Category Archives: Words Of Mercury

Paddy’s World – Transcript of John Julius Norwich’s talk for the PLF Society

Many blog readers and members of the PLF Society were privileged to her John Julius Norwich give a very personal account of his memories of Paddy at the Hellenic Centre in London on 10 November. My account of the evening is here

I am very lucky to be able to present the full transcript of the talk. Didn’t I say we had some good stuff coming up? Enjoy this 🙂

On 22 February 1951 my mother wrote to me: “Just off for my jaunt to Passy sur Eure to spoon with P. Leigh Fermor. Shy. Fluster.” At that time she had only just met Paddy and hardly knew him, and she would have been – as indeed she confessed she was – extremely nervous. But all was well. The next letter read:

Well, the gallivanting was a red letter. It took me a good two hours cross-country by Pontoise and Mantes. Strange little village house in which he lives – the loan of a Lady Smart – was warm and welcoming and I really felt myself back in the pond I was raised in. Fascinating conversation with a male man who delights in one. Paddy was superb. Cultured, funny, telling wonderful sagas, zealous. We had a charming filthy little lunch over the stove of sardines, Pernod and vin ordinaire and afterwards we walked for two hours over low wooded downs in sparkling sun, talking ten to the dozen about people, grievances and enthusiasms

That was the beginning. My parents saw quite a lot of Paddy and Joan – whom my mother thought looked just like Joan of Arc, except that Joan of Arc didn’t wear sun-glasses – in the next year or two. I was at Oxford at the time, and I remember seeing them once or twice during vacations, and being invariably knocked sideways – as everyone was – by the sheer brilliance of Paddy, and the glorious fun of him. Every time he walked into a room it was as if the sun had come out; never have I laughed more uncontrollably round a luncheon or dinner table, and as for his erudition, never have I met anyone who knew so much about everything under the sun, yet wore his learning so lightly. There seemed to be no language he could not speak, or indeed sing songs or recite poetry in: French, German, Italian, Spanish, Greek and Rumanian for a start, but there were probably several others as well.

Then, in the summer of 1955, a wonderful thing happened. By then I had joined the Foreign Service. My first wife Anne and I were by that time living in Belgrade, where I was Third Secretary at the British Embassy. Another letter arrived from my mother. She had been lent a Greek caïque by the ship-owner Stavros Niarchos for a fortnight’s sail through the isles of Greece. Paddy and Joan were coming; could we come too? As far as we were concerned, it was a question of “can a duck swim?” At the end of August we drove down from Belgrade – which in those days had no airport – to Athens, and thence to the Piraeus, where we boarded the Eros.

It was my first time in the Aegean, and Paddy gave it a whole new dimension. It was the first time I had seen him, as it were, on his home ground, and it was wonderful. He lived and breathed his beloved Greece – fluent in its language, encyclopaedic in his knowledge of its history, its customs and its literature. But nobody – and that was the wonder and joy of him and – I know I’ve said this before – nobody has ever carried his learning more lightly. His conversation was consistently dazzling. As we sailed from island to island – and in those days there were virtually no tourists, and I can’t begin to tell you what a difference that made – he talked about Greece, about Greek history, about Greek beliefs and traditions, about Byron and the Greek War of Independence, with those monstrously magnificent Greek heroes – men like Mavromichalis and Kolokotronis whose names roll so satisfactorily across the tongue – and about the Greek Orthodox Church and its quarrels with the west over more of those words, like filioque and ͑ομοούσιον; but his talk roamed far wider than that, taking in the whole eastern Mediterranean and, in particular, Byzantium.

Now in England Byzantium has always had a terrible press. The great nineteenth-century historian W.E.H. Lecky wrote that it constituted, “without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilisation has yet assumed…. There has been no other enduring civilisation, he claimed, “so absolutely destitute of all the forms and elements of greatness”. He went on,

Its vices were the vices of men who had ceased to be brave without learning to be virtuous…. Slaves, and willing slaves, in both their actions and their thoughts, immersed in sensuality and in the most frivolous pleasures, the people only emerged from their listlessness when some theological subtlety, or some chivalry in the chariot races, stimulated them to frantic riots…. The history of the Empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude, of perpetual fratricides.

