Category Archives: Profiles of Paddy

The Mani Sanctuary of A Hero-turned Scholar

A meal with friends around the dining-room table designed by Fermor himself. His house was frequently visited by leading figures of the arts and letters.


Another profile of Paddy and the Mani from 2015, this time by by Sofka Zinovieff. First published in Greece Is.

A modern-day Odysseus, Patrick Leigh – Fermor spent the most peaceful days of his remarkable life in a now-famous house near Kardamyli, surrounded by olive groves.

When people talk about Patrick Leigh-Fermor, they often use superlatives: “the greatest British travel writer,” “the most daring wartime secret agent,” “the last great romantic.” I first met him when I came to the Peloponnese to do research as an anthropology student nearly 30 years ago and I went to stay with him in Kardamyli. Although I then knew little about his life, I was, like so many, immediately won over by his charisma. Paddy, as he was always known by English friends (Greeks called him Michalis, his nom de guerre), lived with his wife Joan in a house just outside Kardamyli that they built in the 1960s. At that point, Mani was still an extremely remote, even wild corner of Europe – the inaccessible middle peninsular of the Peloponnesian three-fingered “hand,” with its striking stone towers reflecting centuries of blood feuds and the dramatic, rocky landscape of Mount Taygetus.

The couple gradually created their remarkable home – a mix between a Byzantine monastery and an English country house: carved stone arches, comfortable armchairs, walls covered in books and paintings by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas. Cats (and sometimes goats) prowled over the beautifully designed stone terraces with paths made from smooth pebbles. They had picked their spot carefully – close enough to Kardamyli to have neighbors, shops and a few tavernas, but isolated enough to have the peace they desired. Steps lead from the house down to a beautiful little cove from which they and their friends would set out on long swims. And all around them, olive groves.

Over the years, Paddy became a friend, and I gradually read all his books and learned more about him – the fast living that recalled his hero, Lord Byron, and the daring and resourceful- ness that conjured up a modern-day Odysseus. Wonderfully handsome as a young man, he was always beautifully dressed and remained charming, witty and courteous to the end. A man of action and of letters, Paddy was just as comfortable in grand English drawing rooms or mountain shacks in Crete and he was irresistible to women. A BBC journalist once described him as a mix between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene.

Paddy was one of the most cultured people I have met – constantly interested to learn about the people and places he encountered. He not only read literature and poetry but adored reference books. At dinner in Kardamyli, he would jump up to find a dictionary to illustrate a point or an atlas to locate the precise name of something.

An autodidact, he didn’t attend university, but in 1933, aged 18, walked across Europe. Carrying only a rucksack, he started in Holland and made his way through Nazi Germany, Hungary and on to Constantinople.

During the war, Paddy served in the Intelligence Corps and helped organize the resistance to Crete’s Nazi occupiers. He grew a large mustache and dressed as a shepherd with baggy pantaloons and a dagger in his belt. In 1944, he devised a bold, even crazy plan that has fascinated people ever since. Using German uniforms as disguises, he, Billy Moss and a group of Cretans kidnapped the Nazi chief of staff on Crete, General Kreipe. Living in remote caves, they avoided detection for two weeks, ultimately escaping with him back to Egypt.

It was in Cairo that Paddy met Joan, a tall, blonde intellectual and photographer, the daughter of Viscount Monsell. The pair traveled together – in the Caribbean in 1949 (resulting in Paddy’s first book, The Traveller’s Tree) and then in Greece. In Athens they became friends with many artists and writers of the day, including Giorgos Seferis and Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas, and discovered Greece on foot and by mule, bus and boat. These explorations are described in Paddy’s two masterpieces, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese and Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece. Richly erudite but also humorous and anecdotal, they remain among the best things written about Greece by a non-Greek. Mani is also a eulogy to the place that Paddy and Joan chose as the ideal place to make their home. Although it was one of the most inaccessible parts of Greece, they quickly became friends with many of their neighbors and there was a stream of visitors from Athens, England and around the world. By the time he died aged 96 in 2011, Paddy had been awarded medals and honors by both the Greek and British governments (he was knighted in 2004). He left the house at Kardamyli to the Benaki Museum, with the intention that it should be used as a writers’ retreat.

If these walls could talk… Furniture, books, personal items, mementos of an adventure-filled life, have remained untouched in the home of Patrick and Joan at Kardamyli. © Julia Klimi

Characterized by contrasts, Paddy was playful and scholarly, he drank impressive quantities and could sing folk songs in countless languages, but he regularly went into silent retreats at Cistercian monasteries. Set between the silvery olive groves of Mani and the lush, green fields of Worcestershire, Paddy’s remarkable life would be almost unbelievable in a novel: walking across Europe, falling in love with a princess, abducting a general, taking the best from Greece and England and becoming the finest travel writer of his generation.

Sofka Zinovieff is a British author • http://www.sofkazinovieff.com

The Man of the Mani now on BBC Sounds

In 2015, the experienced BBC reporter and presenter, John Humphrys, hosted a BBC Radio 4 programme about Paddy’s life in the village of Kardamyli in the Mani, exploring his the life and work. The programme is now available (for how long I don’t know) on the BBC Sounds website. Maybe take half an hour this weekend to listen to one seasoned veteran talk about his passion for another.

At the time the BBC website introduced the programme thus:

Fermor is arguably the most influential travel writer of the 20th Century. At the age of eighteen he took off, with notebook in hand, on a walk across Europe. During the Second World War he fought in Greece and Crete, and is still remembered in the country today for his daring exploits with the resistance. His most celebrated action came in 1944 when he led a commando operation to abduct the German General Heinrich Kreipe.

In the early 1960s he moved to Greece, to the Southern Peloponnese. He built a house in the village of Kardamyli in the Mani. It was here that he wrote much of his most celebrated work and where he remained until his death in June 2011.

John Humphrys visits Fermor’s village to explore the influence that Greece had upon his life and work, and also to consider the impact that he had on the village and the people he lived alongside. John visits Fermor’s former home, now in the care of the Benaki Museum in Athens, and discusses the plans for its future. He meets those in the village who met Leigh Fermor when he first arrived in the 1960s – a man in his nineties recalls how they “danced on the tables into the night” – and he hears tales of influential guests, great writers like Bruce Chatwin and John Betjeman, even a King and Queen.

Accompanied by Fermor’s book ‘Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese’, John Humphrys also travels into the deep Mani, one of the remotest, wildest and most isolated regions in Greece.

Visit the BBC Sounds website here for further details.

Paddy the Great, king of Greece

From the April 2018 edition of The Oldie magazine, a remarkable podcast interview with the late John Julius Norwich to celebrate the Charmed Lives in Greece retrospective exhibition at the British Museum. John Julius recalls the special life and tremendous spirit of his friend Patrick Leigh Fermor, the man whom John Julius credits with opening up the Byzantine world to him – the subject of his first book on the subject Byzantium: The Early Centuries.

John Julius talks about Paddy’s incredible intellectual curiosity and lightness of touch: ‘All the time you were aware of being in touch with perhaps the most extraordinary man you’d ever met.’

Listen to the interview here.

Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania

In March 1934 a young man stood midway on a bridge over the Danube which connected Czechoslovakia and Hungary. He was taking stock of a world which, ten years hence, like the very bridge he stood on, would no longer exist. Patrick Leigh Fermor had left London the year before, at the age of eighteen, to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople to complete a journey which would later become the source for some of the best travel writing in the English language. As he stood on the Mária Valéria bridge, facing the ancient Hungarian city of Esztergom, he had no idea that he would one day become the chronicler of a form of social life which was soon to be extinguished by the vicissitudes of war and by the repression which so often went hand in glove with Communism…

Noble Encounters takes a different perspective on Paddy’s 1934 journey, meticulously recreating Paddy’s time spent among the Hungarian nobility. It is the culmination of many years of work and research by author Michael O’Sullivan. He has had access to the private papers and correspondence of many of Leigh Fermor’s hosts, has used extensive interviews with surviving members of these old noble families, delved into the Communist Secret Police archives, and even met the last woman alive who knew Patrick Leigh Fermor in Transylvania in 1934.

O’Sullivan reveals the identity of the interesting characters from BTWW, interviewing several of their descendants and meticulously recreating Leigh Fermor’s time spent among the Hungarian nobility. Paddy’s recollections of his 1934 contacts are at once a proof of a lifelong attraction for the aristocracy, and a confirmation of his passionate love of history and understanding of the region. Rich with photos and other rare documents on places and persons both from the 1930s and today, Noble Encounters offers a compelling social and political history of the period and the area. Described by Professor Norman Stone as “a major work of Hungarian social archaeology,” this book provides a portrait of Hungary and Transylvania on the brink of momentous change.

The book will be officially launched at an invitation only party on 25 May in the house in Budapest where Paddy stayed in 1934, hosted by Gloria von Berg the daughter Paddy’s Budapest host, Baron Tibor von berg. Attending will be a representative of every Hungarian and Transylvanian noble family PLF stayed with as he went castle hopping across the old Magyar lands. They all want to gather to honour the man who was witness to a way of life, and of an entire class, soon to be part of a vanished world a mere ten years after he stayed with them. O’Sullivan has even managed to find Paddy’s signature in the von Berg’s guest book from 1934 when he was signing himself ‘Michael Leigh-Fermor’ – an amazing survival from the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Budapest. Petroc Trelawny will be MC for the evening and the book will be launched by Prince Mark Odescalchi whose ancestor, Princess Eugenie Odescalchi, Paddy met in 1934.

Michael O'Sullivan

Michael O’Sullivan

Michael O’Sullivan is an English Literature graduate of Trinity College Dublin where his postgraduate work was on the poet W.H. Auden. He curated the first major international symposium and exhibition on Auden in the Künstlerhaus Vienna in 1984. He was Vienna correspondent of the London Independent and later worked on both the Foreign and Parliamentary desks of Ireland’s national broadcasting service RTE. He is the author of bestselling biographies of Mary Robinson, Ireland’s first woman president and later UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. He has also written biographies of the founding father of the modern Irish state, Sean Lemass and of the playwright Brendan Behan. His association with Hungary began in 1982 when he became a frequent visitor to Budapest and when he met many of the old Hungarian noble families who met Patrick Leigh Fermor in 1934 and were then banished from their native land under Communism. O’Sullivan will be talking about his book at its public launch at the Danube Institute (Budapest) on 7 June (details here), and at the 2018 Transylvanian Book Festival

The book is published by CEU Press. It will be available soon on Amazon etc; I will endeavour to keep you updated. Here is a link to the pdf of the full book cover. PLF BOOK COVER FINAL EDITION

Paddy’s Irishness

Paddy by Mark Gerson, bromide print, February 1954 (National Portrait Gallery)

Paddy by Mark Gerson, bromide print, February 1954 (National Portrait Gallery)

This gets better as you read it. I wasn’t going to publish it but I thought you might like the second half at least 🙂

By Michael Duggan

First published in the Irish Examiner 7 June 2016.

Patrick Leigh Fermor died five years ago this month, aged 96, and though he claimed to be part Irish, he was a man of the world, who walked from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul in his teens, and who later became a great travel writer.

British soldier and travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, on April 25, 1966. Pictures: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
ON the third of May, 1810, Lord Byron jumped into the waters of the Hellespont and swam the tumultuous four miles separating Asia from Europe.

In Greek mythology, Leander used to swim across this same stretch of water every night to visit his lover, Hero, who would light a lamp to guide his way.

Byron claimed that swimming the Hellespont was his greatest achievement. 174 years later, another English writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor — also, like Byron, revered by many Greeks for his part in a war of liberation — repeated the feat. Leigh Fermor, however, was 69 when he did it. Byron was 22.

The Hellespont swim, with its mix of literature, adventure, travel, bravery, eccentricity and romance, is an apt metaphor for Leigh Fermor’s life. ‘Paddy’, who died five years ago this month, at the age of 96, seemed to embody the lot.

And he claimed Irishness, too.

Leigh Fermor was born in London in 1915. His father was in Calcutta, where he worked in the Indian civil service. His mother, Aeileen, had planned to follow him, with Paddy and Paddy’s older sister, but the sinking of the Lusitania frightened her that both her children might die at once.

Paddy was packed off to a small terraced house in Northamptonshire. He was loved by his foster parents, and allowed to roam free around the town and countryside with their other children.

In June, 1919, his mother and sister returned from India and Paddy was whisked back to London. He did not adapt well to school. His education was a series of disasters and recoveries, experiments and ignominious expulsions.

After a time living it up with the fast set in London, Paddy decided to walk every mile from the Hook of Holland to the Gates of Constantinople.

Aged 18, this is more or less what he did. He disembarked in Rotterdam on December 8, 1933 and reached Istanbul on New Year’s Day, 1935.

By then, he had mingled with bargemen, peasants, nobles and gypsies, made countless friends, learned songs and languages, had love affairs, slept rough, slept in castles, and savoured a culture on the eve of extinction.

During the Second World War, he led a party of English commandos and local guerrillas, who, disguising themselves as German soldiers, kidnapped the general in command of Crete and smuggled him off the island.

After the war, he began to write, while continuing to indulge his eclectic tastes for travel, wild parties, seedy nightclubs and monastic retreats.

He eventually settled in Greece. where he was loved, with his wife, Joan, and became a legend among travel writers.

Patrick with Joan Rayner, after their wedding at Caxton Hall, Westminster, London, January 17, 1968. Picture: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The centrepiece of his achievement was a trilogy of books about his epic trek across Europe.

To get a flavour, new readers might try the opening pages of Between the Woods and the Water. The author is crossing the bridge at Esztergom, entering Hungary for the first time.

He attends the Holy Saturday ceremony at the cathedral. He is in the company of a local grandee, who “carried his scimitar slung nonchalantly in the crook of his arm” and who polished his rimless monocle with a silk bandana.

The passage concludes with the words “I kept wondering if all Hungary could be like this.” The first-time reader is left wondering whether all of Patrick Leigh Fermor could be like this. The books sometimes feel like a never-ending purple passage.

But this is not to say that everything they have to offer is there glittering on the surface. In A Time of Gifts, there is a charming vignette in a little tobacconist’s shop in Goch. Paddy picks up a ‘stocknagel’, a curved, aluminium plaque about an inch long.

On it is a view of the town and its name, and he tacks it onto his walking stick.

Then, with no preamble, the camera angle widens out to show a town hung with Nazi flags.

We hear “the crunch of measured footfalls” as Stormtroopers march into the square. It is the restraint of the writing that deepens the sick feeling in the reader’s stomach.

Intriguingly, Paddy liked to claim he was descended from Counts of the Holy Roman Empire, who came to Austria from Sligo.

Paddy could recite ‘The Dead at Clomacnoise’ (in translation) and perhaps did so during a handful of flying visits to Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s, partying hard at Luggala House or Lismore Castle, or making friends with Patrick Kavanagh and Sean O’Faolain in Dublin pubs.

He once provoked a massive brawl at the Kildare Hunt Ball, and was rescued from a true pounding by Ricki Huston, a beautiful Italian-American dancer, John Huston’s fourth wife and Paddy’s lover not long afterwards.

