The house in Kalamitsi, September 2104 (John Chapman)
It appears it is the time for discussion about Paddy’s house at Kalamitsi to recommence. I was surprised when the article about his English home did not provoke any comments about the house in Greece which moulders away as the Benaki continues to drag its feet and struggle with its finances. The whole affair is a bit of a mess. It has been three years since the house was handed over to the Greeks but they appear to have done absolutely nothing with it. A house needs care. A house by the sea, even the Mediterranean, requires even more care. As Dolores Payas comments in her lovely book, Drink Time!, which I reviewed at the weekend, the house needs an awful lot of work and now the bill can only be higher.
Regular blog correspondent John Chapman who spends a lot of time in the area sent me this update at the weekend:
I sauntered down to the house at Kalamitsi. Absolutely no change since I last had a look around a fair few years ago. Still a bit of a mess. A cat mewled from within, so therefore someone feeds it and tends the garden. I could have leapt over the back wall into the garden, but decided against it. No-one I’ve talked to can make out what the Benaki are actually doing, or planning to do. The idea of a writers’ retreat is fine and dandy, but someone is building another vast edifice above the bay and the sound of a pile driver wouldn’t be too conducive to creativity!
And recently this article was published in the Weekly Standard.
By Dominic Green
First published in the Weekly Standard, 29 September 2014
Under the peak of Mount Taygetus, the wooded Vyros Gorge tumbles into the Gulf of Messinia at the small port of Kardamyli. Around the headland is a blue cove and the hamlet of Kalamitsi. A flock of low, white houses, their pantiled roofs the color of burnt orange, huddle under stripes of gray-green olive trees. A stony track declines sharply from the road. Then, as stones turn to sand, a narrow path forks uphill along the flank of a promontory. From the house at its summit, the olive terraces slide seawards towards a cliff.The Mani, a rocky peninsula hanging from the southern coast of the Peloponnese, is often compared to the Highlands of Scotland. The landscape is mountainous and mottled with scrub. The people are insular and excel at the arts of feud and hospitality. Their homes are crenellated with towers and battlements, fortifications against the Franks, the Turks, and the neighbors. The exterior of this particular house is a thick-walled cross between a farmhouse and a fortress. A door of medieval solidity stands sentry at the gatehouse; a metal grille permits parley with strangers.
Passing the gatehouse, however, the lines soften and the stone curves. On the left, a Moorish colonnade marches to the sea, past a file of bedrooms and a dozing cat, the last arch framing a blue half-circle. Along the central axis are more bedrooms. In one, a weathered tweed jacket and a pair of walking boots wait in the closet; on the lavatory wall is a sun-paled genealogy of the kings and queens of England.
The right wing is a single oblong, a library-cum-sitting room. Bookcases are cut into stone recesses. A table dressed in Cycladic swirls of green and white marble carries enough booze to float a battleship or an English house party. At the shaded eastern end of the room is a cushioned divan; at the western end, a wooden, windowed balcony of Balkan provenance floats over the azure sea like the cabin of a pirate captain.
The mantelpiece is jammed with photographs, souvenirs, and scraps of paper with friends’ phone numbers. On the Cycladic table, the host’s favorites, Famous Grouse and Stolichnaya, wait among half-empty evocations of the British Empire: Rose’s Lime Juice Cordial, Angostura bitters, a Greek variant of tonic water. But the bubbles in the tonic have long evanesced into the lemony Greek air: The host, the legendary soldier, traveler, and author Patrick Leigh Fermor, died in 2011; his partner, Joan Eyres Monsell, predeceased him in 2003. Their house is empty but for the cat, the orphan of Joan’s once-plural brood. The Leigh Fermors’ housekeeper, El-pi-da Bel-o-yan-nis, tends their home like a shrine. Outside, the gardener, Christos, clips and prunes beneath a straw hat.
The British are famous for removing ancient monuments from Greece, not for donating modern ones. The Leigh Fermors bequeathed their house to the Benaki Museum of Athens as a retreat for writers. But its future is not written in stone.
Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, OBE, DSO—known to friends, retainers, and a global army of readers as Paddy—was the last living contender for the kingdom of literature’s Habsburg crest, the double-headed crown of man of letters and man of action. A conscientiously Byronic inheritor of the British romance with Greece, Leigh Fermor was a warrior-writer in the line of Philip Sidney and T. E. Lawrence. He was also one of the great stylists of 20th-century English prose.
Leigh Fermor’s writing, like his biography, is one of the last monuments of the imperial age, when the British were not merely worldly, but global. His tone is a late outcrop of Bloomsbury—delicate, languid, melodious, precise—but purged of provinciality. His clauses flow with a French rhythm, the décadence of Second Empire Paris, and are studded with a cosmopolitan glitter of linguistic borrowings and historical speculations. Leigh Fermor was a travel writer in the sense that Pepys was a diarist. Every turn of his road evokes reflections on history, art, religion, and language. Investigations of folk songs, dances, and cheeses lead to anecdotal hunts for a pair of slippers that might once have shod Lord Byron, or a fisherman who might be the lineal descendant of the last emperor of Byzantium.
Always the language rises to the occasion, be it scenic, romantic, antiquarian, or philological. Always the present is excavated to reveal the fragments of memory. No philhellene has written better on Greece than Leigh Fermor in Mani (1980) and Roumeli (1973). Few have eulogized lost youth and interwar Europe more elegantly than Leigh Fermor in A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), the record of his walk, aged 18, from the Hook of Holland to the Iron Gates of the Danube. A posthumous and incomplete third volume, The Broken Road (2014), carries the narrative into Greece through shepherds’ huts, urban mansions, and fishermen’s caves.
Leigh Fermor wrote his “great trudge” trilogy at Kalamitsi, in his writing studio and on collapsible tables in his garden. He also hosted several shelves-worth of scholars, artists, and travelers, including George Seferis and John Betjeman, the poets laureate of Greece and Britain. The house, its contents, and the books that were written here are the complete works of a unique sensibility and a museum of a literary era. If the house were in Britain, the National Trust would already have restored it. There would be a ticket booth in the gatehouse, a shop selling organic figs and artisanal olives, and perhaps a tea room as well. But the Benaki is a private museum. Along with many properties in Athens, it is akin to a penurious Getty or an expansive Stewart Gardner. The Leigh Fermors left no endowment. The Benaki did not create one in the three decades between the bequest and Leigh Fermor’s death. It did, however, fund its expansion with a bank loan of €15 million (around $20 million). In 2008, the Greek economy collapsed, and so did the Benaki’s finances.
Beyond the colonnade, the July sun flattens the sea into a two-dimensional blue wall. An island, necklaced with ruined walls and vegetation, floats in the bay like a green brick. From the cliff, a staircase snakes down the rock to a small beach. “Paddy used to swim around the island and back,” Elpida explains proudly and unprompted. She exhales in mourning.
Outside, the crickets clatter, a maraca orchestra so loud and constant that it becomes unheard. The fringes of the house abound in shaded spots for between 1 and 20 people: solitary nooks for contemplation and reading, sociable niches for sitting and dining. It is a home to be shared—when not struggling scrupulously at his writing studio, Leigh Fermor was a relentless entertainer—but it is empty of life. The stones, saturated in a human presence as strong and invisible as the crepitations of the crickets, are silent, crepuscular.
In September 2011, the Benaki commissioned plans for the restoration of the house, costing an estimated $800,000, and catalogued its library and papers. They fumigated and stored the most important items in Athens, including that poignant testimonial to sedentary toil, a first edition of Betjeman’s High and Low (1966), inscribed by the “pile-ridden poet.” The Benaki also signed a five-year memorandum of understanding with the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies at Princeton for planning lectures on Paddy-related topics. Meanwhile, the publication of both The Broken Road and a biography by Artemis Cooper revealed a vast reservoir of affection. In Britain, a committee of Paddy’s friends offered to create a charity to raise funds for the restoration.
And then nothing happened.
Part of the garden wall fell down, and visitors trickled in through the breach. In Britain, the natives grew restless. A Guardian journalist climbed the cliff stairs and peered through the locked windows. The Daily Telegraph described the house as “sad and neglected,” its shutters “rotting and falling off their hinges.” Artemis Cooper, a lifelong visitor, responded that the Benaki was doing its best, but Greece was amid “economic catastrophe.” The plans had not been abandoned, and the house, always a little ramshackle, was not neglected. Guests had stayed there, and Richard Linklater had filmed parts of Before Midnight (2013), with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, there.
