Category Archives: Dashing for the Post

Persian princes and twelve cadillacs

Paddy sent this letter to Deborah Devonshire in October 1960, having completed a road trip through the Balkans. Read more of their letters in Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Darling Debo,

Off we set in Joan’s Sunbeam Rapier, hood down, singing at the wheel, heading from Le Touquet to our old friend Lady Smart’s, spent three days there, then into a deserted dusty summer Paris, so bare that it might have been emptied by a Bedouin raid, and south to Fontainebleau, for a further three days of utmost luxury and pleasure at your old pal Charles de Noailles and Natalie’s house … Then off hot wheel eastwards to Chatillon-sur-Marne, to see the Vix Vase, a huge Greco-Etruscan amphora dug up seven years ago …

Then across the Rhine, through the Black Forest, one night on the shores of Lake Constance surrounded by Germans; south into the Austrian Tyrol, on into Italy at Bolzano, then clean through the Dolomites, hundreds of miles of sheer and dizzy spikes a-gush with streams out of which beautiful trout virtually leap straight on to frying pan, grill and saucepan; north of Venice into Yugoslavia at last; through Slovenia to Lubliana, through Croatia to Zagreb, then east along a billiard table autostrada towards Belgrade. Now, a travel tip for motoring in Yugoslavia: there are only about three petrol pumps the country, and scarcely any motors. We ran out hundreds of miles from one on this autostrada in the heat of the day and settled for hours under an acacia tree … until at last a caravan of twelve Cadillacs drew up and succoured us by siphoning petrol out of their tanks. They were a party of Persian princes with their sloe-eyed princesses on the way from Claridge’s to Teheran. They partook freely of our wine flask, asked us to stay in their palaces (the competition began to look ugly) and then slipped into gear for Iran.

We continued south into wildest Bosnia, where mountains began to rise and minarets to sprout in every village, each alive with Moslem invocations intoned thrice daily. The roads became dust tracks across plains or twisty ledges of rubble little wider than eyebrows along the rims of deep gorges at the bottom of which huge rivers curled and swooped through echoing and forested ravines, with here and there an old Turkish bridge spanning them as thinly and insubstantially as a rainbow. The food became odd and wonderful, stuffed with garlic and paprika and the sunlight and our breath got stronger with every mile. So on to Sarajevo, scene of the Archduke’s murder, and, through range after range of mountains to Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian coast, a terrific medieval walled city full of renaissance palaces and belfries and winding columns and cloisters, and oysters too—huge and wonderful ones. South of this is the old kingdom of Montenegro, now part of Yugoslavia, reached after a three-hour zigzag up a sheer and cloud-topped wall of mountain, looking down on to strange rock fjords caked with water lilies and with pyramid-shaped mountains that hover on mist like the ones in Japanese pictures, and plenty of gliding storks …

Into Greek Macedonia at last, and then by familiar roads to Athens … a colossal road is being built outside, with fifty pneumatic drills, giant steel claws for rubble, hydraulic pumps, steamrollers and blasphemy. One has to talk in bellows. I have now bought some pink wax ear plugs, which makes everything even eerier. I see massed drills a-shudder, rollers a-crunch, and ten tons of broken concrete crashing from suddenly gaping steel claws all only a few yards off, and all in dead silence; lorries hurtle by as soundlessly as minnows. Meanwhile, one’s heart sounds like a steam hammer, and one’s own steps like nail-clad footfalls in a cathedral.

Published in The Paris Review

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Hanging Out with the Churchills on Aristotle Onassis’s Yacht

A letter excerpted from Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters.

By Patrick Leigh Fermor
Published in The Paris Review
December 8, 2017

To Ann Fleming
c/o Niko Ghika
Hydra

18 September 1954

Darling Annie,

Very many apologies indeed from both of us (1) for neither having answered your lovely long letter, full of exactly the sort of thing one wants to hear—it was a masterpiece, and by far the best of any ex-Hydriot so far; and (2) for being such laggards in saying ‘thank you’ for The Dynasts. It really was kind of you to remember it. Joan is now in the thick of the first vol.—the second, which is reprinting, will follow soon, your bookseller says. It arrived just as we were about to run out of books. That green detective one, The Gilded Fly, which vanished so mysteriously, miraculously materialized on the hall table yesterday!

