Tag Archives: Joan Leigh Fermor

Joan – a blog review

When Simon Fenwick, a professional archivist, was asked to sort Paddy’s papers at Kardamyli after his death in 2011, one would imagine that it would be the illustrious Paddy who would fire Simon’s imagination to write a book. But, as Simon worked his way through the accumulations of a lifetime, it was Joan, the woman who lived in Paddy’s shadow who started to fascinate and inspired him to write Joan: Beauty, Rebel, Muse: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor.

Although Joan’s money enabled Paddy to write, and she accompanied him on many of his post-war journeys, there is barely a mention of Joan in Paddy’s work. Simon’s painstaking research has resulted in a thoroughly enjoyable biography that gives Joan real shape and depth. Not only has Simon managed to produce a book about a woman who barely left any archive of her own (a diary from 1936 and some letters from John and Penelope Betjeman is about it), he has a very engaging and entertaining style.

Paddy of course features prominently in the latter half of the book, but Simon is careful to retain the focus on his subject. We do, however, learn a lot more detail about Paddy to supplement Artemis Cooper’s 2012 biography Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure. Simon has had the benefit of access to a very wide range of different source information, and dare I say, material that now is much better organised than when Artemis was writing.

Simon Fenwick is very candid about the lifestyles and affairs of Joan, Paddy and their assorted friends. It was Joan who was friends first with Cyril Connelly, Maurice Bowra, John Betjeman, Patrick Kinross etc, and introduced Paddy into their world where he found immediate acceptance. There is a degree of honesty about his work which will appeal to those who want to know what the lives of these people were really like. We may think that we know them, but Simon Fenwick truly brings a new perspective and introduces us to new material. It is certainly a good read, and in paperback, an ideal stocking filler for Christmas.

Buy Joan: Beauty, Rebel, Muse: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor

The Benaki comes out fighting – progress at Paddy’s house

In late September the Benaki museum carried out an extraordinary publicity drive in London in an attempt to counter the ongoing criticism of its tenure of the house and progress with renovations. On 26 September I attended an event at the Hellenic Centre which was, I am told, similar in content to an exclusive evening held the night before at the Traveller’s Club.

by Tom Sawford

After an extraordinary period of silence, like an old boxer absorbing the body-blows of criticism for many rounds, the Benaki came out with all guns blazing in an attempt to explain how things were now really moving with the house project. No less than two of Her Majesty’s former Ambassadors to the Hellenic Republic were on the five person panel to ensure that we agreed it must be so.

To make sure we were in the right mood, we were first treated to the Benaki promotional video which portrays the museum as one of the most important cultural institutions in Greece, and indeed it certainly has a fine collection and many responsibilities including looking after the house of Nikos Ghika, which must be where Paddy and Joan got the idea in the first place. I encourage you to watch it here.

Irini Geroulanou, a member of the Executive Board of the Benaki, explained the details of the bequest and ran us through the events that have taken place since Paddy’s death six years ago. We do have to appreciate the serious financial circumstances that have existed in Greece and some of the tortuously slow bureaucratic steps that needed to be taken to secure permission to work on the house. Key events were the 2015 business plan for the house produced by AEA Consulting which outlined how the Benaki could make it self-funding, and the 2016 donation by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation which at last made money available to commence the works.

Ms Geroulanou went on to show glimpses of plans but, curiously, only a very few photographs of work on the house. The intention is to create five independent “units” including a work area and en-suite facilities to foster privacy, focus and creativity. A Common area will be centred on the “world’s room”. Winter will be a maintenance period; in the spring there will follow two months of academic residence; there will be two periods in the late spring and early autumn for “Honorary fellows” to use the house as the writers’ retreat that Paddy foresaw; in the summer, three months will be set-aside for holiday rentals, this forming the main part of the annual income. The house will become known as The Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor Centre, and the Benaki plans to start a charity in the UK to create a dedicated endowment fund.

This was all very encouraging. But, as I say there were very few pictures showing actual progress at the house. Apparently the roof is being replaced but workers were reluctant to be photographed. The museum would do itself a lot of favours if it were to publish regular updates, with a few photographs on the House section of its website.

Ms Geroulanou also made time to counter the criticism made against the Benaki. She was passionate and very detailed in her rebuttal – countering the reports that had apparently appeared in newspapers (so not this blog then!) that donations had been turned down – giving us a detailed breakdown of all three or so donations which seemed to add up to the value of a good night out at a taverna in Kardamyli. There were other mentions of criticisms on “websites and blogs” (OK – guilty) which seemed to have struck hard at the Benaki, leading to “an unpleasant climate of suspicion”. I stand by the criticism I made a year ago about a lack of care of many of the smaller items in the house, but that is all now in the past.

It is encouraging to report that things are now happening. It is also good to know that the Benaki is a distinctly reputable and experienced organisation, and now with the funding it has, Paddy and Joan’s vision may be achieved within 18 months or so. I look forward to updating you on progress, as I also look forward to the Benaki sharing plans, reports, updates and photographs on its website so that the nasty “unpleasant climate of suspicion” does not return.

PS – apologies for the delay in posting this update. I have been working very hard, and away for a time on a personal pilgrimage on foot from Winchester to Exeter via Salisbury, Wells and Glastonbury. I encourage others to go! I can supply my route information.

It took Joan to make him a gentleman

Joan Eyres MonsellSome of you may remember that Simon Fenwick was the archivist who was first tasked by Paddy’s estate to make an initial pass at cataloguing his personal effects and papers. I have bumped into Simon on a few occasions since Paddy’s death. In conversation he has told me that he is working on a book about Joan Leigh Fermor from her own papers and diaries, and one that will give us a very different perspective on Paddy and their life together. It promises to be somewhat revelatory.

Simon is a speaker at the second Transylvanian Book Festival where he will be in conversation talking about Joan and her life with Paddy. When asked for a little snippet of the sort of thing we might expect he gave me this:

You asked for an insight into their private life. Well, when they met Paddy may have been an officer but it took Joan to make him a gentleman. Paddy was totally undomesticated and remained so. He flooded baths and spilt drinks over sheets. He also smoked 100 a day, habitually set the bed on fire and woke up in clouds of smoke. In one of his letters Evelyn Waugh refers to Paddy and Joan as ‘the Nicotine Maniac and his girl’. Not unnaturally Joan and he had separate bedrooms although hers was invariably covered in cats which he wasn’t keen on. I suppose Paddy was quite a good advert for the fact that smoking doesn’t always kill you.

Further details of Simon’s book will be available here on the blog in the coming months. Information about the Transylvanian Book Festival can be found here.

Paddy’s attempt at buying a hat for Joan

It often takes me quite a while to post items that have been very kindly sent to me by some of our many readers. This is just one such example and I have to apologize as I have lost the details of whoever sent it to me. Suffice to say that the content on here is often the result of your hard work in finding items and sending them to me so please do keep it up and I will always acknowledge your contribution. This is unique example of being unable to do that. If you sent me the original link and are reading this please step forward! PS – the mystery contributor has been found. Thank you Rob MacGregor!

Below is an extract from Neville Phillip’s 2008 biography The Stage Struck Me! in which he mentions an amusing episode involving Paddy at the shops! Can you imagine him shopping?

You can actually read the whole book online via Google Books where we are told:

“The Stage Struck Me!” is a funny, informative and sometimes sad account of the life of a jobbing actor and writer in the 1940s and 1950s, full of anecdotes about the famous, the infamous, the charming and the downright loopy people he met along the way. After joining the South African Army and serving as a gunner in the coastal artillery, Neville Phillips was transferred to the entertainment unit where he spent four years doing shows for the Allied troops in North Africa and Italy. In 1946 he was demobbed to London and it was here that Neville Phillips met and got to know some truly remarkable people, as well as writing West End reviews, pantomime, cabaret, and a musical starring Pat Kirkwood. “The Stage Struck Me!” is a fascinating and sometimes poignant account of times, places and people that played such an important part in a young aspiring actor’s life.

buying a hat for Joan

Read the extract in pdf format here.

A Visit with Patrick Leigh Fermor, Part 2

Paddy. on Ithaca, 1946 by Joan Leigh Fermor

Part 2 of Ben Downing’s meeting with Paddy in 2001 at Kardamyli.  Read Part 1 here.

by Ben Downing.

This text originally appeared in issue 165 of The Paris Review, Spring 2003.

Already familiar as I was with the main events of Paddy’s military career, I asked him to fill in the gaps. What had he done while in Cairo?

“My first leave from Crete, after many months in the mountains, was at the time of the Italian surrender in September 1943. I had managed, by devious means, to persuade the Italian general commanding the Siena Division to escape from the island with some of his staff, and I accompanied them. When they’d been handed over in Cairo, I found myself quartered in rather gloomy billets known as Hangover Hall. There I became great friends with Bill Stanley Moss, on leave from the Third Battalion of the Coldstream Guards, and later my companion on the Kreipe expedition. Couldn’t we find more congenial quarters? Almost at once Billy found a positive mansion on Gezira Island, which we shared with a beautiful Polish countess called Sophie Tarnowska—she and Billy were married later on—her Alsatian, two mongooses, and a handful of close SOE friends, also on leave.

“Tara (as we named the house) was an immediate triumph. With its ballroom and a piano borrowed from the Egyptian Officers’ Club, and funded by our vast accumulations of back pay, it became famous—or notorious—for the noisiest and most hilarious parties in wartime Cairo. At one of these, fired by the tinkle of a dropped glass, everyone began throwing their glasses through the windows until not a pane was left.

“It was to Tara that we returned after the Kreipe expedition. But the rigors of a year and a half of Cretan cave life, it seems, suddenly struck me with an acute rheumatic infection of the joints, akin to paralysis. After two months in a Cairo hospital—where King Farouk once kindly sent me a magnum of champagne—I was sent to convalesce in Lebanon. I stayed at the British summer embassy at Aley, above Beirut, with Lady Spears, who was the well-known American writer Mary Borden, and her husband, Sir Edward Spears, our ambassador there. We had all met in Cairo, which at that time was one of the most fascinating gathering points in the world.

“But I was itching to get back to Crete. By the time I managed to return, in October 1944, the entire German force had withdrawn to a small perimeter in the west of the island. The outcome was a foregone conclusion, and the Germans made only occasional sorties. With their imminent surrender in view, it wasn’t ‘worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier,’ as Frederick the Great said—or of a single mountaineer or Allied soldier, for that matter.

“I went back to Cairo for a last Tara Christmas. But Tara was dissolving, and in March 1945 I was sent to England, where I joined a rapidly-put-together unit called the Special Allied Airborne Reconnaissance Force—inevitably SAARF—for an odd emergency. There was a fear that during the ‘Eclipse Period’—the predictable days, that is, between the faster momentum of the Allied advance and the final surrender of the German army—the Germans might carry prominent Allied prisoners of war off to some Tyrolean redoubt and use them as hostages or bargaining counters; and it was hoped that SAARF would be able to prevent this. Its members all had SOE and parachute experience in enemy territory. The plan was that, at the right moment in Eclipse Period, each team of three—in some cases, two teams together—would take off from an airstrip at the Sunningdale golf course, in Surrey, and drop near its allotted prison camp in Germany. Dressed in tattered POW uniforms, we would lie up in the woods, spy out the land, slip into POW working parties, get inside the camp, and then contact the senior British officer and open W/T communications with the spearhead of our advancing troops; these would then drop arms and supplies and give air cover while the garrison was overpowered or the commandant bluffed, until Allied troops arrived.

“I found myself paired with Henry Coombe-Tenant, a major in the Welsh Guards, a brilliant pianist and a member of the Athenaeum who after the war became a Benedictine monk at Downside. Our commandant was Brigadier Nicholls, nicknamed ‘Crasher’; he was impermeable as a bison. The target we were destined for was the dread Oflag IV C at Colditz, where several Prominenten were prisoners, including the king’s cousin, Lord Harewood, and relations of Churchill and Field Marshal Alexander. The castle was deep in Saxony, and there was, of course, no resistance or SOE intelligence about it—nothing but aerial photographs to go on. We desperately needed more local detail.

