Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died today aged 96, was one of the few genuine Renaissance figures produced by Britain in the 20th century, a man both of action and learning, a modern Philip Sidney or Lord Byron.
First published in The Telegraph 10 June 2011
Leigh Fermor was the architect of one of the most daring feats of the Second World War, the kidnapping of the commander of the German garrison on Crete, and also the author of some of the finest works in the canon of English travel writing.
His most celebrated book told the story of his year-long walk across Europe from Rotterdam to Istanbul in 1934, when he was 18 and the Continent was on the verge of cataclysmic change. His account of his adventures was projected as a trilogy, of which only the first two parts have so far been published, A Time of Gifts in 1977 and Between the Woods and the Water nine years later.
The journey was a cultural awakening for Leigh Fermor that bred in him a love of language and of remote places and set the pattern for his future life. The exuberant personality revealed in his writing won him many admirers, who also revelled in the remarkable range of his learning and the irresistible flow of his descriptive prose, rivalled for luxuriousness only by that of one of his principal influences, Norman Douglas.
Others were not so taken with his tales, suspecting him at best of a faulty memory and at worst of private myth-making, and dismissing his parade of arcane erudition as more intellectual snobbery than dilettante scholarship. Yet such criticism misread the essential modesty of the man, insisted too narrowly on accuracy in a genre founded by storytelling, and failed to realise that Leigh Fermor was above all a comic writer. It was for comic, often self-mocking, effect that he loosed his great streams of words, their tumbling onrush of sound designed to intoxicate and above all to entertain.
Leigh Fermor began his journey in December 1933, carrying a rucksack that had accompanied the travel writer Robert Byron – 10 years his senior and a lifelong literary influence – to Mount Athos for the trip written up as The Station (1931). His course took him across Hitler’s Germany to Transylvania, then through the Balkans to what he insisted on calling Constantinople.
Though he at first kept to his aim of travelling “like a tramp or pilgrim”, sleeping in police cells and beer halls, by the time he reached Central Europe his charm led to his being passed from schloss to schloss by a network of margraves and voivodes. The architecture, ritual and genealogy of each halt were later recalled with a loving eye.
Critics legitimately doubted how such details could be remembered more than half a century later (especially since Leigh Fermor had lost some of the diaries he kept, although he often gave proof of having an exceptionally retentive memory). Yet the accuracy or otherwise of particular incidents was beside the point. Leigh Fermor’s achievement was, like Proust, to have rendered the past visible, and to have preserved a civilisation which had since been swept away like leaves in a storm. The books are also a brilliantly sustained evocation in youthful exhilaration and joy, and perhaps the nearest equivalent in English to Alain-Fournier’s masterpiece of nostalgia, Le Grand Meaulnes.
Leigh Fermor completed his journey on New Year’s Day 1935, albeit by train rather than on foot, having been compelled to travel thus across the militarised zone that then constituted the Turkish frontier. He next visited the country with which he would become most associated, Greece, spending his 20th birthday at St Panteleimon, the Russian monastery on Mount Athos. Later he attached himself to some friends fighting on the royalist side of the Venizelist revolution and took part in a cavalry charge with drawn sabres at Orliako bridge, in Macedonia.
Following a spell in Athens, he then moved to Romania to live with his first love, the painter Balasha Cantacuzene, at her country house in Moldavia. There he passed most of the three years before the Second World War, funded in part by the proceeds of his translation from the Greek in 1938 of CP Rodocanachi’s novel Forever Ulysses, which became a book club selection in America and of which he took a share of the royalties. Having not attended university, Leigh Fermor, who from youth had been an avid reader, used this blissful time to immerse himself in the literature of half a dozen cultures, including French, German and Romanian.
On the outbreak of war Leigh Fermor first joined the Irish Guards but was then transferred to the Intelligence Corps due to his knowledge of the Balkans. He was initially attached as a liaison officer to the Greek forces fighting the Italians in Albania, then – having survived the fall of Crete in 1941 – was sent back to the island by SOE to command extremely hazardous guerrilla operations against the occupying Nazis.
For a year and a half Leigh Fermor, disguised as a Cretan shepherd (albeit one with a taste for waistcoats embroidered with black arabesques and scarlet silk linings) endured a perilous existence, living in freezing mountain caves while harassing German troops. Other dangers were less foreseeable. While checking his rifle Leigh Fermor accidentally shot a trusted guide who subsequently died of the wound.
His occasional bouts of leave were spent in Cairo, at Tara, the rowdy household presided over by a Polish countess, Sophie Tarnowska. It was on a steamy bathroom window in the house that Leigh Fermor and another of Tara’s residents, Bill Stanley Moss, conceived a remarkable operation that they subsequently executed with great dash on Crete in April 1944.
Dressed as German police corporals, the pair stopped the car belonging to General Karl Kreipe, the island’s commander, while he was returning one evening to his villa near Knossos. The chauffeur disposed of, Leigh Fermor donned the general’s hat and, with Moss driving the car, they bluffed their way through the centre of Heraklion and a further 22 checkpoints. Kreipe, meanwhile, was hidden under the back seat and sat on by three hefty andartes, or Cretan partisans.
