William Dalrymple introduces Artemis Cooper discussing Paddy’s writing including his first major work, The Traveller’s Tree, at the Jaipur Literature Festival
I am grateful to Marc Woodworth for sending me this feature about Paddy posted in Salmagundi Magazine.
It includes excerpts from three essays:
- Joanna Kavenna on memory and the past in A Time of Gifts
- George Prochnik on Byzantium and style in Mani
- Bina Gogineni on exoticism in The Traveller’s Tree
Plus exclusive online contributions from Nick Delbanco, Nick Delbanco, our very own Nick Hunt (Following Fermor in Romania)
and a Micro-Anthology selected by Michael Ondaatje, Thomas de Waal, Michael Gorra, Andrew Eames and photographs of Kövecses by Andrew Hillard.
Download the pdf here … salmagundi magazine
We continue our series of articles looking at the work of Ian Fleming who was a friend of Paddy. Fleming was influenced by Paddy’s exploits and he used the Traveller’s Tree in particular as a source for Live and Let Die.
By Matthew Woodcock
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 14 December 2013
There is one last James Bond book from the late 1950s that remains unpublished. We will not find the typescript lurking in the archives, nor hidden amongst the papers held by Ian Fleming’s estate, for this book is not about James Bond but written by Bond himself. It is from Fleming’s 1959 novel Goldfinger that we learn that 007 spends his hours on night duty at the Secret Service compiling a manual on unarmed combat called Stay Alive!, containing the best that had been written on the subject by his peers in intelligence agencies around the world. Bond is more industrious in the field than at the typewriter and no more is heard about this great unfinished work once his thoughts drift back to his previous assignment and time spent enjoying the company of the ill-fated Jill Masterson.
It should come as no surprise that Fleming’s hero has writerly pretensions. Yet again, Bond and his creator have interests or characteristics in common, along with their shared dash of Scottish ancestry and background in naval intelligence, and a similar penchant for custom-made Morlands cigarettes. During his twenties, Fleming read widely in French and German literature — Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain was a particular favourite — and he subscribed to all the avant garde literary magazines of the day. He experimented briefly with poetry, collected first editions for a while, and launched the Book Collector magazine. Ultimately, through his friend and later editor, the poet and novelist William Plomer, he entered the literary world of postwar London, met T.S. Eliot and befriended Edith Sitwell. But to what extent did these kind of literary and bibliographic interests shape or influence Fleming’s work when he began writing the Bond books?
Bond too is, of course, a man of books. Fleming took the name of his hero from the spine of a trusted ornithological guide to the West Indies. And the seemingly effortless, spontaneous genesis of the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, published in 1953, drew as much upon the author’s reading of Dornford Yates, John Buchan and ‘Sapper’ (creator of Bulldog Drummond) as it did on his wartime experiences.
The clubland stalwarts were formative influences on Fleming, but they are — at best — literature spelt with a very small ‘l’. Bond himself has bookish impulses: the book-lined sitting-room glimpsed briefly in Moonraker is a valuable resource, used in preparations for forthcoming missions, furnishing him in this instance with a volume on card-sharping by John Scarne. Researching details of voodoo rites in Live and Let Die, Bond consults The Traveller’s Tree by Fleming’s friend Patrick Leigh Fermor. Appropriately enough, 007 also likes a good thriller and purchases the latest Raymond Chandler at the close of Goldfinger, and in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service displays a ready familiarity with the Nero Wolfe series, written by the equally well-read Rex Stout. It turns out that M too knows of Wolfe. En route to Istanbul in From Russia with Love, Bond enjoys a literary busman’s holiday by reading Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios.
One might pause to consider just how do spies respond to fictional rehearsals of their trade? Did 007 snort in derision at Ambler’s accidental hero — himself a crime writer — or nod in recognition at his frustrations and disillusionment? Would he compare the quality of Ambler’s villains with those that he himself routinely faced in the field? Fleming’s villains themselves also appreciate a good book. At the start of From Russia with Love we discover that SMERSH’s chief executioner, Red Grant, likes to unwind by reading P.G. Wodehouse, and no one in the organisation would dare question such a choice.
Literary references and analogies frequently run through Bond’s mind: an allusion to Paradise Lost appears in the short story ‘Risico’, where he is disguised, naturally, as a writer; a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson strikes him in Diamonds are Forever, when he realises that he is sharing a ship with two of the Spangled Mob’s henchmen; he even attempts composing a haiku in You Only Live Twice.
None of the above, read in context, would have found a receptive audience with the likes of Eliot and Sitwell, or indeed among the literary pals of Fleming’s wife Ann. Fleming’s at times uneasy proximity to such circles never influenced the Bond books’ plot or structure, nor determined his initial choice of genre, but it did shape the author’s conception of the ‘literary’ and his recognition of how appreciation of ‘fine’ writing and the ‘right’ kind of books might be used for rhetorical effect, to engender the desired impression of his central character. The literary references in the Bond books are comparable to the furnishing of technical details about cars, dining, drinks, gambling and the like that the author employs to ground his fantastic plots in a recognisable reality — what Kingsley Amis identified as ‘the Fleming effect’. They help to build up Bond’s characterisation in deft, if brief, brushstrokes.
It could be suggested that the spy thriller itself — certainly after Somerset Maugham’s 1928 Ashenden — became the perfect genre with which to explore so many of the anxieties about identity and its representation to which the modernist greats gave expression. Like Eliot’s Prufrock, Bond and his peers are for-ever preparing ‘a face to meet the faces’ that they meet, always working with that lurking uncertainty as to whether they are the hero or the anti-hero of their own life’s narrative. Joseph Conrad had earlier delved into similar territory in his thriller The Secret Agent.
Had Fleming lived to tell of 007’s eventual retirement from the Secret Service we would undoubtedly have witnessed Bond swap his Walther for a pen and become a writer, thus following the career path of previous agents turned authors, W. Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, John le Carré, Stella Rimington and, of course, Fleming himself. He might even have completed Stay Alive!
This was presented at the RGS in the afternoon talk on 12 December “Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Appreciation by Alexander Maitland, FRGS”.
My thanks to the Royal Geographic Society for permission to present this.
Download a pdf of this document here.
…. an Indian hut in El Castillo (Nicaragua?) where Paddy sang to the accompaniment of an Indian playing his guitar. What on earth did he sing?
I am grateful to Phyllis Willis for being a better mole than me and finding Hakon Morne’s book translated into English as “Caribbean Symphony”. She has purchased a copy but was clever enough to get a couple of scans whilst she waits for her book to arrive. I am delighted to be able to share these with you now.
A few copies of the book are still available on Amazon.co.uk
I have received a very interesting email from Bo Nensén in Sweden. He recounts a story from the work of the prolific Swedish travel writer Håkan Mörne, about Joan and Paddy travelling onwards to mainland South America after their travels in the Antilles. I think this is something that we know little about. It raises the question of how do we find out more about this episode in their travels? Take a look at Bo’s message and let’s see if we can find out more together.
