Category Archives: Words Of Mercury

Don’t forget your pith helmet by Mary Beard

An interesting, if somewhat lengthy, review of Mani and Roumeli by Mary Beard in the London Review of Books from 2005. She contrasts the advice and style of Victorian travel books and guides with the modern. Mary Beard is also a noted classicist and her views are always worth a read.

First published in the London Review of Books 18 August 2005.

‘In the language and manners of every Greek sailor and peasant the classical scholar will constantly recognise phrases and customs familiar to him in the literature of Ancient Hellas.’ So the anxious tourist was reassured in the preface to the 1854 edition of Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Greece. The message was simple: on a Greek boat you will find yourself back with Odysseus (‘the nautical contrivances and tactics of the ancients may be observed in daily use … the Greek seas are still as fickle as ever’); in a country cottage you will find yourself entertained by someone who could pass for Homer’s swineherd Eumaeus. ‘Even the ferocious attacks of vermin, which soon find out an Englishman, are exactly described in the graphic accounts given by Aristophanes of similar sufferings in Greek houses of old.’

Recapturing this world of antiquity was not, of course, without its hazards and difficulties, and the Handbook tried to demonstrate its own indispensability with some very lurid warnings about what could happen to the traveller who ventured to Greece unprepared. Health, indeed survival, was top of the agenda. ‘The abundance of fruit is a temptation to foreigners,’ it warned, ‘but nothing is more pernicious, or more likely to lead to fatal consequences.’ Protection against the Aristophanic vermin could be achieved only by means of a cheap but enormously complicated mosquito net whose daily assembling must have defeated all but the most obsessive and dexterous: ‘I have found that the best mode of entering it is to keep the opening in the middle of the mattress, and, standing in it, draw the bag entrance over my head.’ The problems of travel came a close second. Was it worth taking an English saddle? On balance yes, since they were so much more comfortable, but they did tend to injure the backs of the animals, given ‘the wretched condition’ of Greek horses. English servants, on the other hand, were better left at home, or if not at home, then in Corfu: ‘They are usually but little disposed to adapt themselves to strange customs, have no facility in acquiring foreign languages, and’ – revealing the characteristic blindness of the elite to the habitual discomforts of the working class – ‘are more annoyed by hardships and rough living than their masters.’ It was far more ‘agreeable and advantageous’ to hire a local, so long as no antiquarian knowledge was expected, let alone trusted if offered. For that, (hand)books were the thing. Continue reading

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The mystery of The Black Sea Cave

It seems that summer is the time that Paddy’s fans stir themselves to try and find locations associated with his travels. We have had my recent ‘On the Same Steps’ article about the Hofbrauhaus; excerpts from the New York Times frugal traveller following part of the ATOG route; the OPRIG GAGINONANUS challenge; and now the submission of Jean-Marc Mitterer from Switzerland who has been trying to solve the conundrum of the true location of The Black Sea Cave, in the context of the challenge of understanding more about Paddy’s route on his last leg in Bulgaria in 1934.

Jean-Marc wrote to me a while back and we have exchanged a few emails since on this subject. He has read the story very closely (which is found in Words of Mercury but was originally published in Holiday Magazine in May 1965) and has been in contact with academics and others in Bulgaria to see if any more is known to try and narrow down the possible sites.

I hope as ever that someone out there somewhere will be able to comment and add to our shared knowledge about the gaps in Paddy’s life and stories. Here is what Jean-Marc has to say ….

“As you wrote, many readers of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books imagine travelling back on the route he followed. If the first part of the trip is pretty well documented, this might turn to be a bit more challenging for the third part – Vidin, Sofia, Vitosha, Plovdiv, Veliko Turnovo, Ruse, Southern Romania, Varna, Burgas, ending in Istanbul on New Year’s Day 1935. The publication of the third volume will probably give more details but one point might remain some kind of a mystery: the cave on the Black sea where PLF spent a night in December 1934.

This striking moment of PLF’s trip is described in Words of Mercury.” (Ed: I have added some background here)

Paddy had got lost on the coast and had plunged into either sea water or a pond near the coast. It was December and he was wet through and immediately felt the cold. He was exhausted and both his bootlaces had broken. I guess he was at a real low point, far away from civilisation; wet, cold, hungry and lost. Thoughts must have passed through his mind about how he would survive the night.

