Category Archives: In Tearing Haste

The It girl and the war hero

A young and beautiful Debo

What the trigger-happy, book-hating Duchess of Devonshire said to Patrick Leigh Fermor

Kate McLoughlin

From The Times Literary Supplement November 26, 2008

Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire – known as Debo – was the youngest of those prototype It girls, the Mitford sisters; in faint and possibly euphemistic praise, the editor of this book of letters, her niece-by-marriage Charlotte Mosley, also describes her as “the most well-adjusted”. In this collection of letters, Debo comes across as jolly, plain-spoken and, where animals are concerned, murderous, her gun having taken her “from Sussex to Devon, from Anglesey to Norfolk and home via Northumberland”. Debo tends Chatsworth (the Devonshires’ stately home in Derbyshire), which she endearingly refers to as “the dump”, and engages in country pursuits. When asked by President Kennedy what she does all day, she admits she is “stumped”. A disarmingly simple soul – “I now prefer horse shows to lovers & I’ve never liked drink” – the Duchess is at her best on varieties of gooseberry and rare breeds of cattle. A running joke in this correspondence is her anti-intellectualism in general and antipathy to reading in particular. Invited to a literary lunch in Leamington Spa, she plans to tell her audience, “BOOKS how I hate them – as an avid non-reader it is awful to have added to their number”. The reader of her letters may be forgiven a wry smile.

The recipient of the Devonshire dispatches is Patrick Leigh Fermor (known as “Paddy” and occasionally “Whack”): war hero, author of travel books such as The Traveller’s Tree (1950), Mani (1958), A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), and the recipient of many honours, including a knighthood for services to literature and Anglo-Greek relations. During the Second World War, he was posted to Crete to support the local Resistance and led the successful abduction of the German commander on the island, an exploit that earned him the DSO and was later filmed as Ill Met By Moonlight (1957). Fermor attends the making of the movie and is enchanted when Dirk Bogarde portrays him as “a mixture of Garth and Superman, shooting Germans clean through the breast from a dentist’s chair, strangling sentries in an offhand manner”. From his letters, Fermor emerges as charming and whimsical, with a delightfully childlike imagination offsetting an annoyingly schoolboyish sense of humour. Still entranced by what he calls in A Time of Gifts “the glamour of fairy stories”, he hears the sea roar “like angry lions at feeding-time”, sees hills crowned with “tea-cosies of mist”, watches blackbirds mass “as if someone had rashly opened a pie”. In the best of his travel writings, Fermor combines a similar sense of wonder with local colour, an eye for ridiculousness (including his own) and vivid description in rangy sentences remarkable for their buoyancy. There is little of this soaring prose here: although some lengthy descriptions of travel are included, Fermor is reduced to telling his reluctant reader which passages she may skip.

Fermor and the then Deborah Mitford first met at a regimental ball in 1940. They bumped into each other at parties from time to time over the next decade but the first letter in this collection is a six-liner dated March 21, 1954, from Debo, now married to Andrew Cavendish, eleventh Duke of Devonshire, to Paddy saying that she hopes he will come and stay with them at Lismore, their house in Wexford. This sets the tone for the correspondence to follow: invitations are extended and accepted, thank-you notes are then sent. Too intermittent, the letters are unsatisfying records of festivities long finished. Although Charlotte Mosley claims to have excised plans for meetings, reports on health, grumbles about the weather and the slowness of the posts, the weeding out has not been thorough enough.

Another of Mosley’s claims in support of the correspondence is that the participants are indifferent to politics. It is difficult to decide whether this indifference is another instance of charming whimsicality or just unforgivable negligence. The exchange of letters is too sporadic to allow for political themes to be developed at length, but politics are not entirely absent. Andrew Cavendish was Harold Macmillan’s nephew-by-marriage and served in his government, later becoming an early member of the Social Democratic Party.

In 1958, with Macmillan a year into office, Debo “talks secrets with the PM” and finds it “most jolly and educational”. Much later, John Major “exudes goodness”, Tony Blair is “the wretched little Prime Minister”, Cherie “frightful”, and John Prescott “looks like a bare-knuckle fighter . . . from the East End”. This animosity may have been partly caused by the hunting ban, brought into force by the New Labour government in 2005, and the slaughter of livestock following the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. In their strongest expression of political feelings, Paddy calls the passing of the anti-hunt bill “a day of mourning” and Debo describes the cull as “truly ghoul”.