[Edit: something this morning reminded me that Paddy once wrote about speaking Greek in South America – was it in Roumeli, Mani or even Three Letters? This may give us a clue. … Further edit – found it: the start of Chapter 3 of Roumeli when in Panama City]
Like many others I was also delighted to find your PLF blog. I must have missed it when I made a search for PLF last year but in any case I then noted the existence of “In tearing haste” and ordered it even if I haven’t read it until two months ago when I first learned about his death.
I first discovered PLF when I in a Swedish English language book-club found “Between the Woods and the Water” in early 1988. Soon I ordered “A Time of Gifts” as well. Later in the 90’s I read the books again in correct order. Later I also ordered “Mani” and “Roumeli” but never really got to read them in full. Still earlier I even bought “A Time to Keep Silence” but it remains unread. In the later part of the 90’s I discovered through the Internet “Three Letters from the Andes”. A year before, 1996, when following my son to a shop for second-hand comics when investigating the shelfs for ordinary books I to my surprise found a Swedish translation of “The Traveller’s Tree” from 1954! Price 2:- SEK, i.e. approx. 20 p! This of course only covers the Antilles and as far as I know he has not written anything about the part of the travel through Central America(?)
I had no idea about his visit to the mainland until I happened to read a book by a Finland-Swedish travel writer by the name Håkan Mörne (1900-1961). In one of his books he describes how he on a ship on Lago de Nicaragua meets Joan and Patrick (and Costa) and how they travel together to the Atlantic coast. This part comprises 30-40 pages and there is even a picture of PLF when singing(!) Mexican songs.
Are you aware of this book? I don’t know if anything by Håkan Mörne is translated into English. The version I’ve got is called, in translation, “Volcanoes and Bananas” but there is a previous, somewhat longer edition titled “TheGilded Poverty” (which I’m now about to order from an antiquarian bookshop.
Bo Nensén, Örnsköldsvik, Sweden
Before he was a writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor was merely a war hero, having earned his first fame from deep-cover exploits with the Greek Resistance. During World War II he hid in the rugged mountains of Crete, leading cat-and-mouse strikes against the German occupiers—experience that surely served him well a couple years later when, as he describes in his account of postwar travels in the Caribbean, The Traveller’s Tree, he ventured once again into hostile territory: the Dunghill in Kingston, Jamaica. This rickety slum, the “refuge of all the robbers and footpads and murderers of Jamaica,” was also the stronghold of the “passionately anti-white” Rastafari. Despite being warned that even police officers and black Jamaicans scarcely dared enter their compound, he strolls in with only feigned ignorance for armor. “I was just going for a walk,” he explains when accosted. “What are the Rastafari?”
First published in Book Forum
Before long, the droopy-lidded devotees of Jah are not only answering his question in detail but also “hospitably” rolling him a joint “unwieldy as an ice-cream cone.” Here already in Leigh Fermor’s first book, originally published in 1950, is the winning mix of nerve, curiosity, and cheer, so charming to readers and other cultists, that marks his two-part masterpiece, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), an account of a rather longer walk, from Holland to Turkey. But unlike those volumes, The Traveller’s Tree, which skips along the Antillean island chain from Trinidad to Cuba, was written within only a year or two of the trip it records. Leigh Fermor’s European trek, on the other hand, had four decades to mellow and ramify in memory before he wrote about it. For all its remarkable vivacity, that later work doesn’t preserve the sort of small irritations that give some passages here a cranky (and often very funny) edge, complementing his usual lyricism. He notes that “hotel cooking in [Trinidad] is so appalling that a stretcher may profitably be ordered at the same time as dinner,” complains of the “thuggish vegetation” that blankets the southerly islands, and, on realizing that he has been the victim of a friendly prank, emits a “H’m” of pique.
The pranksters are three black waitresses—not a coincidence in a book that unavoidably centers on racial tension. Leigh Fermor revels in genealogy and loves explaining why who ended up where, historically speaking; elsewhere, he focuses on the “ethnological rock-pools of Europe,” peripheral groups whose racial history, rightly or wrongly, often feels slightly academic. But here, in presenting a “report on the birth pangs of our postwar world,” as Joshua Jelly-Schapiro puts it in his introduction, Leigh Fermor confronts again and again the raw wounds of incipient decolonization. A chance meeting with a Guadeloupean woman sets the tone: “You’re white and we’re black,” she shouts. “What of it?”
He worries at that question throughout with an open-mindedness unusual for his class and era (notwithstanding the use of terms, such as childish and primitive, that have long since been struck from the anthropological lexicon). He doesn’t just condemn segregation, he seems actually to feed on cultural miscegenation. The “blood-curdling gentility” of white Barbados looks all the more pathetic when juxtaposed with his portrait of “startlingly cosmopolitan” and “fantastically carefree” Trinidad—itself a mere appetizer compared with his thirty-eight-page treatment of Haitian voodoo (a certain slackness of narrative is one of the flaws he had yet to iron out). It supplements diligent fieldwork—he counts seventy distinct voodoo spirits—with library digging, Leigh Fermor being a man so book-drunk that he compares the delicate task of harvesting hearts of palm to the “handling of a codex.” In fact, he seems to stop at every library and graveyard in the islands, grateful for these rare outcroppings of history in the “recent world of the Antilles.”
Some people travel to blot home, or the past, from their minds. Not Leigh Fermor, who always keeps one compass leg fixed in his intellectual home—literary Europe. The book closes with words from his seatmate on the return trip, an emigrant Greek, and opens by describing his trip as an Odyssey. Sixty years and seven books later, that almost seems like an understatement. After all, Odysseus left home only once.
First published in The Times Literary Supplement, 6 July 2011
There was a time in the early 1950s when, upon arrival in the TLS office of a book about cannibalism or Voodoo, the editor would drop it in an envelope and say, “This is one for Paddy”. Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died last month at the age of ninety-six, is now best known for his connection to Greece and his youthful trek across Central Europe in the direction of Constantinople (as he insisted on calling it). But in his first book, The Traveller’s Tree, an account of a journey by schooner through the Caribbean islands published in 1950, he was in pursuit of “the whole phenomenon of Afro-American religion”. Before long, the TLS was commissioning the former mountain guerrilla fighter and Intelligence Corps Liaison Officer to write on related matters. He could open a review of a book on Haiti in 1953 by telling readers that “The bibliography of Voodoo – or Voudoun, as some purists insist, with little basis, on spelling it – mounts impressively”. A discussion of cannibalism in the correspondence columns of the TLS was just the sort of thing to elicit a contribution from Fermor: “Apropos of the recent letters about the ethical and culinary aspects of cannibalism, may I quote from a book I wrote years ago . . .”.
There followed a list of the gustatory advantages of various folk, according to the palates of the Caribs who “invaded the Caribbean chain, eating all the male Arawaks they could lay hands on and marrying their widows”. The book he wished to quote from was, of course, The Traveller’s Tree (it was by now 1980), which included this pre-Columbian version of a restaurant review:
“French people were considered delicious, and by far the best of the Europeans, and next came the English. The Dutch were dull and rather tasteless, while the Spanish were so stringy and full of gristle as to be practically uneatable.”
