Tag Archives: Steven Runciman

Remembering Steven Runciman by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Steven Runciman with his parakeet, photographed by Cecil Beaton c.1923.

Paddy remembers Steven Runciman in this 2001 article from The Spectator

by Patrick Leigh Fermor

First published in The Spectator

13 January 2001

It was on 12 September 1934, in Sofia, that Steven and I first met. He was 31 and I was 19, and I was trudging across Europe, heading for Constantinople. Having a drink in the Bulgaria Hotel, 1 found myself talking to my bar-neighbour, who was the dead spit of Holbein’s Erasmus; he turned out to be Thomas Whittimore, the famous Bostonian expert on Byzantium and the saviour of the St Sophia mosaics. He was in Sofia, he said, as part of a general congress of Byzantinists and art-historians. Two fellow delegates soon joined him, Roger Hinks and Steven Runciman, both of them impeccable in panama hats and white suits of the wonderful Athenian raw silk that used to be spun by Gladys Stewart-Richardson; their bi-coloured shoes were spotlessly blancoed and polished; and they both belonged far more aptly to the deck of an Edith Wharton yacht or to the cypress alley of a palazzo in a novel by Henry James than to this hot little Balkan capital. As I had just been scrambling about the Rhodope mountains and sleeping out on the way to Rila monastery, I must have been even filthier than usual. (Later on Steven often teasingly remarked, ‘You were a very grubby boy.’) Their conversation was dazzlingly erudite and comic and we met several times, and when the end of the conference scattered the delegates, they left for Italy: ‘Just off to stay in a Tuscan villa with one of those beautiful Italian gardens. You know, solid mud all winter and in summer, nothing but dust.’

We bumped into each other now and then in London later on, and after the war Steven was appointed British Council Representative in Athens; the novelist, poet and translator of Euripedes, Rex Warner, was in charge of the British Institute and I was rashly created his deputy director. It was a fascinating time to be in Athens. The war was over and the later troubles had not yet really begun. It was the Athens of the songs of Sophia Vembo and the rebirth of bouzottki; the place was full of Greek and English friends, and there were wonderful parties and newly discovered tavernas every single night. When it was thought that i might be more useful outside the capital. I was sent to lecture all over the mainland and the islands. This involved six months in the remotest places I could find. They were of the greatest possible value for literary purposes later on. But I was far from an ideal deputy director, and when this became plain and departure loomed, not an atom of blame attached to Steven. When we next met I had been nearly a year in the Caribbean and Central America. In London we often met in friends’ houses, and our shared devotion to Greece was always uppermost of both our feelings.

Before the war, the captivating books of Robert Byron were, for many people in England, their first introduction to Byzantium. He was soon caught up by Steven’s perhaps more academical approach, and after the ship carrying Robert Byron to Greece during the war was torpedoed and sunk (by the Scharnhorst, off Stornoway), Steven’s writings remained the unchallenged beacon in this particular field. There seemed to be no aspect of the Byzantine empire — its sovereigns, its Church, its saints and heresies, its wars and disasters and recoveries — that was left unexplored; and when his dazzling books on the Crusades began to appear, the skill of the writing, the vast range of his scholarship — even, here and there, the witty asides and brackets — called the name of Gibbon to many minds. To those of us who were brought up on the romance and glamour of the Crusades, there was something stimulating, salutary, and brand-new in the suggestion that these centuries of war and conquest were, in fact, the last of the barbarian onslaughts on the surviving civilisation of the Roman and now Greek empire and the lands of the cultivated Arab caliphate, Everyone rejoiced at the honours which were heaped on him; we still do, and how fitting it is that a street in Mistra now bears his name? When about 20 years ago I got a literary prize. I was very touched that the generous words spoken at such occasions were uttered by Steven, at his request. I felt that all my earlier sins had been forgiven. He came to stay in the Morea several times.

His generosity was extraordinary. The recent restoration of the tower of the Protaton church on Mount Athos was a gesture of the greatest magnificence and his arrival from the sky, followed by the blessings of the glittering dignitaries conducting the dedication service of the tower, and then Steven’s farewell and departure back into the air, belonged to a sweep of monastic wall-painting of the Cretan or Macedonian school, involving flights of archangels and seraphim and fanfares of long trumpets.

He seemed, somehow, in a curious fashion, to be in touch with the supernatural. He studied arcane matters and he loved telling fortunes with a pack of Tarot cards and — half in joke, or only a quarter, perhaps — he hinted at the mastery of magic powers; his catlike smile and the sudden surprised lift of his eyebrows seemed to underline the suggestion. Perhaps it was just a tease.

