Tag Archives: My Family & Other Animals

“The Room Seems to Have Come into Its Own at Last”: One Afternoon in the Library of Patrick Leigh Fermor (11 June 2011).

Maggie Rainey-Smith has been kind enough to share images and memories from her 7 November 2007 visit with the late Patrick Leigh Fermor.

In a recent post at “A Curious Half Hour,” Maggie has published a set of photographs and video-clips from her visit at Kardamyli, giving her readers a fine sense of Paddy’s chosen place of residence, the much-beloved house which he designed and completed in collaboration with his wife, Joan Leigh Fermor.

Maggie’s pictures show us images of the home’s grey-green stone floors, laid out with slate cut from the quarry at Mount Pelion; its hand-crafted wooden ceiling (“thirty slim beams divide the ceiling up into an infinity of squares,” in the architect’s own words); and its fine view out on to the sea from the terrace garden.

Since these photos also capture Paddy entertaining visitors on the feast of Saint Michael — his name-day — they ably convey the pleasure that the writer took in sharing his lovely home with friends, neighbors, and honored guests.

In one particular shot, Maggie captures a bit of the overlook from the terrace area at Kardamyli.

The greenscape of mature olives, cedar, and rosemary work together with the mosaic inlays and the sturdy materials of the stone benches, setting the Bay of Messenia within an intimate, personalized frame.  The view in this photograph immediately calls to mind Paddy’s recollections about how he and Joan first surveyed the rough-hewn, elemental beauty of their home-site.

Our headland jutted between a bay and a small cove and there was nothing on it but olive terraces, thistles, asphodels, and an occasional tortoise and here we pitched our tent exactly where the chief room was to be.  There was rock for building everywhere. . . .

– Patrick Leigh Fermor, “Sash Windows Opening on the Foam” (1986)

This must be the very view taken in by the couple as they sat out the afternoon heat in their tents, hunched over weathered volumes of Vitruvius and Palladio in a quest for “decent proportions.”

Special appreciation also must be given to Maggie for the way in which she offers her readers privileged glimpses into the high-ceilinged, book-lined dining room at Kardamyli.

This photo takes us into the legendary heart of the house — the “chief room,” as Paddy christened it.

‘Where a man’s Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is, there shall his heart be also’; and, of course, Lemprière, Fowler, Brewer, Liddell and Scott, Dr Smith, Harrap and Larousse and a battery of atlases, bibles, concordances, Loeb classics, Pléiade editions, Oxford Companions and Cambridge histories;  anthologies and books on painting, sculpture, architecture, birds, beasts, fishes, trees and stars; for if one is settling in the wilds, a dozen reference shelves is the minimum;  and they must be near the dinner table where arguments spring up which have to be settled then or never.  This being so, two roles for the chief room in a still unbuilt house were clear from the start.

– Patrick Leigh Fermor, “Sash Windows Opening on the Foam” (1986)

Immediately beyond the battle-scarred (and much-toasted!) dinner table, we can find Paddy’s electric typewriter sitting in the corner.

Just behind the typewriting stand, Paddy’s bookcases rise nine feet from the floor.

Disappointingly, Paddy’s trusty Chinese step-ladder seems to be nowhere in sight.

An elephant pole of brass-bound teak made by the Hong Kong Chinese to help minor rajahs climb into their howdahs; it splits down the middle and half the pole drops away parallel with a heartening bang like grounded arms; the rungs, slotted and hinged in hidden grooves, fall horizontal and up one goes.

– Patrick Leigh Fermor, “Sash Windows Opening on the Foam” (1986)

The names and titles on the spines of these books evidence the writers and works which Paddy found most necessary to keep close at hand after he elected to “settle in the wilds.”

Reading-copies of Freya Stark, Gerald Brenan, Norman Douglas, and Henry James nudge familiarly up against a set of Macaulay’s lectures and Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta — with the latter work appearing in two mismatched, much-loved volumes.  Runciman’s histories and Churchill’s The Second World War also stand at the ready.   Over to the typewriter’s right, near-complete runs of Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley share out the measure of two shelves.

But Durrell 2012 readers owe Maggie special thanks for her photograph of the lower shelf sitting immediately in front of Paddy’s typewriter.

Attentive viewers will quickly pick out a copy of Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals.

