Writers of non-fiction know that success lies in the preparation. We must dig away in libraries, interview living witnesses, quiz them about the dead and travel to the places we are writing about. Next we sketch out a framework, an introduction that leads on to our thesis and from there to a perfectly articulated conclusion. Then we begin to write, working to deliver the essay, article, or book in good time and to length, whether two thousand or two hundred thousand words. We hope that whoever reads our work will accept it cum laude or offer us a massive advance leading to millions of sales. There is one element in the research process that cannot be planned for or guaranteed, but which might turn out to be the most important part: chance.
Three years ago I wrote a book about the kidnap of the German general Kreipe from outside his headquarters on Crete. The general was abducted by Cretan guerrillas under the nominal command of two members of the Special Operations Executive: Patrick Leigh Fermor and William ‘Billy’ Stanley Moss. Before I began my research I visited the archive of the Shaftesbury Homes in Clapham, looking for a photograph for another, unrelated book. I met the archivist, a kind and patient man who led me to the picture I needed. Mission accomplished, I thanked him and we shook hands. I was running late and was about to dash off into a gloomy, wet South London afternoon when he asked, for no reason, ‘Do you know anything about Patrick Leigh Fermor?’ I skidded to a halt and before I could answer he said, ‘Because I’ve just taken his archive from Greece to the National Library of Scotland’. I put the rest of the day on hold as he described what was in that archive. The material included documents, photographs and maps — even the pennants that had been on the car in which General Kreipe had been whisked away. The archivist offered to introduce me to the senior curator in charge of the John Murray archive, where the Leigh Fermor papers now rested.
A fortnight later I was in the library. Leigh Fermor’s material occupied a lot of shelf space and had been sorted into the roughest chronological order. I had to choose files at random, hoping that I might hit upon anything to do with the kidnap. I made my selection, went to my desk and in due course a trolley appeared loaded with ten grey archive boxes. The material was disappointing, endless newspaper cuttings, fading scraps of cyclostyled paper, the odd letter referring to the kidnap, nothing of any real interest. Then, as I was giving up hope, I discovered, at the bottom of a box, a large scale military map, marked up in Leigh Fermor’s own hand, showing in minute detail every stage of the operation and the route across the mountains over which they had taken the unlucky general. The map was fading and torn and had not been looked at for years. With the map was a sequence of photographs showing a postwar reconstruction of the event. On the back of one, Leigh Fermor had written, ‘this is the exact place the kidnap took place’. More followed — the chance encounter in London had led me to a rich seam of material, and I had also been given a solid gold introduction to the curator who did everything he could to help me, including scanning the map at museum quality resolution.
A week later I went to Crete. I cannot read – let alone speak – Greek and had enlisted the help of a translator. My plane landed at midnight, the translator drove me from the airport to my hotel and we made a plan to meet for breakfast in the morning. The next day there was no sign of my translator. Eventually she telephoned to say that she could not meet until the afternoon. She suggested that I pass the time by going to the Historical Museum of Crete where there was, she thought, an exhibition about the wartime resistance. I arrived to find the museum deserted and had the exhibition to myself.
It turned out to be very good and I began to take surreptitious photographs. Before long a man in a leather bomber jacket appeared and asked me what I was doing. I explained, expecting to be told that photography was forbidden. Instead the man told me that he was the curator of the museum and that World War Two was his special interest. I explained that I was researching the kidnap of the German general Kreipe. He went silent, looked at me for a minute and then asked me to join him in his office. Here he told me: ‘The chief kidnapper and Leigh Fermor’s Cretan second-in-command was my uncle. He was in the car that spirited Kreipe away, holding a knife to the general’s throat’. The curator’s name was Costas Mamalakis and he knew more about my subject than anyone in the world.
I visited Crete three more times and spent many days with Mr Mamalakis. On my last trip he invited me to his flat where he had a room containing thousands of documents, some of which I was going to photograph. We sat surrounded by his private collection of machine guns, grenades, shells and rifles. I asked Costas if the ordinance had been decommissioned. He revealed that it was all live and that if he ever had a fire he would call the fire department and ask them to evacuate the area. When I asked him why he needed these weapons he explained that Crete was an island that had been invaded and occupied many times. His great grandfather had fought, his grandfather and father had fought and the way Greece was going he might have to fight, so he wanted to be armed and ready. Costas taught me not just about the kidnap but also about Cretan society. My favourite phrase of his was that ‘you would rather have brain cancer than be involved in a Cretan feud’. I dedicated the book to him.
The day I met him, Costas was meant to be in Athens and I was meant to be travelling round the island with my translator. Pure chance brought us together.
For my most recent book, Lonely Courage, I had to visit the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington to research one of my characters, Virginia Hall. The archive has a dense and difficult catalogue. By the end of the first day, I realised that it was going to take a lot longer to work through the material than I had planned for. The next day a man appeared at my shoulder pushing a trolley full of files. He said he understood I was researching Virginia Hall and wondered if the files on the trolley might be of interest. He explained that they were the result of twenty years of research by him and other World War Two historians on Virginia Hall and her comrades. When I asked how he knew what I was looking for he replied that he had overheard me asking about Hall the previous day, which was usually his day off. The trolley carried all I needed. I spent the rest of my trip photographing the contents to take back and read in the safety of the London Library. Chance had played a vital part in my research.
When I described my experiences to the author Frances Wilson, she told me that when she was writing her award-winning book How To Survive the Titanic, or, the Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay, a similar thing had happened. She had gone to Oxford for a party she did not want to go to and met a woman she did not know who had not been invited and was there by chance. Frances told her that she was writing a book about J. Bruce Ismay and that she was having trouble finding much about him that wasn’t already in the history books. The woman revealed that J. Bruce Ismay and her grandmother had been lovers and that she had a box full of letters between the two of them that no researcher had seen. Bingo! Lady Luck had stepped in. Frances and I now use the phrase ‘finding the letters’ as a metaphor for the discovery that changes everything.
The author Ann Patchett describes ‘getting stuck in the tar pits of research’. Research is a never ending task — the success of which can be the result of a lucky break. We all need to ‘find the letters’, but how do we set about it? I wish I knew. As I set off on the track of what I hope will be my next book, my fingers are crossed.