Category Archives: Other Writing

Obituary: Jock Murray

Jock Murray in 1983 (Mercer photography)

by Patrick Leigh Fermor

First published in The Independent 24 July 1993

John Arnaud Robin Grey (Jock Murray), publisher: born 23 September 1908; MBE 1945, CBE 1975; Senior Director, John Murray 1968-93; married 1939 Diana James (two sons, two daughters); died London 22 July 1993.

JOCK MURRAY took such trouble about his authors, and in so many ways, and so unobtrusively, that perhaps they – or we , for I am one of them – were inclined to take it for granted, writes Patrick Leigh Fermor. But not quite: other publishers at home or abroad – not that I know much about them as I have only had one – would remind us now and then of our luck and our spoiled and privileged estate. This was because of Jock’s passionate interest in the work of his authors, his great kindness, and his gift for friendship. Nobody, in the Doctor Johnson sense, kept his friendships in a state of better repair.

It is hard to think of a more apt setting for him than No 50 Albemarle Street, with its beautiful rooms, and portraits and books and cases of mementoes, and its mixture of archaic style and informality, of activity and unhurried leisure. The traditions of Byron’s friendship with Jock Murray’s ancestor played a great part in the life of No 50, and the poet’s spirit seems to pervade those rooms. Looking through typescript, then galleys then page proofs there with Jock was a great delight. Especially when they were tossed aside to make room for tea or sherry or whisky and soda, and Osbert Lancaster on the way back from drawing his daily caricature would wander in full of marvellous gossip; or Kenneth Clark with an armful of illustrations or John Betjeman with news of a new Early English discovery in some remote Fenland parish – could they talk about it with John Piper? (Betjeman and Jock shared an expert knowledge of campanology.)

Cannon Lodge, halfway between Hampstead Heath and a slender steeple, with its Keats’-eye view of all London, had a similar uncontemporary charm. At the end of a day of last- minute corrections, under one of the tall trees, or by a blazing fire, any of the above might come to dinner, or Freya Strak fresh from Asia Minor, Ruth Jhabvala from Rajasthan or Dervla Murphy from the Andes and, very often, Jock and Diana’s favourite neighbour, Peggy Ashcroft.

Jock and Diana came several times to Greece and it was a great surprise to discover that Jock was an accomplished tree surgeon: one glance at an ailing growth would send him shinning up into the branches and putting things most knowledgeably to right with saw, twine, bast and tar.

Five weeks ago we were talking about the ravages of time that we noticed in ourselves and he said, halfway between a sigh and a laugh, ‘Yes. Old age is not for sissies.’ He confronted his own with great Stoicism, and leaves us all diminished.

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The Phoenix Land: The Memoirs of Count Miklós Bánffy

I am just ten tantalising pages away from the end of Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy (They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided) published by Arcadia books. If I have time I will write a short review very soon.The books are lively, and Bánffy writes so well about love, life, and politics in Transylvania and Hungary in the ten years leading up to the start of World War One, an event which was to tear apart the lives of so many, and which ended the comfortable existence of Hungarian aristocracy in Transylvania.

The story will almost certainly end in tragedy and sadness but that does not deflect from from what Patrick Leigh Fermor describes in his foreward to the Trilogy as a story that is “beyond question, dramatic.”.

One cannot read these books without wanting to know more about the author whom Paddy characterises as “such a deeply civilised man.”

The good news is that very soon we shall be able to do so once more when Arcadia Books re-publish Bánffy’s memoirs “The Phoenix Land”. Due for publication on 23 June 2011 the book is already available for pre-order in bookshops such as Waterstones in the UK. Arcadia first published this in 2004 and you can read a Spectator review here.

Bánffy’s memoirs were once again translated from the Hungarian by his daughter Katalin Bánffy-Jelen and Patrick Thursfield,winners of the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize. Paddy once more offers a foreward. The blurb describes the book as follows:

The thousand year-old year-old kingdom of Hungary, which formed the major part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the last Habsburg fled in 1918, was finally dismembered by the Western Allies by the terms of the peace treaties which followed the First World War. Phoenix-like the Hungarian people survived the horrors of war, the disappointment of the first socialist republic, the disillusion of the brief but terrifying communist rule of Béla Kun, and the bitterness of seeing their beloved country dismembered by the Treaty of Trianon. This is the world that Miklós Bánffy describes in The Phoenix Land.

In preparing this post I contacted Gary Pulsifer at Arcadia for some further background and to ask him to explain more about why Bánffy is one of their authors. He sent me this, including a little vignette about Paddy and his introduction:

Tom, two reasons, one general, one specific.  The first is that Arcadia specialises in translated fiction. The second is the story and this is it:

When I worked at Peter Owen Publishers I was invited to Tangier by the Hon David Herbert, one of Peter’s authors.  He took my partner and me to lunch with his neighbour Patrick Thursfield, who as you know is the Bánffy co-translator.  After lunch Patrick gave me the manuscript of THEY WERE COUNTED, which I read while I was on holiday, and was hooked.  I tried to persuade Peter Owen to publish the trilogy, but no go, so when I started Arcadia in 1996 volume one was one of our early titles.  I became quite close to Patrick, stayed with him in Tangier and saw a lot of him in London and he even once came along to the Frankfurt book fair.  He was overjoyed when THEY WERE DIVIDED won the Weidenfeld Translation Prize (this happened at an awards ceremony in Oxford, when Umberto Eco presented the prize).

