Category Archives: Profiles of Paddy

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.

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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.”