Paddy would have been 105 today. Let’s take a moment to remember him.
Here are a few pictures from a colourful life.
Paddy would have been 105 today. Let’s take a moment to remember him.
Here are a few pictures from a colourful life.
Today marks the fifth anniversary of Paddy’s death, an opportunity to ponder a little on his full and colourful life, and to think about his memory and all that he left us. This includes the house at Kalamitsi which to this day remains in some sort of limbo: uncared for; mouldering away; and its future unsecure. Most importantly, nowhere near meeting Paddy’s intentions that it should be available as a writers’ retreat and part-time holiday home to provide an income. To mark this anniversary I am happy at last to publish some thoughts from regular correspondent Dominic Green, FRHistS, who is a writer and critic who resides in Newton, Massachusetts. Dominic wrote to me following reports of frolicking nudes at Paddy’s house in 2014. It retains its relevance two years on. Dominic discusses an idea that I had shortly after Paddy’s death that the house be leased to a UK based charity or society that will carry out his wishes.
It was reading your website that sparked my interest in writing about the posthumous saga of the PLF house. So I’m delighted to return the favour by contributing some personal reflections.
I spoke with Irini Geroulanou, the deputy director of the Benaki, a couple of times on the phone, and also sent her lists of queries. She always replied promptly and helpfully. Without her help, I wouldn’t have been able to get inside the house, and might have suffered the disappointments of Max Long. Irini is, by the way, a reader of your site.
My impression is that Irini and the Benaki are committed to honouring the terms of the bequest, but on their own terms. My impression is also that this may take many years, if it’s done according to the Benaki’s current plan for what Irini calls a ‘holistic’ solution; ie, that no work be started until all the funds are secure. When I asked if the Benaki, having failed to raise funds, would sell the house, she insisted that this would not happen.
As we know, the Benaki has had severe financial problems. The outgoing director, Angelos Devorakis, has spoken of severe salary and budget cuts. Irini told me that the financial problems are not solely due to the expansion in Athens: since the crash of 2008, the museum has been obliged to restructure its relationship with the Greek government. I’m not an economist, but this also suggests that not much will happen for a long while.
Another of the questions I raised with Irini was whether the Benaki would be amenable to working with a British-based charity, which could raise funds for the restoration. I had heard that something along these lines was proposed to the Benaki a couple of years ago, and that the museum turned it down. Irini said she hadn’t heard about this offer; perhaps Angelo Devorakis might know.
Irini, though, was against the idea anyway. She said the museum preferred to receive direct donations, and a request directing the money to the PLF house, as opposed to the Benaki’s numerous other projects. She was under the impression that donors could do this through the Benaki’s website. But, at the time of going to press, this was not the case, at least on the English website. To me, this shows how high the PLF house ranks on the Benaki’s to-do list.
I thought that a combination of money troubles and institutional inflexibility might be the source of the problem, and that both might reflect high professional ambitions. So I was astounded to find that the house has no resident caretaker, and that many of PLF and JLF’s personal possessions are still in place [as seen recently by Rick Stein]. Having read PLF’s books and Artemis Cooper’s biography, I was able to identify some of the items as biographically
important. Anyone could break in and walk off with them.
While Benaki has stored the most important books, the majority of PLF’s possessions, including almost all of his books, items of handmade furniture and clothing, and many original photographs, are not secure. It is this majority of items that preserve the ambience of the house. If the Benaki is allowed to rent out the house, then there is no reason for it not to install a local person or a couple of interns as permanent caretakers. I suggested these ideas to Irini, and she rejected them.
This is not a safe state of affairs, andnot one I had expected to encounter, given that the Benaki is a major museum.
Clearly, the Benaki cannot find the relatively small amount of money needed for restoration – or even to secure the place in the meantime. Therefore, it should either sell the property to a institution capable of fulfilling the terms of the bequest; or allow a foreign ‘Friends of Paddy’ group to raise funds – perhaps on the understanding that it wouldn’t have a say in how the Benaki spends its donations. But I have the strong impression that the Benaki would rather do nothing in the hope of dealing with other institutions: EU funding was mentioned. To me, this is the wrong kind of inflexibility: the kind of bureaucratic inertia that is creating a dangerous situation at Kalamitsi.
