Many blog readers and members of the PLF Society were privileged to her John Julius Norwich give a very personal account of his memories of Paddy at the Hellenic Centre in London on 10 November. My account of the evening is here.
I am very lucky to be able to present the full transcript of the talk. Didn’t I say we had some good stuff coming up? Enjoy this 🙂
On 22 February 1951 my mother wrote to me: “Just off for my jaunt to Passy sur Eure to spoon with P. Leigh Fermor. Shy. Fluster.” At that time she had only just met Paddy and hardly knew him, and she would have been – as indeed she confessed she was – extremely nervous. But all was well. The next letter read:
Well, the gallivanting was a red letter. It took me a good two hours cross-country by Pontoise and Mantes. Strange little village house in which he lives – the loan of a Lady Smart – was warm and welcoming and I really felt myself back in the pond I was raised in. Fascinating conversation with a male man who delights in one. Paddy was superb. Cultured, funny, telling wonderful sagas, zealous. We had a charming filthy little lunch over the stove of sardines, Pernod and vin ordinaire and afterwards we walked for two hours over low wooded downs in sparkling sun, talking ten to the dozen about people, grievances and enthusiasms
That was the beginning. My parents saw quite a lot of Paddy and Joan – whom my mother thought looked just like Joan of Arc, except that Joan of Arc didn’t wear sun-glasses – in the next year or two. I was at Oxford at the time, and I remember seeing them once or twice during vacations, and being invariably knocked sideways – as everyone was – by the sheer brilliance of Paddy, and the glorious fun of him. Every time he walked into a room it was as if the sun had come out; never have I laughed more uncontrollably round a luncheon or dinner table, and as for his erudition, never have I met anyone who knew so much about everything under the sun, yet wore his learning so lightly. There seemed to be no language he could not speak, or indeed sing songs or recite poetry in: French, German, Italian, Spanish, Greek and Rumanian for a start, but there were probably several others as well.
Then, in the summer of 1955, a wonderful thing happened. By then I had joined the Foreign Service. My first wife Anne and I were by that time living in Belgrade, where I was Third Secretary at the British Embassy. Another letter arrived from my mother. She had been lent a Greek caïque by the ship-owner Stavros Niarchos for a fortnight’s sail through the isles of Greece. Paddy and Joan were coming; could we come too? As far as we were concerned, it was a question of “can a duck swim?” At the end of August we drove down from Belgrade – which in those days had no airport – to Athens, and thence to the Piraeus, where we boarded the Eros.
It was my first time in the Aegean, and Paddy gave it a whole new dimension. It was the first time I had seen him, as it were, on his home ground, and it was wonderful. He lived and breathed his beloved Greece – fluent in its language, encyclopaedic in his knowledge of its history, its customs and its literature. But nobody – and that was the wonder and joy of him and – I know I’ve said this before – nobody has ever carried his learning more lightly. His conversation was consistently dazzling. As we sailed from island to island – and in those days there were virtually no tourists, and I can’t begin to tell you what a difference that made – he talked about Greece, about Greek history, about Greek beliefs and traditions, about Byron and the Greek War of Independence, with those monstrously magnificent Greek heroes – men like Mavromichalis and Kolokotronis whose names roll so satisfactorily across the tongue – and about the Greek Orthodox Church and its quarrels with the west over more of those words, like filioque and ͑ομοούσιον; but his talk roamed far wider than that, taking in the whole eastern Mediterranean and, in particular, Byzantium.
Now in England Byzantium has always had a terrible press. The great nineteenth-century historian W.E.H. Lecky wrote that it constituted, “without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilisation has yet assumed…. There has been no other enduring civilisation, he claimed, “so absolutely destitute of all the forms and elements of greatness”. He went on,
Its vices were the vices of men who had ceased to be brave without learning to be virtuous…. Slaves, and willing slaves, in both their actions and their thoughts, immersed in sensuality and in the most frivolous pleasures, the people only emerged from their listlessness when some theological subtlety, or some chivalry in the chariot races, stimulated them to frantic riots…. The history of the Empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude, of perpetual fratricides.