A funny aside is that Paddy’s forward was written in longhand and he came into our tiny offices to have Daniela de Groote, now our associate publisher, word-process it.  Daniela, who is Chilean, hadn’t been in the UK all that long – she had been studying for a PhD here prior to working at Arcadia – and she had some difficulties in understanding Paddy’s upper crust accent as he dictated the foreword.  Daniela was also catching a plane to Santiago that afternoon and the whole thing was a little much for her.  So much so that I had to leave the office until they were finished . . .

You may enjoy browsing the current Arcadia 2011 catalogue which is here as a pdf.

Arcadia_2011

Related articles:

Paddy’s Introduction to the Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklos Banffy

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

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

I am currently reading two books. The first is a little known series that Paddy contributed to in 1962 about which I will say more very soon. The second is volume two of Bánffy’s trilogy. I am convinced of the semi-autobiographical nature of these books and I have become obsessed with trying to find the house in Cluj of the married woman, Adrienne, who becomes the lover of the hero Balint.

There are many clues, including street names, but Bánffy has been able to mix fact and fiction, and what is more, many of the street names have been changed from the traditional Hungarian to new Romanian names since 1918. I was discussing this with one of my work colleagues in Cluj, Boglarka Ronai, and I happened to say that I was convinced that Bánffy also had a lover in Cluj, and that Adrienne’s house in the story may have been based on this woman’s house.

We are not sure about the house part, but Bánffy did indeed have a long-term lover in Cluj, and Boglarka sent me the following article about her: Baroness Elemér Bornemissza née Karola Szilvássy. Quite bizarrely it is about a cookbook that she wrote. What is interesting is how the writer of the article positions the contributors to the cookbook within the context of the decline of the Hungarian nobility of Transylvania, and in some cases this had tragic endings. It was into this world that Paddy walked in 1934 as he enjoyed his long summer in Hungary and then Transylvania. I have not had the time to cross-check, but Paddy may well have met some of the characters mentioned in the article and written about them in “Between the Woods and the Water“. Many of those mentioned in the article were writers and members of a Hungarian-Transylvanian writer’s group, the Erdélyi Helikon. In the picture below I believe Count Miklós Bánffy can be seen second right sitting on the chairs.

Photo made at the second Erdélyi Helikon meeting at Marosvécs in 1927 (Banffy seated second from right?)

Here is the article by Iván Bächer from the Hungarian Quarterly. If ayone knows any more about the story or the people involved please get in touch with me:  tsawford[at]btinternet.com

The Taste of Old Transylvania

Baroness Elemér Bornemissza: Kipróbált receptek (Proven Recipes). Edited and with an Introduction by Ildikó Marosi. Csíkszereda–Budapest, Pallas—Akadémia Könyvkiadó, 1998, 153 pp.

A friend of mine brought a heartrending cookery book from Transylvania. At first sight the slim little volume looked ordinary enough; I expected some amusing oddity when I picked it up and read the name of the author—Baroness Elemér Bornemissza née Karola Szilvássy—and the title: Proven Recipes.

The cover showed a copperplate print of Marosvécs in the last century—I was able to identify it by the four sturdy corner towers. This Renaissance building on the site of the Roman castrum was, until recently, in the possession of the Kemény family—the descendants of János Kemény (1607–1662), Prince of Transylvania, who had fought the Turks and had been abandoned by the Habsburgs and Montecuccoli.

When I read the first recipe, I still thought I would be treated to a bit of “blue-blooded” diversion. Who in their right mind could take a recipe of Goose-liver paté à la Salzburg seriously, which requires three whole goose livers, of which two have to be soaked in lukewarm milk overnight, then fried with onions and white bread rolls previously also soaked in milk, then pounded in a mortar, pressed through a sieve, mixed with finely sliced truffles which had been soaked in sugared wine, then with more wine added, with cloves and pepper, and the whole mixture finely layered with the third goose liver, which had been fried, cut into thin slices, and then the whole thing finished in a hot oven.

Who would have time for all that today?

It was only when I read the foreword of more than thirty pages and then went through the recipes that my heart suddenly sank. Every single recipe permeated the air with transcience and death. What I held in my hand was the frozen, fossilized evidence of a social class, a culture and a world, which have been obliterated from the face of the Earth.

This class was the Hungarian aristocracy of Transylvania, which, as well as distinguishing itself in the culinary arts, maintained an extremely rich Hungarian tradition, culture and literature.

As Ildikó Marosi’s Introduction reveals, the book is the first publication of a hand-written cookery book. Besides being a fascinating document, an original collection of recipes found among the estate of János Kemény, the last titled resident of Marosvécs, it is invaluable also because in the case of most of the recipes the author also names the source: when and where the baroness had learned the secrets of preparing the dish concerned. And if we use Ildikó Marosi’s guide to keep track of the sources, then the book will, indeed, make heartrending reading.

Let’s get a foretaste of the names of people who cooked for Hungarian writers, poets and editors in Transylvania between the two world wars.

The author of the cookery book was Baroness Bornemissza née Karola Szil-vássy, daughter of the landowner Béla Szilvássy and Baroness Antónia Wass.

