Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters

This review of Adam Sisman’s Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters, the US version of Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor (New York Review of Books) was published on Barnes and Noble, and worth reading if only for the opening quotation.

In November 1996, a young writer named William Blacker, planning to travel to the wilds of northern Romania, wrote to Patrick Leigh Fermor for advice. Fermor, then in his seventies, replied:

Dear William — if I may make so bold —
I can’t think of anything more exciting than your imminent prospect — and well done starting in winter. (a) You have the whole world to yourself, and (b) inhabitants never take summer visitors seriously. Winter is a sort of Rite of Passage. Do take down any songs or sayings, above all descantice — spells, incantations, invocations, etc. I bet Maramures is full of them. Also, as much wolf and bear lore as possible — and remember, never drink rainwater that has collected in a bear’s footprint, however thirsty.

This jaunty note, now published in Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters, edited by Adam Sisman, conveys so much of the “old boy,” as he himself might have put it: the generosity and enthusiasm, the arcane knowledge and irresistible wit. Fermor had by then been traveling and writing for almost six decades, and the letters gathered here span seventy peripatetic years, from 1940 to 2010. By turns gossipy, lyrical, profound, and dazzling, they carry Fermor’s voice so clearly that we seem to hear him speaking as we read. Not that we hear everything. Fermor admits to pruning his correspondence (“lots of things not for strangers’ eyes”), and Sisman has excised the more quotidian passages. Yet no letter seems incomplete. And thanks to Sisman’s astute selection and fine introductory notes, the volume’s gradually darkening mood seems to mirror Fermor’s ultimate journey from youthful exuberance to aged decline.

He began traveling in 1933 at the age of eighteen by walking from England to Constantinople, a trek that took a year and produced a trilogy — A Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and the Water (1986), and The Broken Road (2003) — that remains one of the treasures of English travel writing. Never mind that The Broken Road was unfinished at Fermor’s death in 2011 (procrastination was a lifelong affliction) or that he inserted episodes from the 1980s into his odyssey of the 1930s (an “extremely immoral procedure” charmingly justified in a letter to a Hungarian scholar). Fermor’s true sleight-of-hand is his seemingly effortless ability to conjure up a place or person with astonishing clarity — a hillside at dawn, a garrulous stranger — while simultaneously revealing a world that is centuries deep. The breadth of his scholarship, so airily present and matched only by his curiosity, compresses time. In a 1948 letter to his then-lover Joan Rayner, for example, Fermor writes, “I knew a very old woman in Athens whose father had been alive when a Stylite was living on top of one of the pillars of Olympian Zeus.” (The Stylites being ancient monastic penitents.)

No penitent himself, Fermor occasionally retreated to monasteries to write, and that otherworld is as powerfully evoked in these letters as it was in his short book A Time to Keep Silence, published in 1957. Two masterworks followed: Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966), which chronicle Fermor’s travels in Greece, the country where he spent most of his life. And where he fought. Operating undercover alongside Cretan partisans during the Nazi occupation, Fermor’s most famous mission was the abduction of General Heinrich Kriepe, with whom Fermor was reunited in 1972 for a Greek TV documentary. “Tremendous singing, and lyre-playing and Cretan dancing,” after the filming, Fermor writes to a comrade’s widow, “all ending up pretty tight, and many tears being shed for old times’ sake…After all, the old boy hadn’t managed to do any harm in Crete before his capture and I always liked him… ”

He likes most people. In Northern Ireland in 1972 he spends a pleasant hour or so drinking with an Irish Republican Army spokesman (“Three dull thuds, two streets away, of exploding bombs”) before returning to “Blighty” for a weekend at Chatsworth, seat of Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. One of the Mitford sisters, “Debo,” was a lifelong friend, (their correspondence was published in 2008), and of her homey palace Fermor writes, “it’s wonderful what forgotten knitting and a couple of seed catalogues will do for a bust of Diocletian.” His world in such moments is English to the core, with a hint of P. G. Wodehouse: all weekend larks and biffing off to the country. Indeed, many of Fermor’s acquaintances could be characters out of Thank You, Jeeves: Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, fourteenth Baron Berners; Lady Dorothy “Coote” Lygon, daughter of the seventh Earl Beauchamp, and so on. There’s Miss Crowe, a relic of British rule on Corfu, pacing her terrace, ” . . . stick in hand, only slightly stooping, and followed by a rippling wake of old and half-blind dogs.” There’s Lady Wentworth, granddaughter of Lord Byron, sporting “a gigantic and very disheveled auburn wig that looked as though made of strands from her stallions’ tails” and occupying a manor “as untidy as a barn — trunks trussed, and excitingly labelled ‘LD BYRON’S papers . . . in chalk.”

