Category Archives: Interviews with Paddy

Scholar in the wilds – a profile of Patrick Leigh Fermor

A comprehensive profile of Patrick Leigh Fermor.

By James Campbell. First published in The Guardian 9 April 2005

As a teenager, Patrick Leigh Fermor walked through Europe to Turkey, sleeping in hayricks and castles. Forty years later he wrote two pioneering books about it; a third is still in progress. He lived in Romania, met his wife in Egypt, and was decorated for his wartime exploits in Crete. Now 90, he continues to work in the house he built in Greece in the 1960s.

“So here’s the traveller,” a Hungarian hostess greets the teenage Patrick Leigh Fermor as he trudges towards her Danubian country house. The year is 1934 and Leigh Fermor is four months into his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, undertaken to shake off what he refers to, 70 years on, as “my rather rackety past”. The journey is captured, with erudition and fond detail, in A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). They are unique in several respects, not least that they were written more than 40 years after the events described. Leigh Fermor derived the former title from a couplet by Louis MacNeice, “For now the time of gifts is gone – / O boys that grow, O snows that melt”, which encapsulates the double vision involved in evoking one’s own adolescence from a distance. A concluding volume, which will take the boy to his destination, has long been promised.

Leigh Fermor is not a “travel writer” – like others, he disavows the term – but there is no denying he is a traveller. After Constantinople (as he still insists on calling it, though the name was changed to Istanbul in 1930), he moved to Romania, where he stayed for two years, barely conscious of the inklings of war from beyond the Carpathian mountains. In the 1950s, he explored the then-intractable southern finger of the Peloponnese known as Mani, where he lives, followed by a similar journey in the north of Greece, making his reports, in characteristically exuberant style, in the books Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966). His stays in French monasteries, where he achieved “a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world”, are recorded in an exquisite book of fewer than 100 pages, A Time to Keep Silence (1957).

Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese

Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese

He is also a scholar, with a facility for languages so prodigious that he would amuse himself on his footslog by singing German songs backwards and, when those ran out, reciting parts of Keats the same way: “Yawa! Yawa! rof I lliw ylf ot eeht”, etc. “It can be quite effective,” he says. After a lunch of lemon chicken at home in Mani, accompanied by an endlessly replenished carafe of retsina, he entertains his guest with a rendering of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” in Hindustani.

In addition, Leigh Fermor is recognisably that figure many writers of the past century have yearned to be, the man of action. When the inklings could no longer be ignored in 1939, he abandoned his Romanian idyll and enlisted in the Irish Guards. A major in Special Operations Executive during the second world war, he was awarded the DSO for heroic actions on German-occupied Crete. Few writers are entitled to include in their Who’s Who entry: “Commanded some minor guerrilla operations.” His publisher, John Murray, whose father, the late “Jock” Murray, edited most of Leigh Fermor’s books, describes him as “almost a Byronic figure. If you met him on a train, before long he would be reciting The Odyssey , or singing Cretan songs. He loves talking, and people are always absorbed by him.”

Known as Paddy to the acquainted and unacquainted alike, Leigh Fermor has turned 90. He is still sturdy, with an all-round handsome appearance. Here is a man who at 69 swam the Hellespont (or Dardanelles), two kilometres wide at its narrowest, in emulation of Byron and Leander, who swam it nightly for the love of Hero. Leigh Fermor swam it under the concerned watch of his wife Joan, who followed in a small boat, and averted her eyes as he narrowly missed being sunk by a liner. An innocent sweetness hovers about his face, which finds a focus in his eyes as he makes a joke or stumbles on a happy recollection. There is a dash of the old soldier, clubbable and courteous, in his approach, his speech punctuated by “Look here …” and “I say …”, and not much of the “rather rackety” figure he claims to have been before he cured his ills by walking. When, relatively late in life, he became a mentor to Bruce Chatwin, the younger writer adopted Leigh Fermor’s motto, solvitur ambulando – it is solved by walking.

Paddy at home in the Mani

After more than six decades in the country, Leigh Fermor is inextricably tied to Greece. His command of the language extends to several regional dialects. He is an honorary citizen of the Cretan capital Heraklion, and of the village of Kardamili in Mani, and is a proud godfather to children in both places. In the mid-1960s, as if to lay the foundation for a committed life, he built a house that reflects the various aspects of his personality. Perched on a peninsula jutting into the Gulf of Messenia, it overlooks a small uninhabited island, behind which the sun sets nightly. He has described how he and Joan camped in tents nearby as the works progressed, studying Vitruvius and Palladio, but admits that the design was largely the result of improvisation. Ceilings, cornices and fireplaces allude to Levantine and Macedonian architecture. Hard by the commodious living room, an L-shaped arcade, which might have been built centuries ago, provides a link to the other rooms and gives on to an olive grove below. Out of nowhere, cats materialise on chairs and divans, prompting Leigh Fermor to remark on “interior desecrators and natural downholsterers”. The great limestone blocks of the main structure were hewn out of the Taygetus mountains, visible in the background, as the sea is present in the foreground. A weathered zigzag stone staircase leads down to a horseshoe bay. “There was no road here at all when we came. The stone had to be brought up by mule. We got most of the tiles from another part of the Peloponnese, after an earthquake. They were happy to be rid of them – couldn’t understand why we wanted this old stuff. They wanted everything new.” The master mason behind the house was a local craftsman, Niku Kolokatrones, whom Leigh Fermor met by accident while out walking. “I spotted his bag of carpenter’s tools and told him I was looking for somebody to help me build a house. He said, ‘Why not take me? I can do everything.’ And he was absolutely right.”

It was finally fit for habitation in 1968, and the couple “lived very happily here for 30 years”. Joan Leigh Fermor, daughter of the Conservative politician and First Lord of the Admiralty in Ramsay MacDonald’s coalition government, Bolton Eyres Monsell, died in 2003 at 91, after a fall. The couple met in wartime Cairo. She took the photographs for several of his books, including the first, The Traveller’s Tree (1950), an account of a journey through the West Indies, and for Mani and Roumeli – although these pictures have sadly been omitted from later editions.

He was born in London in 1915, to Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, who became director-general of the Geological Survey in India, and Eileen Ambler, who was partly raised there. His childhood relationship with his parents was “rather strange, because I didn’t really know either of them until I was about three-and-a-half. My mother returned to India after I was born, leaving me with a family in Northamptonshire. I spent a very happy first three years of my life there as a wild-natured boy. I wasn’t ever told not to do anything.” When his mother returned, at the end of the first world war, “my whole background changed. We went to live in London. And she was rather unhappy, because I didn’t really know much about her, or my father or my sister, who had been born four years earlier. They hadn’t seen me since I was a few months old.” He claims he was “more or less tamed after that”, though he has written that his lawless infancy “unfitted me for the faintest shadow of constraint”.

Patrick Leigh Fermor at school, Kings Canterbury

His mother “adored anything to do with the stage” and wrote plays that were never produced. She made friends with Arthur Rackham, who painted a picture inside the front door of their house in Primrose Hill Studios “of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, being blown along in a nest with a ragged shirt for a sail”. He wonders if it’s still there. When the time came to think about school, the “wild boy” re-emerged, and he was beaten from one educational establishment to another. “I didn’t mind the beatings, because there was a bravado about that kind of thing.” At one stage, he was sent to a school in Suffolk for disturbed children – or, as he puts it, “where rather naughty children went” – and later to King’s School, Canterbury, the oldest public school in England, where the unruly old boys included Christopher Marlowe. “It was all rather marvellous,” says Leigh Fermor, who casts a rosy light on almost all experience, “but my discipline problems cropped up again. Things like fighting, climbing out at night, losing my books.” Among his contemporaries at King’s was Alan Watts, who later wrote popular books on Zen Buddhism and became a hippie guru. In his autobiography, Watts recalled Paddy “constantly being flogged for his pranks and exploits – in other words, for having a creative imagination”. Watts confirms the familiar tale that Paddy was expelled “for the peccadillo of taking a walk with the daughter of the local greengrocer”. Leigh Fermor recalls: “She was about eight years older than me – totally innocent, but it was a useful pretext for the sack. I think it was very kindly meant. Far better to get the sack for something slightly romantic than for just being a total nuisance.”

Believing that the best place for a nuisance was the army, his parents tried to direct him towards Sandhurst, but his academic failures put paid to that too. The military historian Antony Beevor, who was an officer cadet at Sandhurst, and has known Leigh Fermor for many years, believes he would not have prospered. “I think he may have had a romantic idea of what army life was like, but he would have found the peacetime garrison incredibly stultifying. Army life in the 1930s was very staid. Paddy was too much of a free spirit.”