And yet, a note of caution about Paddy’s Irish roots is sounded by his biographer, Artemis Cooper, who also co-edited The Broken Road, the final, posthumously published instalment of the trilogy.

“I’m not a great believer in his Irish roots,” she told me.

“His mother, who was a compulsive fantasist, liked to think that her family was related to the Viscount Taaffes, of Ballymote. Her father was apparently born in County Cork.

“But she was never what you might call a reliable witness.”

“She was an extraordinary person, though. Imaginative, impulsive, impossible — just the way the Irish are supposed to be, come to think of it. She was also one of those sad women, who grew up at the turn of the last century, who never found an outlet for their talents and energies, nor the right man, come to that. All she had was Paddy, and she didn’t get much of him.”

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper
Paddy never tried to get to the bottom of his Irish ancestry, afraid, no doubt, of disturbing the bloom that had grown on history and his past, a recurring trait.

“His memory was extraordinary,” Artemis notes, “but it lay dangerously close to his imagination and it was a very porous border.”

But she is in no doubt about how exceptional a man he was: “The thing that inspired me most about him was his responsiveness to people, whoever they were.

“I had known him all my life. When I wrote the book, I was in my fifties and he in his nineties.

“He didn’t have to impress or charm me, and he never set out to do so. But he was so curious, so responsive.

“Every time I mentioned a book I thought he might like he, he made a note of it.

“Every time I told a joke, he roared with laughter. Every time I told a story, he sat forward, eager to hear how it was going to turn out.

“That wasn’t me, it was him. He made me feel funnier, better-read and more intelligent than I ever could be, and he did that to everyone,” she says.

A bugler from his former regiment, the Irish Guards, delivered the ‘Last Post’ at Paddy’s funeral five years ago.

It marked the passing of an extraordinary man: soldier, writer, adventurer, charmer.

We may not see his like again.

The Man of the Mani – BBC Radio 4 Monday 22 June

johnhumphMS2010_468x402Final scheduling for the John Humphrys’ BBC Radio 4 programme about Paddy is available on the BBC website. It will broadcast at 1600 hours on Monday 22 June and will be available later on the BBC website. Which tells us …

John Humphrys travels to Greece, to the village of Kardamyli in the Mani, to explore the life and work of travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Fermor is arguably the most influential travel writer of the 20th Century. At the age of eighteen he took off, with notebook in hand, on a walk across Europe. During the Second World War he fought in Greece and Crete, and is still remembered in the country today for his daring exploits with the resistance. His most celebrated action came in 1944 when he led a commando operation to abduct the German General Heinrich Kreipe.

In the early 1960s he moved to Greece, to the Southern Peloponnese. He built a house in the village of Kardamyli in the Mani. It was here that he wrote much of his most celebrated work and where he remained until his death in June 2011.

John Humphrys visits Fermor’s village to explore the influence that Greece had upon his life and work, and also to consider the impact that he had on the village and the people he lived alongside. John visits Fermor’s former home, now in the care of the Benaki Museum in Athens, and discusses the plans for its future. He meets those in the village who met Leigh Fermor when he first arrived in the 1960s – a man in his nineties recalls how they “danced on the tables into the night” – and he hears tales of influential guests, great writers like Bruce Chatwin and John Betjeman, even a King and Queen.

Accompanied by Fermor’s book ‘Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese’, John Humphrys also travels into the deep Mani, one of the remotest, wildest and most isolated regions in Greece.

Visit the BBC website here for further details.

John Humphrys presents Paddy’s world on BBC Radio 4

John Humphrys on the Today programme

A little while ago I was approached to help provide some background information to help with research for a one-off Radio 4 programme about Paddy and his life in and around Kardamyli which will be presented by John Humphrys.

Kevin Dawson from Whistledown productions has confirmed that all is on schedule and the programme should be transmitted at 11.00 am on Monday 22 June. It will include interviews with Artemis Cooper and her father John Julius Norwich, as well as a contribution from the Benaki which may update us on progress about the house.

John Humphrys has a property in the Kardamyli area and is a fan of Paddy’s work. I believe that this may be his own idea which is great and will go someway to making up the deficit of BBC programming about one of our greatest writers.

Link

Capture1A broadcast on France Culture radio featuring Paddy speaking his best French, supported by Artemis Cooper and her father John Julius Norwich. Lovely to hear Paddy speaking and also to brush up some of the old French given that we all know the context. With contributions from others. Click the picture above to visit the site and then press the play icon. The player will open in a new window and can be a little slow to load so just be patient but the quality is fine and worth the wait.

Interesting that with this and the TV interview alongside the brilliant Nicolas Bouvier, the French are running neck and neck with the BBC for airtime about Paddy. Watch Paddy here (he appears around 29 minutes.)

El último aventurero romántico

A profile in Spanish from El Pais. The Spaniards appear to have a great interest in Paddy and his works, possibly encouraged by the translations of Dolores Payás, the author of Drink Time! which many of us enjoyed last year.

By Jacinto Antón

First published in El Pais, 3 July 2013

Es el efecto que provoca el recuerdo del viejo aventurero romántico, ¡diablo de hombre! Mientras hablamos de sir Patrick Leigh Fermor (Londres, 1915- Dumbleton, 2011) evocando sus hazañas, sus líos de faldas, sus viajes, la belleza de sus escritos, sus grandezas y debilidades, la admiración y, sí, el amor, que sentíamos por él, su amiga y biógrafa Artemis Cooper se pone de pie extemporáneamente y se pone ¡a bailar una danza griega! Yo diría que un sirtaki.

La escena resulta inesperada y sorprendente en esta tarde londinense en la pequeña librería Nomad Books de Fulham, donde tomamos los dos un té en tazas con portadas de Penguin rodeados de libros y silencio. La librera y los demás clientes nos miran con disimulo. La historiadora y editora Artemis Cooper, autora de la extraordinaria biografía Patrick Leigh Fermor, una aventura, recibida con unánimes elogios en Reino Unido y recién aparecida en España (RBA), es bien conocida en el barrio, donde vive con su marido, el célebre historiador militar Antony Beevor (inmerso, por cierto, en la batalla de las Ardenas), y su arrebato es recibido con británica flema. La observo danzar aferrado a mi cuaderno de notas, sin saber si he de sumarme al baile.

Hablábamos de la vitalidad de Leigh Fermor, el sensible y curioso adolescente que cruzó Europa andando en los años treinta, codeándose con aristócratas y domadores ambulantes de osos, el oficial de inteligencia, el valiente soldado de operaciones especiales que secuestró en un golpe de mano audaz al comandante de las tropas nazis en Creta, el guapo amante que conquistó a tantas bellas mujeres, el refinado, culto y políglota escritor que nos ha dejado libros tan hermosos como El tiempo de los regalos, Mani, Roumeli o Un tiempo para guardar silencio, el filoheleno émulo de Lord Byron que rescató las zapatillas del poeta y cruzó nadando el Helesponto a los 69 años. “Al entrar él en una habitación, todo el mundo se sentía más vivo, ligero”, recordaba la escritora. “En Atenas, cuando era pequeña, íbamos por las tardes a las tabernas y él hablaba con la gente, y pasaban cosas. Empezaba a cantar, canciones griegas que interpretaba de manera fenomenal. Y se ponía a bailar. Bailaba maravillosamente”. ¿Como Zorba?, le he preguntado interrumpiendo sus recuerdos. “Exacto. Mejor. Anthony Quinn bailaba de manera algo dejada, abandonándose. Paddy era más decoroso. Sus movimientos, majestuosos, enérgicos”. Y es entonces cuando Artemis Cooper, una mujer madura (1953), atractiva, culta y de refinada elegancia –no en balde, nacida como la honorable Alice Clare Antonia Opportune, es hija del segundo vizconde Norwich y nieta de Lady Diane Cooper– , ha retirado su silla con resuelta determinación, se ha levantado y ha ejemplificado cómo danzaba Leigh Fermor poniéndose ella a bailar. Observo que calza deportivas.

Read more here.

Among the Quick and the Dead

If you are coming to the end of a celebrated life, chances are that someone has already suggested writing your biography – a thought, as Oscar Wilde pointed out, that lends a new terror to death. The print run will be measured in thousands, and modern readers feel shortchanged unless all is revealed: sex, money, secrets, skeletons and dirty linen. The prospect is appalling but once you are dead, you probably won’t mind so much.

By Artemis Cooper

First published in The London Library Magazine, Spring 2013

I was commissioned to write the life of Elizabeth David by her literary executor, Jill Norman, in 1995 – by which time Mrs David had been in her grave for three years, and her papers had been expertly catalogued by Jill’s partner, the writer and book-dealer Paul Breman. Housed in two long rows of matching box-files, the archive marched the entire length of an airy studio in Rosslyn Hill. Most of the papers were to do with work, but my worries that there might not be enough material to make a good story soon evaporated. Her correspondents included Jane Grigson, Lawrence Durrell and John Lehmann, and in her own letters you can hear the irony in her voice, the salty chuckle.

And while her middle years were more sedate than her turbulent youth, what kept the narrative going was that in life Elizabeth was demanding and difficult. There was always a spectacular row brewing, with publishers, lovers, friends and family – sooner or later everyone fell foul of her, and a series of blistering letters (she kept copies) were left to tell the tale. When I wasn’t at Rosslyn Hill, sustained by cups of high-octane coffee, I was out interviewing. Derek Cooper told me how Elizabeth’s reluctance to be interviewed on radio almost wrecked an episode of The Food Programme devoted to her work, while Sybille Bedford described the way she could suddenly go cold on you from one second to the next. I had lunch with people who cooked a lot better than I did, and they often made me her favourite dishes. The exception was the novelist Paul Bailey who looked at what he had just bought for lunch and said, ‘I’m glad I’m cooking this for you and not Liza… She hated quail, and cauliflower.’

So I didn’t realise just how easy I’d had it until I began to tackle the life of Patrick Leigh Fermor, in 2001 – while he was still living it. I had known him since I was a child, and had already interviewed him for a previous book about wartime Cairo. He didn’t like the idea of a biography, and neither did his wife Joan. But friends had persuaded them that unless Paddy appointed someone to write his life, he might find himself the subject of a book whether he liked it or not. I was told I could go ahead, but I had to promise not to publish anything until after they were both dead, which I thought very sensible. I would be free to write without them looking over my shoulder, and they would never have to wince or groan at what I had written. The disadvantage was that it might be many years before the book saw the light, but that seemed a price worth paying.

Work got off to a slow start. Paddy did not like being interviewed, and would keep my questions at bay with a torrent of dazzling conversation. He was also very unwilling to let me see many of his papers, though the refusal always couched in excuses. ‘Oh dear, the Diary…’ It was the only surviving one from his great walk across Europe, and I was aching to read it. ‘Well it’s in constant use, you see, as I plug away at Vol III,’ he would say. Or, ‘My mother’s letters? Ah yes, why not. But it’s too awful, I simply cannot remember where they’ve got to…’ It was quite obvious that he and Joan, while being unfailingly generous, welcoming and hospitable, were determined to reveal as little as possible of their private lives. While they were more than happy to talk about books, travels, friends, Crete, Greece, the war, anything – they would not tell me any more than they would have told the average journalist. Oh to be back with the uncomplicated, properly archived dead!

Please don’t get me wrong, I did not wish Paddy and Joan dead. Far from it, because I realised I was going to need all the years that Providence could spare them just to write the book. I think I must have spent whole months in the doldrums: plodding away with the reading and the research, writing the easy passages, but feeling as if the book would never take off. It felt as heavy as cold dough.

In June 2003 Joan died unexpectedly, leaving Paddy numb with shock and grief. Joan had never stopped Paddy talking to me, encouraging us both to make the most of my visits to Kardamyli. Yet Paddy’s scruples did ease after her death. He talked more freely, but he could still wish he hadn’t said things. One afternoon he told me how he had written a long letter to his mother about the first great love of his life, Balasha Cantacuzene, soon after they began living together. He waited eagerly for his mother’s reply; but when it arrived, ‘all I found in the envelope was my own letter, torn to shreds.’ He looked up, and at that moment I suppose he caught a glimpse of his biographer’s cunning eyes, sharp teeth and whiskers. ‘You won’t put that in, will you?’ he said anxiously. ‘Oh no Paddy, of course not,’ I said, quickly resuming my expression of calm serenity.

As time went on I told similar fibs. When I stumbled on the fact that he had not been on horseback when first setting out on the Great Hungarian Plain (though he was a bit later) he looked rattled. ‘I thought the reader would be getting bored of me just plodding along on foot. I say, you won’t let on, will you?’ Oh no, Paddy, I won’t let on…

Most curious to me was how reluctant he was for the story of the Cretan vendetta to appear in print. It all began in occupied Crete in May 1943. As Paddy was checking a rifle he did not know was loaded, he inadvertently killed his Cretan guide, Yannis Tzangarakis. After the war Paddy sought out Yanni’s brother, Kanakis , to try and explain what had happened and beg his forgiveness. But Kanakis upheld the old Cretan code of honour, which demanded blood for blood. He used to lie in wait for Paddy on his regular returns to Crete, for reunions with his old brothers-in-arms. The feud was only dropped in 1972, and culminated with the traditional happy ending: Paddy was asked to baptize one of the Tzangarakis family. He called the little girl Ionna, after his wife Joan and the friend he had so tragically killed.

Paddy told me the story in great detail, and finished with the dreaded words ‘You won’t put that in, will you?’ Normally I would have reassured him, but this time I made a stand. ‘Why ever not?’ I asked. ‘Everyone concerned behaved according to their principles, until peace and reconcilliation triumphed: who could possibly object to that?’ He replied that the story was still a very sensitive one in Crete. I did not doubt it, but felt that enough time had elapsed for the tale to do no harm. I knew Paddy was still in touch with his god-daughter Ionna, then a young woman in her thirties, so I suggested we get in touch and ask her. If she didn’t mind, who else would? Paddy was not convinced: ‘I’ll have to dig out her address…’ And that was the last I heard of it, until I got in touch with Ioanna myself. How? By looking her up in his address book when he was taking a nap. Biography is not work for the morally squeamish.

There were certain things he hated talking about, one being his writing: ‘Well, you know, I just scribble away and then of course it has to be gone over quite a bit…’ Attempting to dig deeper, I once compared his vision of Greece to that of Kevin Andrews, author of a harrowing book which Paddy very much admired called The Flight of Ikaros. Andrews had much to say about the scars left by the Greek Civil War of the late 1940s, while in Paddy’s books it is scarcely mentioned. ‘His book shows Greece as Goya would have seen it,’ I went on, ‘wheras your Greece is more like a Claude Lorrain….’ It was a crude analogy, only made to get him to talk about why he wrote about Greece the way he did. Paddy looked utterly crestfallen and said, ‘Oh my God, am I that superficial?’

A romantic gallantry meant that he never talked about his girlfriends, either. After much cajoling he told me about Liz Pelly, to whom he lost his virginity; and after a while, I began to pick up the words and phrases he used to hint at his affairs. ‘We were terrific pals, you know,’ was one of them. Luckily, there were letters – but I had to be careful there, too. There was an open fireplace in his study, and I never wanted him to think of using it for anything other than keeping warm.

