Wanderlust magazine obituary: Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor

Thought you had read all the obits you can and learn nothing new? Well this one is worth a read for Jonathan Lorie’s account of a chance meeting with Paddy at his publisher, John Murray.

by Jonathan Lorie

First published in Wanderlust, 14 June 2011

The death of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor in June has robbed the travel world of its last great romantic. Here, Jonathan Lorie explains why

Which other travel writer can claim to have ridden in a cavalry and charged across a castle drawbridge with sabres drawn? Lived in a Romanian castle with a princess? Kidnapped a Nazi general and driven his staff car through 22 enemy checkpoints disguised in his uniform?

At 19, Paddy walked across Europe from Rotterdam to Istanbul. At 70, he swum the Hellespont from Europe to Asia. And in between, he lived one of the boldest lives and wrote some of the finest travellers’ tales of the 20th century.

He will best be remembered for the two books that recalled his journey across Europe in the 1930s – an epic walk on foot, sleeping in barns one night and ancestral castles the next, entering an older world of peasants and forests, gypsies and counts, which stretched back unbroken to the days of Charlemagne – but was about to be engulfed by war.

The two memoirs, A Time Of Gifts and Between The Woods And The Water, were written decades later: but their vivid sense of that lost order, their boyish high spirits and their learned yet lyrical prose established them as instant classics. The distinguished author Jan Morris has called him ‘the supreme English travel writer’.

A third book was always planned, but never published. It would have told how he reached that journey’s end, fell in love with the princess and lived on her feudal estate until war separated them. But it would not have recounted his wildest exploit, when he parachuted into war-time Crete to run Resistance operations against the German occupiers. Months of hiding as flea-ridden shepherds in caves culminated in the dramatic kidnap of the enemy general, a feat immortalised in the film Ill Met By Moonlight.

He never went back to the princess, but returned to Greece to build a permanent home in Mani, which became legendary for its elegance and its house guests. John Betjeman called his library overlooking the Mediterranean as ‘one of the rooms of the world’. Travel books followed, on the Caribbean and Greece, then the memoirs in the 1970s and 80s which brought the acclaim of the world. By then, Mani had become a magnet for writers and artists – notably Bruce Chatwin – paying homage to the grand old man. In 2004, aged 89, he was knighted by the Queen.

I met him the next day, in the fading grandeur of his publisher’s office, a peeling stucco townhouse near the Ritz. He was sitting in the Byron room, a Georgian salon filled with bookcases and marble busts, where the great poet’s executors burnt his scandalous letters. It was a fitting setting for a modern writer who loved action and romance and Greece.

Paddy looked up. His handsome face was scowling, but his eyes twinkled as ever. “It’s no good,” he spluttered, jabbing at a letter he was scribbling in fountain pen. “I just can’t remember any more.” What, I asked. “I’m writing to the Spanish ambassador. A poem in medieval French. And I can’t remember the end of it.” He frowned, and then burst into laughter.

Rumours abound that the final, missing volume has been written. Ardent fans pestered him for 30 years about it. He promised he would get round to it. We can only hope he has.

Sir Patrick “Paddy” Michael Leigh Fermor, DSO, OBE

11 February 1915 – 10 June 2011


1 thought on “Wanderlust magazine obituary: Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.