By Christopher Long
One day historians will want to know what life was like for an average person leading a typical existence in 20th Century England. Quite A Lot is not a book for them.
True, this is a story which begins and ends conventionally enough. In 1911 Dominie Vlasto is born in Liverpool to one of England's grandest and most cosmopolitan merchant trading families. Ninety years later by now Lady Nicholls, widow of one of Britain's most able diplomats and comfortably retired at her home in Saffron Walden, Essex she reflects on a life well-lived.
On the surface it all sounds predictable enough as solidly unsurprising as the sober exteriors of her grandparents' huge, bourgeois Sefton Park house and her parents's home in Fulwood Park.
The surprises begin when we penetrate its interior. Here, amid exotic Levantine furnishings and the whiff of Balkan Sobranie, we're invited to share Dominie's sometimes heartless upbringing in a well heeled community of expatriate Greeks still adapting to English ways while clinging to their Hellenic heritage And it is they who make this book irresistible.
One by one, in Liverpool, London, Rome, Geneva and Athens, we meet grand-parents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins in a vast extended family who, together, comprise some of the most gifted, congenital eccentrics of their age.
These are people who would no doubt have preferred to have lived modest lives unobserved. Yet by their sheer force of character and brilliance they betray themselves. One by one, across Europe, they turn up to play key roles in great events, despite themselves.
Quite A Lot starts by tracing the roots of her father's Vlasto family, her mother's Pallis family and the Ralli family to which both her grandmothers belonged. This involves a light trek through more than two thousand years in Byzantium, the Balkans and the Aegean. It then briefly explains the tragic circumstances that made refugees of so many of them in the early 19th Century following the Greek War of Indpendence and the Massacres of Chios.
But its greatest merit is the amused and amusing often bemused and astonished account it offers of strong-willed and brilliant foreign mis-fits in their earnest attempts to become English.
Thank God so many of them found being 'European' or 'English' so hard and that their exotic Byzantine, Levantine and Aegean roots were so resilient.
Along with their profound and unselfconscious eccentricity these mis-fits achieved to a man and woman astonishing success as academics, writers, philologists, naturalists, revolutionaries, soldiers, explorers, musicians, silver-smiths and code-breakers.
In the period 1912 to 1918, for example, several of these strong-willed characters converged in the war-torn Balkans.
The author's uncle Alec Pallis, the eldest of five siblings, had left the delights Eton and Balliol where he had been crowned with every sort of success and, after a period of training in the British Mandated Territory of Egypt, was working for the Hellenic Civil Service.
His eldest sister, Marietta, who had caused mayhem in the private schoolroom in Liverpool to which the females of the family were consigned, put on hold her Cambridge inspired botanical researches in the Lower Danube and Upper Amazon. Instead she determined to be of service to King Constantine of Greece as he led his army north in 1912 to liberate Ioannina, the ancestral town of the Pallis.
The youngest of the siblings Marco, a delicate, artistic, and peace-loving 18 year old later to become a fine Buddhist scholar was with Marietta and lay awake at night listening to the screams from the field hospital in Arta where supplies of anaesthetic had run out. When World War I broke out Marco was invited to join the British army as an interpreter.
Alec worked tirelessly to persuade the Venizelists to bring Greece into the war on the Allied side. Meanwhile another brother, Andreas, a record-holding Bath-bun eater when at Harrow, became involved in 1916 in the horrific retreat of the Serbian Army across Macedonia and Albania with only the leather of his belt for nourishment at the end of the march.
This is a tale well told. And while some might think it a pity that Dominie Nicholls has left it so late in life to demonstrate her deft ability to sketch characters, scenes and events, it is also a timely book.
Never has there been so much emigration as we are experiencing at the dawn of the 21st Century. The story will bring pleasure, hope and encouragement to thousands seeking new lives in new countries who fear losing touch with their heritage.
The title derives from a remark made by one of the author's elderly aunts when talking of the Vlasto family: "They knew what they were worth and it was quite a lot". The worth of this book is that it goes far further than describing a family.
In Quite A Lot we have an enchanting, fascinating and amusing account of extra-ordinary people whose 'lot' was often to find themselves involved in bizarre events in peculiar circumstances more often than not in out-of-the-way places and always at the centre of events. What's more, they never seem to have forgotten who they were, where they came from nor indeed what they were worth.
Quite A Lot is published privately in a limited edition of 350 copies.
Copies may be ordered (subject to availability) by mail-order from
Within the UK at £20.00 (sterling) inc. post and packaging
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