Tag Archives: Deborah Devonshire

At Home in the World

Paddy at the house in Kardamyli. Photo by Joan Leigh Fermor, Courtesy the New York Review of Books

War hero, self-made scholar and the greatest travel writer of his generation, Patrick Leigh Fermor lived on a remote peninsula in the Peloponnese until his death in 2011. From a humble house he built himself, now being restored by an Athens museum, he explored Greece’s romantic landscape—and forged a profound link to its premodern past.

by Lawrence Osborne

First published in the Wall Street Journal Magazine 27 September 2012.

A famous anecdote, told by Patrick Leigh Fermor himself in his book Mani, relates how on one furnace-hot evening in the town of Kalamata, in the remote region for which that book is named, Fermor and his dinner companions picked up their table and carried it nonchalantly and fully dressed into the sea. It is a few years after World War II, and the English are still an exotic rarity in this part of Greece. There they sit until the waiter arrives with a plate of grilled fish, looks down at the displaced table and calmly—with an unflappable Greek stoicism—wades into the water to serve dinner. Soon the diners are surrounded by little boats and out come the bouzouki and the wine. A typical Fermor evening has been consummated, though driving through Kalamata today one has trouble imagining the scene being repeated. The somniferous hamlet of the far-off 1950s is now filled with cocktail bars and volleyball nets. The ’50s, let alone the war, seems like another millennium.

Fermor, or “Paddy,” as many educated Greeks knew him, died last year at the age of 96. He is remembered not only as the greatest travel writer of his generation, or even his century, but as a hero of the Battle of Crete, in which he served as a commando in the British special forces.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“For as long as he is read and remembered,” Christopher Hitchens wrote upon Fermor’s death, “the ideal of the hero will be a real one.” Hitchens placed Fermor at the center of a brilliant English generation of “scholar warriors,” men forged on the battlefields of the mid-century: This included poet John Cornford, martyred in the Spanish Civil War, and the scholar and writer Xan Fielding, a close personal friend of Fermor’s who was also active in Crete and Egypt during the war, and a guest of the aforementioned dinner party. When Fermor said Fielding was “a gifted, many-sided, courageous and romantic figure, at the same time civilized and bohemian,” he could have been describing himself.

But Fermor was a man apart. Born in 1915 into the Anglo-Irish upper class—the son of a famous geologist—Fermor, literally, walked away from his social class and its expectations almost at once. At 18, he traveled by foot across Europe to Constantinople—a feat later recorded in his books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. In the ’30s he traveled through Greece, mastering its language and exploring its landscapes with meticulous attention. He fell in love with a Romanian noblewoman, Balasha Cantacuzene (a deliciously Byzantine name), and the outbreak of war found him at her family estate in Moldavia.

Because of his knowledge of Greek, the British posted him to Albania. He then joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was subsequently parachuted into German-occupied Crete. In 1944 Fermor and a small group of Cretan partisans and British commandos kidnapped General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of the German forces on the island, and drove him in his staff car through enemy lines disguised in German uniforms. (They would have been shot on the spot if discovered.) Kreipe was later spirited away to British Egypt, but as they were crossing Mount Ida, a legendary scene unfolded. Fermor described it himself:

“Looking across the valley at [the] flashing mountain-crest, the general murmured to himself: ‘Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte.’ [See how Mount Soracte stands out white with deep snow.] It was one of the [Horace odes] I knew! I continued from where he had broken off… The general’s blue eyes had swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine—and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: ‘Ach so, Herr Major!’ It was very strange. As though, 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.”

After the war, now decorated for his heroism, Fermor settled in Greece. He and his wife, Joan Rayner, a well-traveled Englishwoman whom he’d met in Cairo, built a house just outside the village of Kardamyli, a few miles down the jagged coast from Kalamata, in the wild and remote Mani. It was a place that, even in the early ’60s, almost no one visited. “Homer’s Greece,” as he put it admiringly.

“It was unlike any village I had seen in Greece,” he wrote in Mani. “These houses, resembling small castles built of golden stone with medieval-looking pepper-pot turrets, were topped by a fine church. The mountains rushed down almost to the water’s edge with, here and there among the whitewashed fishermen’s houses near the sea, great rustling groves of calamus reed ten feet high and all swaying together in the slightest whisper of wind.” It was timeless. Kardamyli, indeed, is one of the seven cities that Agamemnon offers a scowling Achilles as a reward for his rejoining the paralyzed Achaean army at Troy in The Iliad.

“Not a house in sight,” Fermor later wrote of his adopted view, in a letter to his friend the Duchess of Devonshire, “nothing but the two rocky headlands, an island a quarter of a mile out to sea with a ruined chapel, and a vast expanse of glittering water, over which you see the sun setting till its last gasp.”