You were missed a great deal by everyone, including the servants, who still talk affectionately of Kyria Anna. Soon after you went, I got a letter from Kisty Hesketh, introducing her brother called Rory McEwen and a pal called Mr Vyner. You probably know the former, v. good looking, and a champion guitar player it seems, and probably very nice. They both seemed wet beyond words to us, without a spark of life or curiosity, and such a total lack of conversation that each subject died after a minute’s existence. We had sixty subjects killed under us in an hour, till at last even Maurice and I were reduced to silence. Joan did her best, but most understandably subsided into a bored scowl after the first few hours.

We heaved a sigh when they vanished after two days that had seemed like a fortnight … Your fortnight, I must say, passed with the speed of a weekend. Joan saw Maurice off in Athens, another sad wrench.

Diana, JJ and Anne finally turned up on the 2nd September. The last two left four days ago and D. is still here. They were not nearly such a handful as we feared, in fact very nice and easy and resourceful, Anne painting away industriously, or wandering off independently with JJ, who gave us lots of splendid guitar playing—always stopping in time & not boring at all. I think they enjoyed it very much. Diana, who is in your old room, seems as happy as she is anywhere now, and is very easy and unfussy, enjoying everything, loos, odd food, garlic, ouzo, retsina, etc., mooching about in the port, darting off to Athens, once to see Susan Mary Patten off a caïque (but she wasn’t there), once to see the Norwiches off, returning both times laden with Embassy whisky and so on, which was gratefully lapped up. We had a very entertaining old Greek friend for last weekend, Tanty Rodocanachi, which was a great success, lots of funny stories and old world gallantry … But Diana’s presence proved a magnet for other yachts, first of all Arturo Lopez in a very sodomitical-looking craft, done up inside like the Brighton Pavilion, a mandarin’s opium den and the alcove of Madame de Pompadour. Chips was on board, le Baron Redé, a horrible French count called Castéja [Lopez-Willshaw’s son-in-law] and a few other people who looked unmitigated hell, but I didn’t quite manage to take them in during our two hours on board. We all felt a bit bumpkin-ish as we clutched our weighty cut-glass whisky goblets and perched on the edge of satin sofas. We were put down at the little restaurant down the hill, to the wonder of the assembled crowds; and the Balkan dark swallowed us up. They were off for the Cyclades and Beirut.

But this was nothing compared to five days ago, when a giant steam yacht (with an aeroplane poised for flight on the stern) belonging to Onassis came throbbing alongside. It was followed by an immense three-masted wonder ship with silk sails, miles of corridor, dozens of Impressionist paintings, baths to every cabin and regiments of stewards, belonging to his brother-in-law, Niarchos. They have made 400 million quid between the two of them, and own, after England, USA and Sweden, the largest merchant fleet in the world, all under Panamanian flags; and all, it seems, acquired in fifteen years. We only saw Niarchos, who is young, rather good looking, very drunk and tousled, not bad really. On board were Lilia Ralli, several blondes, a few of the zombie-men that always surround the immensely rich, Pam Churchill & Winston Jr. Sailing beside it was another three-masted yacht, gigantic by ordinary standards, but by comparison the sort of thing one sees inside bottles in seaside pubs. This was also Niarchos’s, a sort of annexe for overflow, soi-disant, lent to Lord Warwick, though he is plainly some kind of stooge. He looked like a Neapolitan hairdresser run to fat. We did a certain amount of drinking and social chat on the big one (spurning Lord Warwick’s cockleshell) and wandered through labyrinthine corridors gaping at the fittings. I gathered from Pam C. next morning—the focus of all eyes on the quay in pink shorts, gilt sandals and a-clank with gems—that it’s pretty good hell aboard: no sort of connecting link between all the guests, disjointed conversation, heavy banter, sumptuous but straggling meals at all hours, nobody knowing what is a test. Diana, Tanty, and the Norwiches got a lift in this to Athens (D. returning next day), and Joan and I trudged up to fried salt cod and lentils and garlic. We learnt on Diana’s return that the massed blast of our five breaths nearly blew the whole party overboard. There is something colossally depressing about contact with the very rich. What I want to know is: why the hell don’t they have more fun with their money?

