Tales of a literary traveller: Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor DSO, OBE is widely considered to be our greatest living travel writer, and was knighted earlier this year for, as he put it, just writing a few books. Robin Hanbury-Tenison, who has known ‘Paddy’ for 50 years, explains why the great man’s writing is as powerful and important today as it has ever been
First published in the Geographical August 2004
by Robin Hanbury-Tenison
Patrick Leigh Fermor is a unique mixture of hero, historian, traveller and writer: the last and the greatest of a generation whose like we won’t see again. Bringing the landscape alive as no other writer can, he uses his profound and eclectic understanding of cultures and peoples, their origins and current place in the world, to paint vivid pictures–nobody has illuminated the geography of Europe better through literature. Everything is grist to his mill; nothing is ever banal. He expects much of his readers and we’re kept on our toes, constantly reaching for the dictionary or Brewer’s. In return for these achievements, he was finally knighted this year at the age of 88. He had modestly refused this honour previously on the grounds that all he had done was “write a few books”.
I first met Paddy (as he has always been known) in Athens in 1954 when I was a callow 18-year-old travelling through Greece. I remember sitting at a cafe in Metaxas Square while waves of witty erudition washed back and forth between him and my older travelling companion, and being humbled into awed silence. Paddy has always appeared larger than life, both in his personality and in his relatively rare and carefully honed writing. We corresponded from time to time over the years and eventually met again when he and his wife Joan had my wife and me to lunch at their house in Greece, where we were made to feel instantly at home.
Since Joan’s death, Paddy has spent more time in England, which gives us all more opportunity to see him. In May this year, a dinner was held for him by the Travellers Club, at which he was presented with a specially commissioned map of the route that he followed through Europe during the early 1930s and that he later wrote about so vividly. He spoke at the dinner and, now 89, held us all spellbound with some classic tales. One of the club waitresses was from Sofia and, to her delight and the amazement of all around, he launched into apparently fluent Bulgarian as she served him.
The bare details of his life, too, delight and amaze. The son of Sir Lewis Leigh Ferrnor, the director of the Geological Survey of India, Paddy was sacked at 17 from King’s School, Canterbury (for the terrible crime of “holding hands with the greengrocer’s daughter”), and spent the next 18 months walking to Constantinople, a journey that he wrote about with apparent total recall some 40 years later in A Time of Gifts, the first volume of a trilogy. It was followed by Between the Woods and the Water. We still await the final volume.
In the Second World War, Paddy served with the Special Operations Executive–the precursor of the SAS–and, because he spoke Greek, was parachuted into Crete behind enemy lines to help organise resistance against the Germans. In April 1944, having already spent more than a year living there, he pulled off one of the most dramatic exploits of the war.
Dressed as Feldpolizei corporals, Paddy and Captain Billy Moss–who subsequently wrote the book on which the film Ill Met by Moonlight was based–stopped the car in which General Heinrich Kreipe, the recently arrived commander of the German occupation forces, was being driven by his chauffeur. The driver was removed and handed over to members of the Cretan Resistance, while Paddy put on the general’s hat and proceeded to drive on through 22 control posts. The car was then abandoned, and the two soldiers marched their prisoner through that night and the next day to a cave high in the mountains.
In order to avoid reprisals against the Cretans, leaflets were to be dropped all over Crete, containing a message that the BBC also broadcast: that the general was safe, and would be treated with the respect due his rank; that the operation had been carried out by British officers; and that they were all on their way to Cairo by submarine. Two days later, they woke among some rocks near the summit of Mount Ida, just as dawn was breaking. Half to himself, General Kreipe recited in Latin the opening line of a Horace ode. As Paddy subsequently described in his report to the Imperial War Museum: “He was in luck. It is the opening line of one of the few odes of Horace I know by heart–Ad Thaliarchum, I.ix” and he went on to recite the remaining five stanzas. “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!’ It was very strange. ‘Ja, Herr General.’ As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”
After the war, Paddy spent six months travelling through the Caribbean with Joan Eyres-Monsell–the woman who, 20 years later, was to become his wife–and Costa, the great Greek photographer. The result was his first book, The Traveller’s Tree, which brought the Caribbean to the notice of post-war Britain. Back then, the many islands they visited were thoroughly run down. The great buildings–of church, state and planters’ wealth–were mostly ruined and rotten. In the depressed economic climate immediately following the war, the future looked bleak; indeed, ‘King Sugar’ was about to die, this time as a victim of sugar beet and the macropolitics being played out between the USA and Europe.
Yet Paddy still managed to reveal the archipelago’s romance and magic, and The Traveller’s Tree was hailed as a masterpiece and won the Heinemann Prize. Paddy’s portrayal of the islands could be said to have jump-started the tourism industry upon which the Caribbean has since largely depended.
It was the Caribbean, too, that provided the backdrop to Paddy’s only novel, The Violins of Saint-Jacques, which brings alive the glamour and the passions of the planters in their heyday. This tale of a rich island being destroyed by a volcanic eruption in the middle of a splendid planters’ ball is based on the true story of the annihilation in 1902 of St-Pierre, the old capital of Martinique. There, 26,000 people died instantly in the New World’s Pompeii. The sole survivor was the town drunk, who was incarcerated in a cell below ground. He spent the rest of his life as an exhibit in Barnum and Bailey’s Circus.