These references apart, the correspondence is largely devoted to the dramatis personae of high society, mostly long-gone minor aristocrats about whom Mosley provides rather more information than necessary in her footnotes. The Queen Mother, whom Debo calls “Cake”, having been lastingly impressed by her enthusiasm at a wedding when the cake was cut, puts in a few appearances, memorably crying “Oh God” and making a dash for the Royal Box when the conductor unexpectedly strikes up “God Save the Queen” at an opera gala. Princess Diana visits Chatsworth and Debo is stuck for what to give her to eat “as she prefers the fridge to the table, I’m told”. In other sly thrusts, Jackie Kennedy’s face “is put together in a very wild way” and Somerset Maugham’s is “so discoloured and green that it looks as though he has been rotting in the Bastille”.

Old age arrives suddenly for the correspondents – the long gaps between the letters mask the passing of time – but they sound the same as ever, still playing with the same phrases (“I freely admit” is one of Debo’s, much repeated by family and friends), the nicknames (Nancy Mitford is “the Old French authoress” and “the Ancient Dame of France”), the in-jokes (Debo’s supposed illiteracy), still “v v excited” about things or finding them “frightfully good”. Their lack of self-pity as they age is impressive and appealing; there are jokes about failing eyesight and “Dr. Oblivion” but, even though they have reached the stage in life when Paddy is constantly writing obituaries, they maintain good cheer. Twenty-first-century life fails to disconcert them. “There are marvellous entertainments called car-boot sales”, writes Debo. “You can buy a Rembrandt for a few quid in any old field. So why not sell a few?”

Did they love each other? Debo is “funny, touching, ravishing and enslaving”, Paddy tells mutual friends. In a letter of 1957 he rebukes her: “I wish you didn’t love everyone else more than me – it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t rather love you, as I suppose I do, otherwise I wouldn’t feel so selfish and possessive [. . . .] I do adore you”. His adoration is clear in his letters, which outnumber Debo’s: he chides her for not writing often enough, he delights over her average prose, he sends her long travelogues that she replies to with short letters about gooseberries. But her fondness and admiration for him are also evident, and a photograph in the volume of them aged ninety-three and eighty-eight shows a pair close together but not touching: a couple of old friends.

In one of her letters to Paddy, Debo marvels that the University of Texas has paid $10,000 for her sister’s papers: “They’ve got all Evie [Waugh]’s stuff, & Osbert [Sitwell]’s, & letters saying things like ‘Arriving on the 2.14 on Saturday so much looking forward to seeing you’ are put under glass and revered”. Similar feelings are induced by In Tearing Haste. The volume diminishes its subjects by preserving their off-the-cuff remarks and, in Fermor’s case, prose that does nothing to suggest that his finest writing is spectacular. It is good to know that the two are corresponding still, but it might be for the best to save their last letters for their own private pleasure.

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The troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear

Paddy in Greece photographed by Joan

Don’t you feel like me that with the passing of Paddy as one of the last of his generation we have clearly entered a new age dominated by uncertainty; a lack of confidence in the values we once held as unquestionably true? These beliefs that bound us (in the West?) together for the latter part of the twentieth century are now unravelling at an ever-increasing pace. As we enter the End Game of the economic crisis, and as the decade of The Forever War rumbles on like the noise of a busy road in the middle distance – there only when we take the trouble to notice – we suffer a dearth of leadership and heroes of substance. Paddy and those of his generation had no such crisis of confidence; they served without question. They sacrificed themselves for the things they believed in, and they provided the leadership, entrepreneurship, creativity, and wisdom that helped rebuild Europe after almost half a century of ethnic and social strife, and destructive war. Maybe they also share some blame for the way things turned out, but who will step up now?

In this considered profile, which prompted my rambling reflection, Paddy’s good friend Colin Thubron assesses his contribution, not as a warrior, but as a writer, and I think for the first time, reveals the torment of Paddy’s troubling writer’s block towards the end of his life.

by Colin Thubron

First published in the New York Review of Books, Volume 58, Number 14

When Patrick Leigh Fermor died in June at the age of ninety-six, it seemed as if an era had come to an end. He was the last of a generation of warrior–travel writers that included the Arabian explorer Wilfred Thesiger, the controversial mystic Laurens van der Post, and the indefatigable Norman Lewis of Naples ‘44. Among these, Leigh Fermor shines with the élan and the effortlessly cultured glow of an apparent golden age. A war hero of polymathic exuberance, brilliant linguistic skills, and an elephantine memory, he was sometimes fancifully compared to Lord Byron or Sir Philip Sydney.

