Thursday 28 August 2014

Hide and Seek

This month The Folio Society republished one of the great memoirs of the Second World War; Xan Fielding’s Hide & Seek. Described by Antony Beevor as, ‘one of the great modern books not just of the Cretan resistance; it is one of the great books of the Second World War’, Hide & Seek recounts with powerful immediacy, humour and unsparing honesty the drama, tedium, exhilaration and anguish of organising reconnaissance and resistance behind enemy lines on Crete.

The Folio Society's new edition of
Xan Fielding's Hide & Seek,
courtesy of The Folio Society
I first read Hide & Seek when I was researching my biography of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent during the war. Christine had saved Xan’s life, at huge personal risk, in the summer 1944 while they were both serving in occupied France. Xan never forgot his debt, and dedicated Hide & Seek to Christine’s memory, so I was thrilled when Folio asked me to write the introduction for their new edition of the book. I now had the chance to look more deeply into the other side of the story, reading around Xan’s life and talking to many people who knew him.

In my experience the people connected with an extraordinary character, such as Christine Granville or Xan Fielding, have been unfailingly generous with their time, papers, photos and stories. Xan had many remarkable friends, from Paddy Leigh Fermor and Bill Stanley Moss, both of whom also served with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Crete, to Laurence Durrell, Evelyn Waugh, Henry Millar, Dirk Bogarde and Lucien Freud. Friends, children, and children-of-friends, kindly shared stories with me over sandwiches, or over the internet.

Anecdotes covered everything from Freud’s dead monkey, which was apparently usually kept in his fridge but eventually decomposed when left forgotten in his studio, to Daphne Fielding’s budgerigar, the only creature allowed near Xan’s Remington typewriter, as it ‘delighted in the ping of the bell at the end of each line which heralded an exciting struggle to maintain balance as the roller rotated and carriage whizzed back’. I learnt of revealing private dedications hidden penned inside personal copies of Hide & Seek, and discovered the wonderful advert Xan placed in The Times, when he was seeking work in 1950: ‘Tough but sensitive ex-classical scholar, ex-secret agent, ex-guerrilla leader, 31, recently reduced to penury through incompatibility with post-war world… Would do anything unreasonable and unexpected if sufficiently rewarding and legitimate’. There are, of course, many wonderful stories, and you can read more of them in my introduction to the Folio edition of Hide & Seek.

Paddy Leigh Fermor with Xan Fielding
courtesy of The National Library of Scotland
Besides the stories of this remarkable group of friends I also found - and this is a first – the editorial issues fascinating! I wanted to see the manuscript that Folio was using so that I could page reference my quotes, but here was another issue... Hide & Seek was first published in 1954. Xan wrote from his wartime notebooks - a collection only missing the one volume inconsiderately eaten by Cretan pigs in 1942 - and the book is refreshingly immediate. But in the 1980s he had sat down with Paddy to amend the manuscript for a new Greek-language edition. They removed a few offensive phrases that had not dated well, and modified some of the less flattering character portraits, but Xan did not seem happy with the process.

With admirable diligence Folio tracked down Paddy and Xan’s revisions and set to work deciding which version of the manuscript to print. In the end, being, their editor told me, ‘very conscious of… the risk of tearing the fabric of the text’, they made very few editorial interventions to the original manuscript. As a result, in this edition Xan again speaks his mind freely, vividly expressing his not-uncritical love for the place and people of Crete, as well as the fierce anger he felt at much of the conduct of the war.

Reproduction SOE map of Crete, annotated by Paddy Leigh Fermor
and included in the new Folio edition of Hide & Seek,
courtesy of The Folio Society
Hide & Seek is not the only one of Xan’s books to have been republished recently, nor is The Folio Society the only publisher interested in this rich seam of war memoir. Paul Dry Books republished this and his other Cretan book, The Stronghold, last year, as well as, in 2010, Bill Stanley Moss’s Ill Met By Moonlit, the account of his and Paddy’s kidnapping of the German General of the island that was later made into a film starring Dirk Bogarde. (Xan had been otherwise engaged, and also too dark-skinned to pass as the requisite ‘Aryan’ German officer, so did not take part in that exploit, but some years later he did serve as advisor during filming, lending his own clothes to Bogarde to give an air of authenticity. Striding around in chinos and espadrilles, apparently Xan was amused to overhear Bogarde’s dresser describe him as still looking, ‘like a fucking little killer’.) Moss’s other book, A War of Shadows, was also republished, by Bene Factum Publishing, earlier this year, and Paddy Leigh Fermor's previously unpublished account of the kidnapping, 'Abducting a General' will soon be published by John Murray, while Bloomsbury has just signed up a new account of the same incident by Rick Stroud. Both Paddy and Bill Stanley Moss also knew Christine Granville in war-time Egypt, and Bill and his Polish wife, Zofia Tarnowska, later named their daughter Christine in her honour.

When I write a biography I am always sadly aware of all the fabulous stories that I cannot include, and the incidental but remarkable characters that there is no room to develop although they are often fully deserving of biographies of their own. So I am delighted to have been able to contribute to this Folio edition of Hide & Seek, and even more so that Folio has also added lots of new photos, a pull-out reproduction of his and Paddy's SOE map of Crete, along with some of Xan's previously unpublished correspondence, making it a really terrific new edition.

It turns out that manuscripts also have lives of their own, with hidden stories, strategic translations and freshly edited republications and, as with people, it is only a matter of judgement which versions are the most authentic, which voice most true, and which should be remembered or retold.

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