First published in The Times Literary Supplement, 6 July 2011
There was a time in the early 1950s when, upon arrival in the TLS office of a book about cannibalism or Voodoo, the editor would drop it in an envelope and say, “This is one for Paddy”. Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died last month at the age of ninety-six, is now best known for his connection to Greece and his youthful trek across Central Europe in the direction of Constantinople (as he insisted on calling it). But in his first book, The Traveller’s Tree, an account of a journey by schooner through the Caribbean islands published in 1950, he was in pursuit of “the whole phenomenon of Afro-American religion”. Before long, the TLS was commissioning the former mountain guerrilla fighter and Intelligence Corps Liaison Officer to write on related matters. He could open a review of a book on Haiti in 1953 by telling readers that “The bibliography of Voodoo – or Voudoun, as some purists insist, with little basis, on spelling it – mounts impressively”. A discussion of cannibalism in the correspondence columns of the TLS was just the sort of thing to elicit a contribution from Fermor: “Apropos of the recent letters about the ethical and culinary aspects of cannibalism, may I quote from a book I wrote years ago . . .”.
There followed a list of the gustatory advantages of various folk, according to the palates of the Caribs who “invaded the Caribbean chain, eating all the male Arawaks they could lay hands on and marrying their widows”. The book he wished to quote from was, of course, The Traveller’s Tree (it was by now 1980), which included this pre-Columbian version of a restaurant review:
“French people were considered delicious, and by far the best of the Europeans, and next came the English. The Dutch were dull and rather tasteless, while the Spanish were so stringy and full of gristle as to be practically uneatable.”
In later years, Paddy – as he was known to friend, reader and stranger alike – wrote for this paper on various topics, including Crete, scene of his wartime adventure. In the common run of Grub Street, there are many people one could call on to evaluate an anthology of nonsense – but Poiémate me Zographies se Mikra Paidia, which Paddy reviewed in 1977, was nonsense in modern Greek. In December 1979, he contributed a clamorous, ringing poem on the subject of Christmas:
What franker frankincense, frankly, can rank
in scents with fawn-born dawning
Weak we in Christmas week, lifetime a shriek-
ing streak – lend length and strengthen!
Poultice the harm away, charm the short
solstice day! Send strength and lengthen!
Among other curiosities we found on rooting through the archive was this plea from May 1968: “Patrick Leigh Fermor, author, traveller: biographical information, letters, personal reminiscences for biography”. The requester was J. Marder, writing from Athens. What became of it, and him? An authorized biography by Artemis Cooper is expected to appear at the end of next year.
We have received this “personal reminiscence” from a correspondent:
“In 2005, I was commissioned by a newspaper to write a profile of Patrick Leigh Fermor. A preliminary meeting took place at the West London home of Magouche Fielding, widow of Xan, PLF’s comrade-in-arms, but my editor insisted that no piece about Fermor could appear without a first-hand account of the house which he designed and helped build in the mid-1960s in Mani, at the southernmost tip of the Peloponnese. So it was that, after an overnight stay in Athens and a five-hour drive to the village of Kardamyli, I rang Paddy from a seaside pension.
“‘Good Lord. You’re here already!’ he exclaimed, though all proper warning had been issued. ‘Look here. Come to supper straight away. It’ll be a rotten supper. But come to supper straight away.’ Desiring nothing more than an ouzo followed by a soft pillow, I had the presence of mind to resist. Paddy was understanding. ‘Look here. Come to lunch tomorrow. It’ll be a much better lunch.’ Suppers and lunches, it transpired, were prepared by different maids.
“At about one the following day I set off for the two-kilometre walk from Kardamyli, with directions from a villager. ‘As the road bends to the left, you take the footpath to the right. Go through the olive grove, and arrive at Mr Fermor’s door.’ What could be simpler? There was indeed a bend in the road and a footpath to the right. But there was also another, closer to the bend, up ahead. Then another. After involuntary exploration of hitherto uncharted olive groves and what seemed a sizeable stretch of the Mediterranean coast, I squelched into Paddy’s house from the shore, to find him seated on the sofa reading the TLS. ‘Good Lord. I think you’re the only creature, apart from a goat, who has come in that way. We must have a drink straight away.’ The last was among his favourite phrases.
“Lunch lasted some six hours. (Lemon chicken, with litres of retsina or red Lamia.) Songs in various languages were sung, including a rendering of ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ in Hindustani. Lost lines of poems were sought. An anecdote about my lately deceased father and his claim to have seen salmon leaping in a narrow Perthshire stream, confirmed only after his death, threw Paddy into a search for the perfect epithet: ‘The corroborating salmon. The justifying salmon. The proving salmon’. Well into the evening, I prepared to leave. ‘Look here. Come to lunch on Sunday’ (this was Friday). I said I would on be on my way back to Athens. He was startled. ‘Good Lord. You’re leaving already? Then come to supper tomorrow.’ I did so, after an all-day hike in the Tagetos mountains which rear up behind the house that Paddy built, as the Gulf of Messenia opens before it. This time, I arrived punctually, to be admitted by the allegedly rotten cook (in fact supper tasted very good). She directed me to Paddy’s study in a separate building in the garden. I knocked before entering, to find him at his desk, alone in Mani on a late March evening, dressed in Jermyn Street shirt, pullover and grey flannels, reading a Loeb Horace. Towers of manuscripts could not obscure him. Among them, perhaps, was a draft of the third and concluding part of his epic walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople – the first, though not the last, heroic adventure of Patrick Leigh Fermor.”