Two pairs of books came to exemplify his achievement. The first pair—Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966)—celebrated the Greece that held his abiding fascination and where he lived for forty-five years on a once-wild promontory in the Peloponnese. In Mani, especially, he described this backwater region as a world whose way of life had survived in a fierce and enchanted time warp.

The land he depicted is barely recognizable now—tourism, he observed, destroys the object it loves—but it was less the Greece of classical antiquity that beguiled him than the spirit and folk culture of the hinterland: the earthy, demotic Romiosyne that he once contrasted with the Hellenic ideal in a playful balance sheet of the country’s character.

In these, and in later books, the style was the man: robustly imaginative, cultivated without pedantry, unstoppably digressive, forgivably swanky, and filled with infectious learning. The impression—overflowing into elaborate footnotes and flights of learned fantasy—is one of omnivorous delight in the quirks and byways of history, art, language, genealogy, myth, song, superstition, costume, heraldry, and everything else that struck his fancy.

His literary models were Norman Douglas and Robert Byron, but his writing was more vivid than the one, more kindly than the other. Despite the richness of his prose (occasionally slipping into purple) he forged an illusion of intimacy with his readers, as if they were sharing his mind in the moment of writing. But in fact his manuscripts were worked, reworked, and reworked again with such painstaking perfectionism that his publisher (the benign Jock Murray) often had to reset his galley proofs wholesale. The apparently natural flow of words was in reality a densely worked choreography, which came at cost.

Fifteen years ago, swimming in the Ionian Sea beneath his home, where nobody could overhear us, Paddy (as friends and fans called him) suddenly confessed to me the writer’s block that would plague the rest of his life. The expectations of a now-avid public, and his own obsessive perfectionism, were taking their toll, and he could not overleap this cruel impediment.

I remember him strong into old age. He swam every morning, with a sturdy breaststroke far out to sea, the tattoo of a twin-tailed mermaid glistening on his shoulder. He still kept up a striding march in the Taygetus foothills, where he and his wife Joan had designed their own house above the ocean. It was a place of “mad splendor,” he wrote. Its sitting-room library—bookshelves banked nine feet high—opened onto a vista of cypresses and the Messenian Gulf, and was flagged with the greenish stone of Mount Pelion. In the afternoon Paddy would disappear into his study to confront—or escape—the demons of his failed writing, and would emerge to the liberation of ouzo or whiskey, generally to report some arcane piece of research—that the Huns wore stitched field-mouse skins, perhaps—or to share a passage of Ovid. We dined in the monastic half-cloister he had built beside his home, and once we visited the tiny, red-tiled Byzantine chapel where—five years before—he had buried the ashes of Bruce Chatwin.

The conflict between a natural gregariousness and the solitude of writing never quite resolved for him. In a short, intriguing study named A Time to Keep Silence (1953) he recorded his sojourn in three great French monasteries. He described this retreat not as a religious exercise, but as a need for a haven for writing, and the nature of its cleansing—”the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear”—remains suspended like a question mark in the oeuvre of a man to whom self-revelation seemed indulgence.

The second pair of books, which established Paddy’s primacy among travel writers, must be among the most extraordinary ever written. In 1933, as a youth of eighteen, he left England for a journey that would take a year and a half. As “a thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly,” he set out to walk to Constantinople (as he nostalgically called Istanbul). Walking stick in hand, a copy of Horace’s Odes in his rucksack, he pursued a meandering course up the Rhine and down the Danube, across the Great Hungarian Plain, into Romania and through the Balkans to Turkey.

It was almost forty-five years before he published the first part of this journey, and another nine years before the second. A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) represent prodigious feats of memory. They record the rite of passage of a precocious, exuberant young man as he encounters the peoples and languages of a Middle Europe now littered with obsolete names: Bohemia, Transylvania, Wallachia. His story must have become the dream journey of every enterprising and footloose adolescent.

Inevitably the accuracy of Paddy’s memory was questioned, and he was frank about occasional imaginative license and conflation. (His first diary was stolen in Munich, a solitary last one recovered years later in Romania.) Certainly his recall was extraordinary. I remember the first time we met (by chance), when he quoted verbatim from my first book passages that I had myself forgotten. A year before his death we chanted verses from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám together in an antiphonal competition (which he won).

