belonging. Most of all, I associated it with birdsong. The trees surrounding the abbey remains were full of birds – blackbirds, blue tits, finches, wrens, chiffchaffs, robins, rooks and, descending from the wide skies, the first swallows.

There was one thing I wished to learn in isolation: the distinctive differences in birdsong. On the first day I picked up the alarm call of the blue tits and the different whistles of the great tit. I wondered at the lung capacity of the tiny wrens. The busy sound of the chiffchaff will always remind me of this time, this period of death tolls and birdsong.

I hope to be visiting more monasteries soon, when life opens up again, but I’m lucky to have my wall. There is something about the melancholy ruins against a Norfolk sky that reminds you that a contemplative life has a natural setting and that the endless striving and building around it will not last. The tranquil message of my ruins of Marham Abbey and the great Rievaulx is humility. Personal ambition is an impediment, not a triumphant force.

This is an edited excerpt from The Interior Silence: My Encounters with Calm, Joy, and Compassion at 10 Monasteries Around the World by Sarah Sands. Buy it here.

Beautiful Ukraine – Spring is coming


Like all of you I have been shocked and totally absorbed by the war (yes it is Mr Putin) in Ukraine over the past few weeks. I have work colleagues and friends there.

We have all seen too many dreadful images coming out of that beautiful and sophisticated country. I wanted to share something completely different. A music video called Vesna (which means Spring) that celebrates the beauty of the countryside, cities and people of Ukraine. It is by Dakha Brakha whose music is quite eclectic. This image of people caught up in the powerful rhythmic music always makes me smile and feel good. I hope it does the same for you.

Slava Ukraini !!

 

Artemis Cooper on Paddy’s home and my return

Paddy and Joan at Kardamyli: Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive, National Library of Scotland

Welcome to my first blog post for some time. Life has been very busy with work, but mostly trying to buy a new house in Winchester which has been a very time consuming and frustrating process over the last five months or so. We may at last have found a house that might actually proceed to completion! Fingers and toes crossed.

I will also admit to having a certain degree of “blog block”, which, if you are unfamiliar with the ailment, is like writers’ block but somewhat less serious. The symptoms generally involve regular statements to my partner that ‘I must do something about the blog’ or ‘this weekend I shall really get down to writing some posts’. These can be accompanied with a feeling of guilt which soon passes as I substitute a long run on the South Downs or by the River Itchen for a session in front of the laptop. So you find me now a little slimmer, and a lot fitter, and, it would appear, to have overcome the “block” by writing this. Welcome back to me!!!

We shall start the year with a gentle warm-up post so I don’t overdo things. This is an article written by Artemis Cooper for Conde Nast Traveller and was published in January 2022.

PS – I’m off out running now I’ve done this! 🙂

Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive, National Library of Scotland

Inside a restored Greek home that’s now open to visitors

By Artemis Cooper

First published in Conde Nast Traveller

The southern Peloponnese ends in three rocky peninsulas, reaching deep into the Mediterranean. The wildest and most remote of them is the middle one, known as Mani. It was the subject of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s first book on Greece, and the place where he and his partner, the photographer Joan Eyres-Monsell, built one of the most beautiful houses in the world.

He and Joan had been looking for the right place on which to build for some time before they found it in mid-1962, just south of the village of Kardamyli. Set between two ravines, the headland jutted out towards the sea. In the evening you could watch the sun going down ‘until its last gasp’, as he put it, while to the east rose the great flanks of the Taygetos mountains, glowing orange and pink at sunset.

Known as Paddy to his many friends in England, he was Mihalis in Greece – his code name in the Cretan resistance, where he was celebrated for leading the team who captured a German general and whisked him off the island in 1944. After the war he became a writer, and by the early 1960s he had published four books. They were all successful, but he was so gregarious and easily distracted that writing was painfully slow. He needed not only peace in which to write, but an almost monastic seclusion.

Buying land in Greece is a complicated business, and it took two years to complete the sale; but the vendors let Paddy and Joan spend months at a time in tents on the site, poring over books on architecture, pacing out imaginary rooms and making ambitious drawings. They found a sympathetic design partner in Nicos Hadjimichalis, who had made a study of Greek vernacular architecture.

Work began in 1965, with a team of local workmen under Nikos Kolokotronis, a master mason. Stone was dynamited out of the hillside, hewn into blocks on the spot and sent down the goat track on the backs of donkeys. When the foundation stone was laid, Maniot tradition demanded a blood sacrifice. The master mason brought a black rooster, sliced off its head with his trowel and poured its blood into the footings, while a priest chanted and sprinkled holy water. There was no electricity in Mani at that time, so the house was built with traditional tools; and as the walls rose, Paddy and Joan made trips to nearby Kalamata where old houses were being pulled down to make modern apartments. They salvaged marble carvings, broken columns and fragments of stonework that lay abandoned, and set them like jewels into the fabric of their home.

I remember being rather daunted when I first came here in 1984, to interview Paddy about a book I was writing. The taxi had vanished in a cloud of dust and I was alone, in front of a forbidding pair of doors set in a long wall. I had to hammer on them for several seconds before it was opened, with profuse apologies. He walked ahead with my case, chatting amiably. I followed along a pebbled path, inhaling the scent of lavender and rosemary. We passed through another pair of doors to the left, where I stopped with a gasp.

Framed by an arch from which hung a large lantern lay the green folds of a hillside: olives and pomegranates in the foreground, rising gently to a grove of cypresses with woods of pine and ilex in the distance. It looked as if all of Greece, bathed in light, was waiting for me to step into it. That night we had dinner overlooking the silvery sea, on a terrace with a marble table. Just below, a steep flight of rough-hewn stairs led to the cove from which Paddy swam every day. Outside and inside had little meaning in this airy house. Joan’s cats (‘born down-holsterers,’ said Paddy fondly, as they dragged their claws across the furniture) drifted through open doors and windows.

The heart of the house is the library, which John Betjeman once described as ‘one of the rooms of the world’. Low divans and arm-chairs invite happy hours of reading and talking round the fire. I remember Joan here, on the sofa with a book, a cat at her feet. On her lap was another cat, occasionally used to prop up the book.

Every year, the village would celebrate with Paddy on his Greek name day: 8 November in the Orthodox Church. It began with a service at the chapel in the olive grove, a five-minute walk from the house, so small that only the priest and his altar boy could get in. We all stood outside laughing and chatting until it was over, and then everyone repaired to the house for a feast that lasted most of the day. Later Paddy, accompanied by a two-man band of fiddle and accordion, led the dancers singing and looping across the terrace.

As the Leigh Fermors grew old I came more often, and especially after Joan’s death in 2003, which left Paddy desolate. Houses by the sea always feel clean, but even this one began to show signs of age: any book picked off the shelf released a shower of silverfish and dilapidated shutters fell off hinges stiff with rust. As Paddy’s sight failed, his study sank into a jumble of papers. While I was working on his biography, we would spend long hours at the southern end of the library, in the Turkish khayati overlooking the bay. We used to talk about his life, going over his old war reports and letters until he would sit back and say, ‘I think it’s time for a drink, don’t you?

Paddy and Joan left their house to the Benaki Museum; and until this last visit, I had not been back since it was restored. I was, I admit, apprehensive; but as I walked onto the terrace and into the library, I felt moved to tears. The essential spirit of the place was vividly present – but clearer, fresher, more alive. Details I had almost forgotten, such as the colours of Paddy’s intricate pebble designs on the terrace, had been revealed in all their glowing precision.

This is thanks to the painstaking restoration made possible by a grant from the foundation set up by the late shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos. New heating and cooling systems have been installed; the roof has been insulated, and old tiles carefully cleaned and replaced. The garden has been replanted, while leaving the wild myrtle, juniper and marjoram that always gave the place such a distinct smell. Discreetly set on a lower terrace is a new pool, where I swam before a lunch of local cheese, meat and dried figs.

In a house so open, the museum has understandably left little for the souvenir-hunter. But I spotted Paddy’s old chart of the kings and queens of England on the bathroom wall, exactly where I had remembered it. Paddy and Joan have been gone for many years, but the house they left has been given a vivid new lease of life.

Selling some Patrick Leigh Fermor first editions

I have an excess of Paddy first editions that I wish to sell before Christmas. I’ve created a page where you can browse what I have and indicate how you can purchase.

