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16. A Time of Gifts.  Patrick Leigh Fermor

                                      Patrick Leigh Fermor 1915 – 2011

Reading In Tearing Haste, published in 2011, a collection of letters exchanged between Patrick Leigh Fermor and Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, led to an exploration of the work of Leigh Fermor, one of the most admired travel writers of our time.

Left behind in England while his family returned to India, Fermor was allowed to run free on a Northamptonshire farm until he was four. Subsequent efforts at schooling ran into difficulties which included expulsion from King’s School, Canterbury. His education continued in various crammers. However he had an extraordinary mother , ‘an enormous reader’, who encouraged his adventurous spirit. In 1933 at the age of eighteen Fermor got the sudden urge to walk to Constantinople. He took with him a knapsack, a sleeping bag, a volume of Horace, the Oxford Book of English Verse and writing and drawing materials.

His family provided him with a basic amount of cash at various Cook’s bureaux and postes restantes across Europe. Fermor was also furnished with letters of introduction which gained him entry to many a schloss and townhouse on his route . More often than not he slept in barns and under the stars. His description of his encounters with peasantry and patricians alike is unforgettable. This was his continuing education. Fermor had all that was necessary to profit from his experiences, an inquiring mind, a classical education, a high level of cultural literacy, enthusiasm and immpecable good manners. Good looks, I imagine, did not go astray either. Written many years later when the author was in his sixties, youthful enthusiasm is still palpable in his prose;

‘I felt as Ulysses must have felt, gazing astern while some island of happy sojourn dropped below the horizon.’

It is tempting to make unflattering comparisons with today’s youth.  He recited poetry to himself along the roads of  Europe. He had memorised a great deal of Chaucer in order to impress his schoolfellows. This would scarcely wash nowadays in our anti-intellectual culture. His stock of poems included French, German and Latin poetry. Newman maintained that the educated man could turn his hand to anything. Fermor’s subsequent career bears this out and gives the lie to the  argument for utilitarian  education. Having joined the Irish Guards during the war he was assigned to Special Operations in Crete and mainland Greece due to his fluency in Greek. His war was filled with deeds of derring- do. One digression recounts a moment during the war when Fermor’s outfit had captured a German general, holding him hostage as they fought their way across Crete;

‘…..a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mount Ida. We had been toiling over it, through snow and then rain , for the last two days. Looking across the valley at this flashing mountain- crest, the general murmured to himself:

Vides ut alta stet nive candidum


It was one of the ones I knew! I continued from where he had broken off:

nec jam sustineant onus

Silvae laborantes, geluque

Flumina constiterint acuto,

And so on, through the remaining five stanzas to the end. The general’s blue eyes had swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine – and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.’

This adventure was subsequently made into a film, Ill Met by Moonlight starring Dirk Bogarde in the role of Leigh Fermor. Much decorated by both the British and Greek governments, Fermor had homes in Greece and England. He died in 2011, aged 96. This book and the second volume of his travels Between the Woods and the Water leave a marvellous account of  Europe before the war and before the descent of the Iron Curtain. Hindsight adds poignancy to the sense of a world disappeared . Fermor left unpublished manuscripts behind which were intended to form the core of a third volume recounting the last leg of the jouney to Constantinople. John Murray has promised that this will be published in 2013. I can’t wait.

17. The Leopard,  Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

 I am not by any means the only blogger to include The Leopard in a list of favourite novels. The following link gives a thorough account of the book – http://accidentalblogger.typepad.com/accidental_blogger/2010/10/the-leopard-_-giuseppe-tomasi-di-lampedusa.html.

Fintan O’Toole also wrote an article on The Leopard in the wake of the last general election, ‘The Celtic leopard: welcome to the world of transformismo, (The Irish Times, Feb 26th 2011),. ‘If you haven’t read it’, he says, ‘and you’re wondering how so much ferment in Ireland can have produced, in yesterday’s election, such a minor shift in the ruling class, The Leopard is for you’. He goes on to speak of Lampedusa’s ‘lightness of touch’. ‘There is no rancour, no snobbery, no nostalgia, no hauteur, no mourning for the grand aristocracy. There is, rather, an Olympian detachment that makes the book at once ruthless in its laying bare of motives and manoeuvres – of the aristocracy, the church and the bourgeoisie – and deliciously comic.’

O’Toole reminds us that Nick Clegg included it on his Desert Island Discs selection. Chris Addison listed it as one of his favourites in the recent BBC series My Life in Books. O’Toole  says ‘it has good claims to be the best political novel ever written’. It is ‘not a historical novel, but a novel about history’.