“At this point I heard that an old friend, Miles Reid of the Phantom Reconnaissance Force, captured in Greece during the 1941 retreat, had been exchanged on health grounds, and precisely from Colditz; so I got leave to break security in the hopes of information, and dashed to see him at his home near Haslemere. When I told him of the Colditz scheme, he exploded. Had we heard nothing of the total impregnability of the fortress, of the thoroughness and rigor of the Appells, the checks and counterchecks, the scrutinies and roll calls? As for ‘working parties,’ since the inmates were all officers, these didn’t exist. There was absolutely no hope of the plan succeeding, and we would all be goners. Continue reading

The movie Before Midnight, featuring a certain house in a starring role

If you never get the chance to visit Paddy and Joan’s house in Karadmyli, it looks like you can have an extended viewing if you go to see the movie Before Midnight.

Related articles:

Before Sunset sequel, Before Midnight movie shooting in Greece at Paddy’s House

Intimate portraits from Kardamyli by Miles Fenton

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.

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“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.”

House in Wales

Cliff Cottage - Fforest Farm - Newport

Cliff Cottage – Fforest Farm – Newport

There is so much to discover about Paddy and Joan’s life. The detectives are always at work, and I thought I would share with you this note I received from Alun Davies, an ex-Army man like myself who somehow has become the Honarary Consul in Wales for Hungary. How do these things happen? 🙂 Please share with us your memories or investigations. You can always contact me at tsawford [at] btinternet.com and I promise to reply, ever so slowly!

Dear Tom – here is a small piece of the jigsaw of Paddy’s life which you might enjoy. Each summer we go down to West Wales as a family and stay at Newport in Pembrokeshire. When I read In Tearing Haste I noticed a reference to Newport and asked Artemis if she knew more.

The long and short of it is that I have located the cottage in which Paddy and Joan stayed in the summer of 1961. This was not exactly difficult as on page 83 of ITH he gives the address as Cliff Cottage, Fforest Farm. In fact I know Fforest Farm but the property is now called Fforest Cottage.

I spoke to Joanna Ward who now owns the cottage – picture attached – who told me that her father had bought the property in 1963 from Rex Warner’s wife after he had died.

The footnote on page 84 of ITH says:

PLF had borrowed the house from Barbra Ghika (1911-1989), nee Hutchinson, who married the painter Nikos Ghika in 1961. She was married previously to Victor, 3rd Baron Rothschild 1933-46 and to Rex Warner, writer, painter and translator of Greek tragedies, in 1949.

I am wondering if Charlotte Mosley was right in thinking that the house was borrowed from Barbra when it seems to have been owned by Rex Warner and his later wife. Given Rex’s background in Greek classics, and the fact that he was the director of the British Institute in Athens after the war, Paddy must have known him well.

I realise this is not necessarily of great interest – but as I know that area well I found it interesting to follow up the lead.

Best wishes

Alun

Sunday Times review of Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure

I was sent this review by good friend Chris Hammond.

Click this link to open the pdf.

The ultimate pilgrimage to Paddy’s house in the Mani?

Paddy with Goat! Photo by Joan Leigh Fermor, from the Trustees of the National Library of Scotland

If you wanted to make a trip to see Paddy’s house at Kardamyli and to visit the wider Mani this may be the one for you. In the company of Paddy’s biographer, Artemis Cooper, this six-day tour will take in Mistra, Monemvasia, and Paddy’s house in Kardamyli, as well as other sites in the Mani.

This tour has been arranged by Art Tours (sponsors of the Royal Geographic Society event about Paddy 24 Oct) and is designed to celebrate Paddy’s life, whilst exploring the dazzling, rocky region he loved best in Greece, and where he and Joan lived for over forty years.

It is a celebration of his life and travels and is planned to run from 7-12 May 2013. Artemis will bring a unique insight into Paddy’s life and personality, and to cover the wider history of the region she will be joined by art historian James McDonaugh.

If you would like to know more please download this pdf or contact Edward Gates at Art Tours Ltd on +44 (0)207 449 9707 or by email edward[at]arttoursltd.com

Writer’s last wish falls victim to the Greek recession – and response

A poorly researched article was featured in the Daily Telegraph on Monday which many of you may already have read. It concerned the perceived lack of progress towards meeting Paddy and Joan’s wishes with regard to the use of the house at Kardamyli, and  ‘state of disrepair’. This is a subject that I know many of you are concerned about. In response to an article by John Chapman following his spring visit to the house, there were many offers of help to which there will soon be a response.

Following the article below as is the summary of a response by Artemis Cooper which was posted on her Facebook page and a letter by Artemis has been written to the Telegraph to emphasise that work is being done behind the scenes and it is expected that an announcement can be made soon which will be clearly featured on this blog.

More than a year after the death of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, the seafront home in Greece where the travel writer spent most of his adult life is falling into disrepair, and his wish that it should become a writers’ retreat has not been honoured.

By Jim Bruce in Kardamili

First published in the Daily Telegraph 8 October 2012.

When Leigh Fermor and his wife, Joan, designed and built the house in the mid-60s their friend John Betjeman called it “a book in itself”

But now it is locked up and looks sad and neglected, its wooden shutters rotting and falling off their hinges.

Surrounded by sprawling gardens dotted with olive trees, the seven-bedroom house in Kardamili, in the Mani region of the southern Peloponnese, is estimated to be worth £1 million.

Leigh Fermor – who was awarded the DSO for one of the most daring feats of the Second World War, kidnapping the commander of the German garrison in Crete in April 1944 – had no children. He bequeathed the house to the private Benaki Museum in Athens, stipulating that it provide a home for writers visiting for a few months.

He also left it all the contents – including 7,000 books and several valuable paintings. But so far the Benaki does not appear to have begun to act on his wishes.

Greek locals and British expats in the picturesque tourist village are disappointed at the lack of progress, but mainly blame a lack of funds caused by the country’s severe economic slump.

Maria Morgan, a children’s author, who lives in Kardamili and was a close friend of Leigh Fermor and Joan, who died in 2003, said: “It makes me, and other villagers, very sad to see the house in this situation. If Paddy were still alive today, he would be extremely disappointed that his wishes for a writers’ retreat have not been carried out. Because of the economic crisis in Greece there’s no money for this sort of thing.”

She said that the Leigh Fermors received numerous visitors from around the world, including their close friends Betjeman and George Seferis, poets laureate of Britain and Greece respectively.

The library includes a first edition of Betjeman’s High and Low, with the handwritten inscription: “For Paddy and Joan inscribed with undying devotion by the pile-ridden poet John, 1969.”

But the house had always been open to local people. “All the villagers were friends of Paddy and Joan. They loved us to drop in and talk about our lives,” Morgan said.

David Rochelle, a British expat who runs a tourist shop in Kardamili, said: “The house was a massive party zone for the glitterati, with many famous visitors. It’s a beautiful house, but now it’s falling into ruin, and that’s very sad.” Elpitha Beloyiannis, housekeeper for Leigh Fermor for 11 years, has been kept on by the museum to look after the interior. She said: “The museum is trying to raise money for repairs, but it’s difficult with the economic crisis. I’m sure the museum will honour Paddy’s wishes.”

Last year, a notice on the museum website stated: “Over the next few months the Board of Trustees will announce how the house will be used.”

No announcement has yet been made however and the museum did not answer numerous calls and emails about the house.

The response by Artemis Cooper posted on her Facebook page on 8 October is as follows:

There was another piece, also in today’s Telegraph (‘Writer’s last wish falls victim to the Greek recession’, 8.10.12) about PLF’s house at Kardamyli. I have written a letter to the Editor which I hope will be published, because I felt it was very unfair – both to the Benaki Museum, and the people who look after the house. Just because the shutters are falling off (they’ve been like that for at least 15 years), people imagine nothing is happening.

The Benaki are determined to honour PLF’s wishes to use the house as a place for seminars and writing courses, as well as a writers’ retreat. The project has been outlined, costed, and a committee of ‘Friends of the House’ has been formed to help it come about. But at a time when Greece is undergoing a period of economic catastrophe, to expect the whole house to be refurbished and turned into a hub of literary endeavour in sixteen months is frankly unrealistic.

… and Artemis’ letter published in the Telegraph on 9 October:

SIR – Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor’s wish that his house in Kardamili, Greece, be turned into a writers’ retreat has not been abandoned (“Writer’s last wish falls victim to the Greek recession”, October 8).

Lola Bubbosh, who has close links with the Benaki Museum, to which Sir Patrick bequeathed his house, has outlined and estimated the cost of turning it into a retreat, while a committee, which I am on, has been set up in Britain to see it through.

Since Sir Patrick’s death over a year ago, people have stayed at the house, and Richard Linklater has just made a film there, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.

Things are moving forward. But in a time of economic catastrophe, one cannot expect the Benaki to refurbish the house and turn it into a full-blown writers’ retreat within a year.

Artemis Cooper
London SW6

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

On the Coast of Terra Fermoor

The second of Bowra’s so-called poems which is about Paddy’s relationship with Joan. The full explanation can be found in the preceding article – here.

The first ‘poem’ – The Wounded Gigolo – has started some very interesting debate in the comments section. Why not join in that debate here, and also discuss On the Coast of Terra Fermoor in the comment section at the end of this article?

A link to the section of Henry Hardy’s website where he has buried the poems with some accompanying footnotes is here.

On the Coast of Terra Fermoor

On the coast of Terra Fermoor, when the wind is on the lea,
And the paddy-fields are sprouting round a morning cup of tea,
Sits a lovely girl a-dreaming, and she never thinks of me.
No, she never thinks of me
At her morning cup of tea,
Lovely girl with moon-struck eyes,
Juno fallen from the skies,
At the paddy-fields she looks
Musing on Tibetan books,
On the Coast of Terra Fermoor high above the Cretan Sea.

Melting rainbows dance around her – what a tale she has to tell,
How Carmichael, the Archangel, caught her in the asphodel,
And coquetting choirs of Cherubs loudly sang the first Joel,
Loudly sang the first Joel
To their Blessed Damozel.
Ah, she’s doomed to wane and wilt
Underneath her load of guilt;
She will never, never say
What the Cherubs sang that day,
When the Wise Men came to greet her and a star from heaven fell.

Ah, her memory is troubled by a stirring of dead bones,
Bodies that a poisoned poppy froze into a heap of stones;
When the midnight voices call her, how she mews and mopes and moans.
Oh the stirring of the bones
And their rumble-tumble tones,
How they rattle in her ears
Over the exhausted years;
Lovely bones she used to know
Where the tall pink pansies blow
And her heart is sad because she never saw the risen Jones.

Cruel gods will tease and taunt her: she must always ask for more,
Have her battlecock and beat it, slam the open shuttledore,
Till the Rayners17 cease from reigning in the stews of Singapore.
She will always ask for more,
Waiting for her Minotaur;
Peering through the murky maze
For the sudden stroke that slays,
Till some spirit made of fire
Burns her up in his desire
And her sighs and smiles go floating skyward to the starry shore.

10 June 1950

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s estate auctioned by Christie’s: A Life’s Collection

The auction house Christies will present the principal contents of Mill Farm, Dumbleton for auction at their sale rooms at 85 Old Brompton Road  London, Greater London SW7 3LD, on Tuesday 15 May 2012.

The collection includes furniture, books, silverware, and many works of art. How many of these were collected by Joan and Paddy, and which came from their families is difficult to assess.

You can view the e-catalogue here.

Remember that you don’t have to be present to buy but can bid on-line as described in the catalogue. I hope that some of you have the opportunity to make a purchase.

Let’s celebrate a full life, and one well lived

From left: Tom Fisher, Paddy, Joan , John Craxton, Margot Fonteyn, Frederick Ashton and Ruth Page. Photo: Costas Achillopoulos in Ian Collins’ book on the life of John Craxton

Today we can celebrate the memory of Patrick Leigh Fermor, whether we attend his memorial service in London, or are just able to take a moment to reflect on all he gave to his family, his many friends, to us his admiring readers, and of course his service to his country and to Greece.

I thought the best way to mark this day on the blog is to feature this fine photograph sent to me by John Chapman. It is from Ian Collin’s book about the life and work of John Craxton, the artist who illustrated most of Paddy’s book covers.

John tells me that Craxton “met Joan in wartime London years before he met Paddy, but became enamoured of Greece and for a large part of his life lived in Chania, Crete. It was both an escape from dull northern climes and a chance to express his sexuality.”