In later years, Paddy – as he was known to friend, reader and stranger alike – wrote for this paper on various topics, including Crete, scene of his wartime adventure. In the common run of Grub Street, there are many people one could call on to evaluate an anthology of nonsense – but Poiémate me Zographies se Mikra Paidia, which Paddy reviewed in 1977, was nonsense in modern Greek. In December 1979, he contributed a clamorous, ringing poem on the subject of Christmas:
What franker frankincense, frankly, can rank
in scents with fawn-born dawning
Weak we in Christmas week, lifetime a shriek-
ing streak – lend length and strengthen!
Poultice the harm away, charm the short
solstice day! Send strength and lengthen!
Among other curiosities we found on rooting through the archive was this plea from May 1968: “Patrick Leigh Fermor, author, traveller: biographical information, letters, personal reminiscences for biography”. The requester was J. Marder, writing from Athens. What became of it, and him? An authorized biography by Artemis Cooper is expected to appear at the end of next year.
We have received this “personal reminiscence” from a correspondent:
“In 2005, I was commissioned by a newspaper to write a profile of Patrick Leigh Fermor. A preliminary meeting took place at the West London home of Magouche Fielding, widow of Xan, PLF’s comrade-in-arms, but my editor insisted that no piece about Fermor could appear without a first-hand account of the house which he designed and helped build in the mid-1960s in Mani, at the southernmost tip of the Peloponnese. So it was that, after an overnight stay in Athens and a five-hour drive to the village of Kardamyli, I rang Paddy from a seaside pension.
“‘Good Lord. You’re here already!’ he exclaimed, though all proper warning had been issued. ‘Look here. Come to supper straight away. It’ll be a rotten supper. But come to supper straight away.’ Desiring nothing more than an ouzo followed by a soft pillow, I had the presence of mind to resist. Paddy was understanding. ‘Look here. Come to lunch tomorrow. It’ll be a much better lunch.’ Suppers and lunches, it transpired, were prepared by different maids.
“At about one the following day I set off for the two-kilometre walk from Kardamyli, with directions from a villager. ‘As the road bends to the left, you take the footpath to the right. Go through the olive grove, and arrive at Mr Fermor’s door.’ What could be simpler? There was indeed a bend in the road and a footpath to the right. But there was also another, closer to the bend, up ahead. Then another. After involuntary exploration of hitherto uncharted olive groves and what seemed a sizeable stretch of the Mediterranean coast, I squelched into Paddy’s house from the shore, to find him seated on the sofa reading the TLS. ‘Good Lord. I think you’re the only creature, apart from a goat, who has come in that way. We must have a drink straight away.’ The last was among his favourite phrases.
“Lunch lasted some six hours. (Lemon chicken, with litres of retsina or red Lamia.) Songs in various languages were sung, including a rendering of ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ in Hindustani. Lost lines of poems were sought. An anecdote about my lately deceased father and his claim to have seen salmon leaping in a narrow Perthshire stream, confirmed only after his death, threw Paddy into a search for the perfect epithet: ‘The corroborating salmon. The justifying salmon. The proving salmon’. Well into the evening, I prepared to leave. ‘Look here. Come to lunch on Sunday’ (this was Friday). I said I would on be on my way back to Athens. He was startled. ‘Good Lord. You’re leaving already? Then come to supper tomorrow.’ I did so, after an all-day hike in the Tagetos mountains which rear up behind the house that Paddy built, as the Gulf of Messenia opens before it. This time, I arrived punctually, to be admitted by the allegedly rotten cook (in fact supper tasted very good). She directed me to Paddy’s study in a separate building in the garden. I knocked before entering, to find him at his desk, alone in Mani on a late March evening, dressed in Jermyn Street shirt, pullover and grey flannels, reading a Loeb Horace. Towers of manuscripts could not obscure him. Among them, perhaps, was a draft of the third and concluding part of his epic walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople – the first, though not the last, heroic adventure of Patrick Leigh Fermor.”
Patrick Leigh Fermor, by turns youthful adventurer, linguist, classicist, and war hero, was the quintessential “gifted amateur” when he set out with two companions, in the late 1940s, to journey through the long island chain of the West Indies.
By Don Ryan
He was the ideal traveler, inquisitive, humorous, interested in everything. His budget, and curiosity for the lives of the Creole, disposed him to live among them, but introductions from home afforded him also time among the governors and administrators in colonial manor houses. His sense of history runs deep; he encountered 450-year-old cultures which he calls young. He reminds us how everything is connected by time’s threads and sinews.
Fermor was observant of architecture and of fashion and influence. He knew how to notate music and sings us overheard melodies and recites the latest Calypsos. He shows immense empathy for the Negroes and gives a long and sympathetic description of Haitian Voodoo – but is skeptical about Jamaican Rastafari. His ear for language heard the connections with West Africa.
This is a complete and evocative a description of a culture, of an archipelago of cultures, as I have ever read. But a word of caution: if you are planning a trip to the Caribbean, this is not a guidebook to take. This is to read if you will never be able to go. – Don Ryan
Geographically, the Caribbean archipelago is easy to split up into component groups….
No such brisk summing-up can be formulated for the inhabitants of these islands: the ghostly Ciboneys, the dead Arawaks and the dying Caribs; the Spaniards, the English, the French, the Dutch, the Danes and the Americans; the Corsicans, the Jews, the Hindus, the Moslems, the Azorians, the Syrians and the Chinese, and the all-obliterating Negro population deriving from scores of kingdoms on the seaboard and hinterland of West Africa. Each island is a distinct and idiosyncratic entity, a civilization, or the reverse, fortuitous in its origins and empirical in its development. There is no rule that holds good beyond the shores of each one unless the prevalence of oddity, the unvarying need to make exceptions to any known rule, can be considered a unifying principle. The presence of religious eccentrics like the Kingston Pocomaniacs and the adepts of Voodoo in Haiti and the survival of stranded ethnological rock-pools like the Poor Whites in the Islands of the Saints or the semi-independent hospodarate of the Maroons of the Jamaican mountains – all this, and the abundance and variety of superstitions and sorceries and songs, of religious and political allegiances, and the crystallization of deracination and disruption into a new and unwieldy system, almost, of tribal law – all this excludes any possibility of generalization.
The skipper heaved the sloop’s bowsprit round and pointed it at the fading silhouette of St Eustatius. The wind was piercingly cold, and as the ship leapt forward, we dug out a half-empty bottle and lowered comforting stalactites of whisky down our throats. Night fell, and the rain stopped. The heads of the Negroes, who had all taken refuge under a tarpaulin like some tremendous recumbent group of statuary before its unveiling, began to appear again round the edge. The two nearest to us were talking to each other in an incomprehensible language that was neither pidgin English nor Creole. Many of the words sounded like Spanish, but the flow of the language was suddenly thickened by noises that were guttural and uncouth. Seeing that I was listening, one of them whispered, |Papia poco poco bo tende?’ and their voices dropped. But I understood, with excitement, that they were talking Papiamento, that almost mythical compound of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, English and African dialects evolved by the slaves of Curacao and the Dutch islands of the Southern Caribbean.
