Tag Archives: Balasha Cantacuzene

The Wounded Gigolo

Here is something interesting, new, possibly amusing, but probably more than a little controversial. The Oxford scholar, poet, wit and acquaintance of the Leigh Fermors , Sir Cecil Maurice Bowra, wrote two poems (in 1950) that poked fun at Paddy’s relationships with Balasha Cantacuzene and Joan Leigh Fermor. It appears that Paddy objected to these and prevented their publication in the 2005 poetry collection New Bats in Old Belfries, or Some Loose Tiles. Paddy apparently refers to them in his correspondence with the Duchess of Devonshire. Now that Paddy is no longer with us, it would appear that Henry Hardy (also known as Robert Dugdale) has decided to make them public.

The poems appear to be buried within Hardy’s website which he maintains on the subject of Isaiah Berlin. This poem, The Wounded Gigolo, is in pretty poor taste (all round) but in particular in relation to Balasha; far from spurning Paddy she delighted in their relationship but they were separated first by the war, and then by communism. She knew that their relationship would not be rekindled after the war and she apparently was pleased that Paddy had found happiness with Joan.

Hardy explains himself thus:

When New Bats in Old Belfries was published in 2005, two poems had to be omitted from the book which stated at the time “because their subject was still alive, and unwilling to give his approval for their inclusion in his lifetime.” It can now be revealed that Bowra’s target in the excised poems was Patrick (‘Paddy’) Leigh Fermor, writer and traveller – and Cretan war hero as a result of his activities while serving in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War. Leigh Fermor, born on 11 February 1915, died on 10 June 2011, aged 96.

In an extended correspondence with one of the editors of Bowra’s poems, Paddy showed that he was much put out by the poems about himself, especially ‘The Wounded Gigolo’, which he felt was ‘a bit cracked’. He vacillated about the other poem, but in the end voted against, no doubt partly influenced by the opinion of his late wife Joan, who ‘thought that all the people mentioned in the collection would have been cut to the quick, however much they put on non-spoilsport faces’. When James Morwood of Wadham College visited him later in his Greek home – to ask about his friendship with Bowra on behalf of Leslie Mitchell, Bowra’s biographer – he found Paddy was still smarting.

To Hardy, Leigh Fermor wrote: ‘Could Maurice’s shade ponder all this now, I think I might emerge as more of a saviour than a spoilsport.’ [Edit: I think Paddy was probably right and I publish here for our usual completeness]

My thanks to Mark Granelli and Margaret Campbell for getting in touch about this. Here is the first poem:

The Wounded Gigolo

O Balasha Cantacuzène,
Hear the war-cry of the Gael!
In his last fierce fight he’s losin’;
He will fight, but he will fail.
Cruelly his lady spurned him,
Struck him when he asked for more,
Flung him down the stairs and turned him
Bag and baggage from the door.
Oh unhappy gigolo
Told to pack his traps and go;
He may mope and he may mow,
Echo only answers ‘No’.

Hasten, every loyal Cretan,
To your wounded master’s aid;
He will not admit he’s beaten
While there’s money to be made.
Stalwart heroes stand beside him,
Captain Moss and Major Xan,
Knowing that, whate’er betide him,
He is still their perfect man.
Oh the hero gigolo,
Bleeding from a mortal blow,
He’s been cut off from the dough,
And he murmurs ‘Woe, woe, woe!’

What avail him now the dances
Which he led on Ida’s peak?
No more like a ram he prances;
Gone the bums he used to tweak.
Let him pick and scratch his scrotum,
Wave his cock and shake his balls –
She will never turn to note ’em,
Never listen to his calls.
Oh the jigging gigolo,
Plying his fantastic toe –
Like a wounded buffalo,
He can only belch and blow.

What avails the apt quotation,
What the knowledge of the arts,
What the lore of every nation
Learned from many unpaid tarts?
Ah, his mistress will not listen,
Floating vaguely to the moon;
Vainly do his molars glisten
When he tries to break her swoon.
Oh the learned gigolo,
What was there he didn’t know?
Now there’s nothing left to show
To the girl he dazzled so.

Yet remains his greatest glory,
His proud prowess in the bed.
Never tool renowned in story
Had so fine a lustihead.
Can he not be up and at her?
Strike the target? Ring the bell?
Ah, to her it doesn’t matter;
Nothing can restore the spell.
Oh the potent gigolo,
He could make the semen flow!
Though the cock may crow and crow,
He must pack his traps and go.

