Flights of the Enchanter

Noël Annan

  • A Traveller’s Alphabet: Partial Memoirs by Steven Runciman
    Thames and Hudson, 214 pp, £16.95, February 1991, ISBN 0 500 01504 X

At the end of the First World War a schoolboy at Eton had come to the conclusion that people could be divided into the stupids (the hearties) or the sillies (the clever trendies). Nor did his teachers escape censure. He thought them ill-informed, and one wrote wistfully in his end-of-term report: ‘I wish this boy were kinder to me.’ Steven Runciman was already beginning to see history in a different perspective from his mentors. In those days one was taught that during the Dark Ages the Catholic Church civilised each wave of barbarians and preserved the link with the ancient world through the Holy Roman Empire. It tried to deflect the kings and counts from their endless feudal warfare by inspiring them with the noble ideal of the Crusades. True, the Crusades failed to liberate the Middle East from the infidel, but the fall of Constantinople liberated those forces that led to the Renaissance and revived the learning of the ancient world.

Runciman dismissed this view of history. The city that preserved the culture of the ancient world was not Rome. It was Constantinople. When the Goths and Vandals sacked Rome, Constantinople preserved the culture of the Hellenistic world and what was left of the Roman Empire. The West was defended against Islam by the Byzantine Empire which stretched from Asia Minor to Eastern Europe and was governed by an efficient bureaucracy and army. It was the Orthodox, not the Catholic, Church that sustained Greek civilisation even through the centuries of Turkish occupation. The Crusaders were, in fact, the last of the barbarian invaders. They were amazed by the wealth and learning of Constantinople; and, like the barbarians who destroyed Rome, they destroyed the power of Byzantium to resist the Turks. They thus severed the last link with ancient Rome. Were they not the spiritual ancestors of the stupids on the playing-fields of Eton?

The pursuit of archives and Crusader battlefields led Runciman first to Bulgaria and then to the Middle East, and during his long life – he is now 88 – he became an indefatigable traveller. It has amused him to give an account of his travels by allotting the letters of the alphabet to places he has visited: C for Cambodia, Q for Queensland, Y for Yucatan. He was helped by his connections. If you are the grandson of the founder of a shipping line and the son of a cabinet minister, ships give you passage and embassies open their doors. But he had his share or misfortunes. Cars break down, mules are recalcitrant, permits unobtainable. It took him three visits to the Euphrates to see Ur of the Chaldees. He often fell ill: amoebic dysentery on one visit to India, lumbago the next, hepatitis in the West Indies, poisoned in Bulgaria, appendicitis in Stockholm, sciatica in Istanbul, enteric disorder in Mexico. ‘There is much to be said for enjoying ill-health when one is young,’ he says. ‘One learns not ... to take it too seriously’.

Yet as he is handed on from host to host, you realise that there is more to him than his connections. Steven Runciman is enchanting company. The art of travel is, whenever possible, to repay kindness. A word from him to an old friend in the Free French administration in Syria elicits a passport for a young Turkish boy who had just become head of the Mevlevi Order and had to visit all the dervish communities to have his knee kissed. Runciman was to have his reward. A delegation waits on him when he visits those parts, and dervishes whirl in his honour. Travel instructs, and it also amuses. He observes some well-born Continentals staying at a Scottish baronial castle decked in kilts ‘in order to savour what they thought was Highland life’; and he is startled by a boy in the Philippines giving a remarkable performance as Lady Macbeth and showing ‘a quality of sinister ambition that was somewhat disquieting’. He relishes the expression on the faces of a group of Rotarians and their matrons watching a cabaret consisting of four boys and girls dancing naked, painted gilt and leering at the guests. He notes how the monks on Mount Athos resent a visit from the Patriarch and sabotage it by making sure his entourage ran short of food. In North Borneo both Catholic and Protestant missionaries were trying to persuade the Dyaks to desist from head-hunting. But the Dyaks were puzzled that one set of holy men married but would not touch alcohol and the other set of holy men drank alcohol but would not marry.