The house, still largely untouched from when Fermor lived there, was bequeathed to the Benaki Museum in Athens. As I walked through it alone during a visit there this spring, it reminded me in some ways of Ian Fleming’s Goldeneye in Jamaica, a spartan but splendidly labyrinthine retreat devoted to both a productive life and to the elegant sunset cocktail hour. In one bedroom stood a set of Shakespeare volumes with painstakingly hand-penned spines; on a wall, a painted Buddhist mandala. In the living room there were faded wartime photographs of Fermor on horseback, armed and dressed like a Maniot. The whole house felt like a series of monastic cells, their piety replaced by a worldly curiosity, an endless warren of blackened fireplaces, bookshelves and windows framing the sea.

Fleming and Fermor were, perhaps predictably, close friends. Fleming’s Live and Let Die freely quotes from Fermor’s book about the Caribbean, The Traveller’s Tree. It was Fermor who made Fleming (and, of course, Bond) long for Jamaica. But where Fleming retreated to Jamaica to knock out six-week thrillers, Fermor lived in his landscape more deeply; he explored with dogged rigor its ethnography, its dialects, its mystical lore. His books are not “travel” in the usual sense. They are explorations of places known over years, fingered like venerable books and therefore loved with precision, with an amorous obsession for details.

Fermor led an active social life, and the house in Mani, however remote, was a place that attracted many friends, literary luminaries and even admiring strangers over the years. His circle included the historian John Julius Norwich and his daughter, Artemis Cooper; the literary critic Cyril Connolly; the Greek painter Nikos Ghika; and the writer Bruce Chatwin. In an obituary for Fermor in 2011, The New York Times put it thus: “The couple’s tables, in Mani and in Worcestershire, were reputed to be among the liveliest in Europe. Guests, both celebrities and local people, came to dine with them. The journalist and historian Max Hastings called Mr. Leigh Fermor ‘perhaps the most brilliant conversationalist of his time, wearing his literacy light as wings, brimming over with laughter.’ ”

Standing on Fermor’s terrace, with its fragments of classical sculpture and its vertiginous view of a turquoise cove of stones, I felt as if the inhabitants of 40 years ago had momentarily gone inside for a siesta and would soon be out for a dusk-lit gin and tonic. It seemed a place designed for small, intimate groups that could pitch their talk against a vast sea and an even vaster sky.

It also had something neat and punctilious about it. While sitting there, I could not help remembering that Fermor had once sternly corrected Fleming for a tiny factual error in his novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Didn’t Fleming know that Bond could not possibly be drinking a half bottle of Pol Roger? It was the only champagne, Fermor scolded, never sold in half bottles. It was exactly the sort of false note that Paddy never missed, and that the creator of Bond should not have missed either. Truth for Fermor lay in the details, and his books show the same straining eye for the small fact, the telling minutiae.

I noticed, meanwhile, a handsomely stocked drinks cabinet inside the house, in the cool, cavernously whitewashed living room lined with books—the selection dominated by a fine bottle of Nonino grappa. On the mantelpiece stood a card with the telephone numbers of his closest friends, Artemis Cooper (whose biography of Fermor is being published this month) and Deborah Mitford, later the Duchess of Devonshire.

Fermor had been at the heart of many aristocratic circles, including those of the notorious Mitford sisters. The youngest of the Mitfords—”Debo,” as she was known—became Fermor’s lifelong intimate and correspondent. Their polished and witty letters have recently been published in the book In Tearing Haste.

He was a frequent visitor at her country estate, Chatsworth, and the two were platonically entwined through their letters well into old age. They were, however, strange epistolary bedfellows. The Duchess hated books (“Quelle dread surprise,” she writes upon learning that a famous French writer is coming to dinner), while Fermor was the very definition of the dashing, encyclopedic gypsy scholar. In one letter the Duchess boasts that Evelyn Waugh gave her a signed copy of his latest book, which turned out to have blank pages throughout; he knew she hated reading. But the gardening-mad Duchess slyly understood all her correspondent’s erudite gags.

Their gossip was gentle and civilized, and underneath it flowed a kind of unrequited love. In his first letter of the collection, written in 1955 from Nikos Ghika’s house on Hydra, Fermor proposes having himself turned into a fish by a young local witch and swimming all the way from Greece to Lismore Castle in Ireland, where the Duchess was staying.

“I’m told,” he writes, “there’s a stream that flows under your window, up which I propose to swim and, with a final effort, clear the sill and land on the carpet…But please be there. Otherwise there is all the risk of filleting, meunière, etc., and, worst of all, au bleu…”

The Mani, meanwhile, was a far cry from English country houses and fox-hunting parties. Its remoteness and austerity—especially immediately after the war—were truly forbidding. As Fermor pointed out, this was a place that the Renaissance and all its effects had never touched. It was still sunk in Europe’s premodern past—a place still connected by a thousand invisible threads to the pagan world.