It was then that Leigh Fermor came up with a scheme “to change scenery”. Envisaging himself as “a medieval pilgrim, an affable tramp with a knapsack and hobnailed boots”, he decided to walk across Europe to Turkey. “It was a new life. Freedom. Something to write about.” To make it even more improbable, he set out in December when, as he states in the opening paragraph of A Time of Gifts, “a thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly; the Jermyn Street shops, distorted by stream ing water, had become a submarine arcade.” When his ship docked in Rotterdam, “snow covered everything”. He dossed down wherever he landed, on one occasion outside a pigsty to the sound of “sleepy grunts prompted by dreams, perhaps, or indigestion”.

In addition to his sleeping bag, Leigh Fermor packed the Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horace. An allowance of £4 a month was to be collected along the way. “My general course was up the Rhine and down the Danube. Then to Swabia, and then into Bavaria.” At the time, he had published a few poems (“dreadful stuff”), but was inspired to switch to travel writing by Robert Byron, whose book about a journey to Mount Athos in north-eastern Greece, The Station , had recently been published. “I was keeping copious notes, songs, sketches and so on, but in Munich a disaster happened. I stayed at a Jugendherberge and my rucksack was pinched, with all my notes and drawings.” And then comes the Paddy stroke: “In a way it was rather a blessing, because my rucksack was far too heavy. It had far too many things.” His sleeping bag was lost too -“good riddance, really” – and his money and passport. “The British Consul gave me a fiver – said pay me back some time.”

Leigh Fermor has pursued his literary career haphazardly. His Caribbean book was originally meant to be a series of captions for photographs. Then came his only novel, The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1953), followed by A Time to Keep Silence and Mani , all written in the mid-50s, after which he restricted himself to one public outing per decade. However, the 40-year interlude between the events of his European journey and the writing of the books enhances their appeal. At times, the hero of A Time of Gifts seems like a boy faced with a tapestry on which the entire history and culture of Europe is portrayed, unpicking it thread by thread. Byzantine plainsong; Yiddish syntax; the whereabouts of the coast of Bohemia (it existed, for 13 years); the finer nuances of regional architecture – “the wild scholarly enthusiasms of a brilliant autodidact”, as the writer William Dalrymple says. Theories are worked out, set down and often jettisoned, before another day’s walking begins. No one modulates as energetically from speculations on the origin of Greek place names to the “not always harmful effects of hangovers” as Leigh Fermor does. “If they fall short of the double vision which turns Salisbury Cathedral into Cologne,” he writes of his sore heads, “they invest the scenery with a lustre which is unknown to total abstainers.” When it came to writing about the journey, Leigh Fermor claims that “losing the notebook didn’t really seem to matter. I’d got all the places I’d been to noted down in another little notebook. Early impressions and all that sort of thing would only have been a hindrance.” It is impossible to say where imagination gets the upper hand over memory, and aficionados are adamant it does not matter.

Dalrymple, who as a student set out to follow the route of the First Crusade in emulation of Leigh Fermor, says: “I can’t think of any younger writers who have tried to write like Paddy, who have succeeded in the attempt. Not that I haven’t tried. When I set out on my first long journey in the summer vacation I had just read A Time of Gifts and I tried to write my logbook in faux-Paddy style. The result was disastrous. Just last summer I visited Mani and reread his wonderful book, and found myself again trying to write like him. I should have learned my lesson by now.” Dalrymple feels that the strongest influence of Leigh Fermor on the younger generation of travel writers “has been the persona he creates of the bookish wanderer: the footloose scholar in the wilds, scrambling through the mountains, a knapsack full of good books on his shoulder. You see this filtering through in the writing of Chatwin and Philip Marsden, among others.”

According to Jeremy Lewis, author of a biography of Cyril Connolly, with whom Joan was friendly, “Occasionally, one comes across some unromantic soul who objects to Leigh Fermor on the prosaic ground that he couldn’t possibly remember in such persuasive detail the events of 60 years ago.” Lewis suspects that “quite a lot of it is made up. He’s a tremendous yarn-spinner, and he has that slight chip on the shoulder of someone who hasn’t been to university. Sometimes one gets the feeling that he’s desperate to show he’s not an intellectual hick. He’s quite similar to Chatwin in that way. With Chatwin I find it irritating, but not with Leigh Fermor.” Lewis adds, “There is also a strong boy-scout element about him, which annoys some people, singing round the campfire and so on. I doubt if there was ever anything very rackety about Paddy.”

Balasha Cantacuzene

He has been asked many times why the composition of the books was delayed for so long, and has finessed the reply to his characteristic self-effacement: “Laziness and timidity.” He had a shot at writing during his sojourn in Romania in the late 1930s, “but I thought it was no good, so I shoved it aside. And I was right, actually, because when I tried it much later it all began to flow.” His companion in Romania, the first love of his life, was a young painter, Balasha Cantacuzene, whose family was part of an “old-fashioned, French-speaking, Tolstoyan, land-owning world. They were intensely civilised people. I spent the time reading a tremendous amount … when I wasn’t making a hash of writing. I felt rather different at the end of it all, from the kind of person I’d been before.”

After the communist takeover at the end of the war, the Ceausescu government branded the Cantacuzenes “elements of putrid background” and forced them to leave their property. Leigh Fermor made it his mission to rescue them from their new dismal circumstances, eventually succeeding in slipping into the country on a motorcycle and contacting Balasha and her sister. They met for only 48 hours. “We dared risk no more, and during that time I was unable to leave the tiny flat where they were then living, for fear of being seen.” He found that their early thoughts of leaving Romania had lapsed, “partly from feeling it was too late in the day; also, they said that Romania, after all, was where they belonged”.

His war service was spent mainly on Crete. After the British retreat from the island in May 1941, Leigh Fermor was among a small number of officers who remained, helping to organise resistance to the occupation, “living up in the mountains, dressed as a shepherd, with my wireless and so on”. In the spring of 1944, after an onslaught on villages “with fire and sword” by German troops in reprisal for the rash actions of some Cretan guerrillas, Leigh Fermor conceived a plan to kidnap the general responsible for the carnage, and to spirit him off to Cairo. The idea was to make a “symbolic gesture, involving no bloodshed, not even a plane sabotaged or a petrol dump blown up; something which would hit the enemy hard”. Together with a select band of associates, British and Cretan, he succeeded – except that the officer they were after, General Müller, had already left Crete, and they found themselves taking charge of his replacement, a milder figure by all accounts, General Kreipe. After three weeks of trekking through the mountains, they managed to get the captive on board a vessel bound for Egypt.

The events were drawn into a book, Ill Met by Moonlight (1950), by Leigh Fermor’s comrade in the operation, W Stanley Moss, and an inferior film in 1957, with Dirk Bogarde playing Paddy. He is polite about the actor, whom he met, but it is clear that Bogarde’s performance as Major Fermor failed to impress. “I didn’t go to the opening, or anything like that. It was all so much more interesting than they made it seem.” The military historian MRD Foot has referred to the Cretan escapade as “a tremendous jape”, which in Leigh Fermor’s opinion puts it in a “rather frivolous perspective”. Beevor, whose book The Battle for Crete (1991), pays handsome tribute to Leigh Fermor’s actions, feels the description of the kidnapping as a “jape” is unjust. “What was very clever about the Kreipe operation was that it was planned meticulously to give the Cretans a tremendous boost to morale. They needed to do something that would damage the Germans, but was not going to provoke civilian casualties. They were absolutely scrupulous about this.” Certain accounts of the exploit have suggested that it resulted in reprisals against the local pop ulation, but, says Beevor, “they are completely wrong. I’ve been through all the relevant documentation, and there is nothing to suggest that the kidnapping of General Kreipe provoked direct reaction from the Germans. It wasn’t just a jape. When I was researching my book, a member of the Cretan resistance told me, ‘The whole island felt two inches taller’.”

Captor and captive, stuck together in freezing caves (the general had to sleep between Leigh Fermor and Moss, all sharing a single blanket), found a common bond in the Odes of Horace. In a report written at the request of the Imperial War Museum in 1969, published in Artemis Cooper’s anthology of Leigh Fermor’s writings, Words of Mercury (2003), he described what happened: “We were all three lying smoking in silence, when the general, half to himself, slowly said: ‘Vides ut alta stet nive candidum / Soracte …’ [You see how Soracte stands gleaming white with deep snow]. I was in luck. It is the opening line of one of the few Odes of Horace I know by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off: ‘… Nec iam sustineant onus …’ and so on, through the remaining five stanzas to the end.”