The first is a 1950 first edition of the Traveller’s Tree.

Hardcover. Condition: Very Good. A. Costa (illustrator). 1st Edition. Green cloth with gilt lettering and small gilt vignette of tree on spine. Although very slightly bumped at head and foot of spine, binding otherwise in very good condition – no fading. Free end paper misssing which was perhaps a previous gift inscription, but NOT a library copy. Some foxing to endpapers. 50 pages of unpaginated photographic plates (61 photos in all) before the Envoi and the index. With an illustrated frontispiece by A.Costa, plus a double-spread sketch-map by H.W.Hawes.

Offers in excess of £50 considered. Postage and packing can be quoted based upon your location. Payment via Paypal. Please contact me with any offers etc.

The Great Sermon Handicap

Dear Readers. I hope that you are all well. Life here in Winchester is very busy (it is true – post-pandemic the world has gone mad and everything is frantic as well as in short supply!), and I’m going through that most stressful of activities, a house move, so do please forgive the lack of posts.

However, a quick request. Tom Roper contacted me to ask if I knew anything about a translation Paddy made of PG Wodehouse’s story The Great Sermon Handicap into Classical Greek. I know nothing. Perhaps you do and can help? Maybe even have a copy?

Tom Asks:

In Artemis Cooper’s biography of PLF, she mentioned a translation he made of PG Wodehouse’s story The Great Sermon Handicap into Classical Greek. It was also mentioned in several obituaries and tributes published after his death, but none of them give a reference to the full text. Do you happen to know, please, if the text was ever published, either in print or online?

Can you help? Answers via the comments or send to me via email. Thank you and keep well!

… a quick response by email from Chris O’Gorman …

I don’t know about The Great Sermon handicap in Paddy’s translation – there is a Latin version published by Heinemann in 1989 but whether or not it was Paddy’s, I can’t establish:  https://www.abebooks.co.uk/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=19308018438&searchurl=kn%3DGreat%2BSermon%2Bhandicap%2Bvolume%2B1%26sortby%3D17&cm_sp=snippet-_-srp1-_-title9

 

Thank you for Friday!

Just a quick note to thank all of you who attended the Paddy Chat on Friday. We had a really interesting and eclectic mix of people from the USA, Germany, Belgium, the UK, a Briton on holiday in Greece, and a particularly devoted fan from Melbourne, Australia (0300 his time!).

We covered a range of topics, but mostly how we came to find Paddy.

Perhaps we might have one in the lead-up to Christmas, and I thought we could discuss Paddy at Christmas 🙂

For those who attended and still wish to access the information I mentioned, please contact me using the Gmail account on the About and Contact page.

Paddy chat 24 September – meeting details

For all of you who have expressed an interest in our meeting on Friday 24th September, and even for those that haven’t yet, here’s the link to the meeting.

Click this link!

Just click on the link to enter the meeting with your camera on. If it’s a little chaotic at first don’t worry. Relax and drink some gin or a cup of tea. If things go wrong there’s little I can do to support you so please keep trying. Nothing should go wrong, but …

Start time will be 1800 BST. The event will run for 90 minutes. Feel free to come and go as you please. Late arrivals always welcome! Do be prepared to say something or even read us something you like. We will try to stick to some of the suggested topics, especially how academics might view Paddy’s work as we may have young student guest who is working on this! Let’s see how it goes.

Further information and how to make sure you can use Google Meets (you will need a Google account – just create one!) can be found in this post.

After the meeting I shall issue all those who attend with a link to something special in the Paddy video world. If it works! A special surprise I hope.

Swish! Swish! Swish! podcast read by Dominic West

The ruined Maniot tower village of Vathia, Deep Mani, September 2021. Copyright Tom Sawford 2021

Many of you enjoyed reading the short chapter written by Paddy for inclusion in a Greek version of Mani, but not published elsewhere until it was “discovered” this year.

The LRB have now managed to secure Dominic West to read the piece for a podcast which I hope that you will all enjoy.

Listen to Dominc West read Swish! Swish! Swish! here.

Read Mary Beard’s 2013 review of Mani and Roumeli from another LRB article here.

A sensual Greek goddess

Joan: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor by Simon Fenwick is perhaps the outstanding biography of the Fermors. This review includes the background to Fenwick’s growing interest in Joan as a person, as Paddy’s muse, and not just the wife.

By Nicholas Shakespeare.

First published in The Spectator.

Joan Leigh Fermor died in 2003, aged 91, after falling in her bathroom in the house on a rocky headland of the Peloponnese which she had financed by selling her jewellery. Afterwards, whenever Joan’s husband and companion of nearly six decades reclined in her place on the sofa to read, eight of her 73 cats would gather round him in a recumbent group — but after a few minutes slope off. Paddy (who died in 2011) wrote: ‘They had realised they were being fobbed off with a fake.’

This biography, by the archivist who went to sort out Paddy Leigh Fermor’s papers before they returned to England, makes a charming case for Joan to be considered the proper foundation of Paddy’s existence; his muse and ‘greatest collaborator’, whose wealth and talent as a sounding board underpinned his career as an author. ‘Joan made it possible for Paddy to write.’

She was like one of her cats, all of whom descended from a single Abyssinian ‘which had mated freely with the village toms’: fiercely independent (she and Paddy had a ‘pact of liberty’), alluring, a watchful presence in the shadows. ‘Sensual, somewhat aloof and deeply private,’ writes Simon Fenwick. ‘This is Joan.’

Tall, slender, with her blonde hair cut short: Lawrence Durrell called her the ‘Corn Goddess’. To John Betjeman, who made a late declaration of love, she was ‘Dotty’, with ‘eyes like tennis balls’. To Cyril Connolly, with whom she went to bed during her first marriage — and whose photograph, ‘eaten by tiny insects’, she kept in her bedroom — she was a ‘lovely boy-girl… like a casual, loving, decadent Eton athlete’. To Noel Annan, on the first page of his 450-page history, Our Age, she was a ‘life-enhancer’. Careful never to tread into the foreground, she runs like a silken thread through the memoirs of her generation, a thread which Fenwick skilfully tugs out and spins into a gossamer portrait, reminiscent of Ann Wroe’s biography of Orpheus, composed of glances and glimpses — and fingerprints, like those that Joan left on Cecil Beaton’s bathroom wall at Ashcombe, ‘to the left of the towel rail’.

A semi-professional photographer, with a taste for bombed-out buildings and cemeteries, Joan ‘always hated being photographed’, and left her films to be developed by other hands. The image she had of herself was of a bad-tempered, selfish Aquarian, withdrawn, given to grumbling, and indecisive. In a 1936 pocket diary, one of only three fragments of the paper trail that survives from before the 1940s, she confessed her lifelong dilemma:

A gregarious loner, she steps across Fenwick’s pages as simultaneously self-effacing and attention-seeking — once gaining notoriety for wearing ‘a single extraordinary earring’ consisting of ‘a bunch of 42 small gilt safety pins’. To almost everyone (including the author of this review, who met her in Kardamyli), she exuded, as Michael Wishart remarked of Barbara Skelton, ‘a tantalising quality of needing a tamer, while something about her suggested she was untameable’. A walk-alone feline who fluttered at will into a social butterfly, and a pin-up for other androgynous admirers, like the Oxford don Maurice Bowra, she has, not surprisingly, proved hard to pin down.

She was born Joan Eyres Monsell, into ‘a great deal’ of money. The family wealth came from a rich skinflint, a Leeds wool baron, who, when asked why he travelled third-class on the train, answered: ‘Because there’s no fourth class!’ She claimed to have nothing in common with her family, but her father — an ‘odious’ bully — was a sailor (and later first lord of the Admiralty), and on both sides there were writers, travellers and explorers — like her cousin Gino Watkins, who disappeared in Greenland, his kayak discovered floating upside down ‘and his trousers on an ice floe’.

As well, she had the example of her triumphantly profligate great-uncle Charles Kettlewell, ‘the Wicked Uncle’, who spent two years sailing his 420-foot schooner on a scientific voyage round the Far East, before dying bankrupt aged 49, having got through his entire inheritance (£4.5 million per year in today’s money), leaving only a collection of stuffed birds that ended up in Leeds Museum.