Above Kardamyli rise the Taygetus range and the forests that Fermor loved to wander. Steep paved footpaths called kalderimi ascend up into half-abandoned villages like Petrovonni and, above it, the church of Agia Sophia, which looks down on the Viros Gorge. In Mani Fermor remembers that it was here, near the city of Mistra, that Byzantium died out a few years after the fall of Constantinople, and where the continuously creative Greek mind lasted the longest. It is a delicate, luminous landscape—at once pagan and Christian.

Fermor discovered that Maniots still carried within them the demonology of the ancient world, filled with pagan spirits. They called these spirits the daimonia, or ta’ xotika: supernatural beings “outside” the Church who still—as Nereids, centaurs, satyrs and Fates—lived in the streams and glades of the Mani. They still believed in “The Faraway One,” a spirit who haunted sun-blazing crossroads at midday and who Fermor deduced to be the god Pan. The Mani was only Christianized, after all, in the 10th century. Fermor also described how an illiterate Greek peasant, wandering through archaeological museums, might look up at ancient statues of centaurs and cry, immediately, “A Kallikantzaros [centaur]!” To him, it was a living creature.

I hiked up to Exohori, where Bruce Chatwin had, 25 years ago, discovered the tiny chapel of St. Nicholas while he was visiting Fermor. (I had, in fact, been given Chatwin’s old room in the hotel next to Fermor’s house.) Chatwin venerated the older writer, and the two men would walk together for hours in the hills. Fermor, for his part, found Chatwin enchanting and almost eerily energetic. Yet Chatwin was inspired not just by Fermor but by where he lived. When Chatwin was dying, he converted to Greek Orthodox. It was Fermor, in the end, who buried Chatwin’s ashes under an olive tree next to St. Nicholas, in sight of the sea of Nestor and Odysseus.

Exohori felt as deserted as the other strongholds of the Mani, its schools closed and only the elderly left behind. It possesses an atmosphere of ruin and aloofness. I remembered a haunting passage from Mani in which Fermor describes how villagers once scoured out the painted eyes of saints in church frescoes and sprinkled the crumbs into the drinks of girls whom they wanted to fall in love with them. So, one villager admits to Fermor that it wasn’t the Turks after all.

As a former guerrilla of the savage Cretan war, Fermor felt at home here. It was a thorny backwater similarly ruled by a warrior code. Its bellicose villages were, almost within living memory, frequently carpeted with bullet casings. It was a vendetta culture.

The Mani was for centuries the only place in Greece apart from the Ionians islands and Crete (which, nevertheless, fell to the Turks in 1669) to remain mostly detached from the Ottoman Empire. Its people—an impenetrable mix of ancient Lacedaemonians, Slavs and Latins—were never assimilated into Islamic rule, and their defiant palaces perched above the sea never had their double-headed Byzantine eagles removed. Here, Fermor wrote, was “a miraculous surviving glow of the radiance that gave life to this last comet as it shot glittering and sinking across the sunset sky of Byzantium.” Mani, therefore, explores wondrous connections in our forgotten Greek inheritance (it argues, for example, that Christianity itself was the last great invention of the classical Greek world). But Fermor’s philhellenism was not dryly bookish. It was intensely lived, filled with intoxication and carnal play.

His contemporary and fellow Anglo-Irish philhellene Lawrence Durrell was, in so many ways, his kindred spirit in this regard. They were also close friends and had reveled together at the famous Tara mansion in Cairo during the war. Mani, in any case, stands naturally beside Bitter Lemons and Prospero’s Cell as love songs to the Greece of that era. In Ian MacNiven’s biography of Durrell, we find an enchanting glimpse of a riotous Fermor visit to Durrell in Cyprus just after the war. The two men stayed up half the night singing obscure Greek songs, rejoicing in shared Hellenic lore and making a lot of noise.

“Once as they went through Paddy’s vast repertoire of Greek songs far into the night, the lane outside the house filled with quiet neighbors, among them the usually boisterous Frangos, who told Larry, ‘Never have I heard Englishmen singing Greek songs like this!’ ” Their shared virtuosity in the Greek language was remarkable.

Greece, for some of the young prewar generation, held a special magic. It was a youthful Eden, a place linked to the ancient world that was doomed to disappear in the near future. It’s a mood cannily incarnated in Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, which records journeys that Miller and Durrell undertook together in 1939. But no one sang Greece more profoundly than Fermor, and no one tried more ardently to argue its core importance to Western culture, both now and—a more radical argument—in the future.

Roumeli and Mani are his twin love songs to Greece, but it is in Mani that he most eloquently lamented the disappearance of folk cultures under the mindless onslaught of modernity and celebrated most beautifully what he thought of as an immortal landscape in which human beings naturally found themselves humanized.