Moss, Kreipe and Paddy

The heroics in eastern Crete had a surprise sequel, which throws into relief the absurdity of war. Some 30 years later, Leigh Fermor was asked to take part in a Greek television programme based on This Is Your Life , in which the subject was to be General Kreipe. “I felt quite certain when I heard about it that it was not on the level, and so I found out General Kreipe’s number and got on the telephone to him. I said, ‘It’s Major Fermor’. He said, ‘Ach, Major Fermor, how are you? It seems we are going to meet again soon.’ I said, ‘So you are coming?’ He said, ‘Yes, of course I’m coming. Tell me, what’s the weather like? Shall I bring a pullover?’ And you know, it was the most terrific success. They were all there.” The exception was Moss, who died in 1965; and it is probably safe to discount the Cretan guerrillas who carried off the general’s chauffeur and slit his throat, much to Leigh Fermor’s displeasure.

He writes in a small studio apart from the main house. Dictionaries, volumes of Proust, books of verse in various languages and back issues of the TLS occupy every surface. Asked if he has a title in mind for the promised last volume of his European trilogy, he looks suddenly pained and answers no. He describes himself as “a very slow writer”. His pages are laboriously revised and readers who revel in his florescent style may be surprised to learn that the finished sentences are pared down from something the author considers “too exaggerated and flowery and overwritten”. Murray says: “It’s rather like a musician: each time he changes a word, he has to go back and change all the other words round about it so that the harmony is right.” Murray recalls “seven versions of A Time of Gifts being submitted to my father. And each one would be written-over, with bubbles containing extra bits. The early manuscripts are like works of art themselves.”

As he is writing, Leigh Fermor thinks of one or two friends “that it might amuse. How would they respond? Where would they sneer?” He refers to his old notebooks for things like dates and place names, but relies on memory for a clearer vision of the walking boy and the snows. “I’ve written quite a large amount. For some reason, I got a sort of scunner against it several years ago. I thought it wasn’t any good. I always think that. But now I think I was wrong. I’m going to pull my socks up and get on with it.”

Patrick Leigh Fermor

Born: February 11, 1915, London.

Education: 1929-33 King’s School, Canterbury.

Married: 1968 Joan Eyres Monsell.

Employment: 1945-46 deputy director British Institute, Athens.

Books: 1950 The Traveller’s Tree; ’53 The Violins of Saint-Jacques; ’57 A Time To Keep Silence; ’58 Mani; ’66 Roumeli; ’77 A Time of Gifts; ’86 Between the Woods and the Water; ’91 Three Letters from the Andes; 2003 Words of Mercury.

Some awards: 1944 DS0; ’47 honorary citizen of Heraklion, Crete; ’58 Duff Cooper Memorial Prize; ’78 WH Smith Award; ’86 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; ’91 Companion of Literature; 2004 Knighthood.

One year on … the Patrick Leigh Fermor Blog

I am back. Sorry that I have been so quiet for the last few weeks. I don’t have any real explanation. Excuses may range from work commitments through some form of ‘writer’s block’ (where has my muse gone?) to the genuine excuse of being totally absorbed by Miklos Banffy’s first volume of his trilogy – They Were Counted.

This is an exceptionally good book. I will write about it at greater length at some future date, but I do recommend it. He can sometimes get a little bogged down by Hungarian politics, but when he gets going, describing balls, duels, gambling and love, he really does have a very fine style. Paddy wrote the forward to the English translation whilst staying at Chatsworth during Christmas 1998. Much of the story is set in Kolozvar (Cluj) and our old friend the Hotel New York, where Paddy and Angéla went for a cocktail, is frequently mentioned.

We have just had a blog anniversary. The Patrick Leigh Fermor blog started in late March 2010. In that time it has reached almost the very top in any Paddy search you care to mention. There have been over 64,000 visits, 156 postings, 206 comments, and there are now well over 100 subscribers (you can sign up in the top right of the home page so that you receive future posts by email – no spam).

When I started I wondered if there would be any interest in our heroic and talented subject. There were just a few dozen visits in the first month. But visits grew rapidly to a peak of 9,400 in January 2011. We now track at nearly 7,000 visits a month on average so you are not alone in your interest in The Greatest Living Englishman.

I am extremely grateful to all of you who have got in touch with me with messages of support; offers of information; and especially to those who have sent me material to publish. I can assure you that there is much more material (I have over 60 items in various stages of draft) and it will come in a steady stream. To one of you, please be assured I remain your #1.

Finally, let’s not forget why we are here. Paddy is now 96 years of age and, as far as I can tell, in reasonably good health. I am sure we wish him all good health and pray that he is working as fast as he can on that third volume. It is without doubt one of the most eagerly anticipated books of the decade.

Why not visit some of our top posts?

Patrick Leigh Fermor recounts the kidnap of General Kreipe on video

A Meeting between Paddy and George Psychoundakis the “Cretan Runner”

Patrick Leigh Fermor – star of the silver screen?

On the Pontic shores where the snowflakes fall

I knew Patrick Leigh Fermor through his words, and he will know me by mine

Patrick Leigh Fermor: The man who walked

 

Patrick Leigh Fermor was a major in the Paras during the Second World War

This profile by William Dalrymple is perhaps the most well known of all the on-line pieces about Paddy. I have so far been reluctant to add it to the blog, but as my blog is meant to be a ‘one-stop shop’ for all things Leigh Fermor I have decided its time has come.

 

By William Dalrymple

First published in the Telegraph 06 Sep 2008

At 18 he left home to walk the length of Europe; at 25, as an SOE agent, he kidnapped the German commander of Crete; now at 93, Patrick Leigh Fermor, arguably the greatest living travel writer, is publishing the nearest he may come to an autobiography – and finally learning to type. William Dalrymple meets him at home in Greece

‘You’ve got to bellow a bit,’ Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor said, inclining his face in my direction, and cupping his ear. ‘He’s become an economist? Well, thank God for that. I thought you said he’d become a Communist.’

He took a swig of retsina and returned to his lemon chicken.

‘I’m deaf,’ he continued. ‘That’s the awful truth. That’s why I’m leaning towards you in this rather eerie fashion. I do have a hearing aid, but when I go swimming I always forget about it until I’m two strokes out, and then it starts singing at me. I get out and suck it, and with luck all is well. But both of them have gone now, and that’s one reason why I am off to London next week. Glasses, too. Running out of those very quickly. Occasionally, the one that is lost is found, but their numbers slowly diminish…’

He trailed off. ‘The amount that can go wrong at this age – you’ve no idea. This year I’ve acquired something called tunnel vision. Very odd, and sometimes quite interesting. When I look at someone I can see four eyes, one of them huge and stuck to the side of the mouth. Everyone starts looking a bit like a Picasso painting.’

He paused and considered for a moment, as if confronted by the condition for the first time. ‘And, to be honest, my memory is not in very good shape either. Anything like a date or a proper name just takes wing, and quite often never comes back. Winston Churchill – couldn’t remember his name last week.

‘Even swimming is a bit of a trial now,’ he continued, ‘thanks to this bloody clock thing they’ve put in me – what d’they call it? A pacemaker. It doesn’t mind the swimming. But it doesn’t like the steps on the way down. Terrific nuisance.’

We were sitting eating supper in the moonlight in the arcaded L-shaped cloister that forms the core of Leigh Fermor’s beautiful house in Mani in southern Greece. Since the death of his beloved wife Joan in 2003, Leigh Fermor, known to everyone as Leigh Fermor, has lived here alone in his own Elysium with only an ever-growing clowder of darting, mewing, paw-licking cats for company. He is cooked for and looked after by his housekeeper, Elpida, the daughter of the inn-keeper who was his original landlord when he came to Mani for the first time in 1962.

It is the most perfect writer’s house imaginable, designed and partially built by Leigh Fermor himself in an old olive grove overlooking a secluded Mediterranean bay. It is easy to see why, despite growing visibly frailer, he would never want to leave. Buttressed by the old retaining walls of the olive terraces, the whitewashed rooms are cool and airy and lined with books; old copies of the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books lie scattered around on tables between Attic vases, Indian sculptures and bottles of local ouzo.

A study filled with reference books and old photographs lies across a shady courtyard. There are cicadas grinding in the cypresses, and a wonderful view of the peaks of the Taygetus falling down to the blue waters of the Aegean, which are so clear it is said that in some places you can still see the wrecks of Ottoman galleys lying on the seabed far below.

There is a warm smell of wild rosemary and cypress resin in the air; and from below comes the crash of the sea on the pebbles of the foreshore. Yet there is something unmistakably melancholy in the air: a great traveller even partially immobilised is as sad a sight as an artist with failing vision or a composer grown hard of hearing.