The most remarkable thing about much of Joan’s life was its lack of focus. Her first 20 years were spent in the shadow of her gay brother Graham and his Eton and Oxford friends, such as the penniless aesthete Alan Pryce-Jones, with whom Graham had probably slept. When Joan accepted a marriage proposal from Pryce-Jones, Betjeman wrote to him: ‘There is one thing you must do before you marry— you must explain that you were once inverted. She won’t mind at all.’ But her father did. ‘No, no, Pryce-Jones, come back in a few years when you have something behind you.’

The person Joan came back with, after a wartime marriage to the Express journalist John Rayner (‘we gradually drifted apart,’ she explained), was an equally penniless aesthete: an officer with the Special Operations Executive called Paddy Leigh-Fermor, ‘with few clear prospects’, whose riches largely consisted in his appetite for life — described in his own phrase as ‘that of a sea-lion for the flung bloater’.

They met in Cairo in 1944. Their affair continued until they tied the knot in 1968; in the same year, their home in Kardamyli was completed. Leading separate lives had sustained their enchantment for each other. ‘At this distance you seem about as perfect as a human being can be,’ Paddy wrote from the French monastery where he was writing The Traveller’s Tree, in one of the letters that formed the marrow of A Time to Keep Silence. Whenever they came together, as they longed to do (‘I shall have tiny Fermors every year,’ wrote Joan, desperate for a family), they often found it hard to adapt, and there would ensue, in Paddy’s words, ‘a tremendous mutually vituperative blow up’. This might explain the most evocative entry in Joan’s commonplace book, the single Fuegian word mamihlapintafoi, meaning: ‘Looking-at-each-other-hoping-that-either-will-offer-to-do-something-which-both-parties-desire-but-are-unwilling-to-do.’

When Fenwick opened the calf-bound visitors’ book at Kardamyli he discovered ‘a Who’s Who of 20th-century society’. With only one of Schizo Joan’s diaries to rely on, and no memoir, his affectionate scrap-book of a portrait more closely mimics the ‘personalised disorder’ which he found in Paddy’s desk; one drawer was ‘aptly’ labelled ‘Total Confusion’; another drawer contained stray photographs, broken spectacles and ‘wads of small printed notices saying that he was very busy and unable to answer his correspondents’; at the bottom of a tin trunk were two pennants from General Kreipe’s staff car. ‘Somewhere, amidst all this disarray, was the story of Joan and Paddy and their lives together.’

September Paddy chat – 24 September

The online event we held on 2 July was very successful and great fun. Those who attended wanted more, and there were many others who were unable to make it on that occasion. We sort of agreed to run another sesson after the summer.

To that end I’d like to suggest the next event as Friday 24 September after I return from my trip to the Mani! It could start at 1730 BST or 1800 BST. Please suggest what works best for you in your timezone and I’ll make a Solomon-like call.

I spoke with Chris O’Gorman recently and we thought that this time (as many of us would have introduced ourselves before) that we try to run with some broad headings. We came up with ideas like:

– What is your favourite book or passage of writing by Paddy, and what attracts you to it?

– If you did meet Paddy in the past, is there a personal account you can share about the experience?

– What do you think Paddy has to say now to our fragile and pandemic struck world?

– Where should writers and scholars focus their attention next on Paddy’s life and times?

There are many more possibilities. Why not add your ideas to the comments section? We wil probably only have time for two of these at most; maybe three. We can always run another event.

Details

Date and Time: 1730-1900 or 1800-1930 BST Friday 2 July. Your call by majority!

Location: Google Meets – see link here for requirements including web browser

Invitation: a link will be posted on the blog nearer the time – you will have to click in or accept. There will be no invitation to your calendar so you will have to make your own reminder.

Special Invitations: If you have in mind someone that you would like to attend, please pass on the details to them. If there is anyone you might like me to invite eg a writer or someone similar, please make your suggestion and I’ll see what I can do.

Hosting and Admin: I shall host to start with but this is your meeting so very happy that you take over! If anyone wishes to contact me via email to help with any admin that will be welcomed.

Dress and Protocols: Wear anything you like, or not as the case may be! Bring a drink (Vodka tonic?). I see this as a “camera on” event, otherwise things get very sterile talking to blank black windows on a conference call. As a courtesy to others I think that you should be prepared to have your camera on so we can see you if you wish to attend. In my experience, the quality of video calling makes for flattering images!

If you have any questions or suggestions, please post a comment below or contact me via gmail address.

Remembering Paddy – Travel Writing world podcast with Artemis Cooper, Colin Thubron and Nick Hunt

Patrick Leigh Fermor – Δημήτρης Παπαδήμος,

Patrick Leigh Fermor – Δημήτρης Παπαδήμος

Perhaps you recall I introduced the excellent Travel Writing World podcast to you some months’ ago and bemoaned the Paddy deficit on the site. Editor Jeremy Bassetti has, as promised, remedied this with a 10th anniversary round table discussion with Artemis Cooper, Colin Thubron and Nick Hunt.

Listen to the episode here.

My roots burnt with Greece

A team of firefighters from Serbia tries to extinguish a wildfire in the village of Glatsona on the Greek island of Evia. Photograph: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images

We have all watched the wildfires around the globe with some degree of horror and awe this summer, perhaps even real trepidation about the future of this warming third rock from the sun that we inhabit. As I think about a trip to the Mani later this year, my thoughts have also been about what we might find there; will the hills around Kardamyli be fire blackened? How will things have changed? This moving article by David Patrikarakos gives us some idea of the impact beyond the dreadful burning of forests. It speaks of the personal impact, and how close things have come to places many of you know in the Mani.

By David Patrikarakos

First published in The Spectator

On 11 March this year my father passed away from prostate cancer after several weeks in a hospital in central Athens. As we sat around his bed, I remember thinking that I was watching 3,000 years of Greek history slowly perish before my eyes. My father was an only child, and I am British. His line of Greeks is at an end.

Now fires have ravaged Greece and the olive trees that stood in my ancestral village for centuries have burnt to the ground. This year has seen the almost literal burning away of my roots: because if I am British, I am also a Greek — of sorts. This much is inescapable. My name is Patrikarakos, Pa-tri-ka-ra-kos, which falls — like a slab of Cycladic marble — between me and those I meet. So luminously foreign, so palpably un-English. I remember as a child reading that Ian Fleming had chosen the name James Bond for the main character of a spy novel he wanted to write because its two blunt monosyllables were, he said, ‘brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and very masculine’. What then of my endless syllables and vulgar vowels, which fuse together in ululating cadences, and sound so alien — and presumably feminine — to British ears?

If my name screams ‘foreign’ to the British it signals something else to Greeks. Its stem — ‘akos’ means only one thing: that I originate in the Mani, a region of the Peloponnese in southern Greece. The origins of the word ‘Mani’ mean ‘a sparse and treeless place’ — and it’s apt. The land is hot and arid, the terrain mountainous and inaccessible. It was only relatively recently that a road able to reach many of its villages was built. Previously they had been accessible only by sea.

The people, who claim descent from the ancient Spartans, are notoriously ungovernable. Mani is home to vendettas. For centuries families killed each other through the generations over long-forgotten disputes. When my father died, we pondered what to do with the old family rifle that had been passed down to him. It was beautiful: rich brown wood married to deep grey metal. I had visions of it hanging on my wall, speaking to a history that, though distant, is not forgotten. I called a contact at the police to check out the legality of this.

‘Hmmm,’ he told me over video call, scratching a stubbly chin. ‘Theoretically you need to take it to a police station where they can confirm it’s been decommissioned and then register it.’

He paused. ‘The thing is… this is from the Mani, right?’

I replied that it was.

‘Yeah, the problem is that every so often we get a gun in from there and it turns out to have been used to shoot someone in a vendetta years ago, which causes no end of problems. I’d just bin it if I were you.’

I binned it.

Since ancient times Maniots have been pirates and warriors — impossible to enslave. The Mani is mentioned in Homer’s ‘Catalogue of Ships’ in the Iliad, while the Maniots supplied Augustus with troops for his battle with Mark Antony and Cleopatra at Actium. During the Greek war of independence against the Turks, the Greeks emblazoned ‘Freedom or Death,’ on their flags. The Maniots, though, replaced ‘Freedom’ with ‘Victory’ because, of course, the Mani had always been free.

