The life, times and legacy of geologist Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor

Geoscientist Cover Dec_Jan15_16This article is by Ted Nield on the life, times and legacy of geologist Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, as seen through the eyes of his more famous son.

First published by The Geological Society, in Geoscientist, December 2015.

“…having made the most solemn oaths to me [he] has quite cheerfully broken them all – you can never guess just what a blighter and a mongrel that man is – he even astonishers me – and I thought I knew him pretty thoroughly … there is one thing I regret and that is that I didn’t leave him straight away the first time I longed to – which was three days after my wedding day. He is impossible.”

So wrote Muriel Ӕileen Fermor (née Ambler, 1890-1997) on 1 February 1923 to her mother – convinced that her austere geologist husband Lewis Leigh Fermor (1880-1954) had been cheating on her in far-away Calcutta, where he was then Acting Director of the Geological Survey of India. (He became Director in 1932.) Their desultory marriage – already a separation in all but name – had but another two years to run. They were divorced in May 1925.

The marriage resulted in two children, Vanessa Opal (b. Calcutta, 1911) and Patrick Michael (b. Endsleigh Gardens, St Pancras, 1915). It is perhaps fortunate that ‘Paddy’ was born in England, away from Lewis, else he might also have copped a mineral for a middle name. After the Lusitania was sunk, Ӕileen decided to leave the baby in England rather than risk losing both her children. Thus Paddy was farmed out to friends and grew up hardly knowing his father at all.

For this reason, little of what we know of Lewis comes to us via him – despite the fact that Paddy grew up to be a great (and largely autobiographical) writer. However, his books do contain rare, but often highly touching glimpses of Lewis, illuminating the peculiar upbringing that colonial service often imposed upon the children of its staff.

Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor at his desk in the Geological Survey of India, Calcutta.  From the Geological Society’s photograph collection.

By the time Paddy was 19, having been sacked from just about every school he was ever sent to and very far from achieving either his father’s ambitions (that he should study at science-strong Rugby, Haileybury or Oundle) or his mother’s (that he should go to Eton and join the ruling class) young Fermor was becoming tired of idling away his adolescence in Metropolitan dissipation. Aware he ought to become a writer but knowing he lacked material, he conceived the romantic idea of taking his meagre allowance and walking, alone, across Europe to Istanbul (or ‘Constantinople’, as he resolutely persisted in calling it), like a mendicant scholar of old.

The idea came to him in a flash, was the making of him, and met with (by today’s standards) shockingly little parental or other opposition. It was to prove the first in a lifetime of adventures, culminating most famously in his wartime work with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Crete, and his kidnap of the island’s commander-in-chief, General Kreipe – described in William Stanley Moss’s book Ill Met by Moonlight (1950) and the Powell & Pressburger film of the same name (1957), in which Paddy was dashingly portrayed by Dirk Bogarde.

The epic walk was described in three of the greatest travel books ever written in English (each, as they were published up to five decades later, a truly prodigious act of recall), marking the beginning of Paddy’s remarkable career as traveller, linguist, Hellenophile, polymath, autodidact, author, war hero and all-round national treasure. But when he set out for the Hook of Holland, just before Christmas on 8 December 1933, nobody would have believed that, one day, like his father, he too would become a Knight of the Realm – still less that his fame would completely eclipse that of his worthy forebear.

However, the eclipse is not quite total. The Society, at least, remembers Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, through the gift of a substantial bequest that supports the Fermor Fund and the Fermor Meeting. But who was he, and what did he do?

Lewis Leigh Fermor (his middle name, given in honour of a family friend, was perpetuated through his children – but there is no hyphen) was born in Peckham on 18 September 1880, eldest of six. His father was a bank clerk. Adept at winning scholarships, after an initial 4d/week education at Goodrich Road Board School, Lewis moved to Wilson’s Grammar School, Camberwell, and the Royal School of Mines, studying metallurgy (with a view to a job in the Royal Mint).

Invited by Professor J W Judd (1840-1916, he became Student Assistant in Geology while working for his BSc. Judd also persuaded him to apply for a vacancy in the Geological Survey of India before graduating. He was appointed in 1902 – the year he joined the Society. He subsequently gained his degree by research, in 1909. Imperial later also bestowed upon him its DSc, for work he would perform in India: most notably a monumental tome on manganese ores.

