High life | 21 March 2013

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He was a member of a charmed circle of Hellene and Philhellene intellectuals just before and after the second world war, experiencing modern Greece and seeing it as a place rich in beauty and a stimulus to artistic creation. Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose biography by Artemis Cooper I just put away almost in tears — like a magical night with the girl of one’s dreams, I didn’t want it to end, but end it did — was a second Byron in Greek eyes. I found the book unputdownable, as they say in Boise, Idaho, especially the rich descriptions of rambunctious jaunts to tavernas and places I had spent my youth in.

There is always a feeling of imminent loss where Greece is concerned, an anxiety about what is in store, and no one captured it better than the Nobel Prize winner George Seferis — a close friend of Leigh Fermor — when he wrote, ‘By the following dawn/ nothing would be left to us, neither the woman drinking sleep at our side/ nor the memory that we were once men.’ This mood of foreboding and fear of oblivion is very, very Greek. Every invented paradise soon turns into hell, starting with Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. After all, we Greeks invented the T-word.

Not so the second Greek poet to win the Nobel Prize, Odysseus Elytis, ten years or so after George Seferis. Elytis’s brother was the non-playing captain of the Greek Davis Cup team, and he and I didn’t exactly get along. His name was Alepoudelis, little fox in Greek, Elytis being a pseudonym of the poet, and he was always trying to buy a used car from me for peanuts. I loathed that petty little man who had not named me in the singles against Spain back in 1964 because I had gone out all night with a queer bullfighter and his entourage. (I was hoping to meet Ava Gardner, a friend of the gay caballero.) Yet when I asked the little fox for an intro to the Nobel Prize winner for literature, he uncharacteristically gave me a glowing one. I met Elytis in Kolonaki, the chic residential part of Athens where we both lived. In Café Byzantium. And the first question I posed was the usual boring and unimaginative question hacks ask of those whose work they know little about: ‘What does winning the Nobel mean to you?’ ‘I’m getting more pussy,’ came his answer. I thought it so great I grabbed his hand and kissed it. (The interview of one sentence appeared in a Greek newspaper, with glowing letters to the editor following.) We then proceeded to drink ouzo and chat up the girls.

But back to Paddy and his circle of friends. The leading players were the painter Niko Ghika, George Seferis, the Colossus of Maroussi as Henry Miller immortalised him, George Katsimbalis, and our hero Paddy. Ghika and Paddy I met only once, in 1978 or 9, in unfortunate circumstances. Ghika is Jacob Rothschild’s father-in-law, and his paintings have throughout his life been fresh and clean and pure and naked of all pretence.

I was lying at anchor in Corfu on Gianni Agnelli’s boat when my host asked me to go up to the Rothschild villa and ask them down to lunch. Back then the only way to communicate, unless the Rothschilds understood Morse. I went and ran into a strict nanny-like woman sunning herself on the terrace, asked her if Jacob Rothschild was there, was told he was out, so I left a message that the Agnellis were expecting them for lunch in the bay below. The nanny was not best pleased, in fact she was downright rude, but I don’t do rude from foreigners in my own country, so perhaps I was a tiny bit rude too. (Listen, you old hag, just pass on the bloody message.)

Then the Ghikas and the Rothschilds arrived, me never having met any of them before. And they looked rather peeved. The nanny turned out to be Dame Peggy Ashcroft, and she had stayed behind. The atmosphere did not improve after Agnelli asked me to do the introductions, a strange request as I had not met Paddy or Ghika before. I got them right, of course, but then introduced Jacob’s wife as his mother and his mother as his wife. Had it not been for Paddy’s brilliance — he recited poems and sang and told non-stop stories — the lunch would have been a disaster. Afterwards the Rothschild woman went to The Spectator’s editor, called me scum, and asked him to fire me. Well, as you can see, she did not get her wish, as well she should not have, because it was a totally honest mistake on my part. Both women were rather plain, and I didn’t know them from Adam, so there.

I started this column with the intention of explaining Paddy’s Greece, and why he loved my country so. I got sidetracked by trivia, although Nat Rothschild still laughs at my Corfu story. As John Murray, the publisher, wrote on the dust jacket, ‘No one wore their learning so playfully,’ which in today’s ghastly world of untalented people who hold themselves in high esteem is such a welcome relief from the pompous and self-important.

Greece is olive groves and hills covered in pine and myrtle, thorns and cypress trees standing to attention before gray-green mountains that turn yellowish as the sun sets. Henry Miller waxed lyrical on the Greek light. He maintained that the Greek ‘lived amidst brutal clarities which tormented and maddened the spirit ...urging him to war.’ As did Paddy.