Consider his illustration of the Greek sky that always seemed to hang so transparently above his own house: “A sky which is higher and lighter and which surrounds one closer and stretches further into space than anywhere else in the world. It is neither daunting nor belittling but hospitable and welcoming to man and as much his element as the earth; as though a mere error in gravity pins him to the rocks or the ship’s deck and prevents him from being assumed into infinity.”

Advertisements

The It girl and the war hero

A young and beautiful Debo

What the trigger-happy, book-hating Duchess of Devonshire said to Patrick Leigh Fermor

Kate McLoughlin

From The Times Literary Supplement November 26, 2008

Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire – known as Debo – was the youngest of those prototype It girls, the Mitford sisters; in faint and possibly euphemistic praise, the editor of this book of letters, her niece-by-marriage Charlotte Mosley, also describes her as “the most well-adjusted”. In this collection of letters, Debo comes across as jolly, plain-spoken and, where animals are concerned, murderous, her gun having taken her “from Sussex to Devon, from Anglesey to Norfolk and home via Northumberland”. Debo tends Chatsworth (the Devonshires’ stately home in Derbyshire), which she endearingly refers to as “the dump”, and engages in country pursuits. When asked by President Kennedy what she does all day, she admits she is “stumped”. A disarmingly simple soul – “I now prefer horse shows to lovers & I’ve never liked drink” – the Duchess is at her best on varieties of gooseberry and rare breeds of cattle. A running joke in this correspondence is her anti-intellectualism in general and antipathy to reading in particular. Invited to a literary lunch in Leamington Spa, she plans to tell her audience, “BOOKS how I hate them – as an avid non-reader it is awful to have added to their number”. The reader of her letters may be forgiven a wry smile.

The recipient of the Devonshire dispatches is Patrick Leigh Fermor (known as “Paddy” and occasionally “Whack”): war hero, author of travel books such as The Traveller’s Tree (1950), Mani (1958), A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), and the recipient of many honours, including a knighthood for services to literature and Anglo-Greek relations. During the Second World War, he was posted to Crete to support the local Resistance and led the successful abduction of the German commander on the island, an exploit that earned him the DSO and was later filmed as Ill Met By Moonlight (1957). Fermor attends the making of the movie and is enchanted when Dirk Bogarde portrays him as “a mixture of Garth and Superman, shooting Germans clean through the breast from a dentist’s chair, strangling sentries in an offhand manner”. From his letters, Fermor emerges as charming and whimsical, with a delightfully childlike imagination offsetting an annoyingly schoolboyish sense of humour. Still entranced by what he calls in A Time of Gifts “the glamour of fairy stories”, he hears the sea roar “like angry lions at feeding-time”, sees hills crowned with “tea-cosies of mist”, watches blackbirds mass “as if someone had rashly opened a pie”. In the best of his travel writings, Fermor combines a similar sense of wonder with local colour, an eye for ridiculousness (including his own) and vivid description in rangy sentences remarkable for their buoyancy. There is little of this soaring prose here: although some lengthy descriptions of travel are included, Fermor is reduced to telling his reluctant reader which passages she may skip.

Fermor and the then Deborah Mitford first met at a regimental ball in 1940. They bumped into each other at parties from time to time over the next decade but the first letter in this collection is a six-liner dated March 21, 1954, from Debo, now married to Andrew Cavendish, eleventh Duke of Devonshire, to Paddy saying that she hopes he will come and stay with them at Lismore, their house in Wexford. This sets the tone for the correspondence to follow: invitations are extended and accepted, thank-you notes are then sent. Too intermittent, the letters are unsatisfying records of festivities long finished. Although Charlotte Mosley claims to have excised plans for meetings, reports on health, grumbles about the weather and the slowness of the posts, the weeding out has not been thorough enough.

Another of Mosley’s claims in support of the correspondence is that the participants are indifferent to politics. It is difficult to decide whether this indifference is another instance of charming whimsicality or just unforgivable negligence. The exchange of letters is too sporadic to allow for political themes to be developed at length, but politics are not entirely absent. Andrew Cavendish was Harold Macmillan’s nephew-by-marriage and served in his government, later becoming an early member of the Social Democratic Party.

In 1958, with Macmillan a year into office, Debo “talks secrets with the PM” and finds it “most jolly and educational”. Much later, John Major “exudes goodness”, Tony Blair is “the wretched little Prime Minister”, Cherie “frightful”, and John Prescott “looks like a bare-knuckle fighter . . . from the East End”. This animosity may have been partly caused by the hunting ban, brought into force by the New Labour government in 2005, and the slaughter of livestock following the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. In their strongest expression of political feelings, Paddy calls the passing of the anti-hunt bill “a day of mourning” and Debo describes the cull as “truly ghoul”.

