Literary legend learning to type at 92

An old interview for our archive. First published in The Guardian Friday 2 March 2007 18.12 GMT

By Helena Smith in Athens

Patrick Leigh Fermor in 2005 - Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

In a rare public appearance, the revered travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor has revealed that he is only now – aged 92 – learning to type, in order to finish the trilogy that has been at the centre of his writing life for more than 30 years.

Leigh Fermor usually avoids the spotlight these days, to concentrate on his work, but this week made an exception as Greece, his adopted home, awarded him its highest honour, Commander of the Order of the Phoenix

Leigh Fermor, widely acknowledged as Britain’s greatest living travel writer, was unexpectedly told of the award in a letter from the office of Greece’s president last month. “I have no idea why they are doing this but I am deeply honoured and moved,” he told the Guardian after receiving the medal at a lavish ceremony in Athens.

“I think they’ve enjoyed reading my books and heard I was an eager participant, who got in the thick of things during the war,” said the author, who is also known for pulling off one of the greatest coups in Nazi-occupied Europe, orchestrating the capture of General Kreipe, the military commander on Crete – a feat immortalised by the book and film Ill Met by Moonlight.

Friends say Leigh Fermor, who has chronicled Greece for more than 60 years, is these days acutely aware of the passage of time and put aside precious writing time to make the trip from his home in the Mani on the southern Peloponnese. When he was handed the prestigious Travel Writers’ Guild award in 2004, he dispatched his biographer Artemis Cooper to pick up the gong.

Since the second half of the 80s, he has being toiling to complete the third volume of a trilogy depicting his extraordinary journey on foot from Rotterdam to Istanbul at the age of 18.

His painstaking perfectionism means his output has not been prolific. He wrote the first volume of the trilogy, A Time of Gifts – widely considered his greatest work – nearly four decades after the odyssey in 1977. The second, Between the Woods and the Water, was released in 1986. Ever since, fans have been desperate to read the third.

Like many of his generation, the acclaimed soldier-scholar has always written in longhand – delivering his masterpieces to his publisher in great flourishes of scrawl. It’s a process that has been widely blamed for the long gestation periods.

But help is at hand. Paddy, as he is known to his friends, has finally decided that with his handwriting degenerating into unreadability, it is time to type. This year he invested in a 1951 Olivetti (“I wouldn’t get a computer,”) and is currently working his way around the machine’s keyboard, according to friends.

“I’m going to finish that book,” he said. “I’m going home and I’m going to work really hard.”


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