Modiano’s Cyprus article was the best I have seen so far. After you left Athens, I accompanied the whole of the demonstration: oaths in front of the Unknown Warrior’s tomb, the burning of the Cyprus sedition proclamation, also of bundles of Union Jacks, cries of ‘Down with the English! Down with the Barbarians!’, then, from the steps of the University, an awful incendiary speech from the Rector that overstated the case so much (he ended with an undying curse and anathema to the English!) that nearly all the sensible Greeks feel ashamed. What a bore it is, and so foolishly unnecessary. Niko G[hika] comes back next week, but may not be able to stay on, as he is a lecturer in Athens. Joan returns sooner than me, so I’m going to keep my teeth into Hydra till the last possible moment. In spite of all the goings on, I’ve managed to keep on scribbling. I hate the idea of another uprooting and would like to stay till winter starts. Thanks again, dearest Annie, for The Dynasts, and do please write another London newsletter! Lots of love from Joan and Diana, also to Ian, and from me. All wish you were here.

Love
Paddy

Excerpted from Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters, selected and edited by Adam Sisman © 1940–2010 by the Estate of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Courtesy The New York Review Books.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters

This review of Adam Sisman’s Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters, the US version of Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor (New York Review of Books) was published on Barnes and Noble, and worth reading if only for the opening quotation.

In November 1996, a young writer named William Blacker, planning to travel to the wilds of northern Romania, wrote to Patrick Leigh Fermor for advice. Fermor, then in his seventies, replied:

Dear William — if I may make so bold —
I can’t think of anything more exciting than your imminent prospect — and well done starting in winter. (a) You have the whole world to yourself, and (b) inhabitants never take summer visitors seriously. Winter is a sort of Rite of Passage. Do take down any songs or sayings, above all descantice — spells, incantations, invocations, etc. I bet Maramures is full of them. Also, as much wolf and bear lore as possible — and remember, never drink rainwater that has collected in a bear’s footprint, however thirsty.

This jaunty note, now published in Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Life in Letters, edited by Adam Sisman, conveys so much of the “old boy,” as he himself might have put it: the generosity and enthusiasm, the arcane knowledge and irresistible wit. Fermor had by then been traveling and writing for almost six decades, and the letters gathered here span seventy peripatetic years, from 1940 to 2010. By turns gossipy, lyrical, profound, and dazzling, they carry Fermor’s voice so clearly that we seem to hear him speaking as we read. Not that we hear everything. Fermor admits to pruning his correspondence (“lots of things not for strangers’ eyes”), and Sisman has excised the more quotidian passages. Yet no letter seems incomplete. And thanks to Sisman’s astute selection and fine introductory notes, the volume’s gradually darkening mood seems to mirror Fermor’s ultimate journey from youthful exuberance to aged decline.

He began traveling in 1933 at the age of eighteen by walking from England to Constantinople, a trek that took a year and produced a trilogy — A Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and the Water (1986), and The Broken Road (2003) — that remains one of the treasures of English travel writing. Never mind that The Broken Road was unfinished at Fermor’s death in 2011 (procrastination was a lifelong affliction) or that he inserted episodes from the 1980s into his odyssey of the 1930s (an “extremely immoral procedure” charmingly justified in a letter to a Hungarian scholar). Fermor’s true sleight-of-hand is his seemingly effortless ability to conjure up a place or person with astonishing clarity — a hillside at dawn, a garrulous stranger — while simultaneously revealing a world that is centuries deep. The breadth of his scholarship, so airily present and matched only by his curiosity, compresses time. In a 1948 letter to his then-lover Joan Rayner, for example, Fermor writes, “I knew a very old woman in Athens whose father had been alive when a Stylite was living on top of one of the pillars of Olympian Zeus.” (The Stylites being ancient monastic penitents.)

No penitent himself, Fermor occasionally retreated to monasteries to write, and that otherworld is as powerfully evoked in these letters as it was in his short book A Time to Keep Silence, published in 1957. Two masterworks followed: Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966), which chronicle Fermor’s travels in Greece, the country where he spent most of his life. And where he fought. Operating undercover alongside Cretan partisans during the Nazi occupation, Fermor’s most famous mission was the abduction of General Heinrich Kriepe, with whom Fermor was reunited in 1972 for a Greek TV documentary. “Tremendous singing, and lyre-playing and Cretan dancing,” after the filming, Fermor writes to a comrade’s widow, “all ending up pretty tight, and many tears being shed for old times’ sake…After all, the old boy hadn’t managed to do any harm in Crete before his capture and I always liked him… ”