These references apart, the correspondence is largely devoted to the dramatis personae of high society, mostly long-gone minor aristocrats about whom Mosley provides rather more information than necessary in her footnotes. The Queen Mother, whom Debo calls “Cake”, having been lastingly impressed by her enthusiasm at a wedding when the cake was cut, puts in a few appearances, memorably crying “Oh God” and making a dash for the Royal Box when the conductor unexpectedly strikes up “God Save the Queen” at an opera gala. Princess Diana visits Chatsworth and Debo is stuck for what to give her to eat “as she prefers the fridge to the table, I’m told”. In other sly thrusts, Jackie Kennedy’s face “is put together in a very wild way” and Somerset Maugham’s is “so discoloured and green that it looks as though he has been rotting in the Bastille”.

Old age arrives suddenly for the correspondents – the long gaps between the letters mask the passing of time – but they sound the same as ever, still playing with the same phrases (“I freely admit” is one of Debo’s, much repeated by family and friends), the nicknames (Nancy Mitford is “the Old French authoress” and “the Ancient Dame of France”), the in-jokes (Debo’s supposed illiteracy), still “v v excited” about things or finding them “frightfully good”. Their lack of self-pity as they age is impressive and appealing; there are jokes about failing eyesight and “Dr. Oblivion” but, even though they have reached the stage in life when Paddy is constantly writing obituaries, they maintain good cheer. Twenty-first-century life fails to disconcert them. “There are marvellous entertainments called car-boot sales”, writes Debo. “You can buy a Rembrandt for a few quid in any old field. So why not sell a few?”

Did they love each other? Debo is “funny, touching, ravishing and enslaving”, Paddy tells mutual friends. In a letter of 1957 he rebukes her: “I wish you didn’t love everyone else more than me – it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t rather love you, as I suppose I do, otherwise I wouldn’t feel so selfish and possessive [. . . .] I do adore you”. His adoration is clear in his letters, which outnumber Debo’s: he chides her for not writing often enough, he delights over her average prose, he sends her long travelogues that she replies to with short letters about gooseberries. But her fondness and admiration for him are also evident, and a photograph in the volume of them aged ninety-three and eighty-eight shows a pair close together but not touching: a couple of old friends.

In one of her letters to Paddy, Debo marvels that the University of Texas has paid $10,000 for her sister’s papers: “They’ve got all Evie [Waugh]’s stuff, & Osbert [Sitwell]’s, & letters saying things like ‘Arriving on the 2.14 on Saturday so much looking forward to seeing you’ are put under glass and revered”. Similar feelings are induced by In Tearing Haste. The volume diminishes its subjects by preserving their off-the-cuff remarks and, in Fermor’s case, prose that does nothing to suggest that his finest writing is spectacular. It is good to know that the two are corresponding still, but it might be for the best to save their last letters for their own private pleasure.

The troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear

Paddy in Greece photographed by Joan

Don’t you feel like me that with the passing of Paddy as one of the last of his generation we have clearly entered a new age dominated by uncertainty; a lack of confidence in the values we once held as unquestionably true? These beliefs that bound us (in the West?) together for the latter part of the twentieth century are now unravelling at an ever-increasing pace. As we enter the End Game of the economic crisis, and as the decade of The Forever War rumbles on like the noise of a busy road in the middle distance – there only when we take the trouble to notice – we suffer a dearth of leadership and heroes of substance. Paddy and those of his generation had no such crisis of confidence; they served without question. They sacrificed themselves for the things they believed in, and they provided the leadership, entrepreneurship, creativity, and wisdom that helped rebuild Europe after almost half a century of ethnic and social strife, and destructive war. Maybe they also share some blame for the way things turned out, but who will step up now?

In this considered profile, which prompted my rambling reflection, Paddy’s good friend Colin Thubron assesses his contribution, not as a warrior, but as a writer, and I think for the first time, reveals the torment of Paddy’s troubling writer’s block towards the end of his life.

by Colin Thubron

First published in the New York Review of Books, Volume 58, Number 14

When Patrick Leigh Fermor died in June at the age of ninety-six, it seemed as if an era had come to an end. He was the last of a generation of warrior–travel writers that included the Arabian explorer Wilfred Thesiger, the controversial mystic Laurens van der Post, and the indefatigable Norman Lewis of Naples ‘44. Among these, Leigh Fermor shines with the élan and the effortlessly cultured glow of an apparent golden age. A war hero of polymathic exuberance, brilliant linguistic skills, and an elephantine memory, he was sometimes fancifully compared to Lord Byron or Sir Philip Sydney.

Two pairs of books came to exemplify his achievement. The first pair—Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966)—celebrated the Greece that held his abiding fascination and where he lived for forty-five years on a once-wild promontory in the Peloponnese. In Mani, especially, he described this backwater region as a world whose way of life had survived in a fierce and enchanted time warp.

The land he depicted is barely recognizable now—tourism, he observed, destroys the object it loves—but it was less the Greece of classical antiquity that beguiled him than the spirit and folk culture of the hinterland: the earthy, demotic Romiosyne that he once contrasted with the Hellenic ideal in a playful balance sheet of the country’s character.

