Thursday 26 January 2012

In Tearing Haste

I was watching an old episode of Have I Got News For You last night - for those who're not from the UK this is a sort of satirical panel game based on the week's news, the two teams are led by the wonderful Ian Hislop who does such brilliant documentaries and is the editor of Private Eye, and the excellent comedian, Paul Merton. A picture of the poster which has had a resurgence of popularity: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON came up, and it was mentioned that it had been on one wall of Churchill's wartime bunker. Quick as a flash Paul Merton quipped, 'And on the walls of Hitler's bunker was a poster that said, 'You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps''. All of which goes to illustrate nothing other than perhaps the weird things we Brits laugh at (and I'm really *not* trying to turn this into a 'joke of the day' kind of blog...) but it made me think about the book I've just finished, In Tearing Haste - Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor edited by Charlotte Mosley, and how the war had such an impact on both their lives.

It hadn't occurred to me that both these two are of my parents' generation, both almost the exact age of my parents, uncles, aunts, who fought and lived through the war. Unlike most though, Patrick Leigh Fermor was a decorated war hero, having been involved in the kidnapping of a German General on the island of Crete in 1944, after having lived there undercover as a shepherd for 18 months. He was a remarkable man (he died last year) having walked from England to Constantinople during the years of 1933 to 1935 and written two books about it, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, two of the most loved travel books of all time.

He met Deborah Devonshire at one of her husband, Andrew's, family homes, Lismore in Ireland. He was invited to stay and he and Debo consequently became lifelong friends. He was also great friends with two of her five sisters (the famous Mitford sisters), Nancy and Diana, and wrote to them too I gather. It makes you feel a bit sad that the age of letter writing has more or less died out and made way for the age of e.mails. Not quite as romantic.

It's hard to know exactly what to say about this book. It's basically a book of fascinating letters between two very dear friends, some of them brief and hurried - thus the title of the book - and some of them very detailed indeed. Debo describes life at Chatsworth, the doings of mutual friends she's met up with, some of the grand events or dinners she has to attend, the people she met, and so forth. Patrick is living in Greece with his wife, Joan, and describes the idyllic spot on the coast where they built a house. He also does quite a lot of travelling around Europe and for fans of his travel books the letters that go deeply into those trips are absolute gems. His writing is glorious, especially when detailing the mountain climbs he does with small groups, usually including Debo's husband, Andrew... places like the Pyrenees, the mountains of northern Greece, the Balkans.

I was particularly enamoured of a section where Patrick describes life on a film set. He was in the Alps with the filming of the book, Ill Met By Moonlight by W. Stanley Moss, about the group's exploits on Crete during the war. PLF was played by Dirk Bogarde who was nervous about meeting a real life person he was going to portray, but PLF describes the actor as 'Charming - slim, handsome, nice speaking-voice and manner, a super-gent.' But life on a film set did not appeal to Patrick and he bailed out of what he called the 'madhouse' after seven days. I'd have liked a bit more about that to be honest.

Towards the end of the book sadness starts to creep in as Debo and Paddy's family and close friends start to die off or become very ill. Debo in particular finds her friends' and family's serious illnesses distressing and no wonder. Patrick lost his wife, Joan, within a few weeks of the death of Debo's sister, Diana, and the awfullness for both of them is clear. Patrick describes how he is lingering in England after the funeral, dreading going back to the house he shared with Joan in Greece for over 50 years. It's very sad.

At the time the book was written both Debo and Patrick were still alive but Patrick sadly died in 2011 aged 96. I can only imagine how devastated Debo must have been to lose a lifelong friend, probably one of the only ones left of her generation.

Of course reading a book like this leaves you with a reading list. Debo famously hated books and read nothing if she could help it, but Patrick did read and there are all kinds of fascinating books mentioned; I'd like to read Ill Met by Moonlight now. Letters of Ann Fleming - by Mark Amory (she was Ian Fleming's wife) and A Crowd is Not Company by Robert Kee about his time in a POW camp in Germany during the war. And that's only three, there are many others mentioned in this amazing book of letters. And I absolutely 'must' get to PLF's Between the Woods and the Water... I've read A Time of Gifts and loved it. I also want to read his other books but In Tearing Haste is not a bad place to start if you've never read anything by him as it really does give you a flavour of his extraordinary writing. I'm also eager to read more books of letters so if anyone has any recs they would be gratefully received.

Off to library in a moment and hoping to find something else connected with these amazing people.


DesLily said...

wow.. it sounds like you are on a roll of books with a lot of history in them. I love when we get a book that so holds our interest and one thing leads to another..glad you found this one and hope you like the next just as much!!!