We cannot be certain, but it is likely that his geological work in India led to his first marriage, because Muriel Ӕileen Ambler was the daughter of a quarrying magnate there. Educated by a series of governesses at the family home in Dulwich, she had returned to India, where the family had built a villa a few miles outside Dharhara, at Bassowni. While her brother Artie entered the family business, Ӕileen and her mother began the search for a husband in Calcutta. Ӕileen, spirited and venturesome, a lover of the theatre, was given to effusions and purple ink and liked to ennoble her Anglo-Irish family tree with glamorous royal connections of dubious accuracy.

She and Lewis met in 1907, probably in connection with the Survey’s work – the Survey had done load-bearing tests on the family’s product – and it was she who began the tradition of unofficially hitching the ‘Leigh’ onto the Fermor, even though it was only Lewis’s middle name. They seem an unlikely match, he so austere and ambitious, she so wild; but Lewis was, by all accounts a very elegant figure on the dance floor and his ambitiousness undoubtedly recommended him to his in-laws – and perhaps to Ӕileen, at least initially.

Colonial service staff received furloughs once every six years, so little Paddy was six when he first met his father. Embarrassed at being unable to impress this remote figure, Paddy camouflaged his youthful slowness, according to his biographer Artemis Cooper, by memorising long passages of literature by heart. Thus began his voracious love of books, and the first flexing of his prodigious memory.

Ӕileen never returned to India after World War 1, and (curiously for one so addicted to travel) Paddy never visited his father there. In 1924, Lewis once again came back to England, travelling with his family to Zweisimmen (near Gstaad). Paddy at that time had no school to go back to (having just been sacked again), so when sister Vanessa departed with her mother for England, Paddy stayed on with his father, who was joining a geological conference in Milan.

This was the first time Paddy and Lewis spent any time together, and sadly they were never to be as close again. Two particular memories turn up in Paddy’s writing about this special week. In the train to Lake Como, Lewis proudly demonstrated a knife he had just bought, by peeling an apple without breaking the skin. This he did – then tossing both peel and knife out of the window. Paddy became helpless with laughter. His annoyed father banished him to another carriage, where Paddy then tried to open the window – by pulling the communication cord.

Arriving in the Dolomites Lewis dressed for the field, where he collected specimens both geological and botanical. Paddy remembers cringing with embarrassment when he saw his father in this bizarre attire – his Norfolk jacket and ‘vast semi-circular cap, I think originally destined for Tibetan travel, like a bisected pumpkin of fur, armed with a peak, and with fur-lined ear-flaps that were joined (when not tied under the chin, which was worse still) by a disturbing bow on the summit.’

Worst of all, there was the geological hammer at his belt, bearing an arrow, marking it as government property. Lewis had joked to Paddy that only members of the civil service and convicts carried such hammers. Far from being amused however, and horrified by the thought that people might think his father a convict, nine year-old Paddy tried (under the guise of adjusting it for comfort) to turn the hammer around so that the arrow could not be seen.

This was to be the last time that father and son were to spend any extended time in one another’s company. As Cooper observes, Paddy was to grow up feeling ill at ease with his father, and the suspicion that he was a disappointment to him. On the other side, his mother was contrastingly jealous of him, seeing him as her, rather than Lewis’s, son (though she too, despite her possessiveness, blew hot and cold, turning clingy one minute and distant and uncaring the next).

Lewis had not been pleased to receive his gadabout son’s London tailoring bills (though he helped to settle them). So it is possible that Paddy’s proposed expedition may have seemed to him like a washing of hands. The hope that his son might become a scientist had died years before. Lewis (no doubt in desperation, because mathematics was one of Paddy’s many weak suits) had even suggested his son might consider a career in accountancy, so at a loss was the family to know what to do with him. At least this mad expedition was a goal, and his son’s own idea. His reply to news of his departure included a birthday gift of five pounds. (This was not the only birthday on which Paddy would have occasion to thank a geologist. On turning 21, two years into his trek, he learned that Sir Henry Hubert Hayden, one of Lewis’s predecessors as Director (1910-21) had bestowed a gift of £300 on him.)

Paddy would arrange for letters to be sent to him poste restante at various points along his projected route. Most important were those containing pound notes, but occasionally he found letters from his mother, often whimsical and amusing, and occasionally, more formal missives from Lewis: ‘full of geological advice’.

