Tag Archives: Ben Downing

A Visit with Patrick Leigh Fermor, Part 3

Paddy in uniform

Part 3 of Ben Downing’s meeting with Paddy in 2001 at Kardamyli.  Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

by Ben Downing.

This text originally appeared in issue 165 of The Paris Review, Spring 2003.

There was an incident dating from this vagabond period—from 1956, to be exact—that I was keen to ask Paddy about. Some weeks earlier I had come across, in a sort of anthology of classic put-downs, an anecdote about a contretemps between Paddy and Somerset Maugham. When I asked Paddy about it, he ferreted out a photcopy of a letter he had written at the time to a friend of everyone concerned, Deborah Devonshire, in which he describes what happened. It begins by telling how, after a week in the Alps with director Michael Powell’s team shooting Ill Met by Moonlight (Moss’s account of the Kreipe abduction), Paddy—who is, incidentally, played by Dirk Bogarde in the movie—had settled down to write in a friendly curé’s garden. The letter proceeds as follows:

Before I’d set out, Annie [Fleming, wife of novelist Ian] told me that “Willy” had asked her to stay and to bring anyone she liked (so why not me) and when she got to the Villa Mauresque she rang up, announced the O.K., and collected me in a borrowed car.

Lunch went swimmingly: Annie, Mr Maugham, his friend Alan Searle, and me. So well that, when we got up, Maugham—looking rather like a friendly Gladstone bag—said that he hoped I would stay and go on with my writing, and showed me a charming room. So all prospects glowed when we assembled on the terrace before dinner. The only other guests were a Mr and Mrs Frere; he was Mr Maugham’s publisher at Heinemann and she was Edgar Wallace’s daughter. Making conversation over marvellously strong drinks, I asked her if her husband was anything to do with someone I knew with the same name. She said she wasn’t sure: what did he do? I said,

“He’s a herald.”

“What sort of a herald?”

“Oh, you know, works in the College of Arms—he’s Rougedragon Pursuivant, or something like that.”

“How interesting.”

“Well, he’s an exception to Diana Cooper’s generalization.”

“Oh, what is that?”

“She says it’s generally believed that all heralds stutter.”

“How do you mean?”

“You know, stammer, have an impediment in their speech.” After this I rambled on about Diana’s splendid generalizations. “She says it’s well known that all Quakers are colourblind, and she remembers that, when she was a girl, Liberal M.P.s never travelled anywhere without an aneroid barometer. And so on.”

More dry Martinis were handed round, swallowed, and replaced. During a lull in the talk, Mr Maugham said:

“T-today is the F-feast of the As-sumption of the B-blessed Virgin M-Mary, and n-none of the g-gardeners have d-done a s-stroke of w-work.”I was fascinated by the mention of this religious feast and broke in with:“

The Feast of the Assumption! You know that huge picture in the Louvre, I think by Correggio, with the Blessed Virgin whirling into the sky as though shot out of a gun through a dozen rings of cloud, and scores of seraphim and cherubim? I’ll never forget the reaction of Robin Fedden—he had a charming stammer, and he exclaimed, ‘That’s what I c-call an unw-warrantable as-sumption!’” Soon after we were bidden indoors for a delicious dinner. After the guests had left and we were enjoying a nightcap, Mr Maugham got up, shuffled across the Aubusson, and with a limp handshake said—I won’t indicate the stutters any more—“Well, I will say goodnight now and perhaps I should say goodbye too, as I expect that I will be in bed tomorrow when you leave,” then ambled off.

The odd thing is that, until that moment, neither Annie, Alan, nor I had been aware of anything being wrong. For a minute or two we were genuinely puzzled, until Alan rather tentatively said, “Do you think it might have anything to do with the stammering?” and we all saw the light. Much wine had passed our lips. Annie was in fits of laughter and Alan joined her, but I felt very upset. After all, our host had been extremely kind and welcoming. But could he really have thought it had been on purpose? Of course I knew all about the youthful agonies caused by the impediment. In Of Human Bondage—an early, partly autobiographical book, and perhaps his best—he turns the stutter into actual physical lameness. My predicament, helped by several Martinis, was a classic instance of Freudian Error, exactly like the case of the woman warned against making any tactless remarks about noses, when an unknown visitor with an enormous one was expected to tea. The moment the guest sat down, she asked, “Would you like one lump of sugar or two in your nose?”