But the writer and the man revealed in these letters is no Bertie Wooster-ish dilettante. Though “never less than two years overdue” finishing a book, Fermor, we learn here, took his craft, if not himself, seriously; in one letter he identifies his literary flaws and in another speculates how screenwriting for a 1958 John Huston film might instill “lessons about concision and dexterity.” And while expert at “high-class cadging” of Italian villas and the like, he detests anything “smart” — the “revolting” Côte d’Azur, for example — and observes, after an evening on an Onassis yacht, that there is “something colossally depressing about contact with the very rich.” Fermor cannot be corralled, either by class or by place. Throughout his life, and throughout these letters, he strays. Into love affairs and across borders, enraptured by the ancient and the natural world — even when mortality looms. “We walked in the fields yesterday where we slid on the hayrick twenty years ago,” he writes in 1975 to Alexander Fielding, a constant friend since wartime. Joan Rayner, his wife and strength, drops dead in 2003 — “no pain, thank heavens, except for survivors” — and Fermor will live eight more years. In a 1948 letter to Joan, he had described waking from sleep “as easily and inevitably as the faint touch of the keel on the sand of the opposite bank.” Across the final page, that image seems to shimmer.

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Complete set of A Short History of Byzantium audio for sale

DSC06907There is a very rare opportunity to purchase the hugely enjoyable and authoritative  complete and unabridged audiobook of John Julius Norwich’s “A Short History of Byzantium”, brilliantly narrated by John McDonough. From its beginnings in A.D. 330, this audiobook provides listeners with a spirited, gripping, and original account of a great lost civilization and its magnificent artistic heritage. The audiobook consists of 16 cassettes in very good condition offering 23.5 hours listening time. I have listened to them and they are all in excellent order. This was a library copy, but clearly barely ever issued or played. If you love Byzantine history you will enjoy this.

The best way to preserve the audio is to convert to a MP3 format on your PC or Mac and retain it in your iTunes or similar to listen from iTunes etc. It is a very simple process. You can purchase converters for very modest cost on Amazon – see here.

I have searched around and not found this audio format anywhere else. This is very rare.

If you are interested in purchasing, please email me tsawford[at]btinternet.com with your best offer. It will be possible to post this to international locations with cost to be confirmed. Payment by PayPal.

DSC06909

DSC06910

Nick Hunt weathers the storms of Europe

Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence by Nick Hunt

It’s good to see that people are still enjoying Nick Hunt’s book and finding a resonance with recent weather events. An article from The Spectator.

By Kathleen Jamie

First published in The Spectator

Irma, the storm that recently caused such damage in the Caribbean, was the ninth named tropical storm of the 2017 season, hence the initial I. You can while away a fascinating time on Wikipedia, learning how storms area named, when and why and by whom. There is, of course, a committee: the hurricane committee of the World Meteorological Organization. A list of names chosen by them operates on a six-year cycle. Since feminist protests in the 1970s, male names are also included. Later this year the tropical Atlantic region may be threatened by a storm called Sean. As in Connery. And as the season closes, Whitney. Quite a party. Next year we might meet Patty, which sounds more like the touch of an annoying breeze. Non-meteorologists have also taken to naming storms. In 2011 the great gale that hit Scotland was dubbed Hurricane Bawbag, not a name that features on any officially sanctioned list.

All of this is a digression, although one that exposes how the skew of our times and media means we in the UK now know more about seasonal tropical hurricanes than we do about the named winds of old Europe, which have shaped our cultures, architecture, and even our personalities and mental health. Perhaps we are too confined to cars to be wholly wind-aware. Indeed, until I opened Nick Hunt’s book, I hadn’t known there is a named wind in England: the Helm of Cumbria.

Read more here.

