In Tearing Haste is the latest book of letters to be edited by Charlotte Mosley and is a record of the friendship, between Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and the celebrated travel writer Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor DSO. Heywood Hill spoke to Deborah Devonshire and Charlotte Mosley about it.
HH: Charlotte, could you set the scene for the book?
CM: The letters cover some 50 years. They are light-hearted and extremely funny. There are descriptions of Paddy filming Ill Met By Moonlight with Dirk Bogarde and Debo going to stay with the Queen at Sandringham. Paddy writes beautifully and Debo hits the nail on the head again and again. Paddy first met Debo in 1940 at a ball and he describes the vision of her and Andrew [later 11th Duke of Devonshire] dancing, wrapped in each other. The friendship really took off when Paddy first stayed at Lismore Castle [the Devonshires’ Irish home] in 1956.
HH: Debo, what do you remember of Paddy from that time?
DD: His reputation was terrific because of his extraordinary feat in the war in capturing the German commander on Crete [General Heinrich Kriepe]. Paddy was a byword for courage and cleverness and everything. I was terribly intrigued to meet him. He didn’t fit any category I had ever come across and still doesn’t. He’s a mixture between a scholar and a nomad, and heaps of other things.
HH: Does Paddy ever talk about his war?
DD: One of his great traits is his extreme modesty. But luckily Billy Moss wrote the book Ill Met By Moonlight, otherwise most people wouldn’t have heard of his exploits. But there it all is set out in black and white, just how it was.
HH: When he came to Lismore he was obviously much taken with the place. Did you spend a lot of time there in those years?
DD: Yes. It was like a sort of fairy story: the fantastic charm of the Irish and the fact that there was no rationing for ten years before it finished in England. The place itself is so incredibly romantic.
HH: Paddy seems attracted to romantic and strange places. Was England after the war a little dull for him?
DD: Nobody had the spirit really to do very much. For Paddy it must have seemed very quiet and boring. But he always found unusual places, like Chagford in Devon. His description of going hunting there is wonderful.
HH: How formative was his famous walk across Europe?
DD: Oh totally. Not only the walk, the things he saw and the languages he learnt but the fact that he fell in love with somebody in Romania and just stayed there for two years. That must have been like another dream. He’s a free spirit.
HH: Did you ever travel together?
DD: We had a marvellous trip to Andalusia. It was Whitsun and there was a tremendous parade where all the villages carried the Virgin Mary statue to the church and they fought for the chance to carry it. There was no room at the pub and Paddy and I slept on the stone floor of a shed, in the company of nine gardeners. I have never forgotten it because he snored something awful. We were sleeping head to toe and to try and stop him I started tweaking his toes but that made no difference. So I went past his ankles up to his knees, and higher and higher up before there was any reaction of any sort! It was on that trip that I saw how tough Paddy was. He didn’t notice heat or cold and that must have been a tremendous asset in Crete.
HH: What do his letters mean to you?
DD: I always love getting letters but Paddy’s are absolute jewels compared to most, so they continue to mean a great great deal. It is a sort of ding dong between us, as it was with my sisters.
HH: Does he like the fact that you claim not to have read his books?
DD: It makes him laugh somehow. There they all are sitting beside my bed, beautifully inscribed, and he says, ‘Look here, honestly it’s awfully good, it’s frightfully good’, and I say, ‘Alright Pad’. I will have to try one day.
HH: Did his reputation as a writer develop gradually?
CM: He was immediately recognised as an exceptional writer but I don’t think his books were widely read until A Time of Gifts in 1977.
DD: That was the winner of all time. He’s a very meticulous writer. He goes back and back over things, which makes it quite hard to read his manuscripts because bits are crossed out, another set of words put in, those are crossed out and then there’s a star saying that didn’t really mean this. Jock Murray, his old publisher, used to go sideways to the table when all this mass of stuff arrived written by hand. He put his head one way and then the other and somehow got a little bit of the gist of what Paddy was trying to say.
HH: Is Paddy a social person?
DD: Very. But now he’s older I think he gets a bit fed up by people who just turn up because he’s so famous. In Greece he is a kind of king because of his exploits in the war.
HH: What was his wife Joan like?
DD: Oh wonderful. She was beautiful, clever and very private. A very good chess player and a total intellectual. She kept heaps of cats. She never wrote anything as far as I know but she read everything. She was Paddy’s chief correspondent on those climbing expeditions which were published as Three Letters from the Andes.
HH: Does Paddy like other writers?
DD: Yes. He was great friends for instance with Bruce Chatwin, and Maurice Bowra and Cyril Connolly. Evelyn was a bit before.
HH: You and your sisters had known Waugh very well.
DD: My sister Diana [Mosley] was the one he loved. He adored her. And Nancy [Mitford] too, but he was sort of in love with Diana I think. I inherited him a bit from them and I did love him very much until he got impossible with drink. I loved his funniness and his company. He was somehow touching because he obviously longed to be something he never could be - a tall thin cavalry officer. He probably didn’t appreciate his own genius. Not easy.
HH: Did Nancy know Paddy?
DD: Yes, they were great friends. Nancy had a very strong governessy side. She could hardly bear some of the things that went on, like just forgetting lunch. Whatever he suggested I rather thought it would be fun to do and Nancy used to say, ‘Don’t pander to him!’ Paddy was a chain smoker and he always rather liked a refreshing drink or two. So by the time he got to bed with a lit cigarette it was an absolute miracle that nothing happened.
HH: Do you remember Nancy working at Heywood Hill?
DD: Very well. Heywood was very quiet and the sort of person who sold a book from behind his back. He was at the war anyway which was why she was there. Anyone on leave with whom she had the slightest acquaintance would go straight there. It was the best fun in the world. She earned £3 a week and lived in Maida Vale and often walked home to save the bus fare. She was on her beam-ends because her husband was a spendthrift and used to come back simply to borrow money off her. Once in the bus queue in the blackout in Park Lane she was hugged by a huge black American soldier and she said, ‘Go away, I’m 40!’
HH: You and Andrew maintained your connection with Heywood Hill.
DD: I have always loved the feel of it and the people who work there, seeing what they have out and what’s going well and all that. But I am honestly not a reader. Andrew loved its intimacy. He used to sometimes buy 10 of a book and put them in each bedroom of Chatsworth. He was a real bookworm and was never without a book in his hands until he went blind, which was all the crueller for him. Nothing took its place.
HH: Have you enjoyed working with Charlotte?
DD: Oh she’s a tremendous friend. She’s had such praise for the books she’s edited and no wonder. For the Mitford book she chose 600 out of 12,000 letters. I don’t think anybody else could have done it. She’s quite extraordinary.
HH: Were you surprised by the success of The Mitfords?
DD: Not entirely, because having been Nancy’s literary executor I realise what a lot of fans she has. Her novels were written nearly 70 years ago but they still live. They’re sort of classics it seems - all in print. I expected it might be a success but only because of my sisters and the wonderful way they wrote.