Constantinople on foot, Antibes in a Jaguar – interview with Patrick Leigh Fermor

Nearly twenty years ago I interviewed Patrick Leigh Fermor when he was awarded a small but lustrous French literary prize by the town of Antibes in the south of France. He died today at the age of ninety-six and this account is reprinted here in tribute. To paraphrase Scott Fitzgerald, our count of enchanting witnesses has diminished by one.

By Julian Evans

First published in The Guardian, October 1992. Republished on Julian Evan’s website 10 June 2011.

The first time I rode in a Jaguar was as the guest of a Bordeaux wine merchant who had invited me to lunch at one of the family châteaux (his sister’s, I think). His idea of le chic britannique was to drive with one hand on the wheel and his foot on the floor, down roads lined with broom that swept the flanks of the dusty, hurtling car.

The second time was a few weeks ago, in Antibes. I had an exhibition to go to, followed by lunch and later an award ceremony and dinner for a literary prize.

I had dawdled in my hotel room, wondering how to get to the exhibition. Eventually I decided to order a taxi and took the lift down to the hotel reception. On the apron outside, the sun bouncing off the glossy declivity of its bonnet, a Jaguar was waiting.

The French possess a unique ability to appropriate elements of other nations’ identity and recreate them as their own. Their skyscrapers, their tweed caps and their seasides once belonged somewhere else, and now they’re completely French. In Britain the rakish Jaguar XJ6 is a serious (which means class-conscious) reward of mercantile or political labour. Owning a Jaguar is something a company director rises to. In France a Jaguar is ultimately a toy; a plaything, no stranger to amusement. One begins to suspect the French of a certain income of giving each other Jaguars for Christmas. I say this because, in my experience, there are conventions to the awarding of literary prizes and the provision of chauffeur-driven Jaguars for visiting journalists is not one of them.

The Prix Jacques Audiberti de la Ville d’Antibes, worth 50,000 francs to the laureate, was set up four years ago to honour a writer with a special interest in the Mediterranean. In four years, it has twice been awarded to a British writer, the first time to Lawrence Durrell, and this year to Patrick Leigh Fermor. (The other two laureates, Jacques Lacarrière and Jacqueline de Romilly, have been French.)

Audiberti was a playwright and poet. He was born into the artistic community of Antibes, a cosmopolitan list which, apart from Picasso and Graham Greene, includes Guy de Maupassant, Jules Verne, Scott Fitzgerald, Nicolas de Staël and Nikos Kazantzakis. Audiberti is one of that long roll of second-division writers whom the French enjoy and do not forget. They stay in print, and have streets – and prizes – named after them.

The willingness of this small seaside town to honour foreign writers is one of its obscurer virtues. From the perspective of a country that pays only lip service to literary internationalism (the Booker’s Commonwealth entry requirements are, after all, based on an imperial notion of extended British citizenship), it is interesting.

As Michel Déon, the president of the jury – an Academician and a hugely successful novelist in France and continental Europe – said to me at the award ceremony that evening: ‘I lived in Southend before the war. I remember it as a beautiful place of villas and tennis courts. I think I am the only person to have written a novel set in Southend. But I think I will wait a very long time if I wait for an invitation to go back.’

Antibes is a rich, old town, top-heavy with money and reserve. The villas on the Cap, lived in all year round, are bounded by high white walls inset with electrically operated gates. Behind the walls, massed pines lead down discreetly lit drives to houses and cupolas of shiny stucco: Belgravia-on-Sea. Antibes is a place where, if you step off the tourist rack, you feel you are likely to be asked your business. This is generally a less difficult question to answer if you are in the back of a Jaguar.

The association of literature with the very rich makes it suspect for some, but the town has little to gain from literary huckstering. It has the Musée Picasso in the Château Grimaldi; more wealthy tourists than it can carelessly accommodate; more than enough literary associations. (Graham Greene made it his home for twenty-five years before his death in 1991.) The Jacques Audiberti prize gives the impression of being itself a serious plaything for the town: a chance for it to indulge in some culturally-minded Mediterranean generosity.

Such questions of wealth and vanity would not occur to Patrick Leigh Fermor. He has spent almost sixty years adventuring outside England. For the last twenty-seven years he has lived on the edge of the Taygetus mountains in the Peloponnese in a house he built with his wife, Joan.

