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Conrad Russell, the Gothic farmer


Chronicles of a time gone by
John Julius Norwich Writer
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So, a few years ago I published my father's diaries. Some people were rather surprised that I should've done so because they were very frank about his innumerable love affairs, which, incidentally, my mother knew all about and didn't mind a bit. I asked her once if she minded my father's escapades and she said, 'Darling, why should I mind, they made him happy, and I always knew they were the flowers, I was the tree', which I think is an admirable philosophy. Anyway, I published my father's diaries. Sadly, there are one or two gaps, but it was not my fault. It's just that either he didn't write them or they somehow got lost, I don't know. There's very little, for example, about the abdication of Edward VIII and there's very little, really, about the beginning of the Second World War, which is what one would really love to have much more of. But he did write an autobiography, of course, which put in a lot of that. But anyway, they went down very well. I think it's quite an important document because, I mean, he was there in the thick of the whole thing and because he's writing about his private life as well, it's very nice to see what was going on really sort of from both sides, what it was like living through the war as well as what it was like taking the decisions that affected it.

And then, a few years later, about 5 years ago now, I decided to publish my mother's letters to me, or some of them, the principal ones, written between 1940, when I was basically 10, 9, 10, and 1950, when I was 19, 20. And my mother was an absolutely superb correspondent. They are marvellous letters. I mean, they're as good letters as I've read in the 20th century. They're extremely funny. They give a wonderful picture, again, of life in the war and her life in the war ranged from keeping a smallholding little farm on our 5 acres in Sussex, milking the cow twice a day and going and getting the swill for the pigs and all that sort of thing, making a cheese every other day, which she always said was the happiest time of her life. And then, going straight from there to flying all over the Far East with my father in 1941, which can't have been fun. She hated flying anyway, she was terrified of aeroplanes, but wherever my father went, she went, and it was no good the top brass saying I'm afraid we don't take women. With my mother, they did. She just insisted. And so she then flew all around the Far East. It was useless. The idea was to give a report on the defences of the Far East and the a) there were none and b) the Japanese were in long before anything could be done about it. And then she went back to her smallholding again and was happy again. And then in 1944 went off to Algiers where my father was made representative to General de Gaulle. So, I mean, it was a very eventful period in her life and she's written it... it's almost like a diary, I mean, these letters that she writes to me. They're wonderful letters. They're extremely funny, so I'm very, very glad to have been responsible for getting them out into the public gaze.

John Julius Norwich (1929-2018) was an English popular historian, travel writer and television personality. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer. He is the author of histories of Norman Sicily, the Republic of Venice, the Byzantine Empire and, most recently, 'The Popes: A History'. He also wrote on architecture, music and the history plays of Shakespeare, and presented some thirty historical documentaries on BBC Television.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: diaries, love affairs, war, letters, farm, flying, Far East

Duration: 3 minutes, 41 seconds

Date story recorded: 2017

Date story went live: 03 October 2018