Category Archives: Paddy's Writing

Danube Institute video Noble Encounters

Many of you will have had a lot of enjoyment reading Michael O’Sullivan’s excellent book Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania which was published in the summer.

Michael gave an excellent presentation at the Transylvanian Book Festival back in September. In anticipation of the London launch next week of Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania, you may wish to dip in and out of this video by the Danube Institute featuring Michael and Dr. Tamas Barcsay (great-nephew of Miklos Banffy) talking about Paddy’s time in Hungary and the people he met there.

Find out more about the book and its background here.

You can purchase the book by clicking this link Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania.

Patrick Leigh Fermor and the monks of the west

An excellent article from the Catholic Herald by Michael Duggan; “religious references” in his work (and life). I hope that you enjoy this.

Seventy years ago, in September 1948, the English author Patrick Leigh Fermor decamped from the nightspots of Paris to the Benedictine monastery ‎of Saint Wandrille de Fontanelle near Rouen. His purpose was to work on a draft of what would become The Traveller’s Tree, an account of his voyages in the Caribbean. A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, the books recounting part of an epic pre-war walk across Europe as an eighteen-year-old that would secure Leigh Fermor’s lasting fame, were still decades away.

As his letters published last year show, ‘Paddy’ had a penchant for high living, forever drawn to the “soft hiss of the soda syphon”. His ingenious, entirely euphemistic descriptions of sex are a bawdy hoot. He once provoked a massive punch-up at the Kildare Hunt Ball and was only rescued from a true pounding by Ricki Huston, a beautiful Italian-American dancer, John Huston’s fourth wife and, not long after the near-riot in Ireland, Paddy’s lover.

His publisher, Jock Murray, once half-jokingly suggested a boarding house in Aberdeen as the ideal place for Paddy to knuckle down and finish a much-delayed volume. Even so, a monastery steeped in the ascetic rigour of the Western tradition seems like an extreme measure for a man who had just been staying at the Hotel Louisiane, around the corner from the Café Flore and the Deux Magots. Moreover, Leigh Fermor wasn’t a Catholic (though it is somewhat more complicated than that, as we shall see).

After his death in 2011, the First Things website published a touching, fulsome appreciation of Patrick Leigh Fermor written by the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart: touching because the news of the passing of a very elderly man whom he did not know seemed to have left Hart discombobulated and bereft; and fulsome because Hart believes (as do I) that here was a writer whose prose “has few credible rivals in modern English letters”.

Toward the middle of this article, Hart makes a brief reference to the place of religion in the life of Patrick Leigh Fermor. He mentions the twentieth birthday spent at the Russian monastery of St Panteleimon on Mount Athos and praises Leigh Fermor’s book Roumeli for “some of the most illuminating writing on Orthodox monasticism in English”. But he also notes that even close friends seemed uncertain whether Paddy actually had any particular religious convictions at all.

As it happens, the matter of Patrick Leigh Fermor and religion need not rest where David Bentley Hart leaves it. Artemis Cooper’s fine 2012 biography contains an intriguing clue to her subject’s religious feelings. Though he never actually converted from the Anglicanism of his childhood, it appears that Paddy identified himself as “R.C.” on official forms right up to the end of the Second World War, when he was thirty years old. After that, his religious feelings, which at times during his childhood took the form of what Paddy called a religious mania, seemed to subside.

However, while the mania may have lapsed, the historical allure of Christendom never seemed to fade for him. The famous trilogy about his trek across Europe (the final instalment, The Broken Road, was published posthumously in 2014) is studded with episodes and incidents redolent of the continent’s historic Christian culture. Disembarking in Rotterdam in the dead of night in December 1933, at the beginning of his epic adventure, the first person Leigh Fermor saw was Erasmus, in the form of a snow-covered statue outside the fifteenth-century Laurenskerk. Not long after, he spent a night discussing, among other things, the correct pronunciation of Erasmic Latin with a couple of German students in the house of the widow of a Classics professor in Cologne. His account of arriving in Hungary on Holy Saturday 1934, crossing the bridge at Esztergom just in time to be swept up into the ceremony at the great cathedral, is unforgettable.

Leigh Fermor’s literary heroes included the French Catholic novelist, J-K Huysmans, who sparked his interest in monasticism, and St Basil of Caesarea in whom Paddy seemed to find something he craved: a fusion of Christian and classical humanism, such that “the polished Greek sentences are sprinkled with classical allusions one would expect more readily in the writings of a fifteenth-century humanist than in those of a Doctor of the Church living in the reign of Julian”. In Basil’s letters, there was “a mood of humanity and simplicity, (…) an absence of bigotry that seems to blow like a soft wind from those groves of olive and tamarind and lentisk; gently ruffling the surface of the mind and then leaving it quiet and still.”

Religion was also, of course, an indissoluble part of the Greece he loved and celebrated. According to Artemis Cooper, Paddy liked to think that he could still detect a sort of eternal, cultural Europe, untouched behind the cities and factories, where life was dictated by the rounds of the seasons and the feasts of the Church. He liked to claim descent from Counts of the Holy Roman Empire who had originally journeyed to Austria from Ireland; and he lamented the desolation caused by the Reformation, seeing the ruined abbeys of England as “the peaks of a vanished Atlantis drowned four centuries deep.”

Leigh Fermor did write one book on an overtly religious theme: a slim volume entitled A Time to Keep Silence, which records his sojourns in Saint Wandrille and two other French monasteries – Solesmes and La Grande Trappe – along with a trip to see the enigmatic, abandoned rock monasteries of Cappadocia.

Perhaps the most memorable feature of this book, first published in 1957, is the depiction of an outsider, a self-proclaimed homme moyen sensuel, adapting to the austerity of life in a western monastery. The monks Leigh Fermor had known previously, in wartime Crete where he served as a British army intelligence officer fighting alongside the resistance, were holy men who were nonetheless prone to “pouring out raki, cracking walnuts, singing mountain songs, stripping and assembling pistols, cross-questioning me interminably about Churchill, and snoring under olive trees while the sun’s beams fell perpendicularly on the Libyan Sea”.

And he did also have some brief encounters with the monks of western Europe when walking his way across Europe. As recounted in A Time of Gifts, when he made his way to the workhouse in Düsseldorf in search of a place to stay, a bearded Franciscan in clogs led him to the dormitory. There he had a night disturbed by the snores, groans, sighs and shouts of the other inmates. (“Lying in wait in the rafters all the nightmares of the Rhineland descended on the sleepers.”) The next day, the monks on duty supplied him and his companions, who were set to work on cutting logs, with axes and saws, coffee and black bread.

Later, at the great abbey of Melk in Austria, a young, learned, amusing Benedictine, speaking beautiful French, showed him around, proving to be the “ideal cicerone” for the splendours beyond the gatehouse. Further up the Danube, at the Abbey of Göttweig, he is introduced to an Irish monk “of immense age and great charm”, who “could have sat for a picture of St Jerome”.

Come 1948, his encounter with monasticism was defined, at first, by an initial descent into “unspeakable ‎loneliness”, “overwhelming gloom and acidie”, a sensation of “circumabient and impending death”. But then comes his re-emergence, still within the monastic walls, into a life of “light, dreamless and perfect sleep”, lasting five hours and coming to an end “with no harder shock than that of a boat’s keel grounding on a lake shore”; of awakenings “full of energy and limpid freshness”; and of days of “absolute vitality and god-like freedom”. (Later on, leaving the monastery, and returning to the kind of world announced by Cinzano advertisements seen from a train window, would induce a painful process of adaptation in reverse.)

Leigh Fermor was full of admiration and respect for the role that the monks of the West had played in history, for the centuries in which they were the only guardians of things he loved: literature, the classics, scholarship and the humanities. He also found that the company of the small number of living monks‎ he was permitted to speak with was like the company of any civilised, well-educated Frenchmen “with all the balance, erudition and wit that one expected, the only difference being a gentleness, a lack of haste, and a calmness which is common to the whole community”.

More profoundly, he also came to appreciate the role of monasteries in what is sometimes called the economy of salvation. It was their belief in the necessity and efficacy of prayer – “a principle so utterly remote from every tendency of modern secular thought” – that explains the sacrifices these men made. Vows embracing poverty, chastity and obedience were destined to smite “all fetters that chained them to the world, to free them for action, for the worship of God and the practice of prayer; for the pursuit, in short, of sanctity.”

Leigh Fermor smiled at the fact that the monastic habitat should prove “favourable to ambitions so glaringly opposed”: his ambition, on the one hand, to get a book finished and his publisher off his back, and, on the other hand, the ambitions of the monks. These men, he found, could still embark on those “hazardous mystical journeys of the soul” which culminate in “blinding moments of union with the Godhead”, the very inkling of which, “since Donne, Quarley, Herbert, Vaughan and Traherne wrote their poems, has drained away from life in England”.

In the Introduction to A Time to Keep Silence, Paddy grappled briefly with the question of what his experiences inside the monastery walls might ultimately signify. He wrote that he was profoundly affected by the places he described. Though unsure about what his feelings amounted to, he was convinced that they were “deeper than mere interest and curiosity, and more important than the pleasure an historian or an aesthete finds in ancient buildings and liturgy”. In monasteries, he found “a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world”. Describing himself as no stranger to “recalcitrance or scepticism or plain incapacity for belief”, he implies nevertheless that he had been the beneficiary of a “supernatural windfall”.