He likes most people. In Northern Ireland in 1972 he spends a pleasant hour or so drinking with an Irish Republican Army spokesman (“Three dull thuds, two streets away, of exploding bombs”) before returning to “Blighty” for a weekend at Chatsworth, seat of Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. One of the Mitford sisters, “Debo,” was a lifelong friend, (their correspondence was published in 2008), and of her homey palace Fermor writes, “it’s wonderful what forgotten knitting and a couple of seed catalogues will do for a bust of Diocletian.” His world in such moments is English to the core, with a hint of P. G. Wodehouse: all weekend larks and biffing off to the country. Indeed, many of Fermor’s acquaintances could be characters out of Thank You, Jeeves: Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, fourteenth Baron Berners; Lady Dorothy “Coote” Lygon, daughter of the seventh Earl Beauchamp, and so on. There’s Miss Crowe, a relic of British rule on Corfu, pacing her terrace, ” . . . stick in hand, only slightly stooping, and followed by a rippling wake of old and half-blind dogs.” There’s Lady Wentworth, granddaughter of Lord Byron, sporting “a gigantic and very disheveled auburn wig that looked as though made of strands from her stallions’ tails” and occupying a manor “as untidy as a barn — trunks trussed, and excitingly labelled ‘LD BYRON’S papers . . . in chalk.”

But the writer and the man revealed in these letters is no Bertie Wooster-ish dilettante. Though “never less than two years overdue” finishing a book, Fermor, we learn here, took his craft, if not himself, seriously; in one letter he identifies his literary flaws and in another speculates how screenwriting for a 1958 John Huston film might instill “lessons about concision and dexterity.” And while expert at “high-class cadging” of Italian villas and the like, he detests anything “smart” — the “revolting” Côte d’Azur, for example — and observes, after an evening on an Onassis yacht, that there is “something colossally depressing about contact with the very rich.” Fermor cannot be corralled, either by class or by place. Throughout his life, and throughout these letters, he strays. Into love affairs and across borders, enraptured by the ancient and the natural world — even when mortality looms. “We walked in the fields yesterday where we slid on the hayrick twenty years ago,” he writes in 1975 to Alexander Fielding, a constant friend since wartime. Joan Rayner, his wife and strength, drops dead in 2003 — “no pain, thank heavens, except for survivors” — and Fermor will live eight more years. In a 1948 letter to Joan, he had described waking from sleep “as easily and inevitably as the faint touch of the keel on the sand of the opposite bank.” Across the final page, that image seems to shimmer.

The Chiddingstone Castle literary festival

The festival season is rapidly approaching, and as a Kentish Man, I was interested in this one. Held in a very beautiful setting, the second Chiddingstone Castle literary festival runs over the first May bank holiday weekend, from Sunday, April 30 to Tuesday, May 2, with 22 authors appearing over three days.

The line-up is headed by Terry Waite. Joining him will be Artemis Cooper and Adam Sisman, discussing the life and writings of travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Radio 4 presenter of Saturday Live, Rev Richard Coles will give a reflective account of life as a parish priest and broadcaster.

Further details can be found here.

A lifelong search for erotic, alcoholic, intellectual and courageous diversion

Paddy at Baleni, Romania 1938

Paddy at Baleni, Romania 1938

Alerted to this by blog correspondent Brent McCunn, he asks “How can one, considering age, standing, and a lower consumption of booze incorporate this quote into ones mission statement? …he was on a lifelong search for erotic, alcoholic, intellectual and courageous diversion..

By Harry Mount

First published in the Literary Review

Anthony Powell said that John Betjeman had ‘a whim of iron’. To judge by these compulsive letters, Patrick Leigh Fermor had a pleasure-loving streak of purest titanium. From the first letter, written in 1940, soon after he joined the Irish Guards, until the last in 2010, sent when he was ninety-four, he was on a lifelong search for erotic, alcoholic, intellectual and courageous diversion. One moment he’s in Crete, meeting the partisans who helped him kidnap the Nazi general Heinrich Kreipe, his most dashing escapade. The next he’s at Chatsworth, sitting next to Camilla Parker Bowles – ‘immensely nice, non-show-off, full of charm and very funny’.