Annie helped me pack next morning. I put my suitcase on the bed and piled everything in, but when I closed it, a corner of the sheet—a beautiful Irish linen one with “W.S.M.” embroidered on it—got stuck in the zipper, and when I headed for the door it tore from top to bottom with a noise like a hundred calico shirts being rent. There was nothing for it but to slope off with some of the tatters hanging out. Annie was in raptures of hilarity at this final touch. (She is totally incapable of leaving a comic story unembellished.) I found, with her help, sanctuary in a hotel about a mile away, where she turned up when she could, like a prison visitor, to bring news; the story had spread along the coast and caused lively interest. Diana, who was staying with Daisy Fellowes, drove over with Hamish [St. Clair Erskine] and loyally pitched into my late host (“I’ve never heard such rot”) and I was invited back for a sort of reconciliation and forgiveness feast. I was very pleased about this; after all, it was entirely my fault, due to strong drink, and I’d rather be thought a soak than a monster. We were anxiously and studiously polite, but it would obviously never come right …

It was encouraging to hear, later on, that Cyril [Connolly] had once been made to leave the house for picking and eating the last avocado off a tree on the terrace. But I learnt, later still, that this was only a consoling rumour. He was scolded, but allowed to stay on.

Another episode that I’d recently heard about—but didn’t know the details of—was Paddy’s involvement with a John Huston film, The Roots of Heaven (1958). I asked him to tell me about it:

“I was staying in a Benedictine abbey in Normandy (the same one mentioned before) when one morning a monk called me to the telephone, and it was John Huston. I knew him a bit from non-film circles and liked him. He told me that he liked my stuff and that he wanted me to write the script for a film of a novel by Romain Gary called The Roots of Heaven, which is about a fierce campaign in the African forests to save elephants from annihilation by ivory traders. It was to be a Twentieth Century Fox affair, with Darryl Zanuck as producer and Errol Flynn, Trevor Howard, and Juliette Gréco among the stars. ‘I’m directing it,’ said John, ‘and we’re shooting in Africa.’ I told him I knew nothing about films. He said this didn’t matter, and described the plan for half an hour before saying, ‘I think I’d better hang up now, as I’m calling from Tokyo.’ Continue reading

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A Visit with Patrick Leigh Fermor, Part 2

Paddy. on Ithaca, 1946 by Joan Leigh Fermor

Part 2 of Ben Downing’s meeting with Paddy in 2001 at Kardamyli.  Read Part 1 here.

by Ben Downing.

This text originally appeared in issue 165 of The Paris Review, Spring 2003.

Already familiar as I was with the main events of Paddy’s military career, I asked him to fill in the gaps. What had he done while in Cairo?

“My first leave from Crete, after many months in the mountains, was at the time of the Italian surrender in September 1943. I had managed, by devious means, to persuade the Italian general commanding the Siena Division to escape from the island with some of his staff, and I accompanied them. When they’d been handed over in Cairo, I found myself quartered in rather gloomy billets known as Hangover Hall. There I became great friends with Bill Stanley Moss, on leave from the Third Battalion of the Coldstream Guards, and later my companion on the Kreipe expedition. Couldn’t we find more congenial quarters? Almost at once Billy found a positive mansion on Gezira Island, which we shared with a beautiful Polish countess called Sophie Tarnowska—she and Billy were married later on—her Alsatian, two mongooses, and a handful of close SOE friends, also on leave.

“Tara (as we named the house) was an immediate triumph. With its ballroom and a piano borrowed from the Egyptian Officers’ Club, and funded by our vast accumulations of back pay, it became famous—or notorious—for the noisiest and most hilarious parties in wartime Cairo. At one of these, fired by the tinkle of a dropped glass, everyone began throwing their glasses through the windows until not a pane was left.