In these, and in later books, the style was the man: robustly imaginative, cultivated without pedantry, unstoppably digressive, forgivably swanky, and filled with infectious learning. The impression—overflowing into elaborate footnotes and flights of learned fantasy—is one of omnivorous delight in the quirks and byways of history, art, language, genealogy, myth, song, superstition, costume, heraldry, and everything else that struck his fancy.

His literary models were Norman Douglas and Robert Byron, but his writing was more vivid than the one, more kindly than the other. Despite the richness of his prose (occasionally slipping into purple) he forged an illusion of intimacy with his readers, as if they were sharing his mind in the moment of writing. But in fact his manuscripts were worked, reworked, and reworked again with such painstaking perfectionism that his publisher (the benign Jock Murray) often had to reset his galley proofs wholesale. The apparently natural flow of words was in reality a densely worked choreography, which came at cost.

Fifteen years ago, swimming in the Ionian Sea beneath his home, where nobody could overhear us, Paddy (as friends and fans called him) suddenly confessed to me the writer’s block that would plague the rest of his life. The expectations of a now-avid public, and his own obsessive perfectionism, were taking their toll, and he could not overleap this cruel impediment.

I remember him strong into old age. He swam every morning, with a sturdy breaststroke far out to sea, the tattoo of a twin-tailed mermaid glistening on his shoulder. He still kept up a striding march in the Taygetus foothills, where he and his wife Joan had designed their own house above the ocean. It was a place of “mad splendor,” he wrote. Its sitting-room library—bookshelves banked nine feet high—opened onto a vista of cypresses and the Messenian Gulf, and was flagged with the greenish stone of Mount Pelion. In the afternoon Paddy would disappear into his study to confront—or escape—the demons of his failed writing, and would emerge to the liberation of ouzo or whiskey, generally to report some arcane piece of research—that the Huns wore stitched field-mouse skins, perhaps—or to share a passage of Ovid. We dined in the monastic half-cloister he had built beside his home, and once we visited the tiny, red-tiled Byzantine chapel where—five years before—he had buried the ashes of Bruce Chatwin.

The conflict between a natural gregariousness and the solitude of writing never quite resolved for him. In a short, intriguing study named A Time to Keep Silence (1953) he recorded his sojourn in three great French monasteries. He described this retreat not as a religious exercise, but as a need for a haven for writing, and the nature of its cleansing—”the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear”—remains suspended like a question mark in the oeuvre of a man to whom self-revelation seemed indulgence.

The second pair of books, which established Paddy’s primacy among travel writers, must be among the most extraordinary ever written. In 1933, as a youth of eighteen, he left England for a journey that would take a year and a half. As “a thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly,” he set out to walk to Constantinople (as he nostalgically called Istanbul). Walking stick in hand, a copy of Horace’s Odes in his rucksack, he pursued a meandering course up the Rhine and down the Danube, across the Great Hungarian Plain, into Romania and through the Balkans to Turkey.

It was almost forty-five years before he published the first part of this journey, and another nine years before the second. A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) represent prodigious feats of memory. They record the rite of passage of a precocious, exuberant young man as he encounters the peoples and languages of a Middle Europe now littered with obsolete names: Bohemia, Transylvania, Wallachia. His story must have become the dream journey of every enterprising and footloose adolescent.

Inevitably the accuracy of Paddy’s memory was questioned, and he was frank about occasional imaginative license and conflation. (His first diary was stolen in Munich, a solitary last one recovered years later in Romania.) Certainly his recall was extraordinary. I remember the first time we met (by chance), when he quoted verbatim from my first book passages that I had myself forgotten. A year before his death we chanted verses from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám together in an antiphonal competition (which he won).

His urge to describe his epic journey more than forty years after its end was a deeply natural one. He was revisiting his youthful persona with the judgment and knowledge of maturity; yet in a sense he had remained unchanged. Despite his sophisticated learning, he retained an almost boyish innocence, as if the troubles of the modern age had bypassed him. In the Peloponnese, where he settled to live in the 1960s, he had remained in thrall to a more ancient, rooted culture than that of the urban West.

The final volume of his proposed trilogy—carrying its author through the Balkans and down the Black Sea coast to Turkey—became his tormenting and elusive project for the next quarter- century, and was never completed. Some near-finished version, however, survives him, and will eventually be published.

With his youthful trek done, Leigh Fermor’s career took off into near fable. Caught up in Greek unrest, he joined in a triumphal royalist cavalry charge against wilting Venizelist rebels. In Athens he fell in love with the artist Princess Balasha Cantacuzene, twelve years older than him, and lived with her in Moldavia for over two years, before World War II recalled him to London.