In the end, Paddy never fully cashed in this windfall. A Time to Keep Silence was published in 1957, but there were to be no more books on an exclusively religious theme. His life (a quite extraordinary one, in ways I have barely touched on here) was filled with many different interests, pleasures and friendships, some of which would have thrown up serious obstacles to any burgeoning Catholicism.

He had an open relationship with his wife, Joan Rayner, who was also a committed atheist. While he stayed on in Rome to witness (and “swoon” at) the coronation of Pope John XXIII in 1958, his primary reason for being in the Eternal City in the first place was to conduct an affair with a young divorcee. Three pages of A Time to Keep Silence are devoted to the conflicts and mysteries of chastity.

I am speculating, of course, but perhaps Leigh Fermor’s temperament – that old, latent religious mania – sometimes led him back towards the threshold of belief, only for his appetites to lead him away again, down the path of least resistance, garlanded with pleasures, adored by friends and lovers, and adoring them in return.

Many of us know some version of this dilemma. We need a strong motive to turn our backs on the worldly delights which converged on Patrick Leigh Fermor like iron filings on a magnet, in favour of the less certain rewards that emanate from spiritual dread and spiritual joy. As Artemis Cooper has pointed out to me, Paddy (unlike, say, Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene) “could live without answers to the big questions: what am I doing here, why is there evil in the world, what has God got to do with it. These big themes didn’t preoccupy him much.”

To those who’ve read the books and letters, this observation has the ring of truth. But could it be that Patrick Leigh Fermor was able to live a life seemingly unpreoccupied by God because of the knowledge that he had acquired at first-hand in places like Saint Wandrille and La Grande Trappe?

This was the knowledge that, all the while, in those monasteries scattered across the West, which he called “silent factories of prayer”, there were other civilized, well-educated gentlemen just like him who had succeeded in abandoning everything. And that they had done so in order to help their fellow-men, and themselves, to meet something he had intuited himself during those brief pockets of time spent in monastic cells, woods and cloisters, something which he and most of us push to the back of our minds for most of the time, and to which he gave a name: “the terrifying problem of eternity”.

The romance of the past: that’s what drives the traveller’s impossible quest

‘Kardamyli now makes most of its money from tourism. It wasn’t as immune to tourism as Leigh Fermor imagined or wanted it to be.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Writing in 1958 about the little Greek town that was eventually to become his home, the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor was satisfied to note that the Guide Bleu gave it only half a line. “It is better so,” Leigh Fermor wrote. “It is too inaccessible and there is too little to do there, fortunately, for it ever to be seriously endangered by tourism.”

By Ian Jack

First published in the Guardian

His next paragraph describes the town in early evening when, waiting for a freshly caught fish to cook on a grill, he and a few fishermen sit under a mulberry tree outside a taverna and watch the sun sink over the mountains. Caiques – the wooden working boats of the Mediterranean – rock gently “with each sigh of the green transparent water … tethered a few yards above their shadows on the pebbly bottom”. One of Leigh Fermor’s typically exact (and perhaps exacting) images follows when he describes the sea lapping over a flat rock “with just enough impetus to net the surface with a frail white reticulation of foam which slid softly away and dissolved while a new one formed”.

Some of these things still exist. The Mediterranean is clear and green and blue, and on a calm day it will rise and fall against the rocks as Leigh Fermor describes. The sun goes down as he depicts it. There is even a caique or two; and, of course, tavernas – more tavernas than ever. But in most other ways the township of Kardamyli in the Peloponnese is utterly changed. Charter flights land at the little airport in the regional capital, Kalamata, and from there a twisting, expensively engineered road takes taxis, hire cars and air-conditioned coaches over the mountains to a resort that has nice hotels, trinket shops and olive-oil boutiques, as well as pretty restaurants with tea-lights on their tables that look down on the sea. The usual story: Kardamyli now makes most of its money from tourism. It wasn’t as immune to tourism as Leigh Fermor imagined or wanted it to be, and the writer himself is partly to blame.

The tumbledown factory loomed on the shore, a picturesque ruin in brick and concrete where fig trees grew. First, he published an account of his travels in the southern Peloponnese, the peninsula known as the Mani, which was then not much visited, and invested it with the beauty and mystery of a place and people that the 20th century had passed by. Then, six years later, in 1964, he bought a plot of land there – in a bay to the south of Kardamyli – and built a beautiful villa that he lived in almost to the last day of his life, in June 2011. Today his books are available in at least three languages in the local bookshop. People go there because of him – to experience similar sights and sensations to those he saw and felt, even though they understand this can never be completely accomplished, the world having moved on.

But was it ever quite as he described it in the first place? Leigh Fermor’s view of the Mani was essentially romantic: there are few better describers of landscape, but it’s a landscape with omissions. His first sight of Kardamyli is of an enchanting, castellated hamlet at the sea’s edge, where towers, turrets and cupolas rise above houses built of golden stone. “It was unlike any village I had seen in Greece,” Leigh Fermor writes in a page-long depiction that somehow ignores the village’s tallest manmade attribute: the factory chimney of the old olive-oil works. This is difficult to miss. Look down on Kardamyli from almost any vantage point and there it stands, its bricks pale against a background of blue sea and rather more noticeable than the towers and the turrets lying further inland among the cypresses and the olive groves.

The towers date from the age of banditry, feuding clans and resistance to the Ottoman empire. The chimney has cleaner and more peaceable origins. This month I lived next door to it for 10 days in a fine little hotel, and swam morning and afternoon from a ladder bolted to the rocks. The tumbledown factory loomed on the shore behind, a picturesque ruin in brick and concrete where fig trees grew and rusting pipes sprang from the wall at odd angles. A high fence surrounded it, with warnings to keep out.

Olive oil had once been made here – not virgin, cold-pressed or estate bottled, but the roughest kind, which goes into soap. Some accounts online suggest it was owned by the Palmolive company (and when I read this I understood, for the first time, how that familiar name had come about); others say a local family were the proprietors. It used olives – and the residues left from edible oil production – from as far away as Crete, shipped to a concrete pier nearby whose size was inexplicable unless you knew its original purpose. It was said to have employed 150 workers, with steam machinery that, as well as operating its crushers, had the spare capacity to supply the village with its first electricity. Opened in 1932, it closed in either 1958 or 1975 – local memories differed – when new techniques of oil production made it redundant. Since then, a dispute among the site’s three or four owners had prevented demolition or development.

I liked the chimney; three stepped rings of brick, progressively larger in diameter, gave its top a decorative flourish. But then, I’ve always been fascinated by factory chimneys of all kinds, for reasons that I’ve never really examined, the most important probably being that I spent some of my childhood among them: the great smoking verticals of the Lancashire plain, formerly beloved of geography textbooks as the illustrations to the chapter on the textile industry. To find them situated outside what might be considered their natural homelands – the old industrial towns of northern Europe and North America – is always a surprise. They look solitary, like isolated monuments to a faraway and not properly understood revolution. One still standing on the coast of Argyll marks the site of a Victorian factory that made acetic acid from the oak and birch wood. Another on the Ionian island of Paxos served the same kind of mill as Kardamyli’s.

Smoke was most probably still drifting from the Kardamyli chimney when Leigh Fermor reached here in the mid-1950s, but he can hardly be blamed for omitting it from his picture. Like many travellers in our age, he had a distaste for modernity. (He hated radios, for instance, and was relieved that the Mani had so few of them. “Rabid wirelesses should be hunted out and muzzled or shot down like mad dogs.”) He travelled to reach some agreeable form of the past, which has been a motive for the holidaymaker since the days of the Grand Tour.

On an afternoon last week in Kardamyli, I climbed up the ladder from the sea to find three or four men inside the factory fence inspecting the ruins. One wore a pith helmet and carried a theodolite. Another unpacked a drone from its box and directed its flight to the chimney, which it hovered above rather threateningly. It looked as though change was in the offing. I’d known of the chimney for less than a week – and, really, what was it to me? But already I felt a slight alarm that it too might pass, just like the fishermen who watched the sunset with Leigh Fermor from underneath a mulberry tree.

Event 3 October 2018: More Dashing – Further Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Adam Sisman will be speaking about his new book on Wednesday 3rd October at 7.15pm at The Hellenic Centre, 16-18 Paddington Street, London W1U 5AS.

If you would like to attend, please email info@patrickleighfermorsociety.org

Admission is free but non-members are asked to make a £10 contribution towards the expenses of the evening or to join the Society, which entitles members to free attendance at all events. The new book will be for sale at a special launch price.

More Dashing: Further Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor is the follow-up of Dashing for the Post: Selected Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor (2016) which received terrific reviews including:

‘Here is a veritable feast for fans of Paddy Leigh Fermor…. Sisman has done a tremendous job selecting and editing this treasure-trove of letters’ The Spectator

‘Adam Sisman has done an excellent job of selecting and editing these letters, almost any one of which would have been a joy to receive’ Times Literary Supplement

‘Oh joy! … No other contemporary writer could have given us so much to relish and we’re fortunate that Adam Sisman has distilled such a treat from so much rich material…. The wit, the humour, and the dazzling intelligence make this, for me, the most unputdownable book of the year’ Country Life

Anna Sándor de Kénos – BBC’s Last Word

Anna Sándor de Kénos

BBC Radio 4’s Last Word, obituary programme, speaks to Dr Michael O’Sullivan, author of Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania, about the life of the late Anna Sándor de Kenos.

Go to position 22 minutes 10 seconds here for the start of the piece (may not be available outside of UK – sorry!).

