Category Archives: Interviews with Paddy

A Visit with Patrick Leigh Fermor, Part 1

Patrick Leigh Fermor, center, with members of the team that abducted General Heinrich Kreipe: George Tyrakis, W. Stanley Moss, Manoli Paterakis, and Antoni Papaleonidas.

It has been said of Ulysses that, were Dublin ever obliterated, the city could be substantially rebuilt by consulting its pages. Along these lines, if all Europe were, God forbid, laid waste tomorrow, one might do worse than attempt to recreate it, or at least to preserve some sense of its historical splendor and variety, by immersing oneself in the travel books of Patrick Leigh Fermor.

by Ben Downing.

This text originally appeared in issue 165 of The Paris Review, Spring 2003.

Patrick who? Although popular both in his native England, where his books are available in Penguin paperback, and in many other countries—he has been translated into any number of languages—Leigh Fermor (who died in 2011) is known to only a devout few in this country, where, scandalously, his work is not distributed. I myself came to him three years ago, when a friend pressed me to seek out A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), the first two volumes of a projected trilogy about his teenage walk across Europe in the early thirties. By chance, that very week I stumbled across a used copy of A Time of Gifts. I began reading straightaway, but after a few pages stopped and rubbed my eyes in disbelief. It couldn’t be this good. The narrative was captivating, the erudition vast, the comedy by turns light and uproarious, and the prose strikingly individual—at once exquisite and offhand, sweeping yet intimate, with a cadence all its own. Perhaps even more startling was the thickness of detail, and the way in which imagination infallibly brought these million specificities to life. In the book’s three hundred or so pages, scarcely a paragraph was less than spirited, cornucopian, and virtuosic.

I am not given to idolizing writers or reading them entire, but this was a special case. Before long I had tracked down, whenever possible in their beautiful John Murray hardback editions, not only Between the Woods and the Water (which sees Leigh Fermor as far as the Iron Gates of the Danube) but also his remaining work—two travel books about Greece, one each about the Caribbean and Peru, a slim volume on monasteries, and a novella. Having devoured these, I started trying to find out more about Leigh Fermor himself. Piecing together information from his books and other sources, I came up with the following.

A clever but unruly student, Leigh Fermor was expelled from a series of schools and at sixteen dropped out altogether. After a period in London halfheartedly cramming for Sandhurst and (far more eagerly) partying with the last of the Bright Young People, he set out in December 1933 on his journey to Istanbul, which took him over a year. At this point the picture grew vague; there was some improbable story about his tagging along with a Greek royalist army as it quashed a rebellion, another about his falling in love with a Romanian princess.

The war years were somewhat clearer. Leigh Fermor enlisted with the Irish Guards; was commissioned in the Intelligence Corps; was sent as a liaison officer to the Greeks fighting the Italians in Albania; took part in the Battle of Crete; and escaped to Cairo in the general retreat. Having joined SOE (Special Operations Executive), he became one of a handful of officers secretly landed back on Crete, where, dressed as a shepherd, he lived in mountain caves and organized the guerilla resistance. His military career peaked in April 1944 when he led one of the most daring operations of the war. Disguised in Nazi uniform, Leigh Fermor and W. Stanley Moss, along with seven Cretan fighters, hijacked a car carrying General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of a division then occupying Crete. After bluffing their way—with Leigh Fermor impersonating Kreipe—past more than twenty checkpoints, they made for the mountains with their captive and spent three harried weeks dodging the thousands of troops sent to catch them, until finally a British boat slipped in to pick them up and take them to Cairo. For his role in the abduction Leigh Fermor was awarded the DSO.

After this the picture blurred again. I gathered that in the late forties and fifties Leigh Fermor had traveled at length in the Caribbean, Central America, and Greece; that he had hobnobbed—and often developed close friendships—with everyone from Diana Cooper to George Seferis; and that eventually he and his wife, Joan, had built a house in the Mani, a remote corner of the Peloponnese, where, reportedly, they still lived. But no more.

Even so, it had become clear to me that Leigh Fermor was not only among the outstanding writers of our time but one of its most remarkable characters, a perfect hybrid of the man of action and the man of letters. Equally comfortable with princes and peasants, in caves or châteaux, he had amassed an unsurpassedly rich experience of places and people. “Quite the most enchanting maniac I’ve ever met,” pronounced Lawrence Durrell, and nearly everyone who’d crossed paths with him had, it seemed, come away similarly dazzled. Also inspired, as witness this entry of 1958 from the Bloomsbury diarist Frances Partridge: “This evening over dinner the conversation turned to present-day pessimism, or cafard. Where can one look to find enthusiasm for living? I could only think of Paddy Leigh Fermor.”

Armed with this outline, I proceeded to write for The New Criterion a longish essay about Leigh Fermor, focusing mostly on his books. About two months later, in March 2001, I received a letter from him. An English friend of his had brought my essay to his attention. His response, infinitely gracious, concluded by exhorting me to drop in for “a proper feast” if ever I were in the area. That was all the invitation I needed. With typical American forwardness, I promptly called him and asked whether next month I and my wife, Michele, a fellow fan, might come and hang about for a few days, I perhaps interviewing him a bit. Whatever alarm he felt at the prospect of our invasion was muffled by good manners. He apologized for being unable to put us up—his sole guest room would be occupied that week—but said he could arrange accommodation at a nearby hotel, and that we would, of course, take all our meals with him and Joan.

Within hours I had booked our tickets.