If the Mani is famous for war, it is also famous for its olive trees. Mine were in my ancestral village of Skamnaki — the name means little stool — in the region’s east, close to Gythion bay in the plateau between mount Taygetos and the sea. The olive groves stood among some fields down a slope not far away from the thick stone house that my pappoús, my grandfather, and his family grew up in.

Their loss has scarred the entire village. Some are inconsolable; these people grew up in the shadow of trees that are now reduced to ash. For Maniots, olive trees symbolise a deeper emotional relationship with place: if the Mani is unconquerable, it is in large part thanks to its olives, through which the people could trade and feed themselves. Mani’s famous independence is inseparable from its trees. When enemies want to hurt the region it is the trees they attack. During the 1821 war of independence, Ibrahim Pasha ordered his army to burn several Mani villages to the ground, torching the olive trees in each one. The local population starved to death.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, the English travel writer who lived in Mani, talks about the importance of the olive harvest there. ‘Each tree has its personality,’ he tells us. ‘Every branch and knot and hole is familiar, and to damage one is an unlucky, almost a wicked act.’ This is because if the trees mark this land they also demarcate its people. Maniots are not Cretans for many reasons, but not least because they don’t beat their olive branches to make the olives fall as Cretans do — they don’t want to bruise the trees. They have a deeper connection with them. They know that trees surround their houses, their buildings, their churches.

And if the trees sit at the heart of community life, they have also powered social progress. For years, women were barred from taking part in almost all activities outside of the home except for the harvest: then they would put on old clothes and go out into the groves with the men and children. Everyone understood this relationship, which was clear and synergistic. The people tend the trees, and in return the trees give them olives — the source of life.

In the end, we cannot escape our roots. Here, it is the roots of the trees that sit deep in the ground, anchored to the soil and the story of families. Every Maniot understands that their history is interwoven with the olive trees — the two sets of roots perennially intertwined, indivisible from the land. It is something that I too now finally understand — if only in their demise. The fires in Greece have meant for me, not just the destruction of some vines but a rupture with history itself, and for my family, they have meant that once again we will come together this year to mourn death.

Dorset, in a Mediterranean light

John Craxton in Hydra, Greece, 1960. Photo: Wolfgang Suschitzky

This second article about John Craxton discusses Craxton’s personal and professional journey towards the happiness and creativity he found in Greece. It is written in the context of the 2016 Salisbury Museum exhibition that I know many of you attended. I have left the article as is so do excuse the references to events long past in a different world!

Remember the new biography by Ian Collins – John Craxton: A Life of Gifts  – is published by Yale University Press.  Craxton was book cover artist for most of Paddy’s books, friend to Paddy and Joan, as well as Lucian Freud, and lover of Margot Fonteyn.

By Maggie Gray

First published in Apollo Magazine, April 2016

Before he moved to Crete, before the sparkling light of the Mediterranean permeated his world view and his canvases, John Craxton painted rather more morose depictions of his native England. The artist was born in London to a cosmopolitan family, but from a young age lodged at his aunt and uncle’s house in rural Dorset where, if his early paintings and drawings are to be believed, he spent a lot of time wandering and sketching the landscape, immersed in his surroundings and his own thoughts. In early works he cuts a lonely figure – for it is difficult not to read his solitary shepherds and poets as self-portraits of some kind – among the ancient hills and gnarled trees, with only the birds for company. This brooding but lyrical vision of England won him recognition as a young talent in the neo-Romantic school – though like all good neo-Romantics he disliked the term. Craxton eventually strayed a long way from the fold, both geographically and stylistically, settling in Crete and pursuing a lighter and highly distinctive style. But the sense of being within a landscape – of drawing one’s own energies and emotions from its larger rhythms – that he established in chilly Cranborne Chase never left him or his work.

Poet in Landscape (1941), John Craxton. © Craxton Estate

Poet in Landscape (1941), John Craxton. © Craxton Estate

Craxton’s reputation faltered towards the end of his life but was revived somewhat at the end of 2013, when the Fitzwilliam Museum mounted a retrospective at which his colourful Cretan paintings were a revelation. A number of these kaleidoscopic canvases are now on display at the Salisbury Museum (until 7 May), but the show – curated by Craxton’s biographer and executor Ian Collins, and on the second leg of a tour that started at the Dorset Museum in spring 2015 – is a decidedly more local affair. On view alongside examples of his major works are Craxton’s childhood sketches; a series of paintings by his uncle, Cecil Waller (all for sale); a selection of items from the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Farnham, whose collection fascinated Craxton as a boy (it closed in the 1960s); and a set of portrait drawings he made of local children that have only recently come to light. Craxton’s designs for cards and book covers (most famously for his friend Patrick Leigh Fermor) add a further note of personal domesticity.

Knowlton Church (1941), John Craxton. Private collection

Knowlton Church (1941), John Craxton. Private collection

This eclecticism makes for a less cogent show than the Fitzwilliam’s (which also benefitted from a simpler layout and higher ceilings than is possible in Salisbury’s 17th-century building) but the odd combinations do result in surprising insights. In the second of the main exhibition rooms, for example, are several paintings and drawings of rural landscapes and buildings (and a startling image of a dead hare on a tabletop, made when Craxton was living with Lucian Freud in London, which is an interesting diversion). They range from grey and moody visions in ink, to more controlled and colourful variations, including one, Alderholt Mill (1943–44), in which the house is painted in blocks of brilliant red, white and green. It’s an unexpected injection of colour that foreshadows Craxton’s later paintings (to which the curators have established a direct line of sight). It’s also a detail that is picked up in the bold wall colours selected for the display, which switch from a deep slate blue to brilliant yellow, marking Craxton’s departure for sunnier shores.

Alderholt Mill (1943–44), John Craxton.

Alderholt Mill (1943–44), John Craxton.

The artist’s first inkling that there might be a life for him outside the UK seems to have come from a visit to the Scilly Isles in 1945, after which he swiftly upgraded to the Mediterranean proper, travelling to Greece in 1946. Crete became a regular base for the artist, and while he did not officially relocate until 1960, the island replaced his home country in his affections quickly and completely. ‘I can work best in an atmosphere where life is considered more important than Art – where life is itself an Art’, he commented in 1948:

Then I find it is possible to feel a real person – real people, real elements, real windows – real sun above all. In a life of reality my imagination really works. I feel like an émigré in London and squashed flat.

Craxton’s ambitious Four Figures in a Mountain Landscape (1950–51) serves as a centrepiece and turning point in the Salisbury display, which gathers several of his later paintings into its final two rooms. The large painting is an unashamedly Arcadian depiction of Aegean life, woven with colour, which encapsulates much of what changed in Craxton’s art after he went away. The smaller pictures surrounding it tell us a bit more about how and why his style evolved. Greek Fisherman (1946), made after his trip to the Isles of Scilly, but before he got to Greece, is an important reminder that the artist’s efforts to lighten his palette predated and probably inspired his first trip. He was already asking questions of his art – and was clearly predisposed to find his answers in the Aegean.

Four Figures in a Mountain Landscape (1950–51), John Craxton. © Craxton Estate. Photo: Bristol Museum, Galleries & Archives

Four Figures in a Mountain Landscape (1950–51), John Craxton. © Craxton Estate. Photo: Bristol Museum, Galleries & Archives

Two Greek Dancers (1951), meanwhile, reveals an important innovation that he would only make once he got there. The deceptively simple composition depicts two figures in outline against a pale grey-blue ground – but what astonishing outlines they are, changing colour as they feel their way around their subjects, indicating the local hues that have otherwise vanished into the airy surroundings. This technique recurs in various inflections throughout his later paintings, and few approaches so elegantly express both the hot, crystal clarity of the region’s light and the scattering, vibrating colours that it produces. Four Figures in a Mountain Landscape is, in reality, no more colourful than some of his British scenes: deep, dark blues and greens dominate the foreground as the sky turns to sunset overhead. But the whole thing is held together by silvery, shifting and vibrant threads of paint. They transform the image, laying down the memory of the warmth and brilliance of the day just ending, but also the expectation of another such day to come. You don’t see that in Dorset very often.

Buy John Craxton: A Life of Gifts here.

Swish! Swish! Swish!