17 April 1950

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An opportunity to win some wonderful prizes in Heywood Hill’s Paddy competition

As many will know, Paddy set off on his European odyssey from Shepherd Market. His biographer Artemis Cooper has discovered that Paddy lived above Heywood Hill immediately after the war. He kept an account there for Balasha Cantacuzene, the Romanian princess and great love of his youth, so that she could buy books whenever she wanted. He remained a lifelong customer of Heywood Hill.

To celebrate the publication in October the biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor : An Adventure, Heywood Hill are running a Prize draw. If you order a copy through them you will be automatically entered to win:

1st Prize
Signed First Edition of A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Original John Craxton lithograph from A Poet’s Eye 1944
Watercolour of a View From The Library at Kardamyli by Isobel Brigham
Magnum of Laurent-Perrier Brut NV
£100 Heywood Hill voucher

To order your copy and to enter The Heywood Hill Prize Draw 2012, contact them at:

10 Curzon Street, London W1J 5HH
+44 20 7629 0647

PLF@heywoodhill.com

More details available on their website.

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.

Cantacuzino Family Tomb in Baleni, Romania

Of the old estate of the Cantacuzino’s, all that remains is a tomb—and even that has been left to the elements—“The memorial has value, but the monument isn’t part of our database,” maintains the Director of Culture.

Chris Bartholomew got in touch with me, all the way from Salt Lake City, to pass on his translation of an article he found in a Romanian newspaper about the family tomb of Balasha Cantacuzene, who was Paddy’s lover before the war.

Thank you so much for your Patrick Leigh Fermor Blog. I have been a daily reader for about a year now, and have a difficult time thinking of life without my connection to this community you have brought together.

Last night I came across three newspaper articles about Baleni, Romania where Paddy spent time with Balasa Cantacuzino (the romanian spelling of Cantacuzene). The newspaper is Viata Libera, I believe from the city of Galati.

I’ve translated one article about the family tomb in Baleni, and thought it might be of interest to you and your readers as it provides excellent details about this mostly unpublished chapter of Paddy’s life.

Regards,

Chris

Salt Lake City, Utah

by Cristna S. Carp

First published in Viata Libera 17 March 2009

Generations of Cantacuzinos, the famous Byzantine noble family who contributed crowned heads to Romanian principalities, sleep forever in the locality of Baleni, almost forgotten.

Of the manor house and their vast estate in the former Covurlui County, all that remains is a tomb, left crumbling and surrounded by decrepitude.

The Last Male Descendant

Stories of princes and princesses always have happy endings. This only happens in fairy tales.

In reality, the princesses buried at Baleni are crying and sobbing, and Leon [Balasa & Elena’s father], the final Cantacuzino male descendant from the south of Moldova, is turning in his grave. Artifact hunters have even broken into the tomb through the roof.

But not even recent historical times have been among the most favorable. The last inhabitants of the manor, the daughters of Leon, Balasa and Elena, as well as Constantin Donici, the husband of the latter, were deported by the Communists to Pucioasa. Of the descendants of the Cantacuzinos of Baleni, it seems that no one is left alive.

The Transformation of a Library

One night in March of 1949, the fate of the owners and of the estate was sealed. The solid and imposing manor was doomed to dust.

An existing remnant of a reddish wall vaguely reminds us of the one time benefactors of the local communities, of country celebrations filled with good friends, and the many hunting expeditions. This is where in 1927 Nicolae Iorga, after a conference in Galati, came to admire the “splendid library, with artistic and rare editions.” This is also where Prince Sutu once dropped in, in his personal airplane.

The precious library from Baleni, consisting of books in English, French, Russian, Greek, German and Romanian, was scattered in all directions, beginning on the night of its masters’ eviction. Some volumes came to an end burning in the bottom of a decommissioned root cellar, others were thrown into a nearby river.

As not to muddy themselves during the early months of spring, activists used the books, gathered by the Cantacuzinos from the ends of the earth, to pave their walkways. Peasants fashioned shoes out of the luxurious covers of the books. Only a few hundred have found their way to the ‘V.A. Urechia” library, deposited by the Party or from other donations.

Ten Souls

Constructed, most likely, at the beginning of the 20th Century, the tomb situated in the old village cemetery, is “crammed” between graves whose ordinary souls also ask for the right to rest in peace. The funerary monument includes a chapel, constructed above the tomb. The crypt is open to anyone who would like to light a candle above the heads of these ten souls.

The first of the resting places belongs to the brother of Leon. Next are buried the paternal grandmother and the parents of Leon. His father, Prince George Matei, died in Egypt, but was brought to Baleni, where he was given a very ceremonious funeral.

