Tag Archives: John Julius Norwich

The gravitational pull of a unique personality

Patrick Leigh Fermor, left, met Heinrich Kreipe, his former captive, at a reunion in Greece in 1972 which included the famous Greek TV show

Patrick Leigh Fermor, left, met Heinrich Kreipe, his former captive, at a reunion in Greece in 1972 which included the famous Greek TV show

We all discovered Paddy by different routes, but if one follows the thread of certain ideas, one can often find it leads to Patrick Leigh Fermor. My own journey started with my interest in Byzantine history; the link with Constantinople and Steven Runciman being my link. It was therefore a great joy to hear from a former colleague with whom I had lost touch some years ago. Chris Wares has discovered Paddy through his interest in the work of Antony Beevor, and after finding this blog he wrote to me explaining his own Paddy journey. He has agreed to me publishing it here. How did you first encounter Paddy? Maybe you can tell us in the comments section.

by Chris Wares

Unlike probably everyone reading this I have yet to actually read any of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books. In fact I’m ashamed to say that a year ago I hadn’t even heard of the man. But over the past twelve months I have found myself being inexorably drawn towards the man and his books. Unknowingly at first and then, after what I can only describe as a sort of literary epiphany, I realised that I was in the gravitational pull of a unique personality, a name that kept turning everywhere I looked. Gradually I came to terms with the realisation that I would be compelled to read his books.

I am sure everyone has their own story on how they became acquainted with PLF but, as I stand on the precipice of opening one of his books for the first time, I thought I would describe how I arrived at this point.

It all began about a year ago when I read Crete: The Battle and the Resistance by Antony Beevor. Beevor is one of my favourite authors and so, while not being especially interested in the war in Crete, I was confident that my investment would be rewarded. Amongst the broad sweep of battle Beevor describes the tale of a British SOE soldier who possessed a larger than life character. A man who captures a German general from under their noses and then marches him across the mountains with half the German army on his tail. It was a scintillating story but the name of the hero didn’t particularly register in my mind.

A few weeks later I read Natural Born Heroes: The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by another of my favourite authors, Christopher McDougall. McDougall’s stories of long distance runners provide great inspiration for those that are needing motivation to get down to the business of training for a marathon. In the book McDougall writes of ancient Greek demigods who had discovered the secrets of endurance running. Switching to the twentieth century, he describes in reverential tones the superhuman endurance of a British soldier called Paddy who possessed the same qualities. It’s the same guy.

OK. So it’s a good tale and worth retelling but surely this was just coincidence. Sure, it’s a great yarn about the Battle of Crete and it also works as a modern day fable about god-like feats of endurance. But this was just one of those things right? The sort of tale anyone writing about Crete includes.

Then several months later I booked a romantic weekend in Brasov, Transylvania, for my wife’s birthday. A rare opportunity for us to get away without the kids and visit somewhere slightly off the beaten track. To get to know the place better I decided to do my homework and read up on Romania. These days, tied down by kids and mortgages, my wanderlust is largely restricted to armchair adventures. Travel books and histories providing an enjoyable way of vicariously travel the world.

I picked up Anthony Eales Blue River, Black Sea, a light and enjoyable read recounting his journey by bicycle and boat from the source of the Danube down to the Black Sea. Eales opens by describing how he decided to emulate the journey some guy called Patrick Leigh Fermor made in the 1930s down the Danube who also happened to kidnap a German general in Crete…. Hang on a minute? Kidnapped a German general in Crete? This can’t be the same bloke can it?

It’s at that point I turn to Google. Who was this guy? A good story can be a matter of circumstance; a combination of events that a person can just be caught up in. But appearing heroic in two separate dramas suggests a character that possesses something special. A man who “drank from a different fountain” as some might say.

I quickly found myself getting up to speed on the basics – SOE, renowned travel writer, author of three books about walking across Europe in the 1930s, the last of which was edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper. This was sounding good. I like Colin Thubron. And Artemis Cooper? That’s a name that rings a bell? Of course! – she co-wrote Paris After the Liberation: 1944 – 1949 with Beevor (which I also just read).