Close by comes a representative sampling of titles by the writer Paddy affectionately referred to in his letters as “my old pal Larry Durrell.”  Faber printings of Mountolive, Tunc, Reflections on a Marine Venus, Clea, Justine, and Balthazar are all clearly visible, if a trifle rummaged.

Durrell 2012 extends its gratitude to Maggie Rainey-Smith for sharing these memories, photographs, and videos.   Maggie’s words and images call back to us something of the best of the man’s spirit, and we recall his own words of praise for this beloved, well-built, and well-lived room while we pore over these scenes from a time that now seems gone.

But the great advantage of a long room is that different things can go on without impinging: reading, music, letter-writing, talk by the fire, eyelids closing in the hayáti, ‘a wildcat snooze’: or chess at one end of the room and friends’ children on the floor with tiddlywinks at the other.  Every seventh of November, which is the Feast of SS. Michael and Gabriel — and also my name-day (Mihali, in Greek) — the room fills a special role.  The Archangels have a minute chapel three groves away and after the yearly Mass, a swarm of friends from the village, sometimes fifty or sixty, come in for a long chat and drinks and mézé .  Thanks to the divans — suddenly packed with venerable figures in black coifs — the room can hold them all without too much of a squash in the middle for dancing; and when, later on, the complicated steps of the syrtos and kalamantiano, accompanied by clapping and singing, begin to weave their nimble circles round the central star, the room seems to have come into its own at last.

– Patrick Leigh Fermor, “Sash Windows Opening on the Foam” (1986)

Learn more about Maggie Rainey-Smith’s writing at her author page.

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Filed under Balthazar, Greece, Justine, Lawrence Durrell, My Family & Other Animals, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Reflections on a Marine Venus

“They Did Glimpse Something Magical in Those Years”: A Conversation with Joanna Hodgkin.

Joanna Hodgkin is the daughter of Nancy Durrell Hodgkin.

In early 2012, Virago Press will publish Amateurs in Eden, Joanna Hodgkin’s biography of her mother.  In June 2012, Ms. Hodgkin will be a featured speaker at Durrell 2012: The Lawrence Durrell Centenary.

Ms. Hodgkin was born in London and read History at Somerville College, Oxford.   She is the author of eleven novels, including Dora’s Room (1993), which WH Smith selected for its first Fresh Talent promotion, and Improvising Carla (2000), which ITV dramatised.  Her historical trilogy — consisting of The Cornish Girl (1994), The Puritan’s Wife (1996), and The Lost Daughter (1999) — takes place in seventeenth-century Cornwall.  Her latest novel is One Mistake (2008).  From 2004 – 2007, Ms. Hodgkin worked as a Fellow with the Royal Literary Fund, St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham.  She serves as a churchwarden at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, and she also writes regular reviews for the Guardian’s book page.

Durrell 2012:  For all of the people who never met her, Nancy’s character seems quiet, shy, and elusive — shaded in a bit of mystery, as conveyed by the enigmatic “N.” of Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell.  Even Gerald Durrell seems a bit protective of her, keeping his brother’s marriage to Nancy well out of the satirical moments in My Family and Other Animals.  (“Larry,” by contrast, is never spared!)  Amateurs in Eden brings Nancy back into the spotlight.  What do you think that your readers will be most surprised to learn about the life of Nancy Myers Durrell Hodgkin?

Joanna Hodgkin:  Nancy was very aware, as the Durrell literature grew, that she was going to be misrepresented, and portrayed as shy and quiet; this was the main reason she started the memoir which has been the jumping off point for my book.

Strangely enough, she didn’t at all mind being left out of My Family and Other Animals — she could see that it made artistic sense to keep the Durrell family nuclear, and anyway, she thought that although hardly any of the actual events were true, Gerald captured character and voice and atmosphere exactly.

As for surprises. . . .  Nancy’s life was so full of surprises that it’s hard to know where to start.  But I suppose the main thing is that she was a far more complex individual than anyone has realised till now.

Durrell 2012:  Nancy studied at the Slade School and was trained as a painter.  What were her main interests in art?  Did she keep up her painting throughout her later life?

