Tag Archives: Charles Moore

A man so charming he won over his hostage

Charles Moore reviews ‘Patrick Leigh Fermor: an Adventure’ by Artemis Cooper (John Murray) 

By Charles Moore

First published in the Daily Telegraph 08 October 2012.

The single most famous story about Patrick Leigh Fermor is his kidnap of the German General Kreipe in occupied Crete in 1944. The fugitive party of two British officers and three Cretans spent an uncomfortable night on the slopes of Mount Ida. As the dawn broke, and lit the mountain, Leigh Fermor heard the General muttering the first line of Horace’s Ode to Thaliarchus: “See, Soracte’s mighty peak stands deep in virgin snow.” Leigh Fermor recognised the Latin, and quoted the rest of the poem. As he later put it, “…for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

This moment of ancient, shared civilisation overcoming a terrible present is a great theme. It is the subject, for example, of Jean Renoir’s film La Grande Illusion, in which a French and a German officer on opposite sides in the First World War feel that they share what really matters.

Leigh Fermor’s long life (he died last year aged 96) was full of dash, variety and colour. He wrote beautifully, and entranced beautiful women. He was physically brave, and travelled widely, intrepidly and observantly. He was, in a self-taught way, learned, and a superb linguist. He could sing, dance, compose impromptu poetry and make everyone laugh. He and his wife Joan built a house in Greece of such character and interest that John Betjeman called it “a book in itself”. He was a war hero and, like Byron, a model for many aspiring writers greedy to combine art and life, rather than choosing between one and the other. I knew Paddy a bit myself, and I have never met a man with more charm, by which I mean the ability to create in his interlocutor the feeling of pleasure and possibility. But was it all a grande illusion, a wonderful holiday from reality?

Artemis Cooper was a family friend of Leigh Fermor, and loved him dearly. This excellent, well-sourced book is sympathetic to him. But she is aware of how he could be painted differently, and states the case. Was he, for example, a show-off and a sponger (he was chronically short of money and depended heavily on Joan’s private income)? Was he, as Somerset Maugham put it, “a middle-class gigolo for upper-class women”? Was he, both in life and art, a sort of Peter Pan, shying away from anything grown-up (such as fatherhood), always looking for a Wendy so that he could go on having smiling, heartless fun? He was once asked to contribute to a book about great parties in history with the astonishing title of Memorable Balls: does the phrase fit the life of Patrick Leigh Fermor?

There are certainly moments when it feels like it. The information that Joan used to give him cash so that he could visit prostitutes is one. So – though there is artistic reason for it – is his tendency to present the product of his imagination as fact. Some even argue that the famous kidnap was a piece of useless swagger – what Kreipe called a “hussar-stunt” – which ensured that the Cretans, in reprisal, were treated even more bestially by the Germans.

One cannot ignore these criticisms, and Leigh Fermor felt them himself. Like many delightful, gregarious companions, he doubted whether he deserved to be loved. But, in Artemis Cooper’s convincing reading, he wins in the end.

First, he wins as a friend. He was always grateful to people who helped him (not a well-known characteristic of most writers). He thanked them beautifully, and he did what he could to help them in return. He was famously hospitable, and his life was cluttered by efforts to advance the careers of others, particularly impecunious Greeks. As an editor, I quite often asked Paddy to write things. Most commissions would be refused or – he was famous for this – arrive incredibly late, but whenever I asked him to contribute a memoir of a friend who had just died, he did it with great speed and generosity.

Second, he wins as a writer. Not everyone likes what Lawrence Durrell called (in praise) his “truffled style”, but, unlike so much “fine writing”, it is saved by its energy and wit, its close attention to detail, and its astonishing virtuosity.

I think the friendships and the art went together. Leigh Fermor was profoundly sensitive to human character, particularly in its oddities. His interest in peasants, or monks, or petty gentry, cut off from industrialisation, his fascination with their traditions and customs, their languages and dialects (the more obscure the better) was a human interest, not an academic one. He loved them, and he wanted to rescue and decorate their story.

His most famous books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, describe his journey on foot, which began in 1933, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. They capture, with painterly vividness, what he saw and whom he met. And because those scenes and people were almost obliterated by the Second World War and then by communism, by writing about them afterwards, he gave them the eternal status of literature rather than mere memoir.