A comprehensive profile of Patrick Leigh Fermor.
By James Campbell. First published in The Guardian 9 April 2005
As a teenager, Patrick Leigh Fermor walked through Europe to Turkey, sleeping in hayricks and castles. Forty years later he wrote two pioneering books about it; a third is still in progress. He lived in Romania, met his wife in Egypt, and was decorated for his wartime exploits in Crete. Now 90, he continues to work in the house he built in Greece in the 1960s.
“So here’s the traveller,” a Hungarian hostess greets the teenage Patrick Leigh Fermor as he trudges towards her Danubian country house. The year is 1934 and Leigh Fermor is four months into his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, undertaken to shake off what he refers to, 70 years on, as “my rather rackety past”. The journey is captured, with erudition and fond detail, in A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). They are unique in several respects, not least that they were written more than 40 years after the events described. Leigh Fermor derived the former title from a couplet by Louis MacNeice, “For now the time of gifts is gone – / O boys that grow, O snows that melt”, which encapsulates the double vision involved in evoking one’s own adolescence from a distance. A concluding volume, which will take the boy to his destination, has long been promised.
Leigh Fermor is not a “travel writer” – like others, he disavows the term – but there is no denying he is a traveller. After Constantinople (as he still insists on calling it, though the name was changed to Istanbul in 1930), he moved to Romania, where he stayed for two years, barely conscious of the inklings of war from beyond the Carpathian mountains. In the 1950s, he explored the then-intractable southern finger of the Peloponnese known as Mani, where he lives, followed by a similar journey in the north of Greece, making his reports, in characteristically exuberant style, in the books Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966). His stays in French monasteries, where he achieved “a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world”, are recorded in an exquisite book of fewer than 100 pages, A Time to Keep Silence (1957).
He is also a scholar, with a facility for languages so prodigious that he would amuse himself on his footslog by singing German songs backwards and, when those ran out, reciting parts of Keats the same way: “Yawa! Yawa! rof I lliw ylf ot eeht”, etc. “It can be quite effective,” he says. After a lunch of lemon chicken at home in Mani, accompanied by an endlessly replenished carafe of retsina, he entertains his guest with a rendering of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” in Hindustani.
In addition, Leigh Fermor is recognisably that figure many writers of the past century have yearned to be, the man of action. When the inklings could no longer be ignored in 1939, he abandoned his Romanian idyll and enlisted in the Irish Guards. A major in Special Operations Executive during the second world war, he was awarded the DSO for heroic actions on German-occupied Crete. Few writers are entitled to include in their Who’s Who entry: “Commanded some minor guerrilla operations.” His publisher, John Murray, whose father, the late “Jock” Murray, edited most of Leigh Fermor’s books, describes him as “almost a Byronic figure. If you met him on a train, before long he would be reciting The Odyssey , or singing Cretan songs. He loves talking, and people are always absorbed by him.”
Known as Paddy to the acquainted and unacquainted alike, Leigh Fermor has turned 90. He is still sturdy, with an all-round handsome appearance. Here is a man who at 69 swam the Hellespont (or Dardanelles), two kilometres wide at its narrowest, in emulation of Byron and Leander, who swam it nightly for the love of Hero. Leigh Fermor swam it under the concerned watch of his wife Joan, who followed in a small boat, and averted her eyes as he narrowly missed being sunk by a liner. An innocent sweetness hovers about his face, which finds a focus in his eyes as he makes a joke or stumbles on a happy recollection. There is a dash of the old soldier, clubbable and courteous, in his approach, his speech punctuated by “Look here …” and “I say …”, and not much of the “rather rackety” figure he claims to have been before he cured his ills by walking. When, relatively late in life, he became a mentor to Bruce Chatwin, the younger writer adopted Leigh Fermor’s motto, solvitur ambulando – it is solved by walking.
After more than six decades in the country, Leigh Fermor is inextricably tied to Greece. His command of the language extends to several regional dialects. He is an honorary citizen of the Cretan capital Heraklion, and of the village of Kardamili in Mani, and is a proud godfather to children in both places. In the mid-1960s, as if to lay the foundation for a committed life, he built a house that reflects the various aspects of his personality. Perched on a peninsula jutting into the Gulf of Messenia, it overlooks a small uninhabited island, behind which the sun sets nightly. He has described how he and Joan camped in tents nearby as the works progressed, studying Vitruvius and Palladio, but admits that the design was largely the result of improvisation. Ceilings, cornices and fireplaces allude to Levantine and Macedonian architecture. Hard by the commodious living room, an L-shaped arcade, which might have been built centuries ago, provides a link to the other rooms and gives on to an olive grove below. Out of nowhere, cats materialise on chairs and divans, prompting Leigh Fermor to remark on “interior desecrators and natural downholsterers”. The great limestone blocks of the main structure were hewn out of the Taygetus mountains, visible in the background, as the sea is present in the foreground. A weathered zigzag stone staircase leads down to a horseshoe bay. “There was no road here at all when we came. The stone had to be brought up by mule. We got most of the tiles from another part of the Peloponnese, after an earthquake. They were happy to be rid of them – couldn’t understand why we wanted this old stuff. They wanted everything new.” The master mason behind the house was a local craftsman, Niku Kolokatrones, whom Leigh Fermor met by accident while out walking. “I spotted his bag of carpenter’s tools and told him I was looking for somebody to help me build a house. He said, ‘Why not take me? I can do everything.’ And he was absolutely right.”
It was finally fit for habitation in 1968, and the couple “lived very happily here for 30 years”. Joan Leigh Fermor, daughter of the Conservative politician and First Lord of the Admiralty in Ramsay MacDonald’s coalition government, Bolton Eyres Monsell, died in 2003 at 91, after a fall. The couple met in wartime Cairo. She took the photographs for several of his books, including the first, The Traveller’s Tree (1950), an account of a journey through the West Indies, and for Mani and Roumeli – although these pictures have sadly been omitted from later editions.
He was born in London in 1915, to Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, who became director-general of the Geological Survey in India, and Eileen Ambler, who was partly raised there. His childhood relationship with his parents was “rather strange, because I didn’t really know either of them until I was about three-and-a-half. My mother returned to India after I was born, leaving me with a family in Northamptonshire. I spent a very happy first three years of my life there as a wild-natured boy. I wasn’t ever told not to do anything.” When his mother returned, at the end of the first world war, “my whole background changed. We went to live in London. And she was rather unhappy, because I didn’t really know much about her, or my father or my sister, who had been born four years earlier. They hadn’t seen me since I was a few months old.” He claims he was “more or less tamed after that”, though he has written that his lawless infancy “unfitted me for the faintest shadow of constraint”.