* * *

Driving west from Athens, we crossed the Isthmus of Corinth onto the Peloponnese and spent the first night in the handsome seaside town of Nauplia. The next day we pushed on, marveling at the unaccustomed verdure—our previous visits to Greece had been in summer, when the heat turns everything brown—and at the profusion of flowers and blossoming Judas trees. After passing Sparta, we headed up into the Taygetus range, then down to Kalamata (of olive fame), where we swung south along the coast, and so to the village outside which Leigh Fermor lives, and which he has asked me not to name. Our Pisgah sight of the village was to be, our guidebook rather sternly declared, memorable: “Anyone who approaches it from these heights and is not moved by its combination of tiny islands, indented coastline, stone houses, and rugged hills, has the soul of a peanut.” Whatever the condition of our souls, they apparently are not leguminous, for we found the view every bit as sublime as advertised.

On arrival at the hotel, we discovered waiting for us at the front desk a welcome card that Leigh Fermor—to whom I shall, for the sake of brevity and informality, henceforth refer as Paddy—had dropped off earlier in the day. When I called him, he asked us to come round for dinner.

Shortly after dark, a rough dirt track brought us to the house. The front gate standing ajar, we entered and followed a lamplit cobbled path to an open door, which gave upon an L-shaped arcade. The sea could be heard heaving just below. As there was still no sign of life, we called out. A few seconds later, from one end of the arcade, Paddy and Joan emerged, greeted us warmly, ushered us into an immense book-lined living-cum-dining room where a fire crackled, and swiftly plied us with ouzo. (Their alcohol regimen, we soon discovered, dictates obligatory ouzo or vodka before dinner and red wine or retsina during; lunch is the same, minus the vodka option.)

Although immediately convivial, the Leigh Fermors had had a trying day. There had been some sort of plumbing trouble, which resulted in workmen ripping open part of the terrace. The dust kicked up by the jackhammers had irritated one of Paddy’s eyes, so that it now teared incessantly—and, as he pointed out, adopting a mock-plummy tone, “The other one weeps in sympathy.” Encouraged by his levity in distress, I reminded him of the light verse that he and his old friend John Julius Norwich had concocted together, which I had recently read in the first of Norwich’s delightful Christmas Crackers miscellanies. Over lunch, writes Norwich, he and Paddy “talked about how all Englishmen hated being seen to cry. Then and there we improvised a sonnet… The odd-numbered lines are mine, the even his.” The sonnet runs as follows:

 When Arnold mopped the English eye for good

And arid cheeks by ne’er a tear were furrowed,

When each Rugbeian from the Romans borrowed

The art of ‘must’ and ‘can’ from ‘would’ or ‘should’;

When to young England Cato’s courage stood

Firm o’er the isle where Saxon sows had farrowed,

And where Epicurean pathways narrowed

Into the Stoic porch of hardihood;

Drought was thy portion, Albion! Great revival!

With handkerchief at last divorced from cane,

When hardened bums bespoke our isle’s survival

And all the softness mounted to the brain.

Now tears are dried—but Arnold’s shade still searches

Through the groves of golden rods and silver birches.

Although Paddy laughed at recollection of the poem—“A bit feeble here and there, as it was done very fast”—he was clearly in agony. We suggested bandaging his eye, and once some tape and gauze were found Michele and I rigged up a patch of sorts. To find oneself, a few minutes after meeting one’s esteemed host, clumsily dressing his eye—this represents a curious and not unawkward turn of events. The fact that Joan already had (for reasons more serious than dust) a patch of her own added a weird hint of piracy. To our relief, Paddy again buoyed up the situation by hailing his wife as Long Joan Silver, who in turn joked, “But where’s my parrot?” Continue reading

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Paddy on the South Bank Show – the last remaining feature

I often receive questions about Paddy’s appearance on the South Bank Show in 1989. There is a lot of material freely available these days, but this one remains elusive.

Today I put the question or challenge out to you all: how can we find a copy of this show so that we can all enjoy it (and legally!)?

It is Season 12, Episode 14, aired on the UK’s ITV network in 1989, and Melvyn Bragg was the host.

All suggestions very welcome.

The Longest Journey Will Always Lie Ahead

Last of the wartime generation of travel writers: Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor in 2011

Whilst digging around I came across this charming obituary to Paddy by Justin Marozzi who is famous for his book The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus, in which Justin describes an account of a lengthy retsina fuelled lunch with Paddy when he visited Kardamyli in 2007.

By Justin Marozzi.

First published in StandPoint July-August 2011

The longest walk has finally come to an end. After the most dashing life of literary wanderings, in which he crossed a continent on foot, fell in love and ran away with a beautiful princess, galloped into battle in a Greek cavalry charge, secluded himself silently with Trappist monks, kidnapped a German general, became one of this country’s greatest war heroes, swam the Hellespont and built a sun-filled house in the Peloponnese where he wrote what may yet prove to be one of the finest trilogies in modern literature, Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ultimate journey was the return home to die in Worcestershire at the age of 96, an Englishman to the last.

The death of Leigh Fermor — friends and fans called him Paddy — removes the last link to that generation of travel writers who fought with such distinction in the Second World War. The prospect of that elusive final volume, which would see our footsore traveller and philhellene complete his serendipitous, marathon-walking tour from the Hook of Holland to reach the city he insisted on calling Constantinople, sometimes Byzantium, never Istanbul, is little short of exhilarating. All his fans who cherish the densely beautiful prose of A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) will be thrilled to hear the news from his biographer Artemis Cooper that an early draft “will be published in due course”. The posthumous gift cannot come soon enough.

