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Book Review. Helena Attlee: The Land where Lemons Grow

We were off with my group from Florence to Prato, where in the cathedral there is the Chapel of the Girdle of the Virgin Mary—not any old girdle, but the actual one that she dropped down to Thomas as she was being assumed into heaven. It is exposed on its feast days from a pulpit, one of the most beautiful and exhilarating creations of Donatello (the original now under cover in the adjoining cathedral museum). After the delight of seeing it, we still had time to fill in and so on the way back we stopped off at the Villa di Castello, one of the original 16th-century Medici villas, once graced by Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and now the home of the venerable Accademia della Crusca, the guardian of the purity of the Italian language.

The garden is famous for its extraordinary collection of citrus fruits and it is hardly surprising that this was one of the first stops for Helena Attlee in her absorbing story of citrus growing in Italy. The garden was created in the 1540s by Niccolo dei Pericoli, known to this day by his schoolboy nickname, Tribolo, ‘the troublemaker’. He knew what he was up to, making sure that the garden was divided up with walls and lots of shade to provide the perfect temperature for the growing fruit. All this was swept away in the 18th century and the more formal open spaces are now too hot for their produce but the garden still impresses with its hundreds of large terracotta pots and extraordinary array of fruits. They are dragged off in the winter into the garden’s limonaia, the lemon house. Many of these limonaie are spectacular buildings in their own right, especially further north among the lemon growers of Lake Garda, where further protective shelter from the cold is needed.

There were only three original species of the citrus genus in Asia, the mandarin, the pomelo and the citron, but they cross-pollinated so easily that hybrids soon formed and flourished even before any fruits arrived in Italy. The citron was the first to appear, in the 2nd century AD, as a mysterious newcomer in that it is ungainly, virtually inedible but exudes a wonderful perfume that suffuses everything that it touches. Lemons, a hybrid between citrons and sour oranges that are themselves a hybrid between a mandarin and a pomelo, arrived in Sicily with the Arabs in the 9th century while pure mandarins only arrived, from China via Kew Gardens, in the 19th century. By then luck and ingenuity had created the extraordinary mix of citrus fruits that made classification a botanist’s nightmare—especially as aristocrats delighted in creating as many exotic and grotesque specimens as possible.

The distinct climatic niches of Italy and Sicily fostered their own varieties. If you are looking for the best arancie rosse, blood oranges, you must come to the slopes of Mount Etna, for here the difference in temperature between day and night is at least ten degrees, without which the blood-coloured pigments cannot develop. For the treasured oil of the bergamot, a natural cross-pollination between a lemon and a sour orange, a thirty-five kilometre stretch of coastline in Calabria, where cultivation began in the 17th century, provides the finest in the world, while the Ligurian coast is the home of the small and bitter Chinotto, most usually found as an ingredient of Campari, but now enjoying a revival in its own right.

Inside a limonaia on Lake Garda

Varieties come and go as easier ways of working or developing the land challenge the original traditions and it is only the most skilful gardeners who can keep ancient specimens alive from one generation to the next. Attlee seeks out these dedicated few, some of whom may indeed sustain revivals of vanished species. The curator of the Castello garden, Paolo Galeotti, had a spectacular coup when he spotted a twig sprouting the celebrated bizzarria, a citrated lemon that had vanished without trace for decades. It is now flourishing. Alas, alone and unprepared as my group were, and without the expertise of Helena Attlee or Signor Galeotti at hand, we missed seeing it (and how could I have taken my recent Turin tour members to the excellent Via del Sale restaurant without insisting on their sorbet made from madarino tardivo di Ciaculli, with a flavour ‘so intense it could be consumed only in tiny mouthfuls’).

It was Goethe who dreamed of the land where the lemon trees bloom and this delightful and informative book is full of the sun, sensuality and scents of Italy. From now on anyone shopping for standard oranges and lemons in their local supermarket will be consumed with guilt at their lack of discrimination. I am not sure whether our excellent greengrocer will be able to source Limone femminello sfusato amalfitano, the distinctive Amalfi lemon, now given protection from outside competitors by the EU, but I have been promised Tagiolini alle scorzette di arancia e limone for supper and, as the summer warms, we might even try the old lemon-growers’ trick of trapping flies in a concoction of ammonia with an anchovy added to it. But please may we have a new edition with a sumptuous display of coloured prints so that we can feast our eyes on the richness of these wonderful fruits when winter comes to northern Europe?