Leave thy home, O youth, and seek out alien shores . . . Robert Macfarlane reads Petronius

One of the first things Patrick Leigh Fermor is given in A Time of Gifts is a book: the first volume of the Loeb edition of Horace. His mother (‘she was an enormous reader’) bought it for him as a farewell present, and on its flyleaf she wrote the prose translation of an exquisite short poem by Petronius, which could hardly have been more appropriate as a valediction to her son, or indeed to anyone setting out on a voyage into adulthood:

Leave thy home, O youth, and seek out alien shores . . . Yield not to misfortune: the far-off Danube shall know thee, the cold North-wind and the untroubled kingdom of Canopus and the men who gaze on the new birth of Phoebus or upon his setting

The journey of A Time of Gifts is set going by the gift of a book—and it is a book that has in turn set going many journeys. The edition of A Time of Gifts that Don gave me that day in Cambridge had as its cover a beautiful painting by John Craxton, commissioned specially for the book, and clearly alluding to Petronius’s poem. It shows a young man standing on snowy high ground, puttees on his ankles and a walking stick in his right hand, looking eastwards to where the sun is rising orange over icy mountains, from which runs a mighty river. Black crows fly stark against white trees: there is a sense of huge possibility to the day ahead and to the land beyond.

Extract from The Gifts of Reading , Robert Macfarlane. First published in Slightly Foxed Quarterly. Continue reading

A Great Adventure

‘When I first read A Time of Gifts I felt it in my feet. It spoke to my soles. It rang with what in German is called Sehnsucht: a yearning or wistful longing for the unknown and the mysterious. It made me want to stand up and march out – to walk into an adventure.’ Robert Macfarlane

Andrew Merrills finds himself betwixt the woods and the water in this charming piece from Slightly Foxed Issue 38.

by Andrew Merrils

Few people living at the time would have regarded the early Thirties as a golden age, nor has posterity been kind to the period that W. H. Auden described as ‘a low, dishonest decade’. In 1933, the Japanese invaded Manchuria, Hitler became Chancellor of the Reich, and the first stirrings of the Spanish Civil War were felt in Catalonia. While hindsight bathes 1914 in the gentle summer glow of a prelapsarian world, the early Thirties seem autumnal and telescope all too easily into the bitter winter that was to follow. But for one man at least, the cold months of 1933–4 provided a still moment in time, which he would remember with fondness for the rest of his life.

In late December 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor set out on foot for Constantinople (as he anachronistically termed it). Recently expelled from school for the unpardonable crime of holding hands with a local girl, and insufficiently inspired by the prospect of Sandhurst and a career of peacetime soldiering, the 19-year-old decided to head east on foot. His backpack was evidently stuffed to the brim, with a greatcoat, jerseys, shirts (including white linen ones for dressy occasions), puttees, nailed boots, a selection of stationery, a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse and the first volume of the Loeb Horace. The clothing was soon lost but was replaced as he headed east by many generous donations from hosts and chance acquaintances. The literary ture was a more permanent part of his baggage; though he lost his Oxford volume, this was complemented by a vast corpus of writing in English, French and Latin that he had committed to memory. A little over a year later, the young traveller arrived at the Golden Horn.

Writing the account of the journey would take much longer. The first of three projected volumes, A Time of Gifts, was published in 1977, when the author was 62; the second, Between the Woods and the Water, which traces the journey from the Hungarian frontier (where the first leaves off) to the Iron Gates in Romania, came in 1982. The third book remained unfinished at the time of the author’s death in 2011.

Between the long adventure itself and its eventual publication, Patrick Leigh Fermor had led an improbably rich and full life. He was famous for his wartime heroism in occupied Crete, where he lived as a shepherd among the resistance fighters in the mountains and masterminded the daring abduction of the German garrison commander. These actions were commemorated in the memoir Ill Met by Moonlight by his colleague Sandy [sic] Moss, and his own role was played by Dirk Bogarde in the 1957 Powell and Pressburger film of the same title. In the decades that followed, Leigh Fermor produced some of the finest travel writing in English. His published books included a seminal study of the Caribbean in The Traveller’s Tree, a reflection on the monastic life in A Time to Keep Silence, and two remarkable books on Greece, Mani and Roumeli.

Much has been written about him since his death, and each of his books has its own admirers. But for those new to his writing, there is no better place to start than with A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, as an introduction both to the young man on the brink of a great adventure, and the mature writer at the height of his powers. While both shine through in these two books, it is the former who strikes the reader most forcibly. Almost immediately, we are confronted with the extraordinary personality of the young man who wanders across their pages, and it is easy to imagine how this spirit must have charmed and delighted those with whom he came into contact.

His was a well-populated road, from the two German girls in Stuttgart who swept the young ‘Mr Brown’ into an exhilarating tumble of drinking, singing and Christmas parties, to the lugubrious Frisian in Vienna who shared his poverty and some ingenious schemes for generating money before disappearing into the murky world of saccharine-smuggling on the Middle Danube. And these are some of his less remarkable social successes. By the time he reached Mitteleuropa proper, Leigh Fermor had become the darling of the fading imperial aristocracy. We read of raucous games of bicycle polo on the lawns of castles, of horses borrowed for a few days’ ride across the Great Hungarian Plain, and a seemingly endless succession of benevolent Anglophiles who welcomed the dusty young traveller with food, alcohol and the free run of their libraries.

Even if we sometimes feel a tinge of envy at the ease with which the young Patrick drifted into this travellers’ inheritance, it is hard to begrudge him it: the same easy charms that won over the inhabitants of central Europe in the 1930s can still delight a reader eighty years later.

Leigh Fermor has always been loved for the richness of his prose, and both books do full justice to the deep romantic undercurrents of the rivers along which he was travelling. Yet even in his most purple passages, he has a peculiarly literary sensitivity; he writes, not as a traveller in uncharted lands, but as one who is acutely aware of the many writers who have come before him. Nor is this simply the prerogative of the adult writer, usurping the fresh observations of youth with his own literary stylizations. The wide-eyed observer at centre stage also views the world through the lens of his reading. Take this account of Wachau in A Time of Gifts:

Melk was the threshold of this unspeakably beautiful valley. As we have seen by now, castles beyond counting had been looming along the river. They were perched on dizzier spurs here, more dramatic in decay and more mysteriously cobwebbed with fable. The towered headlands dropped sheer, the liquid arcs flowed round them in semicircles. From ruins further from the shore the land sloped more gently, and vineyards and orchards descended in layers to the tree-reflecting banks. The river streamed past wooded islands and when I gazed either way, the seeming water-staircase climbed into the distance. Its associations with the Niebelungenlied are close, but later mythology haunts it. If any landscape is the meeting place of chivalrous romance and fairy tales, it is this. The stream winds into distances where Camelot or Avalon might lie, the woods suggest mythical fauna, the songs of Minnesingers and the sound of horns just out of earshot.

If anyone was attuned to the mythic properties of Old Europe it was the knight errant of 1934. Leigh Fermor gazed at the unfolding landscape with a romantic longing inflamed by a short life stuffed with literature and history. When he passed through the Low Countries, he looked through Bruegel’s eyes; his view of Vienna was a palimpsest of Ottoman armies and Habsburg emperors, against which the complex realities of the mid-1930s were not always visible to him. And when not prompted into reverie by the landscapes around him, he turned inward to the rich body of literature that he had committed to memory. The list of these works is among the most famous passages of Leigh Fermor’s writing. I won’t cite it in full here, since it runs to several pages, but it includes (among many other things) Shakespeare, Spenser, Keats, ‘an abundance of A. E. Housman’, the Sitwells, Norman Douglas and Evelyn Waugh, ‘large quantities of Villon’, and a respectable body of Virgil, Horace, Catullus and Lucan.If a love of literature brightened the colours of Leigh Fermor’s world, it also created a deeper yearning, and this is perhaps his most appealing trait, at least to me. Time and again, he writes of the fervour with which he engaged in spirited conversation with his learned hosts or plunged himself into their well-furnished libraries. Here, he gulped great draughts of European history, poring over details of Germanic folklore or piecing together the complex literary heritage of the world through which he was passing, and which was soon to be lost forever. In recounting these moments, his prose reaches its sublime best, as when he talks about the libraries of Prague:

Where, in this half-recollected maze, do the reviving memories of the libraries belong? To the Old University, perhaps, one of the most ancient and famous in Europe, founded by the great King Charles IV in 1384. I’m not sure. But I drive wedge-shaped salients into oblivion nevertheless and follow them through the recoiling mists with enfilading perspectives of books until bay after bay coheres. Each of them is tiered with burnished leather bindings and gold and scarlet gleam on the spines of hazel and chestnut and pale vellum. Globes space out the chessboard floors. There are glass-topped homes for incunables. Triangular lecterns display graduals and antiphonals and Books of Hours and coloured scenes encrust the capitals on the buckled parchment; block-notes and lozenges climb and fall on four-letter Georgian staves where Carolingian uncials and blackletter spell out the responses. The concerted spin of a score of barley-sugar pillars uphold elliptic galleries where brass combines with polished oak, and obelisks and pineapples alternate on the balustrades.