The celebration of a life so well lived is likely to bring a renewed flash of interest in travel writing, a genre that has, almost from its very outset, been revered and reviled in equal measure. We may not know what sort of reception greeted the “publication” on clay tablets of the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest forerunner of travel writing, if not of literature itself, but we are certainly familiar with the mauling received by the Ancient Greek Herodotus, the first great travel writer and historian, an exuberant pioneer of anthropology, geography, exploration, investigative journalism, tabloid hackery and foreign reportage in the 5th century BC. Within little more than a century, Cicero’s “Father of History” had become Plutarch’s “Father of Lies”, a classical harbinger of the suspicion which has bedevilled the first-person travelogue ever since. From Herodotus to Leigh Fermor via Marco Polo, John Mandeville and Bruce Chatwin, the hostile image of travel writer as self-indulgent fantasist and fibber has never been shaken off entirely.

In May, the doyen of American travel writers. Paul Theroux dropped in at the Hay Festival to promote his latest work, The Tao of Travel, an engaging distillation of travellers’ wisdom and a vade mecum worth popping into the Globetrotter suitcase this summer. The blaze of publicity surrounding Paul Theroux’s handshake that ended a 15-year feud with V.S. Naipaul, another writer who has excelled in the genre, suggests that contrary to many predictions, travel writing is in robust health. From one generation to the next it shrugs off with insouciance the obituaries that are written for it periodically by writers as diverse and removed from each other as Joseph Conrad and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Indeed the temptation must be to conclude that travel writing, like the poor, will always be with us.

In Britain, which has a proud heritage in this field, the ranks of great travel writers have been sadly thinned in recent years. The monumental Sir Wilfred Thesiger, author of Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs, last of the latter-day Victorian explorers, died in 2003. The same year saw the passing of the magnificent, under-appreciated Norman Lewis, whose Naples ’44 is one of the classic literary accounts to emerge from the Second World War.

In 2006, they were followed by Eric Newby, best remembered for his brave and hilarious A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, a book that closes with the 20th century’s equivalent of the Stanley-Livingstone encounter. Newby and companion bump into Thesiger halfway up a mountain in Afghanistan, the formidable explorer trailing retainers and pack-animals bearing chests marked for the British Museum, bemoaning the declining standards of Savile Row and gleefully recounting his amputations of gangrenous fingers and removal of diseased eyes. They strike camp for the night. “The ground was like iron with sharp rocks sticking up out of it. We started to blow up our air-beds. ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies,’ said Thesiger.”

Profoundly different in their styles and interests, these three writers were bound nevertheless by the shared generational experience of war and their direct participation in it. Thesiger fought behind enemy lines in North Africa with the SAS, Newby was one of the earliest recruits to the Special Boat Section, as the SBS was then known, and Lewis was an intelligence officer in Naples.

Then there was Paddy. The last of his era was also surely the most admirable and admired of all, a Byronic incarnation of what Greeks call leventeia, defined in one of his most life-enhancing books as a “universal zest for life, the love of living dangerously and a readiness for anything”. His housemaster at King’s School, Canterbury detected “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness”. Leigh Fermor was the leading literary light among that band of travel writers who fought in the war and were coloured by it, whose lives and writings bear, to some degree at least, the imprint of that vast, world-changing hurricane. The justly celebrated Jan Morris, who caught the closing years of the war as an intelligence officer in Italy and Palestine, is already at a generational remove.

War may not have defined Leigh Fermor or his writing entirely (it brought to an end the first of his two great loves, a dreamlike romance with the Romanian princess Balasha Cantacuzene), but his quintessentially dashing, devil-may-care war record certainly underpins much of the affection with which his devoted fans view him today. In some instances, such as that of “The Greatest Living Englishman” blog that was published in his honour, it is a devotion that blossoms into outright adulation.

Meeting Paddy at his home in the Greek fishing village of Kardamyli in 2006, it was very difficult not to succumb entirely to hero-worship. My first sight of this unforgivably handsome man was sitting in what he called his hayati, a sun-bleached, south-facing winter chamber off what Betjeman called “one of the rooms in the world”, strewn with atlases, dictionaries, lexicons, icons, sculptures, lamps, flokkati goat-hair rugs, Turkish kilims and creased armchairs. He was clasping a Loeb edition of Herodotus. At 91, lunch remained unthinkable before two large vodka and tonics. Cigarettes were thoroughly approved of and an unstinting stream of retsina flowed alongside our conversation for hours. The polymath and oenophile was unstoppable. As the post-prandial ouzo shot to my head like a tracer-bullet, I had to pinch myself to remember that this debonair specimen of the literary man of action was the nonagenarian version of the 18-year-old adventure-seeking “tramp and pilgrim” who in 1933 had set out on his life-changing journey across Europe after a high-spirited farewell with friends in London: “A thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly; the Jermyn Street shops, distorted by streaming water, had become a submarine arcade.”

If the prose-poetry of his books is riveting, at times sublime, very occasionally purple, the narrative of his war record is scarcely less vivid. Its crowning moment came at 9.30pm on April 26, 1944, when he stepped out on to a road in the heart of the rough Cretan countryside, intercepted a German staff car and kidnapped General Heinrich Kreipe with a team of Cretan resistance fighters and a fellow British officer in the Special Operations Executive (SOE). From a literary perspective, the glory of this episode had to wait until A Time of Gifts, the first instalment of his epic walk — a version was written in 1969 for the Imperial War Museum. In it Leigh Fermor described the terrifying, 18-day manhunt by German forces sweeping the island. At dawn one morning, surveying the crest of Mount Ida, the general started murmuring his way through a Horace ode. Recognising it as one of the few he knew by heart, the Englishman picked up where the German left off, reeling off the five remaining stanzas in perfect Latin.

