If you are coming to the end of a celebrated life, chances are that someone has already suggested writing your biography – a thought, as Oscar Wilde pointed out, that lends a new terror to death. The print run will be measured in thousands, and modern readers feel shortchanged unless all is revealed: sex, money, secrets, skeletons and dirty linen. The prospect is appalling but once you are dead, you probably won’t mind so much.
By Artemis Cooper
First published in The London Library Magazine, Spring 2013
I was commissioned to write the life of Elizabeth David by her literary executor, Jill Norman, in 1995 – by which time Mrs David had been in her grave for three years, and her papers had been expertly catalogued by Jill’s partner, the writer and book-dealer Paul Breman. Housed in two long rows of matching box-files, the archive marched the entire length of an airy studio in Rosslyn Hill. Most of the papers were to do with work, but my worries that there might not be enough material to make a good story soon evaporated. Her correspondents included Jane Grigson, Lawrence Durrell and John Lehmann, and in her own letters you can hear the irony in her voice, the salty chuckle.
And while her middle years were more sedate than her turbulent youth, what kept the narrative going was that in life Elizabeth was demanding and difficult. There was always a spectacular row brewing, with publishers, lovers, friends and family – sooner or later everyone fell foul of her, and a series of blistering letters (she kept copies) were left to tell the tale. When I wasn’t at Rosslyn Hill, sustained by cups of high-octane coffee, I was out interviewing. Derek Cooper told me how Elizabeth’s reluctance to be interviewed on radio almost wrecked an episode of The Food Programme devoted to her work, while Sybille Bedford described the way she could suddenly go cold on you from one second to the next. I had lunch with people who cooked a lot better than I did, and they often made me her favourite dishes. The exception was the novelist Paul Bailey who looked at what he had just bought for lunch and said, ‘I’m glad I’m cooking this for you and not Liza… She hated quail, and cauliflower.’
So I didn’t realise just how easy I’d had it until I began to tackle the life of Patrick Leigh Fermor, in 2001 – while he was still living it. I had known him since I was a child, and had already interviewed him for a previous book about wartime Cairo. He didn’t like the idea of a biography, and neither did his wife Joan. But friends had persuaded them that unless Paddy appointed someone to write his life, he might find himself the subject of a book whether he liked it or not. I was told I could go ahead, but I had to promise not to publish anything until after they were both dead, which I thought very sensible. I would be free to write without them looking over my shoulder, and they would never have to wince or groan at what I had written. The disadvantage was that it might be many years before the book saw the light, but that seemed a price worth paying.
Work got off to a slow start. Paddy did not like being interviewed, and would keep my questions at bay with a torrent of dazzling conversation. He was also very unwilling to let me see many of his papers, though the refusal always couched in excuses. ‘Oh dear, the Diary…’ It was the only surviving one from his great walk across Europe, and I was aching to read it. ‘Well it’s in constant use, you see, as I plug away at Vol III,’ he would say. Or, ‘My mother’s letters? Ah yes, why not. But it’s too awful, I simply cannot remember where they’ve got to…’ It was quite obvious that he and Joan, while being unfailingly generous, welcoming and hospitable, were determined to reveal as little as possible of their private lives. While they were more than happy to talk about books, travels, friends, Crete, Greece, the war, anything – they would not tell me any more than they would have told the average journalist. Oh to be back with the uncomplicated, properly archived dead!
Please don’t get me wrong, I did not wish Paddy and Joan dead. Far from it, because I realised I was going to need all the years that Providence could spare them just to write the book. I think I must have spent whole months in the doldrums: plodding away with the reading and the research, writing the easy passages, but feeling as if the book would never take off. It felt as heavy as cold dough.
In June 2003 Joan died unexpectedly, leaving Paddy numb with shock and grief. Joan had never stopped Paddy talking to me, encouraging us both to make the most of my visits to Kardamyli. Yet Paddy’s scruples did ease after her death. He talked more freely, but he could still wish he hadn’t said things. One afternoon he told me how he had written a long letter to his mother about the first great love of his life, Balasha Cantacuzene, soon after they began living together. He waited eagerly for his mother’s reply; but when it arrived, ‘all I found in the envelope was my own letter, torn to shreds.’ He looked up, and at that moment I suppose he caught a glimpse of his biographer’s cunning eyes, sharp teeth and whiskers. ‘You won’t put that in, will you?’ he said anxiously. ‘Oh no Paddy, of course not,’ I said, quickly resuming my expression of calm serenity.