Craxton designed the sets for Daphnis & Chloe at the Royal Opera House in 1951 where the lead ballerina at the time was Margot Fonteyn. According to rumour they had an affair, and in the summer of 1951 they cruised together around the Meditterranean. Paddy was their guide to Greece, and it was at this time that this delightful photograph was taken which shows Paddy looking very happy, with good friends, and his much loved Joan.

The photograph shows Tom Fisher (a New York attorney and husband of Ruth Page) Paddy, Joan, John Craxton, Margot Fonteyn, Frederick Ashton and Ruth Page (choreographer). It was taken in the theatre at Epidavros, and is attributed to Costas Achillopoulos.

Snail’s pace to Byzantium: journey of a lifetime

This is a combination of profile and review of Words of Mercury. An interesting piece.

by Ann Elder

First Published in Athens News, 9 Jan 2004

“I HATE the word travel-writer,” London-born, Mani-based Patrick Leigh Fermor told a British journalist in 1995. Under the title Words of Mercury, a selection of his writings was published by John Murray this autumn. The excerpts from half a dozen of his books, some articles and reviews show clearly why he must flinch from being slotted anywhere confining.

As his followers know, he writes with an enchanted pen. Any topic he takes up becomes something ‘rich and strange’. He has a story-teller’s knack of compelling interest, like the Ancient Mariner mesmerizing listeners with his glittering eye. And he has a particular flair for catching the heightened receptivity and visceral thrill felt at new encounters, what Cavafy wished the traveler in his poem Ithaka:

Pray that your journey may be long,
that many may those summer mornings be
when with what pleasure, what untold delight
you enter harbours never seen before.”
(Kimon Friar translation)

Not least, Leigh Fermor wins readers’ allegiance by creating the sense of affinity with an engaging personality, uncensorious, untinged by chauvinism, reveling in life, akin in spirit to A E Housman, onetime professor of Latin at Cambridge, in his lines:

Could man be drunk forever
With liquor, love or fights
Lief should I rouse at mornings
And lief lie down at nights.

Edited by Artemis Cooper, a writer (Cairo in Wartime) and wife of historian Antony Beevor (Crete: The Battle and the Resistance), the book has five parts: travel, Greece, people, books and flotsam (finishing with a poem on Christmas maybe better forgotten). Cooper gives brief introductions to each piece and starts off with a succinct biography.

As an 18-year-old living on a pound a week in a flat off Picadilly in 1933, Leigh Fermor spent more time partying than buckling down to write. As fate had it, he had read The Station: Athos: Treasures and Men by the irreverent young Robert Byron in 1928. The ‘great and misunderstood spirit of Byzantium’ had greatly impressed him.

“About lamp-lighting time at the end of a wet November day, I was peering morosely at the dog-eared pages on my writing table,” he related later. “A plan unfolded – to set out across Europe like a tramp – a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar, a broken knight.”

“The chief destination was never in a moment’s doubt. The levitating skyline of Constantinople pricked its sheaves of thin cylinders and its hemispheres out of the sea-mist; beyond it hovered Mount Athos; and the Greek archipelago.”

In excess of his wildest dreams, he found material to write about. All was grist to his mill, but his mill ground slowly. His writing proved to require long gestation. He became fanatical about polishing his product, and research, the more obscure, the more it seemed to appeal to him, like the origins of the Sarakatsans or the Laz-speaking Greeks of Trebizond. The first book about his venture, A Time of Gifts, came out in 1977, over 40 years later, and the second, Between the Woods and the Water about “those mysterious regions between the Vienna Woods and the Black Sea” as Saki put it – in 1986. In France they called him “l’escargot (the snail) of the Carpathes.”

Real life and events also delayed his writing. The trek took him about a year. He reached his goal on New Year’s Eve, 1934, after ending his traverse of Bulgaria with a splash, falling into the Black Sea on a cold December evening. He came to the coast some 150 miles north of the Bosphorus. “An old man was smoking a narghileh on the doorstep of a hut beside a little boat beached among the rushes – a Tartar fisherman, the only human being I saw all day,” he  wrote over 20 years later in an article in the May 1965 Holiday Magazine.

Darkness fell. “I lost my footing on a ledge and skidded – waist-deep into a pool. Jarred and shaken, with a gash on my forehead and a torn thumb, I climbed out, shuddering with cold. At the bottom of the pool, about two fathoms down, my torch was sending a yellow shaft through sea anemones and a flickering concourse of fish.”

Crawling round the rocks, he came to a veritable Cyclop’s cave sheltering a dozen Greek fishermen and Bulgarian goatherds with their 50 goats and cheese-making apparatus, eating lentils by a thornbush fire. The young wayfarer was soon dried and warm, tossing back slivovitz and eating fresh fried mackerel.

Leigh Fermor is in his element in the climax of this thoroughly Homeric episode, when one of the Greeks, Costa, turns out to be an unsung Nijinsky, his dancing invested with a ‘tragic and doomed aura.’ He performed the stunt  with which Greek cruise ships like to wind up their Greek night shows: dancing with a table between the teeth.

“On a rock, lifted there to clear the floor, the low, round, heavy table was perched. Revolving past it, Costa leaned forward: suddenly the table levitated itself into the air, sailed past us, and pivoted at right angles to Costa’s head in a series of wide loops, the edge clamped firmly in his mouth and held here only by his teeth. The dancer whirled like a dervish, till the flying table melted into a disc, finally returned to its rock, glasses, cutlery, lentil pot and cigarette burning on the edge of a plate undisturbed.”

Time in Greece he dates from his 20th birthday, February 11, 1935, when he arrived at Mt Athos as ‘snowflakes were falling fast’ and ‘in deep snow, trudged from monastery to monastery.’ In Athens later, he frequented the  Romanian embassy, meeting descendants of Phanariot hospodars, Ypsilantes, Ghikas and Cantacuzenes. As with Greece, he fell in love with Balasha Cantacuzene whose forebear, Emperor John Vl, invited the Seljuk Turks to  Europe (and is recalled sorrowfully in a Cavafy poem for having coloured glass not jewels in his coronation crown).

After time writing and painting in an old mill among the lemon groves overlooking Poros, they went to her decaying family estate in Moldavia. Published in 1961 was a perfectly pitched account of a picnic in sunlit  countryside by open carriage and on horseback on September 2, 1939, the last day of peace. “It had been a happy day, as we had hoped, and it had to last us a long time, for the next day’s news scattered the little society for ever.”

Utterly desolating is the Daily Telegraph weekend magazine article of May 1990 on his first breaking through the Iron Curtain in 1965. He found the Cantecuzene sisters in a Bucharest attic eking out a communist state pension  teaching. The gracious old houses he had stayed in among flowery meadows and nightingale-filled woods were psychiatric hospitals, their owners dead.

Leigh Fermor seems happiest gilding the past, writing to ‘the brave music of a distant drum,’ as old Khayyan put it, not dwelling on ‘bitter furies of complexity’ or ‘that gong-tormented sea’ of Yeats’s “Byzantium” which he refers to at the outset in Time of Gifts. The days of his youth were the days of his glory and he evokes them with zest, if no doubt some selective memory. He admits he is beset with ‘retrogressive hankerings,’ but these add to the richness of the embroidered prose dazzling his readers, to twist Yeats a bit. And sometimes he might be shoulder-to-shoulder with the poet:

Of all Arabia’s lovers I alone
Nor dazzled by the embroidery, nor lost
In the confusion of its night-dark folds,
Can hear the armed man speak.

His review of Edmund Keeley’s Cavafy’s Alexandria in a 1977  Times Literary Supplement (TLS) shows him at his serious best. He recalls “the blacked-out, jolly, rather wicked wartime port” he knew as a young British World War Two agent, then is off with Cavafy into the Judaeo-Hellenic Franco-Levantine city “old in sin, steeped in history, warrened with intrigue.”

He notes the depths of irony and dark humour in the notion of citizens aghast with consternation when the barbarians fail to invade them on cue. He ponders “the jagged Ithaka at the long Odyssey’s end; the imminent Ephialtes ready to sell the Thermopylae of the spirit.” He goes on: “Issued without preamble from an atmosphere of earthly delights these warnings sound as harsh, for a moment, as the words of Mercury after the songs of Apollo at the end of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost.'”

Leigh Fermor is a mild Mercury though. In a review of Oxford classicist CM Bowra’s Primitive Song in a 1962 Spectator he commends him for eschewing ‘a softer technique, swaying to the seductions of every coincidence  and historical chance-shot.’ He himself tends to yield to the tempting vistas of ‘alluring byways.’

The selections from his writings on Greece include a report he wrote for London’s Imperial War Museum archives in 1969 on how the German commander General Heinrich Kreipe was abducted by a Cretan-British force he led in April 1944. While still controversial, the coup makes a cracking good story.

At Anoyeia where captors and captive rested, villagers were ‘convulsed by incredulity, then excitement and finally by triumphant hilarity. We could hear running feet in the streets, shouts and laughter. “Just think, we’ve stolen their General!”‘

Heading south round Psiloritis – Mt Ida of antiquity, over 2,200 metres high and snow-covered till late May – the getaways were to meet a British vessel on the coast to spirit them to Egypt. After a night in a shepherd’s hut sharing  one blanket, “a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mt Ida which we had been struggling across for two days. We were lying smoking in silence, when the General, half to himself, slowly said (in Latin): ‘See, how it stands, one pile of snow’. I was in luck. It is the opening line of one of the few odes of Horace I know by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off (likewise in Latin);

‘neath the pressure yield
Its groaning woods; the torrents flow
With clear sharp ice is all congealed.
Heap high the logs, and melt the cold,
Good Thaliarch; draw the wine we ask,
That mellower vintage, four-year-old,
From out the cellar’d Sabine cask.

(Conington’s translation)

The stanzas are much-loved, ‘a picturesque Christmas card,’ say scholars. They evoke the perfect ambience in which to peruse the book. Those unfamiliar with Leigh Fermor will surely have appetites whetted for more. Those who know him and have his books around will dash for them to locate the extracts, then hotly debate the choices, such as the punning Achitectural Notes from a 1994 Spectator: “If you squinch, aisle screen,” and “Put those Saxon  here Norman,” and “Overhung? Per apse, when dais done.”

The author has covered himself. “Pure nonsense is as rare among the arts as an equatorial snowdrop”, he wrote in a review of George Seferis’s Illustrated Verses for Small Children in a 1977  TLS.

Intimate portraits from Kardamyli by Miles Fenton

Some delightful images of intimate corners of Paddy and Joan’s house in Kardamyli by Paddy’s nephew, Miles Fenton. These pictures were taken in 2009.

As you put some lovely photos of my uncle’s house in Kardamyli I thought you might like to see, and perhaps post, some of my photos of his house on your site.

These are, apart from the usual views, vignettes showing some of the more unique and charming architectural details.

Click an image to increase its size and to start the gallery.

The Carpathian Snail

Patrick Leigh Fermor...British soldier and travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, 25th April 1966.

Paddy Leigh Fermor (obituary) was a man of many dimensions. He had an unquenchable curiosity about people and culture; when he met remote groups, be they Saxons in Transylvania, Vlachs in northern Greece or gypsies in Hungary, he would not just learn their language and song but remember it for the rest of his life. At Paddy’s last birthday party in London, William Blacker quoted two lines of a Romanian ballad in a speech about him; at the age of 96 Paddy sang the song in its entirety. There seemed no occasion at which he could not enliven the party by an adroit performance, or reminisce in half a dozen European languages.

by Patrick Reade.

First published in The Independent, 14 June 2011

For me it always involved a meal: the conversation would come to a point when there would an extraordinary outpouring of remembered verse or prose. He sang “Do you ken John Peel” in Italian once over tea in Dumbleton to entertain us – the verses were far more numerous than I had realised. And Peter Quennell told me many years ago of how Paddy pulled out of his memory an entire landscape of Cretan folk songs as they walked in the Abruzzi. He was known in Greece for his spontaneous ability to respond instantly to another table’s rhyming couplets – mandinathes, a feature of traditional party entertainment in which tables would compete for wit and content in the couplets.

His ear for language never failed him and he was interested in etymology, linguistics and semantics till the very end, correcting my own misattribution of medical terminology from Latin to Greek and then reciting in Ancient Greek the moment in Homer’s Iliad when Troy fell to the Greeks. He loved laughter, too, and in the Dean’s Close at Canterbury I heard him performing an entertaining parody of a John Betjeman poem in the garden where Thomas à Beckett’s assassins escaped. He had just been awarded an honorary degree by Kent University in the Cathedral and we were having tea with Jock Murray, his publisher.