“… Breathless and exhausted, I lay on a ledge until spurred on by the cold. At last, lowering my half-shod foot on to what I thought was the surface of a pool, I felt the solidity of sand and the grate of pebbles. Another pace confirmed it; I was on the shore of an inlet. Round the buttress of a cliff a little way up the beach, a faint rectangle of light, surrounded by scattered chinks, leaked astonishingly into the darkness. I crossed the pebbles and I pulled open an improvised door, uttering a last dobar vecher into the measureless cavern beyond. A dozen firelit faces looked up in surprise and consternation from their cross-legged supper, as though a sea monster or a drowned man’s ghost had come in.”

Jean-Marc continues ….

“Its location is very vague: between Varna and Burgas.

PLF tried to retrace it after the war from memory in the area around  Nesebar, but without success.

Early in 2010 Bulgarian speleologists and geography societies were asked about the existence of this place. The answers were disappointing and came with the regularity of clichés. There are well known cave areas between Kavarna and Shabla (north of Varna) and Sozopol and Tsarevo (south of Burgas). But no one knew of anything in-between.

This absence of cave is not only a mismatch with the broad location mentioned in Words of Mercury, but also with the actual situation. The north of Varna can be excluded as between 1913 and the Second World War the area up to Balchik was in Romania and not Bulgaria. The south of Burgas can also be excluded as, apparently, Paddy traveled (sadly) the last bit of his journey by train. [Ed: Is this the case?]

So this place must be between Balchik and Burgas.

Here are the actual elements we know from the article:

1. No human presence seen during his day walk except a lone Tatar fisherman.

2. A cave not very deep but big enough to have hosted more than a dozen (12) people, with room enough to perform wild dances, and to house a fishing boat, equipment, and a flock of 50 goats and up to six dogs.

3. The use of masonry elements [Ed: I believe these to have been rocks or dry stone walling. Paddy said they were interspersed with “branches, planks and flattened petrol tins stamped with Sokony-Vacuum in Cyrillic characters” – I do wonder how Paddy recalled this with his self-admitted “clumsy rudiments of” Bulgarian, his stressed physical and mental state, and the absence of his notebook]

4. The presence of a mixed Greek and Bulgarian population [either in the vicinity] or not too far away.

5. The presence of stalactites (which is a very challenging element; according to one speleologist interviewed the rocks on the coast are not suitable for these geological formations).

6. The proximity to the shoreline – remember PLF saw the light from the cave while walking along the coast. [Ed: my reading indicates that the cave was very near the shore, perhaps no more than 20-50 metres as the later descriptions indicate this and one has to ask how far the fisherman would have wished or been able to carry their boat which was seen in the cave. If any of you have carried wooden boats you will know they are very heavy; porting any great distance is unlikely.]

7. A fisherman with only one hand [with a star tattooed on the back of it.]

According to these elements, the place apparently most suitable must have been between Biala and Sveti Vlas. The area is rocky, little inhabited and the presence of a Greek population is confirmed in old maps. (for an interesting selection of maps visit this site of which perhaps the most relevant is this map)

Considering that such a place, even if it should have been destroyed since then [Ed: can you destroy a cave easily?], should have left some memories. In June 2009 locals in this region – Biala, Obzor, Bania, Emine, Elenite – were asked about the cave. Though elder people remembered many old stories (the visits of King Boris, shipwrecks before the first world war, purchasing fish at the fishermen’s settlements on the coast, etc…) nothing concerning a cave used by people or the memory of a handless fisherman (who could have lived on for a couple of decades after the visit of PLF) could be found.

This is not very encouraging… However, everyone remembered the presence of Greek people in this region and there are still a few elderly Greek people alive.