I had driven down from Athens that morning, through slopes of olives charred and blackened by last year’s forest fires. I arrived at Kardamyli late in the evening. Although the area is now almost metropolitan in feel compared to what it was when Leigh Fermor moved here in the 1960s (at that time he had to move the honey-coloured Taygetus stone for his house to its site by mule as there was no road) it still feels wonderfully remote and almost untouched by the modern world.

When Leigh Fermor first arrived in Mani in 1962 he was known principally as a dashing commando. At the age of 25, as a young agent of Special Operations Executive (SOE), he had kidnapped the German commander in Crete, General Kreipe, and returned home to a Distinguished Service Order and movie version of his exploits, Ill Met by Moonlight (1957) with Dirk Bogarde playing him as a handsome black-shirted guerrilla.

It was in this house that Leigh Fermor made the startling transformation – unique in his generation – from war hero to literary genius. To meet, Leigh Fermor may still have the speech patterns and formal manners of a British officer of a previous generation; but on the page he is a soaring prose virtuoso with hardly a single living equal.

It was here in the isolation and beauty of Kardamyli that Leigh Fermor developed his sublime prose style, and here that he wrote most of the books that have made him widely regarded as the world’s greatest travel writer, as well as arguably our finest living prose-poet. While his densely literary and cadent prose style is beyond imitation, his books have become sacred texts for several generations of British writers of non-fiction, including Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron, Philip Marsden, Nicholas Crane and Rory Stewart, all of whom have been inspired by the persona he created of the bookish wanderer: the footloose scholar in the wilds, scrambling through remote mountains, a knapsack full of books on his shoulder.

As Anthony Lane put it in the New Yorker, Leigh Fermor ‘was, and remains, an Englishman, with so much living to his credit that the lives conducted by the rest of us seem barely sentient – pinched and paltry things, laughably provincial in their scope… We fret about our kids’ Sats, whereas this man, when he was barely more than a kid himself, walked from Rotterdam to Istanbul. In his sixties he swam the Hellespont, in homage to Lord Byron – his hero, and to some extent his template. In between he has joined a cavalry charge, observed a voodoo ceremony in Haiti, and plunged into a love affair with a princess. He has feasted atop a moonlit tower, with wine and roast lamb hauled up by rope. He has dwelt soundlessly among Trappist monks.’

For myself, it was the reading of his travel books while at Cambridge that inspired me to attempt to follow in his footsteps. With a paperback of Leigh Fermor’s in my backpack, I set off to Jerusalem following the route of the Crusaders during my first summer vacation. Meeting my hero for the first time at Bruce Chatwin’s house, just before the publication of my first book in 1989, was the nearest thing I have had to a formal graduation ceremony as a writer, the moment when you suddenly feel that maybe you really have passed out of your novitiate.

Foremost among Leigh Fermor’s books are his two glorious Greek travelogues, Mani and Roumeli; an exquisite short study of monasticism, A Time to Keep Silence; and most celebrated of all, an account of his journey in the early 1930s, travelling on foot, sleeping in hayricks and castles ‘like a tramp, a pilgrim, or a wandering scholar’, from Holland to Constantinople. On and off for nearly 70 years Fermor has been working on a trilogy about this epic walk. The first volume – and many would say his masterpiece – A Time of Gifts was finally published in 1977. The second, Between the Woods and the Water, followed nine years later. Since then, 22 years have passed with no sign of volume three, the book that should take us to the gates of Byzantium.

Leigh Fermor is now 93 and his fans are getting anxious. But travel writers have longer professional life expectancies than most – Norman Lewis, for example, produced four books between his 88th birthday and his death five years later – so we should not give up hope. Indeed, on a low table when Leigh Fermor showed me into his study, lay an 8in-high pile of manuscript, some of it ring-bound, and some in folders, on which was scribbled in red felt-tip: Vol 3.

In the meantime, Fermor fans have a small savoury to keep them going until the final course is served. This week John Murray is bringing out In Tearing Haste, a volume of letters between Leigh Fermor and the last surviving member of the Mitford sisterhood: Debo Devonshire, his close friend for nearly half a century. The letters are the nearest thing Leigh Fermor may ever get to writing an autobiography, faithfully chronicling his movements since the mid-1950s with the same detailed, painterly, highly written style that he uses in his travelogues.

Though inevitably slighter than his more polished work, the book includes wonderful accounts of some of his most celebrated adventures, such as his disastrous visit to Somerset Maugham at Cap Ferrat. Here he describes the elderly Maugham’s face as ‘so discoloured and green that it looks as though he has been rotting in the Bastille, or chained to a bench of a galley, or inside an iron mask for half a century’.

Having committed the faux-pas of appearing to draw attention to Maugham’s stammer at dinner, Leigh Fermor, who had initially been invited to stay for a week, was approached by his host at the end of the evening who offered him ‘a hand as cold as a toad, with the words “W-w-well I’ll s-s-say g-good-b-b-bye now in c-case I’m not up b-by the t-time y-you l-leave.”?’

It emerged that Leigh Fermor’s proof of the book had yet to reach the Peloponnese, so after supper I produced my own copy. He frowned: there had been a disagreement between the authors and their publisher over the cover produced by the artist John Craxton, who has illustrated all Leigh Fermor’s book since the 1950s, and the book was now covered with something more sketchy, and clearly not at all to Leigh Fermor’s liking. ‘Debo and I complained,’ he said, holding the book almost to the end of his nose and peering disapprovingly at the illustration, ‘but they kept on about business trends or some such jargon. What was it now? Market forces, that’s it. Well I never…’

As he flicked through the proof, I asked if the rumours were true: that after a lifetime of writing in longhand, he was now finally learning to type, the quicker to finish the third volume of his masterpiece.

‘Well, not exactly,’ he replied. ‘At the moment I seem to be collecting typewriters. I’ve got four now. People keep giving me their old ones. But it is true, I am planning to take typing lessons in Evesham this September.’ He paused, before adding, ‘In truth, I am absolutely longing to get down to it, before my sight gets any worse.’

Patrick Leigh Fermor was born in London in 1915 to Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, the director general of the Geological Survey of India, and the ‘sophisticated and wild’ Eileen Ambler. His mother was a bohemian and highly literate woman, who loved reading to her children and encouraging them to learn poetry by heart. She had been brought up in the wilds of Bihar, as a result of which Leigh Fermor can still sing, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary in Hindi. ‘Although I was brought up in England,’ he remembered, ‘India was a presence in the household, like voices in the next room.’

Almost immediately Leigh Fermor was deserted by his parents. It was the war, and they had to return to India; given the threat of U-boats, it was decided to leave the young Leigh Fermor in England so that someone would survive if the ship were torpedoed. The boy was sent to a farm in Northamptonshire where he was allowed to run free. ‘I think it formed me, you know,’ he said. ‘Made me restless and curious. I was constantly climbing trees and hayricks.’

When his mother and sister returned to collect him three and half years later, he ran away from these ‘beautiful strangers’. In retrospect, Leigh Fermor thinks the experience of ‘those marvellously lawless years unfitted me for the faintest shadow of constraint’, something that marked the rest of his career, especially at school, where he was expelled from a variety of establishments until finding happiness at ‘a co-educational and very advanced school for difficult children’.

After that school was closed down due to a series of ‘vaguely guessed at improprieties’, Leigh Fermor moved on to the King’s School Canterbury. He liked the fact it was founded during the reign of Justinian ‘when fragments of Thor and Odin had barely stopped smouldering in the Kentish woods’; but his teachers were less sure about their new pupil: ‘He is a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness,’ his housemaster wrote, shortly before expelling him. Unqualified to join Sandhurst, the direction in which his family had been pushing him, he attended crammers in London where he began to write poetry and to read voraciously.

Patrick Leigh Fermor at school, Kings' Canterbury

One of the books he chanced across was The Station, Robert Byron’s newly published book about his travels through the monasteries of Mount Athos. A subsequent meeting with Byron in a ‘blurred and saxophone-haunted nightclub’ made Leigh Fermor, aged 18, ache to follow in the author’s footsteps and visit ‘serpent-haunted dragon-green Byzantium’. He had also read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. With nothing to keep him in Britain he set off, having first borrowed a knapsack that had accompanied Byron to Athos, aiming to walk to that living fragment of Byzantium while living as cheaply as Orwell: ‘I loved the idea of roughing it.’

On the wet afternoon of December 9, 1933, the year that Hitler came to power, as ‘a thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats’, Leigh Fermor left London, boarding a Dutch steamer at Irongate Wharf. His rucksack contained pencils, drawing pads, notebooks, The Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horace. He would not lay eyes on Britain again until January 1937, when he returned ‘for better or for worse, utterly changed by my travels’.