At the time when her favoured child was departing for Europe, Ӕileen herself was having a hard time. Divorced eight years, and suffering that diminution in her status, news had come through that Lewis was marrying again – to a certain Frances Mary Case. Within a year, Lewis was knighted, and thus her supplanter became ‘Lady Fermor’. Artemis Cooper speculates that this might have been a severe blow to the social-climbing Ӕileen; though in the days when directors of the British Empire’s geological surveys were habitually knighted, she surely realised what she was giving up – though this may not have made it any easier to bear.

Fermor’s main geological interest was (as reflected in the terms of the Fermor bequest) the rocks of the Archaean. Sir Thomas Holland had asked him to report on the manganese ore deposits of India, little expecting that Fermor (renowned for meticulous attention to detail) would take until 1909 to publish, nor that his report would run to nearly 1300 pages. Not only did this work earn Fermor great renown (and his FRS), it also revealed six new manganese minerals.

The experience gained in this work led to his being placed in charge, in 1911, of a systematic survey of the Archaean rocks of the Central Provinces (Madhya Pradesh), much of which he surveyed personally, at four inches to the mile. War interrupted this work, and Fermor finished his part of it in 1926.

His economic work continued – on copper, coal, iron ore, and mica, which led to an avalanche of publications in the Annual Reviews of the Mineral Production of India between 1921 and 1934. He also worked on the Deccan Traps, and even on meteorites (though his ideas about the origin of chondrules were incorrect – he thought they were formerly garnets). Finally, before retiring to Bristol and then Surrey, he began a memoir entitled ‘An attempt at the correlation of the ancient schistose formations of Peninsular India’. Sadly, this herculean project was destined never to advance beyond the opening general discussion (published 1940) and remained incomplete on his death.

His retirement in 1935, a year after being elected FRS, marked the beginning of a closer association with the Geological Society. He had already won its Bigsby Medal (1921), and he now joined Council (in 1943), and served as Vice President from 1945 to 1947.

When Paddy  learned that his father was dying, in 1954, he paid a final visit to him, in his new home near Woking. This at last was a home with the space to display his collection of early English glassware, as well as the fine Persian rugs he had collected. It was the first proper home that Lewis had ever owned – aptly named ‘Gondwana’ – and here he had hoped to finish his Archaean memoir. These hopes were dashed only a few months after moving in, when his final illness struck.

‘We had only met twice during the last six years and corresponded as little’ Paddy wrote. Hollow cheeked, and a sickly colour, ‘his enormous and luminous eyes, talking very slowly and almost inaudibly… The only consoling thing is that he has no idea he is dying. “Such a bore, being all cooped up when all the flowers are out”’. He died on 24 May. “What a strange business Daddy’s funeral was, a sort of nightmare’ Paddy wrote to Vanessa. ‘I am so glad you were there too – I don’t think I could have taken it if there hadn’t been your eye to catch now and then’.

In 1976, having just been declared clear of cancer himself, Paddy finally decided to visit India. After Christmas in Benares he went to Calcutta and found his way ‘rather timidly’ to the offices of the Survey. To his surprise, he found that ‘They seem to worship Daddy’s memory’. Indeed, Dr S V P Iyengar (1921-2012), Deputy Director General and a former pupil of H H Read and Robert Shackleton, described Lewis as ‘the most imaginative, helpful and constructive [figure, who] …contributed more than anyone else, and all his prophecies and conclusions have been proved right’ – a slight exaggeration, considering the chondrule theory, but understandable. As Cooper observes, such was the bitterness about Lewis that Paddy and his sister had absorbed from their mother, it was ‘strange’ for them to ‘discover him both loved and admired’.

The story of the Fermor bequest began in 1961, and in all took nearly 20 years. Lady Fermor wanted to make over a sum to be held in trust, the income being used to pay her a pension during her lifetime; but this was later shown to be impossible because of the Estate Duty that she would have to pay. Then, in October 1969, a letter from her solicitors arrived at Burlington House announcing her wish to make ‘a substantial bequest’. In March 1979, Lady Fermor presented the Society with a cheque for £1000 to establish the Fermor Lecture, held every three years, the first in October/November 1980. She was (eventually) granted Honorary Fellowship, and invited to attend the Fermor Lectures, which she did – enjoying the luxury of a free night in the ‘Fellows’ Bedroom’.

Lady Fermor died in November 1990, leaving the Society the residue of her estate minus some bequests to others. It is not known if the Society blushed about having made her sleep in the cellar when it found out that this residue amounted to £500,000-£600,000. It was, and remains, the Society’s biggest fund.