For three weeks the group evaded German search parties, finally marching the general over the top of Mount Ida, the mythical birthplace of Zeus. It was here occurred one of the most celebrated incidents in the Leigh Fermor legend.
Gazing up at the snowy peak, Kreipe recited the first line of Horace’s ode Ad Thaliarchum – “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte” (See how Soracte stands white with snow on high). Leigh Fermor immediately continued the poem to its end. The two men realised that they had “drunk at the same fountains” before the war, as Leigh Fermor put it, and things between them were very different from then on.
Kreipe was eventually taken off Crete by motorboat to Cairo. The exploit was later filmed (in the Alps) as Ill Met by Moonlight (1956), with Dirk Bogarde implausibly cast as Leigh Fermor, who was awarded the DSO for his part in the mission. Such was his standing thereafter on Crete that in local tellings of the deed Kreipe was heard to mutter while being abducted “I am starting to wonder who is occupying this island – us or the British.”
Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor was born in London on February 11 1915. He was of Anglo-Irish stock and the son of Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, director of the Geological Survey of India and a naturalist after whom the mineral fermorite was named. He also discovered a worm with eight hairs on its back and a particular formation of snowflake.
Soon after Paddy’s birth, his mother and sister braved German submarines to sail to India to rejoin Sir Lewis, but for fear of the entire family being lost the infant Paddy was left in the care of a farmer and spent the first four years of life roaming across the fields of Northamptonshire. Among his earliest memories was of attending a Peace Day bonfire in 1919 at which one of the village boys was killed after swallowing a firework he had been clutching in his teeth.
These undisciplined formative years confirmed in him a natural unruliness that was still less likely to be curbed once his parents divorced. His mother, a glamorous red-headed playwright, set up home in Primrose Hill, and persuaded a neighbour, Arthur Rackham, to decorate Paddy’s room with drawings of hobgoblins.
His formal education was thereafter sporadic. A spell at a progressive school where staff and pupils alike dispensed with clothing was remedied by a private tutor who imbued him with a love of poetry and history. He was then sent to The King’s School, Canterbury, from which he was expelled (after several mischievous incidents) when caught holding hands with a greengrocer’s daughter.
It was decided that he should be sent to Sandhurst, but while up in London studying for the necessary exams he drifted into the fringes of the bohemian set (making friends with, among others, Nancy Mitford and Sacheverell Sitwell) and lodging in Shepherd’s Market, Piccadilly, with Beatrice Stewart, once the model for the figure of Peace in the quadriga atop Constitution Arch at Hyde Park Corner. In her rooms Leigh Fermor began (unsuccessfully) to write verse and then, in the winter of 1933, to plan his walk across Europe.
After the war, which ended while he was preparing for a potentially suicidal mission to penetrate Colditz, Leigh Fermor first worked for the British Institute in Athens. There he renewed his acquaintance with Seven Runciman and Osbert Lancaster as well as with Greek writers such as George Seferis. Then in the late 1940s he was commissioned to write the text to a book of photographs of the Caribbean.
It was this trip that gave direction to his later career. From the captions he wrote for the pictures sprang two of his first three books, The Traveller’s Tree (1950) and The Violins of Saint Jacques, his only novel (later turned into an opera), based on an incident in which a ball on Martinique was abruptly ended by the eruption of a volcano. These two titles were separated by a short meditation on monasticism, A Time to Keep Silence (1953).
But after this flurry of activity, the rest of his slender literary output appeared at intervals of a decade or more. He was not wholly idle in the meantime, writing the script for one of John Huston’s lesser films, The Roots of Heaven, and occasional journalism (some of it collected in the anthology of his work Words of Mercury that was published in 2003), but in general he much preferred research to the business of writing, and re-writing; it could take him half a dozen drafts before he would be satisfied with a sentence.
Then there were friends to entertain, among them Cyril Connolly, the present Duke of Devonshire and Bruce Chatwin, who chose to be buried near Leigh Fermor’s home in Greece. This was a house at Kardamyli, deep in the Peloponnese and overlooking the sea, which he and his wife designed themselves. Leigh Fermor liked to bathe, and at the age of 70 swam the four miles across the Hellespont.
Greece was the inspiration for his two other important books, Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966), distillations respectively of the history, legends, blood feuds and folk culture of the far south and north of a love and understanding of his adopted homeland.
Into his mid-eighties, Leigh Fermor retained the handsome looks (somewhat reminiscent of Jack Hawkins) of a man 20 years younger, and remained amused, energetic and excellent company. His mild manner concealed a sharper mind, and broader tastes, than might have been expected. High on his left shoulder there rode a large tattoo of a full-breasted, two-tailed Greek mermaid.
Patrick Leigh Fermor was awarded a military OBE in 1943 and was appointed a Companion of Literature in 1991. He received a knighthood in the New Year’s Honours List, 2004.
He married, in 1968, Joan Rayner (née Eyres-Monsell), daughter of the 1st Viscount Monsell and Paddy’s boon companion in all he did for more than 50 years. She died in 2003. There were no children.