Karola’s character was captured in two novels by two twentieth-century Transylvanian writers of aristocratic blood, Count Miklós Bánffy (1874–1950) and Baron János Kemény (1903–1971).

Ever since her youth, Karola was a stunningly beautiful, unbridled and proud woman with a passion for fine food as well as for interesting, eccentric and talented people. She liked to have excitement around her, and when there were no scandals at hand, she personally intervened to remedy the situation. For many years, Karola had a housekeeper, who had been a convicted murderer’s lover, and whom she took into her house along with the hanged man’s child. Accompanied by one of her friends, herself a baroness, Karola travelled to South Africa—on rail, by boat and on a donkey—to erect a tombstone for her cousin, Albert Wass, who had died there while fighting for the Boers.

This extraordinary woman had a difficult time to find herself a husband; eventually she married Baron Elemér Borne- missza, but the marriage was a failure, and their only child died, so they lived separately, with Karola receiving a handsome allowance from her husband.

Between the two world wars, Karola made herself the heart and soul of the Kemény Zsigmond Society of Marosvásárhely, the publishing house Erdélyi Szépmives Céh, and the magazine Erdélyi Helikon. (Erdély is the Hungarian name of Transylvania.)

The society, which bore the name of the Kemény family’s greatest son, the novelist and liberal thinker Zsigmond Kemény, was formed after the writer’s death in 1876, and functioned until 1944. It acquired a unique role after Transylvania’s annexation by Romania in 1918, organizing and rallying the Hungarian writers and maintaining links with the mother country.

Erdélyi Szépmíves Céh was the most prestigious book publisher in interwar Transylvania, and Erdélyi Helikon, the magazine started by János Kemény, was published by them.

The writers who were associated with the publisher and the magazine—Károly Kós, Aladár Kuncz, Károly Molter, Jenoý Dsida, Benoý Karácsony and many others—annually gathered in János Kemény’s château in Marosvécs. On these occasions, Karola’s attendance could always be taken for granted, and all the memoirs name her as the spirit of the company. (below Karola is fourth from right)

In the castle park (Marosvécs?) 1942 From left to right: István Asztalos, László Szabédi, Albert Wass, Karola Bornemissza, Elemérné Szilvássy, Gizella Kemény, Berenice Kemény, Jánosné Kemény

In this way, Karola, the compiler of our cookery book, was at the centre of Transylvanian literary life, and her kitchen produced, from “proven recipes”, the fine food enjoyed by the writers and editors. Continue reading

Paddy Reviews “Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story “

Paddy reviews  William Blacker’s book about his eight years living in rural Romania and is so inspired he let’s himself go “sends (my) thoughts winging back to earlier Moldavian scenes – to ghostly hospodars with their nearly mythical princesses in tall branched crowns, trooping around the walls of fortress-monasteries in frescoed processions.”

First published in the Sunday Telegraph 30 August 2009

Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story

By William Blacker

‘Transylvania, the Banat of Temesvar, the Tatra mountains, Bukovina, Moravia, Bohemia, Wallachia, Moldavia, Bessarabia, the Carpathian range, the Maramures …’ these were the place-names in East Europe where William Blacker, a young, civilised and erudite traveller, hoped to settle and take root. The last of the names (pronounced Maramooresh) is a precipitous and ravishing Romanian region, where Blacker made his life-determining plunge into Europe, immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The moment it fell, he headed for Dresden and then Prague, then further east still; he was in search of an older and wilder Europe. Soon he was hobnobbing with the descendants of Saxon families, brought there eight centuries earlier by Bela of Hungary to guard his eastern frontier from the Tartars, a transplanting which had changed everything. Seven western medieval cities had sprung up, monasteries and churches had followed, and the whole apparatus of the Middle Ages had come into being in the Carpathians.

An elderly Saxon couple took Blacker under their wing on sight, so did many others. The story teems with odd characters. One of them is an engaging, dissolute descendant of a Hungarian family who is the father of two fascinatingly beautiful girls, with a Romanian gipsy mother, with both of whom in succession William fell in love. Apart from their spirits and fine looks, these girls brought with them the whole geist of the gipsy world – its dialects, its manifold skills, its amazing singing and dancing and magic and, of course, as a tribe, its challenging knack of being forever at odds with the civic authorities. The wandering of their ancestors had brought the gipsies all the way from north-west India, through Persia and Egypt and the Levant, and scattered them over the West.

It was not just the Saxons and the gipsies that fascinated the new arrival. The Romanian influence proved equally strong. With the Magyar language to the west and Slavonic to the north and the south, and the Black Sea to the east, the Romanians speak the only Latin language in Eastern Europe, and they are proud of this linguistic heirloom. In AD 103 Trajan led his legions over his great Danube bridge, defeated King Decebalus and added the Dacian kingdom to the Roman Empire and the bas-relief of his victory was sent spiralling above his Forum in Rome and stands there still.

Romania is an extraordinary country. I remember it with great clarity, when I was 19, trudging from Holland to the Bosporus, those unending beech forests where the brooks fell from ledge to ledge, gathered in pools, or tumbled in waterfalls, where one could sleep in clearings among hollowed tree-trunks or ‘swing wells’ and scores of lambs, and be woken up by an old shepherd blowing down a bronze horn three yards long, a half-muffled and half- echo sound, like the trumpets of Tibetan shepherds. It was a world of icicles, birds calling, hayricks and scythes.

