I am grateful to Marc Woodworth for sending me this feature about Paddy posted in Salmagundi Magazine.
It includes excerpts from three essays:
- Joanna Kavenna on memory and the past in A Time of Gifts
- George Prochnik on Byzantium and style in Mani
- Bina Gogineni on exoticism in The Traveller’s Tree
Plus exclusive online contributions from Nick Delbanco, Nick Delbanco, our very own Nick Hunt (Following Fermor in Romania)
and a Micro-Anthology selected by Michael Ondaatje, Thomas de Waal, Michael Gorra, Andrew Eames and photographs of Kövecses by Andrew Hillard.
Download the pdf here … salmagundi magazine
Surely more forests have been felled in the name of the Mitford girls than any other family circle in history, and the death recently of 94-year-old Deborah, the youngest and longest-lived, prompts a consideration of the sisters’ contribution to the world of letters – as both authors and subjects.
By Mark McGinness.
First published in The National, 2 October 2014.
Between 1904 and 1920, Lord and Lady Redesdale produced a son, Tom, and six daughters – Nancy, the novelist and Francophile; Pam, a horsewoman, farmer and cook; Diana, a fascist beauty; Unity, a besotted Nazi; Jessica (“Decca”), an American communist and writer; and Deborah (“Debo”), the Duchess of Devonshire. They were six variations of the same face and voice with an obsessive dedication to a person or cause. Nancy’s love for Gaston Palewski, Unity’s for Hitler and Diana’s for the English fascist Oswald Mosley, blighted their lives – although none of them would ever admit it. Jessica’s dedication to communism and Deborah’s to her home, Chatsworth House, were just as strong but cast no shadows.
Four of the sisters – Nancy, Diana, Jessica and Deborah – took to print. Memoirs from the last three of them (and more than 40 books among them); novels and historical biographies from Nancy; biographies and reviews from Diana; and exposés from Jessica, the Queen of Muckrakers. Three volumes of Nancy’s letters have been published (one, her correspondence with Evelyn Waugh), 700 pages of letters from Jessica, and Deborah’s 54 years of brilliant badinage with the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, In Tearing Haste. There are also the 843 pages of correspondence between all six sisters, covering 77 years.
These tomes join four previous biographies of Nancy (by Harold Acton, Selina Hastings, Laura Thompson and Lisa Hilton); two of Diana (by Jan Dalley and Anne de Courcy); three of Unity (the most comprehensive – and controversial – by David Pryce-Jones); one of Pamela, the quietest and, according to John Betjeman, “the most rural of them all”; and two of all six sisters: The House of Mitford by Diana’s son, Jonathan Guinness and his daughter Catherine; and Mary Lovell’s quite definitive The Mitford Girls. There was even a musical of the same name in 1981. Deborah’s daughter, Sophia Murphy, also produced The Mitford Family Album. Biographies of Deborah are certain, like her beloved chickens, to be hatched before long.
Why the fascination? The lives of the Mitford sisters have riveted, and repelled, Anglophiles, romantics and readers since the 1930s. Diana Mitford once wrote, “I must admit ‘the Mitfords’ would madden ME if I didn’t chance to be one.” Their hold on the public imagination, through their loves and marriages, their politics and opinions, their friendships and sense of fun, can be attributed to a mixture of aristocratic eccentricity, romance, rebellion, devotion, betrayal, estrangement, tragedy and loss; and through it all, a uniquely irrepressible wit. This absolute self-possession and determination to treat the gravest aspects of life as a lark are what make the Mitfords such an enduring study.
The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters (2008), superbly edited by Diana’s daughter-in-law, Charlotte Mosley, presents the sisters at their vivid best, bouncing off each other, revealing a distinctive, instantly recognisable style that shines through each one’s letters. The lives of the Mitford girls seem as remote today as the Bennett sisters. The latter were fictional and the Mitfords have become so, too.
