‘The intellect of man,’ Yeats famously wrote, ‘is forced to choose between perfection of the life, or of the work.’ Patrick Leigh Fermor, who has just died aged 96, managed to refuse this choice and achieve both.
He was what is now called a role model — a war hero, an intrepid traveller, a witty guest, a man with whom women fell in love, a Byronic romantic without Byron’s unkindness — but he was also a writer with the most exacting standards and unique imagination. His highly wrought prose was not affected: it expressed his delight in and minute attention to life and art, places and people — the stranger the better; and it inspired that delight in others.
All the letters I have from him overflow with enthusiasms. There is a silly idea for a cartoon he has sketched out in which a spherical man and a thin one with a hawk on his wrist stand outside a castle gate, staring disconsolately at a castle gate on which is pinned the notice ‘No Hawkers, No Circulars’. There is a poem called Message to Skopje:
Your claim to the name “Macedonia”
Could scarcely be flimsier or phonier
If you want an old name
For your state, what a shame
Not to bring back the real one, Paeonia.
He writes about ‘marvellous girls in tricornes’ hunting in France, and to recommend (he was always generous in advancing the careers of others) a self-taught village boy who has translated the whole of Homer into ‘wonderful Cretan rhyming couplets, taking just about the same time over it as Pope in his villa at Twickenham’.
Paddy was the best companion. Once, when he was already well into his seventies, we had him to dinner in London. As he was reciting a comic poem, his chair leg snapped. we were horrified that our furniture might have done for him, but Paddy managed an athletic parachute roll and ended up in the corner of the room with his back against the wall, laughing like a boy.
From the Spectator