‘I thought I’d keep a diary and turn it into a book, which of course is what I did,’ he said. ‘Except I am still writing that book more than 70 years later.’ It was not just that the journey gave Leigh Fermor the subject for his lifework, it ‘broadened my mind, taught me history, literature and languages. It opened everything up: the world, civilisation and Europe. It also gave me a capacity for solitude and a sense of purpose. It taught me to read and to look at things. It was a great education. I didn’t go to university, I went travelling instead.’

The journey also led him to meeting one of the two great loves of his life, a beautiful Byzantine princess named Balasha Cantacuzene. Leigh Fermor met Balasha in Athens, to which he walked after finally reaching Athos in early 1937. She was 12 years older than him, and had just separated from her husband, a Spanish diplomat. ‘She was 32, and I was 20. We met at just the right time and fell into each other’s arms. It was instant, we clicked immediately. We went off together and lived in a watermill in the Peloponnese for five months. I was writing, she was painting. It was heavenly.’

Balasha Cantacuzene

From there the couple moved back to Balasha’s rambling country estate in the dales of Moldavia, where they moved in with Balasha’s sister. Leigh Fermor has written that the two sisters were ‘good, beautiful, courageous, gifted, imaginative, immersed in literature and the arts, kind, funny, unconventional; everybody loved them and so did I.’

For Leigh Fermor, this was one of the happiest periods of his life. For two years he lived there, savouring the last remnants of a world that was just about to disappear: ‘Her family was part of an old-fashioned, French-speaking, Tolstoyan, land-owning world: country-dwelling noblesse of the sort described by Turgenev. They were intensely civilised people. The house was an old manor house, not grand, but delightful and full of pictures and books.

There was a butler who was always a bit tight, and no electricity, so we read with lamps and wicks. I spent the time reading my way through the whole of French literature and playing chess – when I wasn’t making a hash of writing this book.’ He paused, then added, ‘Of course I wanted to marry her, but she said, “Don’t be ridiculous – I’m much older than you.”?’

Both the romance and the world in which it was set were ended for ever by the war. ‘We were aware that war clouds were looming, but didn’t realise how serious it was. We were out on a picnic, some of us on horseback and some in open carriages, when someone shouted across the fields that the Germans had gone into Poland. I made the decision at once: if war had broken out I had to join the Army. I thought it would be over in six months.’

In the event, Leigh Fermor did not lay eyes on Balasha again for a quarter of a century. With the end of the war came the Iron Curtain, and Balasha could no more get out of Romania than Leigh Fermor could get in. When he eventually managed to find a way to get in as a journalist, he found Balasha living in poverty in a Bucharest garret, surviving by teaching English, French and painting. ‘We sat up and scarcely went to bed for 48 hours, laughing the whole time: “Do you remember?” By this time I was with Joan. Balasha took it all in such a philosophical and charming way. She was an extraordinary person.’

It emerged that the Cantacuzenes had been branded ‘elements of putrid background’ and Balasha’s lands had been confiscated soon after the end of the war. She had lost everything. The day Ceausescu’s commissar turned up she and her sister had been given quarter of an hour to pack. The house had subsequently been turned into a lunatic asylum. In Leigh Fermor’s account of the reunion, he wrote how he ‘found them in their attic.

In spite of the interval, the fine looks of my friends, the thoughtful clear glance and the humour were all intact; it was as though we had parted a few months ago, instead of 26 years… [But] early thoughts of leaving Romania lapsed in the end, and they resisted the idea partly from feeling it was too late in the day; secretly, perhaps they also shrank from being a burden to anyone. One by one the same dread illness carried them away.’

The same war that destroyed Leigh Fermor’s great love affair also made his name as a man of action. From Moldavia he returned to Britain and enlisted in the Irish Guards. As a fluent Greek speaker he was soon singled out for intelligence work, and was sent first to Albania and then to Greece as a liaison officer working with the Greek army. After the fall of Greece he found his way to Crete just in time to fight in vain against the Nazi invasion. From there he was evacuated to Alexandria where he set up house with several other young intelligence agents and a refugee Polish countess, Sophie Tarnowska, who moved in with her few possessions: ‘a bathing costume, an evening gown, a uniform and two pet mongooses’.

Before long Leigh Fermor was sent back into Crete to work with the Cretan resistance. He and an odd collection of recently enlisted Greek-speaking classical scholars and archaeologists were parachuted into the occupied island disguised as shepherds and established a troglodyte existence under the stalactites of mountain caves, commanded by a Fellow of All Souls. The port from which Leigh Fermor set off was captured by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps the day after he left. ‘It was a low moment in the war: the Germans seemed to be advancing in triumph in all directions.’ It was partly for this reason that Leigh Fermor’s bosses gave permission for his wild scheme to raise morale: kidnapping the German commander of the island.

Patrick Leigh Fermor and Moss

Patrick Leigh Fermor and Moss in German Uniform Prior to the Abduction of General Kriepe

In Leigh Fermor’s own account of the abduction of General Kreipe, the climax comes not as the general’s staff car is stopped at night by a British SOE partly dressed in stolen German uniforms, nor as the Cretan partisans help smuggle the general into the highlands and hence to a waiting British submarine; but instead as ‘a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mount Ida’.

‘We were all three lying smoking in silence, when the general, half to himself, slowly said, “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte”. It was the opening of one of the few Horace odes I knew by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off… The general’s blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain top to mine – and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. “Ja, Herr General.” As though for a moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.’

It is an archetypal Leigh Fermor anecdote: fabulously erudite and romantic, and just a little showy. For his greatest virtues as a writer are also his greatest vices: his incantational love of great waterfalls of words, combined with the wild scholarly enthusiasms of a brilliant autodidact. On the rare occasions he gets it wrong, Leigh Fermor has been responsible for some of the most brightly coloured purple passages in travel literature. But at his best he is sublime, unbeatable.

Back in Egypt, Leigh Fermor met his future wife, and the companion for the second half of his life. Joan Eyres Monsell was then working for the intelligence department as a cipher clerk. ‘She had a house near the Ibn Tulun mosque, and was very go-ahead,’ Leigh Fermor remembers. ‘She was a nurse when the war broke out, and had lived in Spain and Algiers before Cairo. We met at a party and hit it off very quickly.’

When the war was over, Joan and Leigh Fermor remained in Greece, wandering the country and initially finding work in the British Council, whose Athens office was then run by the other great British philhellene of that generation, Sir Steven Runciman. But as ever, Leigh Fermor’s wanderlust soon got the better of him, and before long he had resigned. In 1949 they caught a ship to the Caribbean, a trip that resulted in two books: a travelogue, The Traveller’s Tree, and a fine novel, The Violins of St Jacques. Both were written partially in Trappist monasteries, an experience that Leigh Fermor turned into his third and most tightly written book, A Time to Keep Silence.

It was in the early 1960s that Leigh Fermor married Joan and settled down with her in Kardamyli, to continue his life of writing travel books, interspersed with weekly book reviews for Cyril Connolly’s Sunday Times book pages. It is this more settled phase of life that is so well captured in the new book of letters between Leigh Fermor and Deborah Devonshire. There are lovely descriptions of Leigh Fermor and Joan finding the bay at Kardamyli; the struggles to finish A Time of Gifts; Leigh Fermor’s surprise and pleasure at its rapturous reception; and the slow writing of its sequel.

The final 50 pages of the book have a more melancholy tone, as their friends begin to die, one by one: the English ones often of cancer, the Cretans, more dramatically, falling from precipices, and the like. Finally come the deaths of both Debo’s husband, Andrew, and of Joan Leigh Fermor: ‘The cats miss Joan bitterly,’ Leigh Fermor writes at the end of the book. ‘They are not the only ones… I keep thinking of things I must remember to tell Joan at lunch, knowing they could make her laugh. Letters addressed to her still arrive from distant parts, but even they are dying out now, and increasingly it’s only subscriptions to be renewed.’

Leigh Fermor enjoys a two-hour siesta after lunch – ‘Egyptian PT’ as he calls it. But on my last day in Kardamyli he emerged at 4pm, smiling from ear to ear. ‘Didn’t sleep a wink,’ he said. ‘Got quite carried away reading the book. I was rather dreading it, but was pleasantly surprised.’ He held up the proof approvingly. ‘Some passages are really awfully good.’

Paddy at home in the Mani

After our lunch we went up the mountain beside the house to see the Byzantine chapel around which the ashes of his friend Bruce Chatwin had been scattered. The chapel was very small – only a little larger than a big garden shed. It had a domed red-tiled roof and round arcaded windows. It lay in the rocky fields near the village of Exchori, high above Kardamyli, and was built from stone the colour of halloumi cheese.

