John Julius Norwich

I owe the late Lord Norwich a great debt of gratitude. When I first had the idea of writing The Venice Lido, I immediately sought his advice, which he generously gave. I took to arriving at his house in Little Venice for champagne-fueled tutorials on the glamorous social life of the Lido. He began by saying that were he thirty years younger, this was a book he himself would consider writing. This was encouragement enough in itself. He also kindly arranged for me to meet the biographer and historian, Hugo Vickers. “He has a card index, you know, of everyone who was anyone at the time.” Card index was uttered sotto voce, as though it were some terrifying instrument of medieval sorcery that Vickers was obliged to keep well hidden in his Kensington apartment. For the rest, he told me some fascinating stories, notably one about how, as a little boy, he’d sat next to Churchill at the Venice screening of a film about gypsies. It turned out that one of Churchill’s idiosyncrasies was a tendency to talk incessantly during films, occasionally to companions but mostly to himself, delivering an oratorically flawless running commentary on the triumphs and tribulations of the characters. “Poor people…” he murmured with exquisite timing, as the camera panned in on the squalor of the gypsy encampment. “Poor, poor people…” Later in the film, one of the hotter-blooded gypsies flew into a temper and strangled his sweetheart to death. “Jealousy,” said Churchill with conviction, turning to the infant Norwich. ‘Jealousy…” – he lowered his voice for effect – “the basest of human instincts…”

An “infant” Norwich with his mother, Lady Diana Cooper.

I last saw John Julius at Patrick Leigh Fermor’s memorial service at St James’s, Piccadilly, when he and his daughter Artemis sang Leigh Fermor’s Italian translations of D’Ye Ken John Peel? and Widdicombe Fair. He then gave the address, celebrating his friend’s achievements and their fifty-year friendship. It was also a perfect celebration of that increasingly rare breed of Englishman, one that embraces and is deeply knowledgeable about European culture. As he spoke, I recalled one of our evenings in Little Venice. After a glass too many, I had started rambling on about how I’d sworn never to become one of those “proprietorial” English authors who swan about the Italian or Greek landscape, acting as though they own it. “Give it time, Robin,” murmured John Julius. “Give it time…”

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