Paddy’s observations on the Mani olive harvest, the war stories of old men, and where to find the best olive oil! A Paddy original recently surfaced. 

By Patrick Leigh Fermor (unknown provenance sent to me by a friend)

‘Where are you off to? Sit down.’ One of the two cheerful old men, who were smoking crosslegged under the branches, patted the ground beside him. Silvery vistas of gnarled and half-hollow olive trees opened fanwise all round them and there was a cicada grinding and scraping on every branch. A donkey under a wooden saddle grazed a little way off, trailing his long rope through the stubble. A wide hat with green muslin sewn to the brim lay beside one of the old men, and a rusty tin smoke-gun, fitted with primitive bellows that beekeepers fuel with dried dung. He was on his way to his beehives: one of those rows of faded blue wooden cubes that one sees high up in the heather in the summer months.

When I was beside them on the ground and about to light a Papastratos No. 1, the mule owner said: ‘Put it back, boy. Try one of ours from Kalamata.’ I took a Karelia from his packet. He lit it with flint and steel and a long yellow wick and I lay back in an aromatic cloud. It was a baking day with long needles of sunlight piercing the brittle shade of the leaves. The Deep Mani! It had never seemed hotter.

The beekeeper took a pitcher of water out of a little cave among the roots and passed it. I took a long pull of water from the cool and clammy vessel. ‘There’s nothing worse than thirst,’ he said, putting it back. ‘I’ll never forget when we were fighting the Turks on the river Sangarios, the day we captured the mountain of Çatal Dag – you remember, Petro?’ Petro nodded. ‘The confusion was terrible! Our chaps here, the Turks there, dust and smoke everywhere. Dead men, dead horses, wounded men, everyone covered with dust; caps, helmets, fezes – all lost, everything all over the place and upside down! It was a hot August, just like today. And thirst, po, po, po! Never ask! One of our boys who had lost touch with his company, suddenly spied a spring up the mountainside. He ran and flung himself down and started to drink. Then another one arrived and lay down beside him. They made room for each and went on drinking. When they had drunk their fill they sat up and looked at each other with a sigh of contentment. Suddenly our boy realised that the other was a Turk! Panayia mou! A young infantryman, just like him! And, at the same moment, the other realised he was sitting beside a Greek!’ He paused. ‘Just think! A Romios and a Turk, side by side! And the battle still going on all round them. Cannons! Horses! Flags! Shouting! Sabres! Bayonets! Bugles!’

‘Yes, but what did they do?’ The tension was intolerable. Barba Stavro’s eyes were twinkling in their lined sockets.

‘The whistle of bullets – we still had the old-fashioned single-shot Gra rifles then – orders and counter-orders shouted in both languages … mortars, shells, explosions! Wounded and dying all over the place.’ He clicked his tongue. ‘War is a terrible thing!’

‘But what did they do, Uncle Stavro? You are torturing us!’

‘Especially with modern weapons, amán! amán!’ He was gazing into the distance, pensively twisting his white moustache with his forefinger. ‘They say the atom bomb – my granddaughter read me all about it, from the Kathimerini – the last atom bomb, I mean, that they exploded at – what’s the place called? Bikini? – in the Pacific Ocean.’

I seized him by the knees. ‘Yes, but what did they do?’

‘Who? Ah yes, our chap and the Turk … I’m glad you asked …’ There was a long pause. ‘Well,’ he said, taking pity on us at last, ‘they did exactly what you or I would have done. They jumped up and ran away from each other as fast as they could!’

We all laughed. In Albania, in 1941, I asked an old friend what the retreat in Asia Minor had been like, and without hesitation, he said: ‘Like the retreat of the Grande Armée from Moscow, but with sand instead of snow.’ One catches the atmosphere in a flash. It is from the uncomfortable, the haphazard, the comic, that one learns what things were really like.

I wish Anna Comnena had possessed a single spark of these old men’s spirit. But Byzantine chroniclers lacked this blessing: hieratic formality and a slowly fossilising language stifled it; it was beneath their dignity. If Barba Stavro and Barba Petro had been there in 1259, when the Byzantines beat the Frankish army at the Battle of Pelagonia, it would be more than just a date. They would tell us about a Burgundian baron’s charger casting a shoe, or a squabble between two Thracian archers over a plate of beans, and all would be different. Xenophon had the life-giving gift; so did Makriyannis. These old Maniots idling the morning away with me under the hot leaves had it to a supreme degree. The bell round its neck clanked every time the donkey moved to a new patch of stubble, while we were marching in imagination with the Peloponnese Division all over Asia Minor.

These marvellous old men abound, but they will be getting scarce soon. I mean the ones who, in about 1912, received ten years of wars as a coming-of-age present: unambiguous, self-reliant, upright, humorous and philosophical men; weathered by a thousand hardships, and often illiterate, they are equipped with an intelligence that leaves their native simplicity intact. It was in Crete that I first came across these indestructible old men, with their white moustaches and their clear eyes; and, later on, all over rustic Greece and the islands. They gave one a hint of what Kolokotrones must have been like. Nestor, perhaps.

Until that morning, the Asia Minor campaign, which had ended thirty years earlier, had always seemed as remote as the Anabasis. Now, it might have ended last week. Their reciprocal memories egged each other on: the laundry lost in the Meander river … the deaf lance-corporal in Ortaca … Trouble with the town commandant of Süsürlük … Leave overstayed in Smyrna … The over-zealous sergeant-major at Ushak and the confusion caused by his orders, given in mangled Katharévousa.

The tale of a calf ‘acquired’ by a hungry platoon before the battle of Afion-Kara Hissar reminded me of another I had heard a couple of weeks before in the Outer Mani; it had been told me by the hero of the anecdote, who had been on sentry duty at night in a trench as a newly arrived recruit in the Halka Bunar line, in front of Smyrna. I repeated the story: how, all of a sudden, through the darkness, he had heard steps drawing closer from the direction of the Turkish front line. Perhaps it was the spearhead of a night attack! (No password! It couldn’t be one of our night patrols. No answer to my challenge; so I fired. Down went the enemy!) Alerted, the whole front stood to arms, fire broke out all along the line and continued till daybreak, when the raider turned out to be a donkey which had strayed between the two armies. (‘I know the man who told you this!’ Petro said. ‘I’m from the Outer Mani too.’) ‘Ever afterwards,’ the storyteller had concluded, ‘the whole regiment used to tease me about being the heroic donkey-slayer.’ I didn’t tell the story very well, but they laughed politely; and as I finished, the donkey grazing nearby let out a series of desolate brays. Barba Stavro put a finger to his lips: ‘Quieter, Mihali,’ he said. ‘He heard you.’

After a moment, Barba Petro went on. ‘Some people think trees can understand what we say. They like company. At least they like being close to human beings.’ It was an interesting idea. I suggested that it might limit conversation: one didn’t want to corrupt our benefactors. ‘They don’t really hear us, of course,’ he went on. ‘It’s because the trees near to a house always do best. It’s probably all the dirty water the women throw out of the doors, and the mules and donkeys tied up under the branches. Chickens, ducks, pigs, it all helps … And another thing: the trees talk as well as listen!’ He laughed. ‘Do you know what an olive tree says to its master, to help him get a good crop? No? Well, first it says: “When you plough me, you caress me.” Later on in the year it says: ‘When you manure me, you ask me a favour.” But at harvest time it says: “When you prune me, you command me!”’

Throughout this peninsula the olive tree reigns unchallenged. All life revolves round them. They are treated with respect and love: the respect that is accorded to sovereigns and the love that is bestowed on one’s family. Each tree has its personality: every branch and knot and hole is familiar, and to damage one is an unlucky, almost a wicked act; when a plan for the building of a new road or the widening of an old one condemns thousands of them to death, the grief is deep and general. On the eve of such a slaughter I came on a woman wandering among her olives. She had come to say goodbye. ‘They won’t be here tomorrow,’ she said, laying her hand on the rough bark, dry-eyed, but only just. ‘Twenty of them are coming down. I’ve known them since I was a little girl. They were my dowry.’ Next day the destruction began, and on the day after, kilometres of trees lay uprooted to make way for another broad band of asphalt to tear its way through those once silent groves.