I am not unsympathetic to the Benaki’s financial troubles, not all of which are of its own making. But I left the house deeply concerned by the risks the Benaki is running in its handling of the bequest, and disheartened by the apparent absence of prospects for improvement. Three and a half years have passed since PLF’s death. Publicity from the publication of The Broken Road and Artemis Cooper’s biography has created a unique opportunity for fundraising. But the Benaki seems determined not to use it. Perhaps my article will stir things up a bit. If the Benaki changed tack, and invited a British group to raise funds, I would contribute immediately. I’m sure that many other PLF readers would too.
Finally, I was greatly impressed by Elpida Beloyannis and Christos the gardener. Both have both done their utmost to keep the house going. Shutters aside, the interior is clean and cared for. It was a privilege to visit the house, and see their devotion to it and the memories of JLF and PLF.
With thanks for your website,
David McClay Curator of the PLF archive (and those of Joan Leigh Fermor and Xan Fielding) at the National Library of Scotland will present the Library’s recent acquisition of Paddy’s extensive and outstanding archives, including their recent activities and future plans at the Hellenic Centre, 16-18 Paddington Street, Marylebone, London W1U 5AS.
All are welcome to attend but for the sake of crowd control please RSVP (and enquiries) as follows:
tel: 020 7563 9835
fax: 020 7486 4254
e-mail: email@example.com OR firstname.lastname@example.org
Paddy’s headstone was unveiled during a short service at Dumbleton on 8 November, his name day in Greece, the feast of the Archangel Michael (the Heavenly Brigadier as Paddy called him). It is Portland stone, like Joan’s.
The Greek inscription reads
‘HE WAS OF THAT EXCELLENCE WHICH IS OF GREECE’
Olivia Stewart, one of his executors chose it. The line is from a poem by Cavafy.
Among the friends gathered you can see Colin Thubron, Rita Walker (with poppy) who was with Paddy when he died, and Philippa Jellicoe (in black with hat), Bridget Kendall, married to Robert Kendall, Joan’s nephew. Also there were Cressida Connolly and her husband Charles Hudson (he’s the one holding the umbrella over Rev Nicolas Carter (who also toook Paddy’s funeral service), Olivia Stewart, Elizabeth Chatwin, Joey Casey (widow of Michael Casey, who was also Joan’s nephew), Martin Mitchell who was Paddy and Joan’s solicitor, Judith who designed the stone, and Artemis Cooper whose thumb is in the picture!
Today is the second anniversary of Paddy’s death and we miss him as much as ever. As we have seen with yesterday’s announcement of the death of Magouche Fielding, his generation of friends still with us is becoming smaller, but I know from the many comments that you make that Paddy, and his generation still have the ability to inspire us to read, to travel, and to experience new things in life.
I am sure that he would have enjoyed reading Artemis Cooper’s biography, if perhaps feeling somewhat embarrassed about certain revelations, but smiling at so many of the memories from his long and full life. No doubt he would have been eagerly awaiting the final installment of the story of his 1934 European adventure, The Broken Road, which is due out this September.
Here are a few pictures from my archive of Paddy and friends. May he, and all his friends, rest in peace.
War hero, self-made scholar and the greatest travel writer of his generation, Patrick Leigh Fermor lived on a remote peninsula in the Peloponnese until his death in 2011. From a humble house he built himself, now being restored by an Athens museum, he explored Greece’s romantic landscape—and forged a profound link to its premodern past.
by Lawrence Osborne
First published in the Wall Street Journal Magazine 27 September 2012.
A famous anecdote, told by Patrick Leigh Fermor himself in his book Mani, relates how on one furnace-hot evening in the town of Kalamata, in the remote region for which that book is named, Fermor and his dinner companions picked up their table and carried it nonchalantly and fully dressed into the sea. It is a few years after World War II, and the English are still an exotic rarity in this part of Greece. There they sit until the waiter arrives with a plate of grilled fish, looks down at the displaced table and calmly—with an unflappable Greek stoicism—wades into the water to serve dinner. Soon the diners are surrounded by little boats and out come the bouzouki and the wine. A typical Fermor evening has been consummated, though driving through Kalamata today one has trouble imagining the scene being repeated. The somniferous hamlet of the far-off 1950s is now filled with cocktail bars and volleyball nets. The ’50s, let alone the war, seems like another millennium.
Fermor, or “Paddy,” as many educated Greeks knew him, died last year at the age of 96. He is remembered not only as the greatest travel writer of his generation, or even his century, but as a hero of the Battle of Crete, in which he served as a commando in the British special forces.
