You know how it is…one thing leads to another. I was reading a review of a new life of John Pendlebury, a British archaelogist of the early decades of the last century. He was a scholar, a prodigy even, an athlete and outdoorsman, and when WWII rolled around, a soldier.JP spent a lot of his professional scholarly life “digging” in Crete and in Egypt, trying to unravel the relationship between those ancient cultures. He met his end on Crete when he was shot by the German forces, presumably because he out of uniform,and working as a spy and agent, a condition which would have removed him from the protections of the Geneva Convention. Reading the reivew put me in mind of another Englishman running around on Crete: Patrick Leigh Fermor. His A Time of Gifts recounts his attempt, as a very young man, to walk from the Dutch coast to Istanbul. It’s a gem of travel writing, a genre the British seem to have taken over almost completely. Fermor also got involved with the “spook” section of the Forces, parachuted or boated into and out of Crete several times. He was, get this, in charge of a coup de main which kidnapped a German general, Karl Kreipe, the garrison comander and spirited him off the island, while the troops went bananas trying to find him. All rather Bondish, and movieish, but absolutely the way it happened. While crossing some rough country at daybreak, Kreipe quoted a line from Horace, while looking at a distant mountain. Fermor finished the quote for him and then recited the rest of the ode. Their rather tense relationship improved somewhat after that, one Classicist to another and all. Fermor went on to write several other interesting books. I’ve wondered whether there wasn’t more “spook” in his work than he let on. He certainly got to some rather odd places. And finally, there was Michael Ventris, a former RAF navigator and architect who decided that he would decipher Cretan Linear B… a script that had been discovered there and had resisted every attack. He came to this rather remarkable resolve after having heard a lecture by the dean of Cretan, or Minoan, studies, Sir Arthur Evans. Ventris himself learned langauges very easily, but had little training in classical methods. But he was clever enough to identify all the researchers working on Linear B and get them to cooperate, with himself serving as the clearing house for information. It was a kind of pre-Internet blog or wiki, without computers. In 1952, he announced via BBC radio that he thought he had done it…deciphered what was probably the oldest known example of a writing system in Europe. After some initial scepticism about the work of an “outsider”, archaeologists and linguists were won round and his accomplishment recognized, especially after another young scholar, John Chadwick, began to collaborate on the decipherments. Unfortunately, Ventris died in an auto accident at the age of 34. Well, there it is: three very unusual men, all marvelously gifted, all accomplishing a great deal while they were very young. Crete, and things Cretan, were one element they had in common. That,and the fact they were among the last to feel the tug of the Ancient World and its literature, opened to them by the education they had been given, a kind of education that seems almost incredibly impractical to us now, but for them served as a stimulus and guide to adventure and achievement.
The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris by Andrew Robinson. Thames & Hudson (June 2002)
A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (Paperback),by Patrick Leigh Fermor.Penguin 1988. 012 100-494-73
THE RASH ADVENTURER;A life of John Pendlebury by Imogen Grundon. Libri. 2007 978 1 901965 06 3