It is almost impossible for many to separate the family from their fictional equivalents. The books that made them so, and grew into what Jessica dubbed the Mitford Industry, were Nancy’s The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949), which become classics, still in print today, creating cult figures of her already notorious family.
The intensely autobiographical nature of Nancy’s fiction might suggest a lack of creative imagination, but the real-life models she was so brilliantly able to draw on – with some, but not much, embellishment – made it all the more fascinating for appearing to be true. Published in December 1945, The Pursuit of Love, a hilarious, high-spirited and sweepingly romantic tale came at just the right time to a country exhausted and numb after six years of war.
That spirit and the ingredients of love, childhood and the eccentricities of the English aristocracy in the guise of the Radlett family make it still so eminently readable today. Nancy trumped her success with Love in a Cold Climate four years later, again drawing on life with the Radletts, but focusing on their neighbours.
Half a century passed between Nancy’s first novel, Highland Fling (1931), and Debo’s first book. Eldest green-eyed Nancy never recovered from not being an only child and was relentless in her teasing. She called Debo “Nine” – her apparent mental age – and claimed she had to point to the words on a page to read. Debo played on this, claiming never to read; rather like Favre (as they called their father), who apparently only ever read one book, White Fang, which he found so good there was no need to read another.
Debo was certainly a late developer but would write almost as many books as Nancy, and proved herself as gifted, original and funny as her supposedly cleverer sisters. Most of them reflected her life’s work, Chatsworth House, the seat of the Cavendishes for 16 generations since 1549, the 175-room caramel-coloured pile, known as “the Palace on the Peak” in Derbyshire, which in 1959, she and her husband, Andrew, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, occupied (with their son and two daughters) and set about to rescue. Debo was arguably the greatest chatelaine of the 20th century.
In 1980, at the age of 60, she produced Chatsworth: The House (1980); then in 1990, The Estate: A View from Chatsworth. The Treasures of Chatsworth and The Farmyard at Chatsworth were published in 1991 and, in 1999, The Garden at Chatsworth. Two years later a bestselling collection of home thoughts and reviews, Counting My Chickens (2001), appeared. She was a hen breeder and chicken lover for more than 80 years.
The Chatsworth Cookery Book appeared in 2003. Debo’s hairdresser thought she had a nerve as she had not cooked since 1945. But she was better than two of her sisters. Nancy, looking after her father during the war, threw an egg into a pot of water and was appalled when “a sinister sort of octopus grew out of it”. So she threw in two more – the whole week’s ration – and the same thing happened. She then gave up. Jessica was no more adept. Her recipe for roast goose reads: “Take a goose and roast till done.”
In 2005, Round About Chatsworth was published, featuring the 35,000 acres that surround the house – plumb full of houses and architectural curiosities: bridges and byres, mills and a mortuary, turrets, towers and troughs, forests, fountains and follies – brimming with Devonshire knowledge and Mitford dash.
Writing about Chatsworth was the most natural thing in the world for Deborah and so it read. She listed her occupation in Who’s Who as “housewife” and would refer to Chatsworth as “the dump”. As Alan Bennett said in his introduction to the second collection of her journalism, Home to Roost … And Other Peckings (2009), a bestseller like her predecessor, “Deborah Devonshire is not someone to whom one can say ‘joking apart …’: with her it’s of the essence, even at the most serious and saddest of moments.”
And in a long life, she had her tragedies and her trials. She lost three children at birth and like many a duke, her husband had affairs. He was also an alcoholic and a gambler but gave these up so their last two decades were warm and companionable.
“Happiness is very rare and totally overrated,” Deborah would say. “Contentment is completely different and Chatsworth has made me content … I am the most easily pleased of the sisters.”
By December 2005, sisterless and widowed (her last sister, Diana, died in 2003 and the Duke the following year), Debo left Chatsworth to her son, the 12th duke, and his wife, moving nearby to the Old Vicarage at Edensor. She called it the Old Vic and soon made it her own. She continued to contribute to The Spectator as a columnist and reviewer. Her views were sturdily conservative – Crown and countryside, the social order and stiff upper lip, good manners, loyalty and friendship, but always expressed with originality and humour.