He was the most generous person in spirit and in kind – he must have entertained thousands in his home in the Mani in southern Greece over many years – the names tumble out of the Dictionary of British Biography: academics, politicians and myriad writers, journalists and scholars, all ate at his table. He and his wife Joan were also extremely generous where they saw need and gave with an open hand.

Until last year he swam daily from his house, and swam across the Hellespont at the age of 70 – an astonishing feat, dodging the great liners from the Black Sea and coping with the current and the cold water and the Russian submarines beneath the surface.

On 1 June this year, 10 days before his death, he gave a small lunch party in the cool, stone-arched loggia of his home in Messenia and in the course of conversation we discussed our favourite 16th century pieces of poetry; he declaimed Sir Thomas Wyatt’s entire poem “They flee from me that sometime did me seek”.

For many he will be remembered for his correspondence as much as for his books – because by any reckoning he was a fabulous letter writer and responded to almost all who communicated with him until last year. From my first remembered encounter with him in 1961 when he pressed 12 shillings into my hand, until 50 years later, when he raised his wine glass to absent friends over lunch on the anniversary of Joan’s death, I can say that no other person I have encountered has shown such an embrace of laughter, learning, language and life as this towering genius of word and action. The great memorial will be his writing and a great excitement is that the third part of his trilogy about crossing Europe is due soon – I have seen it, and many have waited years for this crafted reminiscence so long in gestation, about which Paddy in self-mockery called himself “The Carpathian Snail”.

The next stop After The Traveller’s Tree was ….

…. an Indian hut in El Castillo (Nicaragua?) where Paddy sang to the accompaniment of an Indian playing his guitar. What on earth did he sing? 

I am grateful to Phyllis Willis for being a better mole than me and finding Hakon Morne’s book translated into English as “Caribbean Symphony”. She has purchased a copy but was clever enough to get a couple of scans whilst she waits for her book to arrive. I am delighted to be able to share these with you now.

A few copies of the book are still available on Amazon.co.uk

After The Traveller’s Tree … what was the next stop?

I have received a very interesting email from Bo Nensén  in Sweden. He recounts a story from the work of the prolific Swedish travel writer  Håkan Mörne, about Joan and Paddy travelling onwards to mainland South America after their travels in the Antilles. I think this is something that we know little about. It raises the question of how do we find out more about this episode in their travels? Take a look at Bo’s message and let’s see if we can find out more together.

[Edit: something this morning reminded me that Paddy once wrote about speaking Greek in South America – was it in Roumeli, Mani or even Three Letters? This may give us a clue. … Further edit – found it: the start of Chapter 3 of Roumeli when in Panama City]

Tom,

Like many others I was also delighted to find your PLF blog. I must have missed it when I made a search for PLF last year but in any case I then noted the existence of “In tearing haste” and ordered it even if I haven’t read it until two months ago when I first learned about his death.

I first discovered PLF when I in a Swedish English language book-club found “Between the Woods and the Water” in early 1988. Soon I ordered “A Time of Gifts” as well. Later in the 90’s I read the books again in correct order. Later I also ordered “Mani” and “Roumeli” but never really got to read them in full. Still earlier I even bought “A Time to Keep Silence” but it remains unread. In the later part of the 90’s I discovered through the Internet “Three Letters from the Andes”. A year before, 1996, when following my son to a shop for second-hand comics when investigating the shelfs for ordinary books I to my surprise found a Swedish translation of “The Traveller’s Tree” from 1954! Price 2:- SEK, i.e. approx. 20 p! This of course only covers the Antilles and as far as I know he has not written anything about the part of the travel through Central America(?)

I had no idea about his visit to the mainland until I happened to read a book by a Finland-Swedish travel writer by the name Håkan Mörne (1900-1961). In one of his books he describes how he on a ship on Lago de Nicaragua meets Joan and Patrick (and Costa) and how they travel together to the Atlantic coast. This part comprises 30-40 pages and there is even a picture of PLF when singing(!) Mexican songs.

Are you aware of this book? I don’t know if anything by Håkan Mörne is translated into English. The version I’ve got is called, in translation, “Volcanoes and Bananas” but there is a previous, somewhat longer edition titled “TheGilded Poverty” (which I’m now about to order from an antiquarian bookshop.

Yours

Bo Nensén, Örnsköldsvik, Sweden

Related category:

The Traveller’s Tree 

Lawrence Durrell and Patrick Leigh Fermor – Bitter Lemons

I am republishing something that was first on the blog back in May 2010 following a request by Lynne Sanders.

In Bitter Lemons, the writer Lawrence Durrell describes a visit from Patrick Leigh Fermor –

“In that warm light the faces of my friends lived and glowed….Freya Stark…Sir Harry Luke…Patrick Leigh Fermor and the Corn Godess, who always arrive when I am on an island, unannounced and whose luggage has always been left at the airport (‘But we’ve brought the wine-the most important thing’).” [pp102-3]

“Last night the sound of the front door closing upon breathless chuckles and secretive ranting, then the voice of Patrick Leigh Fermor: ‘Any old clothes?’ in Greek. Appeared with his arm round the shoulders of Michaelis who had shown him the way up the rocky path in darkness. ‘Joan is winded, holed below the Plimsoll line. I’ve left her resting half way up. Send out a seneschal with a taper, or a sedan if you have one.’ It is as joyous a reunion as ever we had on Rhodes.

“After a splendid dinner by the fire he starts singing, songs of Crete, Athens, Macedonia. When I go out to refill the ouzo bottle at the little tavern across the way I find the street completely filled with people listening in utter silence and darkness. Everyone seems struck dumb. ‘What is it?’ I say, catching sight of Frangos. ‘Never have I heard of Englishmen singing Greek songs like this!’ Their reverent amazement is touching; it is as if they want to embrace Paddy wherever he goes.” (pp 104-5)

Related article:

Lawrence Durrell and Patrick Leigh Fermor by Thos Henley

Paddy’s Gloucestershire home for sale for £2.5m

I am trying to obtain a better copy, but here is a scan from today’s Sunday Times property section, of an article about the sale of Paddy and Joan’s house in Dumbleton.

It does in in fact focus on his house in Kardamyli (which it correctly says is going to the Benaki) but it is trying to highlight, as these sections do, that the house in Dumbelton is for sale for £2,500,000. Property particulars from Right Move and a full brochure on the Strutt & Parker website.

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 .

Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Personal Memoir

One of the downsides of getting older – I am now 62 – is that one’s friends die. Friday, it was the turn of Patrick Leigh Fermor, aged ninety-six, and I am having trouble accepting that he is gone.

By Paul A. Rahe

First published in Ricochet on 12 June 2011.

I first met Paddy in the summer of 1983. I was working then – oddly enough, as I am working right now – on a book on classical Sparta, and I had a grant and a hunch. The Spartan way of life was based on something like slave labor. The Spartans ruled the southernmost two-fifths of the Peloponnesus and drew their livelihood from farms worked by their helots (the word in Greek means captives), who reportedly outnumbered them seven-to-one. In their realm, there were and are two river valleys – one in Laconia and the other in Messenia – divided by a mountain range named Taygetus, and there was and is mountainous terrain elsewhere in Messenia. I had read extensively about the history of slavery, and I was persuaded that there must have been gangs of runaway helots in the hills of Messenia, as there later were in early modern Jamaica and in other locales where servile labor was the norm and there was wilderness nearby. I knew that the Greek resistance during the Second World War had operated in the mountainous country of northern Greece, but I knew little about their operations in the Peloponnesus. A fellow ancient historian who had lived in Greece for some years and had tried to make it as a novelist said to me, when he heard of my hunch, “You ought to talk to Paddy Leigh Fermor. He lives down there, and he fought with the resistance on Crete. He lives in Kardamyle. You should look him up.”

And that is precisely what I did. With the grant I had been given, I bought a plane ticket, and I spent some weeks in the company of a former student who hailed from Thessalonica, exploring the Peloponnesus – by boat, in a rental car, and on foot. Kardamyle was in the Mani – the southernmost prong of the Taygetus range, and it was one of the towns that Agamemnon had offered Achilles in an attempt to get him to take the girl back. When we got there, however, Paddy was away. So I mailed him a brief note and moved on. When we returned, I telephoned him – and he immediately invited the two of us to lunch.

Leyla, who had long been their cook, produced a sumptuous feast. We ate, and we drank, and then we drank some more – and the next thing we knew it was 5 p.m. Paddy and Joan, fearful that we were too intoxicated to successfully traverse the half-mile on foot back to Kardamyle, offered us beds. It was one of the most delightful afternoons that I have ever spent. The historian and journalist Max Hasting has observed that Paddy was “perhaps the most brilliant conversationalist of his time.” Never have I encountered anyone as entertaining.

Paddy was – there is no other word for it – a hero. He lived the strenuous life. There was in him an exuberance that could not be contained. Christopher Marlowe, who was of a similar temperament, managed to make it through the King’s School in Canterbury, but Paddy did not. There was some hanky-panky with the daughter of a greengrocer, but that cannot have been the whole story. “He is a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness,” his housemaster wrote in an official report, “which makes one anxious about his influence on other boys.” I would have been anxious myself.

Not long thereafter, with the support of his mother, who mailed him a fiver from time to time, Paddy set out in December, 1933 by ship for the Hook of Holland – and walked from there to Constantinople and on to Mount Athos and its monasteries. It took him more a year, and you can read about his adventures in two of the books that he later published – A Time of Gifts (1978) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) – which together constitute what the Germans call a Bildungsroman. In those volumes, you will encounter a world of peasants and aristocrats, of socialists and fascists that no longer exists.

Balasha Cantacuzene

On that journey, Paddy met an older woman. He was nineteen. She was married and thirty-one. You can find a description of the beginning their affair in the second of the two volumes mentioned above. Her name was Bălaşa Cantacuzino, and she was a Romanian princess descended from the Byzantine royal house. When his trip was over, they settled down together, oscillating between Athens and at her country house in Moldavia. Then came the Second World War, and he volunteered for the British army. The two would not meet again until after the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989.

During the war, Paddy fought in Albania, Greece, and on Crete. After being evacuated to Cairo, he joined the Special Operations Executive and spent much of the remainder of the war running guerrilla operations in the mountains of Crete. He left the island in May, 1944 under truly exceptional circumstances. On 26 April 1944, on a bet made with friends back in Cairo, Paddy, W. Stanley Moss, and a group of Cretan shepherds kidnapped General Karl Heinrich Georg Ferdinand Kreipe, the German commander on the island.

The two Englishmen dressed up as German police corporals and stopped Kreipe’s car as he was making his way back one evening to his villa near Knossos. Having eliminated the chauffeur, Paddy put on the general’s hat, and Billy Moss drove the car. Kreipe was hidden beneath the back seat – on which three hefty Cretan andartes sat. They then bluffed their way through Heraklion and an addition twenty-two checkpoints before ditching the car and hiking into the mountains – where, for three weeks, they evaded German search parties before being picked up by a British motor launch on the south coast.

At one point, as they neared the top of Mount Ida at the break of dawn, Kreipe quoted the first line of Horace’s ode Ad Thaliarchum – “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte” (See how Soracte stands white with snow on high), and Paddy finished the poem to its end. “At least,” the general remarked, “I am in the hands of gentlemen.” In the days that followed, before they were evacuated to Cairo, the two discussed Greek tragedy and Latin poetry. In 1972, they would meet again in Athens to tape a television show. Afterwards, Paddy once told me, they went out to dinner and sang old German drinking songs. Well before that time, however, Billy Moss had published a book on the incident entitled Ill Met by Moonlight, and Michael Powell had made a movie with the same name in which Dirke Bogarde was cast as Paddy.

Before the war, Paddy had begun his literary career with a translation of of CP Rodocanachi’s novel Forever Ulysses (1938). Afterwards, he began to write books of his own. The first of these was a travel book, focused on the West Indies and entitled The Traveller’s Tree (1950). It won the Heinemann Foundation Prize for Literature. Soon thereafter he published a novel set in Martinique entitled The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1953), which was turned into an opera by Malcolm Williamson; a meditation on monasticism entitled A Time to Keep Silence (1957); and two travel books focused on two of the wilder regions of Greece: Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966). That all of these remain in print is no surprise. Five years ago, Paddy was described to me by an Oxford don as the greatest living master of English prose.