His urge to describe his epic journey more than forty years after its end was a deeply natural one. He was revisiting his youthful persona with the judgment and knowledge of maturity; yet in a sense he had remained unchanged. Despite his sophisticated learning, he retained an almost boyish innocence, as if the troubles of the modern age had bypassed him. In the Peloponnese, where he settled to live in the 1960s, he had remained in thrall to a more ancient, rooted culture than that of the urban West.

The final volume of his proposed trilogy—carrying its author through the Balkans and down the Black Sea coast to Turkey—became his tormenting and elusive project for the next quarter- century, and was never completed. Some near-finished version, however, survives him, and will eventually be published.

With his youthful trek done, Leigh Fermor’s career took off into near fable. Caught up in Greek unrest, he joined in a triumphal royalist cavalry charge against wilting Venizelist rebels. In Athens he fell in love with the artist Princess Balasha Cantacuzene, twelve years older than him, and lived with her in Moldavia for over two years, before World War II recalled him to London.

As a fluent Greek speaker he was recruited by the Intelligence Corps, and sent as a liaison officer with the Greek army first to Albania and finally to Crete, where he survived the brutal German invasion. For almost two years, while an officer in the Special Operations Executive, he lived disguised as a shepherd in the Cretan mountains, organizing the gathering of intelligence.

Then, in 1944, occurred the exploit that—more than any other—was to burnish him into legend. He and his fellow SOE officer Stanley Moss dreamed up a scheme of harebrained bravado. Dressed in stolen German uniforms, with a party of Cretan guerrillas, they ambushed the car of General Heinrich Kreipe, the German commander of occupied Crete, kidnapped him, and concealed him under the back seat. Moss took the wheel, Paddy donned the general’s cap, and together they drove through twenty-two checkpoints to emerge on the far side of Herakleion and march Kreipe for three weeks over the mountains, to be picked up by motor launch and taken to Egypt.

It was during this hazardous Cretan march, as the dawn broke over Mount Ida, mythical birthplace of Zeus, that the abducted general began to murmur a verse of Horace: Vides ut alta stet nive candidum/Soracte….1 It was an ode that Paddy knew by heart, and he completed the six stanzas to their end. “The general’s blue eyes had swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine,” Paddy later wrote,

—and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.

This precocious kidnapping was later reimagined in a lackluster movie named Ill Met by Moonlight (1957) with Dirk Bogarde playing Paddy. But there were other exploits too. Paddy had already engineered the defection of the Italian General Angelico Carta from Crete; and he was due to undertake a near-suicidal mission to Colditz when the war ended.

His upbeat account of these events was tempered by regret. He had planned that the abduction of Kreipe be bloodless, but his accompanying Cretan partisans slit the chauffeur’s throat, and rumors of grim German reprisals for the abduction have never quite died down. Above all, Paddy’s accidental shooting of one of his fellow guerrillas may have stained his memory of the whole period.

On June 16 Leigh Fermor was buried back in the English countryside, attended by an Intelligence Corps guard of honor, to lie beside his wife Joan, his dear comrade since 1946. This was, in a sense, fitting. For in certain ways he was exemplary of a wartime Englishness now almost gone, whose more dashing qualities merged seamlessly into the hardy stylishness of Greek leventéa.

To those who knew him, his books are hauntingly redolent of his sensibility. His conversation was irrepressibly warm and inventive far into old age, moving from arcane anecdotes to fanciful wordplay or bursting into polyglot song (sometimes singing the lyrics backward). His friends ranged from Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire—last of the six legendary Mitford sisters (his correspondence with her was published in 20082)—to early acquaintance with a raffish interwar bohemia and his own great predecessor, the travel writer and aesthete Robert Byron, whose borrowed rucksack he bore across Central Europe as a youth.

Almost the last time I met Paddy, he had returned home after an operation for suspected cancer, and I feared he would be depleted, his old zest gone. He was growing deaf, and he suffered from tunnel vision (which he called Simplonitis). For a while, sitting over lunch, he seemed subdued. Then something struck him. He perked up, and said: “You know, there is an apple lying on a table in the hall. It’s been there all weekend. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if it cocked a snook at Newton, and simply took off into the air!”

This was typical of his boyish resilience. In the field of travel he evoked both the youthful wanderer who discovers another world and the avid scholar who melds with it. His prose was too rich and elaborate to be a safe influence on others (although a few have tried); but he brought to the genre not only the distinction of his densely brilliant books, but his innate dignity, ebullient mind, and capacious heart.