Another Google search and I realise that Beevor and Cooper are married and obviously share an admiration for PLF. And – just to reinforce the impression that everything was in some way joined up and connected to the man – it turns out that Cooper is the daughter of John Julius Norwich whose A History of Venice I read in August. I was beginning to get the feeling that Patrick Leigh Fermor was something special. I was in the orbit of something that deserved further investigation.

My armchair exploration of Romania continued through the Autumn and it soon felt as if all roads led to Patrick Leigh Fermor. The author Nick Thorpe talks about him in The Danube: A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest while travelling along the Danube in the opposite direction to Eales. Nick Hunt follows in his footsteps in Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn. William Blacker quotes him extensively in Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania (which incidentally is one of the loveliest books I have read in a long time) and Dervla Murphy contrasts 1990s Romania with his descriptions of the 1930s in Transylvania and Beyond. Georgina Harding quotes him in In Another Europe: A Journey to Romania. At times it felt as if everyone who had ever visited Romania in the past 40 years had read his books.

With his writing venerated by so many, the signs were clear that I needed to read him for myself. Here was someone who is not only considered one of the best travel writers ever but someone whose books inspired so much else that I read and enjoyed. My curiosity piqued I enthusiastically went on a bookstore spending spree and purchased all three books of the trilogy as well as his biography.

The books have sat patiently on my bedside table for some time now, but the moment of turning that first page is fast approaching. Logically the trilogy should form part of my Romanian literary journey but I have purposely set them aside and held back until the moment is right. The books may be the finalé to my Romanian odyssey but I feel as if they may also be first steps of an entirely new journey.

It’s rare to have such a sense of anticipation ahead of reading a new book. Such a build up runs the risk of the reality failing to live up to the expectation and I am nervous that perhaps I may not find his books as exquisite as I have come to imagine them to be. But on the other hand I am reassured with the knowledge that I am following in the footsteps of many others.

And now to turn that first page and follow path that is well trodden; one which all of those who are reading this will have already travelled….

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Paddy’s World – Transcript of John Julius Norwich’s talk for the PLF Society

Many blog readers and members of the PLF Society were privileged to her John Julius Norwich give a very personal account of his memories of Paddy at the Hellenic Centre in London on 10 November. My account of the evening is here

I am very lucky to be able to present the full transcript of the talk. Didn’t I say we had some good stuff coming up? Enjoy this 🙂

On 22 February 1951 my mother wrote to me: “Just off for my jaunt to Passy sur Eure to spoon with P. Leigh Fermor. Shy. Fluster.” At that time she had only just met Paddy and hardly knew him, and she would have been – as indeed she confessed she was – extremely nervous. But all was well. The next letter read:

Well, the gallivanting was a red letter. It took me a good two hours cross-country by Pontoise and Mantes. Strange little village house in which he lives – the loan of a Lady Smart – was warm and welcoming and I really felt myself back in the pond I was raised in. Fascinating conversation with a male man who delights in one. Paddy was superb. Cultured, funny, telling wonderful sagas, zealous. We had a charming filthy little lunch over the stove of sardines, Pernod and vin ordinaire and afterwards we walked for two hours over low wooded downs in sparkling sun, talking ten to the dozen about people, grievances and enthusiasms

That was the beginning. My parents saw quite a lot of Paddy and Joan – whom my mother thought looked just like Joan of Arc, except that Joan of Arc didn’t wear sun-glasses – in the next year or two. I was at Oxford at the time, and I remember seeing them once or twice during vacations, and being invariably knocked sideways – as everyone was – by the sheer brilliance of Paddy, and the glorious fun of him. Every time he walked into a room it was as if the sun had come out; never have I laughed more uncontrollably round a luncheon or dinner table, and as for his erudition, never have I met anyone who knew so much about everything under the sun, yet wore his learning so lightly. There seemed to be no language he could not speak, or indeed sing songs or recite poetry in: French, German, Italian, Spanish, Greek and Rumanian for a start, but there were probably several others as well.