The conceit which underscores this passage – the image of memory as a library – is a key theme throughout both books. Not only does this recall the prodigious literary memory of the young man, it also reminds us of the act of memory that went into the composition of the books themselves. While A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water do an exquisite job in representing the world through the eyes of a 19-year-old, the reader never forgets the mature writer who acts as mediator and amanuensis. For the successful travel writer, war hero and beloved raconteur who wrote these books, these are stories of a half-remembered youth as well as a half-forgotten Europe.‘For now the time of gifts is gone’ runs the line from Louis MacNeice that provides Leigh Fermor’s first title, and it is this faint melancholy which makes both books so powerful. These are the memories of a lifetime, and in writing them down, in revisiting the notebooks and the maps that had lain untouched for years, the writer creates them anew. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the conclusion to the most intimate episode of the sequence. For a giddy chapter, the traveller had careered around Transylvania in a car with his close friend István, and with Angéla, something of a kindred spirit. The reader is caught up in the breathless pleasure of the episode, which climaxes in a manic motor chase with a west-bound train, but which deflates as the companions consider their parting:

The reader may think that I am lingering too long over these pages. I think so too, and I know why: when we reached our destination in an hour or two, we would have come full cycle. It wasn’t only an architectural world, but the whole sequence of these enchanted Transylvanian months that would come to a stop. I was about to turn south, away from all my friends, and the dactylic ring of Magyar would die away. Then there was István; I would miss him bitterly; and the loss of Angéla – who is little more than a darting luminous phantom in these pages – would be a break I could hardly bear to think of; and I can’t help putting off the moment for a paragraph or two.

Everyone has their favourite sections of these extraordinary books, whether they are drinking songs in snow-bound Germany, the majestic descriptions of pre-war Vienna, or the madcap charabanc rides through Transylvania. Mine comes at the beginning of the narrative. The account of the Groote Kirk in Rotterdam isn’t as succulent as some of the richer morsels later on – the young traveller had only just entered the continent, and both he and his older self were keen to get on. But it captures the themes of the book perfectly:

Filled with dim early morning light, the concavity of grey masonry and whitewash joined in pointed arches high overhead and the floor diminished along the nave in a chessboard of black and white flagstones. So compellingly did the vision tally with a score of half-forgotten Dutch pictures that my mind’s eye instantaneously furnished the void with those seventeenth century groups which should have been sitting or strolling there: burghers with pointed corn-coloured beards – and impious spaniels that refused to stay outside – conferring gravely with their wives and children, still as chessmen, in black broadcloth and identical honeycomb ruffs under the tremendous hatchmented pillars. Except for this church, the beautiful city was to be bombed to fragments a few years later. I would have lingered, had I known.

‘I would have lingered, had I known’: these are books for readers, for poets and for travellers. But most of all, they’re books for lingerers.

Anna Sándor de Kénos, friend of Patrick Leigh Fermor – obituary

I have been able to find a copy of the obituary for Anna Sándor de Kénos and hope that you find it interesting reading.

Anna Sándor de Kénos, who has died aged 97, knew Patrick Leigh Fermor in Transylvania when he made his now legendary journey on foot, beginning in 1933, which took him from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople.

They met in July 1934 when he was travelling through Transylvania and Anna Sándor de Kénos was staying with some of her aristocratic neighbours.

This was the period immediately before Communism annihilated the almost feudal way of life of these ancient Transylvanian noble families which Leigh Fermor recorded in Between the Woods and the Water.

Anna Sándor de Kénos was close to the Csernovits family, one of whom, Xenia, became Leigh Fermor’s lover in 1934 and whom he later immortalised as Angela when the book appeared in 1986. She was also close to one of the book’s most enigmatic characters, Elemér von Klobusiczky, who features under the pseudonym Istvan.

Just over a decade later, on the bitterly cold early morning of March 3 1949, the majority of the Transylvanian aristocracy, including the Sándor de Kénos family, were arrested and taken away to internal deportation, Anna among them.

Like many Hungarians she fled Budapest in November 1956 when the Hungarian Uprising was still raging, settling first in New York. She spent the rest of her life helping many of her fellow dispossessed and impoverished aristocrats to settle in the United States. These included members of the Almásy family, one of whom was depicted in the film The English Patient (1996).

Her munificence extended to all Hungarians. However, it was with those still trapped under the repressive Ceausescu regime in her native Transylvania that Anna Sándor de Kénos’s real sympathy lay.

Though tiny in physical stature she earned the nickname “the titaness of Transylvania” for her fearless disregard for officialdom. This extended even to the intimidating Communist apparatchiks in Ceausescu’s Romania, which she revisited regularly from the mid-1960s.

Anna Sándor de Kénos, seated front left, with other members of the Transylvanian nobility in exile at the Plaza Hotel, New York, 1960

Anna Sándor de Kénos, seated front left, with other members of the Transylvanian nobility in exile at the Plaza Hotel, New York, 1960

Another favourite target was officious airport check-in clerks. Once, at Sarasota Airport, Florida, in the mid-1960s when checking in for a connecting flight that would eventually take her onward to Budapest, and laden down with massive overweight baggage containing clothes and food for the poor of Transylvania, she was ordered to pay a substantial overweight baggage charge.

Her response was to point to a lady on her left hand side and declare in a strong Hungarian accent: “Sir, as you can see, I weigh a mere 44 kilos, the lady on my left I reckon about 144, why don’t we split the difference in our combined weights, or perhaps you would rather have me take her with me and make her into a delicious Goulash for my poor people in Transylvania.” The charge was immediately dismissed.

At the age of 92 Anna Sándor de Kénos applied to a US bank for a 30-year mortgage of $100,000. Three years earlier she had walked the excruciatingly long route of the Csíksomlyó pilgrimage to a Marian shrine in central Transylvania, a journey that would have challenged pilgrims half her age.

It was an 
unusual undertaking because the pilgrimage is the highlight of the Catholic calendar in Transylvania and she was a devoted Calvinist. She told a friend that she did it because “anything that was banned under Communism must be good for the soul”.

Anna Sándor de Kénos, known as Annuska, was born on March 21 1921 in Deva, the capital of Hunedoara County, which had been ceded from Hungary to Romania by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon.

The scion of a 16th-century Transylvanian noble family who were long characterised by unflinching determination and optimism in the face of adversity, she was one of two daughters born to Béla Sándor de Kénos and his wife Etelka (née Buda de Galacz), who were then living on the family estate near Deva.

The family’s circumstances were, like so many other “class enemies”, greatly reduced from quite comfortable to an indigent state under Communism in Romania. Though deprived of all the privileges that would have come to one of her class, Anna Sándor de Kénos was never resentful of her reduced situation.

She worked in New York for the renowned cosmetics company created by her fellow Hungarian Ernö László, whose client list included the Duchess of Windsor, Greta Garbo, Ava Gardner and Jacqueline Kennedy, before giving it up to work as a theatre nurse.

Anna Sándor de Kénos in Budapest on her 90th birthday

Anna Sándor de Kénos in Budapest on her 90th birthday

She spent much of her life in Sarasota, keeping open house for Hungarian émigrés. On occasion she had as many as 50 guests for dinner. The only rule was that guests should make a donation for her charitable interests in Transylvania. After the collapse of Communism in 1989 she spent part of the year between Budapest and her native Deva.

Although Anna Sándor de Kénos never married, her name was linked for many years to a Transylvanian nobleman who also never married.

With the death of Anna Sándor de Kénos, the last living link to the Transylvania and Hungary of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water has gone. She is survived by her nephew, Daniel Lészay de Lésza.

Anna Sándor de Kénos, born March 21 1921, died May 18 2018

The last of the Noble Encounters

Anna Sándor de Kénos in 1960

Michael O’Sullivan, the author of the recently published Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania writes to inform us:

It is with great sadness I write to inform the PLF blog readers that the last woman who knew Paddy in Transylvania in 1934 has died at the aged of 97. Anna Sándor de Kenós was thirteen when she met Paddy at the Csernovits mansion in Zam. She was from an ancient Transylvanian noble family and the doyen of the Hungarian ex patriot community in the United States where she moved after the 1956 Uprising against Soviet rule in Hungary.

An obituary was published in the Telegraph but it has some access restrictions.

My apologies to you all for the radio silence over the last few weeks. It was due to some personal reasons, and I now hope that all will get back on track with the blog!

Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania

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

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

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

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

Michael O'Sullivan

Michael O’Sullivan

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

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

Easter 1934 Paddy arrives at the Danube read by Siân Phillips

An Easter treat for you. Siân Phillips reads from page 277 of A Time of Gifts (paperback) as Paddy arrives at the Danube, spots Esztergom, has his passport stamped by the Czechoslovakian border guards, and lingers ‘in the middle of the bridge, meditatively poised in no man’s air.’

‘The air was full of hints and signs. There was a flicker and a swishing along the river like the breezy snip-snap of barbers’ scissors before they swoop and slice. It was the skimming and twirling of newly arrived swifts. A curve in the stream was re-arranging the landscape as I advanced, revealing some of the roofs of Esztergom and turning the Basilica to a new angle as though it were on a pivot. The rolling wooded range of the Bakony Forest had advanced north from the heart of Transdanubia, and the corresponding promontory on the northern shore – the last low foothills of the Marra mountains, whose other extremity subsides in the north eastern tip of Hungary – jutted into the water under the little town of Parkan. Reaching for each other, the two headlands coerced the rambling flood yet once more into a narrower and swifter flow and then spanned the ruffie with an iron bridge. Spidery at first, the structure grew more solid as the distance dwindled. (Twenty miles east of this bridge, the Danube reaches a most important point in its career: wheeling round the ultimate headland of the Balcony Forest and heading due south for the first time on its journey, it strings itself through Budapest like a thread through a bead and drops across the map of Europe plumb for a hundred and eighty miles, cutting Hungary clean in half. Then, reinforced by the Drava, it turns east again, invades Yugoslavia, swallows up the Sava under the battlements of Belgrade, and sweeps on imperturbably to storm the Iron Gates.)