“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 long 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.”

Mani and Roumeli, which describe Leigh Fermor’s wanderings in southern and northern Greece respectively, were hailed by the FT as “two of the best travel books of the century” and contain numerous references to the courage, loyalty, humour and generosity of the Cretans among whom he fought. Artemis Cooper writes in Words of Mercury of the “unbreakable bond” war had forged between the Cretans and the SOE crowd. Typically, Leigh Fermor was not slow to acknowledge it.

In a touching tribute to the Cretan resistance, he translated the wartime memoirs of George Psychoundakis, his shepherd-guerrilla comrade-in-arms, and saw them into print. How many soldiers would have had the literary sensibility-or modesty-to recognise the value of an account told by a local resistance fighter, rather than a self-aggrandising story by yet another officer dropped behind enemy lines? In his introduction to The Cretan Runner, written in 1954, Leigh Fermor likened it to the Rualla Bedouin penning an Arab version of Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom (the contrast with the self-promoting Lawrence, a very fine writer on the desert, is instructive). “For the roles were reversed, and the British officers and their signallers and NCOs, not the stage-mountaineers of most Resistance writing, were the foreign oddities; and it seemed to me that they were far better and more soberly appraised than their equivalents in English war books.”

Barnaby Rogerson, author and co-owner of Eland, a specialist publisher of travel literature classics, says war seared an indelible sense of place for this select group of writers. “I think the war gave the best of these travel writers a very intense relationship with one region, where their literary souls got mingled with a place apart, also a sense of writing for the dead others. This is obviously true of Paddy, who could sing, dance and drink as well as any Greek shepherd. I never could work out whether he was a reincarnation of Byron or Pan — probably both. Then there’s Norman Lewis with Naples and Sicily. Thesiger similarly bonded with Ethiopia in a totally passionate way as a boy and later as an adult soldier — and of course his best books are set in southern Arabia and Iraq.”

Thesiger was always more warrior than writer. It is only thanks to the persistent pressure of publishing friends, decades after his dramas in the desert, that we have his granite prose. He had seen wartime service under Orde Wingate in Abyssinia, served with SOE in Syria and then the newly-formed SAS in North Africa. In My Life and Travels, he wrote of his “passionate involvement with the Abyssinian cause”. Letters to his mother in 1943 describe how “bitter and discontented” he was not to have played a part at El Alamein. War was “exciting and exhilarating”.

During a lunch with Thesiger in the incongruous setting of his retirement home in the wastelands of Surrey suburbia, his misanthropic growl suddenly lightened into an animated purr as he spoke of his role in the Allied campaign in North Africa, having persuaded David Stirling, founder of the SAS, to take him on. “I said to him, ‘I hear you’re going to make a raid behind enemy lines. I speak Arabic and I know the desert. Three days later we were 150 miles or so behind lines. I came upon a tent packed full with people. Luckily there was no one on guard. I just raked it with machine gun fire a couple of times. It felt rather like murder.” The glacial blue eyes glowed.

The experience of war also formed a critical part of Lewis’s literary hinterland. He wrote in Naples ’44 of a decisive encounter that “changed my outlook”, shattering his “comforting belief that human beings eventually come to terms with pain and sorrow”. On November 1, 1943, contemplating a menu offering either disguised dogfish or horsemeat, he watched a group of blind orphan girls enter the restaurant scavenging for food. Each child was sobbing. “I knew that, condemned to everlasting darkness, hunger and loss, they would weep on incessantly,” he wrote. “They would never recover from their pain and I would never recover from the memory of it.” His horror of the war, combined with its alluring and unrepeatable intensity, propelled him into a lifetime of far-flung reporting from dangerous parts. It led also to his championing of the rights of indigenous peoples in “Genocide”, a seismically shocking Sunday Times article that resulted in the foundation of Survival International, the movement for tribal peoples, in 1969.

War likewise left its mark on Newby’s writings. It also brought him love. He fought gallantly with the SBS and was awarded the Military Cross for his courage during numerous sabotage missions along enemy coasts. Love and War in the Apennines, another Newby classic, tells the story of his time on the run after one dramatic and abortive SBS expedition, when he was smuggled out of a prison camp and later rescued by a young woman, Wanda, his future wife.

The travel writer Tim Mackintosh-Smith, who has spent most of the past decade writing an on-the-road trilogy in the footsteps and footnotes of his hero Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century Muslim traveller, says the war may have fostered a certain detachment among these writers. “War is death to, among other things, enthusiasms,” he says. “If you’ve been through it, nothing matters quite as much anymore. For someone writing travel, I think this may give a sort of lordly detachment to one’s observations, which isn’t a bad thing. I’m not sure that post-war generations can quite achieve this.” For John Gimlette, author of At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, war may have been an influence that “discouraged introspection and informality”. Today’s writers, he argues, have become less detached in their work, “using more humour and self-deprecation to place themselves amongst their subjects”.

The Second World War was only part of these writers’ stories. Theroux, who lists Leigh Fermor, Redmond O’Hanlon, Dervla Murphy, Colin Thubron, Lewis, Thesiger and Chatwin among those travel writers he most admires, believes there was another more important literary influence. “It wasn’t just the war, it was also the colonial world that defined them. They were writing with an imperial confidence.” We are talking in the bowels of the Royal Geographical Society, Britain’s Mecca for explorers and travel writers, and for a moment he could be speaking of Sir Richard Burton, another soldier-scholar, who made the haj to Mecca in disguise in the 1850s. “The end of the war also brought an end to this colonial mentality. Somehow the sense of superiority was dented during the course of the war. The bloom was off the rose. Brits could no longer travel as lords and sahibs and colonial masters.”