  1. 1″See Mount Soracte white with snow….”
  2. 2The correspondence, In Tearing Haste , edited by Charlotte Mosley, was published in the US by New York Review Books (2010), which has also republished the other books by Patrick Leigh Fermor mentioned in this article, as well as The Traveller’s Tree .

The Duchess of Devonshire talks about Patrick Leigh Fermor

The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, the youngest of the legendary Mitford sisters reminisces about her life and her correspondence with the charismatic Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, considered to be the finest English travel writer of his generation. An evening filled with wit, eccentric characters, and a celebration of courage and friendship. Charlotte Mosley, her niece and editor, joins the Dowager Duchess in conversation.

This was filmed on November 10 2010 at the Frick Collection in New York to mark the US publication of In Tearing Haste and her new memoire, Wait for Me

Paddy is mentioned at the start and she discusses her friendship with him from minute 35

Paddy visits the wonder that is Ohrid

I suppose it is a good thing to aim to be objective in life. It shows wisdom and maturity, and an ability to balance all the arguments. For me however, all objectivity vanishes when I think of Ohrid! The setting of this beautiful city on the edge of the vast and wondrous eponymous lake is simply stunning.

Although he does not state it specifically, I believe Paddy visited Ohrid and its environs when on a motor tour from France to Greece with Joan in her Sunbeam Rapier in 1960. He tells the story to Debo in a letter dated 23/24 October 1960 (see page 67 of In Tearing Haste). Paddy describes visiting “Serbian Macedonia and wonderful lakes with frescoed Byzantine monasteries on the shores … (which) held us up for days.” There is little doubt in my mind that he is referring to Ohrid, and having been there myself I can understand why; it is a wonder that he ever left!

It is said that Ohrid, Macedonia, once had 365 churches although there are now only around twenty-five which remain open. Its name means City of Light and it has over 220 days of sunshine each year. The town creeps up the hillside surrounding a central esplanade and harbour dominated by the statue of St Clement, who was the student of Saint Cyril and his brother Methodius. They were the authors of the Cyrillic alphabet (approx 864 AD) which was created by the Byzantines to bring the Slavic nations into the Orthodox Church rather than let them fall under the influence of Rome during the early days of the schism between the two churches.

Ohrid is full of Byzantine history. The influence of the Empire can be seen everywhere from the statues to the fortress but principally in the churches and the ancient Basilica. The original church of St Clement was destroyed by the Ottomans who built a mosque on the site which has a clear view of the Lake. Clement’s relics were secretly moved by the Christian citizens of Ohrid to the smaller and less important Church of St Mary Psychosostria. Over time this church became known as the Church of St Clement, but the confusion is now ended as in 2000 the Macedonian authorities rebuilt the Church of St Clement on the original site. His relics have been moved back there to rest in peace. The site includes the remains of original Baptistry, and there are many mosaics all in very good condition.

The Church of St Mary is a wonder. Built in 1295 by the deputy Progon Zgur who was a relative of the Emperor Andronicus II Paleologus, it has twenty-nine scenes from the life of the Virgin around the walls. These frescoes are in generally excellent condition with little of the wear or defacement one often finds elsewhere. The reason for this is that most of the frescoes were obliterated by soot from candles. They were cleaned and restored only since 1960. The have to be seen to be understood. The ‘keeper’ of the frescoes is an amazing Macedonian lady with long black hair, with braided pigtails; the church and the frescoes are her passion, probably the centre of her life. She has produced a long book and the frescoes were the subject of her PhD. She says that the fresco of the Virgin that dominates the Apse is painted from lapis lazuli originating in Afghanistan. That one fresco would have cost something in the order of one kilogramme of gold (at today’s prices that is roughly $56,000).

Opposite the Church is the national Icon museum of Macedonia with over forty masterpieces. All this within just a few yards of each other!

If you ever get the chance to visit you will find all this and more. You will also meet friendly people, find good quality low-cost accommodation, and a wealth of Byzantine architecture and art. This CNN video shows many of the places I have written about and I know you will like it. If you do ever visit Ohrid, please contact my friend Katerina Vasileska who runs a tourist business in Ohrid called Lost in Ohrid. She will be happy to arrange good accommodation, local tours, and generally be of assistance during your visit.

