A review of Words of Mercury by Patrick Leigh Fermor, ed Artemis Cooper first published in the Independent
Sunday, 2 November 2003
The overwhelming impression this book left on me was of a lost world of aesthetic public schoolboys, powerful newspaper editors, friendly ambassadors, and an unspoken understanding of what it meant to be upper- middle-class and English. What it meant was easy access to embassies and aristocratic houses around Europe, bicycle polo in Hungary, and the possibility that the next shepherd you met would be an Etonian Special Operations officer, speaking classical Greek. Here you will find the term “middle class” applied in a pejorative sense, rather than in the current usage which has such a wide catchment. That John Murray, the publishers of this book and upper-middle-class publishers par excellence, are no longer family-owned, perhaps confirms that this world has passed. And with it a love of language and literary decoration.
To quote Jan Morris, Paddy Leigh Fermor is beyond doubt the greatest of living travel writers, although the term “travel writing” barely does justice to the beauty, the lustrousness and sensuality of his writing. Take this, for example, speaking of how Greek temples once looked before they were stark ruins: “But the reality of the ruins, re-cohering in cobalt and blood-red, studded with metal, gaudy with idols, shiny with spilt honey and blood and reeking with sacrificial smoke, will have replaced the tinted ivory artefacts that had stolen their place and the void between the cutting of the flutes on the columns and the laying of the tramlines begins to fill up with people and events.”
There are about 40 short pieces divided into headings: Travels, Greece, People, Books and Flotsam. Many of these pieces are from Leigh Fermor’s great books, Mani, Roumeli and A Time of Gifts. (In 55 years he has only written eight books.) Others are from scattered newspaper pieces and obituaries. All the major phases of his life are represented here: the wandering schoolboy heading for Istanbul, the two years just before the war he spent in Romania with a doomed aristocratic family after meeting the daughter of the family in Athens (the woman Artemis Cooper describes as the love of his life), the extraordinary exploits in war-time Special Operations in Crete, where he captured the German General, Heinrich Kreipe, and his post-war exploration of Greece, particularly Mani where he has lived for 40 years in a house he built with his wife Joan, who died recently. Their story will be told by Artemis Cooper in a biography to be published after his death.