Tcheren Nos cave view

One cave was mentioned by local people, located on the Tcheren Nos. (between Biala and Shkorpilovtsi). This place is actually big arch (about 50- 80 m long), the deepest part being 15-20m above ground. There is a pond in front of it, with a little river reaching the sea. Currently it is difficult to access the place in the wood, there is no path from the shore, which is about 300- 400 m away, I was there in May 2009 and there were no stalactites or visible masonry, though the presence of black surfaces seems to indicate the presence of soot and human uses (from when ?). Considering the distance to the beach and the situation of the cave, it is difficult to imagine that this could have been the cave Paddy described. [Ed: I agree it is probably too far from the sea as per my earlier comments. However, there is always the chance that some form of change in sea level or silting up of the shoreline has increased the distance of the cave from the beach. Paddy does describe sand and shingle on the floor of the cave. From Jean-Marc’s photographs it does not appear that this exists.]

At this stage, these informal investigations reached a dead-end… Many hypothesis could be built (maybe Paddy’s memory confused some elements – like the presence of the stalactites or the dimensions of the cave) but further research would be useful.

The location of this cave is a fascinating enigma that even PLF seems not to have been able to clarify. I hope that this question will also interest you.

Maybe you would consider that this issue could be raised on your website, with the hope that people having access to the 1935 notes taken by PLF (though if this data existed, I guess they would have been used by PLF during his second visit) or having a specific knowledge about the Bulgarian coast could help. I don’t think Paddy’s work has been translated in the Balkans [Ed; He is certainly known in Romania] and his work appears to be unknown in Bulgaria.

[Ed: Towards the end of his account Paddy again confirms that the cave was near the sea “A few yards off, beyond the twelve adjacent snores, I could hear the gasp of the Black Sea.” What is also useful is an indication of the direction the cave was facing as he could see “three quarters of Orion blazed in an icy slanting lozenge.” Where does Orion lie in the late December sky when in the Balkans?]

For Marion Worsley, after OPRIG GAGINONANUS, and for you all, this is a slightly more difficult challenge; to find the cave on the Black Sea where Paddy was simultaneously saved and experienced one of his wilder, most impromptu experiences.

Perhaps the defining episode of this blog will be the re-discovery this cave?

The challenge is now out there. Truly, finding this cave will place the person that discovers it in the Patrick Leigh Fermor Pantheon. It may be a fool’s errand. Paddy may have at the same time exaggerated and been confused after the passage of time. What is not in doubt is that he spent a night in a Black Sea cave with a polyglot group of Greek fisherman and Bulgarian fisherman. What needs to be done is to find that cave. Jean-Marc has set us upon our course. Will we reach our destination?

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Walking towards Byzantium

A Review of Artemis Cooper’s “Words of Mercury” by William Dalrymple published in the Guardian.

First published in the Guardian 13 December 2003

William Dalrymple relishes Words of Mercury, a selection from the work of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Britain’s greatest living travel writer.

Skill with the sword usually precludes much competence with the pen. For all that Sir Philip Sidney could write sequences of Petrarchan sonnets as well as lead buccaneering raids on the Spanish Netherlands, or Siegfried Sassoon write his anti-war memoirs while also winning the Military Cross, bookishness and military machismo are rarely found roosting together (after all, it’s no secret, as the old joke goes, that military intelligence is a contradiction in terms).

The great exception to this rule in our own time is Patrick Leigh Fermor. For though he is one of our finest prose stylists and – since the death this summer of his only possible rival, Norman Lewis – without question our greatest living travel writer, he was also responsible for one of the most audacious special operations coups of the second world war.

Leigh Fermor’s own account of the abduction of General Kreipe, the German commander of the Nazi occupation forces in Crete, is published for the first time in Artemis Cooper’s wonderful new anthology of Leigh Fermor’s work, Words of Mercury. The story is a famous one, and in the film version, entitled Ill Met by Moonlight, Paddy was played by the dashing Dirk Bogarde. But in Leigh Fermor’s own account, the climax comes not as the general’s staff car is stopped at night by a British SOE party dressed in stolen German uniforms, nor as the Cretan partisans help smuggle the general into the Cretan highlands and thence to a waiting British submarine; but instead as “a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mount Ida”: “We were all three lying smoking in silence, when the General, half to himself, slowly said: ‘ Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Socrate’. It was the opening lines of one of the few Horace odes I knew by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off … The General’s blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine – and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: ‘Ach so, Herr Major!’ It was very strange. ‘Ja, Herr General.’ As though for a moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

It is an archetypal Leigh Fermor anecdote: beautifully written, fabulously romantic and just a little showy. For Leigh Fermor’s greatest virtues as a writer are also his greatest vices: his incantational love of great waterfalls of words, combined with the wild, scholarly enthusiasms of a brilliant autodidact. On the rare occasions he gets it wrong, Paddy has been responsible for some of the most highly coloured purple passages in travel literature. But at his best he is sublime, unbeatable.