Paddy eventually returned to Greece, where, during the 1960s, he built a wonderful house above a private cove near the fishing village of Kardamili in the southern Peloponnese. There, in a large room that John Betjeman, an early visitor, called “one of the rooms in the world”, he and Joan entertained a string of artists and writers with copious quantities of retsina, and Paddy wrote.
His greatest book, Mani, was about a journey through that little-known and, at the time, archaic region; the book has been in print ever since. Paddy travelled simply, staying with fishermen and farmers, which enabled him to capture the essence of the region, as this extract reveals:
Beyond the bars of my window the towers descended, their walls blazoned with diagonals of light and shade; and, through a wide gap, castellated villages were poised above the sea on coils of terraces. Through another gap our host’s second daughter, wide hatted and perched on the back of a wooden sledge and grasping three reins, was sliding round a threshing floor behind a horse, a mule and a cow–the first cow I had seen in the Mani–all of them linked in a triple yoke. On a bank above this busy stone disc, the rest of the family were flinging wooden shovelfuls of wheat in the air for the grain to fall on outstretched coloured blankets while the husks drifted away. Others shook large sieves. The sun which climbed behind them outlined this group with a rim of gold and each time a winnower sent up his great fan, for long seconds the floating chaff embowered him in a golden mist.
Almost every page has its own literary tour de force, often with intimidating displays of learning and research mixed with fantasy, imagination and acute descriptions of the scene itself. In his next book, Roumeli, about the minority communities of northern Greece, Paddy becomes fascinated by the last true nomads of the region, the Sarakatsans. His description of their wanderings is, for me, the best sort of literary geography lesson, and has even more geopolitical relevance now than when he wrote it:
The sudden cage of frontiers which sprang up after the Balkan Wars failed to confine them and they fanned out in autumn all over southern Albania and across the lower marches of Serbia as far as Montenegro and Herzogovina and Bosnia and into Bulgaria to the foothills of the Great Balkan. Those who thought of the Rhodope mountains as their home–the very ones, indeed, in the highlands that loom above the Thracian plains–were particularly bold in the extent of their winter wanderings. Not only did they strike northwards, like those I saw by the Black Sea, but, before the Hebrus river became an inviolable barrier, their caravans reached Constantinople and up went their wigwams under the walls of Theodosius. Others settled along the shores of the Sea of Marmara and spread over the rich green hills of the Dardanelles. Many crossed the Hellespont to pitch camp on the plain of Troy. Bold nomads would continue to the meadows of Bythinia and winter among the poplar trees or push on into Cappadocia and scatter their flocks across the volcanic wildernesses round the rock monasteries of Urgub. The boldest even reached Iconium, the home of Jellalludin and the metropolis of the whirling dervishes. They never looked on these enormous journeys as expatriation: until the deracination of the 1920s, much of Asia Minor was part of the Greek world; and even beyond its confines there were ancient Greek colonies.
Those attempting today to sort out the chaos in what was, for a while, southern Yugoslavia could learn a lot from reading Paddy’s books.
One of the main criticisms of Paddy’s writing is that there simply isn’t enough of it. But very few 20th-century writers, with perhaps the exception of Graham Greene, have managed to be prolific while maintaining consistent quality of this kind. The relatively small number of books (much boosted by the release of the paperback of Words of Mercury this mouth) is the work, to quote Anthony Sattin in the Sunday Times, of “one of the greatest travel writers of all time”, a heartfelt wanderer truly involved in mankind.
New editions of both Mani and Roumeli will be published by John Murray near the end of this year. A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water were reissued by John Murray in March. Words of Mercury is out now in paperback.
Early inspiration: Following Paddy around the Caribbean
Though Patrick Leigh Fermor’s most famous works recount his European travels, it was the Caribbean that inspired his first book. Fifty years later, Robin Hanbury-Tenison and his wife retraced Paddy’s steps:
We hired horses and rode, as Paddy did, between tall forest giants, listening to the jungle buzz and background twitterings. Suddenly, a beautiful, melodious note rang out. This was followed after o moment by three more notes of startling clarity and sweetness and the theme, a bit like the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth, was repeated every few minutes. It was a rufous-throated solitaire, which Leigh Fermor describes as making “a noise so melancholy that it seemed the perfect emanation of these sad and beautiful forests. It haunts the high woods of Dominica and nowhere else in the world.”
How does everything about a place change in 50 years, and yet the place itself remain the same? It is because of that unique mixture of cultures that is the Caribbean–and no-one has captured and evoked the extraordinary differences between the islands better than Paddy did in The Traveller’s Tree. Ash says: “Each island is a distinct and idiosyncratic entity, a civilisation, or the reverse, fortuitous in its origins and empirical in its development. “And then again, quoting an old Jamaican: “We’re always going somewhere. But we never get there.”
Patrick Leigh Fermor, however, not only travelled but also arrived. And those of us who read his dispatches home–those calm, intelligent tales of lives lived elsewhere–are in his debt.