Most of what I have to say is superfluous to the above. I will just add that this book fills one with a desire to visit Sicily and to embark on a study of Italian. Translations always make one suspicious but I suspect this is one of the better ones (Vintage 2007, Archibald Colquhoun trans.)

The author describes a disappeared world. Lampedusa is a perceptive student of people and their motivations. We see everything through the eyes of the Prince, a pragmatist if ever thee was one. We meet Tancredi, his youthful alter ego, the Charlie Haughey type mayor, vacuous young women and a cunning cleric. The Sicilian landscape and the noble houses which are the Prince’s patrimony are beautifully evoked. The most wondrous description  is where Tancredi takes his fiancée on a mystery tour of the rambling mansion, a tour which was a metaphor of their future lives and that of their country;

‘The two lovers embarked for Cythera on a ship made of dark and sunny rooms, of apartments sumptuous or squalid, empty or crammed with remains of  heterogeneous furniture’.

The book was famously adapted for a film starring Burt Lancaster as the Prince.


18. Seventy Years Young, Memories of Elizabeth, Countess of Fingall.

                                     Elizabeth, Countess of Fingall 1865 – 1944

Published in 1937, Lady Fingall’s ghostwritten memoir continues in print to this day. Born Elizabeth Burke to an old Galway family in 1865, Daisy, as she was known, became the  wife of  Arthur James Francis Plunkett, 11th Earl of Fingall. He was the head of the Catholic branch of the family whose seat was at Killeen Castle, Co. Meath. They were kinsfolk of the nearby Dunsany branch who adhered to the established church.

Fingall was smitten when he caught sight of Daisy in Kildare St. while she was in Dublin for the season. The world of the Viceregal court centered on Dublin Castle has been well documented in George Moore’s A Drama in Muslin. Daisy’s account is lively and immediate. She describes having her hair arranged in Buswell’s Hotel prior to her presentation at the castle levée. ‘Miss, you’ll mow down the military’, declared one maid. Indeed she was pretty and became the centre of attention at gatherings in Dublin and London. She sparkled on every occasion whether as guest or hostess. There was no-one she did not know.  George Wyndham, Chief Secretary for Ireland was a particular favourite. While deeply attached to the gothic pile at Killeen, she found the hunting shooting culture tedious. Her husband, Lord Fingall was interested in little more than going out with the Ward Union Staghounds.

Her very best friend was Sir Horace Plunkett. Were they more than friends? He looms far larger in the narrative than her somnolent husband Fingall.  It is difficult to see why she considered his schemes for agriculture a failure since history has not been unkind to him.

There is something of a lull in the pace of the narrative in the period before World War I but the earlier section and the last chapters describing 1916 and its aftermath were riveting. Lord Fingall died in 1929 and Daisy lived on until 1944 having witnessed changes in Ireland she could never have imagined in her youth. She was much more than a social butterfly. She was capable of great insights into what was happening around her. There is a comment towards the end on political change in Ireland  which is striking in its profundity;

‘People whose families had lived in the country for three or four hundred years, realised suddenly that they were still strangers and that the mystery of it was not to be revealed to them – the secret lying as deep as the hidden valleys in the Irish hills, the barrier they had tried to break down standing as strong and immovable as those hills, brooding over an age – long wrong.’

That just about says it all.

19. The Strings are False, An Unfinished Autobiography, Louis Mac Neice.

                                             Louis MacNeice 1907 – 1963

I enjoyed this book for its wealth of unexpected personal and historical detail. MacNeice was brought up in Carrickfergus, the son of the local rector who was later Bishop of Cashel, Waterford and Lismore. The paternal grandfather had been chased out of Connemara in the nineteenth century for his proselytizing activities amongst the natives. Mac Neice lost his mother at the age of seven. He admits to having been a bully at his English prep school, Sherbourne. He tells us he beat the hell out of any younger boy he did not like the look of. The modern reader will find this extraordinarily frank in an age where everyone claims to be the victim rather than the bully.

His father and stepmother decided when and where Louis should travel after leaving Marlborough. The rector believed young people under twenty should not go to the continent. Mac Neice got around however. Picture it – he was in Barcelona just before the fall. He travelled with his chum, the since discredited Anthony Blunt. What a surprise to find him with Jack B. Yeats and Ernie O’Malley in Dublin. An even bigger surprise was to discover that he attended the famous ‘thunder and lightning’ All-Ireland Hurling Final in Croke Park in 1939. Amazingly he thought Cork hurled Kerry who were wearing ‘orange and black’. His belief that Kerrymen can hurl is strangely touching in its naivety and exposes him as an outsider despite his best efforts to promote his Irish roots.