His mother “adored anything to do with the stage” and wrote plays that were never produced. She made friends with Arthur Rackham, who painted a picture inside the front door of their house in Primrose Hill Studios “of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, being blown along in a nest with a ragged shirt for a sail”. He wonders if it’s still there. When the time came to think about school, the “wild boy” re-emerged, and he was beaten from one educational establishment to another. “I didn’t mind the beatings, because there was a bravado about that kind of thing.” At one stage, he was sent to a school in Suffolk for disturbed children – or, as he puts it, “where rather naughty children went” – and later to King’s School, Canterbury, the oldest public school in England, where the unruly old boys included Christopher Marlowe. “It was all rather marvellous,” says Leigh Fermor, who casts a rosy light on almost all experience, “but my discipline problems cropped up again. Things like fighting, climbing out at night, losing my books.” Among his contemporaries at King’s was Alan Watts, who later wrote popular books on Zen Buddhism and became a hippie guru. In his autobiography, Watts recalled Paddy “constantly being flogged for his pranks and exploits – in other words, for having a creative imagination”. Watts confirms the familiar tale that Paddy was expelled “for the peccadillo of taking a walk with the daughter of the local greengrocer”. Leigh Fermor recalls: “She was about eight years older than me – totally innocent, but it was a useful pretext for the sack. I think it was very kindly meant. Far better to get the sack for something slightly romantic than for just being a total nuisance.”
Believing that the best place for a nuisance was the army, his parents tried to direct him towards Sandhurst, but his academic failures put paid to that too. The military historian Antony Beevor, who was an officer cadet at Sandhurst, and has known Leigh Fermor for many years, believes he would not have prospered. “I think he may have had a romantic idea of what army life was like, but he would have found the peacetime garrison incredibly stultifying. Army life in the 1930s was very staid. Paddy was too much of a free spirit.”
It was then that Leigh Fermor came up with a scheme “to change scenery”. Envisaging himself as “a medieval pilgrim, an affable tramp with a knapsack and hobnailed boots”, he decided to walk across Europe to Turkey. “It was a new life. Freedom. Something to write about.” To make it even more improbable, he set out in December when, as he states in the opening paragraph of A Time of Gifts, “a thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly; the Jermyn Street shops, distorted by stream ing water, had become a submarine arcade.” When his ship docked in Rotterdam, “snow covered everything”. He dossed down wherever he landed, on one occasion outside a pigsty to the sound of “sleepy grunts prompted by dreams, perhaps, or indigestion”.
In addition to his sleeping bag, Leigh Fermor packed the Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horace. An allowance of £4 a month was to be collected along the way. “My general course was up the Rhine and down the Danube. Then to Swabia, and then into Bavaria.” At the time, he had published a few poems (“dreadful stuff”), but was inspired to switch to travel writing by Robert Byron, whose book about a journey to Mount Athos in north-eastern Greece, The Station , had recently been published. “I was keeping copious notes, songs, sketches and so on, but in Munich a disaster happened. I stayed at a Jugendherberge and my rucksack was pinched, with all my notes and drawings.” And then comes the Paddy stroke: “In a way it was rather a blessing, because my rucksack was far too heavy. It had far too many things.” His sleeping bag was lost too -“good riddance, really” – and his money and passport. “The British Consul gave me a fiver – said pay me back some time.”
Leigh Fermor has pursued his literary career haphazardly. His Caribbean book was originally meant to be a series of captions for photographs. Then came his only novel, The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1953), followed by A Time to Keep Silence and Mani , all written in the mid-50s, after which he restricted himself to one public outing per decade. However, the 40-year interlude between the events of his European journey and the writing of the books enhances their appeal. At times, the hero of A Time of Gifts seems like a boy faced with a tapestry on which the entire history and culture of Europe is portrayed, unpicking it thread by thread. Byzantine plainsong; Yiddish syntax; the whereabouts of the coast of Bohemia (it existed, for 13 years); the finer nuances of regional architecture – “the wild scholarly enthusiasms of a brilliant autodidact”, as the writer William Dalrymple says. Theories are worked out, set down and often jettisoned, before another day’s walking begins. No one modulates as energetically from speculations on the origin of Greek place names to the “not always harmful effects of hangovers” as Leigh Fermor does. “If they fall short of the double vision which turns Salisbury Cathedral into Cologne,” he writes of his sore heads, “they invest the scenery with a lustre which is unknown to total abstainers.” When it came to writing about the journey, Leigh Fermor claims that “losing the notebook didn’t really seem to matter. I’d got all the places I’d been to noted down in another little notebook. Early impressions and all that sort of thing would only have been a hindrance.” It is impossible to say where imagination gets the upper hand over memory, and aficionados are adamant it does not matter.
Dalrymple, who as a student set out to follow the route of the First Crusade in emulation of Leigh Fermor, says: “I can’t think of any younger writers who have tried to write like Paddy, who have succeeded in the attempt. Not that I haven’t tried. When I set out on my first long journey in the summer vacation I had just read A Time of Gifts and I tried to write my logbook in faux-Paddy style. The result was disastrous. Just last summer I visited Mani and reread his wonderful book, and found myself again trying to write like him. I should have learned my lesson by now.” Dalrymple feels that the strongest influence of Leigh Fermor on the younger generation of travel writers “has been the persona he creates of the bookish wanderer: the footloose scholar in the wilds, scrambling through the mountains, a knapsack full of good books on his shoulder. You see this filtering through in the writing of Chatwin and Philip Marsden, among others.”
According to Jeremy Lewis, author of a biography of Cyril Connolly, with whom Joan was friendly, “Occasionally, one comes across some unromantic soul who objects to Leigh Fermor on the prosaic ground that he couldn’t possibly remember in such persuasive detail the events of 60 years ago.” Lewis suspects that “quite a lot of it is made up. He’s a tremendous yarn-spinner, and he has that slight chip on the shoulder of someone who hasn’t been to university. Sometimes one gets the feeling that he’s desperate to show he’s not an intellectual hick. He’s quite similar to Chatwin in that way. With Chatwin I find it irritating, but not with Leigh Fermor.” Lewis adds, “There is also a strong boy-scout element about him, which annoys some people, singing round the campfire and so on. I doubt if there was ever anything very rackety about Paddy.”
He has been asked many times why the composition of the books was delayed for so long, and has finessed the reply to his characteristic self-effacement: “Laziness and timidity.” He had a shot at writing during his sojourn in Romania in the late 1930s, “but I thought it was no good, so I shoved it aside. And I was right, actually, because when I tried it much later it all began to flow.” His companion in Romania, the first love of his life, was a young painter, Balasha Cantacuzene, whose family was part of an “old-fashioned, French-speaking, Tolstoyan, land-owning world. They were intensely civilised people. I spent the time reading a tremendous amount … when I wasn’t making a hash of writing. I felt rather different at the end of it all, from the kind of person I’d been before.”