Ana Vacarescu [Balasa’s mother] faded from life in 1923, followed that same year by her husband, Leon Cantacuzino. Balasa died in 1976, in Pucioasa. Elena brought her to Baleni and a few years later, also had the privilege of placing the incinerated remains of her dead husband in the crypt.

In her turn, Elena was placed, in 1983, in her final resting place, by her former students. The final person buried in the Cantacuzino tomb is Georghe Farcas, a descendant of the noble estate. As the founders of the new village church, the Cantacuzino descendants are often mentioned, but only during religious services.

“The Memorial is Proposed for Designation”

The county cultural representative, councilman Marius Mitrof, told us that, concerning the value of the funeral monument, all circumstances point to the memorial receiving historical designation. A precedent exists, in the tomb of the Serfioti Family, from Filesti, and of the Crissovelon family, from Ghidigeni, found on the list of historical monuments. However, specialists still must take into account other parameters, such as its architectural value and the conditions of the construction.

The former mayor, professor Nicolae Nita, admits, not without regret, that the princes, who might bring recognition to the village, are unjustly forgotten. Not even the current mayor, Lica Oprea, knows how this civic treasure might be given recognition without financial help from the county counsel.

A first step would be, as Marius told us, to solicit historical designation for the tomb, from the Directorate of Culture. “We do not have this funeral monument in our database, but it follows for us to visit the site to collect information and to hold public discussion with the local administration,” he also said.

On the other hand, even with an official place in the register of historical monuments, the tomb in Baleni has no guarantee that it will remain intact. Neither is it assured that, if the manor, once visited by Nicolae Iorga, had survived the Communists, it would have been maintained and promoted any better by our contemporaries. Here as well, sadly, we have precedents. Proof that our mentality must also be changed.

Related article:

The troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear by Colin Thubron 

Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Personal Memoir

One of the downsides of getting older – I am now 62 – is that one’s friends die. Friday, it was the turn of Patrick Leigh Fermor, aged ninety-six, and I am having trouble accepting that he is gone.

By Paul A. Rahe

First published in Ricochet on 12 June 2011.

I first met Paddy in the summer of 1983. I was working then – oddly enough, as I am working right now – on a book on classical Sparta, and I had a grant and a hunch. The Spartan way of life was based on something like slave labor. The Spartans ruled the southernmost two-fifths of the Peloponnesus and drew their livelihood from farms worked by their helots (the word in Greek means captives), who reportedly outnumbered them seven-to-one. In their realm, there were and are two river valleys – one in Laconia and the other in Messenia – divided by a mountain range named Taygetus, and there was and is mountainous terrain elsewhere in Messenia. I had read extensively about the history of slavery, and I was persuaded that there must have been gangs of runaway helots in the hills of Messenia, as there later were in early modern Jamaica and in other locales where servile labor was the norm and there was wilderness nearby. I knew that the Greek resistance during the Second World War had operated in the mountainous country of northern Greece, but I knew little about their operations in the Peloponnesus. A fellow ancient historian who had lived in Greece for some years and had tried to make it as a novelist said to me, when he heard of my hunch, “You ought to talk to Paddy Leigh Fermor. He lives down there, and he fought with the resistance on Crete. He lives in Kardamyle. You should look him up.”

And that is precisely what I did. With the grant I had been given, I bought a plane ticket, and I spent some weeks in the company of a former student who hailed from Thessalonica, exploring the Peloponnesus – by boat, in a rental car, and on foot. Kardamyle was in the Mani – the southernmost prong of the Taygetus range, and it was one of the towns that Agamemnon had offered Achilles in an attempt to get him to take the girl back. When we got there, however, Paddy was away. So I mailed him a brief note and moved on. When we returned, I telephoned him – and he immediately invited the two of us to lunch.

Leyla, who had long been their cook, produced a sumptuous feast. We ate, and we drank, and then we drank some more – and the next thing we knew it was 5 p.m. Paddy and Joan, fearful that we were too intoxicated to successfully traverse the half-mile on foot back to Kardamyle, offered us beds. It was one of the most delightful afternoons that I have ever spent. The historian and journalist Max Hasting has observed that Paddy was “perhaps the most brilliant conversationalist of his time.” Never have I encountered anyone as entertaining.

Paddy was – there is no other word for it – a hero. He lived the strenuous life. There was in him an exuberance that could not be contained. Christopher Marlowe, who was of a similar temperament, managed to make it through the King’s School in Canterbury, but Paddy did not. There was some hanky-panky with the daughter of a greengrocer, but that cannot have been the whole story. “He is a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness,” his housemaster wrote in an official report, “which makes one anxious about his influence on other boys.” I would have been anxious myself.