Tom Sawford runs an unaffiliated website for Paddy’s admirers. The talkbacks describe books moldering in an outhouse. There are offers of money and help, sympathy for the Benaki’s problems, and allegations of mismanagement. Sawford believes that if the museum had accepted the British group’s offer, the house would be “up and running” by now, its future secure: “Instead, the Byzantine structure of the Benaki has resulted in the house being left to rot.”
The Benaki’s English website places 16 individuals in the “front ranks of its benefactors” for giving “considerable property” to the museum. Patrick Leigh Fermor is not on the list. The museum has launched a global fund-raising campaign. On the website, donors can choose among 10 projects. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s house is not among them.
Irini Geroulanou is the deputy director of the Benaki. She returns my phone call immediately, puts me in touch with Elpida, and volunteers her own cell phone number, just in case. The Benaki, she says, has “finalized” its restoration plans and engaged a local firm of builders. There has been “positive” but “not final” interest from universities and foundations in Britain and America, and from the British Council and other foreign institutions in Athens.
“We plan to have five writers in the winter months, when Kardamyli is quiet,” Irini explains, “so they can keep each other company.” At other times, two “famous writers” will have the run of the place; presumably, the Benaki will check whether they are on speaking terms. There will be events for the villagers and an annual or biennial symposium, featuring “prominent artists and academics.”
All this is a thorough and conscientious reflection of Leigh Fermor’s wishes. But the “first and basic problem” remains: “the funding of the restoration.” The house is cooled only by its walls and the breeze. The wiring is erratic, a museum piece from the first age of electrification. The plumbing is functional, but explosive. The window frames and roof need replacing. The bedrooms are spartan: a bed, a table, a sink in a closet, and shelves of books. Writers would enjoy living and working in these hermit cells—the literary traces are an inspiration—but who else would want to squat among the ruins of someone else’s life? The electrics contravene EU regulations, and strangers keep climbing the garden wall.
Recently, Elpida Beloyannis un-locked the medieval door and found a young Englishman asleep in the gatehouse. He was resting before walking from Kalamitsi to England, in a pedestrian tribute to his idol. Paddy’s books have this effect on people.
Patrick Leigh Fermor lies in a Worcestershire churchyard, like a knight returned from the Crusades. But his readers, a pagan cult drawn to the gods of literature and the English ideal, come to Kalamitsi. They telephone Elpida at home, asking politely for access. They wish only to pay tribute, to inhale the atmosphere. They seek no material souvenirs here, or at the subsidiary shrine, the chapel in the hills above the village, where Leigh Fermor scattered some of Bruce Chatwin’s ashes.
Unfortunately, there are uninvited visitors, too. Snoopers are drawn by the barbaric talisman of celebrity, especially since the Benaki advertised the house by renting it for Before Midnight. The place is architecturally and historically unique, but the Benaki refuses to install a resident caretaker. Though the Benaki’s long-term commitment cannot be doubted, the house’s isolation and emptiness are tempting fate. Sooner or later, there may be damage: by the elements, by admirers, by looters. Byron’s slippers survived; Leigh Fermor’s books and boots may not.
If the Benaki opened the house to visitors, ticket sales might support a resident caretaker. If Paddy Leigh Fermor’s readers could donate to an online fund, the house could be repaired. If writers or interns lived there while the Benaki finds donors, the house would be guarded and its new life could begin.
“We are all quite optimistic that things will go as planned,” Irini Geroulanou says from Athens. “The PLF House will be open again to the public and used in the way that PLF desired and stated in his will.”
At Kalamitsi, the crickets rattle among the olives. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s legacy is caught in the aspic of its significance and the stagnant Greek economy. A secure posterity, or an avoidable scandal? In an example of life imitating art, I bump into Julie Delpy on returning to my hotel. “You’ve been there?” she asks. “The house is so beautiful. It’s my favorite place in the world.”
Dominic Green is the author of The Double Life of Doctor Lopez and Three Empires on the Nile.