As the metaphorical baton passes from Leigh Fermor to Thubron, a master of lyrical prose, we lose a literary connection to that all-defining conflict of the 20th century and the more heroic age it encapsulated. The memory of it lives on, recorded in the words of historians, poets, journalists, soldiers, generals, biographers and travel writers alike. It was precisely in order to ensure that the “great and marvellous” deeds of another, much more ancient conflict were not “forgotten in time” or “without their glory” that Herodotus wrote his landmark Histories of the Persian Wars, 2,500 years ago. It is surely profoundly important that the world’s first history book, a fizzing masterpiece of storytelling, relied so heavily on experiential travel. Thucydides needed to get out more.

Scanning the horizon, there appears to be little reason to fret for the future of travel writing. A genre that seeks to understand a constantly changing world, with recourse to history, geography, politics, economics, biography, anthropology, philosophy, psychology and reportage, among other disciplines, is in little danger of losing its relevance. If you want to know what life was like in late 1930s former Yugoslavia, it is hard to beat Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a meta-travel book (1,100 pages) of astonishing compass and vitality. For Iraq in the 1920s, who better than Freya Stark and Gertrude Bell to paint a many-layered portrait? The best travel writing opens up parts of the world that other disciplines can struggle to reach — and explain to a wider audience.

Consider the turmoil in the Middle East. While the breathless media rush to report the next dictator to catch Arab flu, leaving post-revolutionary countries like Egypt largely unreported in their wake, the field is left open for writers with more time and literary space on their hands to make sense of an irreducibly complicated society and situation. Digital communications, mass travel and the supposed shrinking of the world offer only the deadly delusion of a homogenised “global village”. News articles, foreign policy reports and jargon-filled government briefings on “failed states”, “post-conflict environments” and “stabilisation operations” pay only lip service to real-life complexities. What would Paddy have made of the Foreign Official who spoke to me the other day about “ground-truthing” in Benghazi? We should always beware of what Mauriac called “la tendance fatale à simplifier les autres”. Travel writing celebrates the world as it is, with nuance, shading and uncertainty.

William Dalrymple, who sped to fame in the late 1980s, after Theroux, Chatwin, Thubron, O’Hanlon and Jonathan Raban had blazed a renaissance trail of travel writing a decade earlier, points to the proliferation of fine writers of the genre far beyond these shores. It is parochial in the extreme to see this as a British or Western format. Among those with Indian roots alone Dalrymple lists Shiva and Vidia Naipaul, Pico Iyer, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Pankaj Mishra and the novelist Rana Dasgupta, now working on a study of Delhi. Dalrymple says it will inevitably be a completely new take from his own City of Djinns, published in 1993, before Delhi and India had cast loose and surged forward at breakneck speed. “Each generation sees the world very differently,” he says.

Earlier this year, Kamal Abdel-Malek, Professor of Arabic Literature at the American University of Dubai, published America in an Arab Mirror, an anthology of Arab travel writing in the US during the past century that is at once unexpectedly illuminating and disquieting. OxTravels, a new anthology of writing co-edited by Rogerson, reveals a multicultural cast of 36 authors including Aminatta Forna, Oliver Bullough, Sonia Faleiro, Peter Godwin and Rory Stewart. “We could easily have added another three dozen, in a separate collection tomorrow, who would all be in the front rank,” says Rogerson. The compulsively readable Dutchman Cees Nooteboom would surely be among them. Ongoing translation of hitherto inaccessible foreign writers such as the fabulously curious, effervescent 17th-century Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi, author of the ten-volume Seyahatname or Book of Travels, only confirms the universality of the genre.

For a final verdict from the man Jan Morris called a “transcendentally gifted writer”, I travel to West London, where the two tribes of Holland Park and Shepherd’s Bush collide. Thubron is the first travel writer president of the Royal Society of Literature, a tribute both to his virtuoso skills and, if this is not wishful thinking, the enduring significance of the genre. His latest book, To a Mountain in Tibet, was published earlier this year to a symphonic swoon from the critics. It thrust the reader into an enchanted world of sky-dancers and demons, landscapes of fearful majesty and “charged sanctity” that clung to Thubron’s plangent prose. At the Tibetan border “the ebbing waves of the Himalaya hang the sky with spires while ahead the land smoothes into an ancient silence”. Nearing the lung-shredding, wind-haunted summit of his holy pilgrimage, “the mountain valley closes unsoftened around our strange heterogeneous trickle of beasts and humans drawn up like iron filings to the pass.”

Beyond the cool, book-lined sitting room, French windows open on to the blinding clatter of summer: shades of MacNeice’s sunlight on the garden. At 72, Thubron sounds a confident note. Travel writing’s long history of successful adaptation over many generations stands it in good stead, he says. “The genre is very flexible. It will always meld itself to what is there and available, which is abroad, and whether it’s more familiar or less familiar, it’s still going to need a voice to tell us about it. I do think the world has to be reinterpreted constantly, the impetus to explain it is just a human impulse. I don’t think any other genre has that opportunity.”

From Babylon to Ancient Greece, through the Middle Ages and into modern times, history suggests this: that for as long as the world continues to change and human nature remains the same, this curious international tribe will continue to go out and travel and write and tell stories that people want to read, fuelled by what Baudelaire called “la haine du domicile et la passion du voyage”. As Robert Louis Stevenson put it, “The great affair is to move.”

