Friday, 22 July 2011

We Shall Not See Their Like

I reread Patrick Leigh Fermor's Between the Woods and the Water while I was in Hungary recently and was struck anew by his mastery of description. Here he is, returning after 20 years to a valley he thinks he has forgotten:

'...forgotten landmarks kept recurring until I would begin to remember a stretch of flag-leaves, an islet with a clump of willows, a spinney, an oak tree struck by lightning or a solitary chapel a minute or two before they actually reappeared; for suddenly, with an obliging loop of the river, there they were, drowned twenty years deep but surfacing one by one in a chain of rescued visions like lost property restored.'

Here, after meeting an isolated group of people who are descendants of the original Ottoman invaders, he reflects on the remnants of Ottoman influence in Europe, the:

'victories long eclipsed, but commemorated here and there by a minaret left in their lost possessions like a spear stuck in the ground.'

Feeling rather bereft when the book came to an end, I borrowed my mother's copy of In Tearing Haste, a collection of letters Leigh Fermor and Deborah Devonshire wrote to each other. These took me into a past world, the England my father was devoted to, where no-one ever grizzled or indulged in self-pity. You did not talk about your troubles; you tried your best instead to entertain.

The tone of the letters is consistently understated and generally very wry. It is understood one has feelings, but one doesn't want to be a bore about them.

Oddly, as one reads further into the book and, realises, despite their best efforts, that the two of them are clearly getting older and wearier, it is the Beckett line, 'I can't go on, I'll go on,' that increasingly comes to mind. It is that kind of determined bravado to soldier through the best and the worst of times that they both display.

After a spell in hospital, for instance, the Duchess doesn't write about her aches and pains, but merely says:

'I've had such a rackety time. I ended up in hosp with 'a turn' viz. not quite a stroke'.

Similarly, Paddy doesn't reveal much about his feelings. He takes old-age apparently uncomplainingly, spending his time in a way that I hope we may have an opportunity to emulate one day:
"Joan and I sit by the fire - plenty of logs from the olive harvest - while I read aloud from Carry On Jeeves"

After his wife's death, his sadness is only allowed to appear in parentheses - no exposing raw nerves for him:

"I must go and dole out some 'Whiskas' and 'Kit-E-Kat' to the still slumbering clowder, all piebald and skewbald in amusing patterns. They miss Joan bitterly (they are not the only ones)."

The closest the Duchess ever gets to solemnity is in her letter about her sister's death and funeral service, which is practically a Betjeman prose poem:

'It is so odd to have lost someone who was always there. The childhood cry of the seventh, straggling to keep up on stubby legs, of WAIT FOR ME, lives with me. She couldn't.

Now for Swinbrook. The much licked pews [the Mitfords passed the time by licking the pews during childhood services in this church], the unbearable memories of the olden days, the Post Office reached by donkey cart, the two-penny bars & acid drops, the village idiot, the blacksmith's shop, Nanny's fabric gloves clutched in the back of the Daimler just before I was sick. Oh well'.

What I am hoping, of course, is that, once the Murdoch toxins have at last been removed from Britain and the orgies of self-revelation they sponsored have been swept away, the whole country will return to its former persona and become once again its heroic, hilarious self.

I should add, having just heard that Lucian Freud has died, that the Duchess of Devonshire described him in a letter to Leigh-Fermor too:

"I had lunch with Lu Freud the other day. What an extraordinary man, he is exactly the same as he was when 25 & now he's 80, bounding upstairs, darting down the street. Painting away like billy-o & a huge exhib going all over the place to mark his 80th birthday. He's got a grand house in Kensington Church St with a garden planted in 0 but bamboo so you think you're in an endless forest."

I have a batty theory that people who die around the same time end up together in the after-life's ante-room. As a result I have a vision of Freud and Leigh-Fermor, who died only recently, happily ensconced as I write this, together with Otto von Hapsburg. I bet they're having fun.


  1. This raises two questions. First, how does one grizzle? My beard, were I allowed to grow it out, would probably count as grizzled, but that grizzling I took to be intransitive. Certain North American bears are grizzly, but I don't think that the modern English made them so.

    Second, how did the Mitfords lick the pews? I can imagine having a furtive lick as one knelt, but thought the longer stretches of Anglican services were taken seated.

  2. 'Stop grizzling', is what we were told as children when we were moaning and half-crying but had not progressed to full-blown wails. Re pew licking, I'm not a Mitford so I can only guess, but a) there's quite a lot of kneeling in an Anglican service (far more than the Pressbuttons, as my Presbyterian husband often points out [muttering, 'Papist nonsense' at odd moments as well]) and b)there's always the pew you're actually sitting on, I imagine. And, over the stretch of a full childhood, even a furtive lick each week would probably result in a fully licked pew by the end, particularly as there were quite a lot of children.