“It was to Tara that we returned after the Kreipe expedition. But the rigors of a year and a half of Cretan cave life, it seems, suddenly struck me with an acute rheumatic infection of the joints, akin to paralysis. After two months in a Cairo hospital—where King Farouk once kindly sent me a magnum of champagne—I was sent to convalesce in Lebanon. I stayed at the British summer embassy at Aley, above Beirut, with Lady Spears, who was the well-known American writer Mary Borden, and her husband, Sir Edward Spears, our ambassador there. We had all met in Cairo, which at that time was one of the most fascinating gathering points in the world.

“But I was itching to get back to Crete. By the time I managed to return, in October 1944, the entire German force had withdrawn to a small perimeter in the west of the island. The outcome was a foregone conclusion, and the Germans made only occasional sorties. With their imminent surrender in view, it wasn’t ‘worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier,’ as Frederick the Great said—or of a single mountaineer or Allied soldier, for that matter.

“I went back to Cairo for a last Tara Christmas. But Tara was dissolving, and in March 1945 I was sent to England, where I joined a rapidly-put-together unit called the Special Allied Airborne Reconnaissance Force—inevitably SAARF—for an odd emergency. There was a fear that during the ‘Eclipse Period’—the predictable days, that is, between the faster momentum of the Allied advance and the final surrender of the German army—the Germans might carry prominent Allied prisoners of war off to some Tyrolean redoubt and use them as hostages or bargaining counters; and it was hoped that SAARF would be able to prevent this. Its members all had SOE and parachute experience in enemy territory. The plan was that, at the right moment in Eclipse Period, each team of three—in some cases, two teams together—would take off from an airstrip at the Sunningdale golf course, in Surrey, and drop near its allotted prison camp in Germany. Dressed in tattered POW uniforms, we would lie up in the woods, spy out the land, slip into POW working parties, get inside the camp, and then contact the senior British officer and open W/T communications with the spearhead of our advancing troops; these would then drop arms and supplies and give air cover while the garrison was overpowered or the commandant bluffed, until Allied troops arrived.

“I found myself paired with Henry Coombe-Tenant, a major in the Welsh Guards, a brilliant pianist and a member of the Athenaeum who after the war became a Benedictine monk at Downside. Our commandant was Brigadier Nicholls, nicknamed ‘Crasher’; he was impermeable as a bison. The target we were destined for was the dread Oflag IV C at Colditz, where several Prominenten were prisoners, including the king’s cousin, Lord Harewood, and relations of Churchill and Field Marshal Alexander. The castle was deep in Saxony, and there was, of course, no resistance or SOE intelligence about it—nothing but aerial photographs to go on. We desperately needed more local detail.

“At this point I heard that an old friend, Miles Reid of the Phantom Reconnaissance Force, captured in Greece during the 1941 retreat, had been exchanged on health grounds, and precisely from Colditz; so I got leave to break security in the hopes of information, and dashed to see him at his home near Haslemere. When I told him of the Colditz scheme, he exploded. Had we heard nothing of the total impregnability of the fortress, of the thoroughness and rigor of the Appells, the checks and counterchecks, the scrutinies and roll calls? As for ‘working parties,’ since the inmates were all officers, these didn’t exist. There was absolutely no hope of the plan succeeding, and we would all be goners. Continue reading

A Visit with Patrick Leigh Fermor, Part 1

Patrick Leigh Fermor, center, with members of the team that abducted General Heinrich Kreipe: George Tyrakis, W. Stanley Moss, Manoli Paterakis, and Antoni Papaleonidas.

It has been said of Ulysses that, were Dublin ever obliterated, the city could be substantially rebuilt by consulting its pages. Along these lines, if all Europe were, God forbid, laid waste tomorrow, one might do worse than attempt to recreate it, or at least to preserve some sense of its historical splendor and variety, by immersing oneself in the travel books of Patrick Leigh Fermor.

by Ben Downing.

This text originally appeared in issue 165 of The Paris Review, Spring 2003.