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides.

The Land where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit is published by Particular Books, London, 2014.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

David Esterly - The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making

In March 1986, a disastrous fire swept through the royal palace of Hampton Court. Started by an overturned candle in the grace and favour apartments on the top floor, it did enormous damage to the apartments below that had been built for King William III at the end of the 17th century. Among the decorations of these apartments was a superb set of carvings by Grinling Gibbons, the greatest of the English sculptors in wood.

Across the Atlantic the news filtered through to David Esterly, also a carver in wood, but rare among his contemporaries in that he specialised in the same type of flamboyant and intricate carving that was the hallmark of Gibbons’ work. He feared the worst, the total destruction of the carvings, and was relieved to hear that, despite much damage, only one seven-foot drop that had graced the side of a door had been totally lost. The others could be repaired but this one had to be recreated from new.

Esterly won the commission to create the new work and this is his finely written and meditative account of the journey to its completion. He had come to carving late, after years of academic study of literature that had focused on the relationship between the poet Yeats and the 3rd-century mystic philosopher Plotinus. A chance visit, when he was thirty, to the wonderful altar carving by Gibbons in St James’s Piccadilly (image above) transported him to the ‘still centre of the universe’ and a new course for his life was set.

A carver needs wood, from the linden tree, or limewood as it is normally known, a set of tools and his or her own skills. The relationship between the three is constantly changing as the wood, at first so vulnerable to direct attack, tries to craft its own patterns against the power of the tools and their master. So carving is never dull and Esterly works longer and longer hours in the room designated to him and his co-workers in the palace. His studies of Plotinus alerted him to the possibilities of a perfection that transcended what his own efforts were shaping and so this is indeed a meditation into the core of creativity. One mark of perfection is to carve what cannot be seen to the same quality as what can be seen as if the invisible permeates the visible and so leads to a yet higher excellence. Esterly ridicules the conceptualism of Jeff Koons, who can imagine an idea in wood and then commission inept carvers (Esterly wonders whether they carved so badly as a deliberate prank) to shape it before an undiscriminating buyer parts with nearly six million dollars to own the finished article.

There are other stories running alongside the patient work of recreation: the inevitable bureaucratic conflicts, the decision whether to leave the new work as it would have been created by Gibbons or whether to match the colour to the remaining carvings. Had Gibbons used any form of sandpaper to finally smooth his work? The conventional view had been that he had not—but then what were those parallel striations which could be seen close up? The combined expertise of the Victoria & Albert and Natural History Museums finally brings up ‘Dutch rush’, a plant that incorporates silica on its stems and which once dried can indeed be used as sandpaper. An experiment shows that the striations match perfectly and a new understanding of Gibbons’ methods has emerged.

The Lost Carving reminded me of Orhan Parmuk’s My Name is Red, where his 16th-century miniaturists debate whether the end of their art is to achieve the perfection of their forbears or to risk evolving new forms. A phrase from an ancient Egyptian text also returned to me: ‘Take counsel with the ignorant as with the wise, for the limits of excellence cannot be reached and no artist fully possesses, his skill’. Esterly, sensitive as he is to the mystery of beauty, would certainly drink (a pint of Adnams Mild at the King’s Arms by the Lion Gate of Hampton Court) to that.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides. To read more about Hampton Court (as well as Charles Freeman’s own account of Eton College), see Blue Guide London.

The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making published by Duckworth is the UK, Viking / Penguin in the US is now out in paperback.

The image at the head of this review shows a detail from Grinling Gibbons' limewood reredos in St James's Piccadilly. Photo © Blue Guides

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

28.12.2013
22:54

The Pike: by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides:

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s The Pike is a long (644 pages of text) biography of the extraordinary Italian poet, and—well one can hardly begin to say what else—Gabriele d’Annunzio. The only thing that disappointed me about it was its title. Although this was indeed a nickname given to d’Annunzio, ‘Pike’ suggests a cunning fish lurking in the weeds before rushing out to snap up its prey. But d’Annunzio was an extrovert superstar, flourishing through his poetry and plays and flamboyant gestures, not least his lording over the Italian seizure of Fiume at the end of the First World War. He emerged young in the 1890s as a poet of great sensitivity, whose works still resonate among Italian nationalists. Yet his early works also show an obsession with the ‘heroic’ individual, a composite figure that owed as much to his personal frustrations as to Nietzsche. D’Annunzio had a genius for sniffing the emotional currents that swept through an emerging and unfulfilled nation and so was idolized by the young. Condemnation by the Church for the immorality of his ‘heroes’ simply added to his appeal.