In an hour, I had climbed the cliff-path into the main street of Parkan. A little later my passport was stamped at the frontier post at the Czechoslovakian end of the bridge. The red, white and green barrier of the frontier post at the far end marked the beginning of Hungary. I lingered in the middle of the bridge, meditatively poised in no man’s air.’

(Extract from A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, with thanks to John Murray Publishers.)

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

The Pontic Shores to Salisbury Plain, and Rimini by Rudyard Kipling

Salisbury Plain on Tuesday

As my son Patrick and I tramped south this week from Barbury Castle, past Avebury and Stonehenge, and across the great barren openness of Salisbury Plain, we crossed many Roman Roads. From Old Sarum, we mainly followed the old Roman road that connected the early incarnation of Salisbury with Venta Belgarum, modern-day Winchester. It made me think of Kipling’s poem, Rimini, which reminded me of Paddy and those hundreds of thousands of Legionaries tramping to and fro, from Britain and Gaul, to the Pontic Shores. Paddy also quoted the poem in his introduction to the marvellous In the Trail of Odysseus by Marianna Koromila. His introduction is full of longing for the world at the edge of the Black Sea that he discovered in 1934 and which so soon was to disappear forever. Read Paddy’s full introduction in this blog article from October 2010.

“The whole region seemed an enormous and mysterious antechamber to the whole Mediterranean, unbelievably remote and enigmatic, and ever so soon in danger of fading.”

In the Trail of Odysseus is the story of Yiankos Danielopoulis who died in 1987 at the age of 88. As a Black Sea Greek living through the 20th century his life was uprooted time after time, until at last he was able to settle in Mount Hymettos in mainland Greece in the 1950’s. A marvellous story which I highly recommend (only two copies in stock on Amazon).

Back to Rimini. This is my Christmas gift to you all, and a special thank you to all of you who donated once more to help raise money for the homeless and those suffering from combat induced mental illness. If you would still like to make a donation please visit our Just Giving page. Merry Christmas to you all and your families. Thank you for visiting the Paddy blog in 2017. Plenty of good things to come in 2018. By the way, we have now had almost 1.5 million visits to the blog since we started!

Rimini

by Rudyard Kipling

When I left Rome for Lalage’s sake
By the Legions’ Road to Rimini,
She vowed her heart was mine to take
With me and my shield to Rimini—
(Till the Eagles flew from Rimini—)
And I’ve tramped Britain, and I’ve tramped Gaul,
And the Pontic shore where the snow-flakes fall
As white as the neck of Lalage—
(As cold as the heart of Lalage!)
And I’ve lost Britain, and I’ve lost Gaul,
And I’ve lost Rome and, worst of all,
I’ve lost Lalage!

When you go by the Via Aurelia,
As thousands have travelled before,
Remember the Luck of the Soldier
Who never saw Rome any more!
Oh dear was the sweetheart that kissed him
And dear was the mother that bore,
But his shield was picked up in the heather
And he never saw Rome any more!

And he left Rome, etc.

When you go by the Via Aurelia
That runs from the City to Gaul,
Remember the Luck of the Soldier
Who rose to be master of all!
He carried the sword and the buckler,
He mounted his guard on the Wall,
Till the Legions elected him Cæsar,
And he rose to be master of all!

And he left Rome, etc.

It’s twenty-five marches to Narbo,
It’s forty-five more up the Rhone,
And the end may be death in the heather
Or life on an Emperor’s throne.
But whether the Eagles obey us,
Or we go to the Ravens—alone,
I’d sooner be Lalage’s lover
Than sit on an Emperor’s throne!

We’ve all left Rome for Lalage’s sake, etc.

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.

Floral tourism: on the trail of Transylvania’s elusive crocus

Robin Lane Fox on Nemesis on an evening ride in the Carpathians, Romania © Harriet Rix

Robin Lane Fox on Nemesis on an evening ride in the Carpathians, Romania © Harriet Rix

In idyllic east European sunshine, I have been focusing on a crocus. It is not a purple or yellow-flowered hybrid, one of those Dutch fatties that city dwellers admire in spring. It is a lilac-flowered wild beauty, at home in Transylvania. Even in Romania, few realise the rare charm of its autumn flowers. It avoids main roads and towns, so I have had to ride to find it.

By Robin Lane Fox
First published in The Financial Times 17 October 2017

I recommend this sort of floral tourism. Mine was aimed at crocus banaticus, the iris-flowered crocus which has three big outer petals. I first discovered its distinctive beauty in the Bulletin of the Alpine Garden Society, that seminal influence on the prose-style of the great travel writer Norman Lewis, as he once told me in his sitting room in Essex. About 40 years later, the same crocus was discovered in the same bulletin by Harriet Rix in Devon, my indomitable companion on our ride last year into the high floral meadows of Kyrgyzstan. While we put brave faces on the mountain storms, we discovered a shared love of this crocus and pledged in mares’ milk to find it in its Romanian home. She, not I, realised that it overlaps there with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between The Woods and The Water, the immortal tale of his walk from London to Istanbul. In summer 1934, the 19-year-old Leigh Fermor trod above our crocus, dormant in the Transylvanian grass, while he eloped with high-spirited Angéla, one of those “times when hours are more precious than diamonds”. Between the woods and the meadows we might find gems which flowered in their wake.

The crocus is named “banaticus” from early finds in the Banat, territory that became a bitter triangular contest between Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania, until the Treaty of Versailles divided it between the latter two in 1919. The most recent reports of the flower are further east, so we began our hunt in the Transylvanian villages founded by German-speaking Saxons. In the 12th century, the offer of land and a tax-free life lured thousands of Saxons to migrate from the area of modern Luxembourg and settle in Transylvania. They strengthened the land’s defences and vitalised its crafts and crops, terracing the hillsides and growing apples and productive vines. Between 1980 and 1990, many migrated in reverse. They were sold by Ceausescu, no friend of village life, to the Kohl government in Germany who saw them as loyal voters. Before Ceausescu’s fall, up to 250,000 Saxons returned to take up German citizenship, leaving only a rump to maintain churches, crafts and houses.

The base-camps for our adventures were Saxon houses restored since 1995 by the celebrated Mihai Eminescu trust. Its rentable properties range from double-fronted village houses to two fine manors at Richis and Malancrav with tempting libraries and rooms for up to nine guests.

We began in the Saxon heartland of Viscri whose fortified church gives a special sense of orderly Saxon life. Social ranks and the sexes were segregated in the congregation. Unmarried young men were sent up to the gallery from where they could look down on the plaited hair and hollow black headdresses of the unmarried Saxon girls. Only outside the church was contact possible, on a grassy circle that served as a dance floor. Inside, painted panels show sunflowers and lilies of the valley, “ladders to heaven” in German tradition, among roses and reflexed lilies. I thought of the red roses and “tiger lilies” that Leigh Fermor’s beloved Angéla pushed into his buttonhole at the train station as they took their sad farewell. Of crocus banaticus, there was no sign.

Crocus banaticus growing wild in the fields above Zalanpatak © Harriet Rix

Crocus banaticus growing wild in the fields above Zalanpatak © Harriet Rix

Evidence soon emerged. The main churches of the Saxon villages are Lutheran and in Brasov’s Black Cathedral, their choirs were to assemble and mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. As a noted soprano, Harriet was invited to join them and help with the higher notes. As a spectator with no religion, I was tagged with a wristband and allowed to watch from a front seat. While the choirs rehearsed, I researched the flower stalls of Brasov market and found two bunches of crocus banaticus on a flower-lady’s stall. She had no idea where they had been growing.

After Luther’s setting of Psalm 118, it was time to find out. Tagged by evangelicals, I set off for Copsa Mare where I met my Nemesis and fell in love. Nemesis is a 10-year-old Dutch warmblood mare, 17 hands 3, with a Czech passport. She is stabled nightly beside the tall dark Romulus who was once a gallop-on star in the film Prince Caspian. James and Rachel de Candole offer trips for up to four riders on their beautifully schooled horses, with picnics and overnight stays. Nemesis carried me smoothly past gardens of zinnias, cosmos and calendulas, flowers that I often recommend to readers here. White-flowered wild asters, another favourite, marked our ascent into beechwoods of exceptional beauty but as they also contain wild bears, we had to travel noisily. In Britain it is 12 years since I last halloaed legally for fox hounds. In Transylvania I have been halloaing to keep bears away.

In the crocus’s absence, nearby back gardens offered a big surprise instead — crops of exotic tuberose. An expert grower, Elisabeth, showed us the last tall stems of her crop before she sheltered their roots under winter covers. Tuberose is native to Mexico but it won favour with Maria Theresa, the Habsburg sovereign, and travelled east to the scent-loving Romanians. In rich acid soil, village growers water the plants that departing Saxons left in their care. They will either be gold or earth, they told Elisabeth, but she learnt the golden touch. Of the Banat crocus, however, she knew nothing.

In eastern Transylvania sightings of it are reported near villages of Hungarians, so we headed for a final hunt in Korospatak. There, horses are offered by Count Kalnoky, descendant of a great medieval line, but a sign saying “Shagya Club” marks his driveway, and at first we took it in an English sense. We reversed in haste, not realising it refers to crosses between Arab and thoroughbred horses. After an hour’s climb on brisk brown Rudi, I finally sighted our prey, lilac-blue crocus banaticus flowering leaflessly beneath beech trees.