I asked my companions how the olives were gathered: did they beat them from the branches with long reeds or poles, as I had seen it done in Crete? They were horrified. Beat them down? Only from the lopped branches on the ground. On the tree itself they were all picked by hand, to avoid bruising the twigs and the shoots: a long task. ‘In some of our Outer Mani villages,’ Barba Petro said, ‘they have started using an instrument like the comb people have for carding wool after the sheep-shearing – it’s just a bit of wood with some nails through it, really, and a handle. It does the work in half the time. You just comb the branches.’

‘Is that so?’ Barba Stavro was as impressed as though he were learned of the discovery of steam power for the first time. When they had discussed it in detail, he turned to me and said: ‘You must come back when they are gathering them. It’s a fine sight.’

I have seen it now. After the first brief rains a note of preparation runs through the Mani; the whole atmosphere begins to change. The blacksmiths hammer away at the great containers which have replaced the old amphorae, and in the olive presses you hear the first trial thumps of the engines which now do the work of the blindfold circling mules. Spraying has delivered the crop from the onslaught of the dacus fly. But the autumn sky has returned to its summer emptiness: ‘Will God rain on us?’ the question goes up. The clouds which at last assemble along the crests of the Taygetus resemble the sails of a relieving fleet after a long siege. At last the first drops fall on the dust like dark scattered stars that soon join and overflow in puddles. By the time it ends, young grass has sprung up in a haze between the tree trunks; sea-squills expand their dark spikes, cyclamen are sprouting among the rocks; and the branches, which have steadily been losing their angular distortion, droop in semicircular arcs under the weight of their berries, like the trees on a willow pattern plate. All has been washed clean and all that the dust and the distance veiled through the hot months leaps forward in glittering detail. Now and then a light wind travels through those thousands of trunks and lifts the pointed leaves so that the silver undersides flicker and flash in the thin November sunlight as though a shoal of millions and millions of fish, prompted by a subconscious mass decision, were changing direction. The ripple dies down and all is still again.

A few mornings later there are sudden voices among the trees after a whole year of silence and the olive groves fill up with figures and animals. Great rectangles of sacking, helped out by a bright blanket here and there, are spread out under each tree in turn like rafts of colour. Ladders ascend into the boughs, the figures group and regroup, men shout from the branches and the women, standing about or sitting in a ring below, beat the lopped and fallen twigs with sticks. The unflagging swish! swish! swish! is the predominant sound all through the harvest. The olives that patter on the cloth like rain are piled in pyramids; children who are too young to be left alone in the empty village chase each other between the trees; dogs bark, mules nibble the new grass and white goats tear the leaves from the stripped twigs that cover the ground.

The women wear their oldest clothes. They are patched again and again, and except for dark pleats and folds that retain their earliest colours, have been faded by the sun and bleached by a hundred washings to pale harmonious hues. Similar groups are assembled in the great level groves; they are scattered on the ascending ledges of terrace that climb until the last trees disperse among the high rocks like puffs of gunfire. The groups, the colours, especially those on the ledges of the perpendicular mountainside, compose themselves like the biblical scenes frescoed on church walls; almost – with the seated and standing figures, the waiting animals and the criss-cross of ladders – into crucifixions infinitely reproduced, except that all is cheerful here. Then men plying their small curved saws at the top of the ladders engage the women beside and beneath them in banter; flocks of girls perch invisibly in cages of leaves. Their songs drift charmingly along the groves. Loaded with bursting sacks and goaded by the cheerful blasphemies of their drivers, strings of mules labour through the dappled light and shade down the lanes to the olive presses; the throb of their engines has suddenly become the heartbeat of all the villages.

Everything gathers here. Animals stamp and neigh and collide and rear, swift hands disentangle them; strong backs are bent double under the sacks. Greetings are shouted and gossip has to be exchanged in voices of thunder to overcome the din of the engine and the roar of the great turning stones. Each peasant watches his cataract of olives poured into the wooden jaws; and when at last the pale jade-green jet of the first oil gushes from the spout below, he dips into it a piece of bread and munches it, feeling the happiest of mortals.

These are private and local scenes, cut off from the outside world. Everyone who doesn’t belong here has fled long ago, at the same time as the swallows. (Not quite everyone, or these lines would not be being written.) One morning there is a confetti of snow on the high peaks of the Taygetus; in a day or two they are an unbroken white, a dazzling background to the oranges with which the village trees are now heavy. The harvesting goes on through the winter solstice until the cut twigs and branches cover the ground and choke the lanes. The aromatic smell of bonfires drifts through the clipped and lightened branches; plumes of pale smoke ascend into the bright air. At night the stars sparkle like icicle splinters. Then the cypresses shudder in anticipation, and the wind comes and drenching rain. Tremendous waves roar up the inlets like an invasion to boom and echo in the caves with which the whole coast is undermined. The waves soar along the cliffs, opening in fans that cover the headlands and offshore islands with canopies of water and foam, to collapse and fall back with a gasp of pebbles. The onslaught reverberates through towers and archways and rooms like the sound of a battle offstage. Nowhere does one feel more cogently the succession of the seasons and the tilt of the earth’s axis. By now every house has its new oil stored in giant containers; the household is safe for another year. The windowpanes are streaming. The stripped trees stretch their roots through the soaking dark red soil; their torpid subterranean energy will cover the branches again by Easter with millions of pale, minute and star-like flowers.

But a shadow falls over these scenes, a small one during that summer day years ago while Stavro and Petro were talking; longer now. For the flight from the Mani continues, and each year the population that gathered the olives grows less. Sometimes, to replace them, troops of women come down from Western Thessaly, strange and fascinating costumes appear in the lanes, the Karagouni accent is heard, even a phrase or two of Koutzovlach. But they are no solution. The great flocks have already vanished from the high summer pastures of the Taygetus. In the north, the brushwood folds of the Sarakatzans, their customs and costumes, and their conical wigwams – those last surviving symbols, perhaps, of the most ancient Greek way of life in the country – have vanished from the Zagora ranges and the Agrapha, and the bells of their flocks sound fainter and fainter every year. Are the olives of the Mani to follow? Some pessimists think so: ‘Where are the hands to harvest them?’ they ask. Where indeed? Ask in Kalamata and Athens, ask in Essen and Düsseldorf, in Duisburg and Cologne and Friedrichshafen, in Melbourne and Adelaide and Sydney; ask in Toronto and Montreal …

Will the day come when the best oil on the planet ceases to flow; when the silver cord is loosed, as in the last chapter of Ecclesiastes, and the grinders cease because they are few and the doors shall be shut in the streets?

The best oil on the planet. Stavros and Petro had no doubts about it. We all agreed that Greek olives were the best. I said, ‘What about Amphissa?’ They turned on me with pitying tones. No, no. The Mani was the place. But where in the Mani? ‘Here!’ Stavro said. His forefinger, which was as hard as a goat’s horn and nearly as wrinkled, gave the ground a gnomic tap. Then he gathered his beekeeping gear and got up, stretching himself and yawning. ‘We’ll go home and try some. And swallow an ouzo or two to revive us after our labours.’ We all laughed; we were streaming with sweat, but not from toil. We had lain there talking for more than three hours. Petro collected his mule, which had wandered away some distance.

‘Stavro,’ he said as we set off. ‘Deep Mani olives are good. I’m not saying they’re not. But the best are the ones in the Outer Mani. The whole world knows it. It’s not just because I come from those parts – far from it. But it’s everybody’s opinion.’

‘So be it,’ Stavro said. He gave me a secret dig with his elbow and the ghost of a wink. I asked Petro where the best in the Outer Mani come from. ‘From Liasínova,’ he answered without hesitation. There was a scarcely audible chuckle from Barba Stavro. I asked Petro where he came from. ‘Me? You mean where do I come from?’ Then, in airy tones of slight surprise at the unexpected coincidence, he said: ‘From there. From Liasínova, that’s to say.’

It was a splendid illustration of local prejudice. But now, after many years and mature consideration, I think there was a lot in what he said. Certainly, the best olives in Greece come from the Outer Mani; and definitely from the region of Liasínova. But from Liasínova itself? I think a truly impartial and objective opinion might place the actual pinpoint of unsurpassable excellence a little further down the coast – only three or four kilometres away. More towards Kardamyli, perhaps.