The many ambiguities of d’Annunzio arise not only because of his supreme talent in the use of words. He was also a man of courage whose survival from a number of dramatic flights in the rickety planes of the early 20th century can only be seen as miraculous. Again he was totally unscrupulous in his extraordinary extravagance and insatiable sex-life. Women found him impossible to resist. At first he appeared to specialise in entanglements with the separated wives of minor aristocrats, to the fury of their fathers and husbands. The most successful love of his life, almost a permanent relationship, in fact, was with the actress Eleanor Duse, whom he romantically met in Venice on a gondola at dawn. Each had an utter confidence in their own genius that sustained the heights of their passion—and inspired d’Annunzio to become a dramatist. By the time of his literary success, however, there was little room for fidelity: new lovers were passing through beds still warmed by their predecessors. His hyped-up literary style was employed to full effect in describing the intimate details of these encounters, which took place in over-heated houses furnished with an overload of flowers, Persian carpets, Japanese porcelain and a large and well-thumbed library. D’Annunzio was as gargantuan in his ability to devour books as he was to devour women. Bailiffs cleared everything out from time to time until a fresh influx of cash allowed him to restock his villas with new purchases.

By the beginning of the First World War, d’Annunzio had developed an unhealthy obsession with the glory of death in the cause of Italy. In a less troubled age, it would hardly have resonated but once again he caught the mood, and must be partly held responsible for forcing Italy’s disastrous entry into the war. Scouring the battlefront on the Karst, the limestone plateau north of Trieste that was to see the pitiless slaughter of the ill-prepared Italian army, he revelled in the piled corpses. There was not much here to achieve other than swooping about in aircraft. It was the truncated peace that gave him his opportunity to find a role. The refusal to allow Italy to spread into the new Yugoslavia allowed him to seize control as dictator of Fiume. In the short term this was the culmination of his career, but it was a success that was gradually dissipated through his administrative incompetence and the seeping away of any international support for Italy’s expansion. His bluster proved to be just that. But it was here, in the frustrations of failure, that fascism was able to get a hold. Hughes-Hallett brings out an unexpected side of Mussolini, who showed surprising skill in flattering and cajoling d’Annunzio while at the same time sidelining him. There is a good photograph of the two walking together, d’Annunzio stooped (but still sexually insatiable) in the park of the Villa Cargnacco on Lake Garda (whose upkeep and expansion by the state he had persuaded Mussolini to finance). Here eventually, apparently to the vast relief of Mussolini, who knew that d’Annunzio was the only person able to upstage him, the heroic poet died in 1938.

D’Annunzio should, of course, have died many years before during one of his escapades in the air, in the crush of a tumultuous crowd or at the hands of an outraged husband. But he survived and his readiness to write down almost every detail of his daily life as well as the enormous publicity every action of his generated have given Hughes-Hallett vast resources to draw on. She has handled them with aplomb and has achieved the remarkable feat of showing that this was a human being whose life seemed to defy reality. The Pike was a worthy winner of this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

Under Another Sky

Charlotte Higgins, Under Another Sky: Travels in Roman Britain. Jonathan Cape, London, 2013. Reviewed by Charles Freeman.

If I am heading westwards from my home in central Suffolk I go along a stretch of Roman road and eventually reach the village of Stonham Aspal. To the far side there is a ridge overlooking open countryside and it is here that a Roman bathhouse was discovered in 1962, when building work was being done for some bungalows. It was my first dig, with a tolerant Ipswich Museum team interpreting laws against child labour generously enough to allow a fourteen-year-old to shovel out ashes from a Roman hypocaust. The main part of the villa is assumed to have been on the other side of the road and remains unexcavated, but I still tell the story to anyone I am driving that way.