Strong words indeed – although to modern ears that last sentence makes Byzantine history sound not so much monotonous as distinctly entertaining. But that long campaign of denigration continued well into the twentieth century. It was only in the time of which I’m speaking – the fifties – that the writings of people like Robert Byron, David Talbot Rice and Steven Runciman, together with the new-found ease, speed and relative comfort of travel in the Levant, made the glorious heritage of the Byzantine Empire at last generally accessible. Now, thank heaven, the Empire has come into its own again, and is seen as a worthy successor to the two mighty civilisations which it followed and so beautifully combined, the Greek and the Roman.

The trouble was, for most of us, that we knew so little about it. Those old attitudes died hard. During my five years at Eton, the entire subject was the victim of what seemed to be a conspiracy of silence. I can’t honestly remember Byzantium being once mentioned, far less studied; and so complete was my ignorance that I should have been hard put to define it even in general terms till I went to Oxford. And, for heaven’s sake, why? After all, it was not even the successor, it was that same old Roman Empire of Augustus and Tiberius and Claudius and the rest, which continued to exist in its new capital of Constantinople for another one thousand, one hundred and twenty-three years before it was finally captured by the Ottoman Turks on that fateful day, Tuesday 29 May 1453, after one of the most heroic sieges in all history. It was Paddy and Paddy alone who revealed to me its mystery and its magic, although he also recommended to me, among much else, that I should read an extraordinary book by Robert Byron, The Byzantine Achievement, which that most precocious author wrote when he was twenty-five. I read it with utter fascination, and ended up completely captivated. When I got home I devoured every book I could find on the subject, and the following year Anne and I drove to Istanbul for a week. Twenty years later I was to write a History of Byzantium myself – three volumes of it, which were necessary if I was to cover more than a millennium; but I very much doubt whether, had it not been for that fortnight on the Eros, those three volumes would ever have been written.

One evening, I remember, Paddy was talking about a poor fisherman at Kardamyli – this was long before he went to live there – a friend of his called Strati Mourtzinos, who, he told us, might just possibly have been the last heir to the imperial throne of Byzantium. Suddenly his imagination took over, and he built a magnificent castle in the air. It seemed, by some miracle, that the Turks had restored Constantinople to Greece. Byzantium was reborn and Strati Mourtzinos was formally crowned as its Emperor. Paddy was later to work up the idea further in his first book about Greece, Mani:

Bells clanged; semantra hammered and cannon thundered as the Emperor stepped ashore. Then, with a sudden reek of naphtha, Greek fire roared, saluting in a hundred blood-red parabolas from the warships’ brazen beaks….. In the packed square of Constantine, a Serbian furrier fell from a rooftop. An astrologer from Ctesiphon, a Spanish coppersmith and a money-lender from the Persian Gulf were trampled to death; a Bactrian lancer fainted and, as we proceeded round the Triple Delphic Serpent of the Hippodrome, the voices of the Blues and Greens, for once in concord, lifted a long howl of applause. The imperial horses neighed in their stables, the hunting cheetahs strained yelping at their silver chains. Mechanical gold lions roared in the throne room, gold birds on the jewelled branches of artificial trees set up a tinkling and a twitter. The general hysteria penetrated the public jail: in dark cells, monophysites and bogomils and iconoclasts rattled their fetters across the dungeon bars. High on his Corinthian capital, a capering stylite, immobile for three decades, hammered his calabash with a wooden spoon….

Would you like a bit more? All right: Continue reading

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Snail’s pace to Byzantium: journey of a lifetime

This is a combination of profile and review of Words of Mercury. An interesting piece.

by Ann Elder

First Published in Athens News, 9 Jan 2004

“I HATE the word travel-writer,” London-born, Mani-based Patrick Leigh Fermor told a British journalist in 1995. Under the title Words of Mercury, a selection of his writings was published by John Murray this autumn. The excerpts from half a dozen of his books, some articles and reviews show clearly why he must flinch from being slotted anywhere confining.