Finally, don’t forget that for the intrepid there is an opportunity to walk through Albania to Ohrid in May of 2011 with the Via Egnatia Foundation. See my recent post Walking back to Byzantium along the Via Egnatia where you can find out more and how to register your interest.

Click to play … there is a 30 second ad before the Ohrid movie starts.

He’s the top

The following review of Words of Mercury was first published in The Spectator. It is unusual as it was written by the Marques de Tamaron who was the Spanish Ambassador in London in 1999-2004. He and his wife stayed with Debo  at Chatsworth in November 2000 (see p 322 In Tearing Haste). The Marques is clearly a fan!

by  Santiago Tamaron

First published in The Spectator Oct 4, 2003

The perfect anthology, like the perfect hors d’oeuvre, should turn us into gluttons. The many small dishes add up to a balanced and nourishing meal, but they are so exquisite that they whet one’s appetite for more. And the anthology should also include unexpected delicacies, things that even the literary gourmet had not heard about.

This book fulfils both requirements but also a third, more difficult one: it presents a complete portrait of the author. The compiler, Artemis Cooper, writes an introduction which is a model of informative brevity, but also succeeds – with her selection of essays and book chapters, plus an unpublished letter and a dazzlingly original poem, under the headings of Travels’, ‘Greece’, ‘People’, ‘Books’ and ‘Flotsam’ and with a few explanatory words now and then – in capturing the essence of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the man as well as the literary oeuvre. If there was ever a writer of whom it can be said that le style c’est l’homme, it is he. And the essence of Paddy (as the compiler and many others call him) is not his superb English or his arcane erudition, but his obvious and contagious enjoyment of everything he writes about.

Of course, if he enjoys the sights and sounds and smells of the landscapes he travels through, and the words he hears and reads in a dozen languages or two, if he admires the stones and paintings, the plants and trees and the strangely shaped clouds and mountains in the Balkans or the Danubian basin or the Himalayas, if he cares and makes you care about Mozarabic liturgy (in Latin only, naturally, and only in Toledo), or about Phanariot genealogy or Bulgarian shepherd dances or the punctilio of Cretan blood-feuds, it is because all these wonders are not dry-as-dust erudition for Paddy, they are perfectly alive, in his memory and, through his magical language, in our minds.

It is not that he refuses reality and the unprecedented scale of the destruction brought upon civilisation by the bestiality of the 20th century. He knows and indeed he tells us that the island of Ada Kaleh in the Danube, with its melancholy and beautiful remnant of Ottoman life, was flooded by the Iron Gates dam built in 1971. He knows that the happy Transylvanian country house of his friend Tibor (‘jolly, baronial, rubicund, Jager-hatted and plumed, an ex-Horse Gunner’) had been turned by the communists into a lunatic asylum. Even sadder, when he returned to Baleni, the house in Moldavia belonging to his friend Balasha Cantacuzene and her sister, where he lived during the months before the start of the second world war (the most poignant memory in this book is the perfect early autumn mushroom-gathering picnic on the last day of peace), he found that ‘the house had completely vanished. Some industrial buildings, already abandoned, had taken its place, and the trees had been cut down long ago.’ The author is fully aware that many of the things he loves have been destroyed, but I think that he also realises that the joy and pain and privilege of a writer is to save the memories and thereby the physical beauty of past glories, and this he does supremely well and with an immense joie de vivre.

Two months ago he told friends that he had read in the morning Othello, which had depressed him so much that in the afternoon he had read A Midsummer Might’s Dream, which had greatly gladdened him. Clearly Shakespeare, like so many other muses and marvels, is no museum piece for Paddy but part of his daily life. That is why he is truly cultured and never pedantic.

He is a generous writer. I have never found an ounce of spite or envy in his books, or sarcasm in his occasional irony (‘the agglutinative harshness of the Turks, laced with genteel diaereses, sounded like drinking out of a foeman’s skull with a raised little finger’). He genuinely likes and understands Greeks and Turks, Magyars and Rumanians, Germans, Austrians and Jews, even enemies in times of war like General Kreipe whom he abducted in Crete. There is not a dull character in the vast gallery in these pages where barons, bandits and beggars abound, where scholars and poets are colourful and ladies are beautiful (although the latter circumstance is usually left untold, for Paddy is most un-Byronic in his reticence about his own loves).