Editor Note: Since publication some of you have come forward with ideas about the source of this. I like the one from Pietro Basile best:

Hello Tom,
here’s the current source for Swish, swish, swish.
Apparently it was written for a Greek edition of Mani but never published.
No mention of who found it, but great piece, if one actually actually knows Greece.
My guess is that he wanted to have it it included as a special homage to his area but whoever was the editor thought it was a bit corny…
Regards,
Pietro

The art of friendship in post-war Greece

Still Life with Three Sailors (1980–85), John Craxton. Private collection. © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

Still Life with Three Sailors (1980–85), John Craxton. Private collection. © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

 

The first of a few articles reminding us of the genius of John Craxton as his new biography by Ian Collins – John Craxton: A Life of Gifts  – is published by Yale University Press.  Craxton was book cover artist for most of Paddy’s books, friend to Paddy and Joan, as well as Lucian Freud, and lover of Margot Fonteyn.

By Tom Fleming. First published in Apollo Magazine June 2018.

John Craxton disliked being described as a ‘neo-Romantic’ artist, preferring to be known as a ‘kind of Arcadian’. He spent most of his life in Crete, where his enjoyment of the Mediterranean lifestyle was in inverse proportion to the rate at which he finished his paintings (he termed it ‘procraxtonation’). He never quite shed the label of a promising talent who had failed to develop. But he did not regret moving away from England. His work may not be as celebrated as that of his friend Lucian Freud, with whom he first went to Greece in 1946 (and later fell out), but it has a joie de vivre that speaks of a life well lived, one in which Greece played a fundamental part. As he wrote later, he preferred to live ‘in an atmosphere where life is considered more important than art – where life is itself an Art’.

Those last words could be the strapline for ‘Charmed Lives in Greece’ at the British Museum. It focuses on three friends – Craxton, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika – who met just after the Second World War and remained close for almost 50 years thanks to a shared attachment to the pleasures of Greek life. Through artwork, letters, photographs and notebooks, the exhibition builds up a kind of group biography, structured loosely around the various homes they made for themselves.

Pine trees in Poros (1949), Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika. Ghika Gallery, Benaki Museum, Athens

Pine trees in Poros (1949), Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika. Ghika Gallery, Benaki Museum, Athens

The most spectacular of these was Ghika’s family villa on the island of Hydra, with its nine terraces dug into the steep hillside overlooking the harbour. Born in 1906, the son of a distinguished admiral, Ghika was an elegant and much-liked painter who had studied in Paris during his youth, returning to Greece in the 1930s. Like several of his generation, he brought modernist sensibilities to bear on the renascent national culture of the period, and was a busy presence in Greek life. He set about restoring the Hydra house in 1936 and with his first wife made it a stopping point for anyone and everyone.

Leigh Fermor and his girlfriend (later wife) Joan became regular guests after the war. Paddy, as he was known, was famous around Greece for his exploits with the Cretan resistance against the Germans. In the early 1950s he and Joan stayed at Ghika’s house for two years while Ghika was travelling, during which time Paddy (never a stranger to using other people’s houses as writing retreats) constructed most of Mani (1958), his book about the southern Peloponnese. A product of his near-exhaustless curiosity about Greek history and culture, Mani is full of the lyricism and ebullience that defined his prose. Quotations from his writings are displayed around the exhibition, as evocative in their way as the many images. It was Craxton who illustrated the cover for Mani, and he did the same for all of Leigh Fermor’s subsequent books.

Moonlit Ravine (early 1970s), John Craxton. Private collection © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

Moonlit Ravine (early 1970s), John Craxton. Private collection © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

Craxton, too, stayed for long periods at Ghika’s house. He was impressed by the way Ghika’s art fused Cubist and Byzantine elements, and their influence on each other is clear when you see their paintings side by side. They both enjoyed painting the dramatic Hydra landscape. Craxton developed a palette that included near-fluorescent greens and blues, using them to convey the heat and light of the Greek terrain. A Hydra panorama from 1963–67 and a Cretan ravine painting from the early 1970s are some of the exhibition highlights.

In 1960, Craxton moved permanently to Crete, occupying an old Venetian house in the port of Chania. A photograph taken by John Donat from Craxton’s terrace that year, with the artist’s aluminium teapot on the stone in the foreground, a few fishermen in the harbour below and the sea stretching out above to fill most of the picture, magnificently evokes the Cretan atmosphere. A year later Ghika’s house in Hydra burned down, and soon afterwards he and his second wife converted an old olive press in Corfu. Around the same time, the Leigh Fermors built a home on the Peloponnese coast, near Kardamyli. A photograph from 1965 shows Leigh Fermor in a traditional dance with the local masons. They lived there for two years before getting a phone line or electricity.

From left: Tom Fisher, Paddy, Joan , John Craxton, Margot Fonteyn, Frederick Ashton and Ruth Page

There is pleasure – and a pleasurable sense of envy – to be had in this. It will be a rare visitor who steps out of the central London traffic to see ‘Charmed Lives in Greece’ and does not come away wishing that they too could live in a house by the sea with no phone or electricity. But there is also, perhaps inevitably, something too idyllic about it all. Political context is non-existent: there is no mention of the devastating Greek Civil War of 1946–49, for instance. On a personal level, we learn almost nothing about either Joan Leigh Fermor or Ghika’s two wives, or of what went on in their marriages, or about the sources of the money that enabled their lifestyles. The result is undeniably charming, but also superficial.

This is particularly noticeable in the catalogue. Ian Collins contributes an excellent essay on Craxton in Greece, but elsewhere critical faculties seem to have been abandoned. Thank-you letters comprise a significant primary source, and not even Leigh Fermor can be interesting when tossing out those. The focus on houses and decoration is reminiscent of World of Interiors. Given that one of the author-curators, Michael Llewellyn-Jones, is a former British ambassador to Greece, it is no surprise that the whole thing occasionally feels like an act of Anglo-Greek diplomacy (a field in which the British Museum has not always excelled).

From the left: Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas, John Craxton, Barbara Hutchinson-Ghika, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Joan Leigh Fermor, 1958

Still, the book contains a wealth of archival documents and images, including some fine photographs that will be manna to Leigh Fermor’s many fans. Any exhibition that provides a chance to see Craxton’s paintings is enough to improve the mood. It’s in his Arcadian spirit that ‘Charmed Lives in Greece’ is best enjoyed.

Click this link to purchase a copy of John Craxton: A Life of Gifts 

The Travel Writing Tribe by Tim Hannigan review – an elitist genre?

Rory Stewart on his trek across northern Afghanistan in 2002. Photograph: Rick Loomis/LA Times via Getty Images

This article is well worth a read. I don’t know about the book, but the ideas that it explores are interesting. The hypothesis is that travel writing used to be dominated by Old Etonians with colonialist tendencies; but this critique apparently shows that the ‘travellees’ are writing back.

By  Ali Bhutto

First published in The Guardian

In the decades following the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978, academics have shed light on some of the uncomfortable truths about travel writing. These include its tendency to be a white, male-dominated genre that glorifies colonial sensibilities and reduces individuals encountered on a journey to mere caricatures. Over time, however, scholars adopted a more nuanced approach, recognising attempts by some works of travel writing to rectify such imbalances of power. 

Nevertheless, it is fitting that the opening chapter of Tim Hannigan’s book, The Travel Writing Tribe, is titled “The Long White Track”. The book is unusual in that Hannigan, who is well versed in the scholarly critique of the genre, confronts these questions from the perspective of both an academic and a travel writer.

From the very start, he picks up on a curious pattern. Almost all the better-known male British travel writers, including Wilfred Thesiger, Peter Fleming, Robin Hanbury-Tenison and Rory Stewart, attended prestigious independent schools, most commonly Eton College, followed by a higher education at Oxford. Not all of them, however, made it to university. Patrick Leigh Fermor was “kicked out of more than one boarding school … An alarmed housemaster once described him as ‘a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness’”. Likewise, Colin Thubron suffered from a “growing tally of educational miscarriages”. He sat his maths O-level at Eton three times and failed “by a wider margin each time”; he failed the entry exam to Cambridge and was later declared ineligible for national service, after which he started working at a publishing house.