Joanna Hodgkin:  Yes, she did.  In the early ’50s she turned to sculpture, and though she was always her own fiercest critic, and destroyed huge amounts of work that didn’t come up to her exacting standards, she did leave a fine body of work behind her. Two of her sculptures were exhibited at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in the mid 1960s.

But almost all her painting from before the war has vanished – ironically, the only piece to have survived is a painting she threw away. Lawrence fished it out of the rubbish and sent it to Henry Miller: she would be appalled to think that her work would be known by something she has discarded, so I can’t decide whether to put it in the book or not.

Durrell 2012:  Nancy was married to Lawrence Durrell from 1935 to 1947.  Did she ever talk about those years?

Joanna Hodgkin:  Yes, she talked about it a lot, and I loved hearing about her adventurous years before she married my father.  Now I only wish I could remember everything she told me, but luckily I do remember most of it.

Durrell 2012:  What about her time on Corfu?  For Lawrence Durrell, the time at Kalami was transformational, and those pre-war years were lost moments to which he seemed to glance back continually.  What did that time in Greece mean for Nancy?

Joanna Hodgkin:  She loved it. I think for her it was the discovery of the south and a way of living which was a revelation, its sensuousness and richness and physicality. She always talked of the joys of swimming naked, the feel of the water against your skin.

I think the reason she never went back was because the experience of war and loss meant she was afraid of being disillusioned. When she spoke about it, it did seem like a vanished Eden, which is why the title of the book seems so appropriate. It was Eden and, like all of us, they were amateurs and got it wrong, but they did glimpse something magical in those years.

Durrell 2012:  If you can imagine reading Prospero’s Cell with your mother’s eye and ear, what do you think she would have to say about it?

Joanna Hodgkin:  This is quite hard to answer, in fact I’m not sure that I can. She must have talked about it, but I have no memory, except she was always fairly skeptical about the diving for cherries part. She was an intensely honest person, and would have wanted the whole picture to be recorded, whereas Larry was interested in a different kind of truth.

Durrell 2012:  As a young person, how aware were you that your mother’s story was connected with the life of Lawrence Durrell?

Joanna Hodgkin:  Oh yes, from quite an early age. I remember being intensely jealous of my sister Penelope because there was a poem for her ‘To Ping-ku asleep’ in a book, which I first became aware of when I was about 6 or 7. Very glamorous! And it always seemed most unfair that my father was her step-father but that it didn’t work the other way around. It took me years to work that one out.

Durrell 2012:  Did you ever meet Lawrence Durrell?  If so, what do you most recall?

Joanna Hodgkin:  Yes, I met him when I was quite young, then again at Sappho’s funeral which Penelope and my father organised, so that was obviously pretty traumatic. A couple of years before he died I went with Penelope to spend a week with him in Sommières. His charm was terrific, even though he was pretty depressed, and I was glad to experience that — it’s the most elusive part of someone, but such an important aspect of the man.

Durrell 2012:  I recall Margo Durrell pausing during an interview to say, almost in a hushed voice:  “But Mother loved Nancy.  We all adored Nancy. . . .”  What do you make of Nancy’s relationship with the Durrell clan?

Joanna Hodgkin:  When she first met them she was bowled over by the family, so different from hers in every way.  She loved their unconventional ways, and the fact that she felt she could be herself with them — a total contrast to her own family.  She liked them all, and when she and my father bought a house not far from Bournemouth, Margo came to visit several times with her family. They were very affectionate times.

Durrell 2012:  What was the most important lesson that you learned from your mother?

Joanna Hodgkin:  The first thing that springs to mind in answer to that question was her belief that things always make sense to the person who is doing them, even when it’s not at all obvious.  As a general rule that meant she delayed judging, or tried to.

I remember when I did something that seemed irrational and hurtful, her response afterwards was ‘I knew you must have a reason, but I couldn’t work out what it was,’ or words to that effect.

Durrell 2012:  What do you think gave her that sort of knowledge or insight?

Joanna Hodgkin:  She was very influenced when she was trying to work out all the big ‘meaning of life’ questions by a relative of her father’s, Fielding Hall, who had written a book about Burmese Buddhism.  It’s called The Soul of a People and it’s still in print — full of wise things.  It’s a credit to her that she responded to it so powerfully as an unhappy teenager — and of course, it gave her a link with Larry, too, through the Buddhism.

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