In 1984, I was offered by the Institute of Current World Affairs a fellowship two years in length, which would take me to Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus, and I jumped at the chance to situate myself in Istanbul (where I lived in the neighborhood in which Claire Berlinski now resides) and to explore the landscape and experience the seasons in the world within which the ancient Greeks had made their home. I spent most of my time in Turkey, exploring its nooks and crannies and writing long newsletters about contemporary affairs. From time to time, however, I hopped a plane to Greece, interviewed various figures in Athens, and partied with some journalists I knew (Robert Kaplan was based in Athens in those days).

On those occasions, I always took a bus to Kardamyle and spent a few days with Paddy and Joan. Their house, which Paddy had designed himself, was built out of stone and situated on a bluff overlooking the sea. We rose when we chose, ate breakfast separately, and Paddy put pen to paper while Joan saw to the management of the establishment – and I read a novel, a travel book, or something pertinent to the composition of my first book Republics Ancient and Modern (which Paddy would later review for the Christmas books section of The Spectator).

After lunch, where we drank a considerable amount of wine, we would nap. Then, we would go back to work, and, at about 5 p.m., Paddy and I would head off for an extended walk in the mountains. He was about seventy at the time, but he was astonishingly vigorous. Every day he would go for a long swim, disappearing into the drink and reappearing a half hour later. On his seventieth birthday, he swam the Hellespont – something that very few men half that age could manage. (I know. I watched from a motor launch once while a thirty-something friend gave it a try).

Before dinner, there were drinks. “C’est le moment,” Paddy would say, quoting Victor Hugo, “quand les lions vont boire.” Dinner itself was a feast, and it often ended with the singing of songs. Paddy taught me The Foggy, Foggy Dew, and I taught him They Call the Wind Maria. After a week or so, I would take the bus back to Athens and head on to Greek Cyprus or back to Istanbul. On one such occasion, I carried to the British embassy the manuscript of Between the Woods and the Water. From there, I gather, it was sent on by diplomatic pouch to Paddy’s publisher in London. He had served his country well, and his compatriots took good care of him. He was offered a knighthood in 1991 and finally accepted one in 2004.

In the 1990s, when I came to Greece in the summer, I would fly in to the Athens international airport, and then I would generally take a bus across to the domestic airport, go up to the counter, look over the available flights, and book a ticket for an island that I had never visited. Then, after a week or so on, say, Paros, I would go down to the harbor and catch whatever boat there happened to be – for Lemnos or Andros or some other unfamiliar spot. Eventually, after having spent three or four weeks exploring, I would return to Athens and go down to the Mani to see Paddy and Joan. The routine in Kardamyle was the same – except that, towards the end of the millennium, Paddy was less able to hike in the mountains.

After I got married, there was less traveling. In 2003, however, I did manage to see Paddy in England at their country house in Gloucestershire (Joan was the daughter of a Viscount). Ours was a subdued lunch. Joan had died at the age of ninety-one in Kardamyle hardly more than a week before. I last saw him in Kardamyle in March, 2006. I had spent Michaelmas and Hilary Terms as a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, and I was about to take up a similar fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin. There were, however, two weeks in which we had no place to call our own. So my wife, our daughters, and I flew to Greece, rented a car, and, after a brief visit to Athens, headed to Delphi and on from there to the Peloponnesus – where we stopped at Olympia, the Apollo Temple at Vassae, Mycenae, and other sights. I tried to call Paddy, but the Greeks had added a digit to the old number, and I could not figure it out. So we drove to Kardamyle and then out to his house on the outskirts of town, and I rang the bell.

Paddy at home

And there he was – older, quite a bit slower in his gait, but very much himself. “Paul Rahe,” he said. “I don’t believe my eyes. Come in, my dear boy.” And when I mentioned my family, his response was immediate: “Bring them in. You can all stay here.” And so we did. That night we took him to dinner at the restaurant in town that Leyla now runs, and we sat up late talking and drinking. His eyesight was not good. He had glaucoma and in the candlelight at one point was not sure that we were still there. He had had a heart attack and had a pacemaker. He could hardly walk up the drive to the highway. But there was still a twinkle in his eye, and he was as alive as ever.

He was also writing, and in his nineties, after decades of resistance, he had actually learned how to type (no one could read his handwriting). A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water were intended to be the first two parts of a trilogy. With the third part, he had had a terrible time. After 1989, he had returned to Roumania and Bulgaria to retrace his steps, and it was not as he remembered it. When I visited in the 1990s, I would ask about the third volume, and Joan would pull me aside and tell me not to mention it. “He is having trouble with it. He is very frustrated. That trip back to review his path robbed him of the confidence he had in his memory,” she once said.

When I saw Paddy in 2006, however, he was halfway done with the manuscript, and he was going over it to look for things that could be cut. I gather that somewhere in the house at Kardamyle there is a manuscript and that on the cover it reads “Volume Three.” I wonder what he called it. That last night just over five years ago, he, my wife, and I tried to come up with a title, and we could not think of anything satisfactory.

If and when the third volume of his trilogy does come out, I will buy a copy. Reading it will, I am confident, bring back the man. His other books do. I doubt, however, whether I will ever meet the like again – and that I very much regret. Perhaps the biography that Artemis Cooper is writing will relieve my gloom.

Anthony Lane’s New Yorker article on Fermor is now free to view

Anthony Lane's New Yorker article, May 2006

In trying to make this blog a focal point for all information related to Paddy I have had some problems accessing all on-line material. The one I most sought is the acclaimed May 22, 2006 profile by Anthony Lane which was published in the New Yorker.

This has sat behind their subscriber firewall, tempting us with one-off subscriptions. Now it appears that (possibly marking Paddy’s death?) this is no longer the case. You can now visit their archive, read the article in full on-line, print it or possibly even download it.

There are many profiles of Paddy. This is probably one of the longest and best, and includes interview material with him that many will have not seen before.

Take a trip to the New Yorker website and have a read.

Editor’s Note:  the pdf download appears to be no longer available – click on the article to magnify to read and then drag your cursor to move around the page.

Obituary from The Independent by Paddy Leigh Fermor’s biographer Artemis Cooper

Leigh Fermor will be remembered as someone who lived and talked as well as he wrote

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor: Soldier, scholar and celebrated travel writer hailed as the best of his time.

By Artemis Cooper

First published in The Independent Saturday, 11 June 2011.

In Greece just after the Second World War, Patrick Leigh Fermor was on a lecture tour for the British Council.

The lecture was supposed to be on British culture, but he had been persuaded to talk about his wartime exploits on Crete. Leigh Fermor took sips from a large glass as he spoke and when it was nearly finished, he topped it up from a carafe of water. The liquid turned instantly cloudy: he had added water to a nearly empty tumbler of neat ouzo.

A roar of appreciation went up from the audience at this impromptu display of leventeia. A quality prized in Greece, leventeia indicates high spirits, humour, quickness of mind and action, charm, generosity, the love of living dangerously and a readiness for anything. Sir Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor had leventeia in spades.

Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor

He was born in 1915, the second child and only son of Lewis Leigh Fermor and his wife, Aileen Taaffe Ambler. The family were based in Calcutta, where Lewis Fermor worked for the Geological Survey of India. Aileen went to England for the birth, but did not dare bring Leigh Fermor back to India as the First World War intensified. She entrusted her baby to the Martins, a couple she scarcely knew in the village of Road Weedon, Northamptonshire, and for the next four years “Paddy-Mike” was adored, indulged and allowed to run wild. When his mother and sister Vanessa came back to collect him in 1919, it was the end of an infant idyll that had, he admitted, “unfitted me for the faintest shadow of constraint.”

Leigh Fermor saw little of his father but was devoted to his flamboyant mother, who wrote plays, played the piano and loved reading aloud. He learnt to read late but devoured the works of Sir Walter Scott before he was 10, awaking an addiction for history, heraldry and adventure. Yet he was not a success academically, perpetually in trouble, and expelled from almost every school he attended.

The King’s School, Canterbury, might have been the exception, but he was often in trouble, and the final straw came when he was caught holding hands with the greengrocer’s daughter. His last report complained that he was a “dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness”, and a bad influence on the other boys.

His parents felt a career in the army was the only hope, but he gravitated to Bohemian London and a raffish group who introduced him to nightclubs, strong drink and modern poetry, and encouraged his ambition to be a writer – but he had nothing to write about. He was drifting in a fog of disappointment when the solution came: he would embark on a walk across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople.

He was 18 when he set off in 1932. With an allowance of £5 a month he slept in hostels, sheep-folds, monasteries, barns, people’s sofas, and for a few luxurious months in castles and country houses in Hungary and Transylvania. He reached Constantinople on New Year’s Day, 1935. He spent his 20th birthday on Mount Athos, and a month later took part in a Greek royalist cavalry charge against Venizelist rebels across the River Struma on a borrowed horse. He then made his way to Athens, where he met Princess Balasha Cantacuzène.

Balasha Cantacuzene

A Romanian painter with dark, exotic looks, Balasha was eight years older and recently divorced. That summer they lived in a watermill opposite the island of Poros, and in autumn they retreated to Balasha’s family home in Romania. Baleni, in the Cantacuzene estates in Moldavia, was his refuge for three years. Here he made the first attempt to write up his notes from his trans-European journey. He did not like the results, but he did earn money by translating Constantine Rodocanachis’s Ulysse fils d’Ulysse which as Forever Ulysses became a bestseller in America. When war was declared, Leigh Fermor decided to go home. “The farewells next day,” he wrote, “were like marching orders out of paradise.”

He had hoped to join the Irish Guards, but took the commission offered by the Intelligence Corps which gave him the opportunity to return to Greece. As a British Liaison Officer he followed the Greek army’s early successes against the Italians on the Albanian border in late 1940. When the Germans invaded the following April, the British and Greek forces retreated southwards. Leigh Fermor escaped by caique to Crete, where he took part in the battle in May 1941 against German paratroopers; when the battle was lost he was evacuated to Egypt. He was sent back to occupied Crete in June 1942, as one of a handful of SOE officers who were helping the Cretan Resistance.

After the Italian surrender in August 1943 he was contacted by the Italian general Angelo Carta. Rather than co-operate with the Germans, Carta wanted to leave Crete. Leigh Fermor saw him safely to Egypt – a mission which sparked the idea of kidnapping a German general. Promoted to major, he returned from Cairo to Crete in February 1944. With his second-in-command, Capt William Stanley Moss, and a hand-picked team of resistance fighters, the ambush took place on 26 April, when General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of the Sebastopol Division, was pulled out of his car on his way to his villa.

Moss, Kreipe and Paddy

The hardest part was not so much the capture but the getaway. The wireless broke down, German troops flooded the south coast, from where they had planned to rendezvous with a Royal Navy launch, and the General hurt his shoulder in a fall. The party spent two weeks in caves and sheepfolds in the White Mountains, making their way over the snowy ridges of Mount Ida to a more secluded evacuation point. German patrols kept up the pressure, and leaflets were dropped warning that anyone who gave aid and succour to the kidnappers could expect the most severe punishment. No one gave them away.

The success of the operation and the discomfiture of the occupiers gave the Cretans a tremendous boost: as one of them put it, “the horn-wearers won’t dare look us in the eye!” William Stanley Moss’s diary was made into a book, Ill Met by Moonlight (and later a film with Dirk Bogarde.) Leigh Fermor was awarded the DSO and remains a hero on Crete. But he never published an account of his own experiences on the island.

After the war, he became assistant director of the British Institute in Athens. A colleague recalled the songs and laughter emerging from his office, which was a magnet for Cretans looking for a job. His boss sent him on a lecture tour to get him out of the way, which proved a success and took him all round Greece. This was the first of many journeys taken with Joan Rayner, a tall, blonde intellectual he had first met in Cairo. Daughter of the first Viscount Monsell, who had been First Lord of the Admiralty in the 1930s, she was widely travelled and a talented photographer.

In October 1949, the couple set off for the French Antilles. Leigh Fermor had been commissioned to write captions for a book of photographs by his friend A Costa, but this developed into his first full-length book, The Traveller’s Tree (1950). The reviews were generous in their praise and he was earmarked as a writer to watch.