As his followers know, he writes with an enchanted pen. Any topic he takes up becomes something ‘rich and strange’. He has a story-teller’s knack of compelling interest, like the Ancient Mariner mesmerizing listeners with his glittering eye. And he has a particular flair for catching the heightened receptivity and visceral thrill felt at new encounters, what Cavafy wished the traveler in his poem Ithaka:

Pray that your journey may be long,
that many may those summer mornings be
when with what pleasure, what untold delight
you enter harbours never seen before.”
(Kimon Friar translation)

Not least, Leigh Fermor wins readers’ allegiance by creating the sense of affinity with an engaging personality, uncensorious, untinged by chauvinism, reveling in life, akin in spirit to A E Housman, onetime professor of Latin at Cambridge, in his lines:

Could man be drunk forever
With liquor, love or fights
Lief should I rouse at mornings
And lief lie down at nights.

Edited by Artemis Cooper, a writer (Cairo in Wartime) and wife of historian Antony Beevor (Crete: The Battle and the Resistance), the book has five parts: travel, Greece, people, books and flotsam (finishing with a poem on Christmas maybe better forgotten). Cooper gives brief introductions to each piece and starts off with a succinct biography.

As an 18-year-old living on a pound a week in a flat off Picadilly in 1933, Leigh Fermor spent more time partying than buckling down to write. As fate had it, he had read The Station: Athos: Treasures and Men by the irreverent young Robert Byron in 1928. The ‘great and misunderstood spirit of Byzantium’ had greatly impressed him.

“About lamp-lighting time at the end of a wet November day, I was peering morosely at the dog-eared pages on my writing table,” he related later. “A plan unfolded – to set out across Europe like a tramp – a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar, a broken knight.”

“The chief destination was never in a moment’s doubt. The levitating skyline of Constantinople pricked its sheaves of thin cylinders and its hemispheres out of the sea-mist; beyond it hovered Mount Athos; and the Greek archipelago.”

In excess of his wildest dreams, he found material to write about. All was grist to his mill, but his mill ground slowly. His writing proved to require long gestation. He became fanatical about polishing his product, and research, the more obscure, the more it seemed to appeal to him, like the origins of the Sarakatsans or the Laz-speaking Greeks of Trebizond. The first book about his venture, A Time of Gifts, came out in 1977, over 40 years later, and the second, Between the Woods and the Water about “those mysterious regions between the Vienna Woods and the Black Sea” as Saki put it – in 1986. In France they called him “l’escargot (the snail) of the Carpathes.”

Real life and events also delayed his writing. The trek took him about a year. He reached his goal on New Year’s Eve, 1934, after ending his traverse of Bulgaria with a splash, falling into the Black Sea on a cold December evening. He came to the coast some 150 miles north of the Bosphorus. “An old man was smoking a narghileh on the doorstep of a hut beside a little boat beached among the rushes – a Tartar fisherman, the only human being I saw all day,” he  wrote over 20 years later in an article in the May 1965 Holiday Magazine.

Darkness fell. “I lost my footing on a ledge and skidded – waist-deep into a pool. Jarred and shaken, with a gash on my forehead and a torn thumb, I climbed out, shuddering with cold. At the bottom of the pool, about two fathoms down, my torch was sending a yellow shaft through sea anemones and a flickering concourse of fish.”

Crawling round the rocks, he came to a veritable Cyclop’s cave sheltering a dozen Greek fishermen and Bulgarian goatherds with their 50 goats and cheese-making apparatus, eating lentils by a thornbush fire. The young wayfarer was soon dried and warm, tossing back slivovitz and eating fresh fried mackerel.

Leigh Fermor is in his element in the climax of this thoroughly Homeric episode, when one of the Greeks, Costa, turns out to be an unsung Nijinsky, his dancing invested with a ‘tragic and doomed aura.’ He performed the stunt  with which Greek cruise ships like to wind up their Greek night shows: dancing with a table between the teeth.

“On a rock, lifted there to clear the floor, the low, round, heavy table was perched. Revolving past it, Costa leaned forward: suddenly the table levitated itself into the air, sailed past us, and pivoted at right angles to Costa’s head in a series of wide loops, the edge clamped firmly in his mouth and held here only by his teeth. The dancer whirled like a dervish, till the flying table melted into a disc, finally returned to its rock, glasses, cutlery, lentil pot and cigarette burning on the edge of a plate undisturbed.”