Perhaps to balance the complexities of his two love affairs, Blacker threw himself into raising funds for the upkeep and repair of the ancient buildings he had settled among. Like his friends, he was outfitted in rough white homespun and the padded and cross- gartered cowhide moccasins – opinci – which the upland shepherds wear all year.

William, who grew up on the South Downs and the north country and Ireland, brings all the skills of his unfettered upbringing to bear on Romania – horse-breaking, tree felling, haymaking and rick building – which, with a passion for the classics and literature and history, seem to have been a perfect run-in to this strange chapter of his life.

The rigours of snow covered the whole of his first winter. It was a time of rugging up soon after the early sunset and diving straight under the blankets and into The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina by lamplight; in a later season the day would end with rowdy evenings at the Krcma – drinking tavern – of amazing dancing and song. I wonder if some of the evenings revolved, as in my young days, around a klaka of a hundred crones in a barn, all with spindles and distaffs and an endless gift for storytelling? One had to look out for the prints of wolves and bears on the way home.

This is a wild and captivating story, ending in great thanks to his neighbours in Maramures and Sighisoara – we are spared Vlad the Impaler – and also to his parents, who gave him such free reign in childhood. William Blacker has written a book close to this reviewer’s heart, and sends thoughts winging back to earlier Moldavian scenes – to ghostly hospodars with their nearly mythical princesses in tall branched crowns, trooping around the walls of fortress-monasteries in frescoed processions. With a change of pace these are followed by the author and his swarm of friends in a cantering troop of near-Lippizaners through the autumn beech woods. Nowadays it looks as though he might branch out much further south – down, down into Italy where, historically speaking, his nearest apposite neighbour might be Lars Porsenna of Clusium.

Paddy recalls his time on set with Errol Flynn and Orson Welles for The Roots of Heaven

Errol Flynn in The Roots of Heaven

In 1958, Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote the script for the film The Roots of Heaven, produced by Darryl Zanuck and directed by John Huston. In 2001, he recalled some of his time spent on location, during the shooting of the film:

‘The heroine of the film was Juliette Gréco, to whom Darryl [Zanuck] was deeply attached. I had seen her earlier, spinning round dance floors like a beautiful raven-haired mermaid in caverns full of jiving existentialists in St.-Germain-des-Prés. She was very well read, loved literature, and was full of interesting and amusing stories about Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. She was a friend, too, of Raymond Queneau, whose books I had a passion for, and we shared a taste for the poems of Jacques Prévert. We became close friends, and still are.

After three weeks, we flew to Bangui, in what was then still French Equatorial Africa but was soon to become the realm of the wicked Emperor Bokassa. The little town clustered on the north bank of the Obangui River, a tributary of the Congo, and on the edge of a dense rain forest full of elephants—our main theme. A race of intelligent smiling pygmies dwelt there, armed with bows and arrows, twangling cheerfully on strange stringed instruments known as equatorial pianos.

John Huston and Darryl Zannuck on location

One day a small party of us were waiting for a canoe to take us somewhere, when a large crocodile was spotted, basking on an island in mid-stream. John [Huston], on the alert at once, dashed to his quarters and returned with a weapon about the size of a Bren gun, opened the front struts, flung himself down, took careful aim, and fired. The bullet kicked up a puff of sand just above the reptile, which leapt into the water and swam vigorously downstream. John got up, ejected the shell, and said, “Well, he’ll thrash around for a quarter-hour or so, maybe twenty minutes. But that’s a dead croc, kids.” The phrase gained immediate currency, sometimes altered to “That’s a dead kid, crocs.”

There were a lot of late parties, and at one of them—the last, as it turned out—I remember John singing “Johnny, I Hardly Knew You” and “The Streets of Laredo” with captivating verve. In the end, oblivious of forest dangers, I fell asleep under a baobab tree and woke up at dawn criss-crossed with hundreds of spiders, like the captured Gulliver in Lilliput.

On the last day of filming in the forest, enormous black clouds gathered and then broke in a deluge. Instantly soaked to the skin, we drove slithering and sliding back to Bangui and its one hotel, a modern skyscraper soaring above the treetops like an upended mouth organ. Indoors, the lights fused as we entered, and the floor was nearly a foot deep under a gleaming mattress of broken-off termites’ wings. A hundred termite-eating frogs were leaping in parabolas among their prey, and Juliette’s mongoose was whisking about in this sudden abundance with frogs’ legs sticking out of its jaws on both sides, peering round for more. The thunder sounded as though the sky were breaking in half, and the shuddering flashes of lightning lit up a vision of diluvial apocalyptic pandemonium.

Juliet Greco, Errol Flynn and Trevor Howard

The next day we were back on the Champs-Élysées and the rue de Rivoli.’

-recorded in ‘A Visit with Patrick Leigh Fermor,’ by Ben Downing, in The Paris Review, no. 165. From this website.

Related article:

Patrick Leigh Fermor scriptwriter for The Roots of Heaven

A Meeting between Paddy and George Psychoundakis the “Cretan Runner”

 

George Psychoundakis in 2004(?)