Then, in the summer of 1955, a wonderful thing happened. By then I had joined the Foreign Service. My first wife Anne and I were by that time living in Belgrade, where I was Third Secretary at the British Embassy. Another letter arrived from my mother. She had been lent a Greek caïque by the ship-owner Stavros Niarchos for a fortnight’s sail through the isles of Greece. Paddy and Joan were coming; could we come too? As far as we were concerned, it was a question of “can a duck swim?” At the end of August we drove down from Belgrade – which in those days had no airport – to Athens, and thence to the Piraeus, where we boarded the Eros.

It was my first time in the Aegean, and Paddy gave it a whole new dimension. It was the first time I had seen him, as it were, on his home ground, and it was wonderful. He lived and breathed his beloved Greece – fluent in its language, encyclopaedic in his knowledge of its history, its customs and its literature. But nobody – and that was the wonder and joy of him and – I know I’ve said this before – nobody has ever carried his learning more lightly. His conversation was consistently dazzling. As we sailed from island to island – and in those days there were virtually no tourists, and I can’t begin to tell you what a difference that made – he talked about Greece, about Greek history, about Greek beliefs and traditions, about Byron and the Greek War of Independence, with those monstrously magnificent Greek heroes – men like Mavromichalis and Kolokotronis whose names roll so satisfactorily across the tongue – and about the Greek Orthodox Church and its quarrels with the west over more of those words, like filioque and ͑ομοούσιον; but his talk roamed far wider than that, taking in the whole eastern Mediterranean and, in particular, Byzantium.

Now in England Byzantium has always had a terrible press. The great nineteenth-century historian W.E.H. Lecky wrote that it constituted, “without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilisation has yet assumed…. There has been no other enduring civilisation, he claimed, “so absolutely destitute of all the forms and elements of greatness”. He went on,

Its vices were the vices of men who had ceased to be brave without learning to be virtuous…. Slaves, and willing slaves, in both their actions and their thoughts, immersed in sensuality and in the most frivolous pleasures, the people only emerged from their listlessness when some theological subtlety, or some chivalry in the chariot races, stimulated them to frantic riots…. The history of the Empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude, of perpetual fratricides.

Strong words indeed – although to modern ears that last sentence makes Byzantine history sound not so much monotonous as distinctly entertaining. But that long campaign of denigration continued well into the twentieth century. It was only in the time of which I’m speaking – the fifties – that the writings of people like Robert Byron, David Talbot Rice and Steven Runciman, together with the new-found ease, speed and relative comfort of travel in the Levant, made the glorious heritage of the Byzantine Empire at last generally accessible. Now, thank heaven, the Empire has come into its own again, and is seen as a worthy successor to the two mighty civilisations which it followed and so beautifully combined, the Greek and the Roman.

The trouble was, for most of us, that we knew so little about it. Those old attitudes died hard. During my five years at Eton, the entire subject was the victim of what seemed to be a conspiracy of silence. I can’t honestly remember Byzantium being once mentioned, far less studied; and so complete was my ignorance that I should have been hard put to define it even in general terms till I went to Oxford. And, for heaven’s sake, why? After all, it was not even the successor, it was that same old Roman Empire of Augustus and Tiberius and Claudius and the rest, which continued to exist in its new capital of Constantinople for another one thousand, one hundred and twenty-three years before it was finally captured by the Ottoman Turks on that fateful day, Tuesday 29 May 1453, after one of the most heroic sieges in all history. It was Paddy and Paddy alone who revealed to me its mystery and its magic, although he also recommended to me, among much else, that I should read an extraordinary book by Robert Byron, The Byzantine Achievement, which that most precocious author wrote when he was twenty-five. I read it with utter fascination, and ended up completely captivated. When I got home I devoured every book I could find on the subject, and the following year Anne and I drove to Istanbul for a week. Twenty years later I was to write a History of Byzantium myself – three volumes of it, which were necessary if I was to cover more than a millennium; but I very much doubt whether, had it not been for that fortnight on the Eros, those three volumes would ever have been written.

One evening, I remember, Paddy was talking about a poor fisherman at Kardamyli – this was long before he went to live there – a friend of his called Strati Mourtzinos, who, he told us, might just possibly have been the last heir to the imperial throne of Byzantium. Suddenly his imagination took over, and he built a magnificent castle in the air. It seemed, by some miracle, that the Turks had restored Constantinople to Greece. Byzantium was reborn and Strati Mourtzinos was formally crowned as its Emperor. Paddy was later to work up the idea further in his first book about Greece, Mani:

Bells clanged; semantra hammered and cannon thundered as the Emperor stepped ashore. Then, with a sudden reek of naphtha, Greek fire roared, saluting in a hundred blood-red parabolas from the warships’ brazen beaks….. In the packed square of Constantine, a Serbian furrier fell from a rooftop. An astrologer from Ctesiphon, a Spanish coppersmith and a money-lender from the Persian Gulf were trampled to death; a Bactrian lancer fainted and, as we proceeded round the Triple Delphic Serpent of the Hippodrome, the voices of the Blues and Greens, for once in concord, lifted a long howl of applause. The imperial horses neighed in their stables, the hunting cheetahs strained yelping at their silver chains. Mechanical gold lions roared in the throne room, gold birds on the jewelled branches of artificial trees set up a tinkling and a twitter. The general hysteria penetrated the public jail: in dark cells, monophysites and bogomils and iconoclasts rattled their fetters across the dungeon bars. High on his Corinthian capital, a capering stylite, immobile for three decades, hammered his calabash with a wooden spoon….

Would you like a bit more? All right: Continue reading

Paddy’s World

None who attended the talk by John Julius Norwich on Tuesday were disappointed, as he gave a wonderfully warm and personal tribute to Paddy. One Greek lady praised John Julius so highly for his talk and his work as a Byzantine historian that she described him as “the loveliest man living”!

By Tom Sawford.

Apart from a few hearing difficulties there was little to indicate that age had slowed John Julius. His voice was strong and his recall of the times he spent with Paddy and Joan was vivid. He quoted a lot from letters between Paddy and his mother, Diana Cooper, to emphasise the range and scale of Paddy’s intellect.

This was no hurriedly put together speech. Reading from prepared notes, it was clear that John Julius had planned the talk in detail and kept to his subject clearly answering the question “what was Paddy’s world?”. It appears that the answer was Europe, in particular, its more easterly reaches, with Greece, and the lost past of Byzantium of course, at its centre. Paddy rarely travelled beyond its boundaries, the same boundaries that I often describe as the widest extent of the Roman Empire. He travelled only once to South America, recalled in his Three Letters from the Andes, and visited North America on a single occasion at the invitation of the Greek diaspora. Apart from his wartime experience he never ventured into the Levant. Paddy’s world was the one that he had walked through in 1934, but one that he mastered by speaking all of the main languages and developing an encyclopaedic knowledge of its history and customs.

John Julius ended on a very personal note, and holding back some tears, he said that he was blessed to have known Paddy and clearly misses him. During questions he described Paddy as the least self-centred of men, rarely talking about himself, happier to entertain people with his stories and singing, and only talking about the Kreipe kidnap when pushed into a corner. We can probably recognise this Paddy; despite extensive writing we know little of his personal thoughts. Apart from his introductory letters to Xan Fielding, John Julius said that Paddy never spoke about his life before his “great trudge”.

Thank you to John Julius Norwich for a wonderful presentation, and to the PLF Society for organising a very successful evening.

PLFS event – Paddy’s World with John Julius Norwich

John Julius Norwich in 2008

A reminder to you all that John Julius Norwich, who is patron of the Patrick Leigh Fermor Society and knew PLF for more than fifty years, will be giving a presentation at the Hellenic Centre on 10 November. This is a unique opportunity to hear from one of Britain’s greatest historians, and one of Paddy’s few remaining close friends.

DATE: Tuesday 10th November 2015 TIME: 7:15pm

LOCATION: Great Hall, Hellenic Centre, 16-18 Paddington St, London W1U 5AS

RSVP info@patrickleighfermorsociety.org

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Upcoming PLF Society events

A couple of dates for your diary from the PLF Society. A daughter and dad act for the autumn.

Patrick Leigh Fermor in Greece – Artemis Cooper

DATE: Tuesday 8th September 2015 TIME: 7:15pm

LOCATION: Great Hall, Hellenic Centre, 16-18 Paddington St, London W1U 5AS

RSVP info@patrickleighfermorsociety.org

Paddy’s World – John Julius Norwich

John Julius Norwich is patron of the Patrick Leigh Fermor Society and knew PLF for more than fifty years.

DATE: Tuesday 10th November 2015 TIME: 7:15pm

LOCATION: Great Hall, Hellenic Centre, 16-18 Paddington St, London W1U 5AS

RSVP info@patrickleighfermorsociety.org

 

 

John Humphrys presents Paddy’s world on BBC Radio 4

John Humphrys on the Today programme

A little while ago I was approached to help provide some background information to help with research for a one-off Radio 4 programme about Paddy and his life in and around Kardamyli which will be presented by John Humphrys.

Kevin Dawson from Whistledown productions has confirmed that all is on schedule and the programme should be transmitted at 11.00 am on Monday 22 June. It will include interviews with Artemis Cooper and her father John Julius Norwich, as well as a contribution from the Benaki which may update us on progress about the house.

John Humphrys has a property in the Kardamyli area and is a fan of Paddy’s work. I believe that this may be his own idea which is great and will go someway to making up the deficit of BBC programming about one of our greatest writers.

Why the lowly shepherd is the one who gets to hear the angels

Remembering honourable lives helps us understand the birth we celebrate on Christmas Day.

by Charles Moore

First published in The Telegraph 24 December 2011.

Tomorrow we celebrate the most important birth in human history, so forgive me for writing about a funeral and a memorial service.

Both occurred in this Christmas season. The memorial service, in St James’s, Piccadilly, was for Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor. Paddy, as all his friends knew him, was a man of unique distinction and unique charm. He won the DSO in the Second World War for his part in the celebrated kidnap (filmed with Dirk Bogarde in Ill Met by Moonlight) of the German General Kreipe in occupied Crete. He became famous as a writer. His best-known books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, describe his slow walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, begun in December 1933 (he spent Christmas that year in Bingen, in newly Nazi Germany) and not completed until January 1, 1935. His prose, at once romantic and scholarly, ornate and exact, could have no successful imitators, but it has tens of thousands of fans.

In his life as well as his writing, Leigh Fermor was, though he would have disliked the phrase, a role model – brave, handsome, witty, multi-lingual, widely and deeply read, a gifted singer, reciter and drinking companion, a traveller in exotic places, a man who gave delight. When he died, aged 96, this newspaper’s obituary described him as “one of the few genuine Renaissance figures produced by Britain in the 20th century”.

The funeral, the week after Paddy’s service, was for Tony Woodall. Tony was a woodman and neighbour of ours in Sussex. Unusually for a rural family in the South East, the Woodalls are Catholics (I am told there was an Irish grandmother in the case). Every Sunday at our Catholic church, Tony would pull a surplice over his open-neck shirt and frayed working trousers and serve, his huge hands carefully placing the chalice and the patten on the altar. He would ring the little altar bells with a shake as strong as that of a dog with a rabbit. At the intercessions, where people are invited to propose further prayers, it was most commonly Tony who did so. He tended to ask us to pray for people who might not be automatically popular, such as Myra Hindley. His compassion was radical, and universal. He never stopped working. He dropped dead outdoors a couple of weeks ago, aged 79.

Tony Woodall was not known beyond his small corner of rural England, but, like Paddy, he commanded people’s love. The church where he served fits only 120 people, but 200 came to the funeral and many had to stand outside. It fell to me to help flank the hearse as it arrived, trying (and failing) to hold up a candle without it blowing out. I had to pick my way to my place through wild-haired countrymen wielding chainsaws. As Tony’s wicker coffin was lifted up and carried into the church, the saws, by way of tribute, roared into synchronised action.

Both men’s services did justice to the person commemorated. In the case of Paddy Leigh Fermor, there were readings in four languages. Robin Lane Fox read Horace’s Ode 1.9. These were the lines which Paddy heard his prisoner General Kreipe reciting to himself as they watched the cold dawn break over Mount Ida in May 1944 (“See how resplendent in deep snow Soracte stands…”): Paddy knew the Latin words and completed the recitation, forming a bond between enemies. William Blacker chanted a Romanian ballad. Then John Julius Norwich and his daughter Artemis Cooper led us in one of Paddy’s specialities – his own translations of English songs into comically unsuitable foreign tongues. “Do ye ken John Peel, with his coat so grey?” became “Conosce Gian’ Peel, con sua giacca tanta griggia?”

The gospel was from Luke 12: “…take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on. The life is more than meat, and the body more than raiment.”

At Tony’s funeral, the gospel was Matthew’s account of the Beatitudes, the list of those who are blest for their meekness or mercy, poverty of spirit or purity of heart. Of them Jesus says: “Ye are the salt of the earth.”

Tony’s son John spoke to us. He remembered the night of the Great Storm of 1987, when he was 10 years old. At two in the morning, Tony came into his bedroom, grasping a chainsaw. “I’m going out,” he told him, “to saw up these trees that are falling and blocking the way. If the roof blows off, come and get me.” A tree fell on his arms that night, but he kept on sawing.

John recalled his father’s goodness, which included caring for his permanently sick wife. “Crikey,” he said, “if only more people were like Dad, I reckon the world would be a hell of a better place. Pardon my language.”

We more than pardoned it, of course. “Thank you for coming,” he said, “You are all honourable men and women.” Whether we were or we weren’t, we felt a renewed confidence that the old-fashioned word had meaning: it was shown in the life of the dead man.

The Romanian ballad recited at Paddy’s memorial service is called the Mioritza. It concerns a shepherd about to be murdered by rivals. He instructs his ewe-lamb, who has the gift of speech, to tell others no word of his death. She must tell them only that “I married tonight a king’s daughter”: “At my wedding, tell/ how a star fell,/ that the sun and the moon were holding our crown,/ how the guests at the feast/were maples and firs”.

At Tony’s funeral, when John had spoken, he moved from the lectern. Just as he was about to rejoin the congregation, he stopped by his father’s coffin. “That evening,” he said, “I stood at the spot where Dad had died. The moon was up, and I saw a firework. But then I realised it wasn’t a firework, because there was no noise. It was a meteorite. I thought: ‘That was Dad.’ ” He went back to his place.

Paddy Leigh Fermor wrote that he loved the Romanian ballad because “its magic lies in its linking together of directness and the tragic sense, its capture of the isolated feeling that surrounds shepherds and the forlorn exaltation that haunts their steep grazings and forests”.

After a life well lived, we can all look back on it with that directness, especially when we attend services such as these. As if from those “steep grazings”, we can see the life laid out, shining plain. We may forget that, for the people who lived it, it often did not seem plain at all. As we sang at Tony’s funeral: “Through many dangers, toils and snares,/ I have already come.” The achievement of something grandly simple is an endlessly complicated process, a lifelong work of trial and error.

Anyway, as I said at the beginning, tomorrow marks a birth, not a death. Another Telegraph obituary, this one of the 7th Earl of Yarborough, related how, at his village carol service, he read the lesson about the shepherds deserting their flocks to see the baby in Bethlehem. “I’d just like to say,” he told the startled congregation, “that if these men had been my shepherds, I’d have sacked them.” One must be glad that the earl was not present 2,000 years ago. The shepherds were the best people to receive the message of the angel. With their linking of “directness and the tragic sense”, they understood what the strange birth would mean.