After the communist takeover at the end of the war, the Ceausescu government branded the Cantacuzenes “elements of putrid background” and forced them to leave their property. Leigh Fermor made it his mission to rescue them from their new dismal circumstances, eventually succeeding in slipping into the country on a motorcycle and contacting Balasha and her sister. They met for only 48 hours. “We dared risk no more, and during that time I was unable to leave the tiny flat where they were then living, for fear of being seen.” He found that their early thoughts of leaving Romania had lapsed, “partly from feeling it was too late in the day; also, they said that Romania, after all, was where they belonged”.
His war service was spent mainly on Crete. After the British retreat from the island in May 1941, Leigh Fermor was among a small number of officers who remained, helping to organise resistance to the occupation, “living up in the mountains, dressed as a shepherd, with my wireless and so on”. In the spring of 1944, after an onslaught on villages “with fire and sword” by German troops in reprisal for the rash actions of some Cretan guerrillas, Leigh Fermor conceived a plan to kidnap the general responsible for the carnage, and to spirit him off to Cairo. The idea was to make a “symbolic gesture, involving no bloodshed, not even a plane sabotaged or a petrol dump blown up; something which would hit the enemy hard”. Together with a select band of associates, British and Cretan, he succeeded – except that the officer they were after, General Müller, had already left Crete, and they found themselves taking charge of his replacement, a milder figure by all accounts, General Kreipe. After three weeks of trekking through the mountains, they managed to get the captive on board a vessel bound for Egypt.
The events were drawn into a book, Ill Met by Moonlight (1950), by Leigh Fermor’s comrade in the operation, W Stanley Moss, and an inferior film in 1957, with Dirk Bogarde playing Paddy. He is polite about the actor, whom he met, but it is clear that Bogarde’s performance as Major Fermor failed to impress. “I didn’t go to the opening, or anything like that. It was all so much more interesting than they made it seem.” The military historian MRD Foot has referred to the Cretan escapade as “a tremendous jape”, which in Leigh Fermor’s opinion puts it in a “rather frivolous perspective”. Beevor, whose book The Battle for Crete (1991), pays handsome tribute to Leigh Fermor’s actions, feels the description of the kidnapping as a “jape” is unjust. “What was very clever about the Kreipe operation was that it was planned meticulously to give the Cretans a tremendous boost to morale. They needed to do something that would damage the Germans, but was not going to provoke civilian casualties. They were absolutely scrupulous about this.” Certain accounts of the exploit have suggested that it resulted in reprisals against the local pop ulation, but, says Beevor, “they are completely wrong. I’ve been through all the relevant documentation, and there is nothing to suggest that the kidnapping of General Kreipe provoked direct reaction from the Germans. It wasn’t just a jape. When I was researching my book, a member of the Cretan resistance told me, ‘The whole island felt two inches taller’.”
Captor and captive, stuck together in freezing caves (the general had to sleep between Leigh Fermor and Moss, all sharing a single blanket), found a common bond in the Odes of Horace. In a report written at the request of the Imperial War Museum in 1969, published in Artemis Cooper’s anthology of Leigh Fermor’s writings, Words of Mercury (2003), he described what happened: “We were all three lying smoking in silence, when the general, half to himself, slowly said: ‘Vides ut alta stet nive candidum / Soracte …’ [You see how Soracte stands gleaming white with deep snow]. I was in luck. It is the opening line of one of the few Odes of Horace I know by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off: ‘… Nec iam sustineant onus …’ and so on, through the remaining five stanzas to the end.”
The heroics in eastern Crete had a surprise sequel, which throws into relief the absurdity of war. Some 30 years later, Leigh Fermor was asked to take part in a Greek television programme based on This Is Your Life , in which the subject was to be General Kreipe. “I felt quite certain when I heard about it that it was not on the level, and so I found out General Kreipe’s number and got on the telephone to him. I said, ‘It’s Major Fermor’. He said, ‘Ach, Major Fermor, how are you? It seems we are going to meet again soon.’ I said, ‘So you are coming?’ He said, ‘Yes, of course I’m coming. Tell me, what’s the weather like? Shall I bring a pullover?’ And you know, it was the most terrific success. They were all there.” The exception was Moss, who died in 1965; and it is probably safe to discount the Cretan guerrillas who carried off the general’s chauffeur and slit his throat, much to Leigh Fermor’s displeasure.
He writes in a small studio apart from the main house. Dictionaries, volumes of Proust, books of verse in various languages and back issues of the TLS occupy every surface. Asked if he has a title in mind for the promised last volume of his European trilogy, he looks suddenly pained and answers no. He describes himself as “a very slow writer”. His pages are laboriously revised and readers who revel in his florescent style may be surprised to learn that the finished sentences are pared down from something the author considers “too exaggerated and flowery and overwritten”. Murray says: “It’s rather like a musician: each time he changes a word, he has to go back and change all the other words round about it so that the harmony is right.” Murray recalls “seven versions of A Time of Gifts being submitted to my father. And each one would be written-over, with bubbles containing extra bits. The early manuscripts are like works of art themselves.”
As he is writing, Leigh Fermor thinks of one or two friends “that it might amuse. How would they respond? Where would they sneer?” He refers to his old notebooks for things like dates and place names, but relies on memory for a clearer vision of the walking boy and the snows. “I’ve written quite a large amount. For some reason, I got a sort of scunner against it several years ago. I thought it wasn’t any good. I always think that. But now I think I was wrong. I’m going to pull my socks up and get on with it.”
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Born: February 11, 1915, London.
Education: 1929-33 King’s School, Canterbury.
Married: 1968 Joan Eyres Monsell.
Employment: 1945-46 deputy director British Institute, Athens.
Books: 1950 The Traveller’s Tree; ’53 The Violins of Saint-Jacques; ’57 A Time To Keep Silence; ’58 Mani; ’66 Roumeli; ’77 A Time of Gifts; ’86 Between the Woods and the Water; ’91 Three Letters from the Andes; 2003 Words of Mercury.
Some awards: 1944 DS0; ’47 honorary citizen of Heraklion, Crete; ’58 Duff Cooper Memorial Prize; ’78 WH Smith Award; ’86 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; ’91 Companion of Literature; 2004 Knighthood.
First published in the Boston Globe 6 February 2011
It’s impossible for me to put into words how much I would not like to take a winter vacation in the Caribbean. I have never had to, but do have fixed ideas of what it would entail, namely: air travel, the company of people in pastel clothing and not enough of it, and an oppressive, even dictatorial atmosphere of relaxation and fun. It would be different, of course, if I had interesting, well-to-do acquaintances with welcoming houses living on those islands and was traveling in the company of a couple of entertaining friends — and it was no later than 1950. Yes, I could bear that; and, indeed, just that very state of affairs may be found in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s richly detailed and ebullient “The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey through the Caribbean Islands,’’ first published in 1950 and now reissued (New York Review Books Classics, paperback, $19.95).