A bond deeper than blood. The friendship forged in wartime Crete between Patrick Leigh Fermor and shepherd George Psychoundakis was commemorated in George’s memoir about the Resistance, The Cretan Runner. With the book republished, it was time to meet again.

by Allison Pearson

First published in The Daily Telegraph, Saturday 13th June 1998

Two old men sitting at a table talking about the war. A Cretan and an Englishman. A voluble eye-popping tenor and a growly teddy-bear bass. “Remember the sick doctor we disguised as an old woman and carried for miles to get help?” “Yes, and remember when you dressed up as a general and kidnapped a real one!”

They interrupt each other. They sigh for the dead. They laugh for dear life, knowing exactly how much it can cost. Although one of the men speaks only Greek, I think I can detect a rhythm to their reminiscing: the Cretan talks everything up and the Englishman plays it right back down again. The sudden memory of one “bad Greek” acts on the Cretan’s weathered face like a drawstring, pulling it taut to a scowling walnut. But the Englishman, all silky diplomacy, jumps in and offers a more optimistic assessment of the fiend in question: “I think he just lost his head a bit.”

Later, when the Cretan mentions the Englishman’s name in the course of what sounds like a pretty fulsome tribute, his friend stops translating for me altogether. What did he say? “He was more than kind about me.” Yes, but what did he say? “Oh, I couldn’t possibly repeat it.”

The bashful Briton is Patrick “Paddy” Leigh Fermor, traveller, scholar- gypsy, war hero and writer of genius. His fiery friend is George Psychoundakis, author of The Cretan Runner, an extraordinary account of the anti- Nazi Resistance on the island, which was translated by Leigh Fermor and is now republished.

The Cretan Runner

There have been other memoirs of wartime Crete, such as Xan Fielding’s Hide and Seek and Ill Met by Moonlight, W Stanley Moss’s record of the kidnapping of General Kreipe (later made into a movie, with Dirk Bogarde assigned to fill Leigh Fermor’s dashing boots). But those were visitors’ books. George’s story, as Leigh Fermor points out in the introduction, is unique. It is no longer the locals who are colourful aliens, but the Allied officers and their wireless operators – good sorts and good sports in the main but, none the less, foreigners with some very dodgy customs. “A most peculiar man,” George says of one buffer. “He had pyjamas and a washbasin.”

Even more baffling for the Cretans, who think Nature is a place where you go and shoot things, the buffer turned out to be an amateur botanist and geologist: “He was not only in love with different kinds of weeds but with stones as well.”

Paddy and I have been sitting in the front room of George’s small vine-clad house, outside Khania in western Crete, for more than two hours now. At least one of us is reeling under the bombardment of Cretan hospitality. Celestial cheese tarts made by Sofia, George’s wife, have given way to nuts, glistening sweetmeats and, as if that weren’t enough, shots of tsikoudia, a spirit so lethal it feels less like drinking a liquid than sipping scalded air. After three of these, I am not entirely sure whether the spools on my tape recorder are going round: after four, I don’t care.

George – one eye sleepy, the other coal black with embers of mischief – is joking about whether he should have given lessons in sheep stealing (a local speciality) to one of the wireless operators. “So when he got back to Scotland he could have organised sheep rustling.” Paddy pretends, unconvincingly, to be shocked.

Through the window behind them, you can see the White Mountains – a range so towering and snowy, even on this May day, that it is hard to tell where rock stops and cloud begins. More than half a century ago, those slopes were Paddy and George’s stamping-ground. “George’s life was dangerous and absolutely exhausting,” explains Paddy. But George is having none of it: “I felt as if I were flying. Running all the way from the top of the White Mountains to Mount Ida. So light and easy – just like drinking a cup of coffee.”

George has difficulty walking now – at 78 he leans on a stick as gnarled as himself – but his mind can leap from memory to memory, as if he were still flying. I ask George what he thought the British had learnt from the Cretans and vice versa. “What they learnt, because there was very little to eat, was to drink a lot and to dance and to shoot for joy in the air. We saw how much they loved our country and it made us love it still more. The fact that they loved Crete so much gave us even greater courage.”

The first time George Psychoundakis met Patrick Leigh Fermor he thought he was very tall. The young Cretan had just crawled on all fours through thick bushes into the heap of boulders where the officer was hiding. In fact, the Englishman was not especially lofty (a touch over 5ft 9in, according to his passport). It was the Greek who was tiny. “As fine-boned as an Indian,” recalls Leigh Fermor. “Lithe and agile and full of nervous energy.”

Anyway, height didn’t matter much back then. It was the July of 1942 in occupied Crete and the stature of men was not measured in inches, rather in a bewildering range of abilities. These included: keeping cool when a member of the Gestapo approaches your mule while it is carrying a combustible load of wheat and wireless; keeping warm in a cave-bed with a canopy of stalactites; and finding the courage to tuck into a dinner of local produce – grass cooked with snails. “We took the grass blade by blade, picked off the broken shells and ate it with much laughter,” recalls George.

Psychoundakis was a runner for the Resistance – a vertical postman, he delivered messages and equipment at barely credible speed. On a map, Crete doesn’t look too daunting – a sirloin steak beaten to a succulent sliver by a butcher. But it rises so sharply into such broken-toothed cragginess that it is pointless to measure it in miles: the islanders calculate distances in the time taken to smoke cigarettes. George’s wartime business was mainly conducted at eagle-height, or as he felt his way down the vertebrae of his homeland towards some hiding place where even goats didn’t dare.

