Tag Archives: Adam Sisman

Hanging Out with the Churchills on Aristotle Onassis’s Yacht

A letter excerpted from Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters.

By Patrick Leigh Fermor
Published in The Paris Review
December 8, 2017

To Ann Fleming
c/o Niko Ghika
Hydra

18 September 1954

Darling Annie,

Very many apologies indeed from both of us (1) for neither having answered your lovely long letter, full of exactly the sort of thing one wants to hear—it was a masterpiece, and by far the best of any ex-Hydriot so far; and (2) for being such laggards in saying ‘thank you’ for The Dynasts. It really was kind of you to remember it. Joan is now in the thick of the first vol.—the second, which is reprinting, will follow soon, your bookseller says. It arrived just as we were about to run out of books. That green detective one, The Gilded Fly, which vanished so mysteriously, miraculously materialized on the hall table yesterday!

You were missed a great deal by everyone, including the servants, who still talk affectionately of Kyria Anna. Soon after you went, I got a letter from Kisty Hesketh, introducing her brother called Rory McEwen and a pal called Mr Vyner. You probably know the former, v. good looking, and a champion guitar player it seems, and probably very nice. They both seemed wet beyond words to us, without a spark of life or curiosity, and such a total lack of conversation that each subject died after a minute’s existence. We had sixty subjects killed under us in an hour, till at last even Maurice and I were reduced to silence. Joan did her best, but most understandably subsided into a bored scowl after the first few hours.

We heaved a sigh when they vanished after two days that had seemed like a fortnight … Your fortnight, I must say, passed with the speed of a weekend. Joan saw Maurice off in Athens, another sad wrench.

Diana, JJ and Anne finally turned up on the 2nd September. The last two left four days ago and D. is still here. They were not nearly such a handful as we feared, in fact very nice and easy and resourceful, Anne painting away industriously, or wandering off independently with JJ, who gave us lots of splendid guitar playing—always stopping in time & not boring at all. I think they enjoyed it very much. Diana, who is in your old room, seems as happy as she is anywhere now, and is very easy and unfussy, enjoying everything, loos, odd food, garlic, ouzo, retsina, etc., mooching about in the port, darting off to Athens, once to see Susan Mary Patten off a caïque (but she wasn’t there), once to see the Norwiches off, returning both times laden with Embassy whisky and so on, which was gratefully lapped up. We had a very entertaining old Greek friend for last weekend, Tanty Rodocanachi, which was a great success, lots of funny stories and old world gallantry … But Diana’s presence proved a magnet for other yachts, first of all Arturo Lopez in a very sodomitical-looking craft, done up inside like the Brighton Pavilion, a mandarin’s opium den and the alcove of Madame de Pompadour. Chips was on board, le Baron Redé, a horrible French count called Castéja [Lopez-Willshaw’s son-in-law] and a few other people who looked unmitigated hell, but I didn’t quite manage to take them in during our two hours on board. We all felt a bit bumpkin-ish as we clutched our weighty cut-glass whisky goblets and perched on the edge of satin sofas. We were put down at the little restaurant down the hill, to the wonder of the assembled crowds; and the Balkan dark swallowed us up. They were off for the Cyclades and Beirut.

But this was nothing compared to five days ago, when a giant steam yacht (with an aeroplane poised for flight on the stern) belonging to Onassis came throbbing alongside. It was followed by an immense three-masted wonder ship with silk sails, miles of corridor, dozens of Impressionist paintings, baths to every cabin and regiments of stewards, belonging to his brother-in-law, Niarchos. They have made 400 million quid between the two of them, and own, after England, USA and Sweden, the largest merchant fleet in the world, all under Panamanian flags; and all, it seems, acquired in fifteen years. We only saw Niarchos, who is young, rather good looking, very drunk and tousled, not bad really. On board were Lilia Ralli, several blondes, a few of the zombie-men that always surround the immensely rich, Pam Churchill & Winston Jr. Sailing beside it was another three-masted yacht, gigantic by ordinary standards, but by comparison the sort of thing one sees inside bottles in seaside pubs. This was also Niarchos’s, a sort of annexe for overflow, soi-disant, lent to Lord Warwick, though he is plainly some kind of stooge. He looked like a Neapolitan hairdresser run to fat. We did a certain amount of drinking and social chat on the big one (spurning Lord Warwick’s cockleshell) and wandered through labyrinthine corridors gaping at the fittings. I gathered from Pam C. next morning—the focus of all eyes on the quay in pink shorts, gilt sandals and a-clank with gems—that it’s pretty good hell aboard: no sort of connecting link between all the guests, disjointed conversation, heavy banter, sumptuous but straggling meals at all hours, nobody knowing what is a test. Diana, Tanty, and the Norwiches got a lift in this to Athens (D. returning next day), and Joan and I trudged up to fried salt cod and lentils and garlic. We learnt on Diana’s return that the massed blast of our five breaths nearly blew the whole party overboard. There is something colossally depressing about contact with the very rich. What I want to know is: why the hell don’t they have more fun with their money?