Then, at the age of 90 and by then almost blind, she published her memoirs, Wait for Me!, perhaps the most reliable and rational account of life as a Mitford sister, recalling the stumpy-legged infant trying to catch up to her five big sisters. Indifferent to their politics, her love for her sisters was unwavering. Debo had been the Redesdales’ last chance for another son. Mabel the parlourmaid recalled, “I knew it was a girl by the look on his lordship’s face.” Yet, unlike her tearaway sisters she loved life at home with Muv and Favre and became her father’s favourite. Apart from preserving Chatsworth and protecting the legacy of her sisters, the Duchess of Devonshire championed, through her writing and her patronages, traditional values and the importance of country life; proving in the end, to be the grandest and most remarkable of that remarkable brood.
Mark McGinness is a freelance writer and reviewer based in Dubai.
Following on from the successful showing of the film about Paddy, the next Traveller’s Film Club event will be held on Thursday 13 November hosted by the middle‐east scholar and writer, Peter Clark, who will present original footage and two documentaries about the legendary desert explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger and his return to Oman.
It will take place as usual on the lower ground floor of Waterstones Piccadilly from 6.30pm. There is an excellent travel bookshop and café on the same floor. The film screening will commence at 7pm, after which you will have the opportunity to chat over a glass of wine. No charge, no reservations, first come, first served. Further details here.
Our favourite museum, the Benki, is presenting an exhibition dedicated to three creators, whose lives were bonded through common places: Hydra, Kardamyli, Corfu. Three houses-refuges, which became a source of artistic inspiration, and housed a friendship that lasted over 40 years.
Sir Patrick Leigh-Fermor, English travel writer, built his house in Kardamyli of Mani, a house that was later bequeathed to the Benaki Museum. There, he hosted since the 1960’s the painters N. H. Ghika and John Craxton, among other friends, whose works decorated the place.
Earlier, main feature for all three of them was Ghika’s manor in Hydra, “a perfect prose-factory” as it was called by Fermor, who lived there for two years, writing most of his book “Mani”.
John Craxton as well, was attracted by the landscape of Hydra and painted a series of them. His valuable help the days that folowed the fire at Ghika’s house in Hydra, in 1961, is described at their extensive correspondence. In one of these letters Craxton is suggesting to Niko and Barbara Ghika that perhaps it is about time to move on to other places. Indeed, the Corfu house was going to replace the void and become a new place of meeting and creation.
Letters, manuscripts, editions and photos are the main theme of the exhibition, accompanied by drawings by N. H. Ghika and John Craxton. Works of the above painters coming from the Fermor house in Kardamyli form a separate section at the exhibition which runs from 17 October 2014 to 10 January 2015. Further details here.
Would you have been disappointed if you had met Paddy?
By Philip Sidney
First published in The Spectator 14 October 2014
As we become steadily accustomed to life in the Age of Celebrity, it’s become a truth that, as Mark Mason put it in the Speccie last month, ‘meeting your heroes is almost always a bad idea’. Reading the letters page in the London Review of Books, it seems that this advice extends to visiting any place associated with your heroes. Last summer Max Long, an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, arrived at Patrick Leigh Fermor’s old house at Kardamyli in Greece, hoping to pay homage to one of his heroes (see The House is Not Always Empty). His visit, he reports, was unideal:
‘To the hairy, shirtless, sandalled old man who occupied Paddy’s studio as though he owned the place, and who refused entry on a sweaty August morning to a travelling student, despite his pleadings (and tears): you ruined a young man’s pilgrimage.’
It’s hard not to sympathise, particularly given the hospitality with which Fermor was himself received on his travels. But this kind of disenchantment isn’t exclusive to unsceptical youth. Jeremy Clarke laments the speed at which authors’ auras disperse:
‘Nothing lingers. When they’re gone, they’re gone. Even with a commemorative plaque on the wall, one is left only with a sense of vertigo at how easily all vestiges of even the recent past are obliterated and we move on.’