The pottery from the site is of the 3rd and 4th centuries, the greatest period of the British Roman villa. This was the time of prosperity before the collapse of Roman rule in the early 5th century brought a devastating fall in living standards (apparently as a dramatic as anywhere else in the western empire). Looking back, I wonder what the ashes I scraped out could have told of the final fires lit to heat the baths. There was no one on hand to record the last days of the empire in Britain but gradually the cities, already faltering in the 4th century, were abandoned and the great buildings fell in or were buried. One of the most evocative finds has been a luxurious Roman villa on the London waterfront that enjoyed a heyday in the 3rd century but then began to crumble, although 200 coins dated as late as ad 388 talk of a late burst of occupation.

Charlotte Higgins’s delightful book is an account of her searches for Roman Britain in the company of her boyfriend Matthew and a venerable and resilient camper van. Higgins read Classics at Oxford so she knows her sources—predominantly those of the finest Roman historian—Tacitus, and she weaves them gently into her itineraries. She has also absorbed those who have been before her: William Camden, the author of Britannia (1586), the first quasi- scientific study of British antiquities, and the polymath William Stukeley (1687–1765), who recorded what stood of Silchester, Hadrian’s Wall and other sites. Stukeley, a fan of the Druids, was sadly taken in by a fake history of Roman Britain purporting to have been written by one Richard of Westminster in the 14th century. Stukeley’s enthusiastic support for it meant that it was treated as authentic and Roman history distorted until well into the 19th century. The Pennine chain of hills take their name from the pseudo-Richard’s description of them.

Gradually out of these forays into a misty past, archaeologists took over. So here is Mortimer Wheeler and his much put-upon wife Tessa, bringing military precision to excavations of St. Albans and later, and most famously, of the Iron Age fort of Maiden Castle. Wheeler revelled in describing the last stand of the British against Roman onslaughts and the mass grave into which the defeated British were thrown. Unfortunately, more recent work queries whether the cemetery was ever a mass grave at all; but the story gripped me as a teenager. By the 1970s, we arrive at more delicate work, especially with the writing ‘tablets’, actually slivers of wood, from the Roman fort at Vindolanda, miraculously preserved in waterlogged ground. Excavated by Robin Birley and deciphered by Alan Bowman, they provide an astonishingly graphic account of everyday life on the frontiers at the end of the 1st century ad, as invites go out for birthday parties and details of which men are available for outside work are painstakingly extracted from the intricate lettering.

Higgins also ventures further north to discover reminders of the short-lived invasion of Scotland by Agricola in ad 79 or 80 (we know of it because the historian Tacitus was Agricola’s son-in-law and left a vivid account) and the little-known Antonine Wall, held only briefly before the frontier was pulled back again to the better-known barrier built by Hadrian. She takes in Bath and York, the latter achieving an empire-wide status when the emperor Septimius Severus established his court here between 208 and 211 and when, a century later Constantine, the first Christian emperor, was proclaimed emperor by his father’s troops. In Bath the Romans adopted the local Celtic god Sulis, associated her with their own Minerva, and the temple dedicated to both presided over the hot springs that were to set Bath up as a watering place in later centuries. In Colchester and London, dark layers record the burning of the nascent Roman settlements by the furious Boudica, in a devastating but ultimately crushed campaign (ad 60 or 61) that also survives in Tacitus’ account.

I am sorry that the camper van, with ‘its many and varied complaints’, did not merit an entry in the index. I would have liked to have retraced its valiant hill climbs even if it did collapse in York and thus not quite make it to Hardknott Castle (a 2nd-century fort guarding Hardknott Pass), perhaps the most spectacular of all the Roman sites in Britain. It added character to what is an engaging survey of our Roman past. While Higgins records exhaustive studies of Roman Britain (Roger Wilson’s A Guide to the Roman Remains in Britain and the mammoth four-volume compilation of every known Roman mosaic by David Neal and Stephen Cosh), she provides a more light-hearted account, a valuable reminder of how the Roman past lies not too far beneath our feet. Indeed a metal detector unearthed a worn Roman coin from our own fields just a year ago, and, this being Suffolk, perhaps another Mildenhall treasure, the hoard of astonishing silver plate unearthed in 1942, is just waiting to be discovered close by.

Under Another Sky was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

Venice and the Politcs of Washing

W.D. Howells, Venetian Life, first published in 1866, and Polly Coles, The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice, Robert Hale, 2013.