Paddy, of course, put it differently. One of his favourite sayings, which expressed his own creed as well as our preternatural need to travel, harks back to St Augustine. He personified it with élan: solvitur ambulando — it is solved by walking.

Related article:

Marathon Man – which includes the account of the retsina fuelled lunch with Paddy.

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Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1998 interview with Amalia Negreponte

Amalia Negreponte

I was alerted to this interview by Mark Granelli. As ever we have to be cautious about things that may have got lost in translation but I was a little suspicious about this interview as Paddy appears to go further out on a limb than recorded elsewhere. You will understand what I mean when you read it. Is she being totally honest? 

My reply to Mark was …

Mark – thanks for being such a good sleuth! I will put it up but I am slightly suspicious of this one. Paddy appears more political than I have ever read before. Maybe he opened up to her because she is very pretty, if a little thin.

But without further ado let’s go to the interview which can be found online at Amalia Negreponte’s website on 20 July 2011 ….

War hero, great hellenist, major British author, scholar and soldier, who played a prominent role behind the lines in the Cretan resistance during World War II (kidnapped German general, heading Nazi troops invading Greece). He was widely regarded as “Britain’s greatest living travel writer”, with books including his classic “A Time of Gifts” (1977).  A BBC journalist once described him as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene”

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s interview to Amalia Negreponti, published in my book:“Hellenists: Greece does not wound them” (LIVANIS publishing company, 1998), pre-published in “TA NEA” in 1998

Born: In England. First traveled to Greece: When he was 19 years old, in 1935, during his tour of Europe. Main bibliography: “Mani”, “Roumeli”, “The Violins of Saint-Jacques”, “Between the Woods and the Water’, “A Time of Gifts”. Lived most of his life after World War II: In Mani (Kardamyli); frequently travelling to England, where he recently passed away, 40 days ago. He will be remembered by all- and certainly by us Greeks- with gratitude, admiration, love.

Five images. A man dressed in a British Army uniform, alone, on a snowy mountain – he is in Albania, in 1941. He speaks fluent Greek. The Greek soldiers endearingly call him “The Englishman”. Whenever he can, he talks of poetry and literature. Second image, the same manly uniformed figure, next to Giorgos Seferis, in Cairo. He has just arrived, right after the tragic Battle of Crete. His sorrow is vividly reflected on his face. Third flash. Haifa, 1942. The officer, the blackboard and the class of uniformed men. It is one of the war lessons the officer with the penetrating gaze gives to the Allies.

Crete, 1944:While the British commando takes off the German Army uniform he has deceptively worn, his five Cretan companions and a British officer hold a German officer captive. He is General Heinrich Kreipe – the commander of the German Occupying Forces in Crete – recently kidnapped by the men. On peaceful nights, the captive and the English officer-kidnapper talk of Homer and the great tragedians.

Last image: Mani, 1998, in a small cottage. The man sets aside, just for a moment, his writing – the bookcase is full of his highly acclaimed books. His eyes sparkle. “Greece was in danger. She was suffering. I did what anyone else would have done. Nothing more, nothing less”. Without any need for introductions, he is Paddy. Michael. Filedem. Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Ramrod-straight, soft-spoken, keeping his youthful impetuousness intact. “Dear God! It was nothing!”, he says every once in a while, with extreme modesty and reserve, as soon as he is reminded of his legendary status and heroic activity. He talks of his books with the excitement of a small child.

Whenever he talks of the historical battles – always playing the leading role – he fought in Greece during World War II, he never uses the pronoun “I”. It is always “we”; whether he talks of British soldiers and fellow officers – he keeps mentioning Christopher “Monty” Woodhouse, Xan Fielding, John Pendlebury, the archaeologist-hellenist who died, fighting heroically, during the Battle of Crete – his Cretan companions – George Psychoundakis, Manolis Paterakis, George Tyrakis – or the whole of Greece.

We meet Patrick Leigh Fermor in mid-July at his home, in Kardamyli, Mani, where he permanently lives during the last few decades with his wife, in a cottage he built by himself. The 83-year-old Anglo-Irish Fermor, having fought for Greece throughout his life, throughout her difficult moments with vigour, self-sacrifice and passion that transcends heroism; awarded with all the possible military distinctions for his actions in battle; highly valued throughout the world for his books – they are considered “masterpieces” by the most severe European and American critics – and living a reclusive life, exclusively dealing with what he has been dreaming of since he was a child: book writing.

At the moment, he is fervently preparing the story of his adventures during the entire war. His achievements are known through official documents (Foreign Office), as well as his companions’ and historians’ memoirs. He, however, has remained silent until now.

“Since I was a child, I was determined to become a writer; that’s for sure”, Patrick Leigh Fermor – Paddy, to his friends – remembers. “For that reason – to collect experiences and meet different people and things – and since I wasn’t particularly good at school, I set out, when I was 18 years old, on a journey to Constantinople, a journey that would mark and determine my life”.

The journey lasted a whole year and included the whole of Europe. Alone and moneyless, Fermor sailed from England to the Netherlands and went on, through a snowy landscape, to Germany. He followed the course of the Rhine upstream and turned eastwards, towards the Danube. He crossed the borders to Austria and Czechoslovakia. He borrowed a horse in Hungary, crossed Transylvania, Romania and Bulgaria, over the Balkan mountain range and reached the Black Sea coast: Varna, Nesembar and Burgas; then, across the borders of Turkey, towards Edirne. On January 1, 1935, he reached Constantinople.