Related article:

Paddy’s childhood home: The Weedon Bec route near Northampton

Meeting Paddy at the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Crete

sutherlandJeanne Nutt and Iain Sutherland began their careers as professional diplomats in Moscow when Stalin was still alive. Although both had studied the language, literature and history they arrived in Moscow separately. Three decades later they would leave the city together, after three ageing leaders had died in a row and just as things were about to change for ever with Gorbachev’s perestroika.

By then, Jeanne’s career was long over. When she and Iain had married in 1955, she had been obliged, under rules not finally abolished until 1972, to resign. From then on her fate had been to pack and follow her husband wherever his career took him. She continued to take a lively and intelligent interest in the people and the politics of the places where she and her husband lived, and where they witnessed some of the turning points of the Cold War.

In her book From Moscow to Cuba and Beyond, A Diplomatic Memoir of the Cold War, she gave a flavour of the sometimes bizarre life diplomats led in those distant days.

The Sutherlands served in Cuba, Washington, Yugoslavia, Indonesia and Athens, where Iain was ambassador, and this is where they met Paddy. Her book focuses on their three tours of duty in Russia. The highlight of their first stint in Moscow was the death of Stalin in March 1953. That morning their maid arrived in their apartment shattered by grief. She made an inedible breakfast, broke down in tears, and fled. The old woman who guarded the front door was sobbing into her shawl. The following day the ambassador, the splendidly named Sir Alvary Gascoigne, went with his staff to pay their respects to Stalin as he lay in state in Moscow’s Hall of Columns. The ambassador insisted that all should wear top hats, wholly unsuitable headgear when the thermometer stood at -20C, and the diplomats were ushered past the coffin so fast that one of them missed Stalin altogether.

This account is taken from her diary of the events around the 40th Anniversary of the Battle of Crete.

Thursday, 21 May 1981

Lord and Lady Caccia arrived to take part in the Crete activities, this being the 40th anniversary of the battle. The Olympic (airlines) strike threatened to leave us without transport to Chania so we were all – the Australian and New Zealand delegations, Paddy Leigh Fermor and ourselves – given seats in the Minister (Averoff’s) plane which took off from Tatoi about 6. We arrived about 7.30 in Chania and poured into the already crowded Porto Veneziano Hotel. There were obviously too many, even of the British Delegation, to have a quiet taverna dinner altogether so we collected our party and Paddy and Johnny Craxton and had a fish meal at the taverna near the hotel.

The ceremonies of the next few days seemed never-ending as we toiled round with over 100 veterans, three Ministers of Defence and Mitsotakis, Scottish pipers, Australian buglers and Greek military bands. It was tiring, interesting and at times particularly moving, as in Galetas which was in the centre of the battle, and Souda Bay where the Australians broke into singing God Save the Queen as the anthems were played.

Sunday, 24 May 1981

The ceremony of the laying of the plaque dedicated to the members of the resistance in Crete who lost their lives, was delayed yet again and finally unveiled at 7.30 p.m. There were short speeches by Averoff and Iain and by Paddy Leigh Fermor at greater length after much agonising. (The story about the glass of water at the British Council lecture was true, he told me. When the attendant topped it up with more water it became cloudy and revealed to all that he was keeping up his courage with ouzo!)

Monday, 25 May 1981

The party set off from Heraklion for Mount Ida and the village of Anoya to meet Paddy Leigh Fermor’s resistance friends for a lunch in the mountains and to hear stories of how the men folk were shot and the village burned in reprisal for the acts of sabotage perpetrated by the SOE fighters. We collected the mayor and Dilys Powell in the Rolls and took it up the rough road to Psiloriti near the Cave of Zeus. Here the air was fresh and crisp, and together with the veterans of the underground resistance, we sipped raki and ate local cheese outside and then went inside for crisp hot lamb and more local wine; all this accompanied by playing of the lyre (lira) and singing by Paddy and his companions.

The climax was the ‘simple taverna party’ in the evening outside town for the veterans. It was given by Kefaloyannis, the large burly moustachioed Cretan (whom at the lunch I had taken to be a former shepherd and not a hotel owner), in his 600 bed hotel. Twenty or thirty of us were wined and dined, given champagne, serenaded by the hotel singers (more Filaden, Filaden), watched dancing and plate throwing and finally our host’s firing bullets through his hotel windows. Paddy told me the story of Kefaloyannis, who had abducted a young Cretan girl in the 1950s, the daughter of a Venizelos supporter and therefore a declared enemy, as K was a Royalist. When the island was on the brink of civil war over it he came down from the mountains, gave himself up and went to prison. Later they were married, but this did not last and he is now married to the sober black-dressed lady who was sitting on Iain’s right. Sitting opposite me was Paddy’s god-daughter whose father was shot, trying to escape from the village of Anoya, after sheltering Paddy several times during the war.