A recent review of Polly Coles’ The Politics of Washing claimed that it was the most perceptive book on Venice since W.D. Howells’ Venetian Life. In a field that includes J.G. Links’ Venice for Pleasure and Jan (then James) Morris’ Venice, that is a bold claim for both of them but it gave me the excuse for reading Howells for the first time as well as exploring the ‘political’ challenge of how far a newly arrived resident can pull out their underwear (and which garments) on a backstreet (backcanal?) Venetian washing line.

W.D. Howells had worked for Abraham Lincoln’s campaign team and his reward was a year as consul in Venice, at that time under Austrian occupation. He is well educated and curious, but perhaps rather brash and impatient with a city where no one seems to do much. There is, for a sturdy Protestant such as himself, far too great a reliance on the Madonna breaking through the clouds and sorting out calamities and plagues. He soon settles into the routine, however, and when called upon to provide the annual report of ‘Commercial Transactions’ feels ‘a vague feeling of injury during a year of almost uninterrupted tranquillity.’ None of his compatriots seems to need his help and so he is free to observe daily life and to battle with the intricate personality of Giovanna, his housekeeper, she of the capacious pockets where unwieldy keys, lumps of beeswax, pictures of the Virgin and an illegible account book jostle with each other. Giovanni’s growing power over Howells and his wife is linked to the diminishing number of hours she attends them, but so entangled are they by her family and hangers-on that it is only by moving to a completely different part of the city that they can escape her web.

Howells was writing for an American audience, for most of whom Venice must have been a fantasy, and he exaggerates the picturesque and the ruffians. Yet he has literary skill and his account of arriving in Venice by night and his evocation of the coldness of a Venetian winter are haunting. Despite some good passages and insights, however, too much of the book is a mishmash: some history, interrupted by comments on the hierarchies of society, then a discussions of gondoliers, all of it without really penetrating what makes Venice survive as a city. His best chapter is perhaps his last, written seven years later when he was back in Massachusetts, where he describes how he camped out in lodgings in part of the Palazzo Giustiniani, in a fine position on the Grand Canal. One of the delights that all the male residents enjoy is swimming in the canal when the new tide brings fresh water. There is a more measured and reflective tone in this chapter, something that is often missing in the jumble of what has gone before. Overall, I would certainly rate Howells well below Morris, who is much more sensitive to the nuances of Venetian life.

In The Politics of Washing, Polly Coles, the English partner of an Italian violin-maker, cannot escape being totally immersed in the life of the city (in more ways than one as the floods intensify). There is the education system to negotiate for a start (the couple have four children) and she finds it distant and often sterile for her lively offspring. I never knew that there was quite so much Latin and Greek in the syllabus of the liceo classico. The conventions by which parents accept responsibility for their wayward children and apologise for them even though it might be the inadequacy of their teachers that is to blame is beautifully explored.

The fresh tides here are not those from the lagoon but from the massive influxes of tourists and much of Coles’ life is spent dragging her trolley through crowded streets and missing appointments because the vaporetti are too full for the residents to fit onto them. Coles shares my own belief that it is only in the early morning that one can fully appreciate Venice today. I really enjoyed this book, not only because Coles writes so well but also because she is sensitive to the people, both native and foreign, who surround her all too closely on a daily basis. How far can one risk one’s partner’s Y-fronts fluttering down into one’s neighbour’s garden and what would be the social consequences she would have to live with if they did? What are the conventions in using ‘tu’ and ‘lei’ a) in a conversation with a friendly Italian woman 20 years her junior and b) during a blazing row with her partner when ‘lei’ seems justified to express distance and disdain but turns out to be so inappropriate that it makes him collapse into laughter?

No one should go to Venice without reading this book as it will, perhaps, make them more aware that beyond the burger bars and overpriced pasta, there are people who have known the city since birth but have now become strangers in it, as the privates spaces and the traditional shops that used to serve them dwindle. Though Coles is a newcomer herself, she acts as a sympathetic champion of those who are being pushed to the margins by the cruisers depositing their ‘See Venice in two hours’ crowds. Their social network soon tells them exactly how alta the acqua is, which passageways are still open and where one can browse books in one’s wellies (stivali impermeabili), as the less nifty tourists flounder about in the swirling waters. As the artificially contrived Carnival gets under way in Piazza San Marco, the rowing clubs set off in the opposite direction, with Coles and her friend Jane negotiating a flat-bottomed sanpierota crammed with flags and children, to what is essentially a retaliatory fancy-dress village fête for the locals.