Cath said...

Hey Pat! Yeah... you're right I do seem to be majoring on history - kind of - at the moment. Part of my cunning plan to read more non-fiction this year lol.

Catch you later on Skype?

Val said...

Your doing it again Cath tbr piles is growing and it's your fault (in a very nice way :0) )
You find such lovely books and write such invitingly irresistible reviews...darn it! :0)

Vintage Reading said...

I want to read this now. I was an avid Mitford fan for years and then got a bit 'Mitforded out' for two or three years. Now I'm ready to read them again and I do like volumes of letters. Thanks for the recommendation!

Kerry said...

More books on my wishlist. I don't know whether to thank you or curse you. :)

Cath said...

Val: LOL! Sorry about that (well I'm not really...;-))

Nicola: As a Mitford 'book' I think perhaps it's a bit unusual, there being quite a lot about PLF's travels and life as well as info about the Mitfords. I Picked up Decca's book of letters at the library yesterday. Thrilled but it's 700 pages and by the end of it I may well be 'Mitforded out' too!

Kerry: It seems you're not alone... ;-)

I do love your avatar! :-D

Yvonne @ Fiction Books Reviews said...

Hi Cath,

As I commented in you previous post, this book really intrigued me, although I have never come across Patrick Leigh Fermor before, and I can't recall any mention of him in any documentary we may, or may not have seen!

Your review was so enthusiastic that it is now definitely on my reading list and as you say, you can come across most books in a charity shop eventually, if you are patient enough.

'Have I Got News For You' is one of my all time favourite shows. It is satire at its very best and the wit of Paul and Ian is so sharp and quick.

My own father was in a reserved occupation (he worked on railway production) so he was never able to join up. My father-in-law on the other hand, has some amazing stories to tell, although it is very rarely that he will have much of a conversation about the war, you tend to get a story in bits and pieces as he lets things slip in conversation. He still to this day though, has some letters that he received from a young Dutch girl who he met on one of his many overseas postings, and after being married for 61 years my mother-in-law is till jealous!

Have a great weekend,


Susan said...

Oh, and now I have to add this book to MY TBR pile!! lol I've seen it around, and you write a fabulous review and now I really have to read it.

By the way, Have I got News for YOu is one of my husband's all time favourite shows. He's had to watch old episodes online (thank you You Tube) just to see some over here. It's a fabulous and witty show, isn't it? So funny too.

Cath said...

Yvonne: Around travel writers and people who read travelogues and so forth, Patrick Leigh Fermor was the definitive writer. He didn't actually write that many books but what he did write was excellent and thoughtfully written.

Funny with charity shops, sometimes you have to wait but more often I seem to find a book I might have been discussing with someone quite quickly. Out of the blue, there it is on the shelf. I find this very odd because it happens to me a lot... even quite obscure books. The Langhorne Sisters by James Fox. Who in this country would've heard of that? But an American friend recced it for my US challenge... no more than a week later there it was in a charity shop in Minehead. I'm almost unnerved by it sometimes...

We're both of the generation whose parents, uncles, aunts fought in the war and who listened to their stories. How I wish I'd listened more closely because what some of they did was nothing short of heroic. I can't imagine how they found the nerve to be honest. My father talked a lot and so did my uncle but my father-in-law would only retell jokey events. That he was a rear end gunner and was shot down over the channel is all we know, the episode was obviously too awful for him to talk about.

Susan: You're so like me in that you want to read everything. LOL. But this one is worth it. :-)

Have I Got News For You is a 'must watch' series in this house. I love its intelligence and clever humour. Paul Merton is so quick mentally it's staggering. And I adore Ian Hislop for his braininess. His documentaries, particulary about WW1, are worth catching if you ever come across any. Thank goodness the BBC still make this kind of intelligent documentary and... Have I Got News For You!

Nan said...

Just got a catalogue in the mail selling the Keep Calm and Carry On as a keychain. The blurb told the history, and that it now 'has reached cult status; customers include 10 Downing Street and assorted embassies.'

My folks were their contemporaries too, born in 1906 and 1913, and my father was in the war, as quite an old fellow for then. I've only read DD's Chickens book but how I loved it. I read it outdoors by the veg. garden in the sunshine. I've read PLF's name but never anything by him.
I do love the title of their letters. How wonderful they exist and that they were published. I suspect something similar will happen with emails someday, and at least there won't be mistakes because of poor handwriting. :<)

Cath said...

Nan: Reading DD's chicken book while sitting out in the garden sounds wonderful to me. I just ordered 'All in One Basket' by DD. It's two books of her thoughts, the chicken book and a previous one, Home to Roost. I can't wait to read it.