Modiano’s Cyprus article was the best I have seen so far. After you left Athens, I accompanied the whole of the demonstration: oaths in front of the Unknown Warrior’s tomb, the burning of the Cyprus sedition proclamation, also of bundles of Union Jacks, cries of ‘Down with the English! Down with the Barbarians!’, then, from the steps of the University, an awful incendiary speech from the Rector that overstated the case so much (he ended with an undying curse and anathema to the English!) that nearly all the sensible Greeks feel ashamed. What a bore it is, and so foolishly unnecessary. Niko G[hika] comes back next week, but may not be able to stay on, as he is a lecturer in Athens. Joan returns sooner than me, so I’m going to keep my teeth into Hydra till the last possible moment. In spite of all the goings on, I’ve managed to keep on scribbling. I hate the idea of another uprooting and would like to stay till winter starts. Thanks again, dearest Annie, for The Dynasts, and do please write another London newsletter! Lots of love from Joan and Diana, also to Ian, and from me. All wish you were here.

Love
Paddy

Excerpted from Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters, selected and edited by Adam Sisman © 1940–2010 by the Estate of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Courtesy The New York Review Books.

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Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters

This review of Adam Sisman’s Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters, the US version of Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor (New York Review of Books) was published on Barnes and Noble, and worth reading if only for the opening quotation.

In November 1996, a young writer named William Blacker, planning to travel to the wilds of northern Romania, wrote to Patrick Leigh Fermor for advice. Fermor, then in his seventies, replied:

Dear William — if I may make so bold —
I can’t think of anything more exciting than your imminent prospect — and well done starting in winter. (a) You have the whole world to yourself, and (b) inhabitants never take summer visitors seriously. Winter is a sort of Rite of Passage. Do take down any songs or sayings, above all descantice — spells, incantations, invocations, etc. I bet Maramures is full of them. Also, as much wolf and bear lore as possible — and remember, never drink rainwater that has collected in a bear’s footprint, however thirsty.

This jaunty note, now published in Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters, edited by Adam Sisman, conveys so much of the “old boy,” as he himself might have put it: the generosity and enthusiasm, the arcane knowledge and irresistible wit. Fermor had by then been traveling and writing for almost six decades, and the letters gathered here span seventy peripatetic years, from 1940 to 2010. By turns gossipy, lyrical, profound, and dazzling, they carry Fermor’s voice so clearly that we seem to hear him speaking as we read. Not that we hear everything. Fermor admits to pruning his correspondence (“lots of things not for strangers’ eyes”), and Sisman has excised the more quotidian passages. Yet no letter seems incomplete. And thanks to Sisman’s astute selection and fine introductory notes, the volume’s gradually darkening mood seems to mirror Fermor’s ultimate journey from youthful exuberance to aged decline.

He began traveling in 1933 at the age of eighteen by walking from England to Constantinople, a trek that took a year and produced a trilogy — A Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and the Water (1986), and The Broken Road (2003) — that remains one of the treasures of English travel writing. Never mind that The Broken Road was unfinished at Fermor’s death in 2011 (procrastination was a lifelong affliction) or that he inserted episodes from the 1980s into his odyssey of the 1930s (an “extremely immoral procedure” charmingly justified in a letter to a Hungarian scholar). Fermor’s true sleight-of-hand is his seemingly effortless ability to conjure up a place or person with astonishing clarity — a hillside at dawn, a garrulous stranger — while simultaneously revealing a world that is centuries deep. The breadth of his scholarship, so airily present and matched only by his curiosity, compresses time. In a 1948 letter to his then-lover Joan Rayner, for example, Fermor writes, “I knew a very old woman in Athens whose father had been alive when a Stylite was living on top of one of the pillars of Olympian Zeus.” (The Stylites being ancient monastic penitents.)