For people who went through the two world wars, letters were sacred. Not only did Paddy and Elizabeth keep all their letters, but their correspondents did too, giving you whole flights of conversation. Letters are the bedrock on which biography is built, and without their testimony, I don’t think biography as we know it is possible. I doubt that anyone can get under someone else’s skin on the basis of a lifetime’s worth of emails.

If writing lives of the recent past, the biographer relies on the goodwill of those who knew the subject best – usually their friends and family. It is they who are going to tell you what you need to know, show you the letters, point to possibilities. I have been blessed in those I have depended on, and have come to feel a great regard for nephews in particular – but I have never had to deal with a subject’s children, because neither Paddy nor Elizabeth had any. Elizabeth always knew she never wanted babies. Joan yearned for them, but by the time Paddy was ready to face the prospect of paternity it was too late.

Children must be one of the trickiest challenges one can face. How could they not resent this outsider rootling around? Even the most cooperative and understanding of people bring with them a freight of scruple and protectivness when they think about their parents’ lives.

I often thought about Elizabeth David and Patrick Leigh Fermor, when they first knew each other in Cairo towards the end of the war. Being young and attractive, they may well have fallen into bed together at some point. They remained in touch for the rest of their lives, having friends and books and tastes in common. They loved long lunches and dinners, too, especially if they stretched on for hours with plenty of talk and wine. Paddy drank for the sheer joy of being alive, and lived to be ninety-six. But after losing the love of her life in her later forties, Elizabeth drank to ease her sorrow. At one point the booze, mixed with sleeping pills, nearly killed her. She died aged seventy-nine.

Elizabeth was never in love with Paddy but she admired his books, and once invented an ice-cream – Glace au Melon de l’île St Jacques – inspired by his only novel: ‘[This] melon ice has a strange, almost magic flavour and that is why I have called it after that French Caribbean island so unfogettably conjured out of the ocean, only to be once more submerged, by Patrick Leigh Fermor in The Violins of Saint- Jacques’, she wrote in French Provincial Cooking. I made the ice for Paddy and Joan when they came to dinner one night. Paddy was delighted, and began thinking of all the artists, statesmen and writers who have given their name to particular dishes: Melba, Colbert, Demidoff, Rossini, Châteaubriant, Arnold Bennett… ‘I feel I’ve joined a very exclusive club,’ he mused. ‘An ice-cream – now there’s immortality for you! ’

My Meeting with the Byron of Our Times

colour posterA curious mix of over the top homage to Paddy; criticism of Billy Moss’ “stilted” writing style; accusation that the editors of Abducting a General produced a “short, blatantly padded book” with the “last 20 pages provid[ing] a detailed guide to the abduction route that few visitors to Crete, apart from fanatics, would willingly endure”; followed by self-promotion of the writer’s own books about Errol Flynn, John Huston, and Somerset Maugham. Something here for everyone to gnash their teeth over including a claim that Paddy had a Greek son: but all-in-all quite enjoyable!!!

By Jeffrey Myers

First published in Standpoint Jan/Feb 2015.

I met the handsome, charming and dashing Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) in May 2002. He belongs with authors as men of action — Melville, Conrad, Hemingway, Malraux and Orwell — who did not go to university and learned their lessons from violent experience. Leigh Fermor, whose reputation is based on three impressive achievements in travel, war and literature, has enjoyed after death a well-deserved revival of interest in his life and work. In 1933-34, in his late teens and after expulsion from school, he spent a year walking south-east across Europe, passing through nine countries from Holland to Turkey. In his leisurely 1,700-mile ramble, rough when solitary and poor, hedonistic as guest and lover, he moved effortlessly between peasants and patricians. Though his journey did not equal the agonising treks of Henry Morton Stanley through Equatorial Africa or of Wilfred Thesiger across the Empty Quarter of Arabia, it was a considerable feat of social and cultural exploration.

In April 1942 Leigh Fermor landed in Crete by parachute and set out, with resourcefulness and courage, on his second and most famous Byronic adventure. He spoke modern Greek and joined a handful of British Special Operations Commandos sent into the mountains of the Nazi-occupied island to organise the resistance and unleash a guerrilla uprising. His men attacked airfields and blew up a fuel base. He also watched helplessly as the Nazis took revenge by destroying whole villages and massacring thousands of civilians. While on Crete, he fired a rifle he thought was unloaded and killed a Greek comrade, setting off a blood feud that was not settled for many decades.

Leigh Fermor’s greatest wartime achievement was the daring capture of a German general, Heinrich Kreipe, on April 26, 1944. Dressed in German uniforms, Leigh Fermor and his men set up a roadblock. As the car slowed down around a sharp curve, they poured out of the darkness and restrained the general, who shouted, swore and punched until he was handcuffed and shoved onto the floor of the vehicle. They then smuggled their prisoner through the main town, Heraklion, west along the coast and into the mountains.

The general turned out to be a cultured captive, well versed in the classics, and had many lively talks with Leigh Fermor before he was taken to Egypt and then to a POW camp in Calgary, Canada. A moment of true understanding came when Kreipe, gazing at the white hills, quoted Horace’s Ode (1.9) — “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte” (See, the snows of Mount Soracte glare against the sky) — and Leigh Fermor quoted the rest of the Latin poem from memory. In April 1972 they appeared congenially together in a Greek television programme. When asked if he’d been treated well, the general replied, “Ritterlich! Wie ein Ritter” (Chivalrously! Like a medieval knight).

Leigh Fermor’s bold exploit inspired a book, Ill Met By Moonlight (1950), by his comrade-in-arms William (Billy) Stanley Moss and a 1957 film of that name with Dirk Bogarde as Leigh Fermor. (The title comes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) Moss — handsome, six years younger than Paddy and a veteran of the North African campaign — was educated at Charterhouse and spoke French and Russian but not Greek or German. He does not provide any historical or military background, bases his memoir on the diary he kept at the time and writes in a plain, often clichéd style. The first rather uneventful half — mostly marching, hiding and planning, with a few close calls — expresses admiration for the Greek partisans and leads up to the daring capture of the much older General Kreipe (born in 1895).

Leigh Fermor carries “an ivory-handled revolver and a silver dagger” and cuts a dashing figure. They had hoped to capture General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, a cruel “tyrant much loathed by the islanders” who was later hanged as a war criminal, but he was unexpectedly replaced by Kreipe. The capture takes place between the German headquarters and the general’s residence in the Villa Ariadne, built by Sir Arthur Evans during his excavations of the ancient Minoan palace of Knossos. After driving through Heraklion in the Opel, with Leigh Fermor wearing the general’s hat, they bluff their way through 22 German checkpoints — though one map shows only four checkpoints. (The gullible sentries, some suspected of complicity, were arrested and probably sent straight to the Russian front.) The commandos evade all the German patrols searching for Kreipe and, with many difficulties, bring him through the slopes of Mount Ida and down to the British ship on the south coast.

Kreipe — “a thick-set man . . . with thin lips, bull neck, blue eyes, and a fixed expression” — had come for a rest in Crete after two tough years on the Russian front. Concerned more for his dignity than for his life, he worries about the lost symbols of his rank and valour: his general’s hat and the Knight’s Cross of his Iron Cross. Though fairly stoical and cooperative, he complains about his minor injuries, poor food and lack of sleep. He and Leigh Fermor also exchange Greek verses from Sophocles, but do not establish a close connection. Though the commandos leave evidence suggesting only the British, not the Greeks, had captured the general, the Germans razed the nearest village and eventually killed 2,000 civilians.

Leigh Fermor’s version of the incident, Abducting A General (John Murray, £20), published last year, is a short, blatantly padded book. The foreword provides useful historical background. Only half the 189-page work contains the main text. Seventy pages reprint his hastily written intelligence notes sent from Crete to headquarters in Cairo. The most interesting dispatches describe his accidental  shooting of his close Cretan friend and his part in the executions, without trial, of Cretan traitors. (When I asked Sir Alec Kirkbride, the last surviving officer of T.E. Lawrence’s Arabian campaign if he had really killed a lot of lawless Arabs after the capture of Damascus in 1918, he casually replied, “Oh, not that many.”) The last 20 pages provide a detailed guide to the abduction route that few visitors to Crete, apart from fanatics, would willingly endure.

Leigh Fermor’s account has already appeared in his anthology Words of Mercury (2003) and been the basis of the two chapters on Crete in Artemis Cooper’s biography (2012). Based on memory rather than diaries and written in 1966, 22 years after the event, Abducting A General, like his earlier travel books, is filled with invented details. He gathered intelligence, carried out sabotage and prepared the Cretans to help the British recapture the island. His major difficulties were faulty radio transmitters, lack of transport, “rain, arrests, hide and seek with the Huns, lack of cash, flights at a moment’s notice, false alarms, wicked treks over the mountains, laden like a mule, fright among one’s collaborators, treachery, and friends getting shot”.

He is excited by the constant danger and, when disguised as a Cretan, by his close proximity to German soldiers. His book is more detailed than Moss’s about the history and geography of the island, more stylish and lyrical. He is devoted to his brave, loyal and sacrificial Cretan friends and comrades, whose language he speaks and whom he idealises: “we could not have lasted a day without the islanders’ passionate support: a sentiment which the terrible hardships of the occupation, the execution of the hostages, the razing and massacre of the villages, only strengthened.” But he ignores the conflicts between the Greek Communists and the pro-British partisans, which led to a civil war after the liberation of Greece. His hyperbolic and Homeric tributes to the Cretans — “their capacity to cross several mountain ranges at the same lightning speed on an empty stomach after swallowing enough raki and wine to lame other mortals for a week” — are excessive.

The main dangers of the abduction were the possibilities of stopping the wrong car, encountering other German vehicles and provoking savage reprisals. The identification and immediate escape in April 1944 was helped by Kreipe’s coloured metal pennants on the front fenders of his car. When seized, Kreipe lashed out with his fists, was manacled and had his legs tied. The whole episode took only 70 seconds. His badly injured driver, who could not keep up with the escaping partisans, had to be killed.

Since Leigh Fermor could also speak German, he writes more fully and positively than Moss about his relations with Kreipe, who bears up stoically under humiliating circumstances. The youngest son of the large family of a Lutheran pastor in Hanover, Kreipe was 48 years old and unmarried. He had a broad pale face, grey hair and jutting chin. A professional soldier, he had served in the army since 1914 and had recently won a Knight’s Cross on the Russian front. His moods during this ordeal ranged from cheerfulness to depression, and he sometimes slept under a blanket with Leigh Fermor and Moss, huddled together against the piercing mountain cold. Leigh Fermor writes in comradely fashion: “The General’s behaviour was most friendly and helpful throughout and he put up with the hardships of mountain travel and living rough with fortitude. Moss and I had the impression that he had lost his nerve a bit after the first contact with us. He certainly made no attempt to escape.” If he had broken his word, he would have been shot by the Cretans. On May 14, 1944, after 18 anxious days in the mountains, they all boarded the ship to Cairo. Spared the disastrous German defeats in Russia and in Greece, Kreipe remained in British custody until 1947.

The crucial military and moral question, which Moss ignores and Leigh Fermor answers with qualified affirmation, is whether the abduction of General Kreipe was worth the brutal German reprisals: whole villages destroyed and the massive slaughter of men, women and children in August 1944. The survivors rejoiced; the dead remained silent. But Leigh Fermor’s heroic exploit, still famous all over Greece, boosted morale during the dark days of the German occupation and gave a glimmer of hope for the final victory.

Leigh Fermor’s third major achievement was the travel books about his youthful journey that appeared decades later: A Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and the Water (1986), and the unfinished and posthumously published The Broken Road (2013). A slow, procrastinating writer, blocked for much of his life by the weight of too much material, he resembled Penelope unwinding at night what she had woven by day. His wanderings abroad to write in Benedictine and Trappist monasteries, which he described in A Time to Keep Silence (1953), were also an escape from writing.

Fermor often indulges in unseemly displays of erudition. His learned digressions and serpentine style, his mannered mandarin, even baroque prose, which Lawrence Durrell called truffled and dense with plumage, were influenced by the work of Charles Doughty, T.E. Lawrence and Norman Douglas. This florid style clashes with his descriptions of colourful gypsies and cave-dwelling bandits — dressed in sheepskin jackets, high boots and billowing breeches, with daggers tucked into their belts and bandoleers charged with cartridges — rioting, feasting and firing their carbines into the air or, during a vendetta, into their enemies.

Fascinated by his achievements, I corresponded with Paddy (as everyone called him) while writing my biography of Errol Flynn. He had written the screenplay of one of Flynn’s best movies, The Roots of Heaven (1958), and been on the scene during the disastrous filming in French Equatorial Africa. He thought Hollywood screenwriting was a lark that enabled him to hang around and drink with colourful characters in an exotic setting. Flynn, Trevor Howard and Paddy were all drinking heavily, and there was some conflict when Paddy fell in love with the French singer Juliette Gréco, the co-star and mistress of his boss, the producer Darryl Zanuck. In a vivid letter of May 5, 2000, Paddy described the horrendous conditions — heat, disease, swarming insects and dangerous animals — while making the movie in the tropics. He got on well with the flamboyant Flynn, a kindred spirit, and gave a perceptive account of his character:

Errol seemed distinctly more intelligent than the run of actors. Full of original tangents, a great narrative gift, and a great sense of humour. He often referred to his learned father, a marine biologist at Belfast University. He loved reminiscing, largely about Hollywood. I asked him what the leading and most beautiful stars of the day were like. “Well, pretty good,” he said. “They’ve all got my scalp, I’m afraid.” There were lots of memories of his early days there, and his adventures. He was very funny about a yacht he shared with David Niven, and the girls they would take on trips. “We looked on them to supply the food. One pretty girl came on board with nothing but a loaf and a contraceptive device.” He took his acting seriously, and was absolutely adequate in his not very exacting role. He was on very good terms with all the other actors. His physical condition wasn’t too bad, troubled by hangovers now and then.

When I wrote again while working on my life of John Huston, who directed The Roots of Heaven, Paddy vividly recalled the savage Darwinian scene. Bangui, now in the Central African Republic, was the roughest and most primitive place of all:

The forests near Bangui were inhabited by very intelligent pygmies. We were “shooting” in the forest when the clouds broke and a large deluge of rain came down. Our procession of vehicles headed back to the ultra-modern hotel, like an up-ended mouth-organ on the banks of the Shari river, which was full of crocodiles. I got there with Errol and his girl, and we were astonished to find the whole of the ground floor a foot deep in termites, over which small bright green frogs from the Shari were leaping about in parabolas, while Juliette’s mongoose ran riot among them, killing and swallowing as many as he could, two legs sticking out of his mouth. A strange sight.

I also got in touch when writing my life of Somerset Maugham. Paddy was an Old Boy of Maugham’s alma mater, The King’s School,  Canterbury, and as a student had read Of Human Bondage. He was also a close friend of Maugham’s admirer and confidante Ann, the wife of Ian Fleming. After the war he had visited Maugham’s luxurious Villa Mauresque on Cap Ferrat. Since Paddy lived in Kardamyli, a remote village in the southern Peloponnese and my daughter was a Foreign Service officer in Athens, it was a perfect time to see him. So we rented a flat for three weeks, overlooking the sea and a few kilometres from Paddy’s village.