The further we rode, the more it multiplied, always in damp semi-shade, never in open meadows. In the valley of Zalanpatak we found even thicker masses, including a rare white form, seldom in stock in any bulb-grower’s list. Spreading on the hillsides, were these crocuses natural escapees from gardens? Surely not: they have lived here for millennia, untroubled by Romans, Tatars and Turks who sacked the villages beyond.

In her superb book Peacemakers, Margaret Macmillan describes how the Banat, a “bucolic backwater”, was split between Romania and Yugoslavia in 1919. She warns that it may yet prove contentious territory. In antiquity, Philip, father of Alexander, won a great victory on what was called the Crocus Field in northern Greece. If fighting breaks out in the Banat, I now know my role. Mounted on Nemesis, I will guard the priceless crocuses in its hills.

The Violins of Saint-Jacques Is a Lush Portrait of a Lost World

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It’s not often that we get to see anything about Paddy’s one and only novel so I thought that you might like to see this recent review by Joe Blessing. Why not take some time to take a look at some of the interesting stuff on the blog about The Violins of Saint-Jacques?

“A ball is almost a short lifetime in itself… the ball goes on and on and the incidents stand out in retrospect like a life’s milestones against a flux of time whose miniature years are measured out in dance tunes.”—Berthe de Rennes

Most parties sadly cannot live up to those words, but the tragic Mardi Gras ball in The Violins of Saint-Jacques, spoken by protagonist Berthe de Rennes, truly contains multitudes. The extravagant soiree acts as a glittering prism, reflecting all facets of the culture and curiosities of the fictional Caribbean island of Saint-Jacques (modeled on Martinique) before the island’s daunting volcano erupts and erases the island forever.

The Violins of Saint-Jacques is a slim novel of beguiling contradictions. Though taking place largely over the course of one night, it still feels broad in scope, as the reverberations of that night ring out across the length of a well-traveled life. Another contradiction is that the accomplished novel, first published in 1953 and now reissued by New York Review Books, is the only work of fiction produced in a long life of writing by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Fermor, who died in 2011, lived larger than life in a manner rarely practiced anymore. Compared by some to his friend Ian Fleming’s most famous creation, James Bond, his wartime kidnapping of a German general on Crete was so adventuresome that the great British directors Powell and Pressburger made a film of it, Ill Met By Moonlight (1957) starring Dirk Bogarde as Fermor.

But Fermor is best remembered for an even more youthful endeavor, his 1933 journey by foot across an entire continent, from Belgium to Constantinople, which he began when he was just 18 and documented decades later in a trilogy of modern classics of travel writing, beginning with A Time of Gifts in 1977. His literary reputation rests largely on those books, which both channel his youthful exuberance and also overlay it with a lifetime of erudition, allowing him to expertly pick apart the varying threads of culture he found interwoven as he traversed Europe. Readers of those books will find that the same excellent eye for detail and deep curiosity about local customs in The Violins of Saint-Jacques, which gives a truly staggering amount of cultural detail in just 140 pages.

A brief frame story set on an Aegean island (the area where Fermor lived most of his life) finds a Fermor-like Englishman meeting the mysterious but well-loved Berthe de Rennes in her twilight years. When her painting of Saint-Jacques catches his eye, he entices her to tell its story, the story of her wondrously happy childhood on the colonial outpost, and the fateful Mardi Gras night in 1902 when it all was lost.

Berthe moved from France to Saint-Jacques after losing her parents as a teen, taken in by her distant cousin, the Count de Serindan, and his family. Berthe is soon a cherished member of the family and a confidant of the witty Count. The Count is the kind of splendid character little seen outside of books, a patriarch who uses his wealth and power solely for the pleasure and amusement of those around him. On occasions like Mardi Gras, this largesse extends to the entire island and he spares no expense in hosting lavish parties the entire population looks forward to.

Berthe begins her narration on the day preceding such a ball, leading the reader through the elaborate preparations and the fierce anticipation felt by the young Serindans, especially Berthe’s closest companion, Josephine. A ball might seem a flimsy subject to some, but Fermor’s accomplishment is to see in the ball an embodiment of the island’s society and to organically provide details that cohere into a surprisingly complex portrait. Fermor gives readers the provenance of the songs played, the steps of dances, the length of the swizzle sticks, the scents of the floral decorations, the ingredients of certain drinks, and perhaps most fun, the colors and creatures on the elaborate costumes the black islanders wear as they dance through the streets.

Nor does Fermor withhold human detail, expertly sketching the prejudices and tensions between the proudly Royalist and conservative Creole aristocracy and the new governor just arrived from France with modern ideas. Berthe must leave the party when she learns her beloved Josephine is eloping with the governor’s rakish (and already married) son, leading her to a ship off the island’s coast that saves her from, but allows her to witness, the biblical destruction that wipes the site of her happy childhood off the map.

The Violins of Saint-Jacques is so engrossing and brief that its flaws are easily overlooked. Fermor’s portrayal of any colonial life as idyllic might prove offensive to some, although he takes pains to distinguish the relatively peaceful race relations on Saint-Jacques from the brutal regimes on other nearby islands. The novel has a rather 19th century, predetermined approach to character and never takes the time to delve into any complex interiority or psychology. However, this approach is perhaps fitting in a story that’s not about human agency, but rather about the futility of it in the face of inhuman, impossibly powerful forces.

Fermor was an excellent student of culture, but his own wartime experiences gave him no illusions about their fragility. Despite all readers knowing the eruption is coming (it’s on the back of the book and heavily foreshadowed), it’s still a shock at how brutally and completely it destroys everything that Fermor has just taken such care in describing. The Violins of Saint-Jacques is a charming portrait of a lost world and a potent reminder of just how quickly a culture can disappear.

Postcard from . . . Bulgaria

Illustration by Matthew Cook

Illustration by Matthew Cook

In a cramped office at Bulgaria’s Rila Monastery, a black-robed monk is swiping my passport. Set in a wooded valley 70 miles south of the capital Sofia, Rila is the country’s largest and oldest Orthodox Christian monastery, and a source of intense pride for Bulgarians. Travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor stayed here in 1934 and found a place of “clattering hooves and constant arrivals and departures . . . like that of a castle in the Middle Ages.”

by Tom Allan

First published in the Financial Times

Today the clatter of hooves has been replaced by the rumbling tyres of tour buses and the monastery’s humbug-striped pillars and copper domes are one of Bulgaria’s major tourist attractions. One thing hasn’t changed: the monks still offer accommodation — there are 38 rooms available to pilgrims and non-believers alike. Stay the night and you can explore once the day trippers have departed.

The monastery was founded in the 10th century by the followers of St Ivan of Rila, a hermit who lived in a nearby mountain cave. Its library holds an important collection of medieval manuscripts and there are exceptional wood carvings, including the Cross of Rafail, which took 12 years of surgical chiselling to make, by which time its creator had lost his sight.

The surroundings are special too. The forested slopes that encircle the quadrangle are now a nature reserve with a network of hiking trails. After checking in to my room (basic but comfortable and en suite), I clump out over the cobbles and head for the summit of Dodov Vrah, a 2,597-metre peak that towers over the valley. The path ascends through a beech forest alive with cuckoos and drumming woodpeckers, eventually reaching an open landscape of tussocks, wild violets and creeping juniper bushes. This is halfway; I continue up past the tumbledown remains of shepherds’ huts to reach the snow drifts on the ridge.

From the summit I look north to the crags around the Seven Rila Lakes, then peer down to spot the red-tiled roof of the monastery, 1,500 metres below. The knee-jarring descent leaves me avoiding stairs for a week, but the river in the valley bottom provides a welcome ice bath for my feet.

No food is provided for guests, so I head to a nearby restaurant for a delicious meal of grilled local trout. A sign informs overnight visitors to return before the gates are locked at 8pm, so I gulp down my wine and rush back before curfew. With characteristic Bulgarian punctuality, the doors eventually swing shut at 9pm. Electric lights clunk on around the cloisters and the looming mountains turn a shade darker. Without the clamour of visitors’ voices, other sounds are amplified: the tinkle of the fountains, the screaming of the swifts wheeling around the courtyard, the gargled miaow of one of the monastery cats.

Church bells wake me early the next morning. I step out on to the creaking wooden veranda; overnight rain has drenched the cobbles and mist clings to the forested mountainsides. Apart from a group of doves purring and sipping from a puddle, the quadrangle is still. Inside the church, the monks have begun the morning service. They stand facing the ornate gold-plated iconostasis, a screen inlaid with icons that separates the main nave from the sanctuary, the holiest part of the church. Every so often, a robed figure appears through a door in the screen, vigorously distributing incense from a hanging censer.

After the service I speak to a monk in the reservations office, Hierodeacon Nektarii. In a soft, musical voice he tells me how he came to the monastery as a novice 10 years ago. There are just eight monks at Rila now, he says — in the 19th century there were 200. When the monastery became a national museum in 1961, the remaining monks were all moved out. “People asked: what kind of monastery has no monks? And a few years later a few of us were allowed to return.”

The gargantuan cooking utensils and 1,000-loaf bread oven displayed in the museum date from Rila’s 19th-century heyday. “On feast days the monastery attracted thousands of pilgrims,” Nektarii explains, “and we would feed them all”. Today’s operations are comparatively modest and Nektarii bakes the communion bread himself — still in a traditional ornamental mould “but we use a modern oven now”.

I pack my bags as the quadrangle begins to bustle with tourists again. As I head out past the tour groups and souvenir stands, I think about Nektarii’s description of the 19th-century monastery — a place of feasts, thronging with pilgrims — and of Leigh Fermor’s description of the carnival buzz of Rila. I feel a pang for the loss of that world but I won’t quickly forget the peace of Rila at dawn.