The sun was slowly sinking over the hills at the end of a hot day; from the higher slopes, the tinkle of goat bells cut through the drowsy background whirr of cicadas as shepherd children led their flocks back for the night. It is perfect, beautiful, a peaceful place for anyone to end their days, and as we headed back I asked Leigh Fermor whether he would like to be buried there, too.

‘Oh no,’ he replied instantly. ‘Joan is in Dumbleton. I’d rather like to end up there.’

It’s a characteristic of so many of the greatest English travellers that they come back home in the end. TE Lawrence, for example, finally recognised ‘that I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin’, and the same is true of Leigh Fermor. For all his years in Greece, he remains almost the archetypal Englishman, in its best possible form: ‘My heart is in both,’ he said as we headed downhill. ‘England is not a foreign country to me.’ He paused and looked down over the Aegean, glinting now like broken glass far below us: ‘I do love both countries,’ he said as we headed on home. ‘I really do.’

Meine Suche nach Patrick Leigh Fermor

This title from a book by the German author Michael Obert hits the spot for me. Like Michael I am also engaged in a ‘search’ for Paddy and I know from your comments and emails that many of you are finding your own ways to follow in Paddy’s footsteps and to understand and enjoy his works.

Following the publication of the Wolfgang Büscher video just a few days ago, I was contacted by Christian from Koln (Cologne) saying how pleased he was to see the video and at the same time sending me a couple of other articles from German newspapers and magazines. Christian made the point that in recent years there have been many features and articles published in Germany about Paddy, including Michael Obert’s book which provides the title to this article. Chatwins Guru und ich: Meine Suche nach Patrick Leigh Fermor by Michael Obert is available from Amazon.

I have pdfs of two more articles and those of you who followed the blog in its early days may remember that I have previously featured a further article by Wieland Freund. Therefore, perhaps for the first time in one place, a collection of German (and Swiss) material about Paddy.

Der letzte Byzantiner by Wolfgang Büscher, first published in Die Zeit 24 May 2006

Wolfgang Büscher discussing A Time of Gifts video

Mit der Feder im Rucksack durch die Welt by Georg Sütterlin, first published in Der Bund 30 Aug 2005

Besuch beim Haudegen des Peloponnes by Wieland Freund first published in Welt Online 8 July 2007

Patrick Leigh Fermor recounts the kidnap of General Kreipe on video

Patrick Leigh Fermor recounts the kidnap of General Kreipe

Finally we have Paddy on video! A kind soul has posted the movie 11th Day on You Tube. Part seven deals with the kidnap of General Kreipe and includes a detailed explanation of the famous Mount Ida Horace moment: “Ach so, Herr Major”.

I have found all parts of the film from You Tube and have embedded them on a special new page Video.

Why not put your feet up and enjoy the whole movie which covers the brave Cretan resistance and the part that Paddy, Moss and others played in it?

But to start you off here is Patrick Leigh Fermor recounting for you the events of what we now know as Ill Met by Moonlight.

Visit the movie 11th Day site.

Related article:

Ill Met by Moonlight movie trailer

Related categories:

Il Met by Moonlight

General’s long trip home

 
 
 

Patrick Leigh Fermor and Moss

Patrick Leigh Fermor and Moss in German Uniform Prior to the Abduction of General Kriepe

Something interesting to add to the Ill Met by Moonlight story.

First published in the Daily Mail 19 July 2007

By Charles Legge

Question: The book Ill Met by Moonlight tells the story of the kidnapping of German General Kreipe. What became of him after he was taken to Cairo?

In January 1944, Cairo East section of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) hatched a daring plot to kidnap the commander of the 22nd InfantryDivision based on Crete, General-Leutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Muller.

The plot was led by Major Patrick Leigh Fermor, along with his second-in-command, Captain W. Stanley Moss (later author of Ill Met by Moonlight, a book made into a film of the same name), and two Greek SOE agents, all of whom arrived by sea.

General Major Kreipe succeeded Muller on March 1, 1944, but SOE elected to continue with the kidnap mission. Joining with Cretan partisans, the SOE agents studied Kreipe’s daily work habits and his travel route from his quarters at Knossos to the divisional headquarters at Ano Arkhanais.

Saying goodbye to General Kreipe

On the evening of April 26, 1944, Major Leigh Fermor and Captain Moss, dressed as German military policemen, stopped Kreipe’s staff car on a hairpin turn under the guise of a routine traffic control point. After pulling the General out of the car and throwing him into the back seat, the agents drove him to an isolated spot, where he was taken on a gruelling cross-country trek over the mountains to the southern shore of the island.

On May 14, 1944, the SOE agents and their captive German general were picked up by a British motor launch off a desolate beach near Rodakino and spirited away to Mersa Matruh, Egypt. Leigh Fermor and Moss both received the Distinguished Service Order for the operation.

Kreipe was taken to London for interrogation before being transferred to prisoner-of-war camp near Calgary in Canada. He was later returned to the UK and imprisoned at Island Farm, Special Camp 11 near Bridgend. He was twice treated for diabetes at hospital Camp 99 at Shugborough Park in Staffordshire.

On October 10, 1947, he was transferred from Camp 99 to Hamburg via Southampton aboard the El Nil. Kreipe was honourably discharged from the military in 1947 and retired to Hanover.

Kreipe flanked by surviving andartes while talking to Paddy on Greek TV

On May 7, 1972, the abduction team (minus Moss, who had died tragically in 1965) held a reunion in Greece at which Kreipe was also present. During the banquet, Leigh Fermor, in fluent Greek and German, said: ‘After 28 years, General, we apologise to you for what happened and hope you have no hard feelings.’ The white-haired general, sitting with his wife, nodded and said, ‘None; otherwise I would not be here.’ Later Kreipe and his captors appeared on the Greek This Is Your Life programme. When asked how he was treated by his abductors, Kreipe said firmly, ‘Ritterlich’ chivalrously.’ Kreipe died in Hanover in 1976 at the age of 81, Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor was knighted in 2004.

Related article:

Ill Met by Moonlight movie trailer

Related categories:

Ill Met by Moonlight – photographs from the book by William Stanley Moss

Ill Met by Moonlight

Meeting Patrick Leigh Fermor in the Mani

Recently we have been musing in some posts about following Paddy’s route. For many of his fans this is perhaps a dream, but nevertheless, something many would like to make real. Topping that of course is meeting Paddy himself. In this piece, New Zealand author Maggie Rainey-Smith unexpectedly meets Paddy on a trip to Kardamyli on Greece’s Mani Peninsula, where Paddy has lived since the 1960’s. Some of you may have read it but I think it is such a nice article that it is worth re-visiting.

First published in the New Zealand Herald 15 June 2008

 
The village of Kardamyli is on the west coast of the Mani Peninsula, one of the more traditional and conservative areas of Greece.Recently, I spent two months in Greece chasing the muse, searching for clues, looking for inspiration.

The Mani Peninsula region is famous for the Maniots and their resistance of the Ottoman occupation. It is isolated by the Taygetus mountain range and enclosed by the Aegean and Ionian seas.

The Ottomans failed to infiltrate, but I have to advise that the English have. As I shopped for my Twinings tea and sat outside a cafe in the village of Kardamyli, using the free internet, I lamented the globalisation of this once-remote peninsula.

I wished, for just a moment, that I was back in time when to be a strange woman alone in this small village may have attracted disapproving stares.

In the local bookshop was the very book I’d been looking for: Mani – Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, by Patrick Leigh Fermor. On my terrace overlooking the sea, I opened the book and found myself mesmerised by the most exquisite, evocative travel writing I have ever read. Not only that, I discovered that Fermor is a resident of Kardamyli.

The owner of the bookshop was unimpressed when I asked where Sir Patrick lived, and his lips remained sealed, his expression disapproving. Fermor is almost a saint in Greece.

He was a resistance fighter in Crete during World War II; his exploits were the subject of a film starring Dirk Bogarde (my father was in Crete, but a more modest hero at Maleme, the point where the island was finally lost to the Germans).

At the local cafe, where I made use of the technology, the owner (who looks like a Maniot right out of Fermor’s book, with her blanket of black ringlets and beautiful olive eyes), told me Paddy (as the locals call him) would celebrate his Name Day that very week and that he always opens his home to the locals on that day.

By then, and after one week’s residence, I considered myself a local, and everyone agreed with me.

So with joyous disbelief at my good fortune, on Thursday, November 8, I joined the local villagers at Sir Patrick’s Name Day celebration at his majestic and yet still homely yellow stone house overlooking the Messinian Gulf.