Time in Greece he dates from his 20th birthday, February 11, 1935, when he arrived at Mt Athos as ‘snowflakes were falling fast’ and ‘in deep snow, trudged from monastery to monastery.’ In Athens later, he frequented the  Romanian embassy, meeting descendants of Phanariot hospodars, Ypsilantes, Ghikas and Cantacuzenes. As with Greece, he fell in love with Balasha Cantacuzene whose forebear, Emperor John Vl, invited the Seljuk Turks to  Europe (and is recalled sorrowfully in a Cavafy poem for having coloured glass not jewels in his coronation crown).

After time writing and painting in an old mill among the lemon groves overlooking Poros, they went to her decaying family estate in Moldavia. Published in 1961 was a perfectly pitched account of a picnic in sunlit  countryside by open carriage and on horseback on September 2, 1939, the last day of peace. “It had been a happy day, as we had hoped, and it had to last us a long time, for the next day’s news scattered the little society for ever.”

Utterly desolating is the Daily Telegraph weekend magazine article of May 1990 on his first breaking through the Iron Curtain in 1965. He found the Cantecuzene sisters in a Bucharest attic eking out a communist state pension  teaching. The gracious old houses he had stayed in among flowery meadows and nightingale-filled woods were psychiatric hospitals, their owners dead.

Leigh Fermor seems happiest gilding the past, writing to ‘the brave music of a distant drum,’ as old Khayyan put it, not dwelling on ‘bitter furies of complexity’ or ‘that gong-tormented sea’ of Yeats’s “Byzantium” which he refers to at the outset in Time of Gifts. The days of his youth were the days of his glory and he evokes them with zest, if no doubt some selective memory. He admits he is beset with ‘retrogressive hankerings,’ but these add to the richness of the embroidered prose dazzling his readers, to twist Yeats a bit. And sometimes he might be shoulder-to-shoulder with the poet:

Of all Arabia’s lovers I alone
Nor dazzled by the embroidery, nor lost
In the confusion of its night-dark folds,
Can hear the armed man speak.

His review of Edmund Keeley’s Cavafy’s Alexandria in a 1977  Times Literary Supplement (TLS) shows him at his serious best. He recalls “the blacked-out, jolly, rather wicked wartime port” he knew as a young British World War Two agent, then is off with Cavafy into the Judaeo-Hellenic Franco-Levantine city “old in sin, steeped in history, warrened with intrigue.”

He notes the depths of irony and dark humour in the notion of citizens aghast with consternation when the barbarians fail to invade them on cue. He ponders “the jagged Ithaka at the long Odyssey’s end; the imminent Ephialtes ready to sell the Thermopylae of the spirit.” He goes on: “Issued without preamble from an atmosphere of earthly delights these warnings sound as harsh, for a moment, as the words of Mercury after the songs of Apollo at the end of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost.'”

Leigh Fermor is a mild Mercury though. In a review of Oxford classicist CM Bowra’s Primitive Song in a 1962 Spectator he commends him for eschewing ‘a softer technique, swaying to the seductions of every coincidence  and historical chance-shot.’ He himself tends to yield to the tempting vistas of ‘alluring byways.’

The selections from his writings on Greece include a report he wrote for London’s Imperial War Museum archives in 1969 on how the German commander General Heinrich Kreipe was abducted by a Cretan-British force he led in April 1944. While still controversial, the coup makes a cracking good story.

At Anoyeia where captors and captive rested, villagers were ‘convulsed by incredulity, then excitement and finally by triumphant hilarity. We could hear running feet in the streets, shouts and laughter. “Just think, we’ve stolen their General!”‘

Heading south round Psiloritis – Mt Ida of antiquity, over 2,200 metres high and snow-covered till late May – the getaways were to meet a British vessel on the coast to spirit them to Egypt. After a night in a shepherd’s hut sharing  one blanket, “a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mt Ida which we had been struggling across for two days. We were lying smoking in silence, when the General, half to himself, slowly said (in Latin): ‘See, how it stands, one pile of 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 (likewise in Latin);

‘neath the pressure yield
Its groaning woods; the torrents flow
With clear sharp ice is all congealed.
Heap high the logs, and melt the cold,
Good Thaliarch; draw the wine we ask,
That mellower vintage, four-year-old,
From out the cellar’d Sabine cask.

