Tag Archives: Simon Fenwick

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.’

Waugh and Patrick Leigh Fermor

Evelyn Waugh, c 1940

A little bit more on a post I made in 2016 – It took Joan to make him a gentleman.

Evelyn Waugh is quoted as describing Paddy and Joan Rayner (later his wife) as “the Nicotine Maniac and his girl.” The source for my post was Simon Fenwick. Recently I found something on the Evelyn Waugh Society website that offers us a little more information.

The quote appears in a November 1952 post card from Waugh to Diana Cooper, who as we know was a friend and greatly admired Paddy. The cryptic message seems to relate somehow to Leigh Fermor’s involvement in a 1949 visit to Mentmore Towers where Peter Beatty, possibly a mutual friend from Army days, apparently lived or was staying before his suicide. Waugh’s contemporaneous comment on that event in a letter to Nancy Mitford does not mention Leigh Fermor. Letters, p. 312.

Simon Fenwick’s note to me said:

…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.

In her response to Waugh’s post card, Diana Cooper (also sensitive to Paddy’s smoking habits) referred to the pair as “the chimney and his girl.” see Mr Wu and Mrs Stitch, pp. 148-49.

Joan – a blog review

When Simon Fenwick, a professional archivist, was asked to sort Paddy’s papers at Kardamyli after his death in 2011, one would imagine that it would be the illustrious Paddy who would fire Simon’s imagination to write a book. But, as Simon worked his way through the accumulations of a lifetime, it was Joan, the woman who lived in Paddy’s shadow who started to fascinate and inspired him to write Joan: Beauty, Rebel, Muse: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor.

Although Joan’s money enabled Paddy to write, and she accompanied him on many of his post-war journeys, there is barely a mention of Joan in Paddy’s work. Simon’s painstaking research has resulted in a thoroughly enjoyable biography that gives Joan real shape and depth. Not only has Simon managed to produce a book about a woman who barely left any archive of her own (a diary from 1936 and some letters from John and Penelope Betjeman is about it), he has a very engaging and entertaining style.

Paddy of course features prominently in the latter half of the book, but Simon is careful to retain the focus on his subject. We do, however, learn a lot more detail about Paddy to supplement Artemis Cooper’s 2012 biography Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure. Simon has had the benefit of access to a very wide range of different source information, and dare I say, material that now is much better organised than when Artemis was writing.

Simon Fenwick is very candid about the lifestyles and affairs of Joan, Paddy and their assorted friends. It was Joan who was friends first with Cyril Connelly, Maurice Bowra, John Betjeman, Patrick Kinross etc, and introduced Paddy into their world where he found immediate acceptance. There is a degree of honesty about his work which will appeal to those who want to know what the lives of these people were really like. We may think that we know them, but Simon Fenwick truly brings a new perspective and introduces us to new material. It is certainly a good read, and in paperback, an ideal stocking filler for Christmas.

Buy Joan: Beauty, Rebel, Muse: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor

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.