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May 30, 2018249Views

Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman

Nigel Hillpaul reviews Minoo Dinshaw's biography of Byzantine historian and eccentric raconteur Steven Runciman

I once turned down an invitation to meet the subject of this biography (probably for a girl or a riot; it all seems to blur into one these days). In doing so, I missed the chance to shake a hand that had held someone who had danced with Prince Albert, the sort of historical chain that Steven Runciman would have revelled in.

This is a long book that a kinder or stricter editor would have shortened or divided into two volumes. It is, nonetheless, both entertaining and a guide to one of the harbingers of modern Byzantine Studies.

You could fill one volume with the vignettes and anecdotes of Runciman’s life (the image of George Blake, whose fondness for neat spirits and garlic left him with breath like a dragon, will stick with me). A life of wealth and social status that gave him access to people and places that ordinary folk of his time could only dream of gave him his subject matter, but the subsequent democratisation of history has not led to an increase in storytelling, but instead appears to have led to a degree of specialisation and niche history that has almost forgotten about the narrative.

The early, gilded, Liberal life does go on but is useful scene setting. He followed his brother to Eton, as a contemporary of Eric Blair, where the young Orwell (in another of the innumerable but wonderful vignettes) would defend Aldous Huxley, who was brought in to Eton as a teacher during World War One. Nearly blind, Huxley was bullied by pupils until Blair intervened. ‘A neat image: the prophet of Brave New World shielded by the creator of 1984 – perhaps a little too neat.' Which typifies the problem that runs like a thread through this book; how to unravel a subject who spent most of his life trying his best to avoid examination of his inner nature, by others or by himself.

A more lasting Eton friendship that serves as a metaphor for his later life was with George Rylands. ‘Glamour’ (a more contemporary translation would read ‘high camp’) was the quality Runciman said he admired most and Rylands embodied it and, at a pre-World War II Cambridge, fitted naturally into this highly-strung, Brideshead milieu. He got around the rule forbidding pianos in students’ rooms by buying an antique dulcitone, an instrument undreamed of by the college authorities, in yet another marvellous anecdote.

His Cambridge life was predominantly homosexual and homosocial, where he was, I believe, the subject of Cecil Beaton’s first portrait photo, the odd result of which graces the cover of this book. Topsy Lucas (is there a case for the reintroduction of inter-war nicknames?), the wife of a friend, fell for Runciman, but she is reported as saying ‘in a rattling staccato’: ‘I love Steven. Douglas has been with him. Steven has been seedy.’ A rare slip from his position of public intimacy as undesirable and, although this book makes it clear that he was aware of his sexuality, he regarded public knowledge of it as unnecessary, however much family and friends always knew; a much-quoted comment of his father’s: ‘I put up with the rouge and the mascara and the velvet clothes, but if I ever catch him sitting down to pee, I’ll cut him off without a penny.’ Later he claimed to have slept with people whose names began with every letter of the alphabet except Q, because the only possibility was Quentin Crisp and he couldn’t face it.

This book conveys great love for its subject, with an enthusiasm in describing every aspect of it and so demonstrating a huge amount of research, but I wouldn’t describe it as well organised; it is, as mentioned, far too long, regarding no detail as too trivial or anecdote as too tenuous to be crammed in.

However, in dealing with Runciman’s intellectual ability, which I think is what drew many of us to the book, the author is on surer footing. After his degree his eye fell on the Eastern Roman Empire as it offered the ‘exotic, unexpected perspective’ (which may say more about those of us who study it than we care to think) that he wanted, a combination of scholarship and the ever desirable glamour. His postgraduate work began under J.B. Bury, Regius Professor of Greek and Modern History, for whom history was essentially about facts. Runciman went on to build a reputation based on the contrasting view that it ‘belongs in the English department’, his three volume A History of the Crusades hooking this reviewer for life and which attracted a wider audience to a little-known aspect of history. Byzantine Civilisation was followed by The Medieval Manichee and Runciman acquired a reputation as an accomplished historian with a rich narrative streak.

Runciman’s war was unusual compared to a lot of his contemporaries: he began as a press attaché in Sofia and subsequently, after the Germans invaded, he went to Istanbul, to spend the rest of the war as Professor of Byzantine Art and History at Istanbul University. Although a city of wartime intrigue, it would difficult to say whether he had anything other than a comfortable time. As David Abulafia put it, if ‘he was something more than a professor of Byzantine studies… it would be absurd to cast him in the role of James Bond.’ After the war he went to Athens to the British Council where the atmosphere was as tense as his relationship with Patrick Leigh Fermor. His managerial style was summed up with: ‘He had two kinds of yesses, one short, even clipped, was a true affirmative; the other, long drawn out with a dip in the middle, signified “no”. The distinction was lost on Paddy, who on the strength of the longest of drawn out “yesses” would set out on a six-week tour of the islands or a trip round the Peloponnese.’ No doubt Runciman was not displeased to have the inspiration of Ill Met by Moonlight out of the office for a while. (You start to roll with the anecdotes and name-dropping by this point).

It was as a popularising historian that Runciman’s best qualities were on show. His love for his subject, his polished prose and his use of the philosopher’s stone of history; context, detail and narrative ensured the success of works like The Sicilian Vespers of 1958 and The Fall of Constantinople, 1453, published in 1965. The witty little asides also helped: ‘Alp Arslan,’ he tells us in The Crusades, was ‘a weak, vicious and cruel boy of 16, completely in the hands of his favourite eunuch, Lulu’.

The Great Church in Captivity, a study of the Orthodox Church under Ottoman rule, took him to the spiritual underpinnings of Byzantium, and though not himself a believer, he was always sympathetic to religious faith. As time passed he could almost be viewed as a victim of his own success, becoming so establishment that I struggle to think of any challenges to his reputation while alive, eventually becoming the insider’s outsider when getting the tap on the shoulder.

He received his knighthood with a characteristically mordant view: ‘I don’t think it quite my line… so associated with Welsh aldermen and failing jockeys. I suppose I’ll get used to it’. After the dubbing at Buckingham Palace he ran into the Queen Mother, who asked how he felt about being a knight. He apparently replied: ‘Now I know for the first time what it is to be both middle-aged and middle-class’.

A lifelong fascination with the supernatural and a belief in his own psychic powers manifested itself. Perhaps channelling M.R. James, he liked to tell ghost stories and lay practical jokes for the specially invited few at his home.

By the time he died, he had outlived most of his contemporaries, the worst fate for a gossip, but as a snob he was finally defeated (as were so many) by the election of ‘Call me Tony’ Blair, the only prime minister in his lifetime apart from Bonar Law with whom he had no shared acquaintances. ‘How can anyone marry a wife called Cherie?’ But snobs are the ultimate outsiders: his choices in life, travel, a (then) niche subject and the carefully set boundaries around aspects of his life meant that he was always out of reach.

In A Traveller’s Alphabet, Runciman wrote: ‘I like to travel alone; but one pays a price for it in the end.’ And that price, despite Dinshaw’s heroic efforts is the unknowability of his subject, which is the impression I closed this book with; that of a pair of heavy-lidded, mischievous eyes, peering out around an Ogi fan.



Penguin, 784pp, £10.99

Nigel Hillpaul

Byzantinist, varangian and rural antiquarian

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