(Conington’s translation)

The stanzas are much-loved, ‘a picturesque Christmas card,’ say scholars. They evoke the perfect ambience in which to peruse the book. Those unfamiliar with Leigh Fermor will surely have appetites whetted for more. Those who know him and have his books around will dash for them to locate the extracts, then hotly debate the choices, such as the punning Achitectural Notes from a 1994 Spectator: “If you squinch, aisle screen,” and “Put those Saxon  here Norman,” and “Overhung? Per apse, when dais done.”

The author has covered himself. “Pure nonsense is as rare among the arts as an equatorial snowdrop”, he wrote in a review of George Seferis’s Illustrated Verses for Small Children in a 1977  TLS.

Greeks in Hungary: A history in two acts

I thought this would be of general interest. I don’t recall Paddy encountering any Greeks in Hungary but he did come across Greek fishermen from the Greek diaspora when walking along the Bulgarian Black Sea coast in late 1934. That encounter was related in Words of Mercury and includes the Mystery of the Black Sea Cave.

by Alexander Billinnis

First published in The Hellenic Voice, 22 June 2011.

The Greek presence in Hungary is one of the oldest in Greece’s modern diaspora. It is, further, one of the most interesting, because as a tragic accident of war and politics, it received a new lease on life, a second chapter of sorts. The Greeks’ odyssey in Hungary is a tale of two diasporas and the efforts of current Greeks to unite the two acts into a common play.

Act I: The First Diaspora

After swallowing up the Balkans, the Turks shattered the Hungarian army at the Battle of Mohacs, and the Turks controlled most of Hungary, and up to the gates of Vienna in Austria, for more than 150 years. On the heels of the Turks’ second, failed siege of Vienna in 1683, the Austrians, at the head of a multinational European force, began the taskof evicting the Turks from Central Europe. When the guns fell silent, in 1717, the Austrians and Hungarians needed to rebuild their realm devastated by war, and many Ottoman Christians, primarilySerbs but also Greeks and Vlachs, responded eagerly.

Greek merchants quickly established themselves in major Hungarian cities, such as Buda, Pest, Szentendre, Miskolc and Tokaj. They were heavilyinvolved in the overland trade with the Ottoman Empire, but they also worked as agriculturalists and vintners. There is some evidence that winemakers from Macedonia first cultivated Hungary’s prized Tokaj wine. The Greek merchants were heavily involved in the coffee trade, and some of the oldest Budapest coffeehouses have Greek origins. As an avid coffee drinker, this makes me particularly proud.

The Greeks’ natural appetite for commerce, their large commercial network in the Ottoman Empire and their growing colonies throughout the Austrian (later Austro-Hungarian Empire) brought a great deal of wealth to the small but financially and politically powerful community. The Greek community supported schools, charitable institutions and of course church organizations. Initially the Greek students studied at the Serbian school, but by 1785 they established their own, which operated continuously until 1900. The Greeks and Vlachs established a church community separate from other Orthodox nationalities (though still subject to the Serbian Patriarchate), and their cathedral, built in 1809, continues (as the Hungarian Orthodox Church) to serve a largely Hungarian Orthodox community, often Balkan in origin. Other Greek Orthodox churches grace several Hungarian cities, including Tokaj, Eger and Miskolc.

The Greeks’ very success fostered an increasing assimilation. Greeks left the merchant class, became naturalized Hungarians, and in some cases nobility. Events in Hungary followed a similar pattern to those in Vienna and other key Austrian commercial centers. Lacking the critical mass of population that the Serbs had in southern Hungary (which later became the Serbian province of Vojvodina, where my family and I currently live), the Greeks became Hungarians, though some did keep the Orthodox religion of their ancestors, and vestiges of their culture.

Act II: The Second Diaspora

Just as the First Greek Hungarian diaspora faded into assimilation and history, events in Greece stirred up another wave of Greeks into Hungary. Many of these immigrants came from the same mountains as the first diaspora, but they were not merchants, but refugees – guerillas, villagers and intellectuals of the communist movement in the Greek Civil War. Many were children, many came involuntarily. Their connections with Greece were severed by the hard frontiers of the Cold War, but they did not forget Greece or their traditions.

In the “Greek” village of Beloiannisz (Beloyiannis), which I visited, or in small communities in Budapest, Miskolc, Pecs and Kesckemet, the Greeks kept their language and culture alive. In the communist period the Church played little role as a guardian of faith and identity, in contrast with the first Greek diaspora in Hungary, or Greek diasporas in the Americas or Australia. In the post-communist era, the role of the Church has reemerged.

