Dashing for the book: A lifetime of letters from Paddy Leigh Fermor

dashing for postWell. It is here. Almost. Coming soon!!. Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor is published on 6 October, but you can pre-order now. The long awaited anthology of Paddy’s letters to a wide circle of friends and correspondents to complement the wonderful In Tearing Haste, a volume of letters between himself and Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. Something for the Christmas list perhaps?

by Justin Marozzi

First published in the Spectator

Here is a veritable feast for fans of Paddy Leigh Fermor. This is the story of a well-lived life through letters. The first is from a 24-year-old recruit eager to do battle with the enemy in 1940. The last is by a tottering nonagenarian of 2010, still hoping, 75 years after his ‘Great Trudge’ across Europe, that he might just finish the final volume that had eluded him for decades.

The anthology offers the most vivid explanation yet for why he didn’t. Letters were flying to and from all corners of the world — Adam Sisman reckons that Paddy wrote a whopping 5,000 to 10,000. There were parties to attend, cocktails to drink, countries and castles to visit, mountains to climb, literary-historical-geographical-anthropological quests to pursue, digressions to indulge, other books and articles to write along the way.

His wide array of correspondents reflected his interest in high society, literature and the arts, history, adventure, beautiful women and Greece, as well as an enduring gift for friendship. Apart from his beloved wife Joan, Deborah Devonshire, Ann Fleming and Diana Cooper were foremost among them. Then there was George Seferis, the poet, diplomat and Nobel laureate; the artist and sculptor Niko Ghika; George Katsimbalis, the ‘Colossus’ of letters; Lawrence Durrell; wartime brother in arms Xan Fielding; his lovers Princess Balasha Cantacuzène, Lyndall Birch and Ricki Huston. A regular recipient was his long-suffering publisher Jock Murray, a man of saintly patience.

Letters to Murray typically blend jaunty descriptions of place and adventures (the summer of 1959 found him playing lord of the manor in the castle of Passerano outside Rome, preparing to fly a ‘vast heraldic banner several yards square’ from the highest tower) with anguish and apologies for the endless tarrying and non-arrival of finished manuscripts. (‘No please don’t come here yet because I simply can’t face you till I hand over the completed vol., for shame, confusion etc.’) He agreed to write a foreword to the memoirs of Prince Michel Cantacuzène-Spéranski, kinsman of his first great love Balasha from his arrival in Athens in 1935 (he was 20, she was 36). In 2007, more than a decade later, he was still writing ruefully of his inability to get it done. ‘I am deeply sorry and penitent about behaving so hopelessly.’

Portrait of a youthful Patrick Leigh Fermor in Cretan costume, by Adrian Daintrey (oil on canvas), Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

Portrait of a youthful Patrick Leigh Fermor in Cretan costume, by Adrian Daintrey (oil on canvas), Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

Generally impecunious, he charmed his way into borrowing houses from friends, from Diana Cooper’s farmhouse in Bognor to Sir Walter and Lady Smart’s manor-house in the Eure. The plan was always to write, the irresistible counterweighing temptation was for amusement and company. In 1954, he was inviting Lawrence Durrell to come and stay with him on Hydra, where he was staying in Niko Ghika’s mansion: ‘It’s the best bit of high-level cadging I’ve done for years, a real haul.’

Philhellene to the core, he was never keen on the Turks. One suspects he had never forgiven them for taking Constantinople (he couldn’t bear to call it Istanbul) in 1453. ‘I admire their undoubted stirring qualities — honesty, courage and so on — but have never managed to like them or be amused by them,’ he wrote to Freya Stark in 1953.

Luigi Barzini once likened reading Norman Lewis’s prose to ‘eating cherries’. Readers of this collection may feel the same thing. The prose is simultaneously poised and effervescent, polymathic in its dazzling range of references but never pompous. The funeral of the Duke of Devonshire in 2003, he wrote to his lifelong friend John Julius Norwich, was ‘a mixture of a vicarage garden party and the Field of the Cloth of Gold’. Hydriot girls in plastic high-heeled shoes and ‘blinding satin dresses of apple green, scarlet, royal blue and petunia… look exactly like boiled sweets’.