“For as long as he is read and remembered,” Christopher Hitchens wrote upon Fermor’s death, “the ideal of the hero will be a real one.” Hitchens placed Fermor at the center of a brilliant English generation of “scholar warriors,” men forged on the battlefields of the mid-century: This included poet John Cornford, martyred in the Spanish Civil War, and the scholar and writer Xan Fielding, a close personal friend of Fermor’s who was also active in Crete and Egypt during the war, and a guest of the aforementioned dinner party. When Fermor said Fielding was “a gifted, many-sided, courageous and romantic figure, at the same time civilized and bohemian,” he could have been describing himself.
But Fermor was a man apart. Born in 1915 into the Anglo-Irish upper class—the son of a famous geologist—Fermor, literally, walked away from his social class and its expectations almost at once. At 18, he traveled by foot across Europe to Constantinople—a feat later recorded in his books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. In the ’30s he traveled through Greece, mastering its language and exploring its landscapes with meticulous attention. He fell in love with a Romanian noblewoman, Balasha Cantacuzene (a deliciously Byzantine name), and the outbreak of war found him at her family estate in Moldavia.
Because of his knowledge of Greek, the British posted him to Albania. He then joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was subsequently parachuted into German-occupied Crete. In 1944 Fermor and a small group of Cretan partisans and British commandos kidnapped General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of the German forces on the island, and drove him in his staff car through enemy lines disguised in German uniforms. (They would have been shot on the spot if discovered.) Kreipe was later spirited away to British Egypt, but as they were crossing Mount Ida, a legendary scene unfolded. Fermor described it himself:
“Looking across the valley at [the] flashing mountain-crest, the general murmured to himself: ‘Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte.’ [See how Mount Soracte stands out white with deep snow.] It was one of the [Horace odes] I knew! I continued from where he had broken off… The general’s blue eyes had 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. 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.”
After the war, now decorated for his heroism, Fermor settled in Greece. He and his wife, Joan Rayner, a well-traveled Englishwoman whom he’d met in Cairo, built a house just outside the village of Kardamyli, a few miles down the jagged coast from Kalamata, in the wild and remote Mani. It was a place that, even in the early ’60s, almost no one visited. “Homer’s Greece,” as he put it admiringly.
“It was unlike any village I had seen in Greece,” he wrote in Mani. “These houses, resembling small castles built of golden stone with medieval-looking pepper-pot turrets, were topped by a fine church. The mountains rushed down almost to the water’s edge with, here and there among the whitewashed fishermen’s houses near the sea, great rustling groves of calamus reed ten feet high and all swaying together in the slightest whisper of wind.” It was timeless. Kardamyli, indeed, is one of the seven cities that Agamemnon offers a scowling Achilles as a reward for his rejoining the paralyzed Achaean army at Troy in The Iliad.
“Not a house in sight,” Fermor later wrote of his adopted view, in a letter to his friend the Duchess of Devonshire, “nothing but the two rocky headlands, an island a quarter of a mile out to sea with a ruined chapel, and a vast expanse of glittering water, over which you see the sun setting till its last gasp.”
The house, still largely untouched from when Fermor lived there, was bequeathed to the Benaki Museum in Athens. As I walked through it alone during a visit there this spring, it reminded me in some ways of Ian Fleming’s Goldeneye in Jamaica, a spartan but splendidly labyrinthine retreat devoted to both a productive life and to the elegant sunset cocktail hour. In one bedroom stood a set of Shakespeare volumes with painstakingly hand-penned spines; on a wall, a painted Buddhist mandala. In the living room there were faded wartime photographs of Fermor on horseback, armed and dressed like a Maniot. The whole house felt like a series of monastic cells, their piety replaced by a worldly curiosity, an endless warren of blackened fireplaces, bookshelves and windows framing the sea.
Fleming and Fermor were, perhaps predictably, close friends. Fleming’s Live and Let Die freely quotes from Fermor’s book about the Caribbean, The Traveller’s Tree. It was Fermor who made Fleming (and, of course, Bond) long for Jamaica. But where Fleming retreated to Jamaica to knock out six-week thrillers, Fermor lived in his landscape more deeply; he explored with dogged rigor its ethnography, its dialects, its mystical lore. His books are not “travel” in the usual sense. They are explorations of places known over years, fingered like venerable books and therefore loved with precision, with an amorous obsession for details.