A month and a half ago, a Cumberland neighbour and an old friend of his and of mine, Pamela Egremont, drove me across the Solway Firth into Scotland to spend the afternoon at his massive tower, with its many thousands of books, at Elshieshiels in the Scottish Lowlands. He was not very mobile physically, but mentally he was as active as he had ever been, and there was much laughter. My grubby apparition of 66 years earlier was joyfully recalled — it always was — and the three of us talked for hours. Upright in his armchair, he was still, as it were, enclouded in Athonite glory. He told us that he was determined, if he was spared for another three years, to celebrate his 100th birthday by a large and cheerful party in Madame Tussaud’s (that famous waxwork gallery of past celebrities can be hired for such occasions, it seems). He gave us a cheerful wave as we left, and, assisted by his mood as we drove south, we played with the idea of Steven’s warlock privilege of summoning shades from the past to ask them to his centenary festival, and we wondered, could this sorcery be switched to the returning of such supernatural visits? Where would these imaginary journeys carry him? Whom would he choose?

As we motored through the Cumbrian dusk, we imagined him helping to plot the circumference of the dome of St Sophia, before a late supper with the Empress Theodora, or — he had a soft spot for crowned heads — advising Princess Anna about the accuracy of the Alexia& in other scenes, he was shaking his head over the wilder tenets of the Bogomils and persuading a team of iconoclasts to drop their hammers; or calming rebellious prelates at the Council of Ephesus. In yet other scenes, he was reasoning with Bohemond at Antioch; or counselling Richard Coeur de Lion about his policy at Acre; or playing chess with Saladin, in his tent; then, a bit later, rallying Bessarion for accepting the filioque clause at the same time as a cardinal’s hat; consoling the eastern Comnenes for the loss of Trebizond; or, under Mount Taygetus, exchanging syllogisms with Gemistos Plethon as they strolled along the future Runciman Street. Later on still, we imagined him hobnobbing with Phanariot hospodars in the snows beyond the Danube … It was hard to stop.

As we know, Fate arrived too soon and all we can now do is to express our gratitude for the life and the work of the astonishing man we are all assembled to mourn, and, still more, to celebrate. What a shame he can’t see us all, gathered in his honour! Perhaps he can.


Herberts & Herbertinas

Steven Runciman at Cambridge in 1925, photographed by Cecil Beaton

Steven Runciman at Cambridge in 1925, photographed by Cecil Beaton

Following up on the book review about Steven Runciman that we published in September, I have found this really enjoyable and in-depth article about Runciman and the new biography. Worth some of your time. It starts brilliantly “I met Steven Runciman several times towards the end of his long life. On one occasion he told me, as he told many people, that as a young man he had danced with a friend of his mother who, in her own youth, had danced with Prince Albert. He seemed slightly disconcerted when I insisted that he dance a few steps with me so that I could say I had danced with a man who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince Consort, but he did it and our little turn round the room made me feel in some psychic way closer to the court of Queen Victoria.”

By Rosemary Hill

First published in the London Review of Books

Of course Paddy gets a small mention

Maurice Cardiff, the army officer who ran the council temporarily before Runciman arrived, recalls him vividly dealing with his improbable staff as they all gamely muddled through. ‘He had two kinds of yesses, one short, even clipped, was a true affirmative; the other, long drawn out with a dip in the middle, signified “no”. The distinction was lost on Paddy, who on the strength of the longest of drawn out “yesses” would set out on a six-week tour of the islands or a trip round the Peloponnese.’ No doubt Runciman was not displeased to have Leigh Fermor, always something of a loose cannon, out of the office for a while.

Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman


Birdman – a portrait of Steven Runciman by Cecil Beaton (1920’s)

A new book which may be of interest to some. Runciman and Paddy worked together at the British Council in Athens after the second world war.

By the time he died, in 2000 at the age of 97, Sir Steven Runciman knew that he was a “‘relict of a past age’”, the “embodiment of a…nearly mythical era.” Minoo Dinshaw’s brilliantly entertaining biography of the great historian of Byzantium restores him to public view and provides a vivid picture of many aspects of 20th-century Europe that now seem almost as remote as the crusades and religious schisms he described in his books.

First published in The Economist, 9 September 2016

Runciman was not aristocratic by birth—his grandfather, a shipping magnate, had established the family fortune—but he was immensely grand and well connected. His parents were the first married couple to sit together in the House of Commons. And his father, who was part of Lord Asquith’s cabinet before the first world war, survived the declining fortunes of the Liberal party to lead the doomed mission to Czechoslovakia in 1938. He could claim in 1991 to have known every 20th-century prime minister except Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who died when he was a toddler, and Bonar Law, “‘whom nobody knew’”. Introduced by his governess to French, Latin and Greek by the age of seven, he won scholarships to Eton—in an era of clever men like George Orwell, Cyril Connolly and Anthony Powell—and to Cambridge, where he lived in the “scornfully beautiful Great Court” of Trinity College. Through his friend Dadie Rylands (they were named the Tea Party Cats “for their velvety urbanity”) he met Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes and other members of the Bloomsbury group.

