I had a great day at the Althorp Literary Festival, home of the late Princess Diana.
First I heard Artemis Cooper talk about her biography of Paddy Leigh Fermor, war hero, traveller and lothario. “Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) was a war hero whose exploits in Crete are legendary, and he is widely acclaimed as (one of?) the greatest travel writer of our times, notably for his books about his walk across pre-war Europe….Artemis Cooper has drawn on years of interviews and conversations with Paddy and his closest friends as well as having complete access to his archives. Her beautifully crafted biography portrays a man of extraordinary gifts - no one wore their learning so playfully, nor inspired such passionate friendship.” Or indeed love in so many women, often rich ones. Fascinating. Here is a review from the Independent.
Then it was The Return of a King by William Dalrymple. This is the story of a British disaster, not something we were taught at school. Gripping stuff and embarrassing too. Here is the blurb.
On the way in, the British faced little resistance. But after two years of occupation, the Afghan people rose in answer to the call for jihad and the country exploded into violent rebellion. The First Anglo-Afghan War ended in Britain's greatest military humiliation of the nineteenth century: an entire army of the then most powerful nation in the world ambushed in retreat and utterly routed by poorly equipped tribesmen.
Return of a King is the definitive analysis of the First Afghan War, told through the lives of unforgettable characters on all sides and using for the first time contemporary Afghan accounts of the conflict. Prize-winning and bestselling historian William Dalrymple's masterful retelling of Britain's greatest imperial disaster is a powerful and important parable of colonial ambition and cultural collision, folly and hubris, for our times.”