Buy Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence
By Nick Hunt
Nicholas Brearley Publishing 258pp

‘My darling wretch, you are as nearly perfect as can be’

It’s a long time since we had a Daily Mail article on here to raise the tone, so I thought I’d correct that (!!!) and the lack of features about Simon Fenwick’s book about Joan.

Which rather lucky woman managed to catch and keep hold of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the dashing travel writer who, while in Crete during World War II, famously managed to kidnap a Nazi general and was awarded an OBE for his heroism?
It was a woman called Joan. Not the most exotic of first names, but Joan Eyres Monsell, born in 1912, the daughter of Sir Bolton and Lady Eyres Monsell of Dumbleton Hall, Worcestershire, was not only stunningly pretty — ‘a beautiful ideal, with the perfect bathing dress, the most lovely face, the most elaborate evening dress’, as one suitor described her — she also stood out from the upper-class beauties of her day in that she supplemented her mean rich father’s allowance by earning her living.

She, like Leigh Fermor, was a roaming spirit, and the two beautiful people were, this book shows us, made for each other.

Read more here.

Buy Joan: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor by Simon Fenwick

Work in progress at Kalimitsi

My thanks to John Burkitt for sending in these photographs. I have only just got round to opening his email.

He reports:

some photos attached of work on the house taken in late September/early October……from the sea off Kalimitsi beach and from paths going past the house. looked reasonably busy.

The must-see art museums of Athens

23-hamish-bowles-guide-to-art-in-athens-greeceVogue’s Hamish Bowles visits the Must-See art museums of Athens.

This year I sandwiched a blissful break on a remote Greek island in between trips to Athens—a city that, although beleaguered by the country’s economic travails, remains a hotbed of creative activity and cultural excitement.

As ever, it is the pluperfect place in which to explore millennia of creative achievement. My first stop was the National Archaeological Museum of Athens and its embarrassment of treasures, along with the Acropolis Museum (with a surprising and stirring exhibition, “εmotions”). I also explored the fascinating Byzantine and Christian Museum for the first time—and found it to be still further testament to Greece’s many layerings of cultural influences.

Hidden away in the basement galleries, I might almost have missed the Techni Group exhibition, a tribute to the centenary of the group show of artists led by Nikolaos Lytras and his friends (among whom I particularly admired the work of Pavlos Mathiopoulos, Konstantinos Parthenis, and Lykourgos Kogevinas) that established modernism in Greece under the patronage of the visionary prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos. Thank goodness I managed to see it, because the work of the artists—evoking by turns the fashionable swagger portraits of Boldini and Sargent, the theatrical drama of Bakst, and the charm of the plein air painters of late-19th-century France—comes together as a powerful statement for a new national identity through art.

Onward to the Benaki Museum—one of my favorite museums not only in Athens but in the world. After my first visit a decade or so ago, I was so inspired by its beautifully displayed collections of vernacular Greek costumes (among many other treasures that span the millennia) that I raced to Paris to tell John Galliano about it. He sent a posse from his design team to research—and subsequently based one of his eponymous collections on the pieces (think: stiff wool dirndl skirts and rich embroideries). The museum has recently expanded its displays, so there are even more treasures to admire in its intimate rooms, and on this latest visit I was also lucky to catch the exhibition “Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor: Charmed Lives in Greece,” which is centered around the friendship of the artists John Craxton and Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, whose spiky, highly colored works exemplify mid-century style, and the brilliant travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who met one another in the 1940s after the war and were drawn together not least by their love of Greece.

The show, elegantly curated by Evita Arapoglou, Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith, Ian Collins, and Ioanna Moraiti (and in collaboration with the Leventis Gallery and the Craxton Estate), brings together not only their work but also images of the remarkable houses that they created: Nikos and Barbara Hadjikyriakos-Ghika’s Baroque colonial finca on Corfu and Neoclassical mansion on Hydra; the ineffably stylish stone house that Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor built above the craggy coastline of Kardamyli in their beloved Mani region of mainland Greece; and Craxton’s modest fisherman’s house on the Venetian harbor of Chania in Crete. Video—along with still images of these enduringly inspiring places and interviews with friends of the late artists—brought their worlds of fecund imagination brilliantly to life and created a moving tribute.