He was now free to concentrate on Greece. Over the next few years he and Joan travelled all over the mainland and the archipelago, by boat and bus and mule and on foot, exploring a country that was still remote outside the main towns and where customs and traditions were observed as they had been for centuries.

Spells of travel would be broken by long stints of writing, translation and journalism. In 1953 came two small books. A series of articles on monasteries, written for the Cornhill Magazine, were collected in A Time to Keep Silence, while his only novel, The Violins of Saint Jacques, grew out of a chapter he was supposed to have written for a book called Memorable Balls. He translated the wartime memoirs of his friend George Psychoundakis, which appeared in 1955 as The Cretan Runner, and wrote for The Spectator and The Sunday Times.

Beyond an insatiable thirst for travel, wine and books, Leigh Fermor and Joan lived a frugal life. She had a small private income, and by living abroad for most of the year they avoided tax. Friends helped by lending houses where he could write; among the most important was a house in Normandy owned by Amy Smart, the Egyptian wife of the diplomat Sir Walter Smart, and that of the painter Nico Ghika on the island of Hydra. When they were in England, Joan would retire to her family home at Dumbleton in Worcestershire while Leigh Fermor headed for the bright lights.

His friends scooped him up into a round of celebrations and reunions and house parties, where Leigh Fermor revelled in company. Among them were brothers-in-arms like Xan Fielding and George Jellicoe, celebrated hostesses such as Annie Fleming, Deborah Devonshire and Diana Cooper, and writers and poets such as John Betjeman, Robin Fedden, Philip Toynbee, and later, Bruce Chatwin.

Writing, on the other hand, was hard and solitary. Though many of his set-piece descriptions were written at a gallop and barely changed, other passages involved months of work. He was acutely attuned to internal rhythms; the alteration of one word would set up a ripple effect demanding whole chapters to be rewritten. His friend and publisher, Jock Murray, was often in despair as every set of proofs came back covered in crossings-out and addenda.

It was not until 1958 that Murray published Mani, Leigh Fermor’s first book on Greece. It shows the southern Peloponnese as it was before tourism – a land of rocks and dazzling light, blood feuds and deep superstition, where people still told tales of their struggles against the Turks and pirates. Its companion volume, Roumeli covers his travels from Macedonia to the Gulf of Corinth.

Leigh Fermor and Joan were keen to settle in Greece, and they were always on the look-out for the perfect patch of land. They found it in 1963, in the Mani, a little promontory near the village of Kardamyli, south of Kalamata. Surrounded by olive groves, it looked out to sea and had its own rocky beach. With the help of a local stonemason, Leigh Fermor and Joan set about building the house. The result was the perfect monastery-built-for-two, at the heart of which was a library described by John Betjeman as “one of the rooms of the world”.

A Time of Gifts, 1977

Leigh Fermor at last had a permanent home, all his books in one place and uninterrupted solitude. His next subject was the one he had waited half a lifetime to write – the story of his great walk to Constantinople. “Shanks’s Europe”, as he called it, was worth the wait. A Time of Gifts appeared in 1977, and Between the Woods and the Water, the second volume in a proposed trilogy, in 1986. Together they present a snapshot of old Europe just before the joint cataclysms of war and Communism swept them away for ever. Every paragraph reflects the loss of a way of life still linked to its soil and its history, while celebrating the joy and enthusiasm of a young man discovering the riches of a continent. The reviews hailed him as the best travel writer of his time – and reader reviews on Amazon show him being rediscovered.

Unfortunately, the clamour for him to finish the last volume ushered in an ice age of writer’s block. In 1988 and 1990 he revisited his old haunts in Bulgaria and Romania, hoping to kick-start the creative process. Shocked by the all-obliterating change, he found his own memories fading. In an effort to get him over it Jock Murray commissioned another book about a journey to Peru, which appeared as Three Letters from the Andes (1991). He wrote articles, introductions, obituaries, reviews, and even translated a story by PG Wodehouse into Greek – but the pen-paralysis persisted. The two people he most relied on for moral support died: Murray in 1993, and his wife Joan 10 years later. Leigh Fermor was knighted on his 90th birthday, but his eyesight was beginning to deteriorate. He carried on writing in longhand for as long as he could, but the final volume of his trilogy remains unfinished.

He will be remembered by his friends as someone who lived and talked as well as he wrote, whose leventeia was irrepressible, his conversation unforgettable. He could launch into a monologue that turned into a one-man show, a verbal rollercoaster that ranged from the Pyrenees to the Carpathians or chased mythical beasts through primeval forests, tribal customs, Guatemalan bus tickets, German heraldry and Napoleonic uniforms – leaving the company breathless with laughter and exhilaration.

British soldier and travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor with Joan Rayner after their wedding at Caxton Hall, Westminster, London, 17th January 1968. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor, writer and soldier: born London 11 February 1915; OBE (military) 1943; DSO 1944; Kt 2004; married 1968 Hon Joan Eyres-Monsell (died 2003); died 10 June 2011.

Telegraph obituary: Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor

Paddy in 1966

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died today aged 96, was one of the few genuine Renaissance figures produced by Britain in the 20th century, a man both of action and learning, a modern Philip Sidney or Lord Byron.

First published in The Telegraph 10 June 2011

Leigh Fermor was the architect of one of the most daring feats of the Second World War, the kidnapping of the commander of the German garrison on Crete, and also the author of some of the finest works in the canon of English travel writing.

His most celebrated book told the story of his year-long walk across Europe from Rotterdam to Istanbul in 1934, when he was 18 and the Continent was on the verge of cataclysmic change. His account of his adventures was projected as a trilogy, of which only the first two parts have so far been published, A Time of Gifts in 1977 and Between the Woods and the Water nine years later.

The journey was a cultural awakening for Leigh Fermor that bred in him a love of language and of remote places and set the pattern for his future life. The exuberant personality revealed in his writing won him many admirers, who also revelled in the remarkable range of his learning and the irresistible flow of his descriptive prose, rivalled for luxuriousness only by that of one of his principal influences, Norman Douglas.

Others were not so taken with his tales, suspecting him at best of a faulty memory and at worst of private myth-making, and dismissing his parade of arcane erudition as more intellectual snobbery than dilettante scholarship. Yet such criticism misread the essential modesty of the man, insisted too narrowly on accuracy in a genre founded by storytelling, and failed to realise that Leigh Fermor was above all a comic writer. It was for comic, often self-mocking, effect that he loosed his great streams of words, their tumbling onrush of sound designed to intoxicate and above all to entertain.

Leigh Fermor began his journey in December 1933, carrying a rucksack that had accompanied the travel writer Robert Byron – 10 years his senior and a lifelong literary influence – to Mount Athos for the trip written up as The Station (1931). His course took him across Hitler’s Germany to Transylvania, then through the Balkans to what he insisted on calling Constantinople.

Though he at first kept to his aim of travelling “like a tramp or pilgrim”, sleeping in police cells and beer halls, by the time he reached Central Europe his charm led to his being passed from schloss to schloss by a network of margraves and voivodes. The architecture, ritual and genealogy of each halt were later recalled with a loving eye.

Critics legitimately doubted how such details could be remembered more than half a century later (especially since Leigh Fermor had lost some of the diaries he kept, although he often gave proof of having an exceptionally retentive memory). Yet the accuracy or otherwise of particular incidents was beside the point. Leigh Fermor’s achievement was, like Proust, to have rendered the past visible, and to have preserved a civilisation which had since been swept away like leaves in a storm. The books are also a brilliantly sustained evocation in youthful exhilaration and joy, and perhaps the nearest equivalent in English to Alain-Fournier’s masterpiece of nostalgia, Le Grand Meaulnes.

Leigh Fermor completed his journey on New Year’s Day 1935, albeit by train rather than on foot, having been compelled to travel thus across the militarised zone that then constituted the Turkish frontier. He next visited the country with which he would become most associated, Greece, spending his 20th birthday at St Panteleimon, the Russian monastery on Mount Athos. Later he attached himself to some friends fighting on the royalist side of the Venizelist revolution and took part in a cavalry charge with drawn sabres at Orliako bridge, in Macedonia.

Following a spell in Athens, he then moved to Romania to live with his first love, the painter Balasha Cantacuzene, at her country house in Moldavia. There he passed most of the three years before the Second World War, funded in part by the proceeds of his translation from the Greek in 1938 of CP Rodocanachi’s novel Forever Ulysses, which became a book club selection in America and of which he took a share of the royalties. Having not attended university, Leigh Fermor, who from youth had been an avid reader, used this blissful time to immerse himself in the literature of half a dozen cultures, including French, German and Romanian.

On the outbreak of war Leigh Fermor first joined the Irish Guards but was then transferred to the Intelligence Corps due to his knowledge of the Balkans. He was initially attached as a liaison officer to the Greek forces fighting the Italians in Albania, then – having survived the fall of Crete in 1941 – was sent back to the island by SOE to command extremely hazardous guerrilla operations against the occupying Nazis.

For a year and a half Leigh Fermor, disguised as a Cretan shepherd (albeit one with a taste for waistcoats embroidered with black arabesques and scarlet silk linings) endured a perilous existence, living in freezing mountain caves while harassing German troops. Other dangers were less foreseeable. While checking his rifle Leigh Fermor accidentally shot a trusted guide who subsequently died of the wound.

His occasional bouts of leave were spent in Cairo, at Tara, the rowdy household presided over by a Polish countess, Sophie Tarnowska. It was on a steamy bathroom window in the house that Leigh Fermor and another of Tara’s residents, Bill Stanley Moss, conceived a remarkable operation that they subsequently executed with great dash on Crete in April 1944.

Dressed as German police corporals, the pair stopped the car belonging to General Karl Kreipe, the island’s commander, while he was returning one evening to his villa near Knossos. The chauffeur disposed of, Leigh Fermor donned the general’s hat and, with Moss driving the car, they bluffed their way through the centre of Heraklion and a further 22 checkpoints. Kreipe, meanwhile, was hidden under the back seat and sat on by three hefty andartes, or Cretan partisans.

For three weeks the group evaded German search parties, finally marching the general over the top of Mount Ida, the mythical birthplace of Zeus. It was here occurred one of the most celebrated incidents in the Leigh Fermor legend.

Gazing up at the snowy peak, Kreipe recited the first line of Horace’s ode Ad Thaliarchum – “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte” (See how Soracte stands white with snow on high). Leigh Fermor immediately continued the poem to its end. The two men realised that they had “drunk at the same fountains” before the war, as Leigh Fermor put it, and things between them were very different from then on.

Kreipe was eventually taken off Crete by motorboat to Cairo. The exploit was later filmed (in the Alps) as Ill Met by Moonlight (1956), with Dirk Bogarde implausibly cast as Leigh Fermor, who was awarded the DSO for his part in the mission. Such was his standing thereafter on Crete that in local tellings of the deed Kreipe was heard to mutter while being abducted “I am starting to wonder who is occupying this island – us or the British.”

Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor was born in London on February 11 1915. He was of Anglo-Irish stock and the son of Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, director of the Geological Survey of India and a naturalist after whom the mineral fermorite was named. He also discovered a worm with eight hairs on its back and a particular formation of snowflake.

Soon after Paddy’s birth, his mother and sister braved German submarines to sail to India to rejoin Sir Lewis, but for fear of the entire family being lost the infant Paddy was left in the care of a farmer and spent the first four years of life roaming across the fields of Northamptonshire. Among his earliest memories was of attending a Peace Day bonfire in 1919 at which one of the village boys was killed after swallowing a firework he had been clutching in his teeth.

These undisciplined formative years confirmed in him a natural unruliness that was still less likely to be curbed once his parents divorced. His mother, a glamorous red-headed playwright, set up home in Primrose Hill, and persuaded a neighbour, Arthur Rackham, to decorate Paddy’s room with drawings of hobgoblins.

His formal education was thereafter sporadic. A spell at a progressive school where staff and pupils alike dispensed with clothing was remedied by a private tutor who imbued him with a love of poetry and history. He was then sent to The King’s School, Canterbury, from which he was expelled (after several mischievous incidents) when caught holding hands with a greengrocer’s daughter.

It was decided that he should be sent to Sandhurst, but while up in London studying for the necessary exams he drifted into the fringes of the bohemian set (making friends with, among others, Nancy Mitford and Sacheverell Sitwell) and lodging in Shepherd’s Market, Piccadilly, with Beatrice Stewart, once the model for the figure of Peace in the quadriga atop Constitution Arch at Hyde Park Corner. In her rooms Leigh Fermor began (unsuccessfully) to write verse and then, in the winter of 1933, to plan his walk across Europe.