For as well as being a war hero, one of the world’s great long-distance walkers, and as tough a traveller as you could find, Leigh Fermor has always been a writer of great intelligence, sensitivity and profundity. Here he is, for example, describing a French Cistercian monastery, where he says he discovered “the capacity for solitude and the recollectedness and clarity of spirit that accompany the silent monastic life. For in the seclusion of a cell – an existence whose quietness is only varied by the silent meals, the solemnity of ritual and long solitary walks in the woods – the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world.”

Words of Mercury is a cornucopia, full of the rarest gems, but it is also a rather odd book: part collected journalism, part greatest hits anthology, with a few other surprising odds and ends thrown in, such as a memoir about the eccentric Scottish genealogist Sir Ian Moncrieffe of that Ilk. This tells of Moncrieffe’s huge pleasure in discovering that he was directly descended from “The Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory, Monster of Csejthe [who] was convicted in 1610 of the slow murder – in order that their blood might magically preserve her beauty – of more than six hundred girls.” In a similar mood, there is also a letter from Paddy to the editor’s grandmother, Lady Diana Cooper, and a footnote directing the reader towards the “strongly recommended” work of the military historian Antony Beevor, who just happens to be the editor’s husband (though in fairness, it appears that this warm endorsement comes from Leigh Fermor rather than Cooper).
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Life by the scenic route: Max Hastings reviews ‘Words of Mercury’

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.

Words of Mercury by Artemis Cooper

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.

Read more here!

I say, old chap, that’s my favourite Horatian ode too! By Justin Cartwright

A review of Words of Mercury by Patrick Leigh Fermor, ed Artemis Cooper first published in the Independent

Sunday, 2 November 2003

The overwhelming impression this book left on me was of a lost world of aesthetic public schoolboys, powerful newspaper editors, friendly ambassadors, and an unspoken understanding of what it meant to be upper- middle-class and English. What it meant was easy access to embassies and aristocratic houses around Europe, bicycle polo in Hungary, and the possibility that the next shepherd you met would be an Etonian Special Operations officer, speaking classical Greek. Here you will find the term “middle class” applied in a pejorative sense, rather than in the current usage which has such a wide catchment. That John Murray, the publishers of this book and upper-middle-class publishers par excellence, are no longer family-owned, perhaps confirms that this world has passed. And with it a love of language and literary decoration.

To quote Jan Morris, Paddy Leigh Fermor is beyond doubt the greatest of living travel writers, although the term “travel writing” barely does justice to the beauty, the lustrousness and sensuality of his writing. Take this, for example, speaking of how Greek temples once looked before they were stark ruins: “But the reality of the ruins, re-cohering in cobalt and blood-red, studded with metal, gaudy with idols, shiny with spilt honey and blood and reeking with sacrificial smoke, will have replaced the tinted ivory artefacts that had stolen their place and the void between the cutting of the flutes on the columns and the laying of the tramlines begins to fill up with people and events.”

There are about 40 short pieces divided into headings: Travels, Greece, People, Books and Flotsam. Many of these pieces are from Leigh Fermor’s great books, Mani, Roumeli and A Time of Gifts. (In 55 years he has only written eight books.) Others are from scattered newspaper pieces and obituaries. All the major phases of his life are represented here: the wandering schoolboy heading for Istanbul, the two years just before the war he spent in Romania with a doomed aristocratic family after meeting the daughter of the family in Athens (the woman Artemis Cooper describes as the love of his life), the extraordinary exploits in war-time Special Operations in Crete, where he captured the German General, Heinrich Kreipe, and his post-war exploration of Greece, particularly Mani where he has lived for 40 years in a house he built with his wife Joan, who died recently. Their story will be told by Artemis Cooper in a biography to be published after his death.

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