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The taste of freedom


Discovering the Norman culture of Sicily
John Julius Norwich Writer
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And then in 1961 we had a Middle East crisis – surprise, surprise. Iraq tried to take over Kuwait. This was not the Saddam Hussein occasion, this was 10 years before. Exactly the same thing happened. 20 years before, I never knew when. A man called Abd al-Karim Qasim tried to take over Kuwait. And there was a frightful crisis, as a result of which I was pinned to my desk throughout the summer, every day, including weekends, at one moment, and a good deal of the night. And the result was that we didn't get any leave until mid-October, at which point I said to my wife, 'We've got to go somewhere... if we want any warmth and sunshine, we've got to go somewhere fairly well south now; it's, you know, it's mid-October.' And so we went to Sicily. And we had a wonderful time in Sicily. We hired a little car. Well, actually, I think we drove there. Yes, I think we drove there, that's right, and wandered around for 10 days. And I was absolutely flabbergasted by the Norman monuments, because I'd no idea... I mean, I think I perhaps had a vague idea that the Normans had at one moment been in Sicily, but I didn't know why or where or anything about it. But the monuments that they'd left behind them were so extraordinary, because they combined, as I've never seen any other monument combine, the three great civilisations of the Mediterranean: the Latin, the Greek and the Arab all came together. And this was in the 12th century, a century when... the century of the Crusades, when a few hundred miles to the east they were bashing each other's brains out, and yet in this one little island it was all working perfectly, and this seemed to be absolutely thrilling.

And when we got back to London, I went straight to the London Library to read about it, and discovered that there really were no readable books on the subject at all, in English, anyway. And there were two unreadable volumes by a French archivist, called Monsieur Chalandon, published in 1910. I read those, and they were marvellously informative, I mean, he'd done all the research; he'd been everywhere; he'd taken up everything. He'd put in things like indexes, which were very rare in 1910, and bibliographies and all that. And one... the only thing he hadn't done was seen the point of anything he wrote at all. He never made any comments, never any... never gave any opinion; it was just fact after fact after fact, and it was a tedium absolutely indescribable. But it was all there. So I decided that I had to write this book. And I think I really knew that I couldn't write it while I was still a member of the Foreign Office. I had friends – Philip Ziegler, Douglas Hurd – who wrote books in their spare time, but this was going to take an awful lot of time at a library and a lot of research and that sort of thing, and I knew I was actually going to have... at one moment, I was going to have to choose: was I going to do this or would I leave the Foreign Service and do this for the rest of my life, or not?

And then, I think it was 1963, that's right, 1963 that I decided really that – at least I semi-decided – that I was going to leave the Foreign Office forever. And it was an agonising decision, because, I mean, Foreign Service is a very good job; it's got admirable prospects. I might have ended up as an ambassador somewhere; in fact, I almost certainly would have. And I had a wife and two children to support and practically no money of my own at all. I was living on my salary plus… I had a little sort of camel's hump that might last me for two years, but not more. And so I was very, very uncertain what to do. And I went…  But, anyway, I made an appointment with the personnel department and said, 'I'm going.' And John Henniker-Major, who was the head of the department, said, 'Oh, John Julius, are you sure? Are you really, really sure?' And I said, 'No, I'm not really sure. I'm in a terrible way. I mean, I can't decide. I'm in agony of indecision.' So he said, 'Well, I'll tell you what we'll do – we'll put you on disponibilité for a year, during which time you will not be paid and you will not have to come to the office at all. You will remain a member of the service, and at any time you like you can come back into active duty again. But otherwise, for a year... and you mustn't get involved in politics and you mustn't take another full-time job. And I said, 'Well, that's absolutely wonderful. That's what we'll do.'

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: Sicily, John Henniker-Major

Duration: 6 minutes, 3 seconds

Date story recorded: 2017

Date story went live: 03 October 2018