He was 21 years old when he first met the 27-year-old Leigh Fermor. George addressed Paddy as Michali (all the Allied soldiers had Greek nicknames) or sometimes Mr Michali in half-amused respect (irreverence being the key to the Psychoundakis psyche). Paddy, meanwhile, code- named George either the Clown or the Changeling, for his cockeyed wit, his impish insubordination and a magical ability to spirit himself out of trouble.

Patrick Paddy Leigh Fermor and Billy Moss

The two men were not just worlds apart: a glance at their biographies suggests you would need to hire a time machine to bring them together. Born in Asi Gonia, a village with a long history of giving invaders a hard time (asi is Arabic for uncommandable), George lived the kind of peasant life that had not changed for centuries. His family slept together in a single room with a beaten earth floor. After a scratchy education at the local primary school, he followed his father on to the mountains as a shepherd. By the time German parachutes blotted out the sky in May 1941, he had visited only two of Crete’s towns and had never seen the capital, Heraklion.

By contrast, Leigh Fermor was born into a smart Anglo-Irish family and educated at prep school and King’s, Canterbury. [Just like someone else we know] By 1939, he had walked across every country between London and Constantinople – a stroll commemorated in his two dazzling volumes, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water – and also appeared to have drunk in most of their national literatures.

Scrape through what Leigh Fermor called his “Fauntleroy veneer”, though, and you find a rougher grain. With his parents abroad for the first four years of his life, Paddy was entrusted to the family of a small farmer and, left uncultivated, he ran wild. The experience, he later wrote, “unfitted me for the faintest shadow of constraint”. His behaviour at a flurry of schools led to his being sent to two psychiatrists, although it is unlikely that either rivalled Paddy’s clinical diagnosis of himself as “a very naughty boy”. He was finally expelled from King’s for crimes that included “trying to be funny” and holding the hand of a greengrocer’s daughter. His housemaster’s report noted: “He is a dangrous mixture of sophistication and recklessness, which makes one anxious about his influence on other boys.”

Almost 70 years later, I find it hard to improve on that verdict, save to replace the word dangerous with delightful. As it turned out, his influence on other boys was all to the good, and the most remarkable boy of all was George Psychoundakis.

While Paddy was in Kent writing “bad and imitative verse” and lapping up ancient Greek because it was a passport to a world of heroes, George was scavenging books from the village priest and the doctor, and occupying the long woolly hours by the sheepfold composing patriotic poems and beady skits on local life. (An early effort entitled Ode to an Inkspot on a Schoolmistress’s Skirt sounds distinctly Paddy-like in its high- flown cheekiness).

Although George’s father, Nicolas, was illiterate, he could recite by heart the whole of the Erotocritos, the 17th-century Cretan epic poem that comprises 10,000 lines of rhyming couplets. And the rhythm lodged in the son’s head and on his tongue: poetry to these people was not the object of solemn study but a spur to the spinning of legends and the cue for a bloody good song.

George Psychoundakis during the Resistance

Which is to say that when the ragged and practically barefoot Cretan wriggled into the hiding-place of the Englishman in 1942, they had more in common than an enemy. George spoke only one perfect sentence of English – “I steal grapes every day” – but Paddy soon extended his repertoire. On long marches to the coast to meet supply vessels or during the dark hours awaiting a parachute drop, the Britons taught the Greeks folk-songs and the Greeks taught them mantinadas – waspish local couplets with a sting in the tail.

On their first trek together, Paddy recalls how George recited a poem he had written on the unambitious theme of The Second World War So Far. “It covered the invasion of Poland, the fall of France, the German invasion of Greece and Rommel’s final advance. It lasted more than two hours and finished on a note of triumphant optimism and presage of vengeance, which he emphasised by borrowing my pistol and firing it into the sky with the remark that we would soon be eating the cuckolds alive.”

Leigh Fermor, meanwhile, attempted to satisfy Psychoundakis’s ravenous curiosity about the world. What was Churchill like? Why do the Scots wear kilts? How about astronomy, religion, trains? How many sheep does the average Englishman own?

The task of the British Special Operations Executive in Crete was to assist the local Resistance. Having spent centuries in revolt against the Venetians and the Turks, the islanders didn’t actually need much encouragement. During the airborne invasion in 1941, when many young Cretans were away on active service, descending parachutists were met by old men, women and children – by anyone, in fact, who could point upwards and shoot. “Aim for the legs and you’ll get them in the heart,” ran the local wisdom. Four thousand Germans died. Those who survived took swift revenge. Reprisals, read one Wehrmacht memo, “must be carried through with exemplary terror”. Between May and September of that year, 1,135 Cretans were executed.

The Cretan Runner begins with the invasion. “Out of the sky the winged devils of Hitler were falling everywhere … the aeroplanes came and went like bees in a bee-garden.” One grounded plane is set upon by furious locals till it resembles “a bit of bread thrown on to an ant-hill”. From the opening pages, you get a pungent impression of the Psychoundakis style – a vertiginous mix of the epic and the demotic, the Homeric and the homely. Of the enemy, George writes: “They reached to our very bowels and provoked a storm in the soul of the race like the hiss of a poisonous snake about to strike.” No British account of the battle of Crete could contain a sentence like that. Too purple. Too embarrassing, frankly. But it feels utterly true to George and the hot-blooded rhetoric of his race.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of a book that documents the burning of villages, the casual slaughter of comrades and a life of mesmerising danger is how often it makes you smile. No stranger to hardship anyway, George embraces discomfort as though it were a shy friend with a lot to offer. We see George at the end of a knackering three-day trek using pieces of wood to mime someone hobbling. We hear him enthusing over yet another dank hiding-place as though he were writing for some actionable travel brochure: “The cave was perfect. We collected our drinking and washing water from stalactites. We arranged luxurious couches for ourselves from the branches of various shrubs that were better than the softest mattress!”