Strong words indeed – although to modern ears that last sentence makes Byzantine history sound not so much monotonous as distinctly entertaining. But that long campaign of denigration continued well into the twentieth century. It was only in the time of which I’m speaking – the fifties – that the writings of people like Robert Byron, David Talbot Rice and Steven Runciman, together with the new-found ease, speed and relative comfort of travel in the Levant, made the glorious heritage of the Byzantine Empire at last generally accessible. Now, thank heaven, the Empire has come into its own again, and is seen as a worthy successor to the two mighty civilisations which it followed and so beautifully combined, the Greek and the Roman.
The trouble was, for most of us, that we knew so little about it. Those old attitudes died hard. During my five years at Eton, the entire subject was the victim of what seemed to be a conspiracy of silence. I can’t honestly remember Byzantium being once mentioned, far less studied; and so complete was my ignorance that I should have been hard put to define it even in general terms till I went to Oxford. And, for heaven’s sake, why? After all, it was not even the successor, it was that same old Roman Empire of Augustus and Tiberius and Claudius and the rest, which continued to exist in its new capital of Constantinople for another one thousand, one hundred and twenty-three years before it was finally captured by the Ottoman Turks on that fateful day, Tuesday 29 May 1453, after one of the most heroic sieges in all history. It was Paddy and Paddy alone who revealed to me its mystery and its magic, although he also recommended to me, among much else, that I should read an extraordinary book by Robert Byron, The Byzantine Achievement, which that most precocious author wrote when he was twenty-five. I read it with utter fascination, and ended up completely captivated. When I got home I devoured every book I could find on the subject, and the following year Anne and I drove to Istanbul for a week. Twenty years later I was to write a History of Byzantium myself – three volumes of it, which were necessary if I was to cover more than a millennium; but I very much doubt whether, had it not been for that fortnight on the Eros, those three volumes would ever have been written.
One evening, I remember, Paddy was talking about a poor fisherman at Kardamyli – this was long before he went to live there – a friend of his called Strati Mourtzinos, who, he told us, might just possibly have been the last heir to the imperial throne of Byzantium. Suddenly his imagination took over, and he built a magnificent castle in the air. It seemed, by some miracle, that the Turks had restored Constantinople to Greece. Byzantium was reborn and Strati Mourtzinos was formally crowned as its Emperor. Paddy was later to work up the idea further in his first book about Greece, Mani:
Bells clanged; semantra hammered and cannon thundered as the Emperor stepped ashore. Then, with a sudden reek of naphtha, Greek fire roared, saluting in a hundred blood-red parabolas from the warships’ brazen beaks….. In the packed square of Constantine, a Serbian furrier fell from a rooftop. An astrologer from Ctesiphon, a Spanish coppersmith and a money-lender from the Persian Gulf were trampled to death; a Bactrian lancer fainted and, as we proceeded round the Triple Delphic Serpent of the Hippodrome, the voices of the Blues and Greens, for once in concord, lifted a long howl of applause. The imperial horses neighed in their stables, the hunting cheetahs strained yelping at their silver chains. Mechanical gold lions roared in the throne room, gold birds on the jewelled branches of artificial trees set up a tinkling and a twitter. The general hysteria penetrated the public jail: in dark cells, monophysites and bogomils and iconoclasts rattled their fetters across the dungeon bars. High on his Corinthian capital, a capering stylite, immobile for three decades, hammered his calabash with a wooden spoon….
Would you like a bit more? All right:
There, before the great bronze doors of St Sophia, gigantic in his pontificalia, stood Athenagoras the Ecumenical Patriarch, surrounded now with all the Patriarchs and Archbishops of the East, the Holy Synod and all the pomp of Orthodoxy in brocade vestments of scarlet and purple and gold and lilac and sea-blue and emerald green: a forest of gold pastoral staves topped with their twin coiling serpents, a hundred yard-long beards cascading beneath a hundred onion-mitres crusted with gems; and, as in the old Greek song about the city’s fall, the great fane rang with sixty clanging bells and four hundred gongs, with a priest for every bell and a deacon for every priest. The procession advanced, and the coruscating penumbra, the flickering jungle of hanging lamps and the bright groves and the undergrowth of candles swallowed them. Marble and porphyry and lapis-lazuli soared on all sides, a myriad glimmering haloes indicated the entire mosaic hagiography of the Orient and, high above, suspended as though on a chain from heaven and ribbed to its summit like the concavity of an immense celestial umbrella, floated the golden dome.