Not long thereafter, with the support of his mother, who mailed him a fiver from time to time, Paddy set out in December, 1933 by ship for the Hook of Holland – and walked from there to Constantinople and on to Mount Athos and its monasteries. It took him more a year, and you can read about his adventures in two of the books that he later published – A Time of Gifts (1978) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) – which together constitute what the Germans call a Bildungsroman. In those volumes, you will encounter a world of peasants and aristocrats, of socialists and fascists that no longer exists.

Balasha Cantacuzene

On that journey, Paddy met an older woman. He was nineteen. She was married and thirty-one. You can find a description of the beginning their affair in the second of the two volumes mentioned above. Her name was Bălaşa Cantacuzino, and she was a Romanian princess descended from the Byzantine royal house. When his trip was over, they settled down together, oscillating between Athens and at her country house in Moldavia. Then came the Second World War, and he volunteered for the British army. The two would not meet again until after the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989.

During the war, Paddy fought in Albania, Greece, and on Crete. After being evacuated to Cairo, he joined the Special Operations Executive and spent much of the remainder of the war running guerrilla operations in the mountains of Crete. He left the island in May, 1944 under truly exceptional circumstances. On 26 April 1944, on a bet made with friends back in Cairo, Paddy, W. Stanley Moss, and a group of Cretan shepherds kidnapped General Karl Heinrich Georg Ferdinand Kreipe, the German commander on the island.

The two Englishmen dressed up as German police corporals and stopped Kreipe’s car as he was making his way back one evening to his villa near Knossos. Having eliminated the chauffeur, Paddy put on the general’s hat, and Billy Moss drove the car. Kreipe was hidden beneath the back seat – on which three hefty Cretan andartes sat. They then bluffed their way through Heraklion and an addition twenty-two checkpoints before ditching the car and hiking into the mountains – where, for three weeks, they evaded German search parties before being picked up by a British motor launch on the south coast.

At one point, as they neared the top of Mount Ida at the break of dawn, Kreipe quoted the first line of Horace’s ode Ad Thaliarchum – “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte” (See how Soracte stands white with snow on high), and Paddy finished the poem to its end. “At least,” the general remarked, “I am in the hands of gentlemen.” In the days that followed, before they were evacuated to Cairo, the two discussed Greek tragedy and Latin poetry. In 1972, they would meet again in Athens to tape a television show. Afterwards, Paddy once told me, they went out to dinner and sang old German drinking songs. Well before that time, however, Billy Moss had published a book on the incident entitled Ill Met by Moonlight, and Michael Powell had made a movie with the same name in which Dirke Bogarde was cast as Paddy.

Before the war, Paddy had begun his literary career with a translation of of CP Rodocanachi’s novel Forever Ulysses (1938). Afterwards, he began to write books of his own. The first of these was a travel book, focused on the West Indies and entitled The Traveller’s Tree (1950). It won the Heinemann Foundation Prize for Literature. Soon thereafter he published a novel set in Martinique entitled The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1953), which was turned into an opera by Malcolm Williamson; a meditation on monasticism entitled A Time to Keep Silence (1957); and two travel books focused on two of the wilder regions of Greece: Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966). That all of these remain in print is no surprise. Five years ago, Paddy was described to me by an Oxford don as the greatest living master of English prose.

In 1984, I was offered by the Institute of Current World Affairs a fellowship two years in length, which would take me to Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus, and I jumped at the chance to situate myself in Istanbul (where I lived in the neighborhood in which Claire Berlinski now resides) and to explore the landscape and experience the seasons in the world within which the ancient Greeks had made their home. I spent most of my time in Turkey, exploring its nooks and crannies and writing long newsletters about contemporary affairs. From time to time, however, I hopped a plane to Greece, interviewed various figures in Athens, and partied with some journalists I knew (Robert Kaplan was based in Athens in those days).

On those occasions, I always took a bus to Kardamyle and spent a few days with Paddy and Joan. Their house, which Paddy had designed himself, was built out of stone and situated on a bluff overlooking the sea. We rose when we chose, ate breakfast separately, and Paddy put pen to paper while Joan saw to the management of the establishment – and I read a novel, a travel book, or something pertinent to the composition of my first book Republics Ancient and Modern (which Paddy would later review for the Christmas books section of The Spectator).

After lunch, where we drank a considerable amount of wine, we would nap. Then, we would go back to work, and, at about 5 p.m., Paddy and I would head off for an extended walk in the mountains. He was about seventy at the time, but he was astonishingly vigorous. Every day he would go for a long swim, disappearing into the drink and reappearing a half hour later. On his seventieth birthday, he swam the Hellespont – something that very few men half that age could manage. (I know. I watched from a motor launch once while a thirty-something friend gave it a try).