In between, it’s back to the Mani peninsula and the enchanting seaside home he and his wife, Joan, built in the mid-1960s. It was only there, in Greece, and then, in his fifties, that Leigh Fermor had a real adult home and reined in the wanderlust – and the lust. Until then, he’d continued the manic travels that began with his walk as a teenager across Europe in the 1930s. In the letters we follow him as he flits from borrowed Italian castello to French abbey to Irish castle, taking the edge off his ‘high-level cadging’ by making jokes about it. In 1949, he wrote to Joan: ‘Darling, look out for some hospitable Duca or Marchesa with a vast castle, and try and get off with him, so that he could have us both to stay.’

Leigh Fermor was less in search of luxury than entertainment. A 1954 letter to Ann Fleming skewers the super-rich aboard Stavros Niarchos’s gin palace: ‘it’s pretty good hell aboard: no sort of connecting link between all the guests, disjointed conversation, heavy banter, sumptuous but straggling meals at all hours … Why the hell don’t they have more fun with their money?’ After each of his gilded weekends, there arrives the perfectly weighted and amusing thank-you letter for the relevant duchess or Schloss-proprietor. For those in search of the model of the perfect bread-and-butter letter, look no further.

Reading these letters is like gobbling down a tray of exotically filled chocolates, with no horrible orange creams to put you off. What prevents Leigh Fermor’s eternal pleasure hunt from getting a bit sickly are two things: the undeniable bravery – and seriousness – of his war record, and his intellect. Unlike most playboys, he was an addicted reader of high-minded obscurities, among them John of Ruusbroec, a 14th-century Flemish mystic, and St Angela of Foligno, a 13th-century founder of a religious order. Hardly light holiday reading. His literary gifts were considerable and are on display in a pitch-perfect Betjeman pastiche from 1954, reprinted here: ‘Beadles and bell ropes! Pulpits and pews! … And patum peperium under the yews!’ Moreover, Leigh Fermor’s appetite for socialising extended beyond dukes and Cretan war heroes. In a coffee house in Macedonia, his interest in other people and countries is so great that he recognises all the languages being spoken: Greek, Pontian, Turkish, Bulgarian, Romanian, Ladino, Russian, Georgian and Gheg, an Albanian dialect.

Unlike most writers – a narcissistic bunch, largely – Leigh Fermor had a longing to amuse. His letters are illustrated with little drawings of maps, castles and his half-built Mani house. The letters explain what propelled this desire: ‘whorish anxieties about being liked’. Underneath the titanium, pleasure-seeking exterior and the intellect lay melancholy, sparked by the failure to complete books on time – or at all, in the case of the third volume of his self-styled ‘Great Trudge’ memoir of his 1930s walk. Ever self-aware, he refers to himself as ‘L’Escargot des Carpathes’, a nickname first coined by Le Monde. He acknowledges, too, the inevitable ‘inaccuracies of memory’, which meant that journeys that had taken place half a century earlier were sexed up in his travel writing.

He is also aware of the selfishness of the affairs he conducted with the knowledge of his future wife, Joan, even as she subsidised him from her private income. The letters to his mistresses include grippingly salacious, easily decoded euphemisms. When he thinks he might have given crabs to Ricki Huston, wife of the film director John, he writes of ‘the beginnings of troop-movements in the fork’. And here’s an entry for the 1959 Bad Sex Award: ‘Woke up at midday, longing for ping-pong, and sentimentally stroked the handle of your cast-down bat.’

You get the impression that, after he was kicked out of King’s, Canterbury for holding hands with a greengrocer’s daughter, Leigh Fermor never really grew up; that he started walking across Europe, aged eighteen, and never properly stopped. References to his mother – ‘so terrifying and destructive … so full of odd delusions and manias’ – might explain why.

Adam Sisman is a model editor. He is prepared to admit faults in his subject, not least the baroque style of Leigh Fermor’s books, ‘which can seem convoluted and overworked’. Not so the letters, aimed more precisely at amusing rather than dazzling their recipients, albeit with the odd bit of purple prose – ‘Their horses are caparisoned to the fetlocks.’

Leigh Fermor was charm personified. It isn’t evanescent British charm, as described by Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited: ‘Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art.’ Leigh Fermor’s charm was of a healthier, more worthwhile variety, because underneath lay intellect and, ultimately, love and art.

Buy Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor

How can one live as a sponger?

Yes indeed. How can one live as a sponger? Quite well apparently if Paddy’s letters are to be believed. Sara Wheeler was clearly not that impressed by Paddy the man but she does like the book.