As a fluent Greek speaker he was recruited by the Intelligence Corps, and sent as a liaison officer with the Greek army first to Albania and finally to Crete, where he survived the brutal German invasion. For almost two years, while an officer in the Special Operations Executive, he lived disguised as a shepherd in the Cretan mountains, organizing the gathering of intelligence.

Then, in 1944, occurred the exploit that—more than any other—was to burnish him into legend. He and his fellow SOE officer Stanley Moss dreamed up a scheme of harebrained bravado. Dressed in stolen German uniforms, with a party of Cretan guerrillas, they ambushed the car of General Heinrich Kreipe, the German commander of occupied Crete, kidnapped him, and concealed him under the back seat. Moss took the wheel, Paddy donned the general’s cap, and together they drove through twenty-two checkpoints to emerge on the far side of Herakleion and march Kreipe for three weeks over the mountains, to be picked up by motor launch and taken to Egypt.

It was during this hazardous Cretan march, as the dawn broke over Mount Ida, mythical birthplace of Zeus, that the abducted general began to murmur a verse of Horace: Vides ut alta stet nive candidum/Soracte….1 It was an ode that Paddy knew by heart, and he completed the six stanzas to their end. “The general’s blue eyes had swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine,” Paddy later wrote,

—and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. As though, 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 precocious kidnapping was later reimagined in a lackluster movie named Ill Met by Moonlight (1957) with Dirk Bogarde playing Paddy. But there were other exploits too. Paddy had already engineered the defection of the Italian General Angelico Carta from Crete; and he was due to undertake a near-suicidal mission to Colditz when the war ended.

His upbeat account of these events was tempered by regret. He had planned that the abduction of Kreipe be bloodless, but his accompanying Cretan partisans slit the chauffeur’s throat, and rumors of grim German reprisals for the abduction have never quite died down. Above all, Paddy’s accidental shooting of one of his fellow guerrillas may have stained his memory of the whole period.

On June 16 Leigh Fermor was buried back in the English countryside, attended by an Intelligence Corps guard of honor, to lie beside his wife Joan, his dear comrade since 1946. This was, in a sense, fitting. For in certain ways he was exemplary of a wartime Englishness now almost gone, whose more dashing qualities merged seamlessly into the hardy stylishness of Greek leventéa.

To those who knew him, his books are hauntingly redolent of his sensibility. His conversation was irrepressibly warm and inventive far into old age, moving from arcane anecdotes to fanciful wordplay or bursting into polyglot song (sometimes singing the lyrics backward). His friends ranged from Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire—last of the six legendary Mitford sisters (his correspondence with her was published in 20082)—to early acquaintance with a raffish interwar bohemia and his own great predecessor, the travel writer and aesthete Robert Byron, whose borrowed rucksack he bore across Central Europe as a youth.

Almost the last time I met Paddy, he had returned home after an operation for suspected cancer, and I feared he would be depleted, his old zest gone. He was growing deaf, and he suffered from tunnel vision (which he called Simplonitis). For a while, sitting over lunch, he seemed subdued. Then something struck him. He perked up, and said: “You know, there is an apple lying on a table in the hall. It’s been there all weekend. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if it cocked a snook at Newton, and simply took off into the air!”

This was typical of his boyish resilience. In the field of travel he evoked both the youthful wanderer who discovers another world and the avid scholar who melds with it. His prose was too rich and elaborate to be a safe influence on others (although a few have tried); but he brought to the genre not only the distinction of his densely brilliant books, but his innate dignity, ebullient mind, and capacious heart.

  1. 1″See Mount Soracte white with snow….”
  2. 2The correspondence, In Tearing Haste , edited by Charlotte Mosley, was published in the US by New York Review Books (2010), which has also republished the other books by Patrick Leigh Fermor mentioned in this article, as well as The Traveller’s Tree .

Sebastian Faulks on Patrick Leigh Fermor “He’s a bit of an old windbag”

There was a period last year when Sebastian Faulks was seemingly never out of the newspapers what with Birdsong coming to the stage and other activities. I found this little piece in the Independent

He is hailed as one of the greatest travel writers of the 20th century, but Patrick Leigh Fermor is not up to much, says Sebastian Faulks. The bestselling author of Birdsong tells me that despite several attempts he has never been able to get through Leigh Fermor’s seminal book, A Time of Gifts, saying “He’s a bit of an old windbag isn’t he?” Faulks was on garrulous form at the Hatchards’ authors party last week, turning his sights on Joan Bakewell too. “Why’s she gone and written a novel? Everyone thinks they can do one now.” Next up, Debo Devonshire: “Why has she written another book? They can’t be short of money can they?” Watch out!

I have to admit that I have actually made my way through two of Faulk’s novels: Charlotte Gray which was dull and Birdsong which is populated by unattractive characters and in the end becomes completely boring and fantastical. Never again!