Before dinner, there were drinks. “C’est le moment,” Paddy would say, quoting Victor Hugo, “quand les lions vont boire.” Dinner itself was a feast, and it often ended with the singing of songs. Paddy taught me The Foggy, Foggy Dew, and I taught him They Call the Wind Maria. After a week or so, I would take the bus back to Athens and head on to Greek Cyprus or back to Istanbul. On one such occasion, I carried to the British embassy the manuscript of Between the Woods and the Water. From there, I gather, it was sent on by diplomatic pouch to Paddy’s publisher in London. He had served his country well, and his compatriots took good care of him. He was offered a knighthood in 1991 and finally accepted one in 2004.

In the 1990s, when I came to Greece in the summer, I would fly in to the Athens international airport, and then I would generally take a bus across to the domestic airport, go up to the counter, look over the available flights, and book a ticket for an island that I had never visited. Then, after a week or so on, say, Paros, I would go down to the harbor and catch whatever boat there happened to be – for Lemnos or Andros or some other unfamiliar spot. Eventually, after having spent three or four weeks exploring, I would return to Athens and go down to the Mani to see Paddy and Joan. The routine in Kardamyle was the same – except that, towards the end of the millennium, Paddy was less able to hike in the mountains.

After I got married, there was less traveling. In 2003, however, I did manage to see Paddy in England at their country house in Gloucestershire (Joan was the daughter of a Viscount). Ours was a subdued lunch. Joan had died at the age of ninety-one in Kardamyle hardly more than a week before. I last saw him in Kardamyle in March, 2006. I had spent Michaelmas and Hilary Terms as a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, and I was about to take up a similar fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin. There were, however, two weeks in which we had no place to call our own. So my wife, our daughters, and I flew to Greece, rented a car, and, after a brief visit to Athens, headed to Delphi and on from there to the Peloponnesus – where we stopped at Olympia, the Apollo Temple at Vassae, Mycenae, and other sights. I tried to call Paddy, but the Greeks had added a digit to the old number, and I could not figure it out. So we drove to Kardamyle and then out to his house on the outskirts of town, and I rang the bell.

Paddy at home

And there he was – older, quite a bit slower in his gait, but very much himself. “Paul Rahe,” he said. “I don’t believe my eyes. Come in, my dear boy.” And when I mentioned my family, his response was immediate: “Bring them in. You can all stay here.” And so we did. That night we took him to dinner at the restaurant in town that Leyla now runs, and we sat up late talking and drinking. His eyesight was not good. He had glaucoma and in the candlelight at one point was not sure that we were still there. He had had a heart attack and had a pacemaker. He could hardly walk up the drive to the highway. But there was still a twinkle in his eye, and he was as alive as ever.

He was also writing, and in his nineties, after decades of resistance, he had actually learned how to type (no one could read his handwriting). A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water were intended to be the first two parts of a trilogy. With the third part, he had had a terrible time. After 1989, he had returned to Roumania and Bulgaria to retrace his steps, and it was not as he remembered it. When I visited in the 1990s, I would ask about the third volume, and Joan would pull me aside and tell me not to mention it. “He is having trouble with it. He is very frustrated. That trip back to review his path robbed him of the confidence he had in his memory,” she once said.

When I saw Paddy in 2006, however, he was halfway done with the manuscript, and he was going over it to look for things that could be cut. I gather that somewhere in the house at Kardamyle there is a manuscript and that on the cover it reads “Volume Three.” I wonder what he called it. That last night just over five years ago, he, my wife, and I tried to come up with a title, and we could not think of anything satisfactory.

If and when the third volume of his trilogy does come out, I will buy a copy. Reading it will, I am confident, bring back the man. His other books do. I doubt, however, whether I will ever meet the like again – and that I very much regret. Perhaps the biography that Artemis Cooper is writing will relieve my gloom.

Obituary from The Independent by Paddy Leigh Fermor’s biographer Artemis Cooper

Leigh Fermor will be remembered as someone who lived and talked as well as he wrote

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor: Soldier, scholar and celebrated travel writer hailed as the best of his time.

By Artemis Cooper

First published in The Independent Saturday, 11 June 2011.

In Greece just after the Second World War, Patrick Leigh Fermor was on a lecture tour for the British Council.

The lecture was supposed to be on British culture, but he had been persuaded to talk about his wartime exploits on Crete. Leigh Fermor took sips from a large glass as he spoke and when it was nearly finished, he topped it up from a carafe of water. The liquid turned instantly cloudy: he had added water to a nearly empty tumbler of neat ouzo.