Some years ago, a group of friends gathered to celebrate Paddy’s birthday. John Julius Norwich wrote and sang a new version of ‘You’re the Top’ in his honour:

You’re the million volts of the thunderbolts of Zeus, /You’re Leda’s swan, you’re the square upon the hypotenuse! …/And you’ll fill and thrill our hearts until we drop: /So from Bath to Burma, Fermor, you’re the top!

Most readers of Words of Mercury will, I think, agree with this assessment.

The Marques de Tamaron is the Spanish Ambassador in London.

A Traveler’s Tale: On Patrick Leigh Fermor

by Wes Davis

First published in The Nation, December 2010

At a Chelsea-to-Richmond boating party held sometime in the early 1950s, the Duchess of Devonshire, then a beautiful young woman of 30, met a dashing man, some five years her senior, who was dressed as a Roman gladiator and armed with a net and trident. It was a look she thought suited him.

The fancy-dress gladiator was Patrick Leigh Fermor, a former officer in Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), a covert unit that aided resistance movements throughout occupied Europe, and an up-and-coming writer best known at the time for kidnapping a German general during the war. He had crossed paths with the duchess before and remembered her clearly from a regimental ball in 1940, when she was still Deborah Mitford—the youngest of the soon-to-be-famous Mitford sisters. She was then engaged to Andrew Cavendish, a tall naval officer and younger son of the Tenth Duke of Devonshire who had no expectation of inheriting his father’s title until the war took his older brother’s life four years later. Leigh Fermor had watched the couple dance their way through the evening, “utterly rapt, eyes shut, as though in a trance.” Mitford had not noticed him.

But when they met again—as duchess and gladiator—Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor struck up a friendship that has endured for more than half a century. In Tearing Haste, a collection of their letters newly available in this country, gives the impression that the conversation that started at a boating party so many summers ago has never stopped. Spanning 1954 to 2007, the volume reads like an accidental memoir of a disappearing world stretching from the manor houses of the English aristocracy to the olive groves of Greece, its people and places rendered with a kind of care that’s becoming scarce in our age of helter-skelter communication. At the same time, the book’s title, a phrase deriving from Leigh Fermor’s habit of dashing off messages “with a foot in the stirrup,” captures the vigor and bustle of the lives that nourished the correspondence. I once happened upon the manuscript of a chatty letter Leigh Fermor had written in 1944 to an Englishwoman stationed in Cairo. Amusingly composed and illustrated with a witty hand-drawn cartoon, it closed with Leigh Fermor mentioning offhand that he was in hiding on occupied Crete and that an undercover runner was waiting outside to receive the communication.

In Tearing Haste is engaging from start to finish. There isn’t a dull letter among Charlotte Mosley’s selections. Even her annotations, often incorporating information from the book’s two correspondents, are as surprising as they are informative. One biographical note on the painter Augustus John includes Deborah Devonshire’s recollection of meeting him in London: “He looked me up and down and said, ‘Have you got children?’ ‘Yes.’ Another long look. ‘Did you suckle them?'” More than anything else, the collection is important as an addition to Leigh Fermor’s body of work, both because his letters constitute a larger portion of the volume and because the writing in them harmonizes with the books that established his literary reputation. But let it be said that the Duchess of Devonshire is no slouch either. Her letters, though generally shorter and less frequent than Leigh Fermor’s, share his wit and many of his interests—a fascination with language, for example, or with the byways of English and European history. She puts a charming twist on these topics while adding a few bright threads of her own to the correspondence.

Deborah Devonshire’s books—beginning with The House (1982) and The Estate (1990)—focus largely on the management of Chatsworth, the massive estate in Derbyshire that she and her husband put into charitable trust and opened to the public in 1981. (The house was a stand-in for Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley in a film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and throughout the letters Leigh Fermor refers to it as “Dingley Dell,” after Mr. Wardle’s house in The Pickwick Papers.) As a writer, she is best when describing the seasonal rhythms of country life (the arrival of the year’s pullets, say) or assessing the gamut of rural arts (from drystone walling to mushroom gathering) and tilling their linguistic soil. In Counting My Chickens, a collection of notes and essays published in 2001, she remembers leaving Leigh Fermor “stumped” by the meaning of words gleaned from the glossary of a pamphlet about sheep. “One sheep disease,” she recalls, “has regional names of intriguing diversity: Sturfy, bleb, turnstick, paterish, goggles, dunt, and pedro all are gid.” On the same page she can be found rhapsodizing over “the glorious language of the 1662 prayer book, with its messages of mystery and imagination.”