In the early Seventies, Greek television did a sort of This is Your Life, in which Leigh Fermor was reunited with his Cretan companions and with General Kreipe himself. How had Paddy treated him, journalists asked the general. “Ritterlich. Wie ein Ritter,” Kreipe replied – “Chivalrously. Like a knight.” Possibly such virtues are dead, but if so, we are the poorer. In life and in literature, Patrick Leigh Fermor proved that chivalry was not all illusion.

Related article:

Patrick Leigh Fermor … This is Your (Ill Met by Moonlight) Greek Life

Why the lowly shepherd is the one who gets to hear the angels

Remembering honourable lives helps us understand the birth we celebrate on Christmas Day.

by Charles Moore

First published in The Telegraph 24 December 2011.

Tomorrow we celebrate the most important birth in human history, so forgive me for writing about a funeral and a memorial service.

Both occurred in this Christmas season. The memorial service, in St James’s, Piccadilly, was for Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor. Paddy, as all his friends knew him, was a man of unique distinction and unique charm. He won the DSO in the Second World War for his part in the celebrated kidnap (filmed with Dirk Bogarde in Ill Met by Moonlight) of the German General Kreipe in occupied Crete. He became famous as a writer. His best-known books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, describe his slow walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, begun in December 1933 (he spent Christmas that year in Bingen, in newly Nazi Germany) and not completed until January 1, 1935. His prose, at once romantic and scholarly, ornate and exact, could have no successful imitators, but it has tens of thousands of fans.

In his life as well as his writing, Leigh Fermor was, though he would have disliked the phrase, a role model – brave, handsome, witty, multi-lingual, widely and deeply read, a gifted singer, reciter and drinking companion, a traveller in exotic places, a man who gave delight. When he died, aged 96, this newspaper’s obituary described him as “one of the few genuine Renaissance figures produced by Britain in the 20th century”.

The funeral, the week after Paddy’s service, was for Tony Woodall. Tony was a woodman and neighbour of ours in Sussex. Unusually for a rural family in the South East, the Woodalls are Catholics (I am told there was an Irish grandmother in the case). Every Sunday at our Catholic church, Tony would pull a surplice over his open-neck shirt and frayed working trousers and serve, his huge hands carefully placing the chalice and the patten on the altar. He would ring the little altar bells with a shake as strong as that of a dog with a rabbit. At the intercessions, where people are invited to propose further prayers, it was most commonly Tony who did so. He tended to ask us to pray for people who might not be automatically popular, such as Myra Hindley. His compassion was radical, and universal. He never stopped working. He dropped dead outdoors a couple of weeks ago, aged 79.

Tony Woodall was not known beyond his small corner of rural England, but, like Paddy, he commanded people’s love. The church where he served fits only 120 people, but 200 came to the funeral and many had to stand outside. It fell to me to help flank the hearse as it arrived, trying (and failing) to hold up a candle without it blowing out. I had to pick my way to my place through wild-haired countrymen wielding chainsaws. As Tony’s wicker coffin was lifted up and carried into the church, the saws, by way of tribute, roared into synchronised action.

Both men’s services did justice to the person commemorated. In the case of Paddy Leigh Fermor, there were readings in four languages. Robin Lane Fox read Horace’s Ode 1.9. These were the lines which Paddy heard his prisoner General Kreipe reciting to himself as they watched the cold dawn break over Mount Ida in May 1944 (“See how resplendent in deep snow Soracte stands…”): Paddy knew the Latin words and completed the recitation, forming a bond between enemies. William Blacker chanted a Romanian ballad. Then John Julius Norwich and his daughter Artemis Cooper led us in one of Paddy’s specialities – his own translations of English songs into comically unsuitable foreign tongues. “Do ye ken John Peel, with his coat so grey?” became “Conosce Gian’ Peel, con sua giacca tanta griggia?”

The gospel was from Luke 12: “…take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on. The life is more than meat, and the body more than raiment.”

At Tony’s funeral, the gospel was Matthew’s account of the Beatitudes, the list of those who are blest for their meekness or mercy, poverty of spirit or purity of heart. Of them Jesus says: “Ye are the salt of the earth.”

