PATRICK Leigh Fermor, who died last weekend at the age of 96, was regarded by many as the greatest travel writer of the 20th century. But he was so much more. A distinctive prose stylist with deep reservoirs of erudition unclouded by self-regard, he was blessed with two qualities that no one ever taught at creative-writing school: a talent for friendship and a taste for hardship.
By Luke Slattery
First published in The Australian, 18 June 2011
Contemporary literary people tend to live rather sedentary lives. Paddy was different. He played a key role in the Greek resistance against the Reich, and was awarded the DSO for heroism. After the war he settled in Greece, on the barren western shore of the Peloponnese, and scratched out in longhand a brace of poetic and highly charged books about journeys rather than destinations.
A little less than a decade ago I called on him at the pretty fishing village in southern Greece that had for many years been his home. But arriving late in the day at Kardamyli, a warren of stone towers at the foot of Mount Taygetus, I discovered he was in Britain.
I was given a London number, which I called from a public phone amid piles of unwashed tomatoes and wilting lettuce outside the village store: “Should I wait in Kardamyli for your return?” I asked.
With scant appreciation of the nature of long-haul air travel – 28 hours from Sydney to Athens via Heathrow – he replied in a bright yet fragile tone: “Next visit.”
In his 88th year and recently bereaved, he explained he was “all awhirl”. His reticence was understandable. It was not a good time. But it had taken an age to get here!
Paddy lived from 1964 with his wife Joan just south of this sleepy seaside sentinel at the entrance to the Mani: a region of rust-coloured hills silvered by olive groves, which erupts here and there into insular hilltop villages that not long ago festered with clan feuds and rang with rifle fire. The writer found the place in an age when electricity was uncommon south of Kalamata, and saw it flourish into a favourite of middle-class British and German tourists.
His first sight of the village is evoked in Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, one of his two famous Greek books (the other, Roumeli, relates his adventures in the north):
“Several towers and a cupola and a belfry rose above the roofs and a ledge immediately above them formed a lovely cypress-covered platform. Above this the bare Taygetus piled up.
“It was unlike any village I had seen in Greece. These houses, resembling small castles built of local stone and medieval-looking pepper-pot turrets, were topped by a fine church. The mountains rushed down almost to the water’s edge with, here and there among the whitewashed fishermen’s houses near the sea, great rustling groves of calamus reed 10 foot high and all swaying together in the slightest whisper of wind. There was sand underfoot and nets were looped from tree to tree. Whitewashed ribbed amphorae for oil and wine, almost the size of those dug up in the palace of Minos, stood by many a doorway.”
My fascination with Leigh Fermor began some time in the late 1980s when I read A Time of Gifts, the first of two mesmerising accounts of a journey on foot across pre-war Europe. His youthful memoirs have a distinct flavour imparted by the circumstances of their composition: worked up from long-lost diaries discovered by chance when the author was middle-aged, they are as much a celebration of lost time as anything by Proust or Anthony Powell.
His journey began on a wet December day in 1933. Paddy was just 18. Putting school troubles behind him (he’d been a good scholar but a free and untamed spirit) he set out for Constantinople on foot with only a rucksack and an old army greatcoat to keep out the snow. A boat took him overnight from London to Rotterdam, and his trek began at first light: “My spirits, already high, steadily rose as I walked. I could scarcely believe that I was really there; alone, that is, on the move, advancing into Europe, surrounded by all this emptiness and change, with a thousand wonders waiting … I halted at a signpost to eat a hunk of bread with a yellow wedge of cheese sliced from a red cannon ball by a village grocer.”
A Time of Gifts is shot though with a sort of double-barrelled nostalgia. The writer remembers himself as a youth, and the 18-year-old he recalls is already full of remembering. Young Leigh Fermor registers the presence of the past keenly and so senses, in these pre-war years, that an ancient pattern of life is disappearing.
On the road from Cologne he spies the fringes of the Ruhr: “a distant palisade of industrial chimneys”. Dark clouds loom on the horizon. From the side street of a small German town files a column of SS troops. And the song that keeps time to their crunching tread? People to Arms!
The prose style is often ornate, yet the sensibility shaping Leigh Fermor’s verbal arabesques is robust, never prissy. The next instalment of his trek across Europe is titled Between the Woods and the Water. It leaves him at the door of Romania. I’m still waiting for a final leg of the trilogy, which promises to deliver both writer and reader to Constantinople in 1935. Paddy had been working on it for years, and his publishers have guaranteed posthumous publication “in due course”.
From Romania and Bulgaria, Paddy journeyed down the Black Sea coast, spending a night among piratical Balkan cave-dwellers.