Fermor, born in London in 1915, is now best known for his accounts of walking from Rotterdam to Istanbul in the 1930s in “A Time of Gifts’’ (1977) and “Between the Woods and the Water’’ (1986). At the time of his trip to the Antilles in 1947, however, he was famous for his exploits in occupied Crete during the war, most especially his kidnapping of the German commander, General Kreipe.
“The Traveller’s Tree’’ was Fermor’s first book and, as Joshua Jelly-Schapiro notes in his excellent introduction, it is very much of its time, “brimming with the gratitude for life particular to a European generation that had just buried half its members.’’ Further, it is “suffused with the wondering spirit of an engagé asking after what will become of these New World islands which are passing from Old Europe’s imperial shadow.’’
It is clear to Fermor that American consumerism is going to be a powerful force in the region, signaled most aggressively by “the Coca-Cola plague.’’ (“It becomes the air you breathe, a way of life, an entire civilization — the Coca-Cola age, yoke-fellow of the age of the Atomic Bomb.’’) But, if Fermor is not happy with evidence of an Americanized future, he is also disparaging of certain manifestations of a colonial past, especially British ones. The middle-class British way of life in the Barbados reflects, he says, “the social and intellectual values and prejudices of a Golf Club in Outer London . . . which are not England’s most interesting or precious contributions to world civilization.’’
What he really likes and describes with infectious elation is the riot of diversity and exotic fusion that these islands have individually acquired from their vicissitudinary histories. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions of the past have left their furious marks, while side narratives of European history appear everywhere, written in frantic and fantastical hands. In Barbados he finds a ragged community made up of the descendants of the duke of Monmouth’s followers deported from England in the 17th century, and still “in the same humble plight as when they were first herded ashore.’’ In Jamaica he spends a pleasant time with the Maroons still living in the mountains where their ancestors, run-away slaves, had formed their own kingdom, finally acknowledged in a treaty with George II. He likes the way many women in the French Antilles wear costumes that hark back to 18th-century France, and he likes the cathedral in Guadeloupe constructed (he says) out of Meccano (the British equivalent of Erector Set).
He arrives in Haiti and grows exultant: “The sides of the road pullulated with country people chattering, drinking rum, playing cards and throwing dice under the trees. The air was thick with dust, and ringing with incomprehensible and deafening Créole. I felt I might like Haiti.’’ He does, for the most part, paying long and elaborate attention to voodoo and other island cults. His descriptions of what he witnesses are rich, spirited, and filled with curious detail. He attends a cockfight and describes the birds’ handlers filling their mouths with water and pressing “the birds to their lips, sucking and soaking the feathers so that they should cling to the body and afford no hold for the enemy.’’ As it happens, he and his friends find they cannot take the blood and gore and slink away.
Throughout the book he traces each island’s history. Race is a continuing preoccupation for Fermor and, it must be said that by today’s standards, his unabashed laying down of opinion on the racial characteristics of peoples from different parts of Africa and with the various kinds and degrees of black and white mixtures is unseemly. On the other hand, that is the world of the late 1940s, and he is positively reticent in these matters when compared with Lafcadio Hearn, who visited some of the same islands 60 years earlier. But, there again, we really cannot criticize people for writing as our age would have it. Both travelers, in fact, find the varieties of race and racial mixtures part of the exhilarating vividness and dash that so distinguished the islands from Europe.
I don’t know why it has taken me so long to become smitten with Hearn, but it has finally happened. Born in 1850 in Greece, he grew up in Ireland and moved to the United States when he was a young man. After that he had a strange career, impossible to summarize except to say he became a writer, traveled a lot, lived in Cincinnati, Louisiana, Martinique, and, finally, Japan, where he died. The Library of America has devoted a huge volume to his writings ($40) and that is where I turned after polishing off Fermor, specifically to Hearn’s “Two Years in the French West Indies.’’
The years in question were in the late 1880s and his prose, gorgeous and bounteous, reflects the period’s fascination with the exotic — and the macabre. The pages he devotes to the treacherous viper, the fer-de-lance, aroused an exquisite horror in me such as I have not felt since I was a child. His description of St. Pierre, Martinique, “the quaintest, queerest, and the prettiest withal, among West Indian cities,’’ is especially transfixing as the place was completely destroyed by the eruption of Mount Pelée 15 years after he wrote those words. “Is the great volcano dead?’’ he asks, answering “Nobody knows.’’ Except we do, safe in our snowbound fastness, happier than ever that we’re staying at home with this wonderful book.
Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
The Traveller’s Tree – read more articles here
A selection of highly sought after first editions of Ian Fleming’s legendary James Bond books were sold by Gloucestershire auctioneers Dominic Winter at a sale on 16 December 2010.
Casino Royale, the book that introduced 007 to the world, was anticipated to be a highlight of the auction. This rare first edition with its original dust-jacket was expected to fetch £12,000, but in fact went for £19,000.
Other first editions included a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s first book ‘The Traveller’s Tree’ (1950), signed by Ian Fleming. There are also a few of Fleming’s marks in the margins on Haitian Voodoo, which he used for the scene-setting pages at the beginning of ‘Live and Let Die’.
This inspiration for one of the greatest Bond books was expected to fetch up to £800. In fact it finally went for £1,700.
I wonder if anyone can help? Andrew Booker Rennie has posted a question on the Welcome page as follows. I am sure he would be grateful for any assistance. Please reply by adding a comment below or emailing me and I will pass on to him.
“I am researching the development of steel-drum music in Trinidad. PLF came to Trinidad and in the Traveller’s Tree described vividly what he saw of steel-band then. The problem is that no where in this account did PLF indicate what year he visited Trinidad. It is absolutely essential that I identify the year, 1945, 1946 or 1947. Can any one of Paddy’s researchers provide this information?”
As you know I trawl the net for Paddy related material to create the best online source of information about PLF and his friends and associates. Some of you may have come across this essay that attempts to analyse Paddy’s style and his literary achievement. In my view it is just one of many that emphasise how great the man is and how unequalled is his prose.
First published in New Criterion, Jan, 2001 by Ben Downing
I have carried the soldier’s musket, the traveler’s stick, the pilgrim’s staff. –Chateaubriand (what a great quote for Paddy!)
The captive must have been exhausted and afraid, but when, on the fourth day of his grueling forced march across Crete, he saw dawn break behind Mount Ida, the sight was so beautiful that it brought to his lips the opening of Horace’s Ode I.ix: “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum/ Soracte,”(1) he murmured. Then, just as he trailed off, one of his captors came in to take the poem over, reciting the rest of its six stanzas. At this, the captive’s startled eyes slanted down from the peak to meet those of his enemy, and, after a long thoughtful silence, he pronounced, “Ach so, Herr Major.” For the captive was a German soldier–the commander of the island’s garrison, no less. General Karl Kreipe (to give him his name) had been abducted on April 26, 1944 by a band of Greek guerrillas led by two English commandos. Over the next three weeks, the kidnappers picked their way across Crete, eluding the thousands of Nazi troops who hunted them, until eventually they were met by a British boat and whisked to Cairo, where Kreipe was handed over and the two commandos promptly awarded the D.S.O. One of these men was W. Stanley Moss, who in 1950 published a riveting account of the escapade, Ill-Met by Moonlight, later filmed by Michael Powell. The other was a certain Patrick Leigh Fermor. Disguised as a shepherd and (like Zeus in his Cretan boyhood) living largely in caves, he had spent much of the previous two years on the island organizing the resistance. Leigh Fermor it was who finished the quotation.