That, above all – that was Paddy’s world.
But let’s get back to that cruise on the Eros. One day we found ourselves in a taverna on the island of Santorini. Britain and Greece were at the height of the Cyprus dispute – Paddy was, of course, firmly on the Greek side, though he felt that both the British and the Greek policies were alike disastrous – and a member of the party at the next table, who was I suspect slightly drunk, hearing us speaking English, launched a stream of hostile invective. We pretended not to notice. Then, suddenly, he and his companions burst into song. “Quick”, whispered Paddy, “National Anthem – everybody stand up.” We leaped to our feet while Paddy, who of course knew all the words, sang them at the top of his voice. The mood of the other table changed in an instant; and they were still more impressed when he continued with all the following verses – solo by now, since no one else in the other party knew them. A moment later, two of them came over to apologise. The ouzo went round once more, and we all departed friends.
And then there was the day that we ran into a flock – I’m not sure what’s the right collective noun – of dolphins. There’s a marvellous description in Mani:
In a second, half a dozen were tearing their way towards us, all surfacing in the same parabola and plunging together as though they were in some invisible harness. Soon they were careering alongside and round the bows and under the bowsprit, glittering mussel-blue on top, fading at the sides through gun-metal dune-like markings to pure white, streamlined and gleaming from their elegant beaks to the clean-cut flukes of their tails. They were beautiful abstractions of speed, energy, power and ecstasy, leaping out of the water and plunging and spiralling and vanishing like swift shadows, each soon to materialise again and sail into the air in another great loop, so fast that they seemed to draw the sea after them and shake it off in mid-air, to plunge forwards again tearing two great frothing bow-waves with their beaks; diving down, falling behind and criss-crossing under the keel and deviating and returning. Sometimes they flung themselves out of the sea with the insane abandon, in reverse, of a suicide from a skyscraper; up, up, until they hung poised in mid-air shaking in a muscular convulsion from beak to tail as though resolved to abandon their element for ever. But gravity, as though hauling on an oblique fishing-line, dragged them forward and down again into their rifled and bubbling green tunnels. The headlong speed through the water filled the air with the noise of rending and searing. Each leap into the air called forth a chorus of gasps, each plunge a sigh.
“Flinging themselves up with the insane abandon, in reverse, of a suicide from a skyscraper” – no one but Paddy could have written that.
The eastern Mediterranean – that above all was Paddy’s world. It was entirely characteristic of him that when he and Joan decided to build themselves a house in Greece they chose the remotest corner, the Deep Mani, at the southern end of the second of the three long peninsulas that form the southern coast of the Peloponnese. And oh, how they loved it. Paddy basically designed it himself; I remember him saying, while the building was in progress: “I want it to be part of outdoors, so that if a chicken were to be found wandering through the library no one would be a bit surprised”. He continued to travel a good deal in Europe to see his innumerable friends, but it was at Kardamyli, I feel quite sure, that he was happiest.
He was never as happy in Turkey, because – at least in the villages – you were lucky if you found anything to drink; and even if you did, there were none of those glorious bottoms-up parties of the kind he loved, where the ouzo and retsina flowed till dawn. “I believe”, he wrote to my mother,
That the Turks used to have tremendously grand water-parties in the past. They would settle on carpets and cushions in the cool of the evening in the garden of some palace on the banks of the Bosphorus with hookahs and tchibouks – those cherry-wood pipes with straight stems six or eight feet long – and a Circassian or Caucasian girl playing the buglama (a sort of dulcimer suitable for damsels) while beautiful youths of equivocal status carried round trays laden with blood-red and gilt cut glass carafes from Prague filled with different waters, which the Vizir would offer in turn to the beys and pashas beside him on the grass. “Try this one, Selim – it’s from the snows of Bithynian Olympus!” or “one of the sweet waters of Asia…..” “And this one, Cadi Effendim, is a rather rare one from the Taurus mountains.” “This little fellow arrived by caravan last week from Azerbaijan.” “That’s just an ordinary Armenian.” “What do you make of this, gentlemen? It’s one of the Bulgarian tributaries of the Danube, a spring called Studena Voda…..” Just think of all the water snobbery that must have gone on, the expertise and beard-stroking and rumblings and kissed fingertips and cries of Bismillah! and gurks of approbation. The gatherings would go on till moonrise, when the guests would be helped to their little private caïques by turbaned Negroes and rowed reeling home, lulled by the sound of flutes, to the Golden Horn……..