As time went on I told similar fibs. When I stumbled on the fact that he had not been on horseback when first setting out on the Great Hungarian Plain (though he was a bit later) he looked rattled. ‘I thought the reader would be getting bored of me just plodding along on foot. I say, you won’t let on, will you?’ Oh no, Paddy, I won’t let on…
Most curious to me was how reluctant he was for the story of the Cretan vendetta to appear in print. It all began in occupied Crete in May 1943. As Paddy was checking a rifle he did not know was loaded, he inadvertently killed his Cretan guide, Yannis Tzangarakis. After the war Paddy sought out Yanni’s brother, Kanakis , to try and explain what had happened and beg his forgiveness. But Kanakis upheld the old Cretan code of honour, which demanded blood for blood. He used to lie in wait for Paddy on his regular returns to Crete, for reunions with his old brothers-in-arms. The feud was only dropped in 1972, and culminated with the traditional happy ending: Paddy was asked to baptize one of the Tzangarakis family. He called the little girl Ionna, after his wife Joan and the friend he had so tragically killed.
Paddy told me the story in great detail, and finished with the dreaded words ‘You won’t put that in, will you?’ Normally I would have reassured him, but this time I made a stand. ‘Why ever not?’ I asked. ‘Everyone concerned behaved according to their principles, until peace and reconcilliation triumphed: who could possibly object to that?’ He replied that the story was still a very sensitive one in Crete. I did not doubt it, but felt that enough time had elapsed for the tale to do no harm. I knew Paddy was still in touch with his god-daughter Ionna, then a young woman in her thirties, so I suggested we get in touch and ask her. If she didn’t mind, who else would? Paddy was not convinced: ‘I’ll have to dig out her address…’ And that was the last I heard of it, until I got in touch with Ioanna myself. How? By looking her up in his address book when he was taking a nap. Biography is not work for the morally squeamish.
There were certain things he hated talking about, one being his writing: ‘Well, you know, I just scribble away and then of course it has to be gone over quite a bit…’ Attempting to dig deeper, I once compared his vision of Greece to that of Kevin Andrews, author of a harrowing book which Paddy very much admired called The Flight of Ikaros. Andrews had much to say about the scars left by the Greek Civil War of the late 1940s, while in Paddy’s books it is scarcely mentioned. ‘His book shows Greece as Goya would have seen it,’ I went on, ‘wheras your Greece is more like a Claude Lorrain….’ It was a crude analogy, only made to get him to talk about why he wrote about Greece the way he did. Paddy looked utterly crestfallen and said, ‘Oh my God, am I that superficial?’
A romantic gallantry meant that he never talked about his girlfriends, either. After much cajoling he told me about Liz Pelly, to whom he lost his virginity; and after a while, I began to pick up the words and phrases he used to hint at his affairs. ‘We were terrific pals, you know,’ was one of them. Luckily, there were letters – but I had to be careful there, too. There was an open fireplace in his study, and I never wanted him to think of using it for anything other than keeping warm.
For people who went through the two world wars, letters were sacred. Not only did Paddy and Elizabeth keep all their letters, but their correspondents did too, giving you whole flights of conversation. Letters are the bedrock on which biography is built, and without their testimony, I don’t think biography as we know it is possible. I doubt that anyone can get under someone else’s skin on the basis of a lifetime’s worth of emails.
If writing lives of the recent past, the biographer relies on the goodwill of those who knew the subject best – usually their friends and family. It is they who are going to tell you what you need to know, show you the letters, point to possibilities. I have been blessed in those I have depended on, and have come to feel a great regard for nephews in particular – but I have never had to deal with a subject’s children, because neither Paddy nor Elizabeth had any. Elizabeth always knew she never wanted babies. Joan yearned for them, but by the time Paddy was ready to face the prospect of paternity it was too late.
Children must be one of the trickiest challenges one can face. How could they not resent this outsider rootling around? Even the most cooperative and understanding of people bring with them a freight of scruple and protectivness when they think about their parents’ lives.
I often thought about Elizabeth David and Patrick Leigh Fermor, when they first knew each other in Cairo towards the end of the war. Being young and attractive, they may well have fallen into bed together at some point. They remained in touch for the rest of their lives, having friends and books and tastes in common. They loved long lunches and dinners, too, especially if they stretched on for hours with plenty of talk and wine. Paddy drank for the sheer joy of being alive, and lived to be ninety-six. But after losing the love of her life in her later forties, Elizabeth drank to ease her sorrow. At one point the booze, mixed with sleeping pills, nearly killed her. She died aged seventy-nine.
Elizabeth was never in love with Paddy but she admired his books, and once invented an ice-cream – Glace au Melon de l’île St Jacques – inspired by his only novel: ‘[This] melon ice has a strange, almost magic flavour and that is why I have called it after that French Caribbean island so unfogettably conjured out of the ocean, only to be once more submerged, by Patrick Leigh Fermor in The Violins of Saint- Jacques’, she wrote in French Provincial Cooking. I made the ice for Paddy and Joan when they came to dinner one night. Paddy was delighted, and began thinking of all the artists, statesmen and writers who have given their name to particular dishes: Melba, Colbert, Demidoff, Rossini, Châteaubriant, Arnold Bennett… ‘I feel I’ve joined a very exclusive club,’ he mused. ‘An ice-cream – now there’s immortality for you! ’