Though there are a few bleak times, including a letter to Colin Thubron in which he confesses to feeling ‘rather gloomy’ about not being included in a Times list of the 50 greatest writers since 1945, mostly they are banished by high spirits. He pokes fun at John Betjeman with an excruciating parody. The first verse sets the tone.

Eagle-borne spread of the Authorised Version!
Beadles and bell ropes! Pulpits and pews!
Sandwiches spread for a new excursion
And patum peperium under the yews!

And how about the impromptu limerick about a dubious cleric.

The Archbishop of Spetsai & Hydra
Condemned bestial vice ex-cathedra.
(But he rogered a bay-horse
Outside the pronaos
And a skewbald inside the exedra.)

For all his love of the great and the good, outright wealth on the grandest scale bored him. ‘There is something colossally depressing about contact with the very rich,’ he wrote after rubbing shoulders with Aristotle Onassis and Stavros Niarchos in the Aegean. ‘What I want to know is: why the hell don’t they have more fun with their money?’

Sisman has done a tremendous job selecting and editing this treasure-trove of letters. The guide to the dramatis personae and footnotes double up as a concise version of Debrett’s and pick up on literary references that would escape a lesser writer and reader.

In the last letter here, from 2010, Paddy expresses the by now familiar worry and apprehension about finishing that elusive third volume to complete the trilogy with A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, perhaps his most admired titles. He closes with the hope that ‘perhaps it will all be OK in the end’. It was.

Buy Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Event: The Cretan Legacy

The kidnap gang pose before the action (Courtesy of Estate of William Stanley Moss)

The kidnap gang pose before the action (Courtesy of Estate of William Stanley Moss)

Our good friend, ex-Coldstream Guards officer, sometime Pilgrim, and author of In the Dolphin’s Wake and Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim, Harry Bucknall has been busy over the summer arranging a very special event be held at Waterstones Piccadilly on Wednesday 26th October at 7pm. The Cretan Legacy, a panel discussion, will examine the SOE abduction of General Heinrich Kreipe carried out by Paddy Leigh Fermor, Billy Moss and men of the Greek Andantes on Crete in 1943.

The panel, chaired by former Irish Guards Officer and SAS Squadron Commander, James Lowther-Pinkerton, will include Alan Ogden, SOE expert and author of Sons of Odysseus; Chris White, contributing author to Abducting a General; Rick Stroud, author of Kidnap in Crete and Dr Klaus Schmider, military historian, senior lecturer at the Dept of War Studies, RMA Sandhurst and Wehrmacht expert. With audience questions, the panel will discuss whether “this Hussar Stunt” – as Kreipe referred to his capture – was worth the undertaking in both the short and long term and assess its achievement, legacy and place in the annals of military history, endeavour and folklore.

No doubt there will be wine and a chance to chat to friends old and new so do come along if you can to Waterstones Piccadilly on Wednesday 26th October at 7pm. All you have to do is reserve a £5 ticket in store or by emailing Piccadilly@waterstones.com

Roumeli revisited? The Last Transhumance, a documentary film on shepherds


When I heard about this film it immediately made me think of the wonderfully compelling start to Roumeli and the story of the Sarakatsani, transhumance shepherds of Greek origin. This film by Romanian filmmaker and photographer Dragos Lumpan documents some of the last transhumance shepherds in Europe and Turkey. It is a record of something that will possibly completely die out in the next few years. Those Sarakatsani that Paddy mentions have almost all been absorbed into mainstream Greek society and the very first Romanian family that Dragos filmed gave up this lifestyle in 2008. It is interesting to note that despite writing for over forty pages about their origins, way of life, and most famously the details of their wedding ceremony, Roumeli is not directly mentioned in the Wikipedia references or bibliography; something that should perhaps be corrected.

