A personal view by Max Hastings who thinks that Paddy’s best book is Mani.
First published in the Daily Telegraph 12:01AM GMT 04 Jan 2004
Not long after the Second World War, an English couple chanced upon a remote taverna in the mountains of Greece. As they ate their simple lunch the proprietor, perceiving their nationality, remarked: “We had another English couple here once, before the war. They stayed for weeks. They were so beautiful and so in love. And every night they dressed for dinner!”
It was this last foible that had plainly captivated him, and indeed conjured for his listeners an enchanting vision of young lovers in “the full soup and fish”, as P G Wodehouse would have said, in this lonely Greek inn. All became clear when the innkeeper added: “His name was Lefemor.”
This was, of course, the inimitable Paddy (he has never been known as anything else), though the innkeeper was wrong about the nationality of his other guest – she was in truth a Romanian princess, Balasha Cantacuzene, with whom he enjoyed a romantic idyll through the last few years before the war.
Legend has it that “Lefemor’s” distraught family ordered him home, finally cabling the fare when he pleaded poverty to explain his inability to return. He merely used the money to protract the affair.
Like many stories told both by and about Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor – as he became this week at the age of 88 – this one may be a trifle fanciful, owing as much to soaring imagination as to historical fact. No matter. It is the sort of story about Paddy which ought to be true.
He richly deserves his honour not only for what he has written – some of the finest travel books of all time – but for what he has been. In prose, as I heard one of his oldest friends put it recently, “he possesses an extraordinary gift for expressing beauty in words”.
He has fulfilled the dream of so many upper-class Englishmen of his generation, to live, love, play the hero, sage and wit with a lightness of touch which, translated into the milieu of the kitchen, would produce a souffle of genius.
He was the son of Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, a geologist who travelled widely and made his reputation in India. “His tall, straight figure might often be seen dancing in Calcutta,” the DNB observes playfully. Paddy’s somewhat erratic schooling terminated at King’s Canterbury, from which he was sacked for some misdemeanour – “holding hands with the greengrocer’s daughter” is his own version, which will serve as well as any other.
Rejecting parental plans for Sandhurst and the Army, in December 1933 at the age of 18 he set out instead to walk to Constantinople, with very little money but some rather grand letters of introduction. The consequence was that for the next 18 months, he was wafted from schloss to schloss across old Europe, plunging his insatiable social, cultural, intellectual and linguistic curiosity into a river of happy encounters.
These he has described in the two volumes, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). A third instalment of the journey has been long in preparation, but it is unlikely that anyone except his publisher expects it to get finished.
He has always been a slow writer, each of the eight books in his modest output requiring long and painful labour. His dilatoriness has been reinforced, perhaps, by indifference to money. Though he has never had any, somehow God or friends have eagerly provided. He has practised a superior brand of Micawberism, founded upon the belief that something or somebody would turn up, which in his case it always has.
When war came in 1939 he left Baleni, the wonderful Romanian mansion where he had been living with his princess, to join the Irish Guards. Instead, however, he was commissioned into the Intelligence Corps as a Greek speaker. He spent the winter of 1940 as a liaison officer with the Greek Army.
Affectionately sceptical friends say that Paddy’s linguistic fluency is a trifle exaggerated. Sixty years ago an Englishman who heard him gassing away nineteen to the dozen said to a neighbouring Greek woman: “Is he as fluent as he sounds?” She replied: “No. He is simply making a wonderful noise.” This is a little unjust, and of course he has indeed become a master of the Greek language after living in the Peloponnese for so long. He possesses a gift for communicating with his fellow man of any nationality, class or condition, without need for anything as vulgar as a phrasebook. Continue reading