Voyages around a genius

At some point, when I get truly organised, it is my intention to create a section on the blog for all the book reviews I can find that relate to Paddy’s work. Until that time I beg your indulgence for yet another review of Words of Mercury. However, this has two strong claims to your time and attention. Firstly it is short, and secondly it is a delightful read!

ByRoger Hutchinson

First published in 15 November 2003

If you or I were to take a hike in December down a deserted Black Sea coastline in Bulgaria, miss our way after dark, fall into a deep, cold pool and lose our torch and boots, we would certainly drown on the spot or die shortly afterwards from exposure.

When Patrick Leigh Fermor does exactly the same thing he crawls out alive and is adopted within the hour by half-a-dozen Greek fishermen who dry him, clothe him, sit him beside a bonfire, feed him slivovitz and mackerel, play bouzoukis, sing songs and perform antic dances through the night. Some travel writers are born or made; others have it wished upon them.

Leigh Fermor is undoubtedly the greatest travel writer to have emerged from the 1980s genre-boom. Comparisons with the likes of Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron, William Dalrymple, Jan Morris and even the mythical avatar of them all, Robert Byron, are fruitless – Leigh Fermor out-travels them, out-scholars them and out-writes them by a country mile.

He writes English, in fact, as well as anybody else alive and a great deal better than most. Leigh Fermor’s prose style is a wonderful thing. He was born with an uncanny facility for languages and the ability to pick up a local demotic – any local demotic – almost on contact. His deployment of his native language is consequently blessed with a huge and exotic vocabulary, instinctively flawless grammar and what he usefully describes – while attributing the advice to Auberon Herbert – as “the importance of keeping a proper balance between words of Anglo-Saxon and Latin root … a Latin preponderance endangered one’s themes and sent them ballooning away in abstract drifts … that could only be rescued by tethering them to the ground and reality with short Anglo-Saxon pegs.”

This hardworking, heavenly English has been set loose in half a dozen books on the most suitable of themes: the life and times of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Since he set off to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in 1933 at the age of 18, Leigh Fermor has led so adventurous an existence that without evidence to the contrary we would be tempted to dismiss it as fantasy.

But the evidence is there. He really did stay in fairytale castles and sleep with glamorous mittel-Europeans. He really did parachute into occupied Crete, swagger around with banditti and kidnap a German general. He really did explore the West Indies, climb the Andes and the Himalayas, write books in monasteries, follow the rainbow and return always to his adopted homeland of Greece. He is impossibly, infuriatingly, irresistibly romantic.

He has written sparingly. There has been almost a decade between each of his last four books. As the last pair of those – A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water – were the first two volumes of a trilogy recalling that magnificent pre-war hike to the Bosphorus, we and his publishers have been on tenterhooks since 1986, prayerfully beseeching Leigh Fermor to tear himself away from Mani and escort us to old Stamboul.

The publishers, John Murray, have meantime sated our hunger, firstly with a collection of letters home from the Andes and now with Words of Mercury, a short anthology, edited by Artemis Cooper, which is best described as a Patrick Leigh Fermor primer. About half of the entries are filched from his earlier books. The rest are reprinted magazine articles, doodles and a glorious gift of a letter to Artemis’s grandmother, Lady Diana Cooper.

It will do to be going on with. Those of us who know almost by heart the Delphinia episode and the story of how he found Lord Byron’s slippers really have no objection to reading them again. Those who don’t, should. And the journalistic miscellenia, which include pieces on the building of his fabled house on the southern tip of the Peloponnese, Cavafy, and Iain Moncreiffe (of that Ilk) are more than valuable. But most tantalising of all, provocative to the point of cruelty, is the fact that Words of Mercury contains a couple of essays that point alluringly towards the last stage of his 1930s perambulation.

We left him meandering towards Turkey at the end of Between the Woods and the Water. We know he eventually got there. According to a 1965 article in Holiday magazine, which Cooper reprints, the journey involved that wintry escapade with Black Sea fishermen. “Laughing and out of breath,” Leigh Fermor recalls, “Costa collapsed with mock melodrama. The raki travelled round the cave in a hubbub of laughter and the flames threw a beltane chiaroscuro over hilarious masks. Another bottle was miraculously discovered …”

Yes, Patrick – open it. Do

Related article:

The mystery of The Black Sea Cave

Related category:

Words of Mercury

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