He describes this retreat with a flash of pleasure. ‘No social duties, no cocktail parties, no visiting!’ He says it as if reading from an embossed plate outside his front door.

He regards his success in France, where two of his books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, have recently been translated for the first time, as an incredible stroke of fortune. A linguist, scholar and soldier, he was stationed with resistance forces in Crete for two years in World War Two because he had learnt ‘obsolete Greek’ at school; he organised and carried out the kidnap of the German commander on the island, General Kreipe (who thus became the only German general to reach Cairo).

Fifty years later, he has not lost the diffident speech habits of the officer class. ‘Total delight,’ he says, raising his eyebrows high. ‘Frightfully pleased and honoured. A miracle, really….’

In fact the lightness Leigh Fermor conveys in person predates the war: it goes back to the fag end – the closing bars – of the Jazz Age, when he lived in bohemian circumstances in Mayfair’s Shepherd Market. It is also misleading as a clue to his books. His chronicles of a young man trudging across Europe to Constantinople are a lengthy essay in cheerfulness. Their greatest charm is that he mines every scene for positive impressions, even a Bierkeller in Cologne packed with Brownshirts or a Bratislavan brothel.

There is also an unstudied erudition to his writing. In the case of the brothel, he can name four authors – Lucian, Juvenal, Petronius and Villon – that it conjures up. He has a fascination for language, for its passage through history and dialect; he is able to winkle out in his later book of wanderings in northern Greece the seesaw of fortune that has the Greeks proud to call themselves ‘Romios’ at one era, then turns it into a term of abuse in the next, post-Byzantium. Few writers have explained, as he does in Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece, a love for a country more eloquently than this:

‘I had begun to grasp, in the past few weeks, one of the great and uncovenanted delights of Greece; a pre-coming-of-age present in my case: a direct and immediate link, friendly and equal on either side, between human beings, something which melts barriers of hierarchy and background and money and, except for a few tribal and historic feuds, politics and nationality as well. It is not a thing which functions in the teeth of convention, but in almost prelapsarian unawareness of its existence. Self-consciousness, awe and condescension (and their baleful remedy of forced egalitarianism), and the feudal hangover and the post-Fall-of-the-Bastille flicker – all the gloomy factors which limit the range of life and deoxygenize the air of Western Europe, are absent. Existence, these glances say, is a torment, an enemy, an adventure and a joke which we are in league to undergo, outwit, exploit and enjoy on equal terms as accomplices, fellow-hedonists and fellow-victims. A stranger begins to realize that the armour which has been irking him and the arsenal he has been lugging about for half a lifetime are no longer needed. Miraculous lightness takes their place.’

Leigh Fermor was born in the second year of the Great War. He roamed free on a Northamptonshire farm for four years as a foster-child, and when his mother and sister came to fetch him they got a small savage back.

He was tamed by degrees, but the lawless years stamped him. Schools couldn’t hold him; a psychiatrist recommended a very advanced school for difficult children near Bury St Edmunds, an exotic paradise where children and staff performed nature-worshipping eurhythmics naked together in a barn. Later he ran away from prep school, and he was sacked from the King’s School in Canterbury after being discovered, at the end of a chain of reckless behaviour, making love to a shopgirl on some upturned apple-baskets.

His gallant and long-suffering mother made attempts to settle him, but her greatest gift was the imagination to see that he had to be allowed freedom. His first wanderings across Europe would nowadays be a stunt for a professional travel writer. Leigh Fermor walked because he was poor, he was young, and he wanted to go as slowly as he could. His rule was that he would only accept lifts in bad weather. He met Robert Byron in a nightclub: ‘dragon-green Byzantium loomed serpent-haunted and gong-tormented’. He set out on 9th December 1933 and did not come back to England until 1937.

Books came later. An illuminating story connects the delay to his close and lifelong attachment to women. (In print these adventures are delicately recounted. A sentence from a description of an affair with a married Hungarian girl in a red skirt sums them up – ‘All had marvellously changed of a sudden… during the next two nights and days, all unentwined moments seemed a waste.’)

This story comes up in a roundabout way when I ask him if Greece is the place where he has been most happy. He begins to talk about Moldavia. When the walk came to an end, he became friends with a family who had a rambling country house there: he stayed for two years.