Outside Europe he was seldom tempted to roam. There was one trip to Peru in 1971 with his friends Robin and Renée Fedden, Andrew Devonshire and one or two others, which I think he enjoyed as a sort of adventure – which it was. He described it in three long letters to Joan, which were subsequently edited and published as Three Letters from the Andes; but South America was a continent to which he could obviously never belong. And so, come to that, was North America. Did he ever set foot there? Once, very briefly, in 1983, as guest of the Cretan Society of America. There were also trips to the Middle and Far East, but I think only once to each and solely for sightseeing purposes. They were never part of Paddy’s world.
Then of course there was the Caribbean. Paddy and Joan – still in a fairly early stage of their relationship – were persuaded to accompany their old friend Costa Achillopoulos on a longish tour of the islands. (Costa was soon to become my great friend and fellow-traveller too; it was with him that I was to wander round Mount Athos, and a few years later to cross the Sahara – but I digress.) The result was Paddy’s first book, The Traveller’s Tree, which was published in 1950, and also his second, The Violins of Saint-Jacques, an exquisite little novella which was his only venture into fiction and which appeared three years later. Was the Caribbean part of Paddy’s world? Not permanently, because so far as I know he never returned there. But when I reread the book the other day I felt quite certain that, at least while he was there and for some time afterwards, it had been. The islands, their extraordinary history, their languages and their customs all fascinated him. His chapter on voodoo in Haiti is a masterpiece. And then, when he got to Barbados, what did he find? A tablet in the churchyard of St John’s, carved with Doric columns and the cross of Constantine, reading:
Here lyeth ye body of Ferdinando Palaeologus, descended from ye Imperial lyne of ye last Christian Emperor of Greece. Churchwarden of this parish 1655-1656. Vestryman twentye years. Died Oct 3. 1679.
We can just imagine Paddy’s excitement on reading this. Later he discovered that Ferdinando’s son Theodore had returned to England and had settled in Stepney, where he left a posthumous daughter baptised with the rather surprising name of Godscall Palaeologus. We know nothing about her. She may have married, and had countless children; but for the time being this little girl in Stepney remains the last authentic descendant of the Palaeologi, the last imperial family of Byzantium.
It was when Paddy got to Antigua that he had another surprise, which was to give rise to one of my favourite passages in The Traveller’s Tree. It was the extremely baroque-looking Anglican Cathedral, which looked, he writes, exactly as if it had been built in the late 17th or 18th century. It proved to have been built in 1847.
There was nothing inside to impair the illusion. The spacious and airy proportions, the Corinthian pillars, the panelling, the gilding, the lettering of the Ten Commandments all belonged to the Augustan age of English architecture. And the presiding Godhead, one felt….. is also a denizen of that prolonged and opulent afternoon…… Gazing through the thin, drained atmosphere at the fluted columns and the acanthus leaves, the cornucopias and the formal flutter of the ribbons of wood that secure the carved festoons, our island Deity of the reigns of Queen Anne and the Georges slowly begins to take shape. The placid features assemble and the misty grey eyes with their compound expression of humour and severity; the heavy judicial curls of the wig, the amaranthine volume of the robes, and the soft blue of the Garter are unfolded in mid-air. A forefinger marks the place in a pocket edition of Voltaire; on a marble table, the tea-time sunlight rests on the vellum-bound Pentateuch and the Odes of Horace, and gently glows on the scales, the marshal’s baton and the metal strawberry-leaves. A heavy curtain is looped back, and beyond, with the sweep of soft shadow and faded gold of a gentleman’s deer-park, lie the mild prospects of Paradise, the pillared rotunda reflected in the lake, the dreaming swans, and at last, the celestial mansion built by Vanbrugh, rearing, against the sky of Sèvres blue and the whipped-cream clouds, its colonnaded entablature, its marble Graces and urns….. This Elysian fancy paled all at once at the sight, on the cushion of one of the pews in the chancel, of the black pom-pom of a biretta. The Hanoverian vision grew vaporous and confused with anachronistic draughts from Oxford and Rome; and vanished.
