First published in The Australian, 15 June 2011.
OBITUARY: Patrick Leigh Fermor. Author. Born India, February 11, 1915. Died Worcestershire, England, June 10, aged 96.
AN author whose books were deeply rooted in the experience of a remarkable life, Patrick Leigh Fermor was an erudite man whose learning stemmed more from his travels, the people he met and the languages he acquired than from study. The Balkans, and especially Greece and its culture present and past, were the subject of some of his finest books.
He had spent much of World War II in Greece and then Crete, where he organised resistance activity, and distinguished himself by capturing a German general. This exploit was the subject of the 1952 book Ill Met by Moonlight by W. Stanley Moss, which became a film of the same title in 1956, starring Dirk Bogarde as Leigh Fermor and Marius Goring as his German captive.
Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor was born in 1915 in India. After three years at King’s School, Canterbury, where his nonconformist spirit precluded academic distinction, he went to an army crammer in anticipation of a military career.
The curtailment of his formal education was compensated by his intellectual curiosity and by the civilising influence of his mother, who introduced him to the pleasures of art and literature. His gifts did not necessarily fit him for regimental duties or reconcile him to the restrictions of peacetime soldiering. His inclinations were rather those of an 18th-century patrician eager to scan the broader horizons offered by the grand tour. And so, shortly before his 19th birthday instead of joining the army, he sailed to Rotterdam and set out on foot for Constantinople.
That solitary trek across Europe in the mid-1930s developed his linguistic talent – already fluent in French and German, he added Bulgarian, Greek and Romanian to his languages – and also his ability to hit it off with people of various nationalities and walks of life.
Sojourns in palaces and castles would alternate with bivouacs in barns and doss-houses. These adventures and his school career were entertainingly described in two volumes of autobiography, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986).
He returned to Greece immediately after reaching his goal in Turkey. The dignity and gaiety of the shepherds, peasants and fishermen among whom he lived inspired a lifelong contempt for materialistic values as well as a suspicion of the benefits of economic progress. A lack of creature comforts appealed to a latent element of austerity in his nature.
At the outbreak of war he hastened back to England and enlisted. He served as a liaison officer to the Greek forces in Albania and took part in the battles of Greece and Crete.
After the fall of Crete he returned there, one of a handful of English officers, to organise the resistance movement. He endeared himself to the islanders, who saw in him a reflection of their own leventeia (an amalgam of high spirits, humour, quick wits and zest for life).
His flair for guerilla warfare was accompanied by an unsuspected gift for administration, which he exploited with outstanding success in the ambush, capture and evacuation to Egypt of General Kreipe, the German commander.
A bout of rheumatic fever laid him low for several months. No sooner had he recovered than he volunteered for a third mission to Crete before being posted home to take command of an Allied airborne reconnaissance group which, but for the German surrender, would have parachuted into Oflag IV at Colditz to defend the fort and arm the prisoners against the threat of deportation east.
After demobilisation he joined the British Council and was sent as deputy director to the British Institute in Athens. This was an opportunity to broaden his understanding of Greece. As a travelling lecturer, he visited most of the mainland and the Aegean archipelago, studying folklore and customs, assimilating regional dialects, and immersing himself in village life. He had no vocation for teaching, however, and after a year he resigned his position to start writing.
Oddly, his first book was not on a Greek theme. A journey to the Caribbean, sponsored by John Murray, resulted in the publication in 1950 of The Traveller’s Tree. Much of the book was written in the Benedictine abbey of St Wandrille in Normandy, to which he retired for weeks at a time.
These retreats led over the next few years to further investigations into the monkish life. These, notably at the abbey of Solemnes and the Cistercian monastery of La Grande Trappe, with a visit to the rock monasteries of Cappadocia, furnished material for A Time to Keep Silence, published in 1953.
In a succession of temporary havens and during journeys to France, Italy and further visits to Greece, Leigh Fermor completed a translation from the French of Colette’s Chance Acquaintance (1952) and he wrote a novel, The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1953).
His first volume on Greece, Mani (1958), was based on his more recent journey but enhanced by distillations from the experience he had acquired during more than two decades, raising it above the level of mere travel writing. The acclaim he won was repeated eight years later on the publication of its companion volume, Roumeli (1966).
By this time he had settled in Greece, and in 1968 he married Joan Eyres-Monsell, who had accompanied him on his travels ever since the end of the war. They designed the lovely house on a cliff-edge in the southern Peloponnese.
Further publications included Three Letters from the Andes (1991) the collection Words of Mercury (2004) and, in 2008, In Tearing Haste, an entertaining selection of his 50-year correspondence with the Duchess of Devonshire. He was knighted in 2004 and the Greek government made him a Commander of the Order of the Phoenix in February 2007.
Each of his books reveals stylistic virtuosity and imaginativeness. Another striking feature is his polymathy, the ease with which he disserts on a wide range of subjects, to name but a few beginning with the same letter, heraldry, hagiology, Hellenism, headgear (Byzantine) and history (church).
Those who knew Leigh Fermor will not easily forget his laughter, his singing and his infectious enthusiasm. In his company a bus ride became an odyssey; on his lips a mundane event was transformed into a saga.
He was blessed with arete, that Greek quality liable to half-translation as virtue, goodness or valour. His appetite for life was prodigious, and he appreciated the joys of the flesh as well as those of the mind and the spirit.
The pleasure he derived from his youthful foot-slogging was repeated in his late middle age, when he joined expeditions to the Andes and the Himalayas led by his friend Robin Fedden. In his 70th year he swam the Hellespont. He continued to live in Greece until the day before his death.
His wife died in 2003. There were no children.