A roar of appreciation went up from the audience at this impromptu display of leventeia. A quality prized in Greece, leventeia indicates high spirits, humour, quickness of mind and action, charm, generosity, the love of living dangerously and a readiness for anything. Sir Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor had leventeia in spades.

Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor

He was born in 1915, the second child and only son of Lewis Leigh Fermor and his wife, Aileen Taaffe Ambler. The family were based in Calcutta, where Lewis Fermor worked for the Geological Survey of India. Aileen went to England for the birth, but did not dare bring Leigh Fermor back to India as the First World War intensified. She entrusted her baby to the Martins, a couple she scarcely knew in the village of Road Weedon, Northamptonshire, and for the next four years “Paddy-Mike” was adored, indulged and allowed to run wild. When his mother and sister Vanessa came back to collect him in 1919, it was the end of an infant idyll that had, he admitted, “unfitted me for the faintest shadow of constraint.”

Leigh Fermor saw little of his father but was devoted to his flamboyant mother, who wrote plays, played the piano and loved reading aloud. He learnt to read late but devoured the works of Sir Walter Scott before he was 10, awaking an addiction for history, heraldry and adventure. Yet he was not a success academically, perpetually in trouble, and expelled from almost every school he attended.

The King’s School, Canterbury, might have been the exception, but he was often in trouble, and the final straw came when he was caught holding hands with the greengrocer’s daughter. His last report complained that he was a “dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness”, and a bad influence on the other boys.

His parents felt a career in the army was the only hope, but he gravitated to Bohemian London and a raffish group who introduced him to nightclubs, strong drink and modern poetry, and encouraged his ambition to be a writer – but he had nothing to write about. He was drifting in a fog of disappointment when the solution came: he would embark on a walk across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople.

He was 18 when he set off in 1932. With an allowance of £5 a month he slept in hostels, sheep-folds, monasteries, barns, people’s sofas, and for a few luxurious months in castles and country houses in Hungary and Transylvania. He reached Constantinople on New Year’s Day, 1935. He spent his 20th birthday on Mount Athos, and a month later took part in a Greek royalist cavalry charge against Venizelist rebels across the River Struma on a borrowed horse. He then made his way to Athens, where he met Princess Balasha Cantacuzène.

Balasha Cantacuzene

A Romanian painter with dark, exotic looks, Balasha was eight years older and recently divorced. That summer they lived in a watermill opposite the island of Poros, and in autumn they retreated to Balasha’s family home in Romania. Baleni, in the Cantacuzene estates in Moldavia, was his refuge for three years. Here he made the first attempt to write up his notes from his trans-European journey. He did not like the results, but he did earn money by translating Constantine Rodocanachis’s Ulysse fils d’Ulysse which as Forever Ulysses became a bestseller in America. When war was declared, Leigh Fermor decided to go home. “The farewells next day,” he wrote, “were like marching orders out of paradise.”

He had hoped to join the Irish Guards, but took the commission offered by the Intelligence Corps which gave him the opportunity to return to Greece. As a British Liaison Officer he followed the Greek army’s early successes against the Italians on the Albanian border in late 1940. When the Germans invaded the following April, the British and Greek forces retreated southwards. Leigh Fermor escaped by caique to Crete, where he took part in the battle in May 1941 against German paratroopers; when the battle was lost he was evacuated to Egypt. He was sent back to occupied Crete in June 1942, as one of a handful of SOE officers who were helping the Cretan Resistance.

After the Italian surrender in August 1943 he was contacted by the Italian general Angelo Carta. Rather than co-operate with the Germans, Carta wanted to leave Crete. Leigh Fermor saw him safely to Egypt – a mission which sparked the idea of kidnapping a German general. Promoted to major, he returned from Cairo to Crete in February 1944. With his second-in-command, Capt William Stanley Moss, and a hand-picked team of resistance fighters, the ambush took place on 26 April, when General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of the Sebastopol Division, was pulled out of his car on his way to his villa.

Moss, Kreipe and Paddy

The hardest part was not so much the capture but the getaway. The wireless broke down, German troops flooded the south coast, from where they had planned to rendezvous with a Royal Navy launch, and the General hurt his shoulder in a fall. The party spent two weeks in caves and sheepfolds in the White Mountains, making their way over the snowy ridges of Mount Ida to a more secluded evacuation point. German patrols kept up the pressure, and leaflets were dropped warning that anyone who gave aid and succour to the kidnappers could expect the most severe punishment. No one gave them away.

