In the catalogue to the exhibition Charmed Lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor (at the British Museum until July 15), Michael Llewellyn-Smith writes that, in his later years, Patrick Leigh Fermor “had an all-purpose excuse to send to pesterers”. The note read: “It was very kind of you to write. The trouble is that I am having to work to a strict deadline for the completion of my new book. This makes me a poor correspondent until I have finished it and have reached Constantinople – I am not sure when this will be”.
By James Campbell
First Published in The Times Literary Supplement 12 April 2018
The warning to inquisitive readers, colour-supplement journalists, adventurous holidaymakers and others was despatched from Kardamyli in Mani, in the Southern Peloponnese, from the house which Fermor had built himself, with local labour and expertise, in the mid-1960s. It was where he had completed the first two parts of his account of the “great trudge” across Central Europe in the 1930s, projected to end, in a long-anticipated third volume, in “Constantinople”. The book itself had become something of a pest, and he failed to complete it before his death in 2011, aged ninety-six. His wife Joan had died there eight years earlier.
I knew nothing of this when I posted a letter to Kardamyli in the autumn of 2003. I was not a Fermor devotee (there were many, though nothing like the numbers that exist today) and had read scarcely anything he had written. It was not my idea to seek him out, but that of my editor at the Guardian Saturday Review, for which I was at the time a contracted writer. The regular task was a literary profile, of a good length – 4,000 words – and of a certain seriousness. Starting from a position of ignorance didn’t bother me. I liked “finding out”, and enjoyed the homework.
Suggestions from Farringdon Road came by telephone, later email, and were always to the point. “How about Patrick Leigh Fermor?” That was it. No address, no telephone number, no deadline. The rest was up to me, but I was free to go where I liked and when I liked. I had fulfilled many commissions in this way, and had discovered something: it works better when you contact the intended subject yourself to make arrangements, rather than going through the publisher’s press office. The people there do necessary work, but with their more valued (and venerable) charges there is a protective instinct, and a need to control the show.
Fermor was definitely a protected species. His ninetieth birthday was approaching. His publisher John Murray was desperate for him to reach Constantinople. The journey, which had taken place in the 1930s, had been given elegant shape in two books written forty and fifty years after the events described: A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). The final volume, endlessly, pestiferously, inquired about, was said to be inching forwards. Both my editor and I made approaches to the publicity department; both received vague promises of representation. In the end, both were urged to think about volume 3, like everybody else.
I decided to take the direct route. But how to find him? I tried some acquaintances who might know his address. None did. Someone suggested Elizabeth Chatwin, widow of Bruce, who had been a close friend of Fermor’s. As it happened, she bred sheep in a patch of Oxfordshire with which I was familiar through my own great trudges of the weekend sort. On the telephone we chatted not only about Paddy, as even I was beginning to call him, but about the joys of walking in the area. The next day I posted a polite inquiry to Kalamitsi, Kardamyli, Messenia, and shortly afterwards received not an anti-pesterer letter but an amiable reply composed in different inks, dated October 17, 2003: “Thank you for your letter. It’s a splendid idea, but it looks as if it would have to be some time in the New Year. I’ve got to be all over the place . . . . I will be in England in February, in Worcestershire. Would that be at all suitable? Or back here in late February? I am very sorry to be so awkward”. Amid the details that followed was this typical flourish: “Now the downpour is feline and canine, as Macaulay wrote to his sister. Wonderful for the olive harvest, which has just begun”.
I resigned myself to waiting for the New Year when, I suspected, the pursuit would have to begin again – “back here” in Greece was where I wanted it to be – but one afternoon in late January a voice announced itself on the telephone: “Mr Campbell? Patrick Leigh Fermor. So sorry to have buggered you about”. He made himself out to be delighted to have reached me. We must have our meeting. How about the next day? “Travellers Club? 3 o’clock?”
In the event, the encounter was postponed until after the weekend, which gave time for some elementary preparation. But it was still to be in London. In those days, the Guardian literary profile relished its freedom from book promotion. It wasn’t a stop on a publicity round; rather, a mini-biography or retrospective of a significant figure. In this case, there was one detail that could not be neglected: the legendary house in Mani.
We met at the Notting Hill home of Magouche Fielding, widow of Paddy’s Cretan comrade-in-arms Xan Fielding. I found him charming from the start, open and curious, still handsome at ninety, with a childlike sweetness admitted to his features at moments of humour. Magouche had once been married to the painter Arshile Gorky and our feet knocked against canvases stacked beside chairs and bookcases as we talked. It wasn’t really an interview. Paddy spoke for an hour, before summing up: “Well, that’s my story. Would you like a whisky and soda?” And it was a wonderful story, involving the great trudge, the abduction of the German general on Crete in 1944, the peripatetic post-war life, modest literary success, and of course the building of the house.
By now, the project which had begun with “How about Patrick Leigh Fermor?” had stretched across eight months. I was happy to have sat with him for a couple of hours in west London – the whisky-and-soda time was even nicer than the taped recollection – but I was ready to be done with it. At the Guardian they had other ideas. It couldn’t go ahead without a view of the house in Greece – not a photograph, but a first-hand description. A few sentences would do. The reader simply had to know that the writer had been there.
They were right, of course. The problem was that Paddy showed no sign of leaving England, remaining throughout February and into March. I knew so, because I made regular pretext phone calls to Kardamyli, speaking to his housekeeper in my holiday Greek. When I tried one day in late March, Paddy picked up the phone. He had in the meantime rung me to ask about the status of the piece, so I didn’t feel like any more of a pesterer than he might have done. Now I explained the situation as well as I could – I would just pop in for tea or something, then leave him be – and he, well-mannered as ever, said, well, why not?
It was only a decade and a half ago, though it seems like a distant era: the literary section of a newspaper would send someone to Greece just to set foot inside a house and add a paragraph to a profile that was all but done. It was Easter and flights were packed, but a seat was found on an Athens-bound plane. A hire car was waiting and an overnight hotel booked. Next morning, I began the five-hour drive to Kardamyli. When I reached the pension attached to Lela’s Taverna, overlooking the sea, I dialled his number.
“You’re here already?” Paddy said with surprise. I had set things out in the proper way beforehand, but a ninety-year-old’s short-term memory can’t be relied on. Then he said: “Look here. Come to supper straight away. It’ll be a rotten supper. But come to supper straight away”. I thanked him. I had been driving all day. In a strange car, on strange roads – among strange drivers! – to a strange place. Was the next day possible? He shot back without hesitation: “Look here. Come to lunch tomorrow. It’ll be a much better lunch. Come to lunch at 2 o’clock”.
I did, and lunch – prepared not by the housekeeper of the evening before but by a different one – lasted until eight in the evening. It took in gin and tonics – “We must have a drink straight away!” – then lemon chicken under the outdoor arcade, with local wine (NB: not retsina), then a tour of the house and grounds, with Paddy nimbly descending steep steps backwards, to my consternation – “I’m told it’s much better for the knees” – then a nap in the living room, then tea and songs. I’ve forgotten the words to “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” in Hindustani.
With the additions about the justly famous house perched on an escarpment above the Messenian Gulf, with the Taygetos mountain range behind, the piece was printed and sent to Kardamyli. In a postcard by return, written in his almost indecipherable hand, Paddy lamented that his housekeeper, Elpida, “returning from the chicken run”, had mistakenly swept up “the folded treasure” among the daily rubbish. “With the utmost diffidence, could you possibly dig out and send a couple of copies, so that I can re-read it, and also leave one lying about for boasting purposes?”