But where had he, who’d never completed high school, learned Horace so well? Had Kreipe asked him this, Leigh Fermor could have answered, savoring the irony, that he’d committed the odes to memory during his teenage Wanderjahr a decade earlier, when, just after Hitler’s rise to power, he’d walked clear across Germany (among other countries) with a volume of Horace for his vade mecum, often reciting the poems to himself as he tramped. About that experience he’d not yet written a public word, and would not do so for many more years. Similarly he held off recounting his aubade with Kreipe. At last, however, in the 1970s, he broached the subjects of his continental traverse and, in an aside to that account, of his fleeting bond with Kreipe. Some things are best waited for: the book in which Leigh Fermor set these matters down, A Time of Gifts (1977), along with its sequel, Between the Woods and the Water (1986), represent not only the capstone of his career but, in my opinion, the finest travel books in the language and a pinnacle of modern English prose, resplendent as Soracte or Ida in deep snow.
The deplorable fact that most Americans, even well-read ones, have never even heard, as I also had not until recently, of a figure who in Britain (to say nothing of Greece, where he lives to this day) is revered and beloved as war hero, author, and bon vivant; who is, in Jan Morris’s words, “beyond cavil the greatest of living travel writers”; and who, in those of the historian John Julius Norwich, “writes English as well as anyone alive”–all this spurs me to correct our oversight of the sublime, the peerless Patrick Leigh Fermor.
His turbulent early life is recounted in the introduction to A Time of Gifts. Shortly after his birth in 1915, his mother and sister went to join his father in India, while he was left behind “so that one of us might survive if the ship were sunk by a submarine.” For four years he was billeted with a Northamptonshire farming family, an experience that proved “the opposite of the ordeal Kipling describes in Baa Baa Black Sheep.” A halcyon period, this, but the taste for boisterous freedom he acquired in the fields made for trouble later on: “Those marvelously lawless years, it seems, had unfitted me for the faintest shadow of constraint.” Especially intolerable to him were academic strictures of any kind, and there ensued a long series of dust-ups and expulsions, hilariously related. At ten he was sent to “a school for difficult children,” among which misfits he lists
the millionaire’s nephew who chased motorcars along country lanes with a stick, the admiral’s pretty and slightly kleptomaniac daughter, the pursuivant’s son with nightmares and an infectious inherited passion for heraldry, the backward, the somnambulists … and, finally, the small bad hats like me who were merely very naughty. Continue reading
Wake up. Stretch. Open eyes and look around. We’re in the most comfortable bedroom imaginable, physically and aesthetically. A great bed, soft sheets, pastel grey woodwork, white upholstery. Through the open French windows is a dream beach: a perfect crescent of pristine sand lapped by clear blue water and shaded by tall palm trees. A barefoot 50 paces across tightly mown grass and we are in the warm sea. It doesn’t get any better than this.
How different it was for Patrick Leigh Fermor and his companions 56 years ago. With Joan Eyres-Monsell, the woman who was to become his wife 20 years later, and Costa, the great Greek photographer, spent six months travelling through the Lesser and Greater Antilles. Then, the many islands they visited were thoroughly run down. The great buildings of church and state and planters’ wealth were mostly ruinous and rotten. The future in the depressed economic climate just after the Second World War looked bleak and, indeed, “King Sugar” was about to die, as it had on the abolition of slavery – only this time as a victim of sugar beet and the macro politics being played out between America and Europe.
Yet, Leigh Fermor still managed to reveal the romance and the magic of the archipelago and so start the obsession so many have since had with visiting the “Friendly Isles”. His vision saved them by helping to create a climate in which tourism could grow, and tourism has been the salvation of the Caribbean ever since.
In those immediate post-war days, the few hotels and boarding houses were grim. The tourism industry was embryonic and only when they stayed in some of the grand privately owned great houses, built by rich planters, “were we redeemed from the usual squalors of our island sojourns”. Most of these have now become hotels or “plantation inns” and they are delightful places to stay, combining old-world elegance with modern luxury.
Earlier this year, my wife, Louella, and I decided to follow in Leigh Fermor’s footsteps to see how much the islands had changed. Our pace was less leisurely than his and we were able to visit only 10 of the 15 islands he saw, but with his books as our vade-mecum we found our eyes, ears and all our senses opened and enhanced.
We started in Antigua and headed straight for the Carlisle Bay hotel. There, Gordon Campbell Gray has achieved the same understated excellence on a Caribbean beach as in his highly regarded One Aldwych in London.
Antigua has changed radically since Leigh Fermor’s day. Then, Nelson’s dockyard was in ruins. “The timbers were so eaten away,” he wrote, “that we had to step from beam to beam, for the boards between them had fallen to powder, or still hung from rusty nails in rotten fragments.” English Harbour, the great 18th-century naval base favoured by Rodney, Cochrane and Nelson and perhaps the prettiest and safest harbour in the whole Caribbean (the view of it from Shirley Heights is without equal), had no facilities whatever.
First publushed in the Daily Telegraph 12 Oct 2003
Paddy Leigh Fermor has lived one of the great picaresque lives of the 20th century. He left a minor public school under heavy clouds with no money and a penchant for wandering. From 1934, for five years, he sustained a lotus existence in eastern Europe and the Balkans, by charm, genteel begging and Byronic good looks. His parents must have despaired of him during this longest gap year in history.
One of Evelyn Waugh’s characters observed in 1939: “It’s going to be a long war. The great thing is to spend it with friends.” Leigh Fermor pursued this policy with notable success. His 18 months as a British agent in Crete made him a legend, not least for the kidnapping of the German General Kreipe, theme of the later film Ill Met By Moonlight.
After the war, Paddy resumed his leisurely course. One can no more imagine him occupying an office desk, queueing for the weekly envelope, than some marvellous beast of the African bush taking up employment as a security guard. He wandered the world until, in 1950, he suddenly produced a small literary masterpiece about the Caribbean, The Traveller’s Tree.
Thereafter, at irregular intervals, he has written travel books and fragments of autobiography. On his visits to England, rural grandees and metropolitan hostesses fight for the privilege of his society. The home he created with his wife Joan on the south shore of the Peloponnese at Kardamyli is a small work of art in its own right, owing much to their pets, or – as he writes here – to four-footed “downholsterers and interior desecrators”. How he loves language and words!
What is charm? In Leigh Fermor’s case it is an infinite curiosity about other people. He treats Bulgarian peasants and English dukes exactly alike. John Betjeman once spoke of Paddy “sitting there listening to you, his eyes sparkling with excitement as he waited to hear what you might say next”. Generosity of spirit is among his notable qualities.