After the war, which ended while he was preparing for a potentially suicidal mission to penetrate Colditz, Leigh Fermor first worked for the British Institute in Athens. There he renewed his acquaintance with Seven Runciman and Osbert Lancaster as well as with Greek writers such as George Seferis. Then in the late 1940s he was commissioned to write the text to a book of photographs of the Caribbean.

It was this trip that gave direction to his later career. From the captions he wrote for the pictures sprang two of his first three books, The Traveller’s Tree (1950) and The Violins of Saint Jacques, his only novel (later turned into an opera), based on an incident in which a ball on Martinique was abruptly ended by the eruption of a volcano. These two titles were separated by a short meditation on monasticism, A Time to Keep Silence (1953).

But after this flurry of activity, the rest of his slender literary output appeared at intervals of a decade or more. He was not wholly idle in the meantime, writing the script for one of John Huston’s lesser films, The Roots of Heaven, and occasional journalism (some of it collected in the anthology of his work Words of Mercury that was published in 2003), but in general he much preferred research to the business of writing, and re-writing; it could take him half a dozen drafts before he would be satisfied with a sentence.

Then there were friends to entertain, among them Cyril Connolly, the present Duke of Devonshire and Bruce Chatwin, who chose to be buried near Leigh Fermor’s home in Greece. This was a house at Kardamyli, deep in the Peloponnese and overlooking the sea, which he and his wife designed themselves. Leigh Fermor liked to bathe, and at the age of 70 swam the four miles across the Hellespont.

Greece was the inspiration for his two other important books, Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966), distillations respectively of the history, legends, blood feuds and folk culture of the far south and north of a love and understanding of his adopted homeland.

Into his mid-eighties, Leigh Fermor retained the handsome looks (somewhat reminiscent of Jack Hawkins) of a man 20 years younger, and remained amused, energetic and excellent company. His mild manner concealed a sharper mind, and broader tastes, than might have been expected. High on his left shoulder there rode a large tattoo of a full-breasted, two-tailed Greek mermaid.

Patrick Leigh Fermor was awarded a military OBE in 1943 and was appointed a Companion of Literature in 1991. He received a knighthood in the New Year’s Honours List, 2004.

He married, in 1968, Joan Rayner (née Eyres-Monsell), daughter of the 1st Viscount Monsell and Paddy’s boon companion in all he did for more than 50 years. She died in 2003. There were no children.

Paddy died in England

I have heard via a source that Paddy died last night in Evesham, Worcestershire. Another source informed me that fairly recently he had become gravely ill and had asked to be brought back to England so that he might die here. He was evacuated to England on 9 June.

We can only presume that Paddy wanted to be near to Joan and their English home in the village of Dumbleton, Gloucestershire. Joan is buried in the churchyard of St Peter’s church in the village.

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.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: The man who walked

 

Patrick Leigh Fermor was a major in the Paras during the Second World War

This profile by William Dalrymple is perhaps the most well known of all the on-line pieces about Paddy. I have so far been reluctant to add it to the blog, but as my blog is meant to be a ‘one-stop shop’ for all things Leigh Fermor I have decided its time has come.

 

By William Dalrymple

First published in the Telegraph 06 Sep 2008

At 18 he left home to walk the length of Europe; at 25, as an SOE agent, he kidnapped the German commander of Crete; now at 93, Patrick Leigh Fermor, arguably the greatest living travel writer, is publishing the nearest he may come to an autobiography – and finally learning to type. William Dalrymple meets him at home in Greece

‘You’ve got to bellow a bit,’ Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor said, inclining his face in my direction, and cupping his ear. ‘He’s become an economist? Well, thank God for that. I thought you said he’d become a Communist.’

He took a swig of retsina and returned to his lemon chicken.

‘I’m deaf,’ he continued. ‘That’s the awful truth. That’s why I’m leaning towards you in this rather eerie fashion. I do have a hearing aid, but when I go swimming I always forget about it until I’m two strokes out, and then it starts singing at me. I get out and suck it, and with luck all is well. But both of them have gone now, and that’s one reason why I am off to London next week. Glasses, too. Running out of those very quickly. Occasionally, the one that is lost is found, but their numbers slowly diminish…’

He trailed off. ‘The amount that can go wrong at this age – you’ve no idea. This year I’ve acquired something called tunnel vision. Very odd, and sometimes quite interesting. When I look at someone I can see four eyes, one of them huge and stuck to the side of the mouth. Everyone starts looking a bit like a Picasso painting.’

He paused and considered for a moment, as if confronted by the condition for the first time. ‘And, to be honest, my memory is not in very good shape either. Anything like a date or a proper name just takes wing, and quite often never comes back. Winston Churchill – couldn’t remember his name last week.

‘Even swimming is a bit of a trial now,’ he continued, ‘thanks to this bloody clock thing they’ve put in me – what d’they call it? A pacemaker. It doesn’t mind the swimming. But it doesn’t like the steps on the way down. Terrific nuisance.’

We were sitting eating supper in the moonlight in the arcaded L-shaped cloister that forms the core of Leigh Fermor’s beautiful house in Mani in southern Greece. Since the death of his beloved wife Joan in 2003, Leigh Fermor, known to everyone as Leigh Fermor, has lived here alone in his own Elysium with only an ever-growing clowder of darting, mewing, paw-licking cats for company. He is cooked for and looked after by his housekeeper, Elpida, the daughter of the inn-keeper who was his original landlord when he came to Mani for the first time in 1962.

It is the most perfect writer’s house imaginable, designed and partially built by Leigh Fermor himself in an old olive grove overlooking a secluded Mediterranean bay. It is easy to see why, despite growing visibly frailer, he would never want to leave. Buttressed by the old retaining walls of the olive terraces, the whitewashed rooms are cool and airy and lined with books; old copies of the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books lie scattered around on tables between Attic vases, Indian sculptures and bottles of local ouzo.

A study filled with reference books and old photographs lies across a shady courtyard. There are cicadas grinding in the cypresses, and a wonderful view of the peaks of the Taygetus falling down to the blue waters of the Aegean, which are so clear it is said that in some places you can still see the wrecks of Ottoman galleys lying on the seabed far below.

There is a warm smell of wild rosemary and cypress resin in the air; and from below comes the crash of the sea on the pebbles of the foreshore. Yet there is something unmistakably melancholy in the air: a great traveller even partially immobilised is as sad a sight as an artist with failing vision or a composer grown hard of hearing.

I had driven down from Athens that morning, through slopes of olives charred and blackened by last year’s forest fires. I arrived at Kardamyli late in the evening. Although the area is now almost metropolitan in feel compared to what it was when Leigh Fermor moved here in the 1960s (at that time he had to move the honey-coloured Taygetus stone for his house to its site by mule as there was no road) it still feels wonderfully remote and almost untouched by the modern world.

When Leigh Fermor first arrived in Mani in 1962 he was known principally as a dashing commando. At the age of 25, as a young agent of Special Operations Executive (SOE), he had kidnapped the German commander in Crete, General Kreipe, and returned home to a Distinguished Service Order and movie version of his exploits, Ill Met by Moonlight (1957) with Dirk Bogarde playing him as a handsome black-shirted guerrilla.

It was in this house that Leigh Fermor made the startling transformation – unique in his generation – from war hero to literary genius. To meet, Leigh Fermor may still have the speech patterns and formal manners of a British officer of a previous generation; but on the page he is a soaring prose virtuoso with hardly a single living equal.

It was here in the isolation and beauty of Kardamyli that Leigh Fermor developed his sublime prose style, and here that he wrote most of the books that have made him widely regarded as the world’s greatest travel writer, as well as arguably our finest living prose-poet. While his densely literary and cadent prose style is beyond imitation, his books have become sacred texts for several generations of British writers of non-fiction, including Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron, Philip Marsden, Nicholas Crane and Rory Stewart, all of whom have been inspired by the persona he created of the bookish wanderer: the footloose scholar in the wilds, scrambling through remote mountains, a knapsack full of books on his shoulder.

As Anthony Lane put it in the New Yorker, Leigh Fermor ‘was, and remains, an Englishman, with so much living to his credit that the lives conducted by the rest of us seem barely sentient – pinched and paltry things, laughably provincial in their scope… We fret about our kids’ Sats, whereas this man, when he was barely more than a kid himself, walked from Rotterdam to Istanbul. In his sixties he swam the Hellespont, in homage to Lord Byron – his hero, and to some extent his template. In between he has joined a cavalry charge, observed a voodoo ceremony in Haiti, and plunged into a love affair with a princess. He has feasted atop a moonlit tower, with wine and roast lamb hauled up by rope. He has dwelt soundlessly among Trappist monks.’

For myself, it was the reading of his travel books while at Cambridge that inspired me to attempt to follow in his footsteps. With a paperback of Leigh Fermor’s in my backpack, I set off to Jerusalem following the route of the Crusaders during my first summer vacation. Meeting my hero for the first time at Bruce Chatwin’s house, just before the publication of my first book in 1989, was the nearest thing I have had to a formal graduation ceremony as a writer, the moment when you suddenly feel that maybe you really have passed out of your novitiate.

Foremost among Leigh Fermor’s books are his two glorious Greek travelogues, Mani and Roumeli; an exquisite short study of monasticism, A Time to Keep Silence; and most celebrated of all, an account of his journey in the early 1930s, travelling on foot, sleeping in hayricks and castles ‘like a tramp, a pilgrim, or a wandering scholar’, from Holland to Constantinople. On and off for nearly 70 years Fermor has been working on a trilogy about this epic walk. The first volume – and many would say his masterpiece – A Time of Gifts was finally published in 1977. The second, Between the Woods and the Water, followed nine years later. Since then, 22 years have passed with no sign of volume three, the book that should take us to the gates of Byzantium.

Leigh Fermor is now 93 and his fans are getting anxious. But travel writers have longer professional life expectancies than most – Norman Lewis, for example, produced four books between his 88th birthday and his death five years later – so we should not give up hope. Indeed, on a low table when Leigh Fermor showed me into his study, lay an 8in-high pile of manuscript, some of it ring-bound, and some in folders, on which was scribbled in red felt-tip: Vol 3.

In the meantime, Fermor fans have a small savoury to keep them going until the final course is served. This week John Murray is bringing out In Tearing Haste, a volume of letters between Leigh Fermor and the last surviving member of the Mitford sisterhood: Debo Devonshire, his close friend for nearly half a century. The letters are the nearest thing Leigh Fermor may ever get to writing an autobiography, faithfully chronicling his movements since the mid-1950s with the same detailed, painterly, highly written style that he uses in his travelogues.

Though inevitably slighter than his more polished work, the book includes wonderful accounts of some of his most celebrated adventures, such as his disastrous visit to Somerset Maugham at Cap Ferrat. Here he describes the elderly Maugham’s face as ‘so discoloured and green that it looks as though he has been rotting in the Bastille, or chained to a bench of a galley, or inside an iron mask for half a century’.

Having committed the faux-pas of appearing to draw attention to Maugham’s stammer at dinner, Leigh Fermor, who had initially been invited to stay for a week, was approached by his host at the end of the evening who offered him ‘a hand as cold as a toad, with the words “W-w-well I’ll s-s-say g-good-b-b-bye now in c-case I’m not up b-by the t-time y-you l-leave.”?’

It emerged that Leigh Fermor’s proof of the book had yet to reach the Peloponnese, so after supper I produced my own copy. He frowned: there had been a disagreement between the authors and their publisher over the cover produced by the artist John Craxton, who has illustrated all Leigh Fermor’s book since the 1950s, and the book was now covered with something more sketchy, and clearly not at all to Leigh Fermor’s liking. ‘Debo and I complained,’ he said, holding the book almost to the end of his nose and peering disapprovingly at the illustration, ‘but they kept on about business trends or some such jargon. What was it now? Market forces, that’s it. Well I never…’

As he flicked through the proof, I asked if the rumours were true: that after a lifetime of writing in longhand, he was now finally learning to type, the quicker to finish the third volume of his masterpiece.

‘Well, not exactly,’ he replied. ‘At the moment I seem to be collecting typewriters. I’ve got four now. People keep giving me their old ones. But it is true, I am planning to take typing lessons in Evesham this September.’ He paused, before adding, ‘In truth, I am absolutely longing to get down to it, before my sight gets any worse.’