Fermor led an active social life, and the house in Mani, however remote, was a place that attracted many friends, literary luminaries and even admiring strangers over the years. His circle included the historian John Julius Norwich and his daughter, Artemis Cooper; the literary critic Cyril Connolly; the Greek painter Nikos Ghika; and the writer Bruce Chatwin. In an obituary for Fermor in 2011, The New York Times put it thus: “The couple’s tables, in Mani and in Worcestershire, were reputed to be among the liveliest in Europe. Guests, both celebrities and local people, came to dine with them. The journalist and historian Max Hastings called Mr. Leigh Fermor ‘perhaps the most brilliant conversationalist of his time, wearing his literacy light as wings, brimming over with laughter.’ ”
Standing on Fermor’s terrace, with its fragments of classical sculpture and its vertiginous view of a turquoise cove of stones, I felt as if the inhabitants of 40 years ago had momentarily gone inside for a siesta and would soon be out for a dusk-lit gin and tonic. It seemed a place designed for small, intimate groups that could pitch their talk against a vast sea and an even vaster sky.
It also had something neat and punctilious about it. While sitting there, I could not help remembering that Fermor had once sternly corrected Fleming for a tiny factual error in his novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Didn’t Fleming know that Bond could not possibly be drinking a half bottle of Pol Roger? It was the only champagne, Fermor scolded, never sold in half bottles. It was exactly the sort of false note that Paddy never missed, and that the creator of Bond should not have missed either. Truth for Fermor lay in the details, and his books show the same straining eye for the small fact, the telling minutiae.
I noticed, meanwhile, a handsomely stocked drinks cabinet inside the house, in the cool, cavernously whitewashed living room lined with books—the selection dominated by a fine bottle of Nonino grappa. On the mantelpiece stood a card with the telephone numbers of his closest friends, Artemis Cooper (whose biography of Fermor is being published this month) and Deborah Mitford, later the Duchess of Devonshire.
Fermor had been at the heart of many aristocratic circles, including those of the notorious Mitford sisters. The youngest of the Mitfords—”Debo,” as she was known—became Fermor’s lifelong intimate and correspondent. Their polished and witty letters have recently been published in the book In Tearing Haste.
He was a frequent visitor at her country estate, Chatsworth, and the two were platonically entwined through their letters well into old age. They were, however, strange epistolary bedfellows. The Duchess hated books (“Quelle dread surprise,” she writes upon learning that a famous French writer is coming to dinner), while Fermor was the very definition of the dashing, encyclopedic gypsy scholar. In one letter the Duchess boasts that Evelyn Waugh gave her a signed copy of his latest book, which turned out to have blank pages throughout; he knew she hated reading. But the gardening-mad Duchess slyly understood all her correspondent’s erudite gags.
Their gossip was gentle and civilized, and underneath it flowed a kind of unrequited love. In his first letter of the collection, written in 1955 from Nikos Ghika’s house on Hydra, Fermor proposes having himself turned into a fish by a young local witch and swimming all the way from Greece to Lismore Castle in Ireland, where the Duchess was staying.
“I’m told,” he writes, “there’s a stream that flows under your window, up which I propose to swim and, with a final effort, clear the sill and land on the carpet…But please be there. Otherwise there is all the risk of filleting, meunière, etc., and, worst of all, au bleu…”
The Mani, meanwhile, was a far cry from English country houses and fox-hunting parties. Its remoteness and austerity—especially immediately after the war—were truly forbidding. As Fermor pointed out, this was a place that the Renaissance and all its effects had never touched. It was still sunk in Europe’s premodern past—a place still connected by a thousand invisible threads to the pagan world.
Above Kardamyli rise the Taygetus range and the forests that Fermor loved to wander. Steep paved footpaths called kalderimi ascend up into half-abandoned villages like Petrovonni and, above it, the church of Agia Sophia, which looks down on the Viros Gorge. In Mani Fermor remembers that it was here, near the city of Mistra, that Byzantium died out a few years after the fall of Constantinople, and where the continuously creative Greek mind lasted the longest. It is a delicate, luminous landscape—at once pagan and Christian.