Details: Twin rooms at Rila Monastery cost from 50 levs (£22) and can be booked in person at the reservations office in the monastery or by phone (+359 07054 2208). For more general tourism information, see bulgariatravel.org

Painting Paddy’s Greece

Gerolimenas by Katyuli Lloyd (Source: Oldie magazine Aug 2017)

Some readers have advised me that there is an article in this month’s Oldie magazine by Katyuli Lloyd about her meeting with Paddy, and her work on the illustrations for Folio editions of Mani and Roumeli.

An example of her work is above and I’m pretty sure that’s Gerolimenas on the Mani, a place where I stayed on holiday last year.

You can access the article here online by subscription or if in the UK you ocan probably buy the magazine from your local newsagent.

Bicycle polo: did Paddy know he was playing an Olympic sport?

Thanks to Richard Augood who sent me this interesting little article from BBC News. Cycle polo was a demonstration sport at the 1908 London Olympics with Ireland winning the gold, beating Germany.

Many haven’t heard of bike polo but a surge in numbers could soon change that.
Bike polo players in Birmingham gather for their weekly game and have attracted the attention of many newcomers.
Major bike polo competitions are held across Europe and attracts large crowds.
An Olympic sport at the beginning of the last century, bike polo players back then competed on grass, rather than on today’s clay courts.
What do today’s players think of the sport?

Follow this link to watch a short video!

Read more on Wikipedia.

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 funeral at Melk

The abbey at Melk

The abbey at Melk

Paddy described it as a “quinquireme amongst abbeys”. It is a benevolent sleeping giant above the little town of Melk and the Danube. To the east lies the Wachau, one of the most magnificent stretches of river scenery in Europe, and the eastern foothills of the Alps, to the west, Mauthausen and Bavaria. The huge and imposing Abbey at Melk continues to fascinate.

By Roslyn Jolly

First published in The Saturday Paper

This sure is a quiet town.” I’m almost whispering, unwilling to have my voice ring out in the silent streets. “Where is everybody?” It’s about seven in the evening, and as we climb the zigzag pathways to the great church on the hill, there is scarcely another soul around.

We’re going to a funeral. My friend saw the notice pinned unobtrusively to a post in the hotel bar: There will be a service at the abbey tonight for one of the monks, who has died suddenly, before his time. A popular man, a local favourite, highly regarded, sadly missed, the notice says. The community is invited to pay its respects.

We are not of the community, but we are curious, so through the dark streets and up the stone staircases we go. I haven’t yet connected the desertion of the town with the funeral at the abbey. As we approach the elegant arched entrance to the monastery precinct, we see fire engines crowding the forecourt. My friend interprets the scene better, and more quickly, than I do. I’m thinking, “A fire at the abbey? During a monk’s funeral? How very Umberto Eco.” But my friend has lived long enough in Austria to understand that not a Gothic but a civic explanation is required.

The people of Melk and all the parishes of the surrounding Wachau district have turned out in force, in uniform, through whatever structure of collective identity they can call upon, to mark the passing of their brother. Every club, team, order, guild, society, brotherhood, sisterhood, Bund, Verein and Gesellschaft is here. Not just represented here, but actually here, in body, en masse. Every fireman, policeman and Boy Scout wears his uniform; every teacher, nurse and union official is badged. The farmers are here, and so are the municipal councillors from nearby villages. Their gleaming trucks, cars and engines, freshly washed and highly polished, identify the various communities, trades and professions to which these people are clearly proud to belong.


This is the guard of honour outside the church. We walk through it. At the church door, uniformed officials keep watch. I would have turned away, but my friend is unabashed. His six years’ residence in Vienna probably helps. “We’re here for Brother A—’s funeral,” he says confidently, I forget whether in English or in German. The young man in his uniform scrutinises us for a second or two, then opens the door and gestures for us to proceed.

Inside there is colour, gold, incense, music, faces, voices, more gold. The Stiftskirche is a baroque jewellery box, glorious in candlelight, vibrant with song and incantation. There is only standing room. The service is already under way and, of course, being neither Austrian nor Catholic, I understand very little of what is being said or done, but experience the funeral as a dance of feeling between priests and townspeople. A modestly draped coffin is the focus for the energies of community expressed in music and liturgy, which, soaring, match the visual splendour of the scene.

Tomorrow we will come back, and we will see the abbey as the guidebooks and the travel writers promise it. We will see the palatial exterior, painted in sunny Schönbrunn yellow. We will see the beautiful rococo courtyard, with its palms and fountains, and think of it as a prettier Versailles. We will see the famous library with its ancient books, and peer into the pastel-coloured whorl of the shell-like spiral staircase. We will stand on the terrace and gaze at the lovely view of the Danube Valley. We will do all that a visitor to Melk is supposed to do, and it will be wonderful, but it will not be like this.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, in A Time of Gifts, called Melk Abbey the “high noon” of Europe, the highest point of the “high baroque style”. The prose he used to describe it is sunshiny and light-saturated. He even makes noon at Melk his hour of epiphany as well as his key metaphor: “Meridian glory surrounded us as a clock in the town struck twelve.” But I’ve fallen for Melk Abbey at night – not at midnight, the Gothic hour when romance writers find dark mysteries in conventual spaces, but at a civil hour, between seven and eight in the evening, when the river cruisers have gone back to their ships and the people of the town may come out, after work and an early dinner, to interact with the real working life of the monastic order that has existed here for more than a thousand years.

The funeral ends and we file out with the hundreds of mourners to watch the coffin carried to a vehicle that will take it to a burial ground beyond the monastery walls. My friend is troubled by the seeming severity of this custom. “But he would have served here his whole life,” he says. “Why can’t he be buried here too? It’s as if, at his death, he’s being expelled from the religious community.”

We puzzle over this and can’t really do anything with it. It feels harsh. The coffin looks very solitary as it waits to be conveyed through the gates into the darkness beyond. After the uplifted atmosphere in the church, the mood in the forecourt has become sombre, almost austere. All stand in silence, many with heads bowed. We – my friend and I – watch our unknown brother set out for the undiscovered country.

After the coffin has left, the firemen return to their trucks, the policemen to their cars. The Boy Scouts form lines and leave under the supervision of their troop leaders. We depart through the same archway by which we entered. At first we’re part of a throng, but the crowds quickly melt away. No one walks the same path as we do, the path that leads down stone stairs and through narrow alleys to the main street, where the hotels and restaurants are.

Melk will glow tomorrow in autumnal sunshine and we will see all that should be seen by a visitor to this beautiful mediaeval town. But tonight we’ve seen something different. We have interloped. We have slipped through the net that keeps tourists within the spaces designed for them. We’ve found our way to the secret life of a town. Just for an hour, we have gone to the other side.

The gravitational pull of a unique personality

Patrick Leigh Fermor, left, met Heinrich Kreipe, his former captive, at a reunion in Greece in 1972 which included the famous Greek TV show

Patrick Leigh Fermor, left, met Heinrich Kreipe, his former captive, at a reunion in Greece in 1972 which included the famous Greek TV show

We all discovered Paddy by different routes, but if one follows the thread of certain ideas, one can often find it leads to Patrick Leigh Fermor. My own journey started with my interest in Byzantine history; the link with Constantinople and Steven Runciman being my link. It was therefore a great joy to hear from a former colleague with whom I had lost touch some years ago. Chris Wares has discovered Paddy through his interest in the work of Antony Beevor, and after finding this blog he wrote to me explaining his own Paddy journey. He has agreed to me publishing it here. How did you first encounter Paddy? Maybe you can tell us in the comments section.

by Chris Wares

Unlike probably everyone reading this I have yet to actually read any of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books. In fact I’m ashamed to say that a year ago I hadn’t even heard of the man. But over the past twelve months I have found myself being inexorably drawn towards the man and his books. Unknowingly at first and then, after what I can only describe as a sort of literary epiphany, I realised that I was in the gravitational pull of a unique personality, a name that kept turning everywhere I looked. Gradually I came to terms with the realisation that I would be compelled to read his books.

I am sure everyone has their own story on how they became acquainted with PLF but, as I stand on the precipice of opening one of his books for the first time, I thought I would describe how I arrived at this point.

It all began about a year ago when I read Crete: The Battle and the Resistance by Antony Beevor. Beevor is one of my favourite authors and so, while not being especially interested in the war in Crete, I was confident that my investment would be rewarded. Amongst the broad sweep of battle Beevor describes the tale of a British SOE soldier who possessed a larger than life character. A man who captures a German general from under their noses and then marches him across the mountains with half the German army on his tail. It was a scintillating story but the name of the hero didn’t particularly register in my mind.

A few weeks later I read Natural Born Heroes: The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by another of my favourite authors, Christopher McDougall. McDougall’s stories of long distance runners provide great inspiration for those that are needing motivation to get down to the business of training for a marathon. In the book McDougall writes of ancient Greek demigods who had discovered the secrets of endurance running. Switching to the twentieth century, he describes in reverential tones the superhuman endurance of a British soldier called Paddy who possessed the same qualities. It’s the same guy.

OK. So it’s a good tale and worth retelling but surely this was just coincidence. Sure, it’s a great yarn about the Battle of Crete and it also works as a modern day fable about god-like feats of endurance. But this was just one of those things right? The sort of tale anyone writing about Crete includes.