Other virtues we associate with the diaspora, hard work and study, also marked this post Civil War diaspora. Greeks excelled in academia and professions well out of proportion to the small size of their community. All of the Greeks I met, including the second generation born in Hungary, spoke Greek with a precise fluency.

A fair percentage of the Greek Hungarian community repatriated to Greece, particularly in the 1980s, but the community by that time was quite well established in Hungary. The Hungarian government recognized Greeks as a distinct minority and cofunded cultural and educational activities. This support enables a diverse educational and cultural agenda, including an elementary school, weekly cultural performances and a growing literature about the community. When I arrived at the cultural center, I was welcomed as a fellow diaspora Greek, and loaded down with books on the community.

Closure

I spent an hour talking to Professor Nikosz Fokasz (Nikos Fokas), an eminent Hungarian sociologist and one of the Greek community’s leading intellectuals. Son of a Paris-educated Cephalonian architect and a mother from a village in Evritania, Professor Fokas is an urbane academic at home in university circles throughout Europe and North America. He considers thispostwar Diaspora to be the keepers and the descendents of the first diaspora. After all, both generally descended from the same Macedonian and Epirote mountains, a “diaspora of the Mountains,” as he calls it. Many Hungarians are now rediscovering their Greek roots, with the active help of this newer Greek diaspora.

Professor Fokas noted, with a particular pride, that Baron Simon Sina, a Greek Hungarian, financed Budapest’s most iconic Danube bridge, Lanc Hid (Chain Bridge), as well as a large part of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, another signature Budapest building. Honoring him, Greek Hungarians have been instrumental in establishing the “Sina Award,” bestowed upon a member of the Hungarian business community for outstanding support of the arts and sciences. Fostering awareness of Hungary’s Greek and Orthodox elements in its history has been a key contribution of this new diaspora, and in so doing, it has honored, and in some cases, literally resurrected, the first diaspora.

As always when I travel among diaspora Greeks, I felt a common bond with the Greek Hungarians in spite of our very different histories. There was that love of Greece, somehow less jaded, than that of Greeks in Greece. There is also a very clear consciousness among Greeks in Hungary that the history of Hellenism and Orthodoxy is a long one in their country, and that custody of this tradition is an important role, which they assume with pride. It is a pertinent lesson for our community in America.

Alexander Billinis is a Greek American writer living in Serbia. He previously worked in international banking in the US, Britain and Greece. His book, “The Eagle has Two Faces: Journeys through Byzantine Europe,” will be released later this year. 

Related articles:

On the Pontic shores where the snowflakes fall

The mystery of The Black Sea Cave

Pre-ordering Artemis Cooper’s biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Artemis Cooper

Just a quick note to regular readers and those who search for this book – there are many Google searches for this proposed biography.

It came to my attention that a book called Biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor by Artemis Cooper and Antony Beevor is due to be published by Penguin in September 2011. At least that is what it says on Amazon and a number of on-line book sites.

I contacted Amelia Fainey who is Publicity Director for Penguin books as my belief was that the agreement (and if I recall correctly actually mentioned in In Tearing Haste) is that the book will be published after Paddy’s death.

Amelia responded thus:

Hello

I’m afraid we don’t have a date scheduled for this yet – possibly 2013 – certainly not this September!

A

So, if you were hoping for a book this autumn you will have to wait …. at least two years, and I suspect a lot longer than that.

Related article:

A biography of Paddy by Artemis Cooper?
Artemis Cooper talks about Words of Mercury

Scholar in the wilds – a profile of Patrick Leigh Fermor

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).

Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese

Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese

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.

Paddy at home in the Mani

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”.

Patrick Leigh Fermor at school, Kings Canterbury

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.”

Balasha Cantacuzene

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.”

Moss, Kreipe and Paddy

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.

He’s the top

The following review of Words of Mercury was first published in The Spectator. It is unusual as it was written by the Marques de Tamaron who was the Spanish Ambassador in London in 1999-2004. He and his wife stayed with Debo  at Chatsworth in November 2000 (see p 322 In Tearing Haste). The Marques is clearly a fan!

by  Santiago Tamaron

First published in The Spectator Oct 4, 2003

The perfect anthology, like the perfect hors d’oeuvre, should turn us into gluttons. The many small dishes add up to a balanced and nourishing meal, but they are so exquisite that they whet one’s appetite for more. And the anthology should also include unexpected delicacies, things that even the literary gourmet had not heard about.