At the monasteries

His next stop was Greece. “My love for her was unconditional”. He lived in monasteries of Mount Athos, in Thrace and Macedonia, in Peloponnese and Athens. The few words of ancient Greek he had learnt at school turned, almost magically, to fluent modern Greek and Greece got an eternal hold on him. “And then, around 1936, I returned to England.

The months away from Greece seemed intolerable. That’s why when, in 1941, I joined the Intelligence Corps, I asked to be transferred to Greece, fighting at the time against Italy in Albania. It so happened”. And Patrick Leigh Fermor became an integral part of the Albanian Epic. And, right after that, of the Cretan Resistance. From 1941 until the bloody Battle of Crete, Fermor was there, in the first line, along the Cretan warriors who considered him “more Cretan than the Cretans”, he says with pride. “Where can I begin?

The long night marches, the growth of the Resistance form village to village, from mountain top to plain? Waiting for boats in secluded coves, waiting for drops of ammunition in plateaus, visiting intelligence gathering networks in cities, sending commandos on sabotage missions, escaping German raids, on the mountains, the eagle nests and the crags we used to live… Since the first Axis invasion of Greece, we English felt that we were allies of the only nation left to fight darkness and tyranny.

The rest of the world remained neutral, defeated “in peace” or, worse still, had joined the enemy – through alliances and treaties. When the war came to Crete, the solitary allies – Greece and England – fought hand in hand. And then came 1942. In horror and despair. England was being devastated by heavy bombardments, the Germans were marching at full speed towards Stalingrad, Erwin Rommel’s tanks and canons were hammering our lines in the desert, pushing us back towards our last line of defence, El Alamein; and the USA had not entered the war yet.

My men and I, driven out of Crete after the Battle of Crete on May 20, 1941, crushed and shattered, had escaped towards the Middle East. First Alexandria and Cairo. And then Haifa, near Palestine, where I taught allied officers in a war college. What did I teach? The essentials. Secret landings, sabotage, using enemy arms and ammunition, parachute drops, commando raids, evasion tactics, setting mobile radio stations – everything.

My heart and thought, however, were with Crete, suffering more than ever. Villages were being burnt. Thousands of Cretans were being taken captive. Inhuman tortures and mass executions were on the agenda every single day. But the Cretans had not given up. They were continuing the Resistance, in any possible way, with vigour and stoicism. But not only that. They were also helping, risking their lives and the lives of their own people, the English allies who had been trapped in the highland villages and mountains of Crete. They were taking care of them as if they had been their own children.

It was a great honour. We became and still are the children of the Greek people. I am grateful for that – to be part of such a brave and noble kind of people was the greatest honour for me. We were strangers who came to Greece from afar to take part in the battle, to fight, to shed our blood on your mountains. We, however, risked – of our own accord – our lives, whereas the Greeks who helped us at the time of our greatest weakness did not only risk their lives, but also the lives of their families and the destruction of their villages, their motherland. Therefore, let’s not talk of our own sacrifices…”. “I could no longer resist staying away from Crete – I longed to return there”.

Thus, on July 24, 1942, at midnight, he returned from the Middle East to Crete by fishing boat, assigned a special mission in Central Crete. “Hard times. We were cut off from Africa and any supply shipments, whereas the Germans ravaged Crete, killing and torturing civilians whenever the Resistance struck a blow against them. The only good thing for our Crete out of that period, until 1944, was that we were not affected by the Civil War raging in mainland Greece – we were not aware of it”. At the beginning of 1944, Filedem – who lived on the mountains of Crete, organizing the Resistance disguised as a Cretan shepherd – is ordered to return to Alexandria. “I didn’t want to leave”. However, he couldn’t help it. No matter how reluctant he was, Fermor finally left.

He returned a few months later as the leader of a highly important mission for Crete in particular and Greece in general: the kidnap of the German military governor of Crete. Unfortunately, the target, General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, was replaced by General Heinrich Kreipe just before he arrived.

“On February 4, 1944, I was parachuted into Lasithi, Crete. The rest of the team – Stanley Moss, Manolis Paterakis and George Tyrakis – couldn’t follow due to bad weather. During the next two months, they kept trying to join me, but it was impossible. Finally, on April 4, they arrived in Soutsouro by sea. We immediately started hatching the general’s kidnap plan.”

The kidnap

Fermor finally came up with an idea – dressed as a German soldier, he stopped the general’s car on his way home at what was supposed to be a routine check point; the rest of the team took care of the driver and drove the car and the general away – met with success.

Hunted by German patrols, the team moved across the mountains and villages of Crete “in order to evacuate our captive safely, making sure that no reprisals were taken against the civilian population”. Whenever he got off the car, Fermor was met with murderous stares and open enmity by the Cretans due to the German Army uniform he was wearing.

“I realized then what it meant to be a German. I felt lucky not to be one. Upon arriving in Sphachta, where my friend father Giannis Skoulas lived, his wife came out of their house and stared at me in disgust. Full of joy, I tried to embrace her. Get away! She screamed. It’s me, Michalis, I said. No point… It took some time for her to recognize me and get over the repulsion the German Army uniform was causing her”.

The outcome of the mission? General Heinrich Kreipe was sent to Cairo, safe and sound. “We treated him with respect, honour and care! After all, he was our captive”.

Fermor met Kreipe decades later – to discuss World War II. The atmosphere was genial… “He was well-versed in poetry, Latin and ancient Greek – I realized it when we kidnapped him. We had drunk from the same fountains, we had sprouted out of the same roots, well before the war started – and that changed things”. Even the usual reprisals were avoided.