The Hanoverian vision was wonderful indeed, but it was European rather than Caribbean; and Europe, as I have already said, was Paddy’s world, where he belonged. Scandinavia remained foreign to him, but all the rest of the continent he knew and loved. He had, after all, walked through a good deal of it and knew all its principal languages. And what fun he had with those languages! He loved on-the-spot translations: “To be or not to be” in German, for example, or John Peel in Italian, which my daughter and I sang at his memorial service. The first verse went like this:
Conosce Gian Peel, con sua giacca tanta grigia?
Conosce Gian Peel, prima cosa la mattina,
Conosce Gian Peel, quand’è lontano, o lontano,
Con suoi cani e suo corna la mattina.
He had great fun, too, with the chorus of Widdecombe Fair:
Con Guglielmo Brewer, Giacopo Stewer, Pietro Gurney, Pietro Davey,
Daniele Whiddon, Enrico Hawke,
Ed il vecchio zio Tommaso Cobley e tutti quanti,
Ed il vecchio zio Tommaso Cobley e tutti quanti.
And then there were the letters: they were part of Paddy’s world all right. He wrote my mother some marvellous ones – letters, as so often with him, that could have been written by no one else. Here is one that he wrote her on 15 April 1981:
I wonder if you fully realised that Haroun-al-Rachid sent an elephant called Abulahaz as a present to Charlemagne in 802 AD? I’ve just come across it in a 45-year-old notebook, and had clean forgotten it. I’ve just looked it up in a wonderful old 8-volume book called Italy and her Invaders that Freya gave me last winter, and it’s quite true. The poor creature was killed in 810, in a battle against the King of Denmark; what a shame! Up till then he lived in the park of Charlemagne’s palace at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle to us). I wonder which route he took? Bagdad-Palmyra-Aleppo-Antioch, then by sea probably to Bari and along the Appian Way to Rome; then north, over the Alps at the Brenner, across Germany and up the Rhine? Or Venice, perhaps, then Vienna and along the Danube? I like to think that perhaps the Caliph sent him via the Hellespont or the Bosphorus and through the Byzantine Empire – they were on fairly good terms till the end of 802. But then they would have had to cross the new Bulgarian state, reigned over by a horrible khan called Krum, who, at banquets with his boyars, used to drink out of the skull of his defeated enemy the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus, bisected and lined with silver. They were a rotten lot. I bet if they had spotted Abulahaz they’d have eaten him. But if they had got through Bulgaria all right (travelling after dark perhaps) things would have been better in what later became Hungary, because Charlemagne had defeated the beastly Avars there, and scattered them eight years before. There would have been a few Slav settlers gaping at the doors of their huts as the little troop went by: Abulahaz, his mahout and grooms, and probably an escort of Bedouin lancers.The Hungarian plain was ideal elephant country then – all swamp and forest, unlike now. (One is so prone to forget that a squirrel in the reign of King John could travel from the Severn to the Humber without once touching ground.) I do hope the elephant went that way, because it’s just the way I went, and am writing about. I could have come nose-to-trunk with his phantom on the banks of the Tisza (a Hungarian tributary of the Danube) as he squirted cool jets all over himself among the reeds……
Reading these letters, written at such terrific speed that sometimes they grow faint because the fountain pen can’t deliver the ink fast enough, one marvels at Paddy’s facility and fluency. And yet, when he was writing a book for publication, every sentence was a battleground. He wrote and rewrote; then, when there was no more room for rewriting, he glued – or occasionally even sewed – extra pieces on. And since, it need hardly be said, he never used a typewriter, his handwriting left a good deal to be desired. When, in July 1988, Sotheby’s sold the autograph manuscript of A Time of Gifts, it was described in the catalogue as follows:
c.450 pages, the majority written on rectos only, some on both sides, the first chapter on lined foolscap sheets, some cartridge paper, others lined, heavily revised and corrected, revised passages frequently written on separate sheets and pasted or clipped over the original, corrections or elucidations often in red ink, foreign or difficult words printed in the margin, many sheets with encouraging notes to the typist, often stapled or stitched with coloured thread into gatherings, generally of ten pages, no date.
