A letter dropping out of a book, in a hotel room in Ithaka. The letter referring to a wartime colleague in Palestine from 1941. The letter writer being Paddy to a mysterious “Mr Todhunter”. A delightful little article. Who can identify Mr Todhunter? What do we know about Bob Bury in Palestine? We know he met Paddy in Crete in 1944. You can comment at the end of this article or contact me.
By Andrew Pippos
First published in The Australian, 17 January 2015
A common feature among reviews of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s work is a reference to him as the greatest travel writer of his time. Because of such reviews I’d intended to read Fermor some day — the highest praise is a memorable introduction — but still hadn’t got around to it when I came across his 2003 collection Words of Mercury on the bookshelf of a hotel room in Ithaka, Greece, about two years ago.
A handwritten letter dropped from between the pages when I opened this book — and it may as well have fallen out of the sky, it may as well have been addressed to me, given my surprise to open a book by a famous writer and find inside a letter from the author himself.
Addressed to “Dear Mr Todhunter”, the letter was signed “Paddy Leigh Fermor” and dated 2004. Fermor turned 89 that year. His handwriting was both pretty and difficult to read: some words resolved only after you stared at them long enough. In the letter, Fermor asked Todhunter for help with his next project. Before coming to the nature of this help, he first offered some background: in 1941 he was visiting an Allied camp near Mount Carmel, Palestine, when he met a troop of Kurdish fighters led by a “clean-shaven figure with gold-rimmed spectacles”, whom Fermor learned was an Englishman named Bob Bury.
This Bury, “a delightful chap”, was training Kurds to form resistance groups in the event the Nazis broke through in the Middle East.
Next, Fermor’s letter told a story about his 1944 abduction of General Kreipe, the German commander of Crete. On a beach in southern Crete, Bury was among the small team of British soldiers who came ashore to meet Fermor and take custody of the captive general.
Kreipe and Fermor and the soldiers then sailed to Cairo. Bury would be killed a few months later in Italy.
Fermor wrote to Todhunter: “I want to write something about him (Bury), and would very much like to be in touch with his kith and kin. The only thing anyone seems to know about him is that he went to Eton. Would the provost of Eton know his family? I would be most beholden for any guidance!”
Todhunter, from what I can gather, was an editor in London. Years ago he might have visited the village of Vathi in Ithaka, stayed in that hotel on the town’s lake-like harbour, and left behind the letter and book by Fermor. Perhaps the book arrived there some other way.
Who was Bury? Did Fermor intend to write a story about him? The letter described Bury coming ashore in occupied Crete “with Tommy gun at the ready, very disappointed there would be no rough stuff involved”. He might have been a wartime version of the aristocrat who sought adventure in the crusades or the colonies.
After finishing school in 1933, Fermor walked across Europe to Constantinople, later writing about this experience in a trilogy of travel books, only two of which were published in his lifetime: A Time of Gifts, which tells of his travels from Holland to the Danube, and Between the Woods and Water, which takes him to the border of Serbia and Romania.
A final volume, The Broken Road, was published posthumously in 2013.
Wanting to know whether he did discover more about Bury, and why, at the age of 89, he wanted to write about an acquaintance who died 60 years earlier, I sent an email to Fermor’s biographer, Artemis Cooper. She replied the next day: “Paddy never did write about Bob Bury, but he used every possible excuse to postpone work on the book he was supposed to be writing — the third volume of his trilogy about his walk across Europe. He also thought about writing a book on Crete and another on Romania, but they never came to anything either.”
Cooper might have forgotten that she had already replied to my email, because a month later she wrote again: “Dear Andrew, Sorry I’ve been so slow to reply to you.” Cooper suggested the Bury material was for a book about Fermor’s time as a British special operations officer in occupied Crete. She added: “By 2004 Paddy’s eyesight was deteriorating fast: he could not admit it, but it was too late to begin any major project.”
Both replies provide for the one picture: Fermor avoided work on the unfinished trilogy by writing about his war stories from Crete (and such a book, Abducting a General, was published late last year). In that letter he was pursuing whatever idea gave him pleasure. Fermor, who died in 2011 at 96, intended to write as his blindness approached. He was already very old but had many years of work ahead of him.
Andrew Pippos is a Sydney-based writer.