Home at 2 a.m.

Extracted from Jeanne Sutherland’s diaries and her book, From Moscow to Cuba and Beyond, A Diplomatic Memoir of the Cold War. Published by The Radcliffe Press in 2010 (p 276-277).

It took Joan to make him a gentleman

Joan Eyres MonsellSome of you may remember that Simon Fenwick was the archivist who was first tasked by Paddy’s estate to make an initial pass at cataloguing his personal effects and papers. I have bumped into Simon on a few occasions since Paddy’s death. In conversation he has told me that he is working on a book about Joan Leigh Fermor from her own papers and diaries, and one that will give us a very different perspective on Paddy and their life together. It promises to be somewhat revelatory.

Simon is a speaker at the second Transylvanian Book Festival where he will be in conversation talking about Joan and her life with Paddy. When asked for a little snippet of the sort of thing we might expect he gave me this:

You asked for an insight into their private life. Well, when they met Paddy may have been an officer but it took Joan to make him a gentleman. Paddy was totally undomesticated and remained so. He flooded baths and spilt drinks over sheets. He also smoked 100 a day, habitually set the bed on fire and woke up in clouds of smoke. In one of his letters Evelyn Waugh refers to Paddy and Joan as ‘the Nicotine Maniac and his girl’. Not unnaturally Joan and he had separate bedrooms although hers was invariably covered in cats which he wasn’t keen on. I suppose Paddy was quite a good advert for the fact that smoking doesn’t always kill you.

Further details of Simon’s book will be available here on the blog in the coming months. Information about the Transylvanian Book Festival can be found here.

Accounts of audacious abduction of Nazi General Heinrich Kreipe now in Greek

Coincidence always plays a special role, particularly in times of war. One example is the abduction of German General Heinrich Kreipe in occupied Crete in World War II by Patrick Leigh Fermor, Stanley Moss and their Cretan comrades: Kreipe had not been their initial target. Two chronicles of what is probably the most famous kidnapping of WWII are now available in Greek, the first Fermor’s own “Abducting a General” and the second Moss’s “Ill Met By Moonlight,” telling the tale of the fascinating adventure as experienced by the two protagonists (both by Metaixmio publications and translated by Myrsini Gana).

By Elias Maglinis

First published in Ekathemarini

Who was Fermor’s original target? The despised General Friedrich-Wilhelm Muller, commander of the Nazi forces in Iraklio and responsible for the massacres at Viannos. Yet even the idea of the abduction was a matter of coincidence: Following Italy’s capitulation to the Allies in September 1943, the Italian commanders on Crete, and particularly General Angelico Carta, became aware of the danger they were in. Carta asked for a private meeting with Fermor to discuss the terms of his surrender to the British and, more importantly, his escape from the Greek island.

Indeed, Fermor and Carta came to an agreement and, according to plan, the Italian general was spirited away by boat from a remote part of the island to North Africa, together with Fermor who briefly accompanied him. In Cairo, Fermor came up with the idea that they could orchestrate something similar with Muller – though this time without the occupier’s acquiescence. Fermor thought of the plan after the Allies had made it clear that they had no intention of landing on Crete; he believed the scheme would provide a much-needed boost to the Cretans’ morale and ridicule the Germans to boot.

Fermor presented his plan to his superiors, got the green light (though not without some reservations), formed his team and was promoted to the rank of major. After his return to Crete in early 1944, the scheme was put into action, but a chance occurrence nearly scuppered the entire operation: Muller was being transferred to Hania. Instead of calling the whole thing off, Fermor and Moss simply chose a different target: Muller’s replacement in Iraklio, Kreipe. No one knew much about the German general other than that he had just arrived from the Russian front.

Working with Cretan resistance fighters Manolis Paterakis, Giorgos Tyrakis, Stratis Saviolakis, Michalis Akoumianakis, Ilias Athanasakis, Antonis Zoidakis, Mitsos Tzatzas, Grigorios Chnarakis, Nikolaos Komis, Antonios Papaleonidas and Pavlos Zografistos, Fermor and Moss embarked on their ambitious, audacious plan. As Artemis Cooper writes in her comprehensive biography “Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure,” the two Britons were shocked by what they were about to do, excited and terrified at the same time.

