Tag Archives: Nicholas Shakespeare

A sensual Greek goddess

Joan: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor by Simon Fenwick is perhaps the outstanding biography of the Fermors. This review includes the background to Fenwick’s growing interest in Joan as a person, as Paddy’s muse, and not just the wife.

By Nicholas Shakespeare.

First published in The Spectator.

Joan Leigh Fermor died in 2003, aged 91, after falling in her bathroom in the house on a rocky headland of the Peloponnese which she had financed by selling her jewellery. Afterwards, whenever Joan’s husband and companion of nearly six decades reclined in her place on the sofa to read, eight of her 73 cats would gather round him in a recumbent group — but after a few minutes slope off. Paddy (who died in 2011) wrote: ‘They had realised they were being fobbed off with a fake.’

This biography, by the archivist who went to sort out Paddy Leigh Fermor’s papers before they returned to England, makes a charming case for Joan to be considered the proper foundation of Paddy’s existence; his muse and ‘greatest collaborator’, whose wealth and talent as a sounding board underpinned his career as an author. ‘Joan made it possible for Paddy to write.’

She was like one of her cats, all of whom descended from a single Abyssinian ‘which had mated freely with the village toms’: fiercely independent (she and Paddy had a ‘pact of liberty’), alluring, a watchful presence in the shadows. ‘Sensual, somewhat aloof and deeply private,’ writes Simon Fenwick. ‘This is Joan.’

Tall, slender, with her blonde hair cut short: Lawrence Durrell called her the ‘Corn Goddess’. To John Betjeman, who made a late declaration of love, she was ‘Dotty’, with ‘eyes like tennis balls’. To Cyril Connolly, with whom she went to bed during her first marriage — and whose photograph, ‘eaten by tiny insects’, she kept in her bedroom — she was a ‘lovely boy-girl… like a casual, loving, decadent Eton athlete’. To Noel Annan, on the first page of his 450-page history, Our Age, she was a ‘life-enhancer’. Careful never to tread into the foreground, she runs like a silken thread through the memoirs of her generation, a thread which Fenwick skilfully tugs out and spins into a gossamer portrait, reminiscent of Ann Wroe’s biography of Orpheus, composed of glances and glimpses — and fingerprints, like those that Joan left on Cecil Beaton’s bathroom wall at Ashcombe, ‘to the left of the towel rail’.

A semi-professional photographer, with a taste for bombed-out buildings and cemeteries, Joan ‘always hated being photographed’, and left her films to be developed by other hands. The image she had of herself was of a bad-tempered, selfish Aquarian, withdrawn, given to grumbling, and indecisive. In a 1936 pocket diary, one of only three fragments of the paper trail that survives from before the 1940s, she confessed her lifelong dilemma:

A gregarious loner, she steps across Fenwick’s pages as simultaneously self-effacing and attention-seeking — once gaining notoriety for wearing ‘a single extraordinary earring’ consisting of ‘a bunch of 42 small gilt safety pins’. To almost everyone (including the author of this review, who met her in Kardamyli), she exuded, as Michael Wishart remarked of Barbara Skelton, ‘a tantalising quality of needing a tamer, while something about her suggested she was untameable’. A walk-alone feline who fluttered at will into a social butterfly, and a pin-up for other androgynous admirers, like the Oxford don Maurice Bowra, she has, not surprisingly, proved hard to pin down.

She was born Joan Eyres Monsell, into ‘a great deal’ of money. The family wealth came from a rich skinflint, a Leeds wool baron, who, when asked why he travelled third-class on the train, answered: ‘Because there’s no fourth class!’ She claimed to have nothing in common with her family, but her father — an ‘odious’ bully — was a sailor (and later first lord of the Admiralty), and on both sides there were writers, travellers and explorers — like her cousin Gino Watkins, who disappeared in Greenland, his kayak discovered floating upside down ‘and his trousers on an ice floe’.

As well, she had the example of her triumphantly profligate great-uncle Charles Kettlewell, ‘the Wicked Uncle’, who spent two years sailing his 420-foot schooner on a scientific voyage round the Far East, before dying bankrupt aged 49, having got through his entire inheritance (£4.5 million per year in today’s money), leaving only a collection of stuffed birds that ended up in Leeds Museum.

The most remarkable thing about much of Joan’s life was its lack of focus. Her first 20 years were spent in the shadow of her gay brother Graham and his Eton and Oxford friends, such as the penniless aesthete Alan Pryce-Jones, with whom Graham had probably slept. When Joan accepted a marriage proposal from Pryce-Jones, Betjeman wrote to him: ‘There is one thing you must do before you marry— you must explain that you were once inverted. She won’t mind at all.’ But her father did. ‘No, no, Pryce-Jones, come back in a few years when you have something behind you.’

The person Joan came back with, after a wartime marriage to the Express journalist John Rayner (‘we gradually drifted apart,’ she explained), was an equally penniless aesthete: an officer with the Special Operations Executive called Paddy Leigh-Fermor, ‘with few clear prospects’, whose riches largely consisted in his appetite for life — described in his own phrase as ‘that of a sea-lion for the flung bloater’.