This book fulfils both requirements but also a third, more difficult one: it presents a complete portrait of the author. The compiler, Artemis Cooper, writes an introduction which is a model of informative brevity, but also succeeds – with her selection of essays and book chapters, plus an unpublished letter and a dazzlingly original poem, under the headings of Travels’, ‘Greece’, ‘People’, ‘Books’ and ‘Flotsam’ and with a few explanatory words now and then – in capturing the essence of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the man as well as the literary oeuvre. If there was ever a writer of whom it can be said that le style c’est l’homme, it is he. And the essence of Paddy (as the compiler and many others call him) is not his superb English or his arcane erudition, but his obvious and contagious enjoyment of everything he writes about.

Of course, if he enjoys the sights and sounds and smells of the landscapes he travels through, and the words he hears and reads in a dozen languages or two, if he admires the stones and paintings, the plants and trees and the strangely shaped clouds and mountains in the Balkans or the Danubian basin or the Himalayas, if he cares and makes you care about Mozarabic liturgy (in Latin only, naturally, and only in Toledo), or about Phanariot genealogy or Bulgarian shepherd dances or the punctilio of Cretan blood-feuds, it is because all these wonders are not dry-as-dust erudition for Paddy, they are perfectly alive, in his memory and, through his magical language, in our minds.

It is not that he refuses reality and the unprecedented scale of the destruction brought upon civilisation by the bestiality of the 20th century. He knows and indeed he tells us that the island of Ada Kaleh in the Danube, with its melancholy and beautiful remnant of Ottoman life, was flooded by the Iron Gates dam built in 1971. He knows that the happy Transylvanian country house of his friend Tibor (‘jolly, baronial, rubicund, Jager-hatted and plumed, an ex-Horse Gunner’) had been turned by the communists into a lunatic asylum. Even sadder, when he returned to Baleni, the house in Moldavia belonging to his friend Balasha Cantacuzene and her sister, where he lived during the months before the start of the second world war (the most poignant memory in this book is the perfect early autumn mushroom-gathering picnic on the last day of peace), he found that ‘the house had completely vanished. Some industrial buildings, already abandoned, had taken its place, and the trees had been cut down long ago.’ The author is fully aware that many of the things he loves have been destroyed, but I think that he also realises that the joy and pain and privilege of a writer is to save the memories and thereby the physical beauty of past glories, and this he does supremely well and with an immense joie de vivre.

Two months ago he told friends that he had read in the morning Othello, which had depressed him so much that in the afternoon he had read A Midsummer Might’s Dream, which had greatly gladdened him. Clearly Shakespeare, like so many other muses and marvels, is no museum piece for Paddy but part of his daily life. That is why he is truly cultured and never pedantic.

He is a generous writer. I have never found an ounce of spite or envy in his books, or sarcasm in his occasional irony (‘the agglutinative harshness of the Turks, laced with genteel diaereses, sounded like drinking out of a foeman’s skull with a raised little finger’). He genuinely likes and understands Greeks and Turks, Magyars and Rumanians, Germans, Austrians and Jews, even enemies in times of war like General Kreipe whom he abducted in Crete. There is not a dull character in the vast gallery in these pages where barons, bandits and beggars abound, where scholars and poets are colourful and ladies are beautiful (although the latter circumstance is usually left untold, for Paddy is most un-Byronic in his reticence about his own loves).

Some years ago, a group of friends gathered to celebrate Paddy’s birthday. John Julius Norwich wrote and sang a new version of ‘You’re the Top’ in his honour:

You’re the million volts of the thunderbolts of Zeus, /You’re Leda’s swan, you’re the square upon the hypotenuse! …/And you’ll fill and thrill our hearts until we drop: /So from Bath to Burma, Fermor, you’re the top!

Most readers of Words of Mercury will, I think, agree with this assessment.

The Marques de Tamaron is the Spanish Ambassador in London.