And I can’t resist adding a letter which my daughter Artemis found when she was working on his biography. It is from Barrie Pitt, editor of a History of World War II:
31 October 1967
I will briefly (and with no trace of bitterness in my heart) recap the events of the last twenty months. I wrote to you in March 1966 asking whether you would contribute an article on the abduction of General Kreipe to the History of the Second World War, and on 2 April 1966 I commissioned you to write a 5,000-word article for delivery last November. Nearly eleven months after the deadline I receive the last hand-written instalment, which brough the entire work up to some 36,000 words. I therefore had to hire, with extreme urgency, a professional writer to reduce the work to the size and shape which I could use – a task for which I had to pay him 60 guineas out of the 75 guineas budgeted for this article. I am not really very happy in offering you the remaining 15 guineas for all your labour and hard work, despite the near disaster with which the project was threatened, and the appalling strain on my nervous system and blood pressure.
He was in short – as Jock Murray could testify – a publisher’s nightmare. At the same time, what publisher in the world would have turned him down as an author? Besides, everybody loved him. Artemis also made a list of his files. Their titles were:
- Detached Oddments
- Not Very Important Oddments
- Own Oddments
- Own Unsorted Oddments
- Unsorted but Interesting
- Oldish – Needs Sorting
- Badly Needs Sorting
- Current: Unsorted
- Current: Various
- Vol. III: Odds and Ends
- Crete: Mixed Bag
- Tiring Duplicates
- Disjecta Membra
- Scattered Intractables
- Official bumph
I have an idea – and I hate to have to say it and desperately hope I’m wrong – that Paddy’s last years were not as happy as the rest of his life had been. He missed Joan desperately – and he gradually had to face up to the fact that he would never complete the third volume of the story of that great journey across Europe in his early youth. He produced bits and pieces by the dozen, but something prevented him organising them, connecting them together and making them into a single continuous and coherent document. It was, I suppose, a kind of writer’s block. We all know that maddening phenomenon of human nature, according to which the longer one puts off something – even if it’s only writing a letter – the harder it is to do. Resistance builds up inside us. We postpone and procrastinate. This, I believe, is what happened to Paddy. He would seize on anything – letters, articles, translations, those ingenious word games at which he excelled, anything, rather than face one of two facts: fact one, that he must finish the job, or fact two – far worse – that he couldn’t. Eventually he had to admit to himself that fact two was the truth – and he minded it desperately. He would come to London and people would say breezily “How’s Volume III coming on?”, little realising that they were driving a dagger through his heart.
The good news, of course, came in the number of what one might call “excuse pieces” which he would write instead of getting down to work. My daughter Artemis gathered some of them together a few years ago to make a little anthology which she called The Words of Mercury. Here is one of them – an entry in the Suggestions Book of the Travellers’ Club – which, incidentally, was very much Paddy’s world when he was in London:
Women, when they venture into men’s clubs, experience the same flutter of exciting and illicit intrusion that must have tickled the heart of Clodius disguised as a woman, sacrilegiously assisting at the fiercely feminine rites of Bonadea. The epicene, Maidenhead décor of the room we give them coffee in, therefore, comes as a shock and an anticlimax. What they long for – and could we not humour this longing? – is an atmosphere which is aggressively, almost overpoweringly masculine: a jungle of leather and brass and sombrely glowing polished wood, duke after duke scowling from their frames, hussars in dolmans sabreing our foes and fawns lazing in the sunset, allegorical statues of Enlightenment trampling Superstition underfoot, capercailzies in glass cases, dusty lions, whole elks, platypuses, wombats and stuffed otters. They ask for steak tartare and we give them an ice-cream sundae.
He never finished Volume III, as he had long known that he wouldn’t; it was left to Artemis and Colin Thubron to do that; but despite her dire prognostications that it wouldn’t be comparable with its two predecessors, I personally found The Broken Road far, far better than I expected, with plenty of passages that spoke of Paddy at his best. Of course it was a pity that he couldn’t complete it himself; but let us be positive: let us look what he did leave behind, and be grateful. His incomparable letters – and no one in history has written better ones – are at this moment being edited by Adam Sisman; I have read them in manuscript and I can tell you that we have a wonderful treat in store. My own personal view is that – perhaps with Freya Stark – he was not only the greatest travel writer of the twentieth century; I believe he was the greatest travel writer that English literature has ever produced, and I am proud indeed to have been his friend.