Best of all, there is George richly enjoying his British friends, not least their congenital inability to walk over the rocky landscape. (In one incident, Leigh Fermor threw himself pluckily at a high stone wall in emulation of local bravado, only to fall off backwards: the Cretans in the party walked around the side of the wall, shaking their heads and laughing.)

SOE officer Ralph Stockbridge (centre, in the spectacles) with some of his comrades in Crete

“It was plain that George was enraptured with the excitement of our secret life,” says Paddy. The same could be said of all of them, I think. As a boy Leigh Fermor confessed to being guilty of “a bookish attempt to coerce life into a closer resemblance to literature”. In this case, the literature was Greek. The Cretans, for their part, seemed all too willing to live up to the legends the Englishmen had imbibed at school. Most battles look romantic only in retrospect, if then: Crete was different. It seems to have struck its leading men as touched with an air of romance, even as the drama was unfolding. As they approached by boat on a moonless night, the first the soldiers knew of the island was perfume, the scent of wild thyme that wafts miles out to sea.

Once on shore, they changed into local costume – breeches, black bandanas, embroidered waistcoats and spiffy jackboots. There were lessons in how to curl their new moustaches. They were an extraordinary bunch – poets, archaeologists, free spirits thirsty for adventure. SOE chose them because they had some knowledge of ancient Greek. But, as Leigh Fermor explains, since Greek was no longer compulsory at school, those who opted for it had already marked themselves out as “a perverse and eccentric minority”.

I cannot get enough of the photographs of the Resistance taken through those years in the mountains. Remember, these are snapshots captured at a time when to have a likeness of yourself in existence was itself a threat to that existence. There is the legendary Xan “Aleko” Fielding, looking uncannily like the young Hemingway. Gimlet-eyed and bare- chested, he regards the lens with Olympian amusement. And there is Yanni Tsangarakis, one of the bravest and most trusted guides, slightly woebegone behind a Zebedee moustache, and the redoubtable Manoli Paterakis, whose unforgettable profile suggests he may have been the love-child of Montgomery of Alamein and a peregrine falcon. [I think he’s trying to say he was nasally overendowed]

Looking at the smiley countenance of Tom Dunbabin – a fellow of All Souls in peacetime – you can see why he inspired such love; ditto the gaunt saintly faces of Aleko Kokonas, the schoolmaster of Yerakari, and his wife, Kyria Maria. And then, of course, there are Paddy and George: the first as debonair and unfeasibly handsome as Errol Flynn casting about for a galleon to capture; the second apparently auditioning for the role of Puck.

In Louis de Bernieres’s novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, set in wartime Cephalonia, there is a posh Englishman who lives in a cave and comes out declaiming ancient Greek. He is a bit of a joke. And, to be sure, there is something potentially laughable about the Boy’s Own aspect of all this dressing up and blowing stuff up. What redeems it from absurdity, what transforms it into real rather than fantastical heroism, is the nagging presence of death, which circled above these lives like a hawk. There was nothing comic-book about Anton Zoidakis, captured by German soldiers, tied to their vehicle and dragged along the road until his face and his life were wiped away. And even George’s account of merry scrapes is pulled up short when 20 Gestapo visit Asi Gonia: “They said I was wanted for interrogation and if didn’t go to Retimo before January 17 they would set fire to the whole village.”

Three of George’s fellow runners were executed, two after what the Wehrmacht would probably have considered exemplary torture. In his superb book Crete: The Battle and the Resistance, Antony Beevor points out that the penalty for a shepherd caught whistling to warn of the approach of a German patrol was death.

War had transformed George Psychoundakis’s life. In February 1943, it enabled the former shepherd boy to travel abroad for the first time. He was spirited off to SOE headquarters in Egypt, where he was knocked sideways by wonders, not least the grass in the Gezira gardens: “Fat, short grass like green velvet carpet.” As for the zoo, “I could almost have deemed that I was in the middle of paradise”. The most misguided character in the whole of The Cretan Runner is the soldier who advised George not to climb up the Pyramids because it was “very tiring and tricky”. A short hop later, the Cretan runner got out his stiletto and “cut my name and fatherland” into a stone at the top.

Moss, Kreipe and Paddy

On the day the war was over, a “high-spirited Mr Leigh Fermor” bought a dubious Mr Psychoundakis a lot of drinks. “If I drink all that I’ll be drunk,” protested George. “But my child, what is drink meant for? It’s no use for anything else,” replied Paddy.

Soon after, in a school where a whole village was gathered together, George recited a heart-stopping poem he had written on the lovely village of Yerakari, now destroyed, where once “white houses lay like doves asleep along the sill of heaven”. He had survived, but for a while it was hard to see what for.