Dragos Lumpan has 100’s of hours of footage from a project that has taken many years to complete, and he is now seeking some additional funding to help with post-producton costs. You may wish to help. Perhaps we can continue Paddy’s work by helping out a little? Dragos explains the importance of the project:

The title of the film wasn’t chosen for the sake of its dramatic sound. These ARE the last transhumances. These people and their way of life are not to be forgotten. Shepherds are strong enough to move mountains, which they actually did. They never back down and they never surrender to any obstacle. This is how they made their way into our history and this is how the history must remember them. The importance of this project goes beyond its artistic value. This film will be the last record of one of the things that shaped our history, out culture and ultimately our humanity.

The shepherds who still walk for hundreds and hundreds of miles in search of available pastures for their animals sleep outside most of the year, usually around their flocks protecting it.  They live in a parallel world not because they reject the modern times but because they embrace tradition. But the ones who still do it are fewer and fewer. The film will show the yearly cycle of life within these communities, showing their direct connection with nature cycle, with the astronomical calendar and with the people around them.

Transhumance represents a cultural heritage that has moulded for centuries the cultural landscape. Nowadays, transhumance is replaced by sedentary forms of sheep breeding. In many regions it is already extinct. The disappearing of transhumance affects not only the spiritual, social and cultural life, but also the mountain regions’ biodiversity.

To assist you can visit the Indiegogo page here. There are many rewards to those that can offer even modest amounts and a second movie trailer.

Dragos also has a website about the project with a number of photographs.

Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman

birdman-runciman

Birdman – a portrait of Steven Runciman by Cecil Beaton (1920’s)


A new book which may be of interest to some. Runciman and Paddy worked together at the British Council in Athens after the second world war.

By the time he died, in 2000 at the age of 97, Sir Steven Runciman knew that he was a “‘relict of a past age’”, the “embodiment of a…nearly mythical era.” Minoo Dinshaw’s brilliantly entertaining biography of the great historian of Byzantium restores him to public view and provides a vivid picture of many aspects of 20th-century Europe that now seem almost as remote as the crusades and religious schisms he described in his books.

First published in The Economist, 9 September 2016

Runciman was not aristocratic by birth—his grandfather, a shipping magnate, had established the family fortune—but he was immensely grand and well connected. His parents were the first married couple to sit together in the House of Commons. And his father, who was part of Lord Asquith’s cabinet before the first world war, survived the declining fortunes of the Liberal party to lead the doomed mission to Czechoslovakia in 1938. He could claim in 1991 to have known every 20th-century prime minister except Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who died when he was a toddler, and Bonar Law, “‘whom nobody knew’”. Introduced by his governess to French, Latin and Greek by the age of seven, he won scholarships to Eton—in an era of clever men like George Orwell, Cyril Connolly and Anthony Powell—and to Cambridge, where he lived in the “scornfully beautiful Great Court” of Trinity College. Through his friend Dadie Rylands (they were named the Tea Party Cats “for their velvety urbanity”) he met Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes and other members of the Bloomsbury group.

Despite frequent trips to London to socialise with the “bright young people” (and be photographed with his budgerigar by Cecil Beaton), Runciman won the first-class degree and prize fellowship that were to launch his academic career. Of the Cambridge spies recruited in the 1930s, Guy Burgess was a pupil and friend and Anthony Blunt a “supercilious” colleague. Employing political and diplomatic connections to the full, he travelled in style to Romania, Bulgaria and Asia. He established his reputation with histories of the emperor Romanus Lecapenus, the first Bulgarian empire and Byzantium. When he inherited wealth from his grandfather in 1938, he gave up his university fellowship.

Unfit for military service, Runciman spent the war in the Balkans and the Middle East: in Sofia as press attaché to the British Legation, Jerusalem, Cairo and Istanbul. There he narrowly escaped a bomb blast, spent three years as professor of Byzantine history and art, and became an honorary Dervish. Between 1945 and 1947 he led the British Council in Athens. Osbert Lancaster, a witty cartoonist, and Patrick Leigh Fermor, who would become a glamorous writer, were there. Greece was lurching towards civil war and Runciman gained an abiding love for the country, pleasure from upstaging the British ambassador and the position of Astrologer Royal.

