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The remarkable Patrick Leigh Fermor


My father's death
John Julius Norwich Writer
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[Q] Your father died quite young?

He died very young, indeed, yes. He died at sea. He was on his way, on holiday, to stay with a friend in Jamaica, and he got a sudden very, very, very bad haemorrhage at sea, and the ship put into Vigo in Spain, by which time he was dead. And my mother was clearly in a terrible way about it. He'd been ill for a long time, but he… I think he knew he was dying, but we didn't, he never told us. And I was working at the Foreign Office at about 5 o'clock one afternoon and the telephone rang and it was my mother saying, 'Darling, it's the worst.' And I sort of suspected what that must mean, but she said, 'Papa's dead and now I'm in Vigo with…' – he's been put in this sort of huge Spanish, wildly-carved Baroque coffin – 'and I've got to get him to London. Can you arrange for a plane to come and pick us up?'

And I managed to find some sort of private air company that did this sort of thing. But the sad thing was, they said, 'Yes, we could do it, all right.' And I said, 'Good, well, I'll… you know, where are you taking off from? I'll be there.' And they said, 'I'm afraid we won't have room for you and a body and a heavy coffin and your mother. We can't take anybody more.' So I couldn't go to her, as I wanted to, and I had to wait till she got back to London. But, anyway, there it was. And she was in a very bad way for about a year and drank too much, and it was all rather awful and embarrassing, and I was afraid she'd never get over it. But she did. She got over it very, very well in the end and went on for another quarter of a century. I mean, she was actually a widow longer than she was a wife and lived to be 94.

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: father, sea, Vigo, coffin, mother, widow, death

Duration: 2 minutes, 25 seconds

Date story recorded: 2017

Date story went live: 03 October 2018