Both Long and Clarke are part of a rich tradition of disappointed pilgrims which began in the late 19th century, the joint result of improved transport networks and the growth of a mass audience for literature. In those days it was possible to be rebuffed by the great men themselves, as were the rather impatient tourists that called on Thomas Hardy in 1903:
‘[…] I have given mortal offence to some by not seeing them in the morning at any hour. I send down a message that they must come after 4 o’ clock, & they seem to go off in dudgeon.’
After any famous writer goes their own long journey, the difficulties of preserving their home for would-be pilgrims become more fraught: whether a literary shrine is tended or neglected, there will always be enthusiasts claiming that their idol has not been treated appropriately. As Simon Goldhill observes in Scott’s Buttocks, Freud’s Couch, Brontë’s Grave, Charlotte Brontë would have been horrified had she seen her stockings on public display at Haworth Parsonage, but in the 21st century they’re a precious link – however creepy – to a great talent now gone.
What options remain, then, for the would-be literary pilgrim? Continue to travel hopefully, sifting the let-downs for a trace of longed-for genius loci? Or stay at home, cherishing places in the imagination? Nick Hunt’s book, Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn, provides a possible answer. His journey across Europe in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor shares the landscapes through which his hero moved (not to mention the physical strains incidental to thousand-mile walks), while also conscious of the changes that have reshaped the continent in the intervening 80 years. However fervently we revere our literary pin-ups, we must remain conscious, and as far as possible accepting, of the things that stand between us and them: be they an accumulation of years, a glass vitrine, or hirsute jobsworths in shorts.
Philip Sidney is a writer and academic, specialising in travel, literature and travel literature
A very rare profile of Paddy by the BBC. Barely anything is available on the BBC about one our greatest Englishmen. Since his death the amount has increased with an obituary and the serialisation of Artemis Cooper’s biography. This review is welcome.
From BBC News Magazine
By Andy Walker
Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation and Soe in Crete is a new account of the kidnap of a German general in WW2 from occupied Crete and sheds light on one of the 20th Century’s most interesting men.
“One man in his time plays many parts,” wrote Shakespeare in As You Like it. If that is any measure, then the late Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor blew it into a cocked hat.
A decorated war hero, brilliant conversationalist, historian, Hollywood scriptwriter, perhaps the finest travel writer of his generation – the list of the achievements of Paddy, he was never called Patrick, goes on and on.
And now, three years after his death at the age of 96, Leigh Fermor’s own account of the audacious wartime exploit, capturing General Heinrich Kreipe, the commander of a division on the island of Crete, evading his pursuers and getting him to Cairo, has been published, further gilding his glittering reputation.
The book, Abducting A General, recounts the incident with typical Fermor erudition and flair.
He recalls how he and his colleague W Stanley “Billy” Moss dressed as German corporals, flagged down the general’s car on an isolated road. Their Cretan comrades helped them overwhelm the driver and, with Fermor wearing the general’s braided cap in the front of the staff car, they negotiated 22 German checkpoints with their quarry out of sight in the back.
Then, he writes: “A mood of riotous jubilation broke out in the car; once more we were all talking, laughing, gesticulating and finally singing at the tops of our voices, and offering each other cigarettes, including the general.”
On the journey to a rendezvous with a British submarine the party traversed the island’s highest point, Mount Ida, where Fermor and the general traded some lines of Latin from Horace.
It was, he explained later, “as if the war had come to an end, because we had drunk of the same fountains. Everything was very different afterwards”.
Fermor was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, while Moss, who penned his own account of the incident, Ill Met By Moonlight, later to be made into a movie starring Dirk Bogarde, was given the Military Cross.
But this was but one achievement by the man once described as “a cross between Indiana Jones, Graham Greene and James Bond”.
At just 18, the wild and wilful son of distant parents, Fermor had been “sacked” from a series of schools before being taken in by the bright and bookish denizens of bohemian London. He started a journey.