On his return to Britain, Runciman split his time between London and the Hebrides, and wrote the books that were to make his name: the ground-breaking three-volume “History of the Crusades”; and a succession of works on Byzantine history that drew on a wide variety of sources, Muslim and Greek, most notably “The Sicilian Vespers” and “The Fall of Constantinople”. Francis Birrell, a Bloomsbury acquaintance, had greeted Runciman’s first book with the acknowledgment that fewer than “half a dozen people were really competent” to review it (and that he was not one of them). There were no such reservations about later volumes, which were lively, authoritative and well received.

Runciman was not to everyone’s taste. He loved to tease, possessed a “queenly persona”, snubbed people who failed to interest him and “had a tongue like a viper if he wanted to use it”. He was a gossip who adored royalty; he entertained the Queen Mother to lunch at the Athenaeum Club every year; four queens are said to have attended his 80th-birthday party.

Despite being able to compose an alphabet of lovers with every letter except Q (“I shall die Qless”), he was to claim that he had “never been in love”. He retained a wide circle of loyal friends and was a popular laird of the Isle of Eigg, not least because he would invite his musical friends to stay and perform at the village hall. (Yehudi Menuhin was “memorably described” by the ferryman as “a handy man for a ceilidh”). He gave his name and time to numerous public bodies and causes, at home and abroad. A final apotheosis, three months before he died, for his service as Grand Orator to the Patriarch of Constantinople, was a descent by helicopter on the Holy Mountain of Athos.

Mr Dinshaw’s choice of subject for his first book is an inspired one. He interweaves the strands of a long and variegated life with sympathy, elegance and awareness of the wider picture. In recognition of Runciman’s fascination with the supernatural, chapters are headed with quotations from Arthur Waite’s “The Key to the Tarot”. He refers frequently to novelists such as Evelyn Waugh and Olivia Manning, authors of trilogies about the war. And his turn of phrase is as arresting as Runciman’s own—one family friend is “unceremonious, crapulous”. Mr Dinshaw has done Runciman proud. To whom will he turn his attention next?

Buy Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman. Click the link.

Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor’s Diary: Life in Colonial India

Map showing the area of India in which Fermor travelled during his first two field work seasons. [George Philip FRGS (ed.), Philips’ Record Atlas, London: The London Geographical Institute, 1934.]

Map showing the area of India in which Lewis Leigh Fermor travelled during his first two field work seasons. [George Philip FRGS (ed.), Philips’ Record Atlas, London: The London Geographical Institute, 1934.]

For those researching Paddy’s life, the Geological Society archives hold letters, papers and diaries of his eminent geologist father, Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, and his experiences in India.

An introduction to the online element of his papers may be found here, and I quote …

The name Fermor may today be best known within the Society in association with the Fermor Fund, the bequest made by Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor’s second wife after her death to support research into her late husband’s areas of interest, or the Fermor Meeting. Outside geological circles it is more likely to be connected to Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, Lewis Leigh’s celebrated travel writer son. Patrick could be said to have had adventure in his blood, with his father Lewis heading off to India at the age of 22, and being sent off on his first six month field work expedition less than a week later.

After applying for a job with the Geological Survey of India, Lewis Leigh Fermor (1880-1954) departed for Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1902. In 1909, after discovering six manganese minerals, his key report on the manganese deposits of the country was published. During WW1 he assisted the Railway Board and the Indian Munitions Board, for which he received an OBE in 1919. He led the surveying of the Archaean rocks of Madhya Pradesh both before and after the First World War. Although he officially became director of the Survey in 1932, he had previously acted as such for several years in the 1920s and from 1930 onwards. He retired from the Survey in 1935, but continued to live in India until 1939 as a consulting geologist, before returning to Britain.

The Society’s Archives hold a small number of notebooks and diaries formerly belonging to Fermor, in addition to personal papers such as his first Indian employment contract and a letter notifying him of a scholarship. His diaries are particularly interesting for the intriguing insight they give the reader into the life of both an early twentieth century geologist, and an English civil servant in British India.

Extracts from the diaries may be found online here.