Patrick Leigh Fermor was born in London in 1915 to Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, the director general of the Geological Survey of India, and the ‘sophisticated and wild’ Eileen Ambler. His mother was a bohemian and highly literate woman, who loved reading to her children and encouraging them to learn poetry by heart. She had been brought up in the wilds of Bihar, as a result of which Leigh Fermor can still sing, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary in Hindi. ‘Although I was brought up in England,’ he remembered, ‘India was a presence in the household, like voices in the next room.’

Almost immediately Leigh Fermor was deserted by his parents. It was the war, and they had to return to India; given the threat of U-boats, it was decided to leave the young Leigh Fermor in England so that someone would survive if the ship were torpedoed. The boy was sent to a farm in Northamptonshire where he was allowed to run free. ‘I think it formed me, you know,’ he said. ‘Made me restless and curious. I was constantly climbing trees and hayricks.’

When his mother and sister returned to collect him three and half years later, he ran away from these ‘beautiful strangers’. In retrospect, Leigh Fermor thinks the experience of ‘those marvellously lawless years unfitted me for the faintest shadow of constraint’, something that marked the rest of his career, especially at school, where he was expelled from a variety of establishments until finding happiness at ‘a co-educational and very advanced school for difficult children’.

After that school was closed down due to a series of ‘vaguely guessed at improprieties’, Leigh Fermor moved on to the King’s School Canterbury. He liked the fact it was founded during the reign of Justinian ‘when fragments of Thor and Odin had barely stopped smouldering in the Kentish woods’; but his teachers were less sure about their new pupil: ‘He is a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness,’ his housemaster wrote, shortly before expelling him. Unqualified to join Sandhurst, the direction in which his family had been pushing him, he attended crammers in London where he began to write poetry and to read voraciously.

Patrick Leigh Fermor at school, Kings' Canterbury

One of the books he chanced across was The Station, Robert Byron’s newly published book about his travels through the monasteries of Mount Athos. A subsequent meeting with Byron in a ‘blurred and saxophone-haunted nightclub’ made Leigh Fermor, aged 18, ache to follow in the author’s footsteps and visit ‘serpent-haunted dragon-green Byzantium’. He had also read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. With nothing to keep him in Britain he set off, having first borrowed a knapsack that had accompanied Byron to Athos, aiming to walk to that living fragment of Byzantium while living as cheaply as Orwell: ‘I loved the idea of roughing it.’

On the wet afternoon of December 9, 1933, the year that Hitler came to power, as ‘a thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats’, Leigh Fermor left London, boarding a Dutch steamer at Irongate Wharf. His rucksack contained pencils, drawing pads, notebooks, The Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horace. He would not lay eyes on Britain again until January 1937, when he returned ‘for better or for worse, utterly changed by my travels’.

‘I thought I’d keep a diary and turn it into a book, which of course is what I did,’ he said. ‘Except I am still writing that book more than 70 years later.’ It was not just that the journey gave Leigh Fermor the subject for his lifework, it ‘broadened my mind, taught me history, literature and languages. It opened everything up: the world, civilisation and Europe. It also gave me a capacity for solitude and a sense of purpose. It taught me to read and to look at things. It was a great education. I didn’t go to university, I went travelling instead.’

The journey also led him to meeting one of the two great loves of his life, a beautiful Byzantine princess named Balasha Cantacuzene. Leigh Fermor met Balasha in Athens, to which he walked after finally reaching Athos in early 1937. She was 12 years older than him, and had just separated from her husband, a Spanish diplomat. ‘She was 32, and I was 20. We met at just the right time and fell into each other’s arms. It was instant, we clicked immediately. We went off together and lived in a watermill in the Peloponnese for five months. I was writing, she was painting. It was heavenly.’

Balasha Cantacuzene

From there the couple moved back to Balasha’s rambling country estate in the dales of Moldavia, where they moved in with Balasha’s sister. Leigh Fermor has written that the two sisters were ‘good, beautiful, courageous, gifted, imaginative, immersed in literature and the arts, kind, funny, unconventional; everybody loved them and so did I.’

For Leigh Fermor, this was one of the happiest periods of his life. For two years he lived there, savouring the last remnants of a world that was just about to disappear: ‘Her family was part of an old-fashioned, French-speaking, Tolstoyan, land-owning world: country-dwelling noblesse of the sort described by Turgenev. They were intensely civilised people. The house was an old manor house, not grand, but delightful and full of pictures and books.

There was a butler who was always a bit tight, and no electricity, so we read with lamps and wicks. I spent the time reading my way through the whole of French literature and playing chess – when I wasn’t making a hash of writing this book.’ He paused, then added, ‘Of course I wanted to marry her, but she said, “Don’t be ridiculous – I’m much older than you.”?’

Both the romance and the world in which it was set were ended for ever by the war. ‘We were aware that war clouds were looming, but didn’t realise how serious it was. We were out on a picnic, some of us on horseback and some in open carriages, when someone shouted across the fields that the Germans had gone into Poland. I made the decision at once: if war had broken out I had to join the Army. I thought it would be over in six months.’

In the event, Leigh Fermor did not lay eyes on Balasha again for a quarter of a century. With the end of the war came the Iron Curtain, and Balasha could no more get out of Romania than Leigh Fermor could get in. When he eventually managed to find a way to get in as a journalist, he found Balasha living in poverty in a Bucharest garret, surviving by teaching English, French and painting. ‘We sat up and scarcely went to bed for 48 hours, laughing the whole time: “Do you remember?” By this time I was with Joan. Balasha took it all in such a philosophical and charming way. She was an extraordinary person.’

It emerged that the Cantacuzenes had been branded ‘elements of putrid background’ and Balasha’s lands had been confiscated soon after the end of the war. She had lost everything. The day Ceausescu’s commissar turned up she and her sister had been given quarter of an hour to pack. The house had subsequently been turned into a lunatic asylum. In Leigh Fermor’s account of the reunion, he wrote how he ‘found them in their attic.

In spite of the interval, the fine looks of my friends, the thoughtful clear glance and the humour were all intact; it was as though we had parted a few months ago, instead of 26 years… [But] early thoughts of leaving Romania lapsed in the end, and they resisted the idea partly from feeling it was too late in the day; secretly, perhaps they also shrank from being a burden to anyone. One by one the same dread illness carried them away.’

The same war that destroyed Leigh Fermor’s great love affair also made his name as a man of action. From Moldavia he returned to Britain and enlisted in the Irish Guards. As a fluent Greek speaker he was soon singled out for intelligence work, and was sent first to Albania and then to Greece as a liaison officer working with the Greek army. After the fall of Greece he found his way to Crete just in time to fight in vain against the Nazi invasion. From there he was evacuated to Alexandria where he set up house with several other young intelligence agents and a refugee Polish countess, Sophie Tarnowska, who moved in with her few possessions: ‘a bathing costume, an evening gown, a uniform and two pet mongooses’.

Before long Leigh Fermor was sent back into Crete to work with the Cretan resistance. He and an odd collection of recently enlisted Greek-speaking classical scholars and archaeologists were parachuted into the occupied island disguised as shepherds and established a troglodyte existence under the stalactites of mountain caves, commanded by a Fellow of All Souls. The port from which Leigh Fermor set off was captured by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps the day after he left. ‘It was a low moment in the war: the Germans seemed to be advancing in triumph in all directions.’ It was partly for this reason that Leigh Fermor’s bosses gave permission for his wild scheme to raise morale: kidnapping the German commander of the island.

Patrick Leigh Fermor and Moss

Patrick Leigh Fermor and Moss in German Uniform Prior to the Abduction of General Kriepe

In Leigh Fermor’s own account of the abduction of General Kreipe, the climax comes not as the general’s staff car is stopped at night by a British SOE partly dressed in stolen German uniforms, nor as the Cretan partisans help smuggle the general into the highlands and hence to a waiting British submarine; but instead as ‘a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mount Ida’.

‘We were all three lying smoking in silence, when the general, half to himself, slowly said, “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte”. It was the opening of one of the few Horace odes I knew by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off… The general’s blue eyes 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. “Ja, Herr General.” As though for a 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.’

It is an archetypal Leigh Fermor anecdote: fabulously erudite and romantic, and just a little showy. For his greatest virtues as a writer are also his greatest vices: his incantational love of great waterfalls of words, combined with the wild scholarly enthusiasms of a brilliant autodidact. On the rare occasions he gets it wrong, Leigh Fermor has been responsible for some of the most brightly coloured purple passages in travel literature. But at his best he is sublime, unbeatable.

Back in Egypt, Leigh Fermor met his future wife, and the companion for the second half of his life. Joan Eyres Monsell was then working for the intelligence department as a cipher clerk. ‘She had a house near the Ibn Tulun mosque, and was very go-ahead,’ Leigh Fermor remembers. ‘She was a nurse when the war broke out, and had lived in Spain and Algiers before Cairo. We met at a party and hit it off very quickly.’

When the war was over, Joan and Leigh Fermor remained in Greece, wandering the country and initially finding work in the British Council, whose Athens office was then run by the other great British philhellene of that generation, Sir Steven Runciman. But as ever, Leigh Fermor’s wanderlust soon got the better of him, and before long he had resigned. In 1949 they caught a ship to the Caribbean, a trip that resulted in two books: a travelogue, The Traveller’s Tree, and a fine novel, The Violins of St Jacques. Both were written partially in Trappist monasteries, an experience that Leigh Fermor turned into his third and most tightly written book, A Time to Keep Silence.

It was in the early 1960s that Leigh Fermor married Joan and settled down with her in Kardamyli, to continue his life of writing travel books, interspersed with weekly book reviews for Cyril Connolly’s Sunday Times book pages. It is this more settled phase of life that is so well captured in the new book of letters between Leigh Fermor and Deborah Devonshire. There are lovely descriptions of Leigh Fermor and Joan finding the bay at Kardamyli; the struggles to finish A Time of Gifts; Leigh Fermor’s surprise and pleasure at its rapturous reception; and the slow writing of its sequel.

The final 50 pages of the book have a more melancholy tone, as their friends begin to die, one by one: the English ones often of cancer, the Cretans, more dramatically, falling from precipices, and the like. Finally come the deaths of both Debo’s husband, Andrew, and of Joan Leigh Fermor: ‘The cats miss Joan bitterly,’ Leigh Fermor writes at the end of the book. ‘They are not the only ones… I keep thinking of things I must remember to tell Joan at lunch, knowing they could make her laugh. Letters addressed to her still arrive from distant parts, but even they are dying out now, and increasingly it’s only subscriptions to be renewed.’

Leigh Fermor enjoys a two-hour siesta after lunch – ‘Egyptian PT’ as he calls it. But on my last day in Kardamyli he emerged at 4pm, smiling from ear to ear. ‘Didn’t sleep a wink,’ he said. ‘Got quite carried away reading the book. I was rather dreading it, but was pleasantly surprised.’ He held up the proof approvingly. ‘Some passages are really awfully good.’

Paddy at home in the Mani

After our lunch we went up the mountain beside the house to see the Byzantine chapel around which the ashes of his friend Bruce Chatwin had been scattered. The chapel was very small – only a little larger than a big garden shed. It had a domed red-tiled roof and round arcaded windows. It lay in the rocky fields near the village of Exchori, high above Kardamyli, and was built from stone the colour of halloumi cheese.

The sun was slowly sinking over the hills at the end of a hot day; from the higher slopes, the tinkle of goat bells cut through the drowsy background whirr of cicadas as shepherd children led their flocks back for the night. It is perfect, beautiful, a peaceful place for anyone to end their days, and as we headed back I asked Leigh Fermor whether he would like to be buried there, too.

‘Oh no,’ he replied instantly. ‘Joan is in Dumbleton. I’d rather like to end up there.’

It’s a characteristic of so many of the greatest English travellers that they come back home in the end. TE Lawrence, for example, finally recognised ‘that I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin’, and the same is true of Leigh Fermor. For all his years in Greece, he remains almost the archetypal Englishman, in its best possible form: ‘My heart is in both,’ he said as we headed downhill. ‘England is not a foreign country to me.’ He paused and looked down over the Aegean, glinting now like broken glass far below us: ‘I do love both countries,’ he said as we headed on home. ‘I really do.’