Less visible are the other residents, those who have drifted in from the east to work as carers, and who have only each other to sustain themselves now that children and family are far away. They are the new representatives of the East, the Schiavoni of the 21st century, a reminder that Venice has always been awash with foreigners—although most now stay only long enough to buy their Carnival masks and gelati before clambering on board their cruise ships again. This is a sobering book in many ways, a narrative of a self-destructing and sclerotic city where the ancient landing-posts are all too often submerged. I am happy to place it alongside James Morris’ own memoir of living with a family in Venice in the 1950s (now reissued and updated by the author)—but what a difference sixty years has made to the magic of the city.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

The real Patrick Leigh Fermor?

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper. John Murray, 2012


Walking seems to be back in fashion. Pilgrim routes, secret pathways, ancient trackways: it is as if we are rediscovering the traditional pace of life. One catalyst for the interest has been Patrick Leigh Fermor’s celebrated walk across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, in 1934, when he was only eighteen. It was immortalized in his two books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Although they are among my favourite travel books, I had not realised quite how long after the walk they were written. A Time of Gifts appeared 44 years later and Between the Woods and the Waterseveral years after that. So they are as much reflections on the walk, with added colour and insight, as they are of the reactions of an eighteen-year old.

Virtually abandoned as a child in England by his family—his father had a distinguished career as a geologist in India—Paddy (the name by which his biographer and his many friends knew him) grew up essentially feral. School did not work for him and he seemed unemployable. Yet he had a passion for the Classics, an acute memory for texts and a fascination with languages and how they shaped cultures. All this was incipient when he began his walk, but as he uncovered the ancient landed families of eastern Europe, explored their libraries and became a lover, notably of Princess Balasha Cantacuzene on her remote estate in Romania, he discovered new roles for himself. He was always to be a wanderer, attracted to the aristocracy as much for their heritage as for their status, ever willing to be financially supported, and happy to drink and sing his way through the night in a variety of languages and cultures.

When war came, it was again apparent that Paddy was not employable in any conventional role; but with his fluent Greek he could be found a job as a general dogsbody in Intelligence. This is how he ended up supporting the resistance in Crete against the occupying Germans. His most famous exploit, kidnapping the German commanding officer, General Heinrich Kreipe, forms the narrative highlight of this book. The moment when Paddy was able to complete a Horatian ode begun by the General is an unforgettable homage to the common roots of both cultures. Of course, with reprisals against villagers and Paddy’s own careless shooting of a partisan with a gun he thought unloaded, the kidnapping remains controversial, but for many Cretans Paddy was a hero. Hard-drinking reunions followed in the years to come.

Artemis Cooper knew ‘Paddy’ well, but her subject still presents a challenge. Cooper is wise enough not to try to match Paddy’s style when describing the famous walk and is content to tidy up discrepancies and fill in gaps. The kidnapping of Kreipe is well told. The problem comes with the years that followed. There is certainly good material for charting Paddy’s sophisticated survival skills, his charm and success in persuading others to finance him (notably his long-term lover and eventual wife, Joan). It is moving to read of the shattered lives of his friends and lovers, Balasha among them. Full tribute is paid to his publisher, Jock Murray, whose guile and persistence ensured that the books actually appeared. Most publishers would have abandoned Paddy in sheer exasperation at his penchant for parties over disciplined writing.

Cooper also hints at the darker side: the depressions, the sexual dalliances—some of them actually encouraged by Joan—and at Paddy’s ability as much to bore his listeners as to amuse them. And yet somehow she does not capture the full personality. The chronology is there, the house in the Mani is built (at Joan’s expense), the wanderings are well charted, but the subject remains strangely elusive. Doubtless there are more perceptive and probing memoirs to come, but this biography provides a solid background and serves well to send one back to Paddy’s writing, not only the famous walk but also the vivid studies of Greece, Mani and Roumeli. And we are promised that the fragments of the third volume of the walk, awaited by his readers for so long, are due to appear next year.

(One correction. Paddy’s friend was Ian Whigham, not Wigham. He was a man of fastidious good taste and generous hospitality: I count the two occasions when I had lunch with him, as a friend of a friend in the 1970s, as among the more civilizing experiences of my life.)