The chronicle of the kidnapping reads like a novel, full of moments of uncertainty and unexpected humor, plenty of drama (such as the death of Kreipe’s driver) but also humanity (how Fermor and Kreipe developed what could almost be described as a friendship in the rugged conditions of Mount Psiloritis).

The abduction was carried out at Knossos on April 26, 1944. The team managed to reach the southern coast of Crete and escape to Egypt on May 14 after a monumental trek filled with danger, deprivation and bold achievements. German retribution was swift and brutal, and many today question the wisdom of the plan. After the war, however, Fermor was informed that when news of Kreipe’s abduction reached the German barracks in Iraklio, many a soldier popped open a beer and celebrated: Kreipe had not been a popular commander.

Ultramarathon on the kidnapping trail

Stanley Moss’s “Ill Met By Moonlight” brought fame to the achievements of the small band of resistance fighters. It became a best-seller in the UK and was made into a film in 1957, with Dirk Bogarde in the role of Fermor. More ethnographic than historical, the book is the romantic narrative of a man who experienced the events firsthand. The publication includes maps of the area and a wealth of photographic material.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “Abducting a General” tells the tale of those events through the eyes of the great British writer. The two friends had agreed that Moss, who kept a journal throughout the course of the operation, would be first to tell the tale, so Fermor didn’t write his book until 1965. It includes war reports Fermor sent from Crete, as well as a recent guide by Chris and Peter White with all the information needed to follow the abduction trail.

This chapter of World War II history remains so popular that the British company ECR Sport Limited this year is organizing an ultramarathon on Crete along the route, dubbed the KreipeRun 2016. On May 20 and 21, 250 runners will cover the same 154 kilometers as Fermor and his band in a maximum time of 30 hours.

The 2016 Transylvanian book festival

IMG_4419Some of you will remember that the first Transylvanian book festival took place in 2013 and was a tremendous success. Typical comments were along the lines of “The Transylvanian Book Festival was not like any other book festival out there, it brimmed with excitement as visitors immersed themselves in the local culture to get a taste of the Transylvanian way of life, in a neatly packed event that transported you to a different world, one that has been suspended in time and that only now comes to light to the rest of the world.”

The organiser, Lucy Abel-Smith, is doing it again with another excellent line up of authors and events. This is a small festival with around 100 people attending each day, but one that permits those attending to mix and mingle with the authors in a way that is not possible at other events. All are tied together in the wonderful Saxon lands of Transylvania, in and around the village of Richis. It is more of a community of discovery than an event. And certainly a great holiday.

The 2016 festival runs from 8-16 September and places remain. The line up is varied and interesting, with excursions planned and many chances to sample the organic local food and excellent wines. The speakers confirmed so far include:

Anouk Markovits, author ‘I am Forbidden’
Alan Ogden, author ‘Winds of Sorrow’
Bronwen Riley, author ‘Transylvania’
Stephen Watts and Claudiu Komartin, poets who translate each other’s work
Bob Gibbons, botanist and author
John Wyse Jackson, author and founder of Zozimus Bookshop, who will speak on Walter Starkie
Dragos Lumpan, speaking on Transhumance
Mike Ormsby, author ‘Never Mind the Balkans, Here’s Romania’
Simon Fenwick, author who will speak on Joan Leigh Fermor
Bernard Wasserstein, author of ‘On The Eve’
Norman Stone, historian and author
Julie Dawson, speaking on the Medias synagogue
Zsuzsa Szebeni, speaking on Banffy’s designs

Find out more and how to book on the Transylvanian Book Festival website and enjoy this short video from 2013.

Jaap Scholten talks about Comrade Baron

Dutch writer Jaap Scholten knows a good story when he hears one. In the early 1990s, when his Hungarian wife’s grandmother began telling him about life before communism, he was entranced. This was the beginning of the road to writing “Comrade Baron: A Journey Through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy,” Scholten’s first work of non-fiction and the first to be published in English, launched May 5th.

“I have enjoyed this book so much – such a great tale, with brilliant original research and source material, and so many stories, tragic, humiliating, painful, yet all engrossing and highly readable” Petroc Trelawny, BBC presenter and journalist.