Legendary Hellas beckoned, and he began to dream of Greece and the Greeks. He spent his 20th birthday in a monastery atop Mount Athos, his curiosity about such haunts later bearing fruit in a book about monastic life titled A Time to Keep Silence. He discovered an aptitude for Greek, took part in a minor military skirmish, roamed the country and fell in love with it. In 1940, as Mussolini bore down on the Albanian frontier, he was working as a liaison officer to Greek forces. When the Germans entered Greece he was dispatched by British special operations to Crete to organise local resistance.
By the spring of 1944, when the order went out to kidnap Hitler’s man on the island, Paddy had been on Crete for two years. General Karl Heinrich Kreipe was comfortably installed in the Villa Ariadne, (home to Arthur Evans during his excavations at Knossos), and drove there each day from German HQ. With a band of Cretan “brothers-in-arms” brandishing rifles, glinting eyes and ferocious whiskers, Leigh Fermor (by now a 29-year-old captain) abducted the general from his staff car and made off into the hills.
On the third morning the captive and his captors wake among the crags, the sun cresting over Mount Ida. The general smokes, gazing over the valley below, and murmurs the melancholy lines of Horace’s ninth ode, a lament for youth, inspired by the sight of another mountain range far away.
Leigh Fermor picks up the thread when the general leaves off, intoning the remaining five stanzas. Paddy later recalled the moment when Kreipe’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. 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.”
An academic recording oral history in western Crete heard a version of the Kreipe story sung in 1953. A mere nine years after the events it narrates, the tale had become a celebration of patriotic derring-do. Cretan folklore credits local guerilla Lefkaris Tambakis (not one of those responsible) with the heroic kidnapping, diminishes the British involvement, and inserts a fiction about a beautiful Cretan girl who sleeps with Kreipe solely to procure for the guerillas his itinerary.
While Leigh Fermor in this re-telling of his story is combined with another British officer and relegated to almost observer status he would not, I think, have been disappointed by its mythical afterlife. In Greece before the advent of mass tourism he found a place alive to the past, and to myth – and simply alive!
This passage from Mani is celebrated for its effervescence:
“Soon the delighted cry of ‘Delphinia!’ went up: a school of dolphins was gambolling half a mile further out to sea. They seemed to have spotted us at the same moment, for in a second half a dozen were tearing their way towards us, all surfacing in the same parabola and plunging together as though they were in some invisible harness. Soon they were careening alongside and round the bows and under the bowsprit, glittering mussel-blue on top, fading at the sides through gun-metal dune-like markings to pure white, streamlined and gleaming from their elegant beaks to the clean flukes of their tails. They were beautiful abstractions of speed, energy, power and ecstasy leaping out of the water and plunging and spiralling and vanishing like swift shadows.”
Soon after reading A Time of Gifts, in the late 1980s, I asked Leigh Fermor’s publishers about the possibility of an interview: nobody even knew of him. So when, in 1995, I met a retired Greek general of Leigh Fermor’s generation at a waterfront restaurant in Sydney, I was keen for news. Yes, he knew Paddy. The two were old friends, having met in Palestine in 1941. They had both, I later found out, helped blow up a bridge over the Gorgopotamos in 1942 in an early strike for special forces.
I left that meeting with a phone number and what sufficed for an address in Kardamyli. I called and spoke to Paddy briefly. He asked me to pass on a curious message to the general, whom he called Themi (short for Themistocles): “Tell him I’ve got the maps.” He was referring, I believe, to charts of Gorgopotamos.
I sent a letter to Paddy and received a reply, written on the back of a photograph of the author’s open-air study with a cat sitting beside his writing desk, as artfully posed as an Egyptian funerary decoration. This was Tiny Tot “who has gone to a better world and is now mousing above the clouds”, he explained, and went on to fill in a few details about the war. I still have that note. And it led me in time to his home.
Having finally arrived, I was in no great hurry to leave. I rented a cottage by the beach with a view of the millpond Messenian Gulf. I got burnt. I went brown. I swam half a kilometre out from the pebbled beach and starfished on my back gazing at the sun.
While shopping one day for provisions, the store owner cried that Leigh Fermor had returned after his convalescence in London. My admiration for the writer was genuine, and I had come a long way. And hadn’t he once been gracious enough to write? So I should surely try one last time to arrange a meeting.
But then I caught myself. I looked down at my dusty sandalled feet, and up at the line of gums and power lines surmounted by bald-headed Taygetus.
Leigh Fermor’s life had been a procession of adventures. My journey to Kardamyli had been a much more modest quest, but then I lived in an unadventurous age. I was grateful for Kardamyli, and to Paddy.
I returned from Greece with that phone number in the pocket of the jacket I was wearing the day I decided, finally, to be content with the man I knew from the writing I loved.