Tony’s son John spoke to us. He remembered the night of the Great Storm of 1987, when he was 10 years old. At two in the morning, Tony came into his bedroom, grasping a chainsaw. “I’m going out,” he told him, “to saw up these trees that are falling and blocking the way. If the roof blows off, come and get me.” A tree fell on his arms that night, but he kept on sawing.

John recalled his father’s goodness, which included caring for his permanently sick wife. “Crikey,” he said, “if only more people were like Dad, I reckon the world would be a hell of a better place. Pardon my language.”

We more than pardoned it, of course. “Thank you for coming,” he said, “You are all honourable men and women.” Whether we were or we weren’t, we felt a renewed confidence that the old-fashioned word had meaning: it was shown in the life of the dead man.

The Romanian ballad recited at Paddy’s memorial service is called the Mioritza. It concerns a shepherd about to be murdered by rivals. He instructs his ewe-lamb, who has the gift of speech, to tell others no word of his death. She must tell them only that “I married tonight a king’s daughter”: “At my wedding, tell/ how a star fell,/ that the sun and the moon were holding our crown,/ how the guests at the feast/were maples and firs”.

At Tony’s funeral, when John had spoken, he moved from the lectern. Just as he was about to rejoin the congregation, he stopped by his father’s coffin. “That evening,” he said, “I stood at the spot where Dad had died. The moon was up, and I saw a firework. But then I realised it wasn’t a firework, because there was no noise. It was a meteorite. I thought: ‘That was Dad.’ ” He went back to his place.

Paddy Leigh Fermor wrote that he loved the Romanian ballad because “its magic lies in its linking together of directness and the tragic sense, its capture of the isolated feeling that surrounds shepherds and the forlorn exaltation that haunts their steep grazings and forests”.

After a life well lived, we can all look back on it with that directness, especially when we attend services such as these. As if from those “steep grazings”, we can see the life laid out, shining plain. We may forget that, for the people who lived it, it often did not seem plain at all. As we sang at Tony’s funeral: “Through many dangers, toils and snares,/ I have already come.” The achievement of something grandly simple is an endlessly complicated process, a lifelong work of trial and error.

Anyway, as I said at the beginning, tomorrow marks a birth, not a death. Another Telegraph obituary, this one of the 7th Earl of Yarborough, related how, at his village carol service, he read the lesson about the shepherds deserting their flocks to see the baby in Bethlehem. “I’d just like to say,” he told the startled congregation, “that if these men had been my shepherds, I’d have sacked them.” One must be glad that the earl was not present 2,000 years ago. The shepherds were the best people to receive the message of the angel. With their linking of “directness and the tragic sense”, they understood what the strange birth would mean.

Charles Moore on Paddy

‘The intellect of man,’ Yeats famously wrote, ‘is forced to choose between perfection of the life, or of the work.’ Patrick Leigh Fermor, who has just died aged 96, managed to refuse this choice and achieve both.

He was what is now called a role model — a war hero, an intrepid traveller, a witty guest, a man with whom women fell in love, a Byronic romantic without Byron’s unkindness — but he was also a writer with the most exacting standards and unique imagination. His highly wrought prose was not affected: it expressed his delight in and minute attention to life and art, places and people — the stranger the better; and it inspired that delight in others.

All the letters I have from him overflow with enthusiasms. There is a silly idea for a cartoon he has sketched out in which a spherical man and a thin one with a hawk on his wrist stand outside a castle gate, staring disconsolately at a castle gate on which is pinned the notice ‘No Hawkers, No Circulars’. There is a poem called Message to Skopje:

Your claim to the name “Macedonia”

Could scarcely be flimsier or phonier

If you want an old name

For your state, what a shame

Not to bring back the real one, Paeonia.

He writes about ‘marvellous girls in tricornes’ hunting in France, and to recommend (he was always generous in advancing the careers of others) a self-taught village boy who has translated the whole of Homer into ‘wonderful Cretan rhyming couplets, taking just about the same time over it as Pope in his villa at Twickenham’.

Paddy was the best companion. Once, when he was already well into his seventies, we had him to dinner in London. As he was reciting a comic poem, his chair leg snapped. we were horrified that our furniture might have done for him, but Paddy managed an athletic parachute roll and ended up in the corner of the room with his back against the wall, laughing like a boy.

From the Spectator