Voyages around a genius

At some point, when I get truly organised, it is my intention to create a section on the blog for all the book reviews I can find that relate to Paddy’s work. Until that time I beg your indulgence for yet another review of Words of Mercury. However, this has two strong claims to your time and attention. Firstly it is short, and secondly it is a delightful read!

ByRoger Hutchinson

First published in LivingScotsman.com 15 November 2003

If you or I were to take a hike in December down a deserted Black Sea coastline in Bulgaria, miss our way after dark, fall into a deep, cold pool and lose our torch and boots, we would certainly drown on the spot or die shortly afterwards from exposure.

When Patrick Leigh Fermor does exactly the same thing he crawls out alive and is adopted within the hour by half-a-dozen Greek fishermen who dry him, clothe him, sit him beside a bonfire, feed him slivovitz and mackerel, play bouzoukis, sing songs and perform antic dances through the night. Some travel writers are born or made; others have it wished upon them.

Leigh Fermor is undoubtedly the greatest travel writer to have emerged from the 1980s genre-boom. Comparisons with the likes of Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron, William Dalrymple, Jan Morris and even the mythical avatar of them all, Robert Byron, are fruitless – Leigh Fermor out-travels them, out-scholars them and out-writes them by a country mile.

He writes English, in fact, as well as anybody else alive and a great deal better than most. Leigh Fermor’s prose style is a wonderful thing. He was born with an uncanny facility for languages and the ability to pick up a local demotic – any local demotic – almost on contact. His deployment of his native language is consequently blessed with a huge and exotic vocabulary, instinctively flawless grammar and what he usefully describes – while attributing the advice to Auberon Herbert – as “the importance of keeping a proper balance between words of Anglo-Saxon and Latin root … a Latin preponderance endangered one’s themes and sent them ballooning away in abstract drifts … that could only be rescued by tethering them to the ground and reality with short Anglo-Saxon pegs.”

This hardworking, heavenly English has been set loose in half a dozen books on the most suitable of themes: the life and times of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Since he set off to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in 1933 at the age of 18, Leigh Fermor has led so adventurous an existence that without evidence to the contrary we would be tempted to dismiss it as fantasy.

But the evidence is there. He really did stay in fairytale castles and sleep with glamorous mittel-Europeans. He really did parachute into occupied Crete, swagger around with banditti and kidnap a German general. He really did explore the West Indies, climb the Andes and the Himalayas, write books in monasteries, follow the rainbow and return always to his adopted homeland of Greece. He is impossibly, infuriatingly, irresistibly romantic.

He has written sparingly. There has been almost a decade between each of his last four books. As the last pair of those – A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water – were the first two volumes of a trilogy recalling that magnificent pre-war hike to the Bosphorus, we and his publishers have been on tenterhooks since 1986, prayerfully beseeching Leigh Fermor to tear himself away from Mani and escort us to old Stamboul.

The publishers, John Murray, have meantime sated our hunger, firstly with a collection of letters home from the Andes and now with Words of Mercury, a short anthology, edited by Artemis Cooper, which is best described as a Patrick Leigh Fermor primer. About half of the entries are filched from his earlier books. The rest are reprinted magazine articles, doodles and a glorious gift of a letter to Artemis’s grandmother, Lady Diana Cooper.

It will do to be going on with. Those of us who know almost by heart the Delphinia episode and the story of how he found Lord Byron’s slippers really have no objection to reading them again. Those who don’t, should. And the journalistic miscellenia, which include pieces on the building of his fabled house on the southern tip of the Peloponnese, Cavafy, and Iain Moncreiffe (of that Ilk) are more than valuable. But most tantalising of all, provocative to the point of cruelty, is the fact that Words of Mercury contains a couple of essays that point alluringly towards the last stage of his 1930s perambulation.

We left him meandering towards Turkey at the end of Between the Woods and the Water. We know he eventually got there. According to a 1965 article in Holiday magazine, which Cooper reprints, the journey involved that wintry escapade with Black Sea fishermen. “Laughing and out of breath,” Leigh Fermor recalls, “Costa collapsed with mock melodrama. The raki travelled round the cave in a hubbub of laughter and the flames threw a beltane chiaroscuro over hilarious masks. Another bottle was miraculously discovered …”

Yes, Patrick – open it. Do

Related article:

The mystery of The Black Sea Cave

Related category:

Words of Mercury