Patrick who? Although popular both in his native England, where his books are available in Penguin paperback, and in many other countries—he has been translated into any number of languages—Leigh Fermor (who died in 2011) is known to only a devout few in this country, where, scandalously, his work is not distributed. I myself came to him three years ago, when a friend pressed me to seek out A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), the first two volumes of a projected trilogy about his teenage walk across Europe in the early thirties. By chance, that very week I stumbled across a used copy of A Time of Gifts. I began reading straightaway, but after a few pages stopped and rubbed my eyes in disbelief. It couldn’t be this good. The narrative was captivating, the erudition vast, the comedy by turns light and uproarious, and the prose strikingly individual—at once exquisite and offhand, sweeping yet intimate, with a cadence all its own. Perhaps even more startling was the thickness of detail, and the way in which imagination infallibly brought these million specificities to life. In the book’s three hundred or so pages, scarcely a paragraph was less than spirited, cornucopian, and virtuosic.

I am not given to idolizing writers or reading them entire, but this was a special case. Before long I had tracked down, whenever possible in their beautiful John Murray hardback editions, not only Between the Woods and the Water (which sees Leigh Fermor as far as the Iron Gates of the Danube) but also his remaining work—two travel books about Greece, one each about the Caribbean and Peru, a slim volume on monasteries, and a novella. Having devoured these, I started trying to find out more about Leigh Fermor himself. Piecing together information from his books and other sources, I came up with the following.

A clever but unruly student, Leigh Fermor was expelled from a series of schools and at sixteen dropped out altogether. After a period in London halfheartedly cramming for Sandhurst and (far more eagerly) partying with the last of the Bright Young People, he set out in December 1933 on his journey to Istanbul, which took him over a year. At this point the picture grew vague; there was some improbable story about his tagging along with a Greek royalist army as it quashed a rebellion, another about his falling in love with a Romanian princess.

The war years were somewhat clearer. Leigh Fermor enlisted with the Irish Guards; was commissioned in the Intelligence Corps; was sent as a liaison officer to the Greeks fighting the Italians in Albania; took part in the Battle of Crete; and escaped to Cairo in the general retreat. Having joined SOE (Special Operations Executive), he became one of a handful of officers secretly landed back on Crete, where, dressed as a shepherd, he lived in mountain caves and organized the guerilla resistance. His military career peaked in April 1944 when he led one of the most daring operations of the war. Disguised in Nazi uniform, Leigh Fermor and W. Stanley Moss, along with seven Cretan fighters, hijacked a car carrying General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of a division then occupying Crete. After bluffing their way—with Leigh Fermor impersonating Kreipe—past more than twenty checkpoints, they made for the mountains with their captive and spent three harried weeks dodging the thousands of troops sent to catch them, until finally a British boat slipped in to pick them up and take them to Cairo. For his role in the abduction Leigh Fermor was awarded the DSO.

After this the picture blurred again. I gathered that in the late forties and fifties Leigh Fermor had traveled at length in the Caribbean, Central America, and Greece; that he had hobnobbed—and often developed close friendships—with everyone from Diana Cooper to George Seferis; and that eventually he and his wife, Joan, had built a house in the Mani, a remote corner of the Peloponnese, where, reportedly, they still lived. But no more.

Even so, it had become clear to me that Leigh Fermor was not only among the outstanding writers of our time but one of its most remarkable characters, a perfect hybrid of the man of action and the man of letters. Equally comfortable with princes and peasants, in caves or châteaux, he had amassed an unsurpassedly rich experience of places and people. “Quite the most enchanting maniac I’ve ever met,” pronounced Lawrence Durrell, and nearly everyone who’d crossed paths with him had, it seemed, come away similarly dazzled. Also inspired, as witness this entry of 1958 from the Bloomsbury diarist Frances Partridge: “This evening over dinner the conversation turned to present-day pessimism, or cafard. Where can one look to find enthusiasm for living? I could only think of Paddy Leigh Fermor.”