Hannigan’s research takes him deep into the heart of the British establishment as he sifts through Thesiger’s diaries at the Eton College archives. He notices that the students, clad in the trademark black tails, pinstripe trousers and white ties, stood out from the rest of the townsfolk, as if they belonged a separate tribe. He writes: “I was still keen to pursue an idea about Old Etonian travel writers having some particular predilection for ‘tribal cultures’ in other parts of the world, and the possibility that this had something to do with their schooling.” This was, to an extent, evident in Thesiger’s choice of company during his travels: “In Arabia and beyond, his preferred society seems always to have been a small group of young men and boys, possessed of some elite and initiated status, perfectly isolated from the great plurality of town and village.”

The travel writing genre is often criticised for its unfair treatment of the “travellee” – the people encountered by the narrator during a journey. But a significant number of works have made a concerted effort to empower the same. In 1996, Nick Danziger, who lacks the public-school background of his fellow travellers, profiled a series of marginalised communities in Danziger’s Britain, giving their voices more space in the text than his own.

Similarly, in This Divided Island: Life, Death and the Sri Lankan War, Samanth Subramanian is challenged by a local of Kattankudy, who asks him: “What good will this conversation do for me?” – a question Subramanian is unable to answer convincingly.

Travel writing and journalism, Hannigan observes, were inextricably linked, yet there appeared to be a “strange tussle” going on between the two: “For a writer with literary aspirations, the word ‘journalist’ seemed to suggest relegation to the lower divisions … But on the other hand, for a writer with established literary credentials, eager to claim the kudos of empiricism, ‘journalist’ might appear a higher designation than ‘travel writer’.”

There was also, Hannigan notes, the genre’s complicated relationship with the portrayal of facts. Some writers had the tendency to fictionalise various details for aesthetic purposes. He had, for instance, noticed, “the slight disconnect between the raw records of Thesiger’s journeys and his books”.

Hannigan also visits the veteran travel writer Dervla Murphy, who cycled from her home in Ireland to India in 1963 and wrote about it in her debut work, Full Tilt. He learns from Barnaby Rogerson, the publisher at Eland, that despite her age, she was open to receiving visitors as long as they brought some beer with them. Her home, which “can hardly be described as a house”, was a collection of small old buildings scattered across a walled compound; it had once been the town market. During the interview, she tells him that her reputation for being a recluse is undeserved and only while writing a book does she go into “purdah”.

Murphy, whose anti-colonial middle-class Irish background sets her apart from most travel writers of her time, is hesitant to pin her books down to a specific genre, preferring instead to describe them as “journalistic records”.

Haunted by the grim commercial prospects of professional travel writers, Hannigan seeks reassurance wherever possible. According to Rogerson, limited funding for writers may in fact be producing better travel books. The best books, he argues, are not the ones churned out when writers try to meet deadlines, but those that are “oscillating inside them and had to come out … because the experience is so strong and profound”.

Thubron, meanwhile, is more optimistic about the future of travel writing. He refers to an edition of Granta that lists Mohsin Hamid, Rana Dasgupta and Subramanian on its cover, alongside his own – and there are others, such as Monisha Rajesh and Kapka Kassabova, both of whom Hannigan interviews. The future of the genre is fluid and adaptable, and in the hands of writers from all over the world. “The voice of those once written about is coming back and writing about us,” he says.

The 4th Book Festival in Transylvania is confirmed

Lucy Abel-Smith has confirmed that she is going ahead with an extra special edition of the 4th Transylvanian Book Festival this year, 9th to 12th September 2021. 

Due to ongoing restrictions and uncertainties over COVID, they will be limiting the size of the audience to a maximum of 40, making it a smaller event than in the past but just as special, if not more so.  

By keeping it so deliberately small, they aim to be able to enjoy the unique features of the traditional party atmosphere, with guests and speakers having an even greater chance to meet over delicious meals and wine. 

The hope is to reach out to friends and patrons from around the world who are unable to travel this year, by recording a number of talks and making them available online.

Currently travellers from the UK can enter Romania without having to quarantine if they can show proof of a full course of vaccination against Covid-19, completed at least 10 days before arrival. Return to the UK from Romania is currently subject to testing and quarantine but the government has just announced that they are planning to allow fully vaccinated UK residents to travel from amber listed countries without the need to quarantine, later this summer. During the pandemic, it is more important than ever to get travel insurance and check it provides sufficient cover.

Full details on the website.

Video from the dinner held to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Things have been so very busy since the 24th June that I’ve not been able to provide a report about the dinner held at the Aphrodite Taverna, London, on that evening.

Suffice to say it was a great success. Many thanks to Chris Joyce who arranged it all. There were around 24 of us in attendance, including a number of notable writers: Artemis Cooper, Antony Beevor, and Alan Ogden. Former Coldstream Guards officer Harry Bucknall was also present, making a public confession which made The Times the next day.

Following requests from some of you to make a public record, here are some videos from the event which I hope you will enjoy. They are in “running order”. Enjoy!

Tom Sawford on the Paddy blog and some tributes posted ten years ago.

A little continuation of that one here starting with a memory by Nick Jellicoe, the son of George Jellicoe …

Chris White talking about the kidnap route and a proposed film documentary

Alan Ogden and the legacy of the kidnap

Artemis and Paddy’s charm …

Antony Beevor and the story of when Paddy met Helmut Kohl 🙂

Harry Bucknall’s confession …

Paddy’s thorough reading of They Were Counted …

And to conclude the fantastic evening, Isabelle Cole, one of Billy Moss’ daughters, offers a rendition of It’s a Long Way to Tipperary in French, as sung by Paddy.

Let’s keep the channel open!

It seemed like it took the whole of the 90 minutes of the “Paddy Chat” that took place yesterday evening just to get through our introductions to each other, such were the fascinating backgrounds and stories of the 16 or so people who attended. It was difficult to make an actual count with the continual movement of what I still see as the Potteresque images of a mass online meeting.

I think it fair to say that it was a tremendous success. We only scratched the surface of observations, experiences, and possible discussions given the professions and passions of the attendees including theology, archaeology, sculpture, the law, medicine, IT, meteorology, academia, writing, and much more. People were logging on from Canada, Germany, the UK, Brussels, Hungary, Italy, Romania, the USA; a good balance from many locations. Even my 20 month old grandson Mark made an apperarance. His first literary conference!

We all enjoyed listening to individual stories and discovering the connections between us that emerged. We heard the exciting news from Dan Popescu in Romania that he has two books imminently due publication covering exchanges of letters with Paddy during that less well known period of his time in Romania before the war.

Paddy is the obvious connection, but the conversation ranged widely and was not just limited to him. We discussed biographies about Paddy and Joan, with some agreement that Simon Fenwick’s Joan is perhaps the most entertaining and revealing. I appreciate that is a controversial statement!

There was no agenda for the meeting but attendees did make some suggestions about the format of future events. Yes, we agreed we would like to arrange others! I do hope that more people can attend on the next occasion, perhaps something in September after our summer of restriction-free travel 🙂

Personally I’m so glad I got round to arranging it. I did point out that there is nothing to prevent others arranging their own, especially where time zones don’t match particularly well (calling on Maggie Rainey-Smith and Brent McCunn to organise the Antipodean version 🙂 ). Please feel free to use me as a contact point and the blog as one of your channels of communication. I can create an events section with calendar for easy reference. If you like I can arrange on your behalf if you’d rather.

It would be great if you could add suggestions to the comments section and let’s take it from there. Clearly we can arrange events to discuss particular books (or even just sections of books), or have guest writers etc discuss their work.

As Francesca, an Italian lawyer living and working in Brussels, said at the end, thinking about future events, ‘this has been a marvellous event, and let’s keep this channel open!’

Paddy chat 2 July – meeting details

For all of you who have expressed an interest in our meeting tomorrow, and even for those that haven’t yet, here’s the link to the meeting.

Click this link!

Just click on the link to enter the meeting with your camera on. If it’s a little chaotic at first don’t worry. Relax and drink some gin or a cup of tea. If things go wrong there’s little I can do to support you so please keep trying. Nothing should go wrong, but …

Start time is 1800 BST. The event will run for 90 minutes. Feel free to come and go as you please. Late arrivals always welcome! Do be prepared to say something or even read us something you like. Let’s see how it goes.

Further information and how to make sure you can use Google Meets (you will need a Google account – just create one!) can be found in this post.

Over the weekend I plan to post some videos of the dinner held in London last Thursday which was very successful.