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Terrific Fun – The Short Life of Billy Moss: Soldier, Writer and Traveller by Alan Ogden

“Billy” Moss with his Russians

With grateful thanks to Alan Ogden and Gabriella Bullock for permitting me to share this with you. It is the first extensive attempt at a biography of William Stanley Moss MC, known to us as “Billy” Moss, the second-in-command to Paddy during the Kreipe kidnap, and also author of a number of books including Ill Met by Moonlight and its sequel War of Shadows.

A full pdf of this with extensive footnotes is available to download and print here. A slightly shorter version, edited for the 2018 Coldstream Gazette, and also downloadable as a pdf is here.

by Alan Ogden

The Fates had at first been kind to Billy Moss. Born into a privileged background and brought up by devoted parents, he was good looking, athletic and a precociously talented writer; he had penned his first book Island Adventure by the time he was fifteen. With a languid charm and a playful self-deprecation typical of his era, Billy had every chance of succeeding in whatever career he chose to pursue. Then, three months after his eighteenth birthday, a reluctant Britain declared a state of war with Germany and his future was no longer a matter of choice; it was a day that was to impact on him for the rest of his life.

Childhood, boyhood and youth

Billy’s father, Stanley Moss, was born in Japan in 1875. The son of Charles D. Moss , the Chief Clerk and Registrar of H.B.M.’s Court for Japan, Stanley was a successful businessman, making and losing a fortune three times over. At the age of forty, Stanley married Natalie Galitch, a Russian national eighteen years his junior born in Nikolayevsk-on-Amur, at that time a busy port in Eastern Siberia. Her father at one point was the mayor of Harbin, a city of 60,000 which had been built during the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway [1897-1902] that linked Vladivostok with Chita.

An only child, Billy was born in Yokohama on 15 June 1921 and two years later, after a devastating earthquake levelled most of the city – ‘the house was wrecked and after spending one week on the hill above the house with no protection and sleeping in the open air [we] were taken off by American destroyer’ – the Moss family made their way to Kobe, then to Shanghai and from there to England. It was to be the first of many such journeys; by the time he was a teenager, he calculated he travelled two and a half times around the world, including a return journey to Japan in 1927/28.

Schooling started for Billy at the age of five; at The Hall School in Weybridge he was viewed as ‘a most promising child’ and at St Dunstan’s School in Finchley Road, he received a similar appraisal the following year. From there, he was sent to Lydgate House School in Hunstanton in Norfolk where he made an excellent impression. On his leaving, the headmaster wrote to his parents that ‘he had been a fine little fellow, has proved himself most capable and loyal as Head Boy’. With a wide range of interests such as art, theatre, cinema, and music, together with sports such as cricket, football, boxing, and tennis, Billy soon settled in to his public school, Charterhouse, set in the Surrey countryside outside Godalming.

In his final year at Charterhouse, with the help of two friends, he produced Congress, a school magazine to which he invited illustrious Old Carthusians to contribute. Many accepted with the exception of Robert Graves who wrote a testy letter of refusal – ‘Dear Mr Editor, Sorry: I have no story and don’t write articles and the chief connexion I have with the school is a recurrent nightmare that I am back there again…’ The one and only issue with a print run of 1,000, and illustrated by Billy, was by any standards a considerable success. It included fiction by Richard Hughes of High Wind in Jamaica fame; a history of the Boer War by Lord Baden Powell; humour by Ben Travers and W.C.Sellar of 1066 and All That; reminiscences of actors Aubrey Smith and Richard Goolden; articles by golfer Henry Longhurst and travel writer Henry Baerlein; and Lieutenant-Commander Scourfield’s account of the mining of HMS Hunter off Spain.

Stanley Moss, having lost his first fortune in the Yokohama earthquake disaster, had worked hard to accrue a second, only to lose it in the Wall Street Crash of 1929. A third foray into Japanese mining proved successful until the Japanese government sequestered his assets. Stanley died suddenly in 1938. They had been a close-knit family, travelling together to many parts of the world. Billy found he felt the loss of his father more acutely as time went on than he did at first.

He and his mother were left in relatively straightened circumstances and the fees for his final year at Charterhouse were paid by his uncle, the diplomat Sir George Moss, later Adviser on Chinese Affairs to SOE’s Delhi Group.

On leaving school in July 1939, Billy accompanied his mother together with her sister, Olga, and her brother-in-law on a trip to Riga. Leaving Tilbury on 3 August, they arrived in Gothenburg and after a brief stopover in Stockholm, they reached Riga on 7 August. Almost immediately they found themselves caught up in the chaotic events that surrounded the British declaration of war against Germany on 3 September. Running perilously low on money, they left Riga on 7 September and reached Stockholm where they caught a train to Oslo. After several adventures in search of a ship, they ended up in Bergen where they found a passage to Newcastle. Their ship, The Meteor, once the Kaiser’s yacht, sailed at 11.30 p.m. with over 200 passengers on board, most of who slept on deck in fear of being torpedoed by a German U-boat . The very next day Billy started work as a trainee accountant with The British American Tobacco Company , which had recently relocated from London to Egham after the Ministry of Supply had requisitioned its Westminster Head Office. After finding digs in Staines, Billy worked for the company until the New Year of 1941 when he joined the Army.

Off to war with the Coldstream Guards

Enlisting in the Coldstream Guards, one of Britain’s oldest and most distinguished regiments, Billy started his military career at the Guards Depot in Caterham, the home of ‘spit and polish’, and moustachioed Sergeant Majors with a variety of encouraging phrases. Accepted for officer training, he progressed to Sandhurst in April and by the beginning of August was gazetted Second Lieutenant Emergency Commission . Soldiering on the home front at that time was somewhat akin to peacetime; King’s Guard at St James’s Palace, cocktail parties, deb dances and a spell with the holding battalion at Chequers . In his diary, he noted ‘it had been wonderful staying at Chequers at a time when every word spoken by Churchill was gospel and thrilling to see him “off duty” and to speak with him and eat and drink with him and understand him and his ways’. A period of guarding Rudolf Hess at Mytchett Place in Surrey was followed by a posting to the 6th battalion before finally being sent overseas in August 1942 to join the 3rd battalion. As Billy put it, ‘there had been the blitz, and yet we had all been so gay – theatres, night-clubs, restaurants and riotous weekends’. Continue reading

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Underland by Robert Macfarlane review – a dazzling journey into deep time

Limousis caves in Languedoc-Roussillon, France. Photograph: Alamy

Robert Macfarlane has done a lot to keep Paddy’s name and writing style alive and current. His new book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey, is one that offers a new perspective on the human impact on our planet, is receiving rave reviews.

By William Dalrymple

First published in The Guardian.

Stories of human journeys into the Underworld are as old as literature itself. But few of them are happy tales. Old Babylonian cuneiform tablets recording the Epic of Gilgamesh were first incised around 1800BC. These tell of the Sumerian hero Enkidu who reappeared from a long imprisonment underground in the Netherworld, during which he had to sail through storms of hailstones that struck him like “hammers”, and surfed waves that attacked his boat like “butting turtles”. Gilgamesh questions him: “Did you see my little stillborn children who never knew existence?” “I saw them,” answers Enkidu.

Similar journeys end as darkly for Orpheus, Hercules and Aeneas as they do for their direct counterparts in Finnish, Inuit, Aztec, Mayan and Hindu mythology. In Greek mythology tales of haunting journeys down the rivers of the dead are sufficiently common that they have their own collective noun: katabasis. But for every Theseus who enters the labyrinthine darkness of the Underland to triumph against the Minotaur there are many more Eurydices who never return. Such fears, Robert Macfarlane points out, are embedded deep in our language where “height is celebrated but depth is despised. To be ‘uplifted’ is preferable to being ‘depressed’ or ‘pulled down’.”

There is throughout a transcendent beauty to Macfarlane’s prose, and occasional moments of epiphany and even ecstasy – such as when, somewhere below Trieste, he abseils “into an immense rotunda of stone, cut by a buried river and filled with dunes of black sand”. Nevertheless, his journeys deep into the earth “far from the human realm”, are usually melancholic and claustrophobic, and are occasionally properly frightening.

Some of this comes from the danger and difficulty inherent in underground journeys. In a cave system in the Mendips, a rope thrown down as an escape route becomes entangled behind the belay boulder; only the necessity to regain the surface forces Macfarlane to risk his life climbing up it. Under Paris, he nearly becomes stuck in a narrow vertical shaft as “the stone that encases me, the stone that is measuring me up like a coffin, starts to vibrate … The thought of continuing is atrocious. The thought of reversing is even worse. Then the top of my head bumps against something soft … ”

As in his first book, Mountains of the Mind, Macfarlane remains obsessed by the fear and fascination generated in the human heart by extreme landscapes, and he clearly savours the adrenaline rush – what Al Alvarez calls, in his classic essay on climbing and fear, “feeding the rat”. “I have rarely felt as far from the human realm,” Macfarlane writes, “as when only 10 metres below it, held in the shining jaws of a limestone bedding plane first formed on the floor of a warm Cretaceous sea.”

When not getting stuck himself, he regales us with tales of some of those who never returned: in the Mendips we hear “a story that some people in the Peak District do not like to discuss, sixty years on”, of the caver Neil Moss who became wedged in a limestone shaft and, despite a countrywide rescue effort, suffocated before he could be hauled out; he was later “sealed by cement in the fissure that had killed him”. In Italy we are told of “the fallen angel of French speleology”, Marcel Loubens, who winches himself into an abyss only to have his belt clip snap. His injuries, “a broken spine and a fractured skull”, are so severe that he dies in the dark, 36 hours later.

But as always with Macfarlane’s books, the tales of adventures are only a takeoff point for discussions of deeper concerns: the relationship between man and landscape, the instability of time and place, and perhaps above all, the fragility of all we are and all we create. These are concerns that run like dark seams of glittering ore throughout his writing, across several successive books. In his early masterwork The Wild Places he wrote how “the wild prefaced us, and it will outlive us. Human cultures will pass, given time, of which there is sufficiency. The ivy will snake and unrig our flats and terraces, as it scattered the Roman villas. The sand will drift into our business parks, as it drifted into the brochs of the Iron Age. Our roads will lapse into the land.”

This idea is developed at much greater length in Underland: A Deep Time Journey, as premonitions of our present apocalyptic Anthropocene close in around Macfarlane like the shades of Hades around the backward-looking Orpheus. For this book is also about man’s almost incidental place in the world when seen from the perspective of geological time. It is above all a journey into darkness, and the omens are not good. The climatic consequences of human actions are now, he believes, beyond our control. One hundred thousand years ago, three river systems ran across the Sahara. In around 5bn years “the Earth will fall dark when the sun exhausts its fuel”.

A 50m-deep sinkhole in the Nizhny Novgorod region of Russia. Photograph: Tass

A 50m-deep sinkhole in the Nizhny Novgorod region of Russia. Photograph: Tass

In between these two markers, the signs of our own self-destruction are becoming ever more evident. Philip Larkin thought that what will survive of us is love. Macfarlane is more pessimistic. What will really succeed us, he fears is “plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain”. “What does human behaviour matter,” he asks, “when Homo sapiens will have disappeared from Earth in the blink of a geological eye? Viewed from the perspective of deserts or oceans, morality looks absurd, crushed to irrelevance. A flat ontology entices: all life is equally insignificant in the face of our eventual ruin.”

Early in the book we visit a laboratory under the Whitby coast where scientists study the traces of dark matter formed at the birth of the universe. Later we ascend from the forests of the Carboniferous period to the wastelands of the Anthropocene. The final sections concern Macfarlane’s visit to what is to supposed to be the most secure place on Earth – beneath Olkiluoto Island on the Bothnian sea off Finland, where nuclear waste will be buried until it becomes safe at the end of its half-life, millions of years from now. Here we catch a glimpse of our “nuclear futures of an Anthropocene-to-come” where “the timescale of the hazard is such that those responsible for entombing this waste must now face the question of how to communicate its danger to the distant future. This is a risk that will outlast not only the life of its makers but perhaps the species of its makers.” After this last quest is completed, the final pages of Underland record the author’s return home, where he takes his young son in his arms and holds him close, as if to protect him from the gathering shades he has learned to converse with and which he cannot now un-see. It is a moving end to a most unsettling quest.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey is, as its title suggests, “a book about burial and unburial and deep time”, “the awful darkness inside the world”, “of descents made in search of knowledge”, to study the places where “we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save”. If fear is a constant companion on such journeys, for the reader at home there are many pleasures, most notably the armchair exploration of a far more benign landscape: the interior of Macfarlane’s magnificently well-furnished mind. For the darkly tangled path this book takes through the labyrinth of history and memory, literature and landscape, high-flown prose and underworldly observation are illuminated by Macfarlane’s inventive way with language. At its best, this has an epic, incantatory quality. There is a rare gift at work here: chiselled prose of such beauty that it can, on occasion, illuminate the darkness below ground as startlingly as a Verey light sent up into the vaults of one of Macfarlane’s subterranean stalactite cathedrals.

Like WG Sebald, another teacher of literature, Macfarlane brings the full weight of his erudition to the table. He quotes a dazzling range of poets and novelists and great galaxies of writers on geology, archaeology, mythology, morphology and glaciology, as well as on nuclear science, “dark matter” physics and art history. We swing from the thoughts of Rainer Maria Rilke on the Orpheus myth to the latest discoveries about “hyphae” – “the superfine threads fungi send out through the soil” – then move from learned opinions on Neanderthal rock art dating from around 65,000BC to Sir Thomas Browne (a particularly Sebaldian moment) to HG Wells, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino and Cormac McCarthy.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey is, unquestionably, his magnum opus, a work that has taken him nearly 10 years to complete. Though darker than his earlier books, it is as rich as anything he has ever written, blessed with the scholarship of Sebald, the stylistic felicity of Bruce Chatwin and the vocabulary and syntax of Patrick Leigh Fermor. It contains the summation of his most important ideas.

Nearly 40 years ago, the critic Paul Fussell wrote that with The Road to Oxiana, Robert Byron had done for the travel book what James Joyce did for the novel with Ulysses. This is the flame that Macfarlane has now carried into a new century. With Underland he has written one of the most ambitious works of narrative non-fiction of our age, a new Road to Oxiana for the dwindling twilight of the Anthropocene.

Buy Underland: A Deep Time Journey here.

A few photographs from the 75th anniversary dinner at the Travellers Club

General Mike Jackson, Isabelle Moss, Chris White (co-author of Abducting a General)

Around a hundred members and guests sat down to dinner on 14 May 2019 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the kidnap and successful extraction from Crete of General Kreipe. Harry Bucknall, Blandford Forum’s leading travel writer (In the Dolphin’s Wake, and Like a Tramp Like a Pilgrim) played a large part in the successful arrangements, He persuaded General Sir Mike Jackson, formerly CGS, to give the address.

It was a splendidly successful affair. Isabelle, one of Billy Moss’ daughters was able to attend, proudly wearing her father’s Military Cross. There was praise for the daring and audacity of both Paddy and Billy, and recognition of the vital part played by the Andartes, and the wider civilian population of Crete.

Harry is making plans for the centenary event, so he tells me.