Debbo on CBC’s Sunday Edition Programme

If you can’t get enough of this most amazing woman, here is an interview conducted by Michael Enright, an accomplished journalist and broadcaster. He reveals that he once posted a letter to Debbo as a favour to her sister Decca. We may have heard some of the anecdotes before, but there are some new ones including the story of Lady Redesdale visiting Diana Mosley when she spent time at His Majesty’s pleasure in Holloway prison.


Nothing about Paddy in this one. Click on the image to play. The interview starts at minute 24 and 30 seconds. Once the programme loads drag the cursor to that point and it should bufffer very quickly.

The Duchess of Devonshire talks about Patrick Leigh Fermor

The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, the youngest of the legendary Mitford sisters reminisces about her life and her correspondence with the charismatic Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, considered to be the finest English travel writer of his generation. An evening filled with wit, eccentric characters, and a celebration of courage and friendship. Charlotte Mosley, her niece and editor, joins the Dowager Duchess in conversation.

This was filmed on November 10 2010 at the Frick Collection in New York to mark the US publication of In Tearing Haste and her new memoire, Wait for Me

Paddy is mentioned at the start and she discusses her friendship with him from minute 35

Paddy visits the wonder that is Ohrid

I suppose it is a good thing to aim to be objective in life. It shows wisdom and maturity, and an ability to balance all the arguments. For me however, all objectivity vanishes when I think of Ohrid! The setting of this beautiful city on the edge of the vast and wondrous eponymous lake is simply stunning.

Although he does not state it specifically, I believe Paddy visited Ohrid and its environs when on a motor tour from France to Greece with Joan in her Sunbeam Rapier in 1960. He tells the story to Debo in a letter dated 23/24 October 1960 (see page 67 of In Tearing Haste). Paddy describes visiting “Serbian Macedonia and wonderful lakes with frescoed Byzantine monasteries on the shores … (which) held us up for days.” There is little doubt in my mind that he is referring to Ohrid, and having been there myself I can understand why; it is a wonder that he ever left!

It is said that Ohrid, Macedonia, once had 365 churches although there are now only around twenty-five which remain open. Its name means City of Light and it has over 220 days of sunshine each year. The town creeps up the hillside surrounding a central esplanade and harbour dominated by the statue of St Clement, who was the student of Saint Cyril and his brother Methodius. They were the authors of the Cyrillic alphabet (approx 864 AD) which was created by the Byzantines to bring the Slavic nations into the Orthodox Church rather than let them fall under the influence of Rome during the early days of the schism between the two churches.

Ohrid is full of Byzantine history. The influence of the Empire can be seen everywhere from the statues to the fortress but principally in the churches and the ancient Basilica. The original church of St Clement was destroyed by the Ottomans who built a mosque on the site which has a clear view of the Lake. Clement’s relics were secretly moved by the Christian citizens of Ohrid to the smaller and less important Church of St Mary Psychosostria. Over time this church became known as the Church of St Clement, but the confusion is now ended as in 2000 the Macedonian authorities rebuilt the Church of St Clement on the original site. His relics have been moved back there to rest in peace. The site includes the remains of original Baptistry, and there are many mosaics all in very good condition.

The Church of St Mary is a wonder. Built in 1295 by the deputy Progon Zgur who was a relative of the Emperor Andronicus II Paleologus, it has twenty-nine scenes from the life of the Virgin around the walls. These frescoes are in generally excellent condition with little of the wear or defacement one often finds elsewhere. The reason for this is that most of the frescoes were obliterated by soot from candles. They were cleaned and restored only since 1960. The have to be seen to be understood. The ‘keeper’ of the frescoes is an amazing Macedonian lady with long black hair, with braided pigtails; the church and the frescoes are her passion, probably the centre of her life. She has produced a long book and the frescoes were the subject of her PhD. She says that the fresco of the Virgin that dominates the Apse is painted from lapis lazuli originating in Afghanistan. That one fresco would have cost something in the order of one kilogramme of gold (at today’s prices that is roughly $56,000).

Opposite the Church is the national Icon museum of Macedonia with over forty masterpieces. All this within just a few yards of each other!

If you ever get the chance to visit you will find all this and more. You will also meet friendly people, find good quality low-cost accommodation, and a wealth of Byzantine architecture and art. This CNN video shows many of the places I have written about and I know you will like it. If you do ever visit Ohrid, please contact my friend Katerina Vasileska who runs a tourist business in Ohrid called Lost in Ohrid. She will be happy to arrange good accommodation, local tours, and generally be of assistance during your visit.

Finally, don’t forget that for the intrepid there is an opportunity to walk through Albania to Ohrid in May of 2011 with the Via Egnatia Foundation. See my recent post Walking back to Byzantium along the Via Egnatia where you can find out more and how to register your interest.

Click to play … there is a 30 second ad before the Ohrid movie starts.