By 10.30am the service in his private chapel was over and we were seated in his lounge – books lining the walls from floor to ceiling: Nancy Mitford, Henry James, James Joyce – eating olives, meatballs, feta and drinking local wine.

On a person’s Name Day you are required to take a gift, and all I had with me was a copy of my first novel About Turns, which I gave to Paddy. He signed my copy of his own book with a personal inscription and a small drawing. We talked about Crete and my dad and his book on the Mani. I gushed, he charmed.

Then the singing began and Paddy was surrounded by adoring local women who toasted him with traditional Name Day songs.

At the end of the singing, Paddy stood and pretended to fire a pistol into the air (an old tradition where real pistols were once used). He is of English and Irish descent. Although his name is Patrick, his Greek Name Day is the day of Michali. Michael is the name he assumed while fighting for the Greek resistance.

With me was an American Orthodox nun who worked in Moscow and a Danish man of the cloth who was studying Byzantine churches. We were Paddy’s “non-local” guests and pinched ourselves to check we weren’t imagining our good fortune.

When it was time to leave, another Michael (Michali), a neighbour of Paddy’s, invited us to his home. We walked through an olive grove up the hill along the coast to another beautiful stone home.

Our new host sold Paddy the land and helped him build his house in 1964. We were feted with fresh coffee and cakes and listened to Michali’s son, who told us that when he decided to leave Kardamyli some years ago to travel, Paddy told him: “You can’t leave.”

And when he returned years later, Paddy told him: “You know we are very fortunate, we live in Kardamyli. We are fortunate – we have the mountains. We are fortunate – we have good food. We are fortunate – we have clean air to breathe. We are fortunate – we have the beautiful sea to swim in.”

“Yes, Paddy, the mountains, the food, the air and the sea,” said the young man, nodding in agreement.

And then Paddy said to him: “And for all these reasons and more, we may just forget to die.”

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor is 92 years old, he was wearing a double-breasted navy suit when I met him, had a full head of wavy grey-black hair and was still a handsome, charming man with just a slight deafness in one ear.

He spoke with a classical English accent which rather surprised me, considering the years he has spent in Greece.

He is still writing. If you’ve never heard of him, or never read his books, now is the time to start.

By Maggie Rainey-Smith

Literary legend learning to type at 92

An old interview for our archive. First published in The Guardian Friday 2 March 2007 18.12 GMT

By Helena Smith in Athens

Patrick Leigh Fermor in 2005 - Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

In a rare public appearance, the revered travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor has revealed that he is only now – aged 92 – learning to type, in order to finish the trilogy that has been at the centre of his writing life for more than 30 years.

Leigh Fermor usually avoids the spotlight these days, to concentrate on his work, but this week made an exception as Greece, his adopted home, awarded him its highest honour, Commander of the Order of the Phoenix

Leigh Fermor, widely acknowledged as Britain’s greatest living travel writer, was unexpectedly told of the award in a letter from the office of Greece’s president last month. “I have no idea why they are doing this but I am deeply honoured and moved,” he told the Guardian after receiving the medal at a lavish ceremony in Athens.

“I think they’ve enjoyed reading my books and heard I was an eager participant, who got in the thick of things during the war,” said the author, who is also known for pulling off one of the greatest coups in Nazi-occupied Europe, orchestrating the capture of General Kreipe, the military commander on Crete – a feat immortalised by the book and film Ill Met by Moonlight.

Friends say Leigh Fermor, who has chronicled Greece for more than 60 years, is these days acutely aware of the passage of time and put aside precious writing time to make the trip from his home in the Mani on the southern Peloponnese. When he was handed the prestigious Travel Writers’ Guild award in 2004, he dispatched his biographer Artemis Cooper to pick up the gong.

Since the second half of the 80s, he has being toiling to complete the third volume of a trilogy depicting his extraordinary journey on foot from Rotterdam to Istanbul at the age of 18.

His painstaking perfectionism means his output has not been prolific. He wrote the first volume of the trilogy, A Time of Gifts – widely considered his greatest work – nearly four decades after the odyssey in 1977. The second, Between the Woods and the Water, was released in 1986. Ever since, fans have been desperate to read the third.

Like many of his generation, the acclaimed soldier-scholar has always written in longhand – delivering his masterpieces to his publisher in great flourishes of scrawl. It’s a process that has been widely blamed for the long gestation periods.

But help is at hand. Paddy, as he is known to his friends, has finally decided that with his handwriting degenerating into unreadability, it is time to type. This year he invested in a 1951 Olivetti (“I wouldn’t get a computer,”) and is currently working his way around the machine’s keyboard, according to friends.

“I’m going to finish that book,” he said. “I’m going home and I’m going to work really hard.”

Visit to the veteran of the Peloponnese by Wieland Freund (from Welt Online)

A 2007 interview with Paddy by Welt Online. The Germans have almost the same fascination for Paddy as we do. Afterall his first adventures took place in Germany (A Time of Gifts) and his part in the kidnap of General Kreipe has a particular fascination. 

He also confirms that “Volume Three” is being written – translated by Google – Oh yes, “he says in the rich sunshine,” I will write this book. There is to end on Mount Athos. From there, I have notes for every day. 

So here is the Google translated version. The original in German for the purists and the linguists is the next article below. 

Stop Press! I have had an offer to translate this properly and when I receive it I will replace the trash from Google. In the meantime, my apologies and enjoy trying to make sense of it!

Resistance fighters, hikers, travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor went to Istanbul as a young man, kidnapped in 1944 in Crete an army general and now lives in Mani. There he kept on the typewriter by Bruce Chatwin. 

Since the sixties, the home of Patrick Leigh Fermor: the Mani peninsula in the Greek Peloponnese. 

That there could be his house did not think you would have to climb into a closet or throw himself into a rabbit hole in order to achieve it – this idea comes with the darkness and returns, turned back into the Enchanted. 

The way to Patrick Leigh Fermor, the Herodotus of the 20th century, leads, it seems, to the edge of the world and then one step beyond. The shimmering leaves of the olive grove, the giant lemon and the red, Greek past of heavy earth might as well be the props of a dream. 

“Paddy” came first in 1952 by Mani 

We keep a vigilant group of cypress trees and follow the overgrown path until a sky-blue gate. Do I need a spell, so it opens and appears Fermor, the travel writer, war hero, the legend? Knocking at least seems too little. 

With 92 years, Patrick Leigh Fermor of immortality as close as it is today even comes close. His way of fame is just off the beaten track to have the world, behind firmly closed doors or in such places as the taciturn Mani. 

Paddy, like not telling the familiar without reverence, came here in 1952 for the first time. How the Spartans and the Byzantines, who fled from Slavs and Turks, and of which he knows everything, he climbed the passes of the up to two and a half meters Taygetos, the Mani, the middle finger of the Peloponnesian hand, centuries made for a natural fortress.

Patrick Leigh Fermor in Berlin

The knocking does not answer 

The back of the slopes wrinkly rich almost to the bay. Bruce Chatwin, who came to Paddy as a “guru to worship” or how to overthrow a king, saw eagles soar over the house of Leigh Fermor. Twenty years later, Paddy Chatwin ashes buried – next to a crumbling Byzantine church not far from here. The Mani is famous for its action songs. 

Southward, on the faded, twinkling towers over the tiny villages, run, it means that a chasm into Hades. Leigh Fermor found it flooded. “Phosphorgefiedert,” he wrote, dip it into the cold depths and swim “through the heart as a huge sapphire. 

We knock in vain to dare us to elaborate the cobbled courtyard and whisper with the housekeeper. It leads us through the garden open arcades, which might as well bend over a cloister. 

Leigh Fermor is tattooed like a sailor 

Leigh Fermor has written so many monasteries in Europe, in towers of “solid ivory, and if anyone here was an escapist, The doors to the rooms, however, the numerous tables, which depends on the sound of glasses and laughter as a smoke curtain, speak a different language. 

Leigh Fermor speaks many. Photographs show it once hung over bursting with charm and zest for life, sometimes almost professorial, and again obviously as a sailor and tattooed. 

We wait under the coffered ceiling of the spacious, wonderfully cluttered living room, from which the English poet John Betjeman once wrote that it was “one of the rooms of the world.” On one wall hang paintings by Nicolas Ghika and John Craxton, leaning on a shelf worn, faded volumes of the great English stylist. On the floor there is a band “Sherlock Holmes”. “Enchanting easy, right?” 

The family left behind her son with strangers 

This could be Merlin: a jumble the gray, wavy hair, sharp features and eons of age in the eyes. Leigh Fermor carries the threadbare sweater a garret of scholars and the trousers of an artist in his studio. 