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

The Gentry: Stories of the English

Adam Nicolson, HarperCollins, 2011

If you had to choose an English family you could call “gentry”, you might well go back to the early seventeenth century and seek out the Oglanders of Nunwell on the Isle of Wight, whose meticulous account-books for the years 1620 to 1648 still exist and remain within the family.

 

The Oglanders were not especially wealthy but they were deeply embedded on an estate that could sustain them and in a house that they loved dearly. They had their own supplies of beer and milk and there was a rabbit warren. Their income from rents and their own farmed land was around £800 a year, their spending—about which Sir John Oglander fretted continually—a hundred pounds a year less. They could look beyond their own farms to buy in French wine, cheese from Holland, prawns, lobsters and salmon.

The grander rooms at Nunwell had plastered ceilings, were panelled in oak and there was a broad oak staircase. Sir John knew his classic texts, Virgil and Ovid. A staff of thirteen met the needs of the family and Sir John was blessed with Franck, ‘a most careful thriving wyfe whoe was upp before me every daye’. They had seven surviving children, four boys and three girls. Sir John played his full part in local government and neighbours were freely entertained.

What could go wrong? Sadly, a lot. In 1630 Sir John’s heir, George, died of smallpox while abroad and the ravaged body could not even be brought back for burial. Sir John never recovered from the shock. Then the turn in politics in 1642, as the Parliamentary forces strengthened on the Isle of Wight, saw him lose all his official positions. He even spent some time in prison and died in 1655 an embittered man. He was not to know that in the Royalist recovery, his son William would become a baronet, that there would be good marriages and that the fortunes of the family would be sustained into the late nineteenth century. There are still Oglanders today, and some of their lands remain in the family.

However much we can recognize the Oglanders as “gentry”, Adam Nicolson knows that the class can never be easily pigeon-holed—and that is one reason why his book is a delight. He makes his way through the rogues and stalwarts, feisty women, and profligate heirs. Some eventually reach the nobility, others sink down towards yeomanry or move sideways into other professions. Nicolson shows an acute sense of all the possible gradations of “gentrydom”: who can hunt or dine with whom, what one can expect from richer cousins in times of crisis, where to find a wife who will not only bring in more land but keep the dining table brimming with good fare and the poorly-paid housemaids in order.

While many gentry stayed home, others were ambitious and ruthless. So the Lascelles from Yorkshire are involved in the slave trade and sugar, earning fabulous returns on their estates in Barbados while also siphoning off customs dues from the British Government (deftly using their political contacts to save them when they are found out). Who could not warm to Eliza Lucas, the daughter of the ‘Curtizan’ of her father George in corrupt Antigua? George adores her, educates her back in England and eventually leaves her in charge of the family estates in South Carolina when she is still a teenager. She manages them with total confidence between moments reading the philosophy of John Locke. Having spurned the ‘old gentlemen’ offered by her father, she snaps up a Mr Pinckney, widowed only two months previously, whose own substantial estates give her the social standing her background lacked. Lots of little Pinckneys followed.

Nicolson’s book is as much about Englishness as about stratagems for survival within a world where commerce and imperialist opportunities are providing better opportunities than land. Pitfalls abound, and lawyers, as always, benefit from contested wills or rash disagreements among neighbours, with a duel or two adding to the drama of daily living.  Emotions sometimes subvert everything. So Harry Oxinden, born in 1609, widowed by the age of thirty-four, falls helplessly for Kate, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a yeoman farmer. They do marry happily but then legal disputes erode their meagre capital so that the loved family home, Maydekin, has to be sold and they watch in grief from a small nearby cottage as the house is “gentrified” by its new owners.

The death of the English gentry took place not in the twentieth century but the nineteenth. Half of the families listed in Burke’s Landed Gentry in 1863 were no longer there in the 1914 edition and that was before the First World War cut a swathe through male heirs and taxation diminished their falling agricultural income. By 2000 only one per cent of land belonged to what might be called a member of gentry, now reduced to some 500 families. In his final study, Nicolson returns to the Cliffords, who cannot agree among themselves whether they arrived in Frampton in Gloucestershire in 1080 or 1110. They are still there. There is an elegiac quality to this chapter. Rollo still shows an intense commitment to his neighbourhood, hopes to know exactly who is who, is on the parish council, is a joint Master of the Hunt, and generally oversees the survival, nurturing and very occasional destruction of local wildlife. Like most of these surviving gentry families, the younger generation of Cliffords are torn between the love of the countryside their family has farmed so long and the lucrative lures of jobs which pay or offer more intellectual excitement.