An extract from a Guardian book review by Sara Wheeler

The late Patrick Leigh Fermor was born 11 years before Morris, and the pair have long shone among the brightest stars in the travel writing firmament. Besides Artemis Cooper’s biography, we have recently had a selection of letters between PLF and Deborah Devonshire (In Tearing Haste). This new offering, Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor, contains 174 letters spanning 70 years, from 1940 to 2010. What does it add?

When the volume opens our man is a 24-year-old officer cadet. Besides the chronological spread, the book has a geographical one, ranging from what is now Cameroon to Panama via Cyprus (Leigh Fermor devotes many fascinating pages to the 1956 Cyprus crisis). Much was written in the house the Leigh Fermors built in the 1960s in the Greek Mani.

Many characters and episodes are new. Lady Wentworth emerges wearing “a gigantic and very dishevelled auburn wig that looked as though it was made of strands from her stallions’ tails gathered off brambles”. Errol Flynn is “a tremendous shit but a very funny one”, and Leigh Fermor reports from his own groin, where he notes “troop movements in the fork” and has to tell an adulterous girlfriend that he has pubic lice. The references to Mt Athos are topical, given that Putin is buying up the holy mountain.

Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor is hugely entertaining, funny and occasionally moving. Leigh Fermor was a prodigious and discerning reader and his literary comments are a joy. He quotes in French, Greek, Latin, Romanian and Russian. As a counterweight, in almost every letter he conjures a scene, whether “a square pool of icy starlight in the cloisters” or Greece in autumn, “suddenly clean deep earth and vegetation colours after the rain, lighter veils of shadow cast by solids, evening air the colour of hock, pale magnesium shadows, clarity of vision … all the way to Mars”. Diana Cooper is one of his most regular correspondents. PLF describes her letter-writing as “dazzling hell-for-leather style” – the phrase applies to his own style just as well.

One tires of the endless references to titled friends. It undignifies the writer, almost irretrievably
Adam Sisman has edited the book brilliantly and meticulously. At times he is wittier than Leigh Fermor. The great man, the reader learns from Sisman’s note, has been commissioned to contribute a chapter to a book “with the arresting title Memorable Balls”.

Great fun it might all be, but the reader balks at the man who emerges from these pages. First, how can one live as a sponger? PLF spent most of the years covered here cadging opulent dwellings from rich friends. If the accommodation isn’t up to scratch, he complains, describing a “scribbling stopgap” on the Greek island of Evia as “hellish”. I’ve spent many weeks in that particular house. It’s lovely. But it’s small, plain and simple, so not to his maj’s liking. Second, one tires of the endless references to titled friends. It demeans the writer, almost irretrievably. The people he lives among in his Greek village, on the other hand, “are so backward they don’t know the difference between nice and nasty”.

… one is left wondering about the inner life. Leigh Fermor talks of “whorish anxieties about being liked”, as if everyone doesn’t have them, and bouts of “melancholia”. Who knows? As Morris wrote: “Is that how it was?”

Buy Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Dashing for the book: A lifetime of letters from Paddy Leigh Fermor

dashing for postWell. It is here. Almost. Coming soon!!. Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor is published on 6 October, but you can pre-order now. The long awaited anthology of Paddy’s letters to a wide circle of friends and correspondents to complement the wonderful In Tearing Haste, a volume of letters between himself and Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. Something for the Christmas list perhaps?

by Justin Marozzi

First published in the Spectator

Here is a veritable feast for fans of Paddy Leigh Fermor. This is the story of a well-lived life through letters. The first is from a 24-year-old recruit eager to do battle with the enemy in 1940. The last is by a tottering nonagenarian of 2010, still hoping, 75 years after his ‘Great Trudge’ across Europe, that he might just finish the final volume that had eluded him for decades.

The anthology offers the most vivid explanation yet for why he didn’t. Letters were flying to and from all corners of the world — Adam Sisman reckons that Paddy wrote a whopping 5,000 to 10,000. There were parties to attend, cocktails to drink, countries and castles to visit, mountains to climb, literary-historical-geographical-anthropological quests to pursue, digressions to indulge, other books and articles to write along the way.