I rang him up from a local shop and he immediately invited me to come round for a talk. Since his house was hidden away and hard to find, he walked up to the main road and hailed me as I approached. Tall and straight, white-haired and sun-tanned, he was at 87 still a virile and impressive figure. He had designed his low, rambling, whitewashed, red-tiled home himself, and called it “a loose-limbed monastery and farmhouse with massive walls and cool rooms”. It had a shaded patio facing the Mediterranean, a flourishing garden, and a huge library filled with books in ancient and modern languages. He had created the setting he wanted and the life he wished to lead, travelled widely and wrote well, charmed everyone and seemed content.

Paddy wanted to correct Ann Fleming’s version of his embarrassing visit to Maugham, which she had exaggerated — with shattered drinking glasses and blood on the floor — to amuse Evelyn Waugh. Maugham had asked Ann to bring Paddy with her for dinner, and then (always generous to good-looking young authors) had invited him to stay on as his guest and write at the villa. Unnerved by Maugham’s severe expression and icy manner, Paddy drank far too much. Falling victim to the perverse tendency to talk about the very thing he was strictly forbidden to mention — Maugham’s debilitating speech defect — Paddy quoted the absurd belief that everyone in the College of Heralds had a stammer. That was bad enough. But noting that the day was the Feast of the Assumption, he mentioned Correggio’s painting of that subject in the Louvre and repeated a stammering friend’s bon mot: “That is a m-most un-un-w-warrantable as-assumption.”

Deeply offended, Maugham became even icier. Rising from the table and taking his leave, he rescinded his invitation by saying: “G-G-Goodbye. Y-Y-You will have left b-b-before I am up in the m-m-morning.” The wretched Paddy, who had not intended to wound his host, contrived to make matters even worse. Instead of waiting for the valet to pack his bag, he hastily threw his things together and caught a precious monogrammed sheet trimmed with Belgian lace in the zipper of his suitcase. He rushed down the stairs with the rest of the sheet trailing behind, frantically tore part of it off and escaped from the villa with shreds of fabric hanging out of his bag.

After our talk, Paddy signed some travel books I’d brought along. Specially buying another one, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958), in the village shop, he inscribed it, surrounding his words with a cloud and a sketch of birds flying around the title page. When he mentioned bees and my daughter used the unusual word for “buzz” — zouzounizo — which he hadn’t heard for years, he praised her fluency in Greek. After drinks in his house Paddy invited all of us to dinner at a simple restaurant, set on a promontory overlooking the glistening sea, which he’d bought for Lela, his former and now ancient cook. I noticed that the cook’s son Giorgos — who greeted us warmly in excellent English and recommended the best dishes — was tall, blond, blue-eyed and very un-Greek looking.

Paddy, who didn’t see well at night, asked me to drive him home in his battered old Peugeot, which had stiff gears, negligible brakes and holes in the rusted metal of the floor. As we went down a steep hill towards the sea, which had no barrier, I suddenly realised that the brakes didn’t work and had to swerve violently to avoid submersion. Paddy, who’d had many close calls, was jovial and unconcerned about the dangerous episode. My instinctive feeling that Giorgos was Paddy’s son was confirmed when my daughter returned to Athens and impressed her Greek friends, who knew the truth, by mentioning that she’d dined with a national hero.

Paddy was the Byron of our time. Both men had an idealised vision of Greece, were scholars and men of action, could endure harsh conditions, fought for Greek freedom, were recklessly courageous, liked to dress up and displayed a panache that impressed their Greek comrades. Paddy also reminded me of a Bedouin chief’s tribute to another famous warrior, T.E. Lawrence: “Tell them in England what I say. Of manhood, the man, in freedom free; a mind without equal; I can see no flaw in him.”

Travellers’ Century: Patrick Leigh Fermor now on YouTube


The event at Waterstones on Thursday with Benedict Allen introducing his 2008 film about Paddy’s life and work was a great success.

Organised by Barnaby Rogerson of Eland Publishing (who specialise in keeping the classics of travel literature in print), we were treated to a few glasses of wine before the film whilst chatting to an eclectic group who included general travel writing buffs, some who knew little about Paddy, and a group of keen PLF enthusiasts. Harry Bucknall, author of Like a Tramp, Like A Pilgrim: On Foot, Across Europe to Rome was in fine form, talking about a possible film project, and I particularly enjoyed meeting Rick Stroud who wrote the other book published this month about the abduction Kidnap in Crete: The True Story of the Abduction of a Nazi General.

Perhaps the highlight was a Q&A session afterwards where Benedict was joined by John Murray who features in the film talking about the challenges of editing Paddy’s work. John had some very interesting things to say about working with Paddy and shared some personal views about his life and relationships.

By strange coincidence I have now been told that the BBC film has now appeared in You Tube so you can all watch and enjoy it!

Traveller’s Century – Benedict Allen seeking Patrick Leigh Fermor

Benedict Allen

Benedict Allen

Many will be aware of Benedict Allen’s 2008 BBC documentary where he follows Paddy’s journey and eventually gets to meet with Paddy at Kardamyli. It is rarely shown and unavailable on iPlayer. However, there will be a chance for some to watch the programme at Waterstones Piccadilly on Thursday 9th October at 6.30pm.

As part of their “Traveller’s Film Club” series of events, Benedict will introduce the programme after which there will be a screening. Further details of how to book are on this web page.

The Traveller’s Film Club are also showing films on Norman Lewis (September 16) and Wilfred Thesiger (November 13). See the same list.

Thank you to Mark Granelli for pointing this out to me. See some of you there!

 

Travel Writing Giants – Remembering Peter Matthiessen and Patrick Leigh Fermor

Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen

BBC Radio Four rarely disappoints. At least not over the course of a few hours where there will be enough variety and quality for everyone. On Good Friday the Point of View programme was given over to William Dalrymple William who celebrated the writing of Peter Matthiessen who died this month. Dalrymple compares him with another of his favourite travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor. “Both were footloose scholars who left their studies and libraries to walk in the wild places of the world, erudite and bookish wanderers, scrambling through remote mountains, notebooks in hand, rucksacks full of good books on their shoulders.”

Listen here on BBC iPlayer. The programme begins after about 30 seconds. If you are in a location where this is not possible, the text is below.

Happy Easter to all of you.

Tom

William Dalrymple pays tribute to two fellow travel writers – Peter Matthiessen, who died recently, and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

The great American writer Peter Matthiessen died earlier this month at his home in Sagaponak, New York, after a prolonged struggle with leukaemia. He was 86.

Matthiessen was one of my great literary heroes, a wonderfully versatile and profoundly truthful writer whose sentences oozed integrity and an austere clarity of thought and spirit. His writing drew on his richly restless and enviably courageous life, which was as remarkable an artefact as anything he actually wrote. He remains the only author to win the National Book Award for both fiction and non-fiction.

Matthiessen, a craggily handsome man, with clear blue eyes and a face that seemed to have been sculpted out of basalt, was at different times a naturalist-explorer and a deep sea fishermen, a pioneering environmentalist and editor, an artist and activist defending the rights of migrant labourers and Native Americans, as well as a CIA agent who underwent a strange metamorphosis into literary shaman and Buddhist sage. He lived and travelled in a variety of wild landscapes (rainforests, oceans, mountains, deserts and swamps) around the globe, and he set his books in these remote places – the Peruvian Andes and the jungles of New Guinea, Tierra del Fuego and the Tibetan Plateau, the Serengeti and the Bering Straits.

He is perhaps best known for a single great masterpiece, The Snow Leopard, a jewel of a book and one of the great travelogues of our time. The book tells the story of a long journey on foot to the Crystal Mountain in the Himalayas to study the wild blue sheep and to catch a glimpse of the rare and almost mythical snow leopard. But for Matthiessen, a Zen Buddhist recovering from the recent death of his wife, it was more of an inner journey of recovery and resignation than some zoological field trip.

In many ways, Matthiessen resembles Patrick Leigh Fermor, another lyrical writer who travelled widely and lived richly, setting his books across the globe. Like Matthiessen, Paddy – as everyone knew him- lived an enviable life. In his teens he walked from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, while in his sixties he swam the Hellespont, in homage to Lord Byron who swam it in 1810. In between, he joined possibly the last cavalry charge in European history, participated in a Haitian voodoo ceremony, and pursued a passionate affair with a Byzantine princess. He was car-bombed in Greece, knifed in Bulgaria and pursued by German troops after being parachuted into occupied Crete where he kidnapped the Nazi commander.

Paddy and Peter were very different men of very different generations. Matthiessen was a blue-blooded New Yorker, descended from Friesian whalers, and grew up on post-war Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, in the same building as George Plimpton, with whom he later co-founded the Paris Review. The American 1960s marked him forever. He experimented with psychedelia, especially LSD, became an anti-Vietnam activist and his friends were the great New York writers of that era – Kurt Vonnegut, EL Doctorow and William Styron. Leigh Fermor, by contrast, had the speech patterns, polished brogues and formal manners of a pre-war British officer, and his conversation was peppered with the likes of “ripping”, “topping”, “I say!”, “frightful rot” and so on. His friends tended to be Brits of a similar background and era – Noel Coward, Dirk Bogarde, Diana Cooper, the Mitfords and later, Bruce Chatwin.
Nepal Himalayas Matthiessen describes the Nepal Himalayas in lyrical terms

It is also true that these two great descriptive writers wrote very dissimilar prose. Matthiessen’s writing had a spare and austere simplicity, yet was as beautiful and craggy as his wonderfully weather-beaten face. Here he is waking up in the Nepal Himalaya: “A luminous mountain morning. Mist and fire smoke, sun shafts and dark ravines: a peak off Annapurna poises on soft clouds… Pine, rhododendron, barberry and purple gentians. Down mountain fields, a path of stones flows like mercury in the sunlight; even the huts have roofs of silver slates.”

In contrast, Paddy’s books, with what Lawrence Durrell called their “truffled style and dense plumage”, were sometimes “madly, intoxicatingly over-written”. Yet at his best he was a soaring prose virtuoso with hardly an equal in modern English letters. For many of us his descriptions of walking through midwinter 1930s Germany have the status of sacred texts: “Sometimes the landscapes move further back in time,” he writes in the Winterreise chapter of his masterpiece, A Time of Gifts. “Pictures from illuminated manuscripts take shape; they become scenes which Books of Hours enclosed in the O of Orate, fratres. The snow falls; it is Carolingian weather… Then the rooks fell silent; the light dwindled over the grey fields; and life ebbed with a shudder like a soul leaving the body.”

Yet these two very different writers had so much in common. Both were footloose scholars who left their studies and libraries to walk in the wild places of the world, erudite and bookish wanderers, scrambling through remote mountains, notebooks in hand, rucksacks full of good books on their shoulders. Both were writers of great sensitivity and erudition, yet both were also men of action who became intelligence agents – Leigh Fermor in wartime Crete, while Matthiessen worked for the CIA in post-war Paris spying on American expatriate communists suspected of KGB links.

Both men moved easily from the world of the flesh to the world of the spirit and back. They understood what Paddy described in A Time to Keep Silence as “the capacity for solitude that accompanies the silent monastic life”.

The same was true of Matthiessen, who while the lively centre of many a mescaline-fuelled literary party in his youth, ended his day as a Roshi, or Zen Master. “Zen is really just a reminder to stay alive and be awake,” he said in one of his last interviews. “Zen is about appreciating your life in this moment. If you are truly aware for five minutes a day, then you are doing pretty well. We are beset by both future and the past, and there is no reality apart from the here and now.”

The world of literary travel writing, usually associated with the drumbeat of hooves across some distant steppe, has recently begun echoing instead with the slow tread of the undertaker’s muffled footfall. Within the last few years or so, Wilfred Thesiger, Norman Lewis, Ryszard Kapuscinski and Eric Newby have all – like Peter and Paddy – gone on their last journey. But for me, Leigh Fermor and Matthiessen remain, along with Bruce Chatwin, the greatest of them all.

On my last visit to see Paddy at the villa he built in Kardamyli, deep in the Greek Mani, I went with him to see the Byzantine chapel around which Chatwin had had his ashes scattered. The chapel was very small with a domed, red-tiled roof and round arcaded windows. It was a perfect place for anyone to end their days, and as we headed back I asked Paddy whether he would like to be buried there too.
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“Oh no,” he replied instantly. “My wife, Joan, is buried in Gloucestershire. I’d like to end up there. England is not a foreign country to me.” The same was true of Matthiessen who in the end found peace in Sagaponak, where he set up a Zen meditation centre at the back of his estate.

It’s a characteristic of many of the greatest travellers that they come back home in the end. TE Lawrence, another wandering writer turned intelligence agent, was the same. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom he wrote about what is I think a surprisingly common dilemma, and one I certainly recognise in my own life – that of the traveller who moves abroad, embraces another culture, immerses himself in it, and then finds that he has been changed forever by the experience and cannot ever fully return.

I had dropped one form and not taken on the other,” wrote Lawrence, “the inevitable fate of the man who could see things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments.” Matthiessen could not have put it better.

A Point of View is broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 BST. Catch up on BBC iPlayer

 

Patrick Leigh Fermor profile: ‘Glitteringly told, impossibly romantic, unrepeatable today…’

As the long-awaited final volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s memoirs is published, Jonathan Lorie celebrates the brilliant travel writer.

By Jonathan Lorie

First published in The Independent, Saturday 14 September 2013.

“This is the Byron Room,” murmured John Murray the seventh, ushering me into the Regency drawing room of his publishing house in Piccadilly, where marble busts perched on carved bookcases under a white rococo ceiling. “And that fireplace is where they burned Lord Byron’s papers after he died.” He smiled sheepishly, for it was his own ancestor, John Murray the second, who committed one of the great vandalisms of literary history – burning the poet’s scandalous memoirs instead of publishing them. “And here,” he said with some relief, “is Paddy.”

Paddy, as Patrick Leigh Fermor was always known to friends, was a great crag of a man, scowling at a wooden desk, where a page of lopsided writing in black ink was refusing to do his bidding. “It’s no good,” he raised his tousled head and glowered at us, a handsome man with dark, mischievous eyes. Then he burst out laughing. “It’s a poem in medieval French I want to send to the Spanish ambassador, but I can’t remember the end of it!”

Leigh Fermor strode briskly over, despite his 89 years, shook my hand and launched into an unstoppable reminiscence of tramping across Europe in 1933. “I borrowed £15 from somebody and caught a boat to the Hook of Holland, heading for Constantinople. I got somebody to give me a letter to a very nice baron in Bavaria and I went to stay with him … And then I borrowed a horse off somebody and crossed the whole of the great Hungarian plain on this horse – it was the right way to see it – it was totally unspoilt then … At the Iron Gates I caught a ship for about 50 miles, then stayed with a very nice consul in Sofia …” And he rattled off the names of places and people that must have vanished long before I was born, in a lost world of feudal Europe, as though it were all just yesterday.

Patrick Leigh Fermor in later life

Patrick Leigh Fermor in later life

That epic journey and the power of his storytelling will be in many people’s thoughts this weekend, as Leigh Fermor’s final book of travel memoirs is published. Fans have been waiting three decades for this. The Broken Road is the last, missing volume in a trilogy that many thought would never be completed. It concludes the story he told that day in the Byron Room, of a youthful trek from London to Istanbul in 1933, catching the last echoes of an older order before the Second World War changed everything.