In the hands of a lazy writer, The Gentry could easily have degenerated into oft-repeated tales of eccentric squires culled from salacious diaries, but Nicolson is far too fine a historian for that. He has ferreted local archives with a sensitive ear for the worries and joys of those trying to keep an estate afloat and then pass it on to another generation. Some gentry are convivial and loved, others, likes the Hughes of Kinmel, unable even to lure guests to their palatial house built on the proceeds of a copper mine. All his subjects breathe life into an ill-defined class of those between the nobility and the tradesmen, who would like to think they represent the quintessence of what it is to be English.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon link below.

Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome

David Winner. Simon & Schuster, 2012

I began this quirky, genre-defying book one sunny May morning and by the time I had got halfway through it, I was really enjoying myself. I had had no idea what to expect but was prepared for either a fatuous trawl through Rome’s “eateries” or for rapturous gushing about dining all’italiana being so much more “vibrant” than the drab way we do it at home. Al Dente is neither. And as I read on, I found myself making a mental list of things to check out next time I am in Rome. The ice cream place near Termini station, the statue of St Catherine of Siena, the Villa Farnesina (apparently Raphael’s frescoes are surrounded by borders of lewd fruit; I had never noticed. But now that I come to check, I do see something tumescent above the head of Hermes…). Maybe I won’t go to the trattoria with the Che Guevara poster, where the owner hates the bourgeoisie and imposes a necktie ban. Hatred and prohibition sit uneasily on this good-natured book.

At least, I thought it was good-natured. It purports to be about food and Rome, and yes, it is about those things, but not only, and sometimes only tangentially. It is about history, about film (Fellini and Antonioni), about art (Raphael, Caravaggio), about religion, about human relationships. Winner’s previous books have been about football and I expected the tone of Al Dente to be blokey. It isn’t. It’s amusing without being ho-ho. And Winner writes exceptionally well, with a wonderful, unpretentious, effective use of language. I enjoyed the image of ancient Rome as a horse carcase slowly being eaten by a buzzard. But it was at about this point that the book started to go wrong.

It wasn’t just the strange and rather surreal encounter in Caffè Greco with the elderly Frenchman calling himself Marie-Henry [sic] Beyle. Were we supposed to interpret him as the ghost of Stendhal? It wasn’t clear. No, it was the buzzard: a Christian buzzard. Aha. Soon enough it becomes apparent that Winner has a bone of his own to pick clean. First we learn that Michelangelo studied the kabbalah and came from “tolerant, more secular Florence” and then that Dante’s best friend was a Jewish poet, as if we need to claim these two great souls as righteous gentiles before getting started. But hang on. Savonarola outlawed Florentine-Jewish money-lending in 1495, when Michelangelo was twenty. How tolerant is that and how secular was Savonarola? And is Blech and Doliner’s theory about a subversive message encrypted in the Old Testament figures of the Sistine ceiling pseudo-science or an avenue for fruitful new research? Or both? Winner doesn’t help us to decide. It begins to feel perilously as though a good idea is being stretched too thin over too few pegs. We need more support before we can tread confidently on this kind of ground.

And what happened to the food angle? Or for that matter to the beauty promised in the subhead? They got lost. The sudden descent into Jewish-Christian polemic turns what was elegant, idiosyncratic fusion cuisine into a kind of unwholesome stodge, over-boiled and half-baked at the same time. What’s the point of it all? Winner suddenly sees everything in terms of black and white and the nuances of all those Fellini films he loves so much are lost. Which is a pity, because nuanced history is always more interesting.

But let’s return to the positive. On the back dust jacket there is a short blurb offering up the work to the reading public and modestly hoping that it gives them “something to chew on”. It certainly does. And when the indigestion passes I’ll be left with the feeling that I took something away, something useful: an insight into human attitudes as well as insider knowledge of where to find the best tiramisù on the planet. Both of them very valuable things.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber, contributing author of Blue Guide Rome (10th edition) and compiler of Blue Guide Literary Companion Rome .

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

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