In that strange way in which one thing leads to another I found an interesting image in the course of some research into Irish sculpture. It was a carved head of MacNeice senior on the exterior of the church in Carrickfergus, looking suitably severe.

MacNeice’s brother had Down’s Syndrome. He is shockingly described by the poet as ‘a Mongolian imbecile’. This gave Mac Neice’s fiancée some pause. She later bolted to America leaving MacNeice with their son, ‘my child’ who is never actually named. There was a great deal of evasiveness about personal matters which, I suppose, is not surprising in someone still young who was writing in 1941.

I will now have to tackle the biography of MacNeice by Jon Stallworthy and more of the poems of course.

20. Leaving Ardglass, William King

Every new novel published in Ireland is accompanied by intense media hype. Literary types go into overdrive puffing up each other’s novels.  Every week yet another author has been nominated for yet another prize and there is yet another signing. One gets suspicious. How can one hold up one’s head in the book club or the coffee morning unless one has read the latest by X, Y or Z? It begins to feel like homework. Time and again I succumb to the hype. Time and again I am disappointed.

I did like Belinda McKeon’s Solace. Brooklyn had its moments but I felt the guy with the cravat at the dance would have slithered back to the doctor’s daughter. I like a bit of realism, me. Neil Jordan’s Mistaken, Joseph O’Connor’s  Ghost Light and Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin were amongst the better offerings of recent years. John Mulcahy’s Union was a classy and well researched historical novel. I’m 33 pages into This is How It Ends by Kathleen MacMahon. So far, so good but this was also hyped to death.  The cover is ominously chicklitty looking. We’ll see.

Which brings me to Leaving Ardglass by William King (Lilliput, 2008). On practically every page I found myself saying ‘Yes. That’s it. That’s how it was and how it is.’ I cannot recall much hype around the publication of this novel. But then, the author (b.1945) is a priest in a Dublin parish. Not exactly a fashionable profile for the favourite author of anyone anxious to flaunt cool atheistic credentials.

There is no self-consciousness about this narrative. It is personal, sincere and moving. There are moments of cynicism, great honesty and humour. There is no sense of playing to the gallery here. The narrator, a cleric, comes from a large rural family where most of the siblings have emigrated. The story follows his fortunes and that of his ruthless builder/developer brother who makes a fortune in England. Published before the crash, there is an astounding amount of prescience here. Who needs economists?

King is equally good on the sordid world of London building sites in the sixties and on the ambitious machinations of clerics in Ireland and Rome. Can they silence him for that? This man is speaking out with great bravery. And yes, there is love in it. The most memorably romantic scene takes place in a hall in Maynooth of all places.

The novel is rich in detail on the way we were.

‘ ‘Do you remember when they left?’

‘Barely.’ The scene comes back misty around the edges. I hear hushed voices in the bedroom; a lighted candle in a sconce is moving about in the darkness. My head is being tousled; someone is whispering ‘Come on Con. Leave the child asleep – the train won’t wait.’ There’s a bar of Urney’s chocolate on the pillow when I awake in the morning. They all seemed to leave like that: Mossie soon after M.J., Eily to Leeds to be a nurse, and Eddie to the depot. Of nine children, only one – Gerry – remains in Ardglass. Then parcels stamped with the Stars and Stripes arrive from Chicago: American bobby socks for the girls; showy jackets with ‘The Bears’ on the back for Gerry and me. Very soon they are calling me ‘Yank’ in the playground. Pauline refuses to wear the socks, and gets another thrashing with a sally rod one morning before she goes to school. ‘But Mammy,’ she cries, ‘they’re laughing at me.’

‘Notions of yourself, you have. Is that it? You’ll wear them and be glad to have them. The Cruelty Man, that’s who I’ll send for.’

The Cruelty Man was her most fearsome weapon to scare the living daylights out of us. The Cruelty Man had been called to a neighbour’s cottage and three children had been taken off to a home, and were never seen again. On our way from school, especially in winter, we used to huddle together until we were well clear of the cottage.’

As the decades pass the family get real notions, beyond the imaginings of the angry mother. There are deaths and tragedies and grandchildren in Downside and Blackrock. The narrator finds himself in a very changed ecclesiastical environment, one filled with great pain for many individuals. This is the Ireland and its diaspora we have known. Aspros and Kevin Barry and Tell Laura I Love Her and the Galtymore Club and I’ll Sing a Hymn to Mary and ‘the warm up men’ for the Pope in Galway.

There were precious few awards for this book though there were some good reviews. John Boland in the Irish Independent thought it one of the best books to come out of Ireland in a long time.