Following Michalis in Mycenae

13694300_10105313766032178_664315251_oSoon I will be travelling to the Mani and will make my first visit to Paddy’s house, something that is rather belated, but an experience that I am looking forward too very much. My friend Ryan Eyre from Seattle has been on a long trip to Europe this summer. Not long after he stayed with me here in Winchester, he travelled to Greece and found himself in historic Mycenae. What he discovered was a virtually moribund tourist industry, and an interesting story about Patrick Leigh Fermor.

By Ryan Eyre

On a recent visit to Mycenae, the Oreia Eleni Hotel seemed the obvious place to stay. The Oreia Eleni, also known as La Belle Helene and the House of Schliemann, is a simple hotel but rich with historical associations. Heinrich Schliemann lived in the building during his excavation work at Mycenae in the 1870s and a generation or more later it was converted into a hotel. Agamemnon Dassis is the current proprietor and is the third-generation of his family to run it. He lives in a house next door with his wife and young daughter. A youthful looking man in his late 40s, Agamemnon is an energetic and quite attentive host.

Mycenae is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Greece but Greece’s economic woes have definitely affected business in the modern village half a mile below the citadel. The number of tourists has declined in recent years and most people who currently visit Mycenae do so as a day-trip and pass through the village without stopping. The owners of the almost empty shops, restaurants and hotels in Mycenae sit rather forlornly, waiting for customers who largely never appear.

I was the only guest at the Oraia Eleni during my two-night stay and Agamemnon told me that I was in fact the first guest they had had in three weeks. This was in July. As a guest, I benefited from being able to talk to Agamemnon at length.

The second day of my stay he showed me the small museum that is on the ground floor of the building. Agamemnon’s father photocopied famous people’s signatures from the guestbook and they are displayed in note-card size form behind glass. He pointed out the signatures of Agatha Christie (I was staying in the same room she supposedly did), Virginia Woolf, Stephen Spender, Carl Jung, Jean-Paul Sartre, Alec Guinness, Charlton Heston and J.K. Rowling (among others) and provided some anecdotal information about each visit. I was interested to note that Albert Speer, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels and Herman Goering all passed through in the 1930s (it was unclear whether they visited separately or together).

Up to that point Patrick Leigh Fermor’s association with the hotel hadn’t crossed my mind. Thinking about it for a moment it seemed obvious he must have stayed here. I asked Agamemnon whether Leigh Fermor’s signature could be found anywhere on the display. “Oh, yes, I forgot to mention him”, Agamemnon said before pointing out PLF’s name scrawled in his own and dated from 1960.

“He came here many times over the years. He came in the 1950s, and in the 1960s and many times afterwards I remember when I was a young man he telephoned and asked me whether I was George. I said no, I am his son. Who is this? This was in Greek but I could tell from the accent that it was a foreigner. He said, tell George that Michalis from Kardamyli called. I was a little confused. Later I met him. As I said, he came here a number of times. I also visited him in Kardamyli. One time when his wife was in England he came and stayed for a week. He was a great man, a very great man. I last saw him in 1998. When I came back here in 2007 after some years living abroad I did not contact him before he died. I regret this.”

I didn’t immediately tell Agamemnon my own story about meeting Patrick Leigh Fermor in Kardamyli in 2009. That evening at the dinner table and after drinking an ouzo and some wine, I asked him to sit with me because I wanted to tell him something. I began to recount my last trip to Greece when I had gone to the Mani to try to meet the author, who was then 94 years old.

“You met him in the end?” Agamemnon asked before I could go on much further. I told him I had written PLF a brief letter that I had dropped off at his house and ended up being invited to lunch the next day, where I spent several hours drinking, eating and talking with the great man.

I acknowledged I was extremely lucky. Agamemnon agreed and opened up more. He told me about how Paddy would come to Mycenae and disappear for the entire day, only returning at night. Paddy didn’t tell people he was a famous writer; Agamemnon only discovered this on his own.

Paddy was pretty self-deprecating and didn’t take himself so seriously. He was happy to talk to all sorts of people and showed genuine curiosity in their lives. “He had this constant curiosity about people and the world. That’s why he lived so long,” Agamemnon remarked.

He told me about various friends of Paddy’s who have stayed at the Oraia Eleni and that the Patrick Leigh Fermor Society had also passed through in the last two years.