No penitent himself, Fermor occasionally retreated to monasteries to write, and that otherworld is as powerfully evoked in these letters as it was in his short book A Time to Keep Silence, published in 1957. Two masterworks followed: Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966), which chronicle Fermor’s travels in Greece, the country where he spent most of his life. And where he fought. Operating undercover alongside Cretan partisans during the Nazi occupation, Fermor’s most famous mission was the abduction of General Heinrich Kriepe, with whom Fermor was reunited in 1972 for a Greek TV documentary. “Tremendous singing, and lyre-playing and Cretan dancing,” after the filming, Fermor writes to a comrade’s widow, “all ending up pretty tight, and many tears being shed for old times’ sake…After all, the old boy hadn’t managed to do any harm in Crete before his capture and I always liked him… ”

He likes most people. In Northern Ireland in 1972 he spends a pleasant hour or so drinking with an Irish Republican Army spokesman (“Three dull thuds, two streets away, of exploding bombs”) before returning to “Blighty” for a weekend at Chatsworth, seat of Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. One of the Mitford sisters, “Debo,” was a lifelong friend, (their correspondence was published in 2008), and of her homey palace Fermor writes, “it’s wonderful what forgotten knitting and a couple of seed catalogues will do for a bust of Diocletian.” His world in such moments is English to the core, with a hint of P. G. Wodehouse: all weekend larks and biffing off to the country. Indeed, many of Fermor’s acquaintances could be characters out of Thank You, Jeeves: Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, fourteenth Baron Berners; Lady Dorothy “Coote” Lygon, daughter of the seventh Earl Beauchamp, and so on. There’s Miss Crowe, a relic of British rule on Corfu, pacing her terrace, ” . . . stick in hand, only slightly stooping, and followed by a rippling wake of old and half-blind dogs.” There’s Lady Wentworth, granddaughter of Lord Byron, sporting “a gigantic and very disheveled auburn wig that looked as though made of strands from her stallions’ tails” and occupying a manor “as untidy as a barn — trunks trussed, and excitingly labelled ‘LD BYRON’S papers . . . in chalk.”

But the writer and the man revealed in these letters is no Bertie Wooster-ish dilettante. Though “never less than two years overdue” finishing a book, Fermor, we learn here, took his craft, if not himself, seriously; in one letter he identifies his literary flaws and in another speculates how screenwriting for a 1958 John Huston film might instill “lessons about concision and dexterity.” And while expert at “high-class cadging” of Italian villas and the like, he detests anything “smart” — the “revolting” Côte d’Azur, for example — and observes, after an evening on an Onassis yacht, that there is “something colossally depressing about contact with the very rich.” Fermor cannot be corralled, either by class or by place. Throughout his life, and throughout these letters, he strays. Into love affairs and across borders, enraptured by the ancient and the natural world — even when mortality looms. “We walked in the fields yesterday where we slid on the hayrick twenty years ago,” he writes in 1975 to Alexander Fielding, a constant friend since wartime. Joan Rayner, his wife and strength, drops dead in 2003 — “no pain, thank heavens, except for survivors” — and Fermor will live eight more years. In a 1948 letter to Joan, he had described waking from sleep “as easily and inevitably as the faint touch of the keel on the sand of the opposite bank.” Across the final page, that image seems to shimmer.

The Chiddingstone Castle literary festival

The festival season is rapidly approaching, and as a Kentish Man, I was interested in this one. Held in a very beautiful setting, the second Chiddingstone Castle literary festival runs over the first May bank holiday weekend, from Sunday, April 30 to Tuesday, May 2, with 22 authors appearing over three days.

The line-up is headed by Terry Waite. Joining him will be Artemis Cooper and Adam Sisman, discussing the life and writings of travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Radio 4 presenter of Saturday Live, Rev Richard Coles will give a reflective account of life as a parish priest and broadcaster.

Further details can be found here.