Armed with this outline, I proceeded to write for The New Criterion a longish essay about Leigh Fermor, focusing mostly on his books. About two months later, in March 2001, I received a letter from him. An English friend of his had brought my essay to his attention. His response, infinitely gracious, concluded by exhorting me to drop in for “a proper feast” if ever I were in the area. That was all the invitation I needed. With typical American forwardness, I promptly called him and asked whether next month I and my wife, Michele, a fellow fan, might come and hang about for a few days, I perhaps interviewing him a bit. Whatever alarm he felt at the prospect of our invasion was muffled by good manners. He apologized for being unable to put us up—his sole guest room would be occupied that week—but said he could arrange accommodation at a nearby hotel, and that we would, of course, take all our meals with him and Joan.

Within hours I had booked our tickets.

* * *

Driving west from Athens, we crossed the Isthmus of Corinth onto the Peloponnese and spent the first night in the handsome seaside town of Nauplia. The next day we pushed on, marveling at the unaccustomed verdure—our previous visits to Greece had been in summer, when the heat turns everything brown—and at the profusion of flowers and blossoming Judas trees. After passing Sparta, we headed up into the Taygetus range, then down to Kalamata (of olive fame), where we swung south along the coast, and so to the village outside which Leigh Fermor lives, and which he has asked me not to name. Our Pisgah sight of the village was to be, our guidebook rather sternly declared, memorable: “Anyone who approaches it from these heights and is not moved by its combination of tiny islands, indented coastline, stone houses, and rugged hills, has the soul of a peanut.” Whatever the condition of our souls, they apparently are not leguminous, for we found the view every bit as sublime as advertised.

On arrival at the hotel, we discovered waiting for us at the front desk a welcome card that Leigh Fermor—to whom I shall, for the sake of brevity and informality, henceforth refer as Paddy—had dropped off earlier in the day. When I called him, he asked us to come round for dinner.

Shortly after dark, a rough dirt track brought us to the house. The front gate standing ajar, we entered and followed a lamplit cobbled path to an open door, which gave upon an L-shaped arcade. The sea could be heard heaving just below. As there was still no sign of life, we called out. A few seconds later, from one end of the arcade, Paddy and Joan emerged, greeted us warmly, ushered us into an immense book-lined living-cum-dining room where a fire crackled, and swiftly plied us with ouzo. (Their alcohol regimen, we soon discovered, dictates obligatory ouzo or vodka before dinner and red wine or retsina during; lunch is the same, minus the vodka option.)

Although immediately convivial, the Leigh Fermors had had a trying day. There had been some sort of plumbing trouble, which resulted in workmen ripping open part of the terrace. The dust kicked up by the jackhammers had irritated one of Paddy’s eyes, so that it now teared incessantly—and, as he pointed out, adopting a mock-plummy tone, “The other one weeps in sympathy.” Encouraged by his levity in distress, I reminded him of the light verse that he and his old friend John Julius Norwich had concocted together, which I had recently read in the first of Norwich’s delightful Christmas Crackers miscellanies. Over lunch, writes Norwich, he and Paddy “talked about how all Englishmen hated being seen to cry. Then and there we improvised a sonnet… The odd-numbered lines are mine, the even his.” The sonnet runs as follows:

 When Arnold mopped the English eye for good

And arid cheeks by ne’er a tear were furrowed,

When each Rugbeian from the Romans borrowed

The art of ‘must’ and ‘can’ from ‘would’ or ‘should’;

When to young England Cato’s courage stood

Firm o’er the isle where Saxon sows had farrowed,

And where Epicurean pathways narrowed

Into the Stoic porch of hardihood;

Drought was thy portion, Albion! Great revival!

With handkerchief at last divorced from cane,

When hardened bums bespoke our isle’s survival

And all the softness mounted to the brain.

Now tears are dried—but Arnold’s shade still searches

Through the groves of golden rods and silver birches.

Although Paddy laughed at recollection of the poem—“A bit feeble here and there, as it was done very fast”—he was clearly in agony. We suggested bandaging his eye, and once some tape and gauze were found Michele and I rigged up a patch of sorts. To find oneself, a few minutes after meeting one’s esteemed host, clumsily dressing his eye—this represents a curious and not unawkward turn of events. The fact that Joan already had (for reasons more serious than dust) a patch of her own added a weird hint of piracy. To our relief, Paddy again buoyed up the situation by hailing his wife as Long Joan Silver, who in turn joked, “But where’s my parrot?” Continue reading