Fermor discovered that Maniots still carried within them the demonology of the ancient world, filled with pagan spirits. They called these spirits the daimonia, or ta’ xotika: supernatural beings “outside” the Church who still—as Nereids, centaurs, satyrs and Fates—lived in the streams and glades of the Mani. They still believed in “The Faraway One,” a spirit who haunted sun-blazing crossroads at midday and who Fermor deduced to be the god Pan. The Mani was only Christianized, after all, in the 10th century. Fermor also described how an illiterate Greek peasant, wandering through archaeological museums, might look up at ancient statues of centaurs and cry, immediately, “A Kallikantzaros [centaur]!” To him, it was a living creature.
I hiked up to Exohori, where Bruce Chatwin had, 25 years ago, discovered the tiny chapel of St. Nicholas while he was visiting Fermor. (I had, in fact, been given Chatwin’s old room in the hotel next to Fermor’s house.) Chatwin venerated the older writer, and the two men would walk together for hours in the hills. Fermor, for his part, found Chatwin enchanting and almost eerily energetic. Yet Chatwin was inspired not just by Fermor but by where he lived. When Chatwin was dying, he converted to Greek Orthodox. It was Fermor, in the end, who buried Chatwin’s ashes under an olive tree next to St. Nicholas, in sight of the sea of Nestor and Odysseus.
Exohori felt as deserted as the other strongholds of the Mani, its schools closed and only the elderly left behind. It possesses an atmosphere of ruin and aloofness. I remembered a haunting passage from Mani in which Fermor describes how villagers once scoured out the painted eyes of saints in church frescoes and sprinkled the crumbs into the drinks of girls whom they wanted to fall in love with them. So, one villager admits to Fermor that it wasn’t the Turks after all.
As a former guerrilla of the savage Cretan war, Fermor felt at home here. It was a thorny backwater similarly ruled by a warrior code. Its bellicose villages were, almost within living memory, frequently carpeted with bullet casings. It was a vendetta culture.
The Mani was for centuries the only place in Greece apart from the Ionians islands and Crete (which, nevertheless, fell to the Turks in 1669) to remain mostly detached from the Ottoman Empire. Its people—an impenetrable mix of ancient Lacedaemonians, Slavs and Latins—were never assimilated into Islamic rule, and their defiant palaces perched above the sea never had their double-headed Byzantine eagles removed. Here, Fermor wrote, was “a miraculous surviving glow of the radiance that gave life to this last comet as it shot glittering and sinking across the sunset sky of Byzantium.” Mani, therefore, explores wondrous connections in our forgotten Greek inheritance (it argues, for example, that Christianity itself was the last great invention of the classical Greek world). But Fermor’s philhellenism was not dryly bookish. It was intensely lived, filled with intoxication and carnal play.
His contemporary and fellow Anglo-Irish philhellene Lawrence Durrell was, in so many ways, his kindred spirit in this regard. They were also close friends and had reveled together at the famous Tara mansion in Cairo during the war. Mani, in any case, stands naturally beside Bitter Lemons and Prospero’s Cell as love songs to the Greece of that era. In Ian MacNiven’s biography of Durrell, we find an enchanting glimpse of a riotous Fermor visit to Durrell in Cyprus just after the war. The two men stayed up half the night singing obscure Greek songs, rejoicing in shared Hellenic lore and making a lot of noise.
“Once as they went through Paddy’s vast repertoire of Greek songs far into the night, the lane outside the house filled with quiet neighbors, among them the usually boisterous Frangos, who told Larry, ‘Never have I heard Englishmen singing Greek songs like this!’ ” Their shared virtuosity in the Greek language was remarkable.
Greece, for some of the young prewar generation, held a special magic. It was a youthful Eden, a place linked to the ancient world that was doomed to disappear in the near future. It’s a mood cannily incarnated in Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, which records journeys that Miller and Durrell undertook together in 1939. But no one sang Greece more profoundly than Fermor, and no one tried more ardently to argue its core importance to Western culture, both now and—a more radical argument—in the future.
Roumeli and Mani are his twin love songs to Greece, but it is in Mani that he most eloquently lamented the disappearance of folk cultures under the mindless onslaught of modernity and celebrated most beautifully what he thought of as an immortal landscape in which human beings naturally found themselves humanized.
Consider his illustration of the Greek sky that always seemed to hang so transparently above his own house: “A sky which is higher and lighter and which surrounds one closer and stretches further into space than anywhere else in the world. It is neither daunting nor belittling but hospitable and welcoming to man and as much his element as the earth; as though a mere error in gravity pins him to the rocks or the ship’s deck and prevents him from being assumed into infinity.”
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.
Marathon Man – which includes the account of the retsina fuelled lunch with Paddy.