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Anthony Bryer

Steven Runciman - Proem: The problem of Oratory: being a brief thesis on the World, oral, written and remembered; in a word History.

From the New Griffon, A Gennadius Library Publication, American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Editor: Haris A. Kalligas, Director, Gennadius Library. Athens 2002.

I. Steven Runciman and Parties

Steven Runciman was a self-contained and private person. Yet he adored parties. Shy, yet gregarious, I think that he preferred holding his own to attending other people's parties- he liked things to be done properly, so needed to be in control of events. He knew the taxis and when it was proper to wear scarlet or throw bread-rolls - or both. Context was as important as people. Steven's own parties had wonderful range. There were his great birthday receptions in grand town houses in London, almost part of the calendar of state occasions, where Steven stood in the hall throughout, in selamlik, to greet his guests, only to turn round to bid farewell to the line in reverse. As old friends died, they were replaced by younger generations. Steven (whose imagination was serious), planned to hold his 100th Birthday Party in 2003 in Mme Toussaud’s in London, were they all could meet, some in waxwork. It can still be done.

At the other end of the scale was a simple invitation to dinner, bed and breakfast at Elshieshields in the Scottish Lowlands. This place demonstrates Steven's sense of appropriate space, sacred and secular: in turn defensive, useful, public - and then absolutely private, or haram. The respective climates of Lockerbie and Jerusalem are against making serious comparison between Elshieshields and the House by Herod’s Gate, and neither must have been good for his piano, but both reflect where things should be in Steven's own Holy Land.

Elshieshields began with a fortified medieval pyrgos in which Runciman housed his library and private work room — in form and function something like the Protaton tower at Karyes, where in an astonishing ceremony in the last year of his life, Steven inaugurated the Athonite archives to which he had devoted his Onassis Prize. Elshieshields continues with decent living rooms, the selamlik, but concludes with haram kitchen and domestic quarters, from which Steven would slip out in the morning to serve his guests breakfast in bed. No guest saw how it was done. I do not think that they spoke Low Arabic or even Low Scots in the kitchen, for Steven did not care to incommode his servants at that hour. Now exposed to vulgar view, like the inner parts of the palaces of Potala or Topkapi, one asks where to seek Steven's real sacred space. It is, of course, all around for eyes to see.

Steven's parties embraced every context. On the Highland island of Eigg there were presents for the children and he was disturbed by a princess trying to help in the kitchen. He gave an annual luncheon at his Club in London for the Queen Mother, whom he rightly feared would outlive him - Steven was quite competitive in such matters.

This party for Steven at the Gennadius Library, would have given him great joy, for it is his. I can see him now, passing the photographs of Elshieshields and Monemvasia at the entrance, to slip in to find a seat at the back of this packed Hall - with his camera. He liked taking photos of his friends in unguarded moments -to send them as home-made Christmas cards. He would have saluted many old friends here with a confiding smile or signal of the hand. His letters of thanks next day would have been exquisite. He should have had a secondary career as a minor royal personage who could write his own letters and remember who we all are. He explained what it involves. Royal people should develop a sort of liturgical stoop, know when to wear medals or throw bread-rolls, but -most important- learn not to fidget during speeches. He was quite cross with royal people who betrayed impatience. Steven himself would be waiting very patiently here, to see your Lears.

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