His wide array of correspondents reflected his interest in high society, literature and the arts, history, adventure, beautiful women and Greece, as well as an enduring gift for friendship. Apart from his beloved wife Joan, Deborah Devonshire, Ann Fleming and Diana Cooper were foremost among them. Then there was George Seferis, the poet, diplomat and Nobel laureate; the artist and sculptor Niko Ghika; George Katsimbalis, the ‘Colossus’ of letters; Lawrence Durrell; wartime brother in arms Xan Fielding; his lovers Princess Balasha Cantacuzène, Lyndall Birch and Ricki Huston. A regular recipient was his long-suffering publisher Jock Murray, a man of saintly patience.

Letters to Murray typically blend jaunty descriptions of place and adventures (the summer of 1959 found him playing lord of the manor in the castle of Passerano outside Rome, preparing to fly a ‘vast heraldic banner several yards square’ from the highest tower) with anguish and apologies for the endless tarrying and non-arrival of finished manuscripts. (‘No please don’t come here yet because I simply can’t face you till I hand over the completed vol., for shame, confusion etc.’) He agreed to write a foreword to the memoirs of Prince Michel Cantacuzène-Spéranski, kinsman of his first great love Balasha from his arrival in Athens in 1935 (he was 20, she was 36). In 2007, more than a decade later, he was still writing ruefully of his inability to get it done. ‘I am deeply sorry and penitent about behaving so hopelessly.’

Portrait of a youthful Patrick Leigh Fermor in Cretan costume, by Adrian Daintrey (oil on canvas), Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

Portrait of a youthful Patrick Leigh Fermor in Cretan costume, by Adrian Daintrey (oil on canvas), Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

Generally impecunious, he charmed his way into borrowing houses from friends, from Diana Cooper’s farmhouse in Bognor to Sir Walter and Lady Smart’s manor-house in the Eure. The plan was always to write, the irresistible counterweighing temptation was for amusement and company. In 1954, he was inviting Lawrence Durrell to come and stay with him on Hydra, where he was staying in Niko Ghika’s mansion: ‘It’s the best bit of high-level cadging I’ve done for years, a real haul.’

Philhellene to the core, he was never keen on the Turks. One suspects he had never forgiven them for taking Constantinople (he couldn’t bear to call it Istanbul) in 1453. ‘I admire their undoubted stirring qualities — honesty, courage and so on — but have never managed to like them or be amused by them,’ he wrote to Freya Stark in 1953.

Luigi Barzini once likened reading Norman Lewis’s prose to ‘eating cherries’. Readers of this collection may feel the same thing. The prose is simultaneously poised and effervescent, polymathic in its dazzling range of references but never pompous. The funeral of the Duke of Devonshire in 2003, he wrote to his lifelong friend John Julius Norwich, was ‘a mixture of a vicarage garden party and the Field of the Cloth of Gold’. Hydriot girls in plastic high-heeled shoes and ‘blinding satin dresses of apple green, scarlet, royal blue and petunia… look exactly like boiled sweets’.

Though there are a few bleak times, including a letter to Colin Thubron in which he confesses to feeling ‘rather gloomy’ about not being included in a Times list of the 50 greatest writers since 1945, mostly they are banished by high spirits. He pokes fun at John Betjeman with an excruciating parody. The first verse sets the tone.

Eagle-borne spread of the Authorised Version!
Beadles and bell ropes! Pulpits and pews!
Sandwiches spread for a new excursion
And patum peperium under the yews!

And how about the impromptu limerick about a dubious cleric.

The Archbishop of Spetsai & Hydra
Condemned bestial vice ex-cathedra.
(But he rogered a bay-horse
Outside the pronaos
And a skewbald inside the exedra.)

For all his love of the great and the good, outright wealth on the grandest scale bored him. ‘There is something colossally depressing about contact with the very rich,’ he wrote after rubbing shoulders with Aristotle Onassis and Stavros Niarchos in the Aegean. ‘What I want to know is: why the hell don’t they have more fun with their money?’

Sisman has done a tremendous job selecting and editing this treasure-trove of letters. The guide to the dramatis personae and footnotes double up as a concise version of Debrett’s and pick up on literary references that would escape a lesser writer and reader.

In the last letter here, from 2010, Paddy expresses the by now familiar worry and apprehension about finishing that elusive third volume to complete the trilogy with A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, perhaps his most admired titles. He closes with the hope that ‘perhaps it will all be OK in the end’. It was.

Buy Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor