There will always be an England.

“There’ll always be an England.”[1] You know why? ‘Cause it’s a country filled with strong-minded flakes, that’s why.

Elizabeth Wiskemann (1899-1971) had a German father and a British mother. She went up to Oxford to study history, then went to grad school there. Her dissertation flunked because it contradicted the argument of one of the readers and her supervisor didn’t have the “cojones” to fight for her. So she settled for tutoring Oxford undergraduates for half the year and travelling throughout Europe the rest of the year. She visited Weimar Berlin a lot, but also travelled throughout Europe. Wiskemann became an ardent critic of Nazi Germany, so the Nazis expelled her in 1936. During the Second World War, she worked for British Intelligence in Switzerland. Here she became the lover of Adam von Trott zu Solz, one of the conspirators who tried to kill Hitler on 20 July 1944. When he left her to return to Germany, he accidentally left behind his gloves. Soon afterward, Von Trott was hanged. She kept the gloves as a momento. After the war she wrote books. When her eye-sight failed, she took her own life.[2]

Sybille Bedford (1911-2006) grew up in Germany and Italy in the Twenties and Thirties.   She got to know many British and French writers on the Riviera. Actually, she was German and only became British through education and a marriage of convenience with a gay British man who married her to prevent her from being sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis. (Her discovery that she was a lesbian after her first night with a clumsy, self-absorbed man is hilarious.) Later, she became a writer who reported on British criminal cases, wrote novels, a biography of her friend Alduous Huxley, and a couple of highly-deceptive memoirs.[3]

Patrick Leigh-Fermor (1915-2011) had no talent for coloring inside the lines. He managed to be expelled from a series of “progressive” schools in interwar Britain. Then he failed to gain entry to the British equivalent of West Point. One school report card described him as “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness.” In December 1933 he set out to walk from Holland to Istanbul, Turkey. In January 1935 he arrived, having travelled on foot through Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Rumania. Later, he fought in a Greek civil war, then served as a British Commando in German-occupied Crete. After the war, he became a travel writer.[4]

Eric Newby (1919-2006) got a good education, but never went near a university. After a couple of years in advertising, he signed on as an apprentice seaman on the square-rigged grain clipper “Moshulu.”[5] In 1938-1939 he made the passage from Belfast to Australia to London in the “last grain race” before the outbreak of the Second World War. He joined the Commandos after the war started, got captured on a raid, escaped from the prison camp, met his future wife, got re-captured, spent the rest of the war in a prison camp in Germany, went into the dress trade, got bored, went for a short walk in the Hindu Kush, and became a travel writer.[6]

[1] See:

[2] See: The Europe I Saw (1968). Her description of a sailing trip along the Croatian coast led me and my wife to a similar adventure.

[3] See: Jigsaw (1989); Quicksands (2005)

[4] See: A Time of Gifts (1977); Between the Woods and the Water (1986); and see also W. Stanley Moss, Ill Met by Moonlight (1950), which recounts the 1944 kidnapping of the German commander of the Crete garrison by Leigh Fermor and Moss. You can’t make up this stuff. Or:

[5][5] Now a floating restaurant on the Philadelphia waterfront. “How are the mighty fallen.” 2 Samuel, 1: 27.

[6] See: The Last Grain Race (1956); A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958); Love and War in the Apennines (1971); and Learning the Ropes (1991).

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