They met in Cairo in 1944. Their affair continued until they tied the knot in 1968; in the same year, their home in Kardamyli was completed. Leading separate lives had sustained their enchantment for each other. ‘At this distance you seem about as perfect as a human being can be,’ Paddy wrote from the French monastery where he was writing The Traveller’s Tree, in one of the letters that formed the marrow of A Time to Keep Silence. Whenever they came together, as they longed to do (‘I shall have tiny Fermors every year,’ wrote Joan, desperate for a family), they often found it hard to adapt, and there would ensue, in Paddy’s words, ‘a tremendous mutually vituperative blow up’. This might explain the most evocative entry in Joan’s commonplace book, the single Fuegian word mamihlapintafoi, meaning: ‘Looking-at-each-other-hoping-that-either-will-offer-to-do-something-which-both-parties-desire-but-are-unwilling-to-do.’

When Fenwick opened the calf-bound visitors’ book at Kardamyli he discovered ‘a Who’s Who of 20th-century society’. With only one of Schizo Joan’s diaries to rely on, and no memoir, his affectionate scrap-book of a portrait more closely mimics the ‘personalised disorder’ which he found in Paddy’s desk; one drawer was ‘aptly’ labelled ‘Total Confusion’; another drawer contained stray photographs, broken spectacles and ‘wads of small printed notices saying that he was very busy and unable to answer his correspondents’; at the bottom of a tin trunk were two pennants from General Kreipe’s staff car. ‘Somewhere, amidst all this disarray, was the story of Joan and Paddy and their lives together.’

Bruce Chatwin’s Journey to Mount Athos

I will readily admit to knowing next to nothing about Bruce Chatwin. However, he seems to have a loyal following, has been flatteringly compared with Paddy as a writer, and of course Paddy was a friend and mentor to him. Chatwin’s ashes are scattered around a Byzantine church near to Paddy’s home in the Peloponnese.

This feature from the Telegraph last Sunday is very interesting. It focuses on Chatwin’s journey to find God and the path he was taking towards Orthodoxy  just prior to his death. Apparently he had made arrangements for his baptism on the Holy Mountain of Athos. Paddy would have been a good person to talk to about this but according to Paddy “There was never, not a word talked about God,” during his five month stay.

Paddy is mentioned a couple of times and I recommend this article to you all (note we have a blog link to a Chatwin website – see links).

Nicholas Shakespeare, the acclaimed biographer of Bruce Chatwin, follows the great travel writer on his final mysterious journey – to Mount Athos, a monastery overlooking the Aegean Sea

By Nicholas Shakespeare

First published in The Telegraph 16 Aug 2010

Bruce Chatwin

A strange osmosis takes place when you write the life of another person. After Bruce Chatwin died, his widow Elizabeth gave me the maté gourd that he had taken with him on his travels, together with its silver bombilla – the metal straw through which he sucked his addictive tea, like any Argentine farmhand. At times over the next seven years, I had the sudden deep conviction that I was absorbing the world through his perforated silver straw.

In the course of following Chatwin’s songline, I met his family and friends – some of whom became my friends. In Birmingham, I had tea with the charlady responsible for dusting the contents of his grandmother’s cabinet, including the scrap of giant sloth that had formed the genesis for In Patagonia. “It used to put the creeps up on me, an old bit of blacky, browny bristly stuff as didn’t look very nice at all… I thought it was only monkey fur.” In 1991, I drove with Elizabeth from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego, to the cave on Last Hope Sound from where Chatwin’s cousin had salvaged the original hide – believed by the infant Chatwin to be a piece of brontosaurus.

In Sydney, I poked my nose into Ken’s Karate Club, a “sex on premises” venue designed in imitation of a fantasy Roman baths, with horned satyrs and concrete putti (from a garden supply shop). Near Alice Springs, I camped under the stars with the man on whom Chatwin had modelled Arkady, the protagonist of The Songlines. And so on, through 27 countries.

My biography of Chatwin was published in 1999, 10 years after he died of Aids. But in all the travels I had undertaken, there was one significant journey I overlooked.

In 1985, following his second visit to Australia, where he had picked up a mysterious illness, Chatwin was in Greece, grinding out another draft of The Songlines, when he interrupted his work to make a pilgrimage to Mount Athos. Before leaving, he wrote breezily to the Australian novelist Murray Bail: “Athos is obviously another atavistic wonder.”

Up until that moment Chatwin had not impressed friends as religious. “There was never, not a word talked about God,” says Patrick Leigh Fermor, his host in Greece, reflecting on their conversations over five months. Elizabeth was, and remains, a practising Catholic. In preparation for their wedding, Chatwin had taken religious instruction from a Jesuit in London. “Nearly became a Catholic,” he wrote in his notebook. Then, just before they were married, Elizabeth’s parish priest in New York State gave her a leaflet explaining why she should not marry a non-Catholic. “That put Bruce off forever,” says Elizabeth. Thereafter, his religious faith became subsumed in his nomadic theory: he believed that movement made religion redundant and only when people settled did they need it.

Since his illness, there were signs of a sea change. One entry in his notebooks reads: “The search for nomads is a search for God.” Another: “Religion is a technique for arriving at the moment of death at the right time.” While recuperating with Elizabeth in Nepal, his thoughts had turned to a man’s athos “in the Greek sense of abode or dwelling place – the root of all his behaviour for good or bad, his character, everything that pertained to him.” Continue reading