Despite frequent trips to London to socialise with the “bright young people” (and be photographed with his budgerigar by Cecil Beaton), Runciman won the first-class degree and prize fellowship that were to launch his academic career. Of the Cambridge spies recruited in the 1930s, Guy Burgess was a pupil and friend and Anthony Blunt a “supercilious” colleague. Employing political and diplomatic connections to the full, he travelled in style to Romania, Bulgaria and Asia. He established his reputation with histories of the emperor Romanus Lecapenus, the first Bulgarian empire and Byzantium. When he inherited wealth from his grandfather in 1938, he gave up his university fellowship.

Unfit for military service, Runciman spent the war in the Balkans and the Middle East: in Sofia as press attaché to the British Legation, Jerusalem, Cairo and Istanbul. There he narrowly escaped a bomb blast, spent three years as professor of Byzantine history and art, and became an honorary Dervish. Between 1945 and 1947 he led the British Council in Athens. Osbert Lancaster, a witty cartoonist, and Patrick Leigh Fermor, who would become a glamorous writer, were there. Greece was lurching towards civil war and Runciman gained an abiding love for the country, pleasure from upstaging the British ambassador and the position of Astrologer Royal.

On his return to Britain, Runciman split his time between London and the Hebrides, and wrote the books that were to make his name: the ground-breaking three-volume “History of the Crusades”; and a succession of works on Byzantine history that drew on a wide variety of sources, Muslim and Greek, most notably “The Sicilian Vespers” and “The Fall of Constantinople”. Francis Birrell, a Bloomsbury acquaintance, had greeted Runciman’s first book with the acknowledgment that fewer than “half a dozen people were really competent” to review it (and that he was not one of them). There were no such reservations about later volumes, which were lively, authoritative and well received.

Runciman was not to everyone’s taste. He loved to tease, possessed a “queenly persona”, snubbed people who failed to interest him and “had a tongue like a viper if he wanted to use it”. He was a gossip who adored royalty; he entertained the Queen Mother to lunch at the Athenaeum Club every year; four queens are said to have attended his 80th-birthday party.

Despite being able to compose an alphabet of lovers with every letter except Q (“I shall die Qless”), he was to claim that he had “never been in love”. He retained a wide circle of loyal friends and was a popular laird of the Isle of Eigg, not least because he would invite his musical friends to stay and perform at the village hall. (Yehudi Menuhin was “memorably described” by the ferryman as “a handy man for a ceilidh”). He gave his name and time to numerous public bodies and causes, at home and abroad. A final apotheosis, three months before he died, for his service as Grand Orator to the Patriarch of Constantinople, was a descent by helicopter on the Holy Mountain of Athos.

Mr Dinshaw’s choice of subject for his first book is an inspired one. He interweaves the strands of a long and variegated life with sympathy, elegance and awareness of the wider picture. In recognition of Runciman’s fascination with the supernatural, chapters are headed with quotations from Arthur Waite’s “The Key to the Tarot”. He refers frequently to novelists such as Evelyn Waugh and Olivia Manning, authors of trilogies about the war. And his turn of phrase is as arresting as Runciman’s own—one family friend is “unceremonious, crapulous”. Mr Dinshaw has done Runciman proud. To whom will he turn his attention next?

Buy Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman. Click the link.

Life by the scenic route: Max Hastings reviews ‘Words of Mercury’

First publushed in the Daily Telegraph 12 Oct 2003

Paddy Leigh Fermor has lived one of the great picaresque lives of the 20th century. He left a minor public school under heavy clouds with no money and a penchant for wandering. From 1934, for five years, he sustained a lotus existence in eastern Europe and the Balkans, by charm, genteel begging and Byronic good looks. His parents must have despaired of him during this longest gap year in history.

Words of Mercury by Artemis Cooper

One of Evelyn Waugh’s characters observed in 1939: “It’s going to be a long war. The great thing is to spend it with friends.” Leigh Fermor pursued this policy with notable success. His 18 months as a British agent in Crete made him a legend, not least for the kidnapping of the German General Kreipe, theme of the later film Ill Met By Moonlight.

After the war, Paddy resumed his leisurely course. One can no more imagine him occupying an office desk, queueing for the weekly envelope, than some marvellous beast of the African bush taking up employment as a security guard. He wandered the world until, in 1950, he suddenly produced a small literary masterpiece about the Caribbean, The Traveller’s Tree.

Thereafter, at irregular intervals, he has written travel books and fragments of autobiography. On his visits to England, rural grandees and metropolitan hostesses fight for the privilege of his society. The home he created with his wife Joan on the south shore of the Peloponnese at Kardamyli is a small work of art in its own right, owing much to their pets, or – as he writes here – to four-footed “downholsterers and interior desecrators”. How he loves language and words!

What is charm? In Leigh Fermor’s case it is an infinite curiosity about other people. He treats Bulgarian peasants and English dukes exactly alike. John Betjeman once spoke of Paddy “sitting there listening to you, his eyes sparkling with excitement as he waited to hear what you might say next”. Generosity of spirit is among his notable qualities.

Read more here!