A review of Words of Mercury by Patrick Leigh Fermor, ed Artemis Cooper first published in the Independent
Sunday, 2 November 2003
The overwhelming impression this book left on me was of a lost world of aesthetic public schoolboys, powerful newspaper editors, friendly ambassadors, and an unspoken understanding of what it meant to be upper- middle-class and English. What it meant was easy access to embassies and aristocratic houses around Europe, bicycle polo in Hungary, and the possibility that the next shepherd you met would be an Etonian Special Operations officer, speaking classical Greek. Here you will find the term “middle class” applied in a pejorative sense, rather than in the current usage which has such a wide catchment. That John Murray, the publishers of this book and upper-middle-class publishers par excellence, are no longer family-owned, perhaps confirms that this world has passed. And with it a love of language and literary decoration.
To quote Jan Morris, Paddy Leigh Fermor is beyond doubt the greatest of living travel writers, although the term “travel writing” barely does justice to the beauty, the lustrousness and sensuality of his writing. Take this, for example, speaking of how Greek temples once looked before they were stark ruins: “But the reality of the ruins, re-cohering in cobalt and blood-red, studded with metal, gaudy with idols, shiny with spilt honey and blood and reeking with sacrificial smoke, will have replaced the tinted ivory artefacts that had stolen their place and the void between the cutting of the flutes on the columns and the laying of the tramlines begins to fill up with people and events.”
There are about 40 short pieces divided into headings: Travels, Greece, People, Books and Flotsam. Many of these pieces are from Leigh Fermor’s great books, Mani, Roumeli and A Time of Gifts. (In 55 years he has only written eight books.) Others are from scattered newspaper pieces and obituaries. All the major phases of his life are represented here: the wandering schoolboy heading for Istanbul, the two years just before the war he spent in Romania with a doomed aristocratic family after meeting the daughter of the family in Athens (the woman Artemis Cooper describes as the love of his life), the extraordinary exploits in war-time Special Operations in Crete, where he captured the German General, Heinrich Kreipe, and his post-war exploration of Greece, particularly Mani where he has lived for 40 years in a house he built with his wife Joan, who died recently. Their story will be told by Artemis Cooper in a biography to be published after his death.
So powerful and beautiful is Leigh Fermor’s language, that I found myself reflecting on the change that has come over travel writing in the last decades. Leigh Fermor is about as far from Bill Bryson as Nabokov is from Nick Hornby. We have entered a time when unashamed displays of learning are seen as poor taste; cuteness and whimsicality have replaced deep cultural understanding. Not so for Leigh Fermor: language itself is often his subject. He revels in the roots and subtleties of Hungarian, Rumanian, Cretan Greek and Bulgarian. Soaked and completely lost on the Black Sea during his epic walk to Istanbul as a boy, he stumbles into a cave occupied by Bulgarian shepherds and Greek sailors. Typically he is soon delighting in their polyglot songs and speculating about their meaning and origins.
I don’t think I have ever read a book which had me reaching for my dictionary as often as this, something I like doing: reflections on architecture, religious sects, dialects, folk songs, lost languages, Austro-Hungarian titles, Greek politics, and remembrances of gypsy scholars, all throw up the exotic and the unfamiliar. This is from Between the Woods and the Water, and describes the early history of Carpathia: “I had read about betyars, on the Alfold; now haidouks and pandours had begun to impinge. Fur-hatted and looped with pearls, the great boyars of the Rumanian principalities surged up the other side of of the watershed, ghostly hospodars with their nearly mythical princesses trooped in tall branched crowns round the walls of fortress-monasteries in frescoed processions; and beyond them to the north stretched icebound rivers and steppes and bogs where herds of elk moved at a shambling trot and, once upon a time, the great aurochs, extinct now except on heraldic shields.”
Crete and the Cretans evoke some of his finest memories and deepest sympathies. I had not seen his description of the capture of General Kreipe, although the story in Ill Met by Moonlight, the film with Dirk Bogarde, and a TV documentary, were familiar. It is wholly in character that he and Kreipe, who had just arrived in Crete when he was captured, achieved a certain understanding:
“We woke up among the rocks, just as a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mount Ida which we had been struggling across for two days. We were all three lying smoking in silence, when the General half to himself, slowly said:
“Vides ut alta stet nive
I was in luck. It is the opening line of one of the few odes of Horace I know by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off:
“…Nec iam sustineant onus
Silvae laborantes, geluque
Flumina constiterint acuto”
and so on through the remaining five stanzas to the end. The General’s blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine – and when I had finished, after a long silence, he said “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange… We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”
Hands up all those who know six stanzas of Horace, and have captured a German Major General.
Click here for the original article in the Independent