Fortune, who had smiled on George in a time of insane adversity, appeared to doze off once the shooting stopped. Because of missing documents and in spite of his British Empire Medal (awarded in 1945), he was arrested as a deserter and imprisoned for several months. One can scarcely imagine the wound inflicted on his pride. Over three days, that great shaggy helmet of hair all fell out. Subsequently, he had to do two more years of fighting in the civil war. Returning at last to Asi Gonia, George found all the sheep stolen and his family in gruesome poverty. The Changeling had run out of magic.

George took a job as a navvy working on a road. At night, he sheltered once more in a cave and by the light of an oil lamp began to fill notebook after notebook with a furious, cramped hand. “I think he undertook this task as a kind of exorcism of the gloom of his circumstances, ” says Paddy. When they met up again in 1951, George gave his friend the completed work: Pictures of Our Life During the Occupation. Better known as The Cretan Runner.

Leigh Fermor, now living on the Greek mainland, took the precious grime-covered manuscript home to translate. George, meanwhile, was working to help his old friend, too. In 1943, with a German patrol approaching, Paddy, who was checking what he thought was an empty rifle, accidentally shot Yanni Tzangarakis in the leg. He died soon afterwards, but not before absolving his friend of all blame. Paddy was devastated: imagine killing the proud son of a country for which you were willing to lay down your own life.

This wretchedness was deepened by foolish rumours that eventually led to a vendetta being declared by some of Yanni’s relatives. This was only laid to rest after years of delicate negotiation by George, who found a very Cretan solution to the Englishman’s impasse: Paddy Leigh Fermor became godfather to Yanni’s great-niece. In Greek society, this bond is deeper than blood.

Two old men sitting at a table talking about the war. A Cretan and an Englishman. “We’d better censor that, George, it’s libellous,” says Paddy, trying to sound stern. As usual, he fails.

George goes off into the bedroom and comes back with a rifle. It is nearly as tall as he is, and its working parts are in similarly creaky order. As George poses with the gun, the photographer asks him to smile. George scowls and spits out a guttural retort. “Oh dear, oh dear,” says Paddy, shaking his head and laughing. What did George just say? “He said he won’t smile because he’s killing Germans.”

At the front of A Time of Gifts, Leigh Fermor quotes from Louis MacNeice’s great poem:

For now the time of gifts is gone
O boys that grow,
O snows that melt,
O bathos that the years must fill.

Since the war, both men have found satisfactions. Leigh Fermor, though unfairly saddled with the label of travel writer, has become one of the greatest exponents of English prose.

Psychoundakis, meanwhile, has translated both the Odyssey and the Iliad into Cretan and been honoured by the Academy of Athens. Still, I can’t help wondering whether the time since their great adventure had been an anti-climax.

“To some extent all our lives were in those years,” admits Paddy. “Of course, one went on to do interesting things, but … ” George has come up now and stretches out his fingertips to reach the shoulders of his friend, the tall Englishman. “Ah, George says to tell you that those years up in the mountains were the best years of his life. He’ll never forget it. Never. And that’s why he wanted to commemorate our days together.”

Just as we are getting ready to leave, George gives Paddy a photograph. It is of George himself and Xan Fielding, taken somewhere in the mountains. You can just make them out. The emulsion is breaking up and great snowy specks of it are blizzarding them into oblivion. Yet looking back at the Cretan resisters, we see only a thrilling clarity. Their existence was both mortally serious and a great wheeze – perhaps a definition of the best kind of life you can hope to lead.

Years after the war ended, George Psychoundakis sang for his friend Patrick Leigh Fermor a mantinada. This is what it said:
With patience first and patience last, and doggedness all through,
A man can think the wildest thoughts and make them all come true.

Related articles:

The obituary of George Psychoundakis aka The Cretan Runner

General’s long trip home

Related category:

Ill Met by Moonlight

Patrick Leigh Fermor scriptwriter for The Roots of Heaven

Some may not be aware that Paddy was pressed hard by Darryl F. Zanuck to be the scriptwriter for the 1958 film The Roots of Heaven, an adventure film made by 20th Century Fox, directed by John Huston and produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. The screenplay was by Romain Gary and Patrick Leigh Fermor and is based on Romain Gary’s 1956 Prix Goncourt winning novel The Roots of Heaven (Les racines du ciel).

The film had a fine cast and starred Errol Flynn, Juliette Gréco, Trevor Howard, Eddie Albert, Orson Welles, Paul Lukas, Herbert Lom and Gregoire Aslan. Paddy describes the negotiations and some of his time on set in Chad in letters to Debo Devonshire published in the book In Tearing Haste. I think Trevor Howard was drunk most of the time and Paddy appeared to be quite struck by the beautiful French actress Juliette Gréco. It was Errol Flynn’s last film

Set in French Equatorial Africa, the film tells the story of Morel (Trevor Howard), a crusading environmentalist who sets out to preserve the elephants from extinction as a lasting symbol of freedom for all humanity. He is helped by Minna (Juliette Gréco), a nightclub hostess, and Forsythe (Errol Flynn), a disgraced British military officer hoping to redeem himself.

I have a Spanish produced copy on DVD (English with Spanish subtitles available on eBay or Amazon) but the whole film (bar one scene) is available on You Tube. The quality is very good and you may like to watch it. It is scene eight that is missing.

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