She takes any opportunity to undercut the preconceived notions one might have about a duchess’s likes and dislikes. “I buy most of my clothes at agricultural shows,” she says in Counting My Chickens, “and good stout things they are.” For the playwright Tom Stoppard, who contributed an introduction to the book, this was one of her most characteristic revelations. For me, a close runner-up is her discussion of flower gardening on a grand estate, where she admits, “I prefer vegetables.” Many of her stories turn on a similar blend of unexpected rusticity and unflagging old-school civility. In an essay about the life the Mitfords led for a time on the island of Inchkenneth in the Hebrides, she describes traveling by train in the company of a goat, a whippet and a Labrador back to her sister Nancy’s house in Oxfordshire when the war broke out. “I milked the goat in the first-class waiting room,” she confesses, “which I should not have done, as I only had a third-class ticket.”

For all her modesty, the duchess isn’t embarrassed to mention boldface names that have sailed in and out of her social circle. (They range from Fred Astaire to the Queen Mother, the latter called “Cake” when she appears in the letters.) The humor in one anecdote depends on knowing that John F. Kennedy was intimate enough with the duchess to employ her nickname. This caused some confusion when her uncle Harold Macmillan, then prime minister, found himself involved in a telephone conversation with the American president about matters involving Castro, SEATO and NATO. It took him a moment to switch tracks when Kennedy asked, “And how’s Debo?” (Evelyn Waugh, a friend of hers, might well have written the scene.) In the letters, Kennedy is counted among the “bodies to be worshipped,” and several entries describe the friendship that developed between JFK and the duchess in the years between his inauguration and his death.

Her relationship with Leigh Fermor has many dimensions, its ardor fueled by humor, charisma and delight in a good tale. The revealing joke that runs through In Tearing Haste is that Devonshire is not a reader and that despite her lively correspondence with Leigh Fermor, she can’t manage to read his books. She praises one of his letters not for its vivid language but because it has instructions about which parts to skip. Leigh Fermor takes revenge in another letter, marking a set of passages with notes “don’t skip” and “ditto.” The bit he wants her to see—a foray into history by way of language—might well have been lifted from one of the books that made him famous: “The inhabitants are Koutzovlachs who speak a v. queer Latin dialect akin both to Rumanian and Italian. Some say they are Rumanian nomad shepherds who wandered here centuries ago with their flocks and never found their way home again. Others, more plausibly, say they are the descendants of Roman legionaries, speaking a corrupt camp Latin, stationed here to guard the high passes of the Pindus, miles from anywhere.” Continue reading

GAGINONANUS SPEAKS

After a long, indolent summer chasing dragonflies, and an extended sojourn in the south of France courtesy of ‘Les Sans Coulottes’, the time has come for the winner of our OPRIG GAGINONANUS challenge, Marion Worsley to collect her prize. A full report will follow!

To celebrate this forthcoming event I thought we should enjoy the poem that the marvellous John Wells wrote and sent to Paddy after he too received a copy of Paddy’s drawings.

GAGINONANUS SPEAKS

By John Wells

Before the earliest burning light
Before the world that once was his
Hung turning the day to turning night
Gaginonanus was and is

Gaginonanus, mightiest Lord,
Whom all the Seven Kings obey,
At whose high uncreated word
Preadamites were prone to pray

Great God of Gods, all nature’s grail,
The inward soul of every thing
Behind the Maya’s rainbow veil
Withdrawn, within, inhabiting

New gods and false as empires rise
Are worshipped, spires fall and climb,
All-seeing and with placid eyes
Gaginonanus bides his time

Like leaves the centuries are born
Like leaves are born to bud and die.
Gaginonanus smiles to scorn
The drifting aeons as they fly

Ignored, unknown, forgotten still
Gaginonanus sees their play,
The awful working of His Will
Until His dreadful Judgement Day

*

But now, O Prig! O Lax! O Loose!
That hour is come! O sunk in crime!
Your garages in constant use,
You dare not park at any time

His awful Name is manifest!
No cloud-etched letters skyward burn
The Blessed Ones who love Him best
Know their Great God will soon return

Winning entrant Marion Worsley in Market Mews

Behold, in those condemned last days,
Gaginonanus, Lord of All!
As saints and sages dumbly gaze
His Name is written on the Wall.

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OPRIG GAGINONANUS

OPRIG GAGINONANUS – a winner!