‘I was very attached to one member of the household, a girl, and we were having an idyllic time, picnics and riding, watching the reaping and all the hayricks being made. We rode all over northern Moldavia and Bessarabia. Suddenly war broke out, and I had no prescient feeling that the war was going to last as long or tear everything up by the roots, so I left a lot of things there, including my great fat battered green diary which had all my travels in.

‘When the Communists took over, the family were given a quarter of an hour to pack and only allowed to take one suitcase each, and this great friend of mine who I adored, saw my diary lying on top of a bookcase. It caught her eye and she chucked it into the bag she took off with her to the Carpathian foothills, where they were forced to settle. I was blacklisted and couldn’t get back to see her for twelve years. Eventually I smuggled myself in, and I arrived at her house and there it was on the table: the diary that all these books are based on. It was a miraculous recovery.’

Leigh Fermor’s miraculous Europe has vanished. The castles he was invited to have been turned into lunatic asylums; the hillocks of Moldavia have been bulldozed; the amiable nineteen-year-old freak that everyone took under their wing has been succeeded by whole populations. But there is a thoroughness – an almost architectural thoroughness – to his re-creation of the journey. The books are a restoration project. Of the final volume, he is ‘making very heavy weather. I go back to a country and follow the route very roughly to see if I am going to drop any terrific bricks – “I sat dreamily in the marketplace and gazed up at the weathercock on the cathedral”, that sort of thing, so I go back to see if the weathercock is visible from there or not. And recently I went back to Bulgaria, and it put me off my stroke frightfully. They were cheerful people, marvellous singers, and now it is entirely soulless, organised in a Marxist sort of way, and with it the death of all joy and pleasure, and’ – he pauses to stare hard into the pre-Marxist past – ‘that upset me terribly.’

His excursion into civilisation this time around might have been expected to put him off his stroke. But he very nearly bounces as he says: ‘Terrific fun.’ Antibes, unlike Bulgaria, is more or less as it was, in the glamour of the Fitzgerald years.

Several events are laid on. There is, in fact, a celebration of British writing. It is Graham Greene’s birthday, and an exhibition of his life is opened on the second floor of the Musée Picasso. The town wanted to name a square in Greene’s honour, but his estate said that things were not done like that in England. (It is difficult not to cavil at British stiffness: our ambassador has twice been invited and has not replied.) The secretary of the prize, Pierre Joannon, throws a lunch at his villa, on a terrace the size of a tennis court, overlooking the Golfe-Juan. Greene’s partner Yvonne Cloetta is there, looking elegant and frail, and so is Vivienne, Paddy Campbell’s widow. ‘If he were still alive,’ she says sweetly, ‘he would kill Peter Mayle.’ I spend some time talking to an American postgraduate with cornflower-blue eyes – she has been awarded the other prize of the day, which provides a grant to a student of Lawrence Durrell’s work – then I mention to M. Joannon that I would love a swim in his pool. He returns with an armful of swimming costumes.

At night the Jaguars ferry the guests down a succession of pine-masked drives, first for the prizegiving, to a villa whose lighted veranda and enormous garden recall Jay Gatsby’s East Egg mansion, and then to dinner at a ‘large, proud, rose-coloured hotel’: the Hôtel du Cap Eden Roc which was the model for Gausse’s Hôtel des Étrangers, the place of Dick and Nicole Diver’s first appearance in Tender Is the Night.

Towards the end of dinner, Leigh Fermor stands to tell the mayor of Antibes in his diffident way what a wonderful gift he has of doing it all so lightly. One of the last and unlikeliest of the Bright Young Things is at home here, despite the social duties, while I retain a brief contrasting memory of the self-conscious beauty contests that are literary prizes in Britain. On the way back to our hotel I am consoled by another Fitzgeraldian moment, as the Jaguar is overfull and I find an American academic with cornflower-blue eyes sitting on my lap in the front seat.

You need to watch the French sometimes. They have a habit of equating writing with glamour that in recent years has led to endless novels with architect heroes and slight storylines in oriental settings. On this occasion, they succeeded in making a robust occidentalist – a virtuoso of the unfinished journey and rescuer of a disappeared past – one of their own. He joins the Jaguar.

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