The success of the operation and the discomfiture of the occupiers gave the Cretans a tremendous boost: as one of them put it, “the horn-wearers won’t dare look us in the eye!” William Stanley Moss’s diary was made into a book, Ill Met by Moonlight (and later a film with Dirk Bogarde.) Leigh Fermor was awarded the DSO and remains a hero on Crete. But he never published an account of his own experiences on the island.

After the war, he became assistant director of the British Institute in Athens. A colleague recalled the songs and laughter emerging from his office, which was a magnet for Cretans looking for a job. His boss sent him on a lecture tour to get him out of the way, which proved a success and took him all round Greece. This was the first of many journeys taken with Joan Rayner, a tall, blonde intellectual he had first met in Cairo. Daughter of the first Viscount Monsell, who had been First Lord of the Admiralty in the 1930s, she was widely travelled and a talented photographer.

In October 1949, the couple set off for the French Antilles. Leigh Fermor had been commissioned to write captions for a book of photographs by his friend A Costa, but this developed into his first full-length book, The Traveller’s Tree (1950). The reviews were generous in their praise and he was earmarked as a writer to watch.

He was now free to concentrate on Greece. Over the next few years he and Joan travelled all over the mainland and the archipelago, by boat and bus and mule and on foot, exploring a country that was still remote outside the main towns and where customs and traditions were observed as they had been for centuries.

Spells of travel would be broken by long stints of writing, translation and journalism. In 1953 came two small books. A series of articles on monasteries, written for the Cornhill Magazine, were collected in A Time to Keep Silence, while his only novel, The Violins of Saint Jacques, grew out of a chapter he was supposed to have written for a book called Memorable Balls. He translated the wartime memoirs of his friend George Psychoundakis, which appeared in 1955 as The Cretan Runner, and wrote for The Spectator and The Sunday Times.

Beyond an insatiable thirst for travel, wine and books, Leigh Fermor and Joan lived a frugal life. She had a small private income, and by living abroad for most of the year they avoided tax. Friends helped by lending houses where he could write; among the most important was a house in Normandy owned by Amy Smart, the Egyptian wife of the diplomat Sir Walter Smart, and that of the painter Nico Ghika on the island of Hydra. When they were in England, Joan would retire to her family home at Dumbleton in Worcestershire while Leigh Fermor headed for the bright lights.

His friends scooped him up into a round of celebrations and reunions and house parties, where Leigh Fermor revelled in company. Among them were brothers-in-arms like Xan Fielding and George Jellicoe, celebrated hostesses such as Annie Fleming, Deborah Devonshire and Diana Cooper, and writers and poets such as John Betjeman, Robin Fedden, Philip Toynbee, and later, Bruce Chatwin.

Writing, on the other hand, was hard and solitary. Though many of his set-piece descriptions were written at a gallop and barely changed, other passages involved months of work. He was acutely attuned to internal rhythms; the alteration of one word would set up a ripple effect demanding whole chapters to be rewritten. His friend and publisher, Jock Murray, was often in despair as every set of proofs came back covered in crossings-out and addenda.

It was not until 1958 that Murray published Mani, Leigh Fermor’s first book on Greece. It shows the southern Peloponnese as it was before tourism – a land of rocks and dazzling light, blood feuds and deep superstition, where people still told tales of their struggles against the Turks and pirates. Its companion volume, Roumeli covers his travels from Macedonia to the Gulf of Corinth.

Leigh Fermor and Joan were keen to settle in Greece, and they were always on the look-out for the perfect patch of land. They found it in 1963, in the Mani, a little promontory near the village of Kardamyli, south of Kalamata. Surrounded by olive groves, it looked out to sea and had its own rocky beach. With the help of a local stonemason, Leigh Fermor and Joan set about building the house. The result was the perfect monastery-built-for-two, at the heart of which was a library described by John Betjeman as “one of the rooms of the world”.

A Time of Gifts, 1977

Leigh Fermor at last had a permanent home, all his books in one place and uninterrupted solitude. His next subject was the one he had waited half a lifetime to write – the story of his great walk to Constantinople. “Shanks’s Europe”, as he called it, was worth the wait. A Time of Gifts appeared in 1977, and Between the Woods and the Water, the second volume in a proposed trilogy, in 1986. Together they present a snapshot of old Europe just before the joint cataclysms of war and Communism swept them away for ever. Every paragraph reflects the loss of a way of life still linked to its soil and its history, while celebrating the joy and enthusiasm of a young man discovering the riches of a continent. The reviews hailed him as the best travel writer of his time – and reader reviews on Amazon show him being rediscovered.