Fermor left a letter to the Germans when he abandoned the general’s car: “Gentlemen, your Commander was taken captive by a British Battle Force under our command (editor’s note: Fermor and Moss). When you read this, the General will be in Cairo. We want to point out that the operation was conducted without any kind of help from the Cretans… Any reprisals against the local population would be unjustifiable and unfair. Auf baldiges Wiedersehen! (editor’s note: the two signatures). PS: We are sorry to leave the car”.

Fermor (his code names during the war were Michalis or Filedem), who was idolized by the Cretans because he constantly put his life at risk for Greece, seems to have been left alone, a symbol of an era of heroes. He transcends the meaning of the term hellenist; he is a philhellene, with all the idealism and struggle the term includes.

He reacts when I ask him whether Greece wounded him. “Of course not! How could she? I devoted my life to Greece; to justice. My success is my greatest satisfaction. I’m hurt when I see people attacking Greece – usually unjustly. I’m hurt when I see strangers treat her contemptuously and scornfully. I’m hurt when they ignore, use and distort history to strike a blow – for example, when they support FYROM.

The Turks

“I don’t want to hear anything more about “bad feelings” of the Greeks towards the Turks. For God’s sake! The Turks seized and illegally occupy Northern Cyprus – it’s a well-known fact. Fewer and fewer Greek are living in Constantinople anymore – as a direct result of the rioting, looting, extermination, murder, coercion and general pogrom they suffer.

Europe should never forget what Greece has offered and act accordingly. I’m not talking of ancient Greece; I’m talking of modern Greece – World War II Greece. Greece prevented the whole of Europe from collapsing when the sky blackened.

They should all remember what Greece stands for. Because ideas change, people die and monuments collapse with the passing of time.

What can’t be destroyed, however, is the spirit of the Greek people – it includes all virtues, it inspires, it shines – just like the light that shines on the Greek mountains: your mountains. Our mountains”.

“In 1941, those of us who survived the Battle of Greece fled to the Middle East. First Alexandria and then Cairo. Right there on the bank of the Nile and the city of Alexander the Great, I had the chance to meet and befriend Giorgos Seferis, who had also taken refuge there. His hard features betrayed an anxiety and a sorrow that transcended our everyday stress about the outcome of the war. In the Middle East during that critical phase of the war when everything seemed lost, Giorgos Seferis was giving his personal battle: in politics and letters – poetry”.

Seferis wrote the poem “Days of June 1941” when Fermor arrived in the Middle East, right after the Battle of Crete.

“The new moon came out over Alexandria with the old moon in her arms while we were walking towards the Gate of the Sun in the heart’s darkness–three friends”.

“There are times when I feel I’m still there”, says Fermor. “Feeling the sorrow for my dead companions and the lost battle, seeing that man with the dark eyes driving away the clouds with his words.

Just words. Words of an educated and scholarly man who had experienced the horror of broken bodies and the pain of loss”.

Fermor takes out an old photograph, depicting the poet and him. Both men are thoughtful. With heavy gazes. “We didn’t stay together long”, Fermor recalls, “I was always on the run – missions and training… “You have to reckon how to move. It’s not enough to feel, to think, to move”, he used to say – exactly the way he wrote.

He was always reserved and cautious. He didn’t talk much; you never got tired of listening to him. Modest and discreet. I respected him at the time. I loved him as a poet later. He was educated and had a breadth of knowledge transcending the borders of nations and civilizations.

Giorgos Seferis recorded our experiences with accuracy and sensitivity. Yes, we had come from all around the world, as he says in the poem “Last Stop”, “from Araby, Egypt, Palestine and Syria”. Although he was very reserved, he never got detached. You could see the accumulated strength inside him”.

Patrick Leigh Fermor The Art of Travel broadcast c.1990-1992

A recording of a BBC Radio 4 programme entitled “The Art of Travel” (broadcast c.1990-1992) in which Annette Kobrak interviewed PLF for about 26 minutes concerning his early life and his journey to Constantinople. There is some good discussion about his travels after Between the Woods and the Water, about Bulgaria and into Constantinople.

I am indebted to David Turner for taking the time to convert this to digital and very successfully too – the sound quality is excellent!

You can listen online or download (press the downwards pointing arrow on the right hand side menu bar of the player).

I have updated the Video and Audio page with the programme. Don’t forget to visit to find more interviews with Paddy.

The remains of a BBC interview with Paddy from 2004

The incompetence or just downright negligence of the BBC in relation to their archive never ceases to amaze. In 2004 when Paddy received his Knighthood he made the ‘Faces of the Week’ page on the BBC website. They also included a snippet of an interview with Paddy where he describes the loss of his rucksack in Munich in 1934. I have asked the BBC if they have a copy of the remainder of this interview (date of interview unknown), but their reply was that they had either lost it or it had been erased.

You can listen to the interview on the BBC page here but you will need RealPlayer (remember that?).

Click here to play the interview straight off.

Chatwin and Paddy: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin

The link between Bruce Chatwin and Paddy is very strong. They were good friends and Chatwin’s writing has often been compared favourabley with Paddy’s. When Chatwin stayed at Kadamyli he and Paddy often went for long afternoon walks in the Taygetos. This BBC Four programme about Bruce Chatwin’s life includes some significant sections with Paddy:

1. Talking about Bruce generally – programme 2 at around 2 minute 20 seconds.

2. Walking with Bruce’s brother and the scattering of the ashes near Kardamyli – programme 2 at around56 minutes 50 seconds.


My thanks to Thos Henley for sending this to me.

Related article:

Bruce Chatwin’s Journey to Mount Athos