A Reading Trail


One of the great joys that reading brings to me—and I suspect to many others—is that of finding oneself at the start of a literary trail. I’m in the middle of one at the moment. And it all started with Slightly Foxed. My sister-in-law gave me a subscription for my birthday a couple of years ago; she also loaned me a book about Cairo in World War II. She had intended to give it to her mother who had spent a substantial period in Cairo at that time. Unfortunately she was never able to read it. It is a fascinating account of an interesting time and my first introduction to the work of Artemis Cooper. While being thoroughly researched Cooper’s lively prose makes it a fascinating read, and not just for those interested in war history.

The first thing that struck me in Cairo was a reference to Keith Douglas whose poetry had been published in 1941 in a literary magazine called Citadel, edited by one R. D. ‘Reggie’ Smith who was also in Cairo at this time with his wife, Olivia Manning. A few pages later Cooper also mentions Douglas’s book on the North African campaign, Alamein to Zem Zem. I had read some of Douglas’s poetry before but not much. The poetry of WWI has always seemed to dominate the GCE/GCSE syllabus but most people doing English will have come across Douglas’s Simplify me when I am dead, probably his most anthologised poem. However, Alamein to Zem Zem was new to me. Later in Cairo Cooper offers some insights into Douglas’s personality. Referring to his ‘insufferable impatience’ she quotes Douglas: ‘The experience of war is something I must have’; and in order to do so he committed an act of near insubordination. In fact he lied. His orders were to remain at Divisional HQ but he ignored them. Instead, he drove up through the lines to the front where he told the regiment’s commanding officer that division had ordered him there. And got away with it. She also describes him as ‘robust and athletic for a poet’; and ‘keen, intelligent and courageous’. And to add to this one of his military colleagues said: ‘I like you, sir. You’re shit or bust, you are’. So taken with Cairo was I that after returning the borrowed copy I decided to buy one of my own. It was out of print so I went looking on the internet to discover that the Penguin edition is collectable and was selling at quite a premium. I decided to wait before buying Cairo but got on with following the trail I was now being drawn along.

So, the trail starts with Keith Douglas. I bought Alamein to Zem Zem and what an extraordinary story it is. I also came across Penelope Lively’s Slightly Foxed piece on Douglas. Zem Zem has been described as experimental and it is certainly different from any other war narrative I’ve read. He writes prose sometimes with a poet’s eye and it is always vivid and often harrowing. The descriptions of how men live and die in a desert war are treated with equal power:  a man in pain ‘kicks his legs like a baby’. Occasionally he can, though, sound almost matter-of-fact but this only adds to the power. Now came the time to have another look at Douglas’s poetry so I bought the complete poems which includes Ted Hughes’s magnificent Introduction. As Lively pointed out, when he died ‘He had hardly found his voice as a poet…”. However, among his juvenilia there are some poems of astonishing maturity and he had developed a form that he clearly found congenial; three stanzas each of six lines with a particular rhyme scheme. He also manages several villanelles; not an easy form to master.

The trail continues with Patrick Leigh Fermor. Andrew Merrills has written about Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water in Slightly Foxed issue no: 38. However, his name cropped up again in Cairo. Where—following his exploits in Crete, recounted in William Moss’s Ill Met by Moonlight, which involved kidnapping the General commanding the German forces occupying Crete and smuggling him off the island to Egypt—Fermor had been posted.  They were lively times there in Cairo in the house Fermor and his cronies called Tara. Cooper describes Fermor as ‘…half Byron, half pantomime pirate…’ They threw many wild parties fuelled by liquor both legitimately and illicitly acquired which, among other incidents, included shooting out light bulbs; allowing the escape into the next door garden of one of the mongooses, kept in Tara by one of the female occupants, where it savaged the family parrot. The parrot survived only to perish in a subsequent attack. This picture of Fermor painted by Artemis Cooper set me going on A Time of Gifts immediately followed by Between the Woods and the Water. They form the first two books of a proposed trilogy written many years after the walk across Europe that Fermor undertook in 1933, just as Adolf HItler had risen to power in Germany. Fermor was just eighteen when he set out. Colourful, not always truthful but immensely readable, they were written by a mature writer looking back to his youth using the journals he kept on the walk. Fermor also wrote many other books—so far unread by me—that have transformed him into the doyen of travel writers. I look forward to pursuing that trail later.

For me though the trail was to take me back to Artemis Cooper. Published some 5 or so years after Cairo, Paris after the Liberation, which she co-wrote with her husband Anthony Beevor, is a harrowing account of a post-war Paris trying to reconcile itself to its new-found freedom against a background of recrimination, privation and a good deal of score-settling with collaborators.

Cooper comes from a distinguished and well-connected family and this has undoubtedly opened many doors for her and provided her with much source material to draw on that would be unavailable to other biographers. She had access to the unpublished private diaries and papers of her grandparents, Sir Alfred Duff Cooper (later 1st Viscount Norwich), the first post-war British ambassador to Paris, and Lady Diana Cooper. Her personal connections were to include Patrick Leigh Fermor, whom she met in Greece as a 17 year old, and who had a long and close relationship with her grandmother, Diana Cooper. This meant that Artemis was in prime position to to write the splendid biography of Leigh Fermor—the next point in my reading trail—which she published to much acclaim in 2012. It is a most engaging read and Fermor’s extraordinary personality is wonderfully drawn. This was the most recent of Copper’s books I’ve read, and all of them have for me been captivating. I still have several to go yet. She has also written Elizabeth David’s authorised biography; edited a collection of the letters between Duff and Diana Cooper, and between Evelyn Waugh and Diana Cooper; she is editing the final unfinished volume completing the account of Fermor’s journey on foot through pre-war Europe.

So, the trail goes on but who knows what diversion will set me off in a different direction, on another trail.


NB The editions of the books here referenced are my personal copies so first publication dates have not necessarily been used.

Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, published by Slightly Foxed Ltd, 53 Hoxton Square, London N1 6PB

Cairo in the War 1939-1945, Artemis Cooper, 1995,  Penguin ISBN  0-14-024781-5 In fact, my dear sister-in-law gave me back as a birthday present the very copy she had loaned me

 Alamein to Zem Zem, Keith Douglas, 2008, Faber Finds, ISBN 978-0-571-24194-1

See the splendid The Poet and Piccadilly Jim, Penelope Lively, Slightly Foxed No: 39

Complete Poems, Keith Douglas, 3rd Edition 1998, Faber & Faber ISBN 978-0-571-27671-4

Ill Met by Moonlight, William Moss, Folio Society, 2001

A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Murray 1977 ISBN 978-0-7195-6695-0

Between the Woods and the Water, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Murray 1986 ISBN 978-0-7195-6696-7

Paris after the Liberation 1944-1949, Antony Beevor & Artemis Cooper, Penguin, 1995, ISBN 978-0-141-03241-2

 Patrick Leigh Fermor – An adventure, Artemis Cooper, John Murray, 2012, ISBN 978-0-7195-5449-0

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