Thence to the truly astonishing Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, the inspiring new home to the Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece. Difficult as it is to imagine without the photographic evidence, the original site was apparently grim—a flat expanse of wasteland and concrete latterly used as parking for several of the stadiums built for the 2004 Athens Olympics and hemmed in by motorways that blocked the view of the Bay of Phalerum and the sea beyond. With a flourish of his pen and a giant bound of his imagination, master architect Renzo Piano envisaged the plot as a verdantly planted hill rising in a gentle slope the length of the site, and at its 33-meter peak it now soars far above the choking Athenian traffic below and offers heart-stopping views not only of the Aegean waters but a panorama of the city itself, along with its famed hills and the Parthenon. Beneath the slope, Piano placed the National Library of Greece and a sprawling, soaring cultural complex of performance and concert, dance, and operatic rehearsal spaces to house the Greek National Opera. (The ensemble that Piano has planned is meant to evoke the cultural meeting place of an ancient Greek agora.) The heart of the opera house is the 1,400-seat Stavros Niarchos Hall. The theater’s cherrywood and its scarlet fabrics evoke a classic 19th-century theater, but its state-of-the-art acoustics and Platinum LEED rating, along with Susumu Shingu’s mobile (which rises before performances much like the Swarovski Sputnik chandeliers at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Opera), place it firmly in the 21st century.

Social spaces and terraces on the upper floors, meanwhile, provide breathtaking panoramic views of the sprawling city itself and of the newly created park, the work of landscape architect Deborah Nevins, whose spectacular plantings of Mediterranean cypress, olive, almond, and pomegranate trees and stalwart maquis vegetation—including the sage, laurel, and rosemary that give the Greek islands and mainland landscapes their unique fragrance—have created a throbbing green heart in the city. I cannot wait to see a performance here.

Read the full article and look at the lovely images here.

Floral tourism: on the trail of Transylvania’s elusive crocus

Robin Lane Fox on Nemesis on an evening ride in the Carpathians, Romania © Harriet Rix

Robin Lane Fox on Nemesis on an evening ride in the Carpathians, Romania © Harriet Rix

In idyllic east European sunshine, I have been focusing on a crocus. It is not a purple or yellow-flowered hybrid, one of those Dutch fatties that city dwellers admire in spring. It is a lilac-flowered wild beauty, at home in Transylvania. Even in Romania, few realise the rare charm of its autumn flowers. It avoids main roads and towns, so I have had to ride to find it.

By Robin Lane Fox
First published in The Financial Times 17 October 2017

I recommend this sort of floral tourism. Mine was aimed at crocus banaticus, the iris-flowered crocus which has three big outer petals. I first discovered its distinctive beauty in the Bulletin of the Alpine Garden Society, that seminal influence on the prose-style of the great travel writer Norman Lewis, as he once told me in his sitting room in Essex. About 40 years later, the same crocus was discovered in the same bulletin by Harriet Rix in Devon, my indomitable companion on our ride last year into the high floral meadows of Kyrgyzstan. While we put brave faces on the mountain storms, we discovered a shared love of this crocus and pledged in mares’ milk to find it in its Romanian home. She, not I, realised that it overlaps there with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between The Woods and The Water, the immortal tale of his walk from London to Istanbul. In summer 1934, the 19-year-old Leigh Fermor trod above our crocus, dormant in the Transylvanian grass, while he eloped with high-spirited Angéla, one of those “times when hours are more precious than diamonds”. Between the woods and the meadows we might find gems which flowered in their wake.

The crocus is named “banaticus” from early finds in the Banat, territory that became a bitter triangular contest between Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania, until the Treaty of Versailles divided it between the latter two in 1919. The most recent reports of the flower are further east, so we began our hunt in the Transylvanian villages founded by German-speaking Saxons. In the 12th century, the offer of land and a tax-free life lured thousands of Saxons to migrate from the area of modern Luxembourg and settle in Transylvania. They strengthened the land’s defences and vitalised its crafts and crops, terracing the hillsides and growing apples and productive vines. Between 1980 and 1990, many migrated in reverse. They were sold by Ceausescu, no friend of village life, to the Kohl government in Germany who saw them as loyal voters. Before Ceausescu’s fall, up to 250,000 Saxons returned to take up German citizenship, leaving only a rump to maintain churches, crafts and houses.