One of his hobbies is a little unusual. He collects queens. Queen Sophia of Greece is maligned for corresponding with her brother the Kaiser: ‘a sad fate for someone whose whole idea of bliss had been to spend a week or two at Eastbourne’. His favourite was Queen Marie of Romania. She wrote the best of all royal memoirs and, remembering Disraeli, he used to murmur to her: ‘We historians, Ma’am ... ’ She once sent for him to her bedroom, though not for the purpose for which she was renowned, and he found her bed was made out of an ancient iconostasis, ‘hardly suitable for a piece of holy wood but perhaps all right for a crowned and anointed queen’. One of his best chapters is the account of his visit to Thailand as the guest of Prince Chula, who had been a Cambridge undergraduate when Runciman was a young don at Trinity. At a ball in Bangkok a dazzling young woman waved at him and he asked Chula who she was. ‘But you met him the other day. That is the Minister for Education.’ Unfortunately, discretion overcomes him where our own Royal Family is concerned: I seem to remember him citing as a fine example of a royal joke George V’s habitual greeting to Chula when he went to luncheon at Buckingham Palace: ‘How’s your uncle Damrong? I always tell him he’ll never be any good until he’s damn right.’

He has some curious and disturbing accomplishments. On the rare occasions when he gambles or bets he wins. He can sometimes be persuaded to tell people’s fortune by the Tarot cards. He tells Sophia Loren in Hollywood she will be burgled: she loses all her jewels in London. He tells a woman on board ship she will soon be a widow: when she lands she is told her husband is at death’s door. Before the war he told a governess that she would have a blank period in her life when she would seem to be dead, but that she would survive. Years later they meet, and she says that that prediction of survival kept her and her son alive in a Japanese concentration camp. The walls of his rooms in Trinity were elaborately decorated with marvellous rococo scenes. He does not add that when he left Cambridge a philistine mathematician stripped them. A malediction was uttered. Shortly afterwards he died. Steven Runciman is most susceptible to ghosts, and at once senses a house of ill-omen. He is not averse to sorcery. The witch in Mexico from whom he hoped to buy love potions for his friends had taken the day off, and he declined to purchase as a substitute a dried humming-bird to dangle in one’s bosom.

Greece is his second country. A street is named after him in Mistra and he thinks there was no greater tragedy in history than the sack of the holy sites in Constantinople by the Frankish knights. But he is at home in Turkey and for three and half year during the war was a professor in Istanbul. It so happened that president Inönü had discovered Byzantine history was not taught in the University. Using the jussive accelerative tens, he ordered a professor in the subject to be appointed. The Minister of Education in a tizzy appealed to the head of the British Council at Ankara for help. He was the ancient historian and fellow of Trinity Michael Grant, and he put Runciman’s name forward. He got to know every inch of the city, an advantage when he came to write his lecture on the last days of Constantinople. He is not a spell-binder on the rostrum, but that lecture brings tears to the eyes.

‘I have never found it easy to be unhappy for long,’ he writes, and on his travels he found simple pleasure in the sound of the wompoo pigeons or in the lyre-birds who call and mimic. He has his dislikes: Gide’s pale green face. Lawrence (T.E.), modern architecture, and the complacent air of moral laxity in San Francisco which ‘takes away all pleasure from sin’. He laments that man’s arrogant technology has eroded the mystery which is the true basis of religion. The Holy Sepulchre may disappoint some, but for him it is a testimony to the unknowable and to our own insignificance.

In my third year at Cambridge a pupil of his at Trinity and myself used to dine with him once a week. I don’t remember him talking much about history. But whatever it was fashionable to dislike, he praised, and he opened one’s eyes. He would tense and gossip and uncover vistas of experience and pleasure ahead. He made one less of a show off, less censorious, less opinionated, slightly less silly. I cannot forget the delight of those days and the debt I owe him.