Across this vanished world Leigh Fermor had walked aged 19, meeting monocled aristocrats and ragged chimney sweeps, sleeping in cowsheds or in castles, dodging gypsy encampments, cadging lifts on cargo boats, falling for pretty girls, dancing and drinking and talking his way to the heart and soul of central Europe. The journey was enchanting, the writing rich and vivid.

But he never finished the trilogy. The two previous volumes – A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water – appeared in 1978 and 1986 to huge acclaim. They prompted Jan Morris to hail him as “the greatest of living travel writers”. Then the words stopped, 500 miles from Istanbul. For years, friends and fans pestered him to finish it. He never did. Perhaps it was the failing powers of old age, perhaps it was the pressure of living up to expectations, perhaps – like that medieval French poem – he could no longer recall enough of the ending. When he died in 2011 – seven years after our meeting in Piccadilly – it seemed another great loss to literature.

But three years before his death, his biographer Artemis Cooper had stumbled across a 45-year-old typescript filed at John Murray’s office. It was called “A Youthful Journey”, and it was Leigh Fermor’s early attempt to describe the post-Danube part of the route. Her interest rekindled his, and slowly he began to sift his way through this fading text, revisiting the great journey, reworking the words, a man in his nineties taking one last shot.

He never finished. The final manuscript was a mass of revisions and expansions that petered out just days from Istanbul. But Cooper and the travel writer Colin Thubron took it upon themselves to sort it into best order and present it to the world. It was perhaps a homage to their friend as much as a literary laying to rest. And John Murray published it, a posthumous memoir saved from oblivion at last.

The result is The Broken Road. It’s as charming as its predecessors, a fascinating glimpse of a vanished era. Leigh Fermor drifts through the pre-war Balkans, meeting White Russian officers, dancing at diplomats’ parties, falling in love with a French-speaking student, drinking slivovitz with coachmen and concierges. On a moonless night by the Black Sea he nearly drowns, but stumbles his way into a cave where a ragged gang of fishermen and sailors sitting around a fire take him in for a night of wild drinking and traditional dances. It is perhaps the emotional heart of this book – a moment from an ancient myth, which his derring-do and joie de vivre have brought to life – glitteringly told, impossibly romantic, unrepeatable today.

The book is also a little rougher in parts than its predecessors. I asked the editors about this. “What we were dealing with was very much a first draft, by his standards,” says Colin Thubron. “Neither we nor anyone else could finish the trilogy as Paddy would have wanted. It is, inevitably, less uniformly polished – or ‘buffed up’ , as Paddy might have said – than the previous two books. But there are passages as fine as anything he wrote, and it also reveals a certain, rather charming, youthful vulnerability.”

“It is much rougher in texture,” agrees Cooper, “but it is also unmistakeably Paddy. As a writer he is quite unique. That fusion of memory and imagination and landscape, nobody has ever achieved that with such immediacy.”

Patrick Leigh Femor sharing lunch with friends in Kardamyli

Patrick Leigh Femor sharing lunch with friends in Kardamyli

Quite how far he fused memory and imagination is an interesting question. All three of these books were written decades after the fact, with only a tattered map as aide-memoire. He had lost all but one of his diaries – some on the road, some in a neglected storeroom at Harrods. Like that other fine travel memoirist of the 1970s, Laurie Lee, you can’t help wondering how much of this actually happened.

Cooper has a theory: “Paddy once told me that everything that ever happened to him from the ages of five to 21 was etched on his mind, and to a certain extent that was true. But memory is not a CCTV camera in your head – it changes, develops, shrinks or expands or becomes more elaborate – especially if you write about it.”

Thubron agrees: “I think the vividness of his memory merged seamlessly with the richness of his imagination.”

It was an imagination fed by the life that he chose to live. What other travel writer can claim to have ridden in a cavalry charge across a castle drawbridge with sabres drawn, as he did during a Balkan rebellion? Or lived in a manor house with a Romanian princess, who he met on reaching Istanbul? Or kidnapped an enemy general and driven his staff car through 22 enemy checkpoints, as he did in wartime Crete?

The latter was his most famous exploit, and you can visit the place where it happened – a remote stretch of road beside an olive grove where Leigh Fermor lay in wait with a band of Cretan partisans. The episode was made into a book and film, Ill Met By Moonlight, starring Dirk Bogarde as Leigh Fermor. For years afterwards, Leigh Fermor was fêted throughout Greece for his wartime service with the partisans, when he had lived for months in mountain caves, organising resistance to the German occupation.

The war left him with a profound attachment to Greece and its people, and in the 1950s he and his wife Joan built a house there, on the Mani peninsula. It was famed for its elegance and its house guests. John Betjeman described the library, which looked over the sea, as “one of the rooms of the world”. The travel writer Bruce Chatwin chose to have his ashes scattered on the hills above, by Leigh Fermor.

Here he wrote two luminous books on Greece – Mani and Roumeli – and slowly began the trilogy which has now, finally, been completed. He nicknamed this work “The Great Trudge” – a view understood by his editors.

“It feels wonderful to have completed the trilogy,” says Cooper. “Paddy always felt a huge regret that he did not finish this book. But by the end of his life I think he knew that we would see it was published. Perhaps, on some level, he was able to leave the world knowing that it would see the light of day.”

“There is, in the end, nobody like him,” concludes Thubron. “A famous raconteur and polymath. Generous, life-loving and good-hearted to a fault. Enormously good company, but touched by well-camouflaged insecurities. I would rank him very highly. ‘The finest travel writer of his generation’ is a fair assessment.”

At Home in the World

Paddy at the house in Kardamyli. Photo by Joan Leigh Fermor, Courtesy the New York Review of Books

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.

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“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.”

Patrick Leigh Fermor: We May Just Forget to Die, an essay by Margot Demopoulos

This is the probably most significant full length profile of Paddy that has appeared since his death. It is by Margot Demopoulos a writer who lives and writes in Los Angeles. Her fiction has appeared in The Briar Cliff Review, Mondo Greco, The Athenian, and other publications.

The interesting aspect of this profile is an extensive exploration of the events surrounding the Kreipe kidnap with particular attention to the contentious subject of post-operation reprisal by the Germans.

The subject line appeared in an earlier blog post from June 2011 where I highlighted Diana Gilliland Wright’s correspondence with Paddy.

On to the profile ….

“Englischer Student . . . zu Fuss nach Konstantinopel…” eighteen-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor told the kindly woman sewing by the fire that snowy night at Heidelberg’s Red Ox. He sat at a nearby table, recording the day’s events in a notebook, hunting for German words in a dictionary, consulting maps for the next leg of the journey, “thawing and tingling, with wine, bread, and cheese handy,” as melting snow pooled around his boots.

“Konstantinopel?” Frau Spengler said. “Oh Weh! ” O woe! So far!

Far indeed, especially in the snowdrifts of mid-winter, but there he was — undaunted, spirits high, finally setting out on his own path — nearly two months into his journey to cross Europe on foot, with Constantinople the terminus. Nearly forty-five years later, he would publish the story of that journey in A Time of Gifts. Read More ….

Access the pdf of the article here.

Patrick Leigh Fermor in Greece – a talk by Artemis Cooper

Paddy’s biographer and good friend, Artemis Cooper, will talk about his life in Greece at the Gannadius Library in Athens at 7.00 pm on 24 May 2012. 

Full details of the event can be found here.

Biographer Artemis Cooper, who is preparing a biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, will trace his life, experiences, and legacy in Greece from his early travels to the end of his life, on 10 June 2011. She will talk about what drew Patrick Leigh Fermor to Greece in the first place; his ‘participation’ in the Venizelist rebellion of 1935; his early travels in Thrace and Macedonia, and first encounters with the Sarakatsani; his experiences in the war on the Albanian front and Crete, as well as the post-war explorations of Greece that produced Mani and Roumeli. She will also touch on the Cyprus years; his friendship with George Seferis, George Katsimbalis, and Nicos Hadjikyriacos Ghika; how he and his wife came to settle in Kardamyli, and built their house with the architect Nicos Hadjimichalis; how the Greek translation of Mani was undertaken by Tzannis Tzannatakis, while he was in exile in Kythera under the Junta of the Colonels. She will also reflect on his position in the village of Kardamyli and how he is seen in Greece today.

PS – I have been told that there will be a webcast available after the event. I will post the details when I have them.

For our Australian readers: Event – Remembering a great Philhellene, 4 April

Paddy, remembering a great Philhellene, Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) a talk by Anastasia Anastasiadis will take place as part of the 30th Greek Festival of Sydney

‘Paddy’ arrived in Greece in 1935 — after walking from Holland to Constantinople — and promptly got involved in resisting an attempted coup. As a British liaison officer during World War II, he led the group which kidnapped General Kreipe. In later years Paddy and his wife had a house in Kardamyli (Mani). His acclaimed travel books include two on Greece: Mani and Roumeli.

The talk will take place on Wednesday 4 April at 7:00 pm at the Greek Orthodox Community Club, 206-210 Lakemba Street, Lakemba. Entry is free but for further information contact (02) 9750 0440 or email – greekfestival2@goc.com.au. The talk will be conducted in Greek.

From Neoskosmos.com

A Year of Memory: the top ten posts on the Patrick Leigh Fermor blog

As the year comes to a close it is time to reflect upon what has passed and to look forward to 2012. I make no predictions for the coming year. There are some things which are almost certain such as the continuing Euro crisis and the much anticipated publication of Artemis Cooper’s authorised biography about Paddy, but forecasts tend to be overtaken by events and are quickly forgotten.

What we can do is to look back on this year in the life and times of Patrick Leigh Fermor. The major event of course was Paddy’s death on 10 June at the age of ninety-six. A sad event for his family and close friends, but also for those of us who admired him for his writing and the life he lived. As the year closed it was time to celebrate his life at his Memorial Service held on 15 December in London.

As I hoped the blog has become a significant source of material about his life including rarely seen video. There have been over 228,000 visits over the last year and you have made it a much more interactive experience by using the comment facility to exchange information, provide your own memories of Paddy, and to express your admiration for him. At the time of his death I opened a page where you could express your thoughts about Paddy which has run to over 120 comments.

Paddy would probably have been somewhat bemused by the whole idea of the blog, but perhaps even more so by the interaction we now have with social networking sites with nearly 4,500 visitors finding the site from Facebook, and 850 via Twitter.

To conclude the year, and as the 365th post on the blog, let us take a look at some of the most popular articles over the last twelve months. Perhaps I can make one promise to you all which is that there is much more to come on the blog in 2012 which includes a lot of material submitted by you the readers of the blog.

The Funeral Service of Patrick Leigh Fermor, 16 June 2011 

Paddy’s funeral service was held on a typical English summer’s day at his home in Dumbleton. He returned to England just one day before his death and is buried beside his beloved Joan.

Obituary from The Independent by Paddy Leigh Fermor’s biographer Artemis Cooper 

Perhaps the definitive obituary.

Patrick Leigh Fermor … This is Your (Ill Met by Moonlight) Greek Life 

The amazing video from the Greek TV programme which reunited the participants of the Ill Met by Moonlight kidnap including Paddy, many of the Andartes, and General Kreipe and his wife.

Anthony Lane’s New Yorker article on Fermor is now free to view 

One of the most comprehensive profiles of Paddy which is now freely available to all. (the pdf download appears to be no longer available – click on the article to magnify to read and then drag your cursor to move around the page)

Intimate portraits from Kardamyli by Miles Fenton 

A series of personal photographs sent to me by Miles Fenton who is Paddy’s nephew and who now lives in Canada where he works as an artist.

Patrick Leigh Fermor recounts the kidnap of General Kreipe on video 

The ever popular video where Paddy talks in some detail about the Kreipe kidnap. (press play on Battle of Crete 7).

Colonel David Smiley 

David Smiley was a fellow occupant of Tara in Cairo with Paddy and Billy Moss et al who continued his military career with some distinction after the war and even led Japanese soldiers in a charge against VietMinh rebels!

Paddy’s eye for detail: Ian Fleming, Bondage, James Bond and Pol Roger 

It is probably the James Bond/Ian Fleming association which maintains the popularity of this article.

If food be the music of love … Bánffy’s lover in Cluj (Kolozsvár) 

No list of popular posts can be complete without the compelling combination of my passions for Paddy, Romania, Miklós Bánffy, and Cluj.

Patrick Leigh Fermor Memorial Order of Service 

The order of service from the joyful occasion that was Paddy’s Memorial Service.

Finally I would like to thank so many of you for your encouragement and support during 2011, and wish you all a very Happy New Year!

Tom Sawford

Visionaries Who Changed Our World

This review is apparently about ‘the minds we will miss’ and actually it is pretty good. It starts with a picture of the recently departed Peter Hitchens. I am not sure about – “They opened doors, blazed trails, and left us all too soon.” – the left us too soon part is perhaps not something we can truly say about Paddy but the sentiment is well understood. It also has a link directly to the blog.

Patrick Leigh Fermor

Ulf Andersen / Getty Images from Newsweek.

Travel Writer, 96

He was a rare blend, penning some of the most memorable travel books of the 20th century and capturing a Nazi commander in Crete. Leigh Fermor related his adventures—watching a voodoo ceremony in Haiti, living with Trappist monks—in dazzling prose with a deep pathos for every place he visited.

Snail’s pace to Byzantium: journey of a lifetime

This is a combination of profile and review of Words of Mercury. An interesting piece.

by Ann Elder

First Published in Athens News, 9 Jan 2004

“I HATE the word travel-writer,” London-born, Mani-based Patrick Leigh Fermor told a British journalist in 1995. Under the title Words of Mercury, a selection of his writings was published by John Murray this autumn. The excerpts from half a dozen of his books, some articles and reviews show clearly why he must flinch from being slotted anywhere confining.

As his followers know, he writes with an enchanted pen. Any topic he takes up becomes something ‘rich and strange’. He has a story-teller’s knack of compelling interest, like the Ancient Mariner mesmerizing listeners with his glittering eye. And he has a particular flair for catching the heightened receptivity and visceral thrill felt at new encounters, what Cavafy wished the traveler in his poem Ithaka:

Pray that your journey may be long,
that many may those summer mornings be
when with what pleasure, what untold delight
you enter harbours never seen before.”
(Kimon Friar translation)

Not least, Leigh Fermor wins readers’ allegiance by creating the sense of affinity with an engaging personality, uncensorious, untinged by chauvinism, reveling in life, akin in spirit to A E Housman, onetime professor of Latin at Cambridge, in his lines:

Could man be drunk forever
With liquor, love or fights
Lief should I rouse at mornings
And lief lie down at nights.

Edited by Artemis Cooper, a writer (Cairo in Wartime) and wife of historian Antony Beevor (Crete: The Battle and the Resistance), the book has five parts: travel, Greece, people, books and flotsam (finishing with a poem on Christmas maybe better forgotten). Cooper gives brief introductions to each piece and starts off with a succinct biography.