75th Anniversary dinner menu cover

75th Anniversary dinner menu!

75th Anniversary dinner menu back page

 

Tom Sawford and Isabelle Moss

General Mike Jackson gave a very knowledgeable and measured speech,

An obituary to Billy Moss by Jack Smith-Hughes

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the extraction of General Kreipe from Crete, and this evening in the Travellers Club a dinner will be held to mark this event. Paddy grabs much of the attention, but as we know, this sort of operation is a team effort, as much to do with the bravery and hardiness of the Cretan Andartes as anything else. And of course the second-in-command, William Stanley Moss who was as cool as a cucumber acting as the new “general’s” driver.

Jack Smith-Hughes was a SOE officer who served in Crete and who knew Billy Moss very well. This short obituary was written by him and passed via Roderick Bailey to Billy’s daughter, Gabriella, and thence to me so that you all may read it on this special day. Roderick informed Gabriella that “the obituary by Jack Smith-Hughes comes from what was then called, Special Forces Club Magazine and Newsletter. To be even more precise, it was printed on page 25 of edition No.47 (Vol. VII, December 1965).”

If you can’t read the image above, download the pdf here.

The Man of the Mani now on BBC Sounds

In 2015, the experienced BBC reporter and presenter, John Humphrys, hosted a BBC Radio 4 programme about Paddy’s life in the village of Kardamyli in the Mani, exploring his the life and work. The programme is now available (for how long I don’t know) on the BBC Sounds website. Maybe take half an hour this weekend to listen to one seasoned veteran talk about his passion for another.

At the time the BBC website introduced the programme thus:

Fermor is arguably the most influential travel writer of the 20th Century. At the age of eighteen he took off, with notebook in hand, on a walk across Europe. During the Second World War he fought in Greece and Crete, and is still remembered in the country today for his daring exploits with the resistance. His most celebrated action came in 1944 when he led a commando operation to abduct the German General Heinrich Kreipe.

In the early 1960s he moved to Greece, to the Southern Peloponnese. He built a house in the village of Kardamyli in the Mani. It was here that he wrote much of his most celebrated work and where he remained until his death in June 2011.

John Humphrys visits Fermor’s village to explore the influence that Greece had upon his life and work, and also to consider the impact that he had on the village and the people he lived alongside. John visits Fermor’s former home, now in the care of the Benaki Museum in Athens, and discusses the plans for its future. He meets those in the village who met Leigh Fermor when he first arrived in the 1960s – a man in his nineties recalls how they “danced on the tables into the night” – and he hears tales of influential guests, great writers like Bruce Chatwin and John Betjeman, even a King and Queen.

Accompanied by Fermor’s book ‘Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese’, John Humphrys also travels into the deep Mani, one of the remotest, wildest and most isolated regions in Greece.

Visit the BBC Sounds website here for further details.

Paddy’s sister, Vanessa, by her son Miles

Vanessa Fenton (nee Fermor) relaxing in India (copyright by Miles Fenton 2017)

Vanessa Fenton (nee Fermor) relaxing in India (copyright by Miles Fenton 2017)

Paddy’s nephew Miles Fenton sent me this photograph of a painting he did of his mother, Paddy’s sister Vanessa, relaxing in a chair in India. We are indebted to Miles for this.

Miles lives in Canada and is an artist. He has contributed a number of photographs and comments to the blog over the years.

Robert Macfarlane reads from ‘The Gifts of Reading’

Robert Macfarlane is a splendid writer, and a great admirer of Paddy. His books are always worth reading. His latest, Underland: A Deep Time Journey is published today.

But I wanted to highlight a little known work of his. Called The Gifts of Reading. This essay is a joy in itself celebrating the enjoyment of reading and inspired by Macfarlane receiving a copy of a Time of Gifts as a gift. This little pocket sized book is an ideal little present for those you love, just to show that you care and wish them to share in your joy of the gift of reading. The Gifts of Reading