Unfortunately, the clamour for him to finish the last volume ushered in an ice age of writer’s block. In 1988 and 1990 he revisited his old haunts in Bulgaria and Romania, hoping to kick-start the creative process. Shocked by the all-obliterating change, he found his own memories fading. In an effort to get him over it Jock Murray commissioned another book about a journey to Peru, which appeared as Three Letters from the Andes (1991). He wrote articles, introductions, obituaries, reviews, and even translated a story by PG Wodehouse into Greek – but the pen-paralysis persisted. The two people he most relied on for moral support died: Murray in 1993, and his wife Joan 10 years later. Leigh Fermor was knighted on his 90th birthday, but his eyesight was beginning to deteriorate. He carried on writing in longhand for as long as he could, but the final volume of his trilogy remains unfinished.

He will be remembered by his friends as someone who lived and talked as well as he wrote, whose leventeia was irrepressible, his conversation unforgettable. He could launch into a monologue that turned into a one-man show, a verbal rollercoaster that ranged from the Pyrenees to the Carpathians or chased mythical beasts through primeval forests, tribal customs, Guatemalan bus tickets, German heraldry and Napoleonic uniforms – leaving the company breathless with laughter and exhilaration.

British soldier and travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor with Joan Rayner after their wedding at Caxton Hall, Westminster, London, 17th January 1968. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor, writer and soldier: born London 11 February 1915; OBE (military) 1943; DSO 1944; Kt 2004; married 1968 Hon Joan Eyres-Monsell (died 2003); died 10 June 2011.

Nice weather for young ducks

Patrick Leigh Fermor in Ithaka, 1946, photographed by his wife Joan Leigh Fermor

The weather in London on December 9th 1933 was typical. The sky darkened, the clouds lowered and then it rained hard. A young man walked the cold pavements towards Cliveden Place to collect a rucksack that his friend Mark Ogilvie-Grant had used on a journey to Mount Athos accompanied by Robert Byron. After stopping to buy a stout ash stick, and probably some cigarettes, at the tobacconist on the corner of Sloane Square, the young man collected his new passport – occupation ‘student’ – from the office in Petty France. He cast his eyes up to the ominous clouds and then made his way quickly north across Green Park. Now the rain splashed down as he dashed between the traffic on Piccadilly and entered the house of his landlady, Miss Beatrice Stewart, in Shepherd Market.

A former model who sat for Sickert, and Augustus John, and who is said to be the model for the bronze figure of Peace atop Wellington Arch, Beatrice Stewart’s career was cruelly cut short after she lost a leg in a road accident. She had arranged a lunch for the eighteen year old Patrick Leigh Fermor and two of his friends to wish him bon voyage before the start of what was to become one of the most famous journeys of all time, and certainly the longest gap year in history.

After lunch, Paddy said thank you and goodbye to Miss Stewart, and jumped into a waiting taxi, which drove off through Mayfair, around Trafalgar Square, up Ludgate Hill, and past the Monument towards the Tower of London. It was raining so heavily that all they could see out of the steamed up windows were hordes of umbrellas, some carried by bowler hatted men, as the rain splashed down in the dark. “Nice weather for young ducks.” said the taxi driver as he dropped the small party by the first barbican on Tower Bridge.

The two companions, one a young girl wearing a mackintosh over her head like a coal shifter, stood in the rain to watch Paddy descend the stone steps down to Irongate Wharf. With a final wave, he strode up the gangplank of a Dutch steamer bound for Hook of Holland.

This was the start of Paddy’s journey down the Rhine and along the Danube which he so memorably describes for us in his book A Time of Gifts. This part of the story ends on Easter Sunday 1934 as Paddy stood on the long bridge over the Danube, in no-man’s land, between Czechoslovakia and Hungary at Esztergom, just as the Easter celebrations started in earnest.

A Time of Gifts is almost universally acknowledged as a masterpiece of English literature; Sebastian Faulks is a dissenter, but he would be. Described by some as a travel book, it is essentially the journal of a young man with a superb gift of memory, for languages, and for making friends, written with the benefit of a lifetime of amazing experience and learning, forty years after the events it describes. It is embellished by anecdotes and essential historical background, making it a rounded piece of literature and no mere travelogue. It should be compulsory reading for all seventeen year olds; it is truly inspirational. The sad part is that the very reason for the ending of Paddy’s ‘gap year’ whilst with his lover Balasha Cantacuzene in Romania in September 1939, resulted in the destruction of many of the towns and cities he passed through, and certainly ended the way of life of the peoples of Europe that he describes so well.

I have no doubt that today, aged ninety-five, Paddy will pause for a while to recall that day, reflect on the events that followed during his amazing and full life, and the friends and lovers who have gone before him.

Perhaps Sir Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor DSO OBE, the Greatest Living Englishman, will pen a short letter to Debo?