As an 18-year-old living on a pound a week in a flat off Picadilly in 1933, Leigh Fermor spent more time partying than buckling down to write. As fate had it, he had read The Station: Athos: Treasures and Men by the irreverent young Robert Byron in 1928. The ‘great and misunderstood spirit of Byzantium’ had greatly impressed him.

“About lamp-lighting time at the end of a wet November day, I was peering morosely at the dog-eared pages on my writing table,” he related later. “A plan unfolded – to set out across Europe like a tramp – a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar, a broken knight.”

“The chief destination was never in a moment’s doubt. The levitating skyline of Constantinople pricked its sheaves of thin cylinders and its hemispheres out of the sea-mist; beyond it hovered Mount Athos; and the Greek archipelago.”

In excess of his wildest dreams, he found material to write about. All was grist to his mill, but his mill ground slowly. His writing proved to require long gestation. He became fanatical about polishing his product, and research, the more obscure, the more it seemed to appeal to him, like the origins of the Sarakatsans or the Laz-speaking Greeks of Trebizond. The first book about his venture, A Time of Gifts, came out in 1977, over 40 years later, and the second, Between the Woods and the Water about “those mysterious regions between the Vienna Woods and the Black Sea” as Saki put it – in 1986. In France they called him “l’escargot (the snail) of the Carpathes.”

Real life and events also delayed his writing. The trek took him about a year. He reached his goal on New Year’s Eve, 1934, after ending his traverse of Bulgaria with a splash, falling into the Black Sea on a cold December evening. He came to the coast some 150 miles north of the Bosphorus. “An old man was smoking a narghileh on the doorstep of a hut beside a little boat beached among the rushes – a Tartar fisherman, the only human being I saw all day,” he  wrote over 20 years later in an article in the May 1965 Holiday Magazine.

Darkness fell. “I lost my footing on a ledge and skidded – waist-deep into a pool. Jarred and shaken, with a gash on my forehead and a torn thumb, I climbed out, shuddering with cold. At the bottom of the pool, about two fathoms down, my torch was sending a yellow shaft through sea anemones and a flickering concourse of fish.”

Crawling round the rocks, he came to a veritable Cyclop’s cave sheltering a dozen Greek fishermen and Bulgarian goatherds with their 50 goats and cheese-making apparatus, eating lentils by a thornbush fire. The young wayfarer was soon dried and warm, tossing back slivovitz and eating fresh fried mackerel.

Leigh Fermor is in his element in the climax of this thoroughly Homeric episode, when one of the Greeks, Costa, turns out to be an unsung Nijinsky, his dancing invested with a ‘tragic and doomed aura.’ He performed the stunt  with which Greek cruise ships like to wind up their Greek night shows: dancing with a table between the teeth.

“On a rock, lifted there to clear the floor, the low, round, heavy table was perched. Revolving past it, Costa leaned forward: suddenly the table levitated itself into the air, sailed past us, and pivoted at right angles to Costa’s head in a series of wide loops, the edge clamped firmly in his mouth and held here only by his teeth. The dancer whirled like a dervish, till the flying table melted into a disc, finally returned to its rock, glasses, cutlery, lentil pot and cigarette burning on the edge of a plate undisturbed.”

Time in Greece he dates from his 20th birthday, February 11, 1935, when he arrived at Mt Athos as ‘snowflakes were falling fast’ and ‘in deep snow, trudged from monastery to monastery.’ In Athens later, he frequented the  Romanian embassy, meeting descendants of Phanariot hospodars, Ypsilantes, Ghikas and Cantacuzenes. As with Greece, he fell in love with Balasha Cantacuzene whose forebear, Emperor John Vl, invited the Seljuk Turks to  Europe (and is recalled sorrowfully in a Cavafy poem for having coloured glass not jewels in his coronation crown).

After time writing and painting in an old mill among the lemon groves overlooking Poros, they went to her decaying family estate in Moldavia. Published in 1961 was a perfectly pitched account of a picnic in sunlit  countryside by open carriage and on horseback on September 2, 1939, the last day of peace. “It had been a happy day, as we had hoped, and it had to last us a long time, for the next day’s news scattered the little society for ever.”

Utterly desolating is the Daily Telegraph weekend magazine article of May 1990 on his first breaking through the Iron Curtain in 1965. He found the Cantecuzene sisters in a Bucharest attic eking out a communist state pension  teaching. The gracious old houses he had stayed in among flowery meadows and nightingale-filled woods were psychiatric hospitals, their owners dead.

Leigh Fermor seems happiest gilding the past, writing to ‘the brave music of a distant drum,’ as old Khayyan put it, not dwelling on ‘bitter furies of complexity’ or ‘that gong-tormented sea’ of Yeats’s “Byzantium” which he refers to at the outset in Time of Gifts. The days of his youth were the days of his glory and he evokes them with zest, if no doubt some selective memory. He admits he is beset with ‘retrogressive hankerings,’ but these add to the richness of the embroidered prose dazzling his readers, to twist Yeats a bit. And sometimes he might be shoulder-to-shoulder with the poet:

Of all Arabia’s lovers I alone
Nor dazzled by the embroidery, nor lost
In the confusion of its night-dark folds,
Can hear the armed man speak.

His review of Edmund Keeley’s Cavafy’s Alexandria in a 1977  Times Literary Supplement (TLS) shows him at his serious best. He recalls “the blacked-out, jolly, rather wicked wartime port” he knew as a young British World War Two agent, then is off with Cavafy into the Judaeo-Hellenic Franco-Levantine city “old in sin, steeped in history, warrened with intrigue.”

He notes the depths of irony and dark humour in the notion of citizens aghast with consternation when the barbarians fail to invade them on cue. He ponders “the jagged Ithaka at the long Odyssey’s end; the imminent Ephialtes ready to sell the Thermopylae of the spirit.” He goes on: “Issued without preamble from an atmosphere of earthly delights these warnings sound as harsh, for a moment, as the words of Mercury after the songs of Apollo at the end of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost.'”

Leigh Fermor is a mild Mercury though. In a review of Oxford classicist CM Bowra’s Primitive Song in a 1962 Spectator he commends him for eschewing ‘a softer technique, swaying to the seductions of every coincidence  and historical chance-shot.’ He himself tends to yield to the tempting vistas of ‘alluring byways.’

The selections from his writings on Greece include a report he wrote for London’s Imperial War Museum archives in 1969 on how the German commander General Heinrich Kreipe was abducted by a Cretan-British force he led in April 1944. While still controversial, the coup makes a cracking good story.

At Anoyeia where captors and captive rested, villagers were ‘convulsed by incredulity, then excitement and finally by triumphant hilarity. We could hear running feet in the streets, shouts and laughter. “Just think, we’ve stolen their General!”‘

Heading south round Psiloritis – Mt Ida of antiquity, over 2,200 metres high and snow-covered till late May – the getaways were to meet a British vessel on the coast to spirit them to Egypt. After a night in a shepherd’s hut sharing  one blanket, “a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mt Ida which we had been struggling across for two days. We were lying smoking in silence, when the General, half to himself, slowly said (in Latin): ‘See, how it stands, one pile of snow’. I was in luck. It is the opening line of one of the few odes of Horace I know by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off (likewise in Latin);

‘neath the pressure yield
Its groaning woods; the torrents flow
With clear sharp ice is all congealed.
Heap high the logs, and melt the cold,
Good Thaliarch; draw the wine we ask,
That mellower vintage, four-year-old,
From out the cellar’d Sabine cask.

(Conington’s translation)

The stanzas are much-loved, ‘a picturesque Christmas card,’ say scholars. They evoke the perfect ambience in which to peruse the book. Those unfamiliar with Leigh Fermor will surely have appetites whetted for more. Those who know him and have his books around will dash for them to locate the extracts, then hotly debate the choices, such as the punning Achitectural Notes from a 1994 Spectator: “If you squinch, aisle screen,” and “Put those Saxon  here Norman,” and “Overhung? Per apse, when dais done.”

The author has covered himself. “Pure nonsense is as rare among the arts as an equatorial snowdrop”, he wrote in a review of George Seferis’s Illustrated Verses for Small Children in a 1977  TLS.

Reminder! Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Appreciation by Alexander Maitland, FRGS

The lecture postponed from October will be given by Alexander Maitland and takes place on Monday 12 December starting at 2.30 pm.

Tickets: free to RGS-IBG members and educational users. Non-members: £5 payable in advance. Venue: Education Centre, Lowther Lodge.

Pre-booking required: Telephone: 020 7591 3044 Email: showcase@rgs.org

When: Mon 31 October 14:30 – 16:00 London

Where: Education Centre, Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) 1 Kensington Gore London SW7 2AR (map). Exhibition Road entrance.

More details here.

The last of a magical breed

From Judy Stove who writes for The New Criterion.

“Readers may like to know that there is an excellent article by David Mason about PLF in The New Criterion, September 2011.  Unfortunately the online version is for subscribers only or by purchase.

Mason, as a young man, and his then wife visited PLF and Joan at Kardamyli.  He tried to impress with quoting Waugh and Anthony Powell, only to find that PLF and Xan Fielding actually knew these people…A funny and poignant memorial, one of the better PLF tributes going around.”

David Mason’s article begins thus:

The death of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor on June 10 at age ninety-six has been mourned in virtually every major newspaper in the English-speaking world. He has been celebrated as the last of a magic breed, the Byronic hero, a man of action who was also one of our most vigorous writers. The fuss would have surprised Paddy, who never assumed his contributions were admired and became nonplussed when anyone heaped praise on his head. The long-refused knighthood he finally allowed to be conferred upon him in 2004 did nothing to elevate him above Greek shepherds or the myriad visitors to his villa in the southern Peloponnese. Paddy was youthful and convivial to the end, with an attractive and genuine interest in the world outside himself. People couldn’t get enough of him.

Yet his readers had to learn patience as the books arrived from his pen at a snail’s pace—he didn’t learn how to use a typewriter until in his nineties …

If you are a subscriber you can read the article here. If not go to the same link and you can access this one article for $3.00.

Charles Moore on Paddy

‘The intellect of man,’ Yeats famously wrote, ‘is forced to choose between perfection of the life, or of the work.’ Patrick Leigh Fermor, who has just died aged 96, managed to refuse this choice and achieve both.

He was what is now called a role model — a war hero, an intrepid traveller, a witty guest, a man with whom women fell in love, a Byronic romantic without Byron’s unkindness — but he was also a writer with the most exacting standards and unique imagination. His highly wrought prose was not affected: it expressed his delight in and minute attention to life and art, places and people — the stranger the better; and it inspired that delight in others.

All the letters I have from him overflow with enthusiasms. There is a silly idea for a cartoon he has sketched out in which a spherical man and a thin one with a hawk on his wrist stand outside a castle gate, staring disconsolately at a castle gate on which is pinned the notice ‘No Hawkers, No Circulars’. There is a poem called Message to Skopje:

Your claim to the name “Macedonia”

Could scarcely be flimsier or phonier

If you want an old name

For your state, what a shame

Not to bring back the real one, Paeonia.

He writes about ‘marvellous girls in tricornes’ hunting in France, and to recommend (he was always generous in advancing the careers of others) a self-taught village boy who has translated the whole of Homer into ‘wonderful Cretan rhyming couplets, taking just about the same time over it as Pope in his villa at Twickenham’.

Paddy was the best companion. Once, when he was already well into his seventies, we had him to dinner in London. As he was reciting a comic poem, his chair leg snapped. we were horrified that our furniture might have done for him, but Paddy managed an athletic parachute roll and ended up in the corner of the room with his back against the wall, laughing like a boy.

From the Spectator

Getting it right and that Taki article

I have to admit that there have been times over the last two years, when, running two blogs, I have either clearly been wrong to publish something, or I have posted an article that has created significant controversy and I subsequently wished I had not done so.

Life is always easy if one takes the uncontroversial path. I dare not mention the post I had in mind a year or so ago with the working title “Patrick Leigh Fermor: the Court Jester?” which was sparked by an interesting series of conversations and impressions I gained from reading ‘In Tearing Haste’. Whilst remaining an ardent admirer of Paddy, it would be wrong to say that he was a saint and beyond criticism. Few of us are.

Which brings me neatly to Taki, and the article that I posted last week entitled ‘Better a Hero Than a Celebrity’. Clearly Taki believes that he himself is beloved by all and can say and write what he wishes without fear of recrimination. He has a very old and a very thick skin. The article has sparked some significant debate in the comment section and I think it is worth bringing this to the attention of a wider audience for it sheds some light on Taki’s character and addresses some of the inaccuracies that I warn of in the introduction.

However, I stand by my response to the first comment which was as follows. Taki Theodoracopulos has had a place in European society over the last fifty years or so. Some may not like him, but clearly he has a role in commenting on the lives and loves of celebrities, which today appears to be of greater importance than the state of European banks and the future of the Euro; it is very big business. In fact Taki was one of the first ‘gossip columnists’. Whatever the inaccuracies of his article it meets the criteria of this blog. It is about Paddy and does possibly bring some new perspectives. This blog is fundamentally an archive of all on-line material about Paddy, and therefore the article stays.

I think it would be useful to all to highlight the points discussed in the Comments section, particularly the major error Taki made in stating that Paddy had killed Albert Fenske, the driver of General Kreipe’s car. Paddy had nothing to do with his death which was against orders and not at all part of the plan. Additionally the story about Paddy witnessing the death of the last German commanding General of Crete is pure fiction; it just did not happen like that.

So what is the moral of this tale? Yes, I would like it to be all sweetness and light, but you can’t please all the people all of the time. Let’s keep up the debate and remember I am more than willing to take in and publish articles that you have found or have written yourself.

Here are the comments up to this evening …..

From Chris Lawson:

“Known to the cognoscenti as Taki Takealotofcokeupthenose, Theodoracopulos is a man for whom the word “snob” might have been invented. Note the casual dropping of Agnelli’s name into his piece and Taki’s snide comments on Dirk Bogarde. It is NOT true that Paddy killed the driver of Kreipe’s car. Apart from the story of the execution of Kreipe’s successor (Name, details of crimes? Doesn’t mean Kreipe’s predecessor?), this brings nothing new to the saga of Paddy’s life. I would respectfully request that you remove the piece.”

My reply:

“No Chris – I don’t do censorship. Your comment can stand as a beacon to my error in posting it. However, Taki has a place in society over the last 50 years and this blog is a repository about Paddy. It stays.”

Chris Lawson responds:

“Fine by me. Of course it was not an error posting it and I agree entirely and whole-heartedly about what you say about censorship. Yes, Taki certainly has a place in the cultural pantheon de nos jours, and my thoughts are just the latest in a stream of negative comments directed at the former inmate of H.M. prisons. Whatever else one has to say about the gent, he is certainly one of life’s great survivors.”

Tim Todd (who runs the Il Met by Moonlight site and is an expert on the operation) interjected:

“That Taki could be so fundamentally wrong about the death of Albert Fenske, Kreipe’s driver, tells me much about the appropriately named Taki.

I believe that Fenske’s death, at the hands of two of his Cretan andartes and contrary to instructions, caused Paddy no end of personal grief, perhaps second only to the accidental shooting of his Cretan friend. I once listened to Paddy talk about this latter incident when, in the mountains after a cadet’s exercise, he failed to check his rifle before cleaning it when it was returned to him. I have to tell you he was still mortified by the whole business and sixty odd years on he was still visibly upset by it. Tom our webmaster and I, know from the best of sources that Fenske’s death was much regretted by Paddy. My own feeling is that but for that we might have seen Paddy’s own account of the abduction published.