Then several months later I booked a romantic weekend in Brasov, Transylvania, for my wife’s birthday. A rare opportunity for us to get away without the kids and visit somewhere slightly off the beaten track. To get to know the place better I decided to do my homework and read up on Romania. These days, tied down by kids and mortgages, my wanderlust is largely restricted to armchair adventures. Travel books and histories providing an enjoyable way of vicariously travel the world.

I picked up Anthony Eales Blue River, Black Sea, a light and enjoyable read recounting his journey by bicycle and boat from the source of the Danube down to the Black Sea. Eales opens by describing how he decided to emulate the journey some guy called Patrick Leigh Fermor made in the 1930s down the Danube who also happened to kidnap a German general in Crete…. Hang on a minute? Kidnapped a German general in Crete? This can’t be the same bloke can it?

It’s at that point I turn to Google. Who was this guy? A good story can be a matter of circumstance; a combination of events that a person can just be caught up in. But appearing heroic in two separate dramas suggests a character that possesses something special. A man who “drank from a different fountain” as some might say.

I quickly found myself getting up to speed on the basics – SOE, renowned travel writer, author of three books about walking across Europe in the 1930s, the last of which was edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper. This was sounding good. I like Colin Thubron. And Artemis Cooper? That’s a name that rings a bell? Of course! – she co-wrote Paris After the Liberation: 1944 – 1949 with Beevor (which I also just read).

Another Google search and I realise that Beevor and Cooper are married and obviously share an admiration for PLF. And – just to reinforce the impression that everything was in some way joined up and connected to the man – it turns out that Cooper is the daughter of John Julius Norwich whose A History of Venice I read in August. I was beginning to get the feeling that Patrick Leigh Fermor was something special. I was in the orbit of something that deserved further investigation.

My armchair exploration of Romania continued through the Autumn and it soon felt as if all roads led to Patrick Leigh Fermor. The author Nick Thorpe talks about him in The Danube: A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest while travelling along the Danube in the opposite direction to Eales. Nick Hunt follows in his footsteps in Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn. William Blacker quotes him extensively in Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania (which incidentally is one of the loveliest books I have read in a long time) and Dervla Murphy contrasts 1990s Romania with his descriptions of the 1930s in Transylvania and Beyond. Georgina Harding quotes him in In Another Europe: A Journey to Romania. At times it felt as if everyone who had ever visited Romania in the past 40 years had read his books.

With his writing venerated by so many, the signs were clear that I needed to read him for myself. Here was someone who is not only considered one of the best travel writers ever but someone whose books inspired so much else that I read and enjoyed. My curiosity piqued I enthusiastically went on a bookstore spending spree and purchased all three books of the trilogy as well as his biography.

The books have sat patiently on my bedside table for some time now, but the moment of turning that first page is fast approaching. Logically the trilogy should form part of my Romanian literary journey but I have purposely set them aside and held back until the moment is right. The books may be the finalé to my Romanian odyssey but I feel as if they may also be first steps of an entirely new journey.

It’s rare to have such a sense of anticipation ahead of reading a new book. Such a build up runs the risk of the reality failing to live up to the expectation and I am nervous that perhaps I may not find his books as exquisite as I have come to imagine them to be. But on the other hand I am reassured with the knowledge that I am following in the footsteps of many others.

And now to turn that first page and follow path that is well trodden; one which all of those who are reading this will have already travelled….

Twelfth Night by Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice

We all know the line “For now the time of gifts is gone” but are we familiar with the full poem? Louis MacNeice wrote Twelfth Night shortly after the end of World War 2. It is one of a group in which MacNeice records the loosening of the social bonds that bound British citizens, and the armed forces in particular, during the war.

Twelfth Night by Louis MacNeice

Snow-happy hicks of a boy’s world –
O crunch of bull’s-eyes in the mouth,
O crunch of frost beneath the foot –
If time would only remain furled
In white, and thaw were not for certain
And snow would but stay put, stay put!

When the pillar-box wore a white bonnet –
O harmony of roof and hedge,
O parity of sight and thought –
And each flake had your number on it
And lives were round for not a number
But equalled nought, but equalled nought!

But now the sphinx must change her shape –
O track that reappears through slush,
O broken riddle, burst grenade –
And lives must be pulled out like tape
To measure something not themselves,
Things not given but made, but made.

For now the time of gifts is gone –
O boys that grow, O snows that melt,
O bathos that the years must fill –
Here is dull earth to build upon
Undecorated; we have reached
Twelfth Night or what you will … you will.

Kennt ihr das Land in deutschen Gauen

One of my favourite posts from 2011. I thought I would share this one more time at this Christmas time. A Merry Christmas to you all and I wish you a peaceful 2017. Thank you for supporting the blog during the course of another year. Please keep sending in your contributions and comments; they keep it lively …

I guess that many of us enjoy the chapter in A Time of Gifts when the eighteen year old Paddy spent two nights in Stuttgart with two very pretty nineteen year old German girls, Lise and Annie. It was Epiphany, 6th January 1934, and they went to a party where Paddy had to pretend to be Mr Brown, a family friend. He particularly enjoyed singing a song about the Neckar Valley and Swabia. Paddy could not remember all the words but his stunning memory recalled most of them (page 66).

As we approach that time of year I thought we ought to share this delightful song.

Here is a link to the music sung by a German choir (it should download the file to your computer which is harmless and does still work). The words are below so that you too can sing along! Let’s hear it now, one two three ….

  1. Kennt ihr das Land in deutschen Gauen,
    Das schönste dort am Neckarstrand?
    Die grünen Rebenhügel schauen
    Ins Tal von hoher Felsenwand.

Refrain:
Es ist das Land, das mich gebar,
Wo meiner Väter Wiege stand,
Drum sing’ ich heut’ und immerdar:
Das schöne Schwaben ist mein Heimatland!

2. Kennt ihr das Land in deutschen Gauen,
Mit Wald und Flur so reich bekränzt,
Wo auf den weiten, reichen Auen
Im Sonnenschein die Ähre glänzt?
Es ist das Land, . . . . .

3. Kennt ihr das Land in deutschen Gauen,
Wo Tann’ und Efeu immer grün,
Wo starke Männer, edle Frauen
In deutscher Kraft und Sitte blühn?
Es ist das Land, . . . . .4. Kennt ihr das Land im deutschen Süden,
So oft bewährt in Kampf und Streit,
Dem zwischen seiner Wälder Frieden
So frisch die deutsche Kraft gedeiht? Ja, wackre Deutsche laßt uns sein!
Drauf reichet euch die deutsche Hand;
Denn Schwabenland ist’s nicht allein:
Das ganze Deutschland ist mein Heimatland!

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

Event reminder: The Cretan Legacy, 26 October at 7.00 pm

If you are sorting out your diary for next week and happen to be in London on Wednesday, a good way to spend the evening may be to come along to Waterstones Piccadilly to this special event.

Our good friend, ex-Coldstream Guards officer, sometime Pilgrim, and author of In the Dolphin’s Wake and Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim, Harry Bucknall has been busy over the summer arranging a very special event be held at Waterstones Piccadilly on Wednesday 26th October at 7pm. The Cretan Legacy, a panel discussion, will examine the SOE abduction of General Heinrich Kreipe carried out by Paddy Leigh Fermor, Billy Moss and men of the Greek Andantes on Crete in 1943.

The panel, chaired by former Irish Guards Officer and SAS Squadron Commander, James Lowther-Pinkerton, will include Alan Ogden, SOE expert and author of Sons of Odysseus; Chris White, contributing author to Abducting a General; Rick Stroud, author of Kidnap in Crete and Dr Klaus Schmider, military historian, senior lecturer at the Dept of War Studies, RMA Sandhurst and Wehrmacht expert. With audience questions, the panel will discuss whether “this Hussar Stunt” – as Kreipe referred to his capture – was worth the undertaking in both the short and long term and assess its achievement, legacy and place in the annals of military history, endeavour and folklore.

No doubt there will be wine and a chance to chat to friends old and new so do come along if you can to Waterstones Piccadilly on Wednesday 26th October at 7pm. All you have to do is reserve a £5 ticket in store or by emailing Piccadilly@waterstones.com. I think just turning up on the night will be just fine too.

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

Event: The Cretan Legacy

The kidnap gang pose before the action (Courtesy of Estate of William Stanley Moss)

The kidnap gang pose before the action (Courtesy of Estate of William Stanley Moss)

Our good friend, ex-Coldstream Guards officer, sometime Pilgrim, and author of In the Dolphin’s Wake and Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim, Harry Bucknall has been busy over the summer arranging a very special event be held at Waterstones Piccadilly on Wednesday 26th October at 7pm. The Cretan Legacy, a panel discussion, will examine the SOE abduction of General Heinrich Kreipe carried out by Paddy Leigh Fermor, Billy Moss and men of the Greek Andantes on Crete in 1943.

The panel, chaired by former Irish Guards Officer and SAS Squadron Commander, James Lowther-Pinkerton, will include Alan Ogden, SOE expert and author of Sons of Odysseus; Chris White, contributing author to Abducting a General; Rick Stroud, author of Kidnap in Crete and Dr Klaus Schmider, military historian, senior lecturer at the Dept of War Studies, RMA Sandhurst and Wehrmacht expert. With audience questions, the panel will discuss whether “this Hussar Stunt” – as Kreipe referred to his capture – was worth the undertaking in both the short and long term and assess its achievement, legacy and place in the annals of military history, endeavour and folklore.

No doubt there will be wine and a chance to chat to friends old and new so do come along if you can to Waterstones Piccadilly on Wednesday 26th October at 7pm. All you have to do is reserve a £5 ticket in store or by emailing Piccadilly@waterstones.com