Moving into more salacious territory, he then told me that he was going to tell me something about Paddy that most people haven’t heard. He didn’t have the heart to tell the members of the PLF Society when they visited. Agamemnon asked me to keep it off the record so I can’t fully disclose what I heard. What I will say is that it was an anecdote that I have very reason to believe is true and confirms that well into his 70s Paddy was sexually active with women who were not his wife and were considerably younger than himself. Agamemnon and I agreed that Paddy’s mixture of looks, charm and erudition was remarkable. “He really had the mentality of a teenager,” Agamemnon added.

Drinking wine and hearing these stories as the only guest in an atmospheric place gave me the thrilling feeling of luck and leventia, or feeling of lightness, that Paddy would refer to in connection with Greece. It was an evening that reminded me why I travel.

Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Tarnova Valley

The UNESCO World Heritage fortified church in Viscri

The UNESCO World Heritage fortified church in Viscri

Whenever I mention Transylvania to friends and acquaintances most express a strong desire to visit this land of mystery. Few however, can place Transylvania on a map and even less ever actually travel there. Readers of the Paddy blog will know that PLF passed through in 1934 and returned during communist times. I have had the privilege of working and travelling there, and it is through this association that I met Lucy Abel Smith who is the organiser of the Transylvanian Book Festival 2016 and author of this new Blue Guide.

If you are thinking of visiting Romania with all its cultural, historical, and natural riches, it may be difficult to decide where to start for it is a large country with a relatively small population. Transylvania itself is an area three times the size of Wales with diversity in all corners. The recently published Blue Guide Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Tarnova Valley helps by picking one area and offers a detailed insight from someone who has been living and travelling since the time of Ceausescu, describing a journey through this one part of Transylvania, the fabled “Saxon Lands” of the south-east that Lucy knows so well. It essentially takes as its theme a 120km long journey along the course of the Tarnova river from Odurheiu Secuiesc in the Gurhui mountains, westwards along the Tarnova valley via Ruritanian cities like the beautiful Sighisoara and ends in Blaj.

Lucy herself describes the area thus:

“… there is still to be seen the stunning landscape, ancient farming methods and extraordinary botanical variety. But there is so much more. We travel through a fraction of ancient Hungary to encounter a vast array of the peoples of Central Europe, all up until recently living together, yet in distinct communities with different customs, architecture, costumes and languages. We find the Vlachs and the Szeklers, the Hungarians, the Saxons, and the the Jews, the Gypsies and others, such as the Armenians, who settled here to take advantage of this tolerant and diverse land in the very heart of Europe.”

The landscape that these peoples crafted and the architecture that they developed is both beautiful and unique. Accommodation is plentiful and will suit all budgets, with food on the whole being local and organic in many cases. It is easily accessible with flights from Vienna, London, and Munich amongst others, direct to Cluj, Turgu Mures, Bucharest, and soon Brasov. Above all the people are welcoming and it is safe. If you take Lucy’s excellent guide you won’t go far wrong. Your journey can be extended north to the baroque city of Cluj, west to Sibiu (a Saxon city and European City of Culture), or south to the large Saxon city of Brasov which is not far from the so-called Dracula’s castle (the violent warlord Vlad Dracul did live there) in Bran.

Lucy Abel Smith

Lucy Abel Smith

Lucy writes from a very personal perspective and is an engaging writer with an informative but never patronising style. She is an art historian and her explanations of church art – frescoes, altar-pieces and statues – are thorough but never boring. The guide is packed full of useful information, including accommodation details, and background history. There are some useful maps and illustrations. It could do with some colour photographs but other than this, the Blue Guide Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Tarnova Valley would be an invaluable aid for the independent traveller.

Malancrav, near Sighisoara, Romania

Malancrav, near Sighisoara, Romania

If you are thinking of an alternative holiday in Romania you could do worse than combine a tour of the Tarnova valley with a few days at the second Transylvanian Book Festival which runs from 8th to 11th September. Full details can be found on the Festival website.

For those who have any questions about travel in Transylvania I would be more than happy to attempt to answer them. See the About and Contact page for details of how to get in touch.