I am thoroughly disappointed that anyone claiming to know the man would dare suggest Fenske died at Paddy’s hand. Paddy, perhaps the most honourable man I have ever met, would though have accepted responsibility for anything that may have happened under his command. He was that sort of man.

It is perhaps as well that Tom has published Taki’s piece for it provides an opportunity to compare the two and set the record straight.

I am pleased to say that, through Annette Windgass, Fenske’s family have recently been made aware of Paddy’s great sadness of that particular outcome of the operation.”

 Chris Lawson gave us some more about the story of the General’s death:

“On the General who succeeded Kreipe, and two predecessors

The Commandant of Crete, appointed on 1 May 1944 after Kreipe’s kidnapping, was Generalleutnant Helmut Friebe, Commander of the LXIV Armeekorps. He was captured by the Americans in May 1945 and released in 1947.

Two former commanders of Crete were tried and executed in Athens on 20 May 1947, the anniversary of the German invasion of Crete. One was the bloodsoaked Friedrich-Wilhelm Mueller, who was to have been the original target for the kidnapping until he was replaced by Kreipe. Mueller had a reputation for brutality and numerous atrocities were committed under his regime.

The other was General Bruno Bauer, a paratroop officer, who was appointed in 1942, replacing General Alexander Andrae. Bauer had gained the reputation of being hard and fair, and the “most humane commander” of Crete. Antony Beevor describes him as truly unfortunate, as he was executed for crimes “committed under another general”. Three years later the Association of Former German Paratroopers requested that his remains be returned to Crete. George Psychoundakis, resistance fighter and author of the Cretan Runner (already much-mentioned by Tom), reburied his remains.

Taki’s fourth paragraph is a complete fantasy.”

George joined the argument:

“The only readable part of Taki’s remembrance (sic ) is the last sentence, horrible in its clarity and even worse that it is written by someone whose trotters are deep in that particular trough.

His comments however, are an excellent example of the sponger’s wiles. The mildly mocking comment by Agnelli, humbly repeated to establish the writer’s honesty, while at the same time making it clear that the writer enjoys the same societal position.

Then the personal revelations as told uniquely to Taki, and no other. Who is to say it did not happen? Taki’s favourite method of asserting inside knowledge always has been to quote the ‘ confidences ‘ of dead people.

The lustrously depicted tale of an unrepentant Nazi Officer going blithely to his death comes straight out of ‘Boys Own ‘.

Next we have the gay bitchiness in his description of PLF’s relationship with his wife. Once again the vampire straddles an innocent’s grave seeking the lifeblood of fame by association.

Chris Lawson ( thank you ) marshalled all the necessary facts to give the lie to Taki’s comments. He was probably as irked by them as I was.”

Tim Todd concludes it all: 

“Inaccurate accounts of historical events, for personal vanity, or a film-makers preference for ‘a story’ over fact, infuriate me. This is especially so when such accounts may subsequently become part of history for those without inquiring minds. Last week saw the release of a new video by National Geographic half of which was about the abduction of Kreipe. It is appallingly bad and inaccuracies abound. I am so glad that some colleagues of mine and I, who know a thing or two (but not all) about the abduction, rejected the film makers request to assist them for it has turned out every bit as bad as we feared. Having read some of Paddy’s comments about Ill Met By Moonlight, I can imagine what he might of thought of the latest misrepresentation.”

… and you say ….??

The Carpathian Snail

Patrick Leigh Fermor...British soldier and travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, 25th April 1966.

Paddy Leigh Fermor (obituary) was a man of many dimensions. He had an unquenchable curiosity about people and culture; when he met remote groups, be they Saxons in Transylvania, Vlachs in northern Greece or gypsies in Hungary, he would not just learn their language and song but remember it for the rest of his life. At Paddy’s last birthday party in London, William Blacker quoted two lines of a Romanian ballad in a speech about him; at the age of 96 Paddy sang the song in its entirety. There seemed no occasion at which he could not enliven the party by an adroit performance, or reminisce in half a dozen European languages.

by Patrick Reade.

First published in The Independent, 14 June 2011

For me it always involved a meal: the conversation would come to a point when there would an extraordinary outpouring of remembered verse or prose. He sang “Do you ken John Peel” in Italian once over tea in Dumbleton to entertain us – the verses were far more numerous than I had realised. And Peter Quennell told me many years ago of how Paddy pulled out of his memory an entire landscape of Cretan folk songs as they walked in the Abruzzi. He was known in Greece for his spontaneous ability to respond instantly to another table’s rhyming couplets – mandinathes, a feature of traditional party entertainment in which tables would compete for wit and content in the couplets.

His ear for language never failed him and he was interested in etymology, linguistics and semantics till the very end, correcting my own misattribution of medical terminology from Latin to Greek and then reciting in Ancient Greek the moment in Homer’s Iliad when Troy fell to the Greeks. He loved laughter, too, and in the Dean’s Close at Canterbury I heard him performing an entertaining parody of a John Betjeman poem in the garden where Thomas à Beckett’s assassins escaped. He had just been awarded an honorary degree by Kent University in the Cathedral and we were having tea with Jock Murray, his publisher.

He was the most generous person in spirit and in kind – he must have entertained thousands in his home in the Mani in southern Greece over many years – the names tumble out of the Dictionary of British Biography: academics, politicians and myriad writers, journalists and scholars, all ate at his table. He and his wife Joan were also extremely generous where they saw need and gave with an open hand.

Until last year he swam daily from his house, and swam across the Hellespont at the age of 70 – an astonishing feat, dodging the great liners from the Black Sea and coping with the current and the cold water and the Russian submarines beneath the surface.

On 1 June this year, 10 days before his death, he gave a small lunch party in the cool, stone-arched loggia of his home in Messenia and in the course of conversation we discussed our favourite 16th century pieces of poetry; he declaimed Sir Thomas Wyatt’s entire poem “They flee from me that sometime did me seek”.

For many he will be remembered for his correspondence as much as for his books – because by any reckoning he was a fabulous letter writer and responded to almost all who communicated with him until last year. From my first remembered encounter with him in 1961 when he pressed 12 shillings into my hand, until 50 years later, when he raised his wine glass to absent friends over lunch on the anniversary of Joan’s death, I can say that no other person I have encountered has shown such an embrace of laughter, learning, language and life as this towering genius of word and action. The great memorial will be his writing and a great excitement is that the third part of his trilogy about crossing Europe is due soon – I have seen it, and many have waited years for this crafted reminiscence so long in gestation, about which Paddy in self-mockery called himself “The Carpathian Snail”.

Event – Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Appreciation by Alexander Maitland, FRGS

A series of afternoon talks based on the Society’s Collections from 2.30-4.00 pm. This series of Collections-specific, monthly afternoon talks, given by speakers who have used the Collections to inspire their writing, travel or personal researches, intended to kindle interest from members and non-members alike in using our rich resources for their own projects.

Tickets: free to RGS-IBG members and educational users. Non-members: £5 payable in advance. Venue: Education Centre, Lowther Lodge.

Pre-booking required: Telephone: 020 7591 3044 Email: showcase@rgs.org

When: Mon 31 October 14:30 – 16:00 London

Where: Education Centre, Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) 1 Kensington Gore London SW7 2AR (map). Exhibition Road entrance.

More details here.

There are approximately 60 tickets left … see you there!

The troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear

Paddy in Greece photographed by Joan

Don’t you feel like me that with the passing of Paddy as one of the last of his generation we have clearly entered a new age dominated by uncertainty; a lack of confidence in the values we once held as unquestionably true? These beliefs that bound us (in the West?) together for the latter part of the twentieth century are now unravelling at an ever-increasing pace. As we enter the End Game of the economic crisis, and as the decade of The Forever War rumbles on like the noise of a busy road in the middle distance – there only when we take the trouble to notice – we suffer a dearth of leadership and heroes of substance. Paddy and those of his generation had no such crisis of confidence; they served without question. They sacrificed themselves for the things they believed in, and they provided the leadership, entrepreneurship, creativity, and wisdom that helped rebuild Europe after almost half a century of ethnic and social strife, and destructive war. Maybe they also share some blame for the way things turned out, but who will step up now?

In this considered profile, which prompted my rambling reflection, Paddy’s good friend Colin Thubron assesses his contribution, not as a warrior, but as a writer, and I think for the first time, reveals the torment of Paddy’s troubling writer’s block towards the end of his life.

by Colin Thubron

First published in the New York Review of Books, Volume 58, Number 14

When Patrick Leigh Fermor died in June at the age of ninety-six, it seemed as if an era had come to an end. He was the last of a generation of warrior–travel writers that included the Arabian explorer Wilfred Thesiger, the controversial mystic Laurens van der Post, and the indefatigable Norman Lewis of Naples ‘44. Among these, Leigh Fermor shines with the élan and the effortlessly cultured glow of an apparent golden age. A war hero of polymathic exuberance, brilliant linguistic skills, and an elephantine memory, he was sometimes fancifully compared to Lord Byron or Sir Philip Sydney.

Two pairs of books came to exemplify his achievement. The first pair—Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966)—celebrated the Greece that held his abiding fascination and where he lived for forty-five years on a once-wild promontory in the Peloponnese. In Mani, especially, he described this backwater region as a world whose way of life had survived in a fierce and enchanted time warp.

The land he depicted is barely recognizable now—tourism, he observed, destroys the object it loves—but it was less the Greece of classical antiquity that beguiled him than the spirit and folk culture of the hinterland: the earthy, demotic Romiosyne that he once contrasted with the Hellenic ideal in a playful balance sheet of the country’s character.

In these, and in later books, the style was the man: robustly imaginative, cultivated without pedantry, unstoppably digressive, forgivably swanky, and filled with infectious learning. The impression—overflowing into elaborate footnotes and flights of learned fantasy—is one of omnivorous delight in the quirks and byways of history, art, language, genealogy, myth, song, superstition, costume, heraldry, and everything else that struck his fancy.

His literary models were Norman Douglas and Robert Byron, but his writing was more vivid than the one, more kindly than the other. Despite the richness of his prose (occasionally slipping into purple) he forged an illusion of intimacy with his readers, as if they were sharing his mind in the moment of writing. But in fact his manuscripts were worked, reworked, and reworked again with such painstaking perfectionism that his publisher (the benign Jock Murray) often had to reset his galley proofs wholesale. The apparently natural flow of words was in reality a densely worked choreography, which came at cost.

Fifteen years ago, swimming in the Ionian Sea beneath his home, where nobody could overhear us, Paddy (as friends and fans called him) suddenly confessed to me the writer’s block that would plague the rest of his life. The expectations of a now-avid public, and his own obsessive perfectionism, were taking their toll, and he could not overleap this cruel impediment.

I remember him strong into old age. He swam every morning, with a sturdy breaststroke far out to sea, the tattoo of a twin-tailed mermaid glistening on his shoulder. He still kept up a striding march in the Taygetus foothills, where he and his wife Joan had designed their own house above the ocean. It was a place of “mad splendor,” he wrote. Its sitting-room library—bookshelves banked nine feet high—opened onto a vista of cypresses and the Messenian Gulf, and was flagged with the greenish stone of Mount Pelion. In the afternoon Paddy would disappear into his study to confront—or escape—the demons of his failed writing, and would emerge to the liberation of ouzo or whiskey, generally to report some arcane piece of research—that the Huns wore stitched field-mouse skins, perhaps—or to share a passage of Ovid. We dined in the monastic half-cloister he had built beside his home, and once we visited the tiny, red-tiled Byzantine chapel where—five years before—he had buried the ashes of Bruce Chatwin.

The conflict between a natural gregariousness and the solitude of writing never quite resolved for him. In a short, intriguing study named A Time to Keep Silence (1953) he recorded his sojourn in three great French monasteries. He described this retreat not as a religious exercise, but as a need for a haven for writing, and the nature of its cleansing—”the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear”—remains suspended like a question mark in the oeuvre of a man to whom self-revelation seemed indulgence.

The second pair of books, which established Paddy’s primacy among travel writers, must be among the most extraordinary ever written. In 1933, as a youth of eighteen, he left England for a journey that would take a year and a half. As “a thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly,” he set out to walk to Constantinople (as he nostalgically called Istanbul). Walking stick in hand, a copy of Horace’s Odes in his rucksack, he pursued a meandering course up the Rhine and down the Danube, across the Great Hungarian Plain, into Romania and through the Balkans to Turkey.

It was almost forty-five years before he published the first part of this journey, and another nine years before the second. A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) represent prodigious feats of memory. They record the rite of passage of a precocious, exuberant young man as he encounters the peoples and languages of a Middle Europe now littered with obsolete names: Bohemia, Transylvania, Wallachia. His story must have become the dream journey of every enterprising and footloose adolescent.

Inevitably the accuracy of Paddy’s memory was questioned, and he was frank about occasional imaginative license and conflation. (His first diary was stolen in Munich, a solitary last one recovered years later in Romania.) Certainly his recall was extraordinary. I remember the first time we met (by chance), when he quoted verbatim from my first book passages that I had myself forgotten. A year before his death we chanted verses from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám together in an antiphonal competition (which he won).

His urge to describe his epic journey more than forty years after its end was a deeply natural one. He was revisiting his youthful persona with the judgment and knowledge of maturity; yet in a sense he had remained unchanged. Despite his sophisticated learning, he retained an almost boyish innocence, as if the troubles of the modern age had bypassed him. In the Peloponnese, where he settled to live in the 1960s, he had remained in thrall to a more ancient, rooted culture than that of the urban West.

The final volume of his proposed trilogy—carrying its author through the Balkans and down the Black Sea coast to Turkey—became his tormenting and elusive project for the next quarter- century, and was never completed. Some near-finished version, however, survives him, and will eventually be published.

With his youthful trek done, Leigh Fermor’s career took off into near fable. Caught up in Greek unrest, he joined in a triumphal royalist cavalry charge against wilting Venizelist rebels. In Athens he fell in love with the artist Princess Balasha Cantacuzene, twelve years older than him, and lived with her in Moldavia for over two years, before World War II recalled him to London.

As a fluent Greek speaker he was recruited by the Intelligence Corps, and sent as a liaison officer with the Greek army first to Albania and finally to Crete, where he survived the brutal German invasion. For almost two years, while an officer in the Special Operations Executive, he lived disguised as a shepherd in the Cretan mountains, organizing the gathering of intelligence.

Then, in 1944, occurred the exploit that—more than any other—was to burnish him into legend. He and his fellow SOE officer Stanley Moss dreamed up a scheme of harebrained bravado. Dressed in stolen German uniforms, with a party of Cretan guerrillas, they ambushed the car of General Heinrich Kreipe, the German commander of occupied Crete, kidnapped him, and concealed him under the back seat. Moss took the wheel, Paddy donned the general’s cap, and together they drove through twenty-two checkpoints to emerge on the far side of Herakleion and march Kreipe for three weeks over the mountains, to be picked up by motor launch and taken to Egypt.