“This is a classic in the lines of Patrick Leigh-Fermor and it should be on the shelves of anyone interested in Mitteleuropa.” Norman Stone, Professor of Modern History, Oxford.

You can buy Comrade Baron: A Journey Through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy here.

The launch event for the book, hosted by Petroc Trelawney will take place on Wednesday 4 May 2016 at 7pm at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, 10 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7NA. Attendance at the event is free but booking is required on

Comrade Baron: A Journey Through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy by Jaap Scholten

baronI am very excited about this and I know that some you will be too as you have asked about it on many occasions.

Comrade Baron A journey through the vanishing world of the Transylvanian aristocracy, is written by Jaap Scholten and will be published for the first time in English on 5 May 2016. The book was winner of the Libris History Prize 2011 and shortlisted for the Bob den Uyl Prize for best travel book 2011.

Comrade Baron will be launched at an event, hosted by BBC presenter, Petroc Trelawny, at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, London, on 4 th May. A best-seller in The Netherlands with more than 30,000 copies sold, Comrade Baron has been translated into French, Hungarian and Romanian. An extraordinary, passionate and important work, Comrade Baron is “in part, an oral history of a group we know little about, in part the account of a journey through one of the most beautiful and mysterious regions of Europe and in part a record of a Dutchman’s impressions on finding himself in an extraordinary milieu in the company of some exceptional families.”

In the darkness of the early morning of 3 March 1949, practically all of the Transylvanian aristocracy were arrested in their beds and loaded onto trucks. That same day the Romanian Workers’ Party was pleased to announce the successful deportation and dispossession of all large landowners. Communism demanded the destruction of these ultimate class enemies. Taken away with just the clothes they stood up in, what happened to these once mighty families? Their stories, as told first-hand in this fascinating and enlightening book, are ones of hardship and fear but also of determination, solidarity, family tradition, resilience and indomitable spirit…

Jaap Scholten lives in Budapest, which is where, in 2006, he first heard about the nocturnal mass deportation of the Transylvanian nobility. Fascinated by their plight, he determined to track down as many of the older members of the former aristocracy as he could, recording their stories before they were lost forever. His journey took him the length and breadth of Transylvania (a magical land that comes to vivid life through descriptions in the book), to apartment blocks, slums and ruined castles, and brought him face-to-face with a group of rare and fascinating families with an extraordinary tale to tell.

Supported by a selection of black and white photographs and told through poignant and illuminating first-hand conversations, Comrade Baron is their story – from the days that preceded communism to after the communists came to power and through to the modern day.

Grand houses were exchanged for homes in cellars, attics, laundry rooms and sculleries and pleasure-seeking lifestyles for work in quarries, steelworks or domestic service. Interrogation was a daily occurrence and many were sent to hard labour in the Romanian gulags. Yet despite living under terrifying conditions, inflicted upon them firstly by Gheorghiu-Dej and later Ceauşescu, the aristocrats were leading a double life. Secretly gathering at night, they maintained the rituals of an older world – “they carried on kissing hands and using other formal gestures, their conversations were governed by long established rules… They met in cellars to play bridge, rummy and canasta. They read poetry aloud and made music. The older aristocrats taught the children foreign languages and gave them music lessons.” In contrast, as Jaap travels through Romania and observes the behaviour of the new Romanian elite –extravagant behaviour at parties and restaurants, driving their Mercedes and SUV’s – he recognizes what has been lost and consider how best to rebuild a country in a moral vacuum.

Jaap Scholten studied Industrial Design at the Technical University in Delft, Graphic Design at the Willem de Kooning Academy of Arts in Rotterdam (BA), and Social Anthropology at the Central European University in Budapest (MA). He is the award winning author of seven books, novels and short story collections. Comrade Baron is his first non-fiction book. Jaap has lived in Budapest since 2003. His Hungarian wife is of noble descent and distantly related to some of the families in the book.

“I have enjoyed this book so much – such a great tale, with brilliant original research and source material, and so many stories, tragic, humiliating, painful, yet all engrossing and highly readable” Petroc Trelawny, BBC presenter and journalist.

“This is a classic in the lines of Patrick Leigh-Fermor and it should be on the shelves of anyone interested in Mitteleuropa.” Norman Stone, Professor of Modern History, Oxford.

You can buy Comrade Baron: A Journey Through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy here.

The launch event for the book, hosted by Petroc Trelawney will take place on Wednesday 4 May 2016 at 7pm at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, 10 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7NA. Attendance at the event is free but booking is required on