Arts & Books Books

Entertainment right down to the footnotes – the best books of 2018

Patrick Leigh Fermor outside Buckingham Palace, 1950 (Getty)

I haven’t been able to shake Patricia Byrne’s The Preacher and the Prelate (Merrion Press, 258pp, £13.99/$24.99) from my mind since reading it back in the summer. It recounts events on Achill Island before, during and after the Great Famine of the mid 19th century, when Edward Nangle, a Protestant clergyman, inflamed by his own rectitude and utterly convinced that the destitution of the rural Irish was a consequence of their Catholic faith, established a mission colony that would eventually face charges of “souperism”: buying the souls of the poor with food.

Some brief flashes of sensationalism aside, Byrne leads us with skill and thoroughness through these events. In doing so, she opens a window on one suffering corner of a whole society that had become, to quote John MacHale, the Catholic Archbishop of Tuam, “unhinged”.

Moments of kindness are rare but precious. The mission doctor, Neason Adams, is compassionate and of service to all. A priest tells islanders that if they took their needs wherever they found help, “it would be no sin”. Children tell visitors that they will go back to their own chapel “when the potatoes come again”.

I am not sure Ireland has yet come to terms with, or even properly faced up to, the full effect of the Famine on the country and the Church. Works like this will be important sources if such a reckoning ever comes to pass.

***

I was delighted that Bruce Marshall’s The World, the Flesh and Father Smith (Human Adventure Press, 230pp, £12/$15) was reissued this year. It’s a novel consisting of episodes in the life of a conscientious, devout, occasionally cantankerous Scottish priest, whose social conscience is regularly troubled while serving in his inner-city parish. Marshall is an unjustly forgotten Catholic novelist of the mid 20th century. I am not suggesting that, in neglecting him, we have somehow overlooked another Waugh or Greene, but here is a writer who could ring comedy from the everyday encounters between a fallen world and the “vast supernatural machinery of the Church”.

And he was also capable of unleashing lines that cut to the quick. High-ranking British Army officers lined up in a bar drinking sherry and vermouth are all “good chaps primarily because they weren’t better chaps”. That’s from The Red Danube. Encouragingly, To Every Man a Penny, is due to come back into print next year.

***

I reviewed, glowingly, Dashing for the Post, the first volume of the late Patrick Leigh Fermor’s letters, for the Herald last year. So I was delighted to get my hands on its successor, More Dashing (Bloomsbury, 480pp, £30/$40), ready for another plunge deep into the vanished age of letter writing.

Reading this correspondence, which stretches all the way from 1938 to 2010, means being picked up and spun round in a “Paddy”-induced tornado of diplomats and ballerinas, poets and painters, Mitfords and Devonshires; of road-trips in Bentleys and port-laden dinners; of yachting expeditions on the Med and writing retreats in French monasteries. In the author’s signature terms, it is nearly all “tremendous fun” or “unspeakably charming” – or both.

My stomach for giddy accounts of toffs-at-play was, I will admit, severely tested in places. More of the prejudices of his class, tribe and time are on display here than perhaps anywhere else in Leigh Fermor’s work. All the same, his most attractive qualities still win through: the buccaneering spirit, the towering erudition, the playful wit and, above all, his insatiable lust for friendship (alongside, of course, the more familiar forms of lust).

As Frederic Raphael said of Paddy, “one feels he could not cross Oxford Street in less than two volumes, but what volumes they would be”. Even when inventing excuses not to travel on a certain day, the great man remains true to form by invoking the anniversary of the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

It remains a joy, therefore, to trail along in his wake as he criss-crosses Europe from Lismore Castle in Ireland, all over France and Spain and Italy, to his eventual settling place in Greece – house-sponging, looking up old friends and making new ones, throwing himself into parties, locking himself away in libraries, getting into brawls, chancing his arm about money, rhapsodising about architecture, history, literature, nature, folk customs, wine, food, nightclubs – and, now and then, buckling down to some actual work. Editor Adam Sisman gets through some fantastic labour down in the footnotes, many of which become miniature entertainments in themselves.

There is also a bass note of sadness running though More Dashing. The very first letter is a magnificent evocation of life at the house in Moldova of Balasha Cantacuzène, a Romanian princess, with whom Paddy had his first great love affair in 1938, at the age of 23. Later letters, though, are poignant efforts at staying in touch with Balasha, now impoverished and marooned behind the Iron Curtain. More Dashing may turn out to be the capstone on Patrick Leigh Fermor’s literary output. If so, it’s a splendid and very fitting one.