It was during this hazardous Cretan march, as the dawn broke over Mount Ida, mythical birthplace of Zeus, that the abducted general began to murmur a verse of Horace: Vides ut alta stet nive candidum/Soracte….1 It was an ode that Paddy knew by heart, and he completed the six stanzas to their end. “The general’s blue eyes had swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine,” Paddy later wrote,

—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.

This precocious kidnapping was later reimagined in a lackluster movie named Ill Met by Moonlight (1957) with Dirk Bogarde playing Paddy. But there were other exploits too. Paddy had already engineered the defection of the Italian General Angelico Carta from Crete; and he was due to undertake a near-suicidal mission to Colditz when the war ended.

His upbeat account of these events was tempered by regret. He had planned that the abduction of Kreipe be bloodless, but his accompanying Cretan partisans slit the chauffeur’s throat, and rumors of grim German reprisals for the abduction have never quite died down. Above all, Paddy’s accidental shooting of one of his fellow guerrillas may have stained his memory of the whole period.

On June 16 Leigh Fermor was buried back in the English countryside, attended by an Intelligence Corps guard of honor, to lie beside his wife Joan, his dear comrade since 1946. This was, in a sense, fitting. For in certain ways he was exemplary of a wartime Englishness now almost gone, whose more dashing qualities merged seamlessly into the hardy stylishness of Greek leventéa.

To those who knew him, his books are hauntingly redolent of his sensibility. His conversation was irrepressibly warm and inventive far into old age, moving from arcane anecdotes to fanciful wordplay or bursting into polyglot song (sometimes singing the lyrics backward). His friends ranged from Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire—last of the six legendary Mitford sisters (his correspondence with her was published in 20082)—to early acquaintance with a raffish interwar bohemia and his own great predecessor, the travel writer and aesthete Robert Byron, whose borrowed rucksack he bore across Central Europe as a youth.

Almost the last time I met Paddy, he had returned home after an operation for suspected cancer, and I feared he would be depleted, his old zest gone. He was growing deaf, and he suffered from tunnel vision (which he called Simplonitis). For a while, sitting over lunch, he seemed subdued. Then something struck him. He perked up, and said: “You know, there is an apple lying on a table in the hall. It’s been there all weekend. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if it cocked a snook at Newton, and simply took off into the air!”

This was typical of his boyish resilience. In the field of travel he evoked both the youthful wanderer who discovers another world and the avid scholar who melds with it. His prose was too rich and elaborate to be a safe influence on others (although a few have tried); but he brought to the genre not only the distinction of his densely brilliant books, but his innate dignity, ebullient mind, and capacious heart.

  1. 1″See Mount Soracte white with snow….”
  2. 2The correspondence, In Tearing Haste , edited by Charlotte Mosley, was published in the US by New York Review Books (2010), which has also republished the other books by Patrick Leigh Fermor mentioned in this article, as well as The Traveller’s Tree .

Fermor the Magnificent

Moss, Kreipe and Paddy

By Jeremy Bernstein

First published in the Los Angeles Times. January 18, 1998

Here is the scene: The time is late April of 1944. The place is near the summit of Mt. Ida, the highest mountain on Crete. There is still snow. Gathered are five Cretans, fully mustached and heavily armed. Three other men wear German uniforms. This is deceptive: Two of them are British officers (commandos). The third, however, is something else. If you are very familiar with German military uniforms, you will see from pictures of the group that he is a general. In these photographs he is not looking at the camera. He does not smile. It is little wonder. His name is Karl Kreipe. He was, until he was kidnapped two days before, the commanding general of the German occupation forces on Crete. He was due to be promoted to lieutenant general yesterday. German patrols are looking for him.

As dawn breaks over Mt. Ida, he murmurs to himself:

Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte
(“Do you not see how Soracte is shining”)….

Then, surprisingly, one of the British officers continues,

nec jam sustineant onus
Silvae laborantes, geluque
Flumina constiterint acuto

(“beneath a heavy covering of snow, and how
The laboring trees can no longer hold up their burden,
And how the rivers are frozen by the sharp cold?”).

(Translation of the Latin was provided by Professor W.C. Dowling of Rutgers University.)

The officer continues through the next five stanzas to the end of Horace’s Soracte ode. Many years later, he wrote, “The general’s blue eyes had swiveled away from the mountaintop to my own — 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 from the same fountains long before, and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

Readers of this anecdote may divide into two groups: both, in my view, equally fortunate. A few of you will recognize this scene as one of the mosaic tiles out of which Patrick Leigh Fermor’s (the British major was he) magnificent travel book “A Time of Gifts” was composed. (Readers intrigued by this passing anecdote who want to know more about what was one of the most daring exploits of World War II will enjoy reading “Ill Met by Moonlight” by W. Stanley Moss — he was the other British officer — George G. Harrap & Co.: London, 1950, as well as “Crete: The Battle and the Resistance” by Antony Beevor, Penguin Books: New York, 1991. Both books have photographs.) You are fortunate readers because you have discovered this marvelous author. But those of you who have not discovered him are also fortunate: When you do, you will have in front of you hours of enormous pleasure and satisfaction. I should confess that, until a few years ago, I had never heard of Fermor either. But in the fall of 1993, I went on a bicycle trip around Crete. Looking for something to read, I found “A Time of Gifts” in a local bookstore. I glanced through the first few pages and decided there and then that I would try to read everything the man ever wrote.

While all of Fermor’s books (there are not that many, only half a dozen or so by my count) are autobiographical, he has never written an autobiography. Nor, as far as I can determine, has anyone written his biography. The best one can do is to snatch fragments from his own books and from books written by people who came across him in passing. Constructing a person’s life this way, especially the life of a man like Fermor, is like trying to cross a rapidly flowing stream by hopping from rock to rock. There are lacunae for which I simply cannot account. What, for example, was he doing living in a vast Romanian country house near the Russian border for about two years just before the war? And later, how did he come to spend an almost equal amount of time in the Caribbean: an experience that resulted in the first of his travel books, “The Traveller’s Tree”? Moreover, why was that book actually written in two monasteries in France where Fermor was a resident visitor? This experience resulted in a gem of a short book, “A Time to Keep Silence,” which, he informs us, began as letters written from the monasteries to the woman who was to become his wife. We are told nothing more about her, not even her name. Why, I don’t know. But here, at least, are a few of the steppingstones in his life.

Fermor, whom friends apparently call “Paddy,” was born on Feb. 11, 1915, in London. As he wrote in an introductory letter to Xan Fielding (one of his fellow clandestine officers on Crete who was responsible for the west of the island, while Fermor was responsible for the east) in “A Time of Gifts”: “In the second year of World War I, soon after I was born, my mother and sister sailed away to India (where my father was a servant of the Indian Government) he directed the Geological Survey of India, and I was left behind so that one of us might survive if the ship were sunk by a submarine.” Fermor was deposited with a country family which “left a memory of complete and unalloyed bliss.” But, he continued, “when my mother and sister got back at last, I rushed several fields away and fought off their advances in gruff Northhamptonshire tones; and they understood they had a small savage on their hands, and not a friendly one.” Taken in hand, he was sent to a series of schools, all of which “ended in uniform catastrophe.” He explained: “Harmless in appearance, more presentable by now and of refreshingly unconstricted address, I would earn excellent opinions at first. But as soon as early influences began to tell, these short-lived virtues must have seemed a cruel Fauntleroy veneer, cynically assumed to mask the Charles Addams fiend that lurked beneath: It coloured with an even darker tinct the sum of misdeeds which soon began heaping up. When I catch a glimpse of similar children today, I am transfixed with fellow-feelings, and with dread.”

By this time, his mother and father had separated, and in locus parentis he was sent to two psychiatrists, one of whom he later found out had treated Virginia Woolf. This was followed by a stay at a cramming institution where he prepared himself for the examination to get into a public school, in this case, King’s School, Canterbury. His tenure at King’s School was abruptly terminated when he was discovered holding hands with the daughter of a local green grocer ” in the back-shop on upturned apple baskets.” He notes that his house master’s penultimate report remarked that he had made “some attempts at improvement but more to avoid detection. He is a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness which makes one anxious about his influence on other boys.”

While this is not necessarily an ideal recommendation for getting into a university, it does nicely for the army, Fermor’s next goal. Somehow he managed to winkle a decent letter to Sandhurst, the British West Point. The only obstacle was obtaining what was known as the school certificate (which I suppose was something like a GED), a high school degree for people who did not actually finish high school. To this end, he was sent at the age of 17 to London to live and work with a tutor. All went well, and he managed to pass the London certificate. But then the scheme came unglued. He lost interest in the army. He began to write poetry and to hang out with a Bohemian group of “Bright Young People” of whom he was the youngest. Then at 18, he had a perfectly lunar idea. He would walk (walk!) from Holland to Istanbul. As he wrote to Fielding: “I would travel on foot, sleep in hayricks in the summer, shelter in barns when it was raining or snowing and only consort with peasants and tramps. If I lived on bread and cheese and apples, jogging along on fifty pounds a year supplied by his father and supplemented by a £15 loan from the father of a school friend … there would even be some cash left over for paper and pencils and an occasional mug of beer. A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!” Something to write about, indeed — except that it would happen 40 years later! The first volume of the triptych describing this incredible 18-month journey, “A Time of Gifts,” appeared in 1977; the second, “Between the Woods and the Water” in 1986; we still await the third.

What makes a great writer? I find this as difficult to characterize as trying to characterize what makes a woman beautiful. In both cases, it is something we feel in our guts. One thing, it seems to me, that great writers have in common is an obsessive love of language: words, words, words. In Fermor’s case, it was a love for all languages. When he left England in 1933 for his walk, Fermor had, it appears, schoolboy French and some Latin and classical Greek. By the time he enlisted in the Irish guards in 1939, the Latin had turned into Romanian and the classical Greek into modern Greek of sufficient fluency so that he could pass for a Cretan shepherd during the three years that he was in the resistance. In addition, he had acquired enough German so that after Gen. Kreipe was abducted, he could pass for a German soldier when they drove the general’s car, with him in it, past the sentries who were guarding the complex in which he lived.

But that is not all. Everywhere he went he absorbed languages. Here is a passage from “Between the Woods and the Water,” in which Fermor has come upon a strange enclave of Orthodox Jewish woodcutters high in the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania. He was as taken in by them as he was taken in by nearly everyone he encountered. They were curious about him and he about them, although they were initially wary of such an odd visitor. Then, he wrote, “everything took a different turn when scripture cropped up. The book in front of the Rabbi was the Torah, or part of it, printed in dense Hebrew black-letter that was irresistible to someone with a passion for alphabets; especially these particular letters, with their aura of magic. Laboriously I could phonetically decipher the sounds of some of the simpler words, without a glimmer of their meanings, of course, and this sign of interest gave pleasure. I showed them some of the words I had copied down in Bratislava Fermor kept diaries and this one miraculously reappeared after the war, sent by the people with whom he had left it on the continent from shops and Jewish newspapers in cafes, and the meanings, which I had forgotten, made them laugh; those biblical symbols recommended a stall for repairing umbrellas, or ‘Daniel Kisch, Koscher Wuerst und Salami.’ How did the Song of Miriam sound in the original and the Song of Deborah; David’s lament for Absolom; and the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valley? The moment it became clear, through my clumsy translations into German, which passage I was trying to convey, the Rabbi at once began to recite, often accompanied by his sons. Our eyes were alight; it was like a marvelous game. Next came the rivers of Babylon, and the harps hanging on willows: This they uttered in unfaltering unison, and when they came to ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,’ the moment was extremely solemn. In the back of my diary are a few lines in Hebrew, utterly indecipherable to me; and underneath them are the phonetic sounds I took down from his recitation of them.”

And Fermor continues: “By this time the otherworldly Rabbi and his sons and I were excited. Enthusiasm ran high. These passages, so famous in England, were doubly charged with meaning for them, and their emotion was infectious. They seemed astonished — touched too — that their tribal poetry enjoyed such glory and affection in the outside world; utterly cut off, I think they had no inkling of this. A feeling of great warmth and delight had sprung up and the Rabbi kept polishing his glasses, not for use, but out of enjoyment and nervous energy, and his brother surveyed us with benevolent amusement. It got dark while we sat at the table, and when he took off the glass chimney to light the paraffin lamp, three pairs of spectacles flashed. If it had been Friday night, the Rabbi said, they would have asked me to light it; he explained about the shabbas goy. This was the Sabbath-gentile whom well-off Jews — ‘not like us’ — employed in their houses to light fires and lamps and tie and untie knots or perform the many tasks the Law forbids on the Seventh Day. I said I was sorry it was only Thursday (the Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday) as I could have made myself useful for a change. We said good night with laughter.” Considering the kind of world war he would fight (after his tour of duty in Crete, Fermor joined an airborne reconnaissance force that considered rescuing prisoners from a concentration camp just before the war ended), he knew, as well as anybody, what the fate of these woodcutters must have been. Part of the beauty of his writing is that here, and elsewhere, he allows us to fill in this blank for ourselves. We read these books knowing, as he does, that the world he is describing no longer exists. There is no need for him to tell us.

As Fermor wrote in his letter to Fielding, his original intention had been to walk across Europe, sleeping in hayricks and barns. It didn’t quite work out that way: He often slept in castles and mansions and, sometimes, instead of walking, he rode horses and fast motor cars or sailed on barges. It is clear that he was, and is, a man of extraordinary charm. A photograph of him taken in 1943 in Crete would pass for the photograph of a film star. His army contemporaries describe him as being Byronic. I am not sure what that means, except that at one point he seems to have swum the Hellespont. On his walk he made friends with nearly everyone he met. Some were Central European nobility with wonderful castles and libraries that he haunted. There were Gypsies and shepherds. There was a family of Czech acrobats he encountered in Vienna when he was trying to supplement his pound-a-week allowance with sketches in pencil. He couldn’t sell them a sketch, but they ended up giving him an autographed picture of themselves, which he kept as a remembrance. All of this is described in a language that is so rich and precise that, after reading a few pages, one shakes one’s head in wonder. (Reading Nabokov has the same effect on me.) If you are a writer, you either want to rush to your laptop or jump out of a window.

After his sojourns in the Caribbean and France, Fermor chose Greece as his permanent home. He lives, it says on the jackets of his books, in a house he designed and built himself. He has written two wonderful books about Greece, “Mani” and “Roumeli.” He ends “Roumeli” with a prose poem based on Greek place names. Here is a small part of it:

Chalcis is the flurry of the tide, Naxos the boxwood click of a rosary muffled by a nun’s skirt; Ossa is a giant’s tread, Pelion the beat of centaurs’ hoofs through glades of chestnut, Tempe a susurrus of plane trees, and Rhodes a flutter of moths.

Santorini zigzags to the sky at dawn like a lark singing but dies at sunset with the Dies Irae. Komotini is a muezzin’s call, Patmos the faraway trumpets of the Apocalypse.

The Dodacenese is a sea-song by twelve sponge-fishers, Antikythera a mermaid forsaken; Skopelos, a lobster’s and Poros, a mock-turtle’s song, Aegina a tambourine.

The Sporades are the sea’s whispers through olive trees.

And Patrick Leigh Fermor is a treasure and delight.