When I was asked to select a passage from his work that encapsulated the spirit of Paddy Leigh Fermor, who died last Friday, a crowd of images leapt to mind, from his encounter with the grotesque burghers of Munich in A Time of Gifts to the eerie vespers of A Time to Keep Silence, to the gongs of Byzantium and the gambolling of dolphins in Mani.
By Colin Thubron
First published in The Spectator, 18 June 2011
Almost any page of his work glitters with the ebullience and precision of his style, and its almost choreographic way with sentences. And his writing was the ideal instrument for his omnivorous love of things: his encyclopaedic delight in history, genealogy, heraldry, costume, the quirks and byways of folklore and language.
This was a man who seemed to embody panache. From boyhood he was a renegade. The housemaster at his public school, from which he was predictably sacked, called him ‘a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness’. In his youth he walked across Europe in the first year of Hitler’s coming to power, and during the war lived for over two years in the Cretan mountains disguised as a shepherd before famously abducting the German military commander of Crete. Later, during the Greek civil war he joined a royalist cavalry charge, and at the age of 70, in emulation of Lord Byron, he swam the Hellespont — with his wife in a boat behind him — sitting on her hands (he wrote) in order not to wring them.
I believe he was erudite rather than intellectual — he embraced and celebrated experience more than he analysed it, and his descriptions even of obscure history and customs were lit up by a playful vitality. He wrote, of course, at a time when the world seemed less accessible than now and when to plunge into the Taygetus mountains of the southern Peloponnese, for instance, was a more remote experience than an Andean trek today. In this he seems the product of an earlier age, as he does in his wide learning, his immersion in his chosen subject, and his eschewing of the psychological.
Always there was this zestful inventiveness and cultivated pleasure in fantasy — not whimsical fantasy, but rather the product of a full-blooded imagination. Almost the last time I saw him, he had returned from hospital after an operation for suspected cancer. I was worried that I’d find him depleted and his old flare gone. At first he was indeed a little subdued, eating lunch. Then suddenly he perked up and said: ‘You know, there is an apple lying on a table in the hall. It’s been there all weekend… Wouldn’t it be marvellous if it cocked a snook at Newton, and simply took off into the air!’
Then I knew he was himself again.
He had few disciples. It was hard to emulate such writing, and rather dangerous. He was a master of that rich and sculptured style: but I think nobody else was. What he gave to travel writing was less a specific following than his unique personal stature: as near as we are likely to come to a Renaissance man. He bestowed on the genre his innate dignity, his literary brilliance, his polymathic mind, and his generous heart.
Colin Thubron`s observation that Patrick Leigh Fermor “embraced and celebrated experience more than he analysed it” made me think: “yes, that is so true, I never thought about it that way before”. That is maybe also why so many of us read his books over and over again. He reminds us of the importance of being there and then, both when we travel and in our everyday life.
On the other hand, Leigh Fermor did analyze his background and upbringing in “A Time of Gifts”. This he did in order to make his reactions to Nazi Germany understandable, both to himself and to his readers. Especially for a reader like me, 40 years younger and non-British, this was very useful. His later war-time exploits leave no doubt about his attitude towards this political ideology. It is nonetheless enlightening to read his reflections about his own experience of meeting its manifestations at an early stage. He could have left it out, but I am glad he provided me as a reader with this self-reflection.