A personal view by Max Hastings who thinks that Paddy’s best book is Mani.
First published in the Daily Telegraph 12:01AM GMT 04 Jan 2004
Not long after the Second World War, an English couple chanced upon a remote taverna in the mountains of Greece. As they ate their simple lunch the proprietor, perceiving their nationality, remarked: “We had another English couple here once, before the war. They stayed for weeks. They were so beautiful and so in love. And every night they dressed for dinner!”
It was this last foible that had plainly captivated him, and indeed conjured for his listeners an enchanting vision of young lovers in “the full soup and fish”, as P G Wodehouse would have said, in this lonely Greek inn. All became clear when the innkeeper added: “His name was Lefemor.”
This was, of course, the inimitable Paddy (he has never been known as anything else), though the innkeeper was wrong about the nationality of his other guest – she was in truth a Romanian princess, Balasha Cantacuzene, with whom he enjoyed a romantic idyll through the last few years before the war.
Legend has it that “Lefemor’s” distraught family ordered him home, finally cabling the fare when he pleaded poverty to explain his inability to return. He merely used the money to protract the affair.
Like many stories told both by and about Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor – as he became this week at the age of 88 – this one may be a trifle fanciful, owing as much to soaring imagination as to historical fact. No matter. It is the sort of story about Paddy which ought to be true.
He richly deserves his honour not only for what he has written – some of the finest travel books of all time – but for what he has been. In prose, as I heard one of his oldest friends put it recently, “he possesses an extraordinary gift for expressing beauty in words”.
He has fulfilled the dream of so many upper-class Englishmen of his generation, to live, love, play the hero, sage and wit with a lightness of touch which, translated into the milieu of the kitchen, would produce a souffle of genius.
He was the son of Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, a geologist who travelled widely and made his reputation in India. “His tall, straight figure might often be seen dancing in Calcutta,” the DNB observes playfully. Paddy’s somewhat erratic schooling terminated at King’s Canterbury, from which he was sacked for some misdemeanour – “holding hands with the greengrocer’s daughter” is his own version, which will serve as well as any other.
Rejecting parental plans for Sandhurst and the Army, in December 1933 at the age of 18 he set out instead to walk to Constantinople, with very little money but some rather grand letters of introduction. The consequence was that for the next 18 months, he was wafted from schloss to schloss across old Europe, plunging his insatiable social, cultural, intellectual and linguistic curiosity into a river of happy encounters.
These he has described in the two volumes, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). A third instalment of the journey has been long in preparation, but it is unlikely that anyone except his publisher expects it to get finished.
He has always been a slow writer, each of the eight books in his modest output requiring long and painful labour. His dilatoriness has been reinforced, perhaps, by indifference to money. Though he has never had any, somehow God or friends have eagerly provided. He has practised a superior brand of Micawberism, founded upon the belief that something or somebody would turn up, which in his case it always has.
When war came in 1939 he left Baleni, the wonderful Romanian mansion where he had been living with his princess, to join the Irish Guards. Instead, however, he was commissioned into the Intelligence Corps as a Greek speaker. He spent the winter of 1940 as a liaison officer with the Greek Army.
Affectionately sceptical friends say that Paddy’s linguistic fluency is a trifle exaggerated. Sixty years ago an Englishman who heard him gassing away nineteen to the dozen said to a neighbouring Greek woman: “Is he as fluent as he sounds?” She replied: “No. He is simply making a wonderful noise.” This is a little unjust, and of course he has indeed become a master of the Greek language after living in the Peloponnese for so long. He possesses a gift for communicating with his fellow man of any nationality, class or condition, without need for anything as vulgar as a phrasebook.
Thousands of people across several continents have found Paddy an irresistible companion. Of Irish blood, in truth, he possesses little; but he has Irish charm in bucketfuls, from the sparkling eyes to the gift for laughter and fantasy. Indeed, distinguishing truth from legend in his biography is a challenge, partly because the truth is so remarkable.
His war experiences have been much described. He was irritated by the 1950 film Ill Met By Moonlight, which offered a romantic version of his operation with Billy Moss in April 1944 to kidnap the German divisional commander in Crete. Yet the film-makers could scarcely be blamed for seizing upon such an irresistible tale of derring do.
Paddy consciously sought Byronic experience, and found it in Crete, where he spent 18 months. The Second World War offered splendid opportunities to well-connected upper-class Englishmen with a taste for adventure, if one did not mind dressing up as a Cretan guerrilla, German soldier or whatever. This was all jam to Paddy. Between assignments, his flat in Cairo was a social mecca. He emerged from the war with a DSO.
Thereafter, those who watched him lotus-eating with Joan Eyres-Monsell, the wartime girlfriend whom he later married, might have been tempted to dismiss him as a buccaneering Peter Pan. Still barely 30, he remained awesomely good-looking, and unsuited to any regular employment. He might easily have gone the way of many others, dying 60 years afterwards, remembered only for having “had a good war”.
Instead, however, in 1950 he published his first book, Traveller’s Tree, about his 1947-48 travels in the Caribbean. It won the Heinemann Prize, and was immediately recognised as a masterpiece of travel writing. His course was set. His experience of life in a French monasteries produced A Time to Keep Silence, followed by his only novel – also, perhaps, his only literary disappointment – The Violins of St Jacques.
His best book is probably Mani, an account of the region of Greece he knows and loves best, which appeared in 1958, followed by Roumeli in 1966. In 1964, he and Joan began to build their own house in the Mani, Karadamyli, a wondrous mix of Greek coastal cloister and English country home. He has lived there ever since, unhappily alone since his wife’s death two years ago.
Dukes fight for the pleasure of Paddy’s company when he comes to England, and indeed he is not averse to occasional sojourns in the stately homes of England, varied by excursions to White’s and trips to his publishers, to whom he has been explaining for the past half-century why his manuscript will not be delivered on time.
He is perhaps the most brilliant conversationalist of his time, wearing his literacy light as wings, brimming over with laughter. As is the case with most great entertainers, somewhere in his make-up there is a tinge of melancholy.
His fans are thrilled that, at last, he has accepted the knighthood which modesty caused him to refuse in 1991. Few men who have been honoured in modern times have so vividly represented the knightly virtues. It would be ludicrous to refer to him as Sir Patrick, however. Sir Paddy, please.