“Hopeless, idle, easily distracted, unemployable,” as his biographer and friend Artemis Cooper puts it, Fermor resolved to travel on foot from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul living on just £5 a month – part wandering scholar, part tramp, in order to reboot his life.
His journey, chronicled between 1977 and last year in three books – A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road – is a poetic and romanticised evocation of a Europe as much of the mind as of reality, one which was swept away by WW2 and the upheavals which came in its wake.
Through Holland he wandered, then followed the Rhine through German cities like Cologne, where “salients of carved eagles and lions and swans swung from convoluted iron brackets along a maze of lanes,” and Coblenz, remarking that “the accent had changed and wine cellars had taken the place of beer-halls”.
This was a Germany in the first year of the Nazi regime with people giving the “Heil Hitler!” greeting “as though the place were full of slightly sinister boy scouts”. In the midst of this, though, Fermor’s descriptions are lyrical, cultural, rarely political.
His charm eased his passage. One day he might sleep in a barn, the next in the palace of former Austro-Hungarian nobility, playing polo on bicycles in the grounds.
And later in the journey he fell in love with a Romanian princess, Balasha Cantacuzene, tagged along in a royalist cavalry formation deployed against an abortive Greek revolution in 1935 and visited the monasteries of Mount Athos.
This six-year “ultimate gap-year”, as the writer Benedict Allen has called it, ended with the outbreak of war in 1939, Fermor’s facility with languages (speaking four fluently with a working knowledge of many more), plus a tried and tested self-sufficiency, meant that he was an ideal candidate for special operations.
After the war he stayed on in Greece, worked for the British Council and met his muse, Joan Rayner, who was Wendy to his Peter Pan, as Cooper puts it.
An intellectual counter to the polymath Fermor, she was there when, aged 69, he swam the Hellespont in imitation of his idol Lord Byron. The couple married in 1968.
She was the unseen presence in works like The Traveller’s Tree, an account of a journey through the geography, history and customs of the Caribbean Islands, and two books about Greece, Mani and Roumeli.
He was in his 60s when A Time of Gifts was published, followed 11 years later by Between the Woods and the Water – writing, rewriting and revising so slowly as to drive his publisher Jock Murray to distraction.
“I think life always got in the way,” says Cooper. “He felt so unsure of himself in so many ways. He was willing to sponge off friends or live pretty rough, really, until he could get it right.
“It’s very odd, a kind of real psychological problem.”
But Fermor was not shackled to travel writing. He became an elegant translator, wrote a proto-magical realist novel, The Violins of Saint-Jacques, and even tried his hand at scriptwriting, co-writing The Roots of Heaven, a Hollywood feature directed by John Huston and starring Errol Flynn.
“Everybody else detested Errol Flynn,” recalls the writer and historian John Julius Norwich. “But Paddy thought he was terrific. And he and Paddy had tremendous drinking bouts together. They were on the same wavelength.”
And Fermor became a much sought-after raconteur, famously holding court on his visits to London.
Kidnap in Crete: The True Story of the Abduction of a Nazi General is available for pre-order or purchase. Click on the highlighted text.
Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation and Soe in Crete by Patrick Leigh Fermor is available to purchase. Click on the highlighted text.
This map was hand drawn by Paddy, probably whilst on operations in Crete 1943-44, including a self-portrait. The map is from Paddy’s SOE file. First published on this blog in 2011, I am republishing it as part of a series of unique materials on the blog to tie in with the 70th anniversary year of the kidnap and the recent publication of Paddy’s own account. Click on the pictures to zoom.
The reverse of the map …
The drawing is typical of Paddy’s style. Compare it with this sketch sent to us by John Stathatos, about which John tells us:
This delightful sketch of himself in Cretan dress was penned at the top of a letter to my mother dated 17th November, 1944; as he explains, “I have been lost again in a forest of whiskers for about three weeks, and my old mountain chums are down in the plains now, looking incredibly wild and shaggy”.