I have just finished reading Three Letters from the Andes published in 1991, but first written by Patrick Leigh Fermor during the month long expedition to the high Andes in Peru in 1971. He was accompanied by good friends, most notably his close friend Andrew Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire.
The original text consists of three letters to his wife Joan and mailed by Paddy to her to try to describe to her much of what happened during the expedition which included some challenging climbing, which for the greater part, Paddy did not join. He describes his principal role as ‘minder of the primus stove’ and this duty enabled him to sleep in the spacious mess tent.
The book is enjoyable enough and it does what it says; it describes the journey and I am sure Joan would have enjoyed the letters. Paddy did some editing prior to publication to make them more presentable for general readership (and probably removed any indiscreet comments). However, compared to the more familiar A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, this is a lightweight affair. Perhaps it shows how much work Paddy must put into his constant redrafts to expand upon his first thoughts. This is clearly work that had minimal redrafting, and is interesting because of that.
The description of the journey and key events remain in my memory but it did not give the deep pleasure gained by the former books. Just a couple of my favourite bits:
When flying in to Lima the party had to go through Peruvian customs and immigration. Paddy describes the staff as ‘sleepy, rather blank faced … officials who were far from brisk.’ He goes on to describe Andrew Cavendish’s experience. ‘… our passports seemed to puzzle them and Andrew’s proved utterly enigmatic. He got through the last barrier half an hour after they’d finished with the rest of us, murmuring sadly: ‘I can’t deny there are countries where being a duke is a bit of an advantage; but Peru’s not one of them.’
Right at the end of the journey at a dinner given for the party at the British Embassy, Paddy is seated next to a ‘very quiet and very beautiful neighbour called Dona Diana de Dibos’. After a while he realized that she was the sister of Lt Mike Cumberlege, a naval officer who used to ferry partisans and SOE agents into and out of Crete during the German occupation. He had been shot in a concentration camp just four days before VE day. Paddy cheered her up by telling her many stories about her brother that she had never heard before.
Three Letters is short and easy to read. For Paddy fans it is essential reading to complete our picture of him and his life and his various publications. There are probably better ways of spending a few hours, but I don’t think anyone reading it will be disappointed … as long as they don’t expect a short version of ATOG.