He is of overwhelming kindness, perfectly shaped “upper class”. In the sunlit bay he called almost everyone who comes to the question, “marvelous”: writers, painters, musicians. “They all knew.” – “I am,” he says mildly, “that old.” 

“For at least one of us children would remain alive, if a submarine sank the ship,” Paddy was in the care of a small family back in England. 

1933 – the first trip to Istanbul 

“I ran,” he says, “shouting and screaming across the yard. I never learned discipline. I was a difficult student. “-” Lazy? “-” Disobedience. “Even a psychiatrist who also treated Virginia Woolf was consulted. Paddy still flew from the school. He had kept up with the daughter of the greengrocer’s hands. 

The autumn of 1933 found him in a room not far from trouble blowing from London’s Shepherd Market, where he should have been cramming so that at least the military school would take him. 

Instead, he took a verse of George Herbert at his word: My way is free, free to the horizon, / Much like the wind. “In December 1933 he embarked for Holland. From there, he wanted to walk into a “green dragon”, Byzantium, which he never called Istanbul. 

On the trip report, the fans are waiting until today 

He is famous for getting lost in the widely spread European history, which he knows like no other. In Mani, one of his best books, the “opposite of a travel guide,” as he says, there is a footnote, the sheer joy of the strangest here, “and there crafty peoples’ lists of Greece: the Melevi Dervishes of” Tower the winds “, the fire dancers from Mavroleki, the hiking quack Eurytaniens. With the gypsies, whom he met in 1934 in the highlands of the Carpathians, said Patrick Leigh Fermor Latin. 

Paddy arrived on New Year’s Day of 1935 in Constantinople, and had better things to do than to write about his trip. He is one of the great English stylists working, slowly, life itself seems always in your way. 

It was not until 1977 “was published, the time of the gifts,” which describes his journey from Hoek van Holland to the middle Danube, nine long years later, “between forests and water”, which leads to the Iron Gate. The third book, the description of the phenomenon must last up to Constantinople, is still expected with such longing that leave a few words from the mouth of Paddy’s heave a sigh British press today. 

Where Chatwin’s old typewriter? 

When Sir Patrick, as he was allowed to call since 2004, was awarded in March in Athens the “Order of the Phoenix,” he told his casual way that he, because his handwriting was always bad, just learn to touch type. 

Oh yes, “he says in the rich sunshine,” I will write this book. There is to end on Mount Athos. From there, I have notes for every day. “We are walking through the garden, the Gulf of Messinia in a dozen colors of light blue. On the burnt grass stretches herself a hangover: “His great-grandmother one day was just there.” 

The studio is housed in an outbuilding. In an iron chest, which bears the inscription of “Traveller’s Club” that tape, books are stacked on the wall a faded French hunting scene. Somewhere there must be also Chatwin old typewriter, a 51er Olivetti. But where? Where? 

Soldier, he was happy because “was always something going on” 

On Mount Athos celebrated his 20th Birthday, then went to Athens, as he later went to Paris and Rome. With a Romanian princess, he lived in an old water mill in the Peloponnese, and followed her to finally Balení, the seat of her family in northern Romania. 

Russia and the horrors of communism were suddenly within reach. “Many of your friends were communists at that time.” – “I did not speak up,” he says. “ “I was so apolitical.” 

In Balení reached him of the war. He, which six years earlier at the Shepherd Market has become clear, “how little I was good for soldiers in peace time,” volunteered. The departure was hasty. “Not even my notebook I took with me. We were so naive. In a few months ago we believed us again. “It took decades. “Were you like a soldier?” – “In a way, yes. “ There was always something going on. ” 

In 1944, he kidnapped a German general 

Books are also in the bathroom and somewhere between them is a plaque commemorating the Battle of Crete. When she was lost, went back Leigh Fermor as major of the Special Operations Executive to Crete. One and a half years he lived disguised as a shepherd in a cave – “wrapped in white cloth from goat and horribly dirty” – and organized the Cretan resistance against the German occupiers. 

The rest is legend, one of the most daring commando raid of the Second World War. One night in April 1944, a large Opel on the road to Knossos, Paddy in a stolen German uniforms on the way. A scuffle and then, at the roadblocks, again and again the cry of “General car. 

For days wandered Leigh Fermor, the people and kidnapped the German General Kreipe through the mountains until they reached the coast, and finally Libya (Egypt). On the difficult journey Kreipe murmurs once verses of Horace. Leigh Fermor is one. „Ach so, Herr Major“,  

About the death, he never speaks 

Paddy has never really written about it. “Ill Met by Moonlight,” the book that tells this story in full, comes from Bill Stanley Moss, his former deputy, and was filmed with Dirk Bogarde as Leigh Fermor. 

When it first appeared in 1950, just came Paddy’s first book, “The Traveller’s Tree,” a description of his travels in the Caribbean out. DThen he was – in the UK, famous in Greece “He embodied an idea of the Renaissance,” writes Cooper, Artemis, “a man of action, which is just as much a scholar.” 

Cooper, the friend and daughter of a friend is writing Paddy’s biography, when he, as he says, “is just gone.” “But now that you mention it: We never really talk about it.” 

The stones for the house came with the donkey 

For lunch there are lemon chicken, tzatziki and Retsina. We sit on chairs Andalusian, a Venetian table at the foot of a guillotined by the passage of time Roman Sibyl. Leigh Fermor has picked up in Rome on the way, he collects nothing. 

He tells the story of Niko Kolokotronis, the Mauerermeister that the contract was to build his house, because six generations were Kolokotronis wall masters, and played all the violin. That was the beginning of the sixties. In the bay there was no electricity, donkeys brought the stones, and Paddy and his wife Joan were living in tents, until the house was finally finished. 

“I scribble in the studio in front of me,” reads a letter from the most beautiful, vibrant with life days in the bay.”Through the window I can see Joan, their army cats invites you to dinner; mass meows to rise, and their tails make waves like the sea.” 

A picture of his wife Joan (cats) in her hand 

Leigh Fermor demands a picture of the mantel, Joan in the forties, which he portrayed with a pencil. “Come on!” She called from a boat, as Paddy, like his hero, Lord Byron swam the Hellespont. “It took three hours.” 

Joan died in June 2003 here.”She was,” he says, his drawing in hand, “in truth much more beautiful. 

Original article here.

Besuch beim Haudegen des Peloponnes Von Wieland Freund (Welt Online)

Widerstandskämpfer, Wanderer, Reiseschriftsteller: Patrick Leigh Fermor ging als junger Mann nach Istanbul, entführte 1944 auf Kreta einen Wehrmachtsgeneral und lebt heute auf Mani. Dort bewahrt er die Schreibmaschine von Bruce Chatwin auf.

Dass es sein Haus gar nicht geben könnte, dass man in einen Schrank steigen oder sich in einen Kaninchenbau stürzen müsste, um es zu erreichen – dieser Gedanke kommt mit der felszerklüfteten Dunkelheit und kehrt tags, ins Verwunschene gewendet, zurück.

Der Weg zu Patrick Leigh Fermor, dem Herodot des 20.Jahrhunderts, führt, scheint’s, an den Rand der Welt und dann noch einen Schritt darüber hinaus. Die flirrenden Blätter des Olivenhains, die riesenhaften Zitronen und die rote, von Vergangenheit schwere griechische Erde könnten ebenso gut die Requisiten eines Traums sein.

“Paddy” kam erstmals 1952 nach Mani
Wir halten auf eine Gruppe wachsamer Zypressen zu und folgen dem zugewachsenen Pfad bis vor eine himmelblaue Pforte. Braucht es einen Zauberspruch, damit sie sich öffnet und Fermor, der Reiseschriftsteller, der Kriegsheld, die Legende erscheint? Klopfen jedenfalls scheint zuwenig.

Mit 92 Jahren ist Patrick Leigh Fermor der Unsterblichkeit so nahe, wie man ihr heute noch nahe kommt. Seine Art Ruhm ist nur abseits des Weltenrummels zu haben, hinter fest verschlossenen Türen oder an so verschwiegenen Orten wie der Mani.

Paddy, wie die Vertrauten nicht ohne Ehrfurcht sagen, kam 1952 zum ersten Mal her. Wie die Spartaner und Byzantiner, die vor Slawen und Osmanen flohen und von denen er alles weiß, erklomm er die Pässe des bis zu zweieinhalbtausend Meter hohen Taygetos, der die Mani, den Mittelfinger der peloponnesischen Hand, Jahrhunderte lang zu einer natürlichen Festung machte.

Read more here!