On 1 July 1961, a beautiful 17-year-old girl appeared on the cover of Paris Match, then in its heyday: ‘C’est une deb,’ announced the cover, the once upon a time annual British ritual having crossed the Channel to the land of cheese. Her name was Cristina de Caraman, daughter of the Duke de Caraman, and she was so pretty and angelic-looking that even my mother, who was always after me to marry a Greek, told me she was the kind of girl I should get hold of rather permanently. I did that summer on the Riviera, where her mother’s English family had a house high above Monte Carlo.
Cristina’s mother’s maiden name was Macklin and her brother, Lance Macklin, was already a hero of mine, being a dare-devil racing driver, back in the days when a crash meant instant fiery death. Lance had been involved in the 1955 Le Mans accident, which caused more than 75 people to die as Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes had flipped and flown into the stands behind the pits instantly killing tens and injuring hundreds. Lance’s Austin Healey was flying past the pits when Mike Hawthorn’s Jaguar pulled out after refuelling. Macklin took evasive action at very high speed but Levegh’s Merc hit Lance’s car and flew into the stands. There were no crash barriers then, and cars caught fire at a bump more often than not. Despite the carnage the 24-hour race went on, with Mike Hawthorn, the culprit, winning it.
It might sound very brutal now, but the race officials were right to keep it going. Had the race been cancelled, thousands would have blocked the tiny roads leading to the track, impeding the ambulances and fire engines from reaching the trapped and the wounded. In any case, there was no culprit, racing was a very dangerous sport and safety measures did not exist. (Sir Jackie Stewart, the man who forced the greedy organisers to install non-flammable gas tanks and collapsing safety crash barriers, was 20 years away.)
This, then, was Cristina’s uncle, and we became fast friends almost immediately. Nada de Caraman and her sister Mia were two English beauties who cut a wide swath in the so-called international set of the Forties and Fifties. I was such a pig back then that I made a pass at Nada and was told where to get off rather rudely, but after a while Cristina and I got married because our engagement had lasted too long for polite society. It was not a good enough reason for getting hitched. She was 20 and I was 27 and we partied non-stop for three years, attending every chic ball in Paris, London and on the Riviera, never staying in a place long enough to collect the laundry — it was done by hand in those halcyon days — Cristina finally deciding my womanising was not conducive to a stable marriage and children. But I continued to live in her mother’s palatial flat on Avenue Raymond-Poincaré, while Cristina left for Mexico for good. That’s when I saw a lot of Lance Macklin, took up polo at his suggestion — he was a top player — and even tried my hand at driving with absolutely zero results.
The reason I am reminiscing more than usual is a book by Lance’s son, Paddy Macklin (he was named after the great Paddy Leigh Fermor), a book on his singlehanded round-the-world odyssey in a…27ft boat. Now I’ve done my share of dangerous sports — polo, boxing, karate tournaments and even skiing the front face of a Swiss mountain that is now closed because a fall means instant death — but the idea of going around the world in a 27ft boat is as alien to me as marrying a male friend. This takes a kind of long-term courage only true heroes have. On-the-spur-of-a-moment heroics are far easier, like charging an enemy with a bayonet, or jumping out of an airplane yelling Geronimo, but leaving dry land with a second-hand satphone bought on eBay, a hand-operated desalination pump, and nothing in the way of navigational aids is slow, agonising suicide, at least in my book. A long-term heroic takes a very special kind of courage, one the average Joe is incapable of even envisioning.
Captain Bungle’s Odyssey is published by Podkin Press and this week was launched at the Royal Thames Yacht Club. To spend 379 days at sea is an incredible achievement in itself, but I was especially interested in the fact that Paddy found time to do 100 squats a day, and in clement weather in the tropics 32 circuits of the deck, which is approximately half a kilometre. ‘The only clue I had that humanity existed was the radio.’ While navigating in the Pacific he listened to radio Cuba, and when sailing in the Atlantic it was mostly religious programmes. Good for you, Paddy: 379 days without porn and crappy gossip about ghastly celebrities must cleanse one’s soul as well as one’s body and mind.
Lance Macklin and his sisters are now gone, but Paddy’s generation continues with the heroics. I have not remained close to Cristina, but recently saw her on the cover of Quest magazine, a New York glossy, and she looked fine at 70. Ironically, I have written a column in Quest for 15 years and was pleasantly surprised to see her looking trim and well. Paddy Macklin, her first cousin, is another story altogether. A real Sir Galahad, like his dad, in that old-fashioned eccentric way of Englishmen before they became slaves and took orders from Brussels.