Life by the scenic route: Max Hastings reviews ‘Words of Mercury’

First publushed in the Daily Telegraph 12 Oct 2003

Paddy Leigh Fermor has lived one of the great picaresque lives of the 20th century. He left a minor public school under heavy clouds with no money and a penchant for wandering. From 1934, for five years, he sustained a lotus existence in eastern Europe and the Balkans, by charm, genteel begging and Byronic good looks. His parents must have despaired of him during this longest gap year in history.

Words of Mercury by Artemis Cooper

One of Evelyn Waugh’s characters observed in 1939: “It’s going to be a long war. The great thing is to spend it with friends.” Leigh Fermor pursued this policy with notable success. His 18 months as a British agent in Crete made him a legend, not least for the kidnapping of the German General Kreipe, theme of the later film Ill Met By Moonlight.

After the war, Paddy resumed his leisurely course. One can no more imagine him occupying an office desk, queueing for the weekly envelope, than some marvellous beast of the African bush taking up employment as a security guard. He wandered the world until, in 1950, he suddenly produced a small literary masterpiece about the Caribbean, The Traveller’s Tree.

Thereafter, at irregular intervals, he has written travel books and fragments of autobiography. On his visits to England, rural grandees and metropolitan hostesses fight for the privilege of his society. The home he created with his wife Joan on the south shore of the Peloponnese at Kardamyli is a small work of art in its own right, owing much to their pets, or – as he writes here – to four-footed “downholsterers and interior desecrators”. How he loves language and words!

What is charm? In Leigh Fermor’s case it is an infinite curiosity about other people. He treats Bulgarian peasants and English dukes exactly alike. John Betjeman once spoke of Paddy “sitting there listening to you, his eyes sparkling with excitement as he waited to hear what you might say next”. Generosity of spirit is among his notable qualities.

Others include erudition and recollection, much in evidence in this collection assembled by his biographer, Artemis Cooper. His knowledge of languages, and the fruits of his self-education (he pays fulsome tribute to the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, along with Saki, Kipling, Horace, Gibbon, Proust and Evelyn Waugh) are deployed with effortless grace.

I have often thought that some reviewers take too literal a view of Leigh Fermor’s writing. In reality, it is surely Irish story-telling at its most enchanting. In this book, among extracts from his best travel- writing, there are pen portraits of friends. He says of one of them, John Pendlebury, that he was wont to leave his glass eye on his office desk when he disappeared briefly, to let people know he would be back soon. It is a classic PLF anecdote. First, it is droll. Second, it possesses a core of truth – John Pendlebury had a glass eye. If this matter was being debated before the Hutton Inquiry, however, while it is credible that Pendlebury left his eye on his desk once, I ask my learned friends: is it plausible that he did so all the time ?

Yet if a raconteur scales the pinnacles, a bit of embroidery only matters to pedants. Consider Paddy’s throwaway description of himself, drifting into the Cafe Bulgaria in Sofia as an almost penniless nomad. He falls into conversation with the only other foreigner present, who turns out to be Professor Whitemore, the great Bostonian authority on Byzantium. They are soon joined by Steven Runciman, he of the Crusades, and the art historian Roger Hinks. One feels a vague sense of disappointment that Byron failed to wander in.

Here is what seems to me the best of all Paddy anecdotes. In April 1944, he and Billy Moss and their gang of Cretan desperadoes are fleeing across the mountains with their hi-jacked general, half the German army in pursuit. They pause for a cigarette. The general contemplates the far horizon for a few moments, then mutters to himself: “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum/ Socrate …” Paddy unhesitatingly picks up the refrain: “… Nec iam sustineant onus/ Silvae laborantes, geluque/ Flumina constiterint acuto.”

And so on to the end. Paddy observes modestly that this is one of the few odes of Horace he chanced to know by heart. “The general’s blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain top to mine – and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: ‘Ach so, Herr Major!’.”

Ach so, indeed. Many heroes are disarmingly stupid people. Consider Achilles. Paddy is the glittering exception. The war did not satisfy his taste for adventure. Try this letter to Diana Cooper: “So here we are, back in cold and wintry Mani, with nothing planned till March, when Robin Fedden and I canoe down two northern Greek rivers – the Aliacmon and the Acheloos. One’s waist is laced into light skiffs, it seems, like the waists of those Infantas in their farthingales.”

Here he is, recalling the staff of the mansion in Romania where he spent idyllic months before the war: “I can see them all: Ionitza, the lantern-jawed cook; Ifrim Podubniak, the rather threadbare butler, never quite sober; white-coiffed Niculina, called la femme electrique, whose speed and alacrity made up for the non-existent current; she was in love with Mihai Pintili; he and Mihai Caval chopped logs and did odd jobs; and ‘Saxon’ Fifi, who was bedridden, slowly dwindled in a distant wing …”

Paddy draws the reader, like his huge acquaintance, into instant intimacy. He is always eager to share experience, pleasure, wine, and above all laughter. In truth, I fancy that he is less open, more opaque than his writing makes him appear; but if that were not so, he would be a much less interesting being.

He is one of few people whom I know to have declined a knighthood out of unaffected modesty and distaste for pomp. The prosecution might claim that he has led a wholly self-indulgent life. Yet his achievement is to be what he is – even more than what he has done. This collection beautifully illustrates both.

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