The base-camps for our adventures were Saxon houses restored since 1995 by the celebrated Mihai Eminescu trust. Its rentable properties range from double-fronted village houses to two fine manors at Richis and Malancrav with tempting libraries and rooms for up to nine guests.

We began in the Saxon heartland of Viscri whose fortified church gives a special sense of orderly Saxon life. Social ranks and the sexes were segregated in the congregation. Unmarried young men were sent up to the gallery from where they could look down on the plaited hair and hollow black headdresses of the unmarried Saxon girls. Only outside the church was contact possible, on a grassy circle that served as a dance floor. Inside, painted panels show sunflowers and lilies of the valley, “ladders to heaven” in German tradition, among roses and reflexed lilies. I thought of the red roses and “tiger lilies” that Leigh Fermor’s beloved Angéla pushed into his buttonhole at the train station as they took their sad farewell. Of crocus banaticus, there was no sign.

Crocus banaticus growing wild in the fields above Zalanpatak © Harriet Rix

Crocus banaticus growing wild in the fields above Zalanpatak © Harriet Rix

Evidence soon emerged. The main churches of the Saxon villages are Lutheran and in Brasov’s Black Cathedral, their choirs were to assemble and mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. As a noted soprano, Harriet was invited to join them and help with the higher notes. As a spectator with no religion, I was tagged with a wristband and allowed to watch from a front seat. While the choirs rehearsed, I researched the flower stalls of Brasov market and found two bunches of crocus banaticus on a flower-lady’s stall. She had no idea where they had been growing.

After Luther’s setting of Psalm 118, it was time to find out. Tagged by evangelicals, I set off for Copsa Mare where I met my Nemesis and fell in love. Nemesis is a 10-year-old Dutch warmblood mare, 17 hands 3, with a Czech passport. She is stabled nightly beside the tall dark Romulus who was once a gallop-on star in the film Prince Caspian. James and Rachel de Candole offer trips for up to four riders on their beautifully schooled horses, with picnics and overnight stays. Nemesis carried me smoothly past gardens of zinnias, cosmos and calendulas, flowers that I often recommend to readers here. White-flowered wild asters, another favourite, marked our ascent into beechwoods of exceptional beauty but as they also contain wild bears, we had to travel noisily. In Britain it is 12 years since I last halloaed legally for fox hounds. In Transylvania I have been halloaing to keep bears away.

In the crocus’s absence, nearby back gardens offered a big surprise instead — crops of exotic tuberose. An expert grower, Elisabeth, showed us the last tall stems of her crop before she sheltered their roots under winter covers. Tuberose is native to Mexico but it won favour with Maria Theresa, the Habsburg sovereign, and travelled east to the scent-loving Romanians. In rich acid soil, village growers water the plants that departing Saxons left in their care. They will either be gold or earth, they told Elisabeth, but she learnt the golden touch. Of the Banat crocus, however, she knew nothing.

In eastern Transylvania sightings of it are reported near villages of Hungarians, so we headed for a final hunt in Korospatak. There, horses are offered by Count Kalnoky, descendant of a great medieval line, but a sign saying “Shagya Club” marks his driveway, and at first we took it in an English sense. We reversed in haste, not realising it refers to crosses between Arab and thoroughbred horses. After an hour’s climb on brisk brown Rudi, I finally sighted our prey, lilac-blue crocus banaticus flowering leaflessly beneath beech trees.

The further we rode, the more it multiplied, always in damp semi-shade, never in open meadows. In the valley of Zalanpatak we found even thicker masses, including a rare white form, seldom in stock in any bulb-grower’s list. Spreading on the hillsides, were these crocuses natural escapees from gardens? Surely not: they have lived here for millennia, untroubled by Romans, Tatars and Turks who sacked the villages beyond.

In her superb book Peacemakers, Margaret Macmillan describes how the Banat, a “bucolic backwater”, was split between Romania and Yugoslavia in 1919. She warns that it may yet prove contentious territory. In antiquity, Philip, father of Alexander, won a great victory on what was called the Crocus Field in northern Greece. If fighting breaks out in the Banat, I now know my role. Mounted on Nemesis, I will guard the priceless crocuses in its hills.