Tag Archives: Patrick Leigh Fermor

The romance of the past: that’s what drives the traveller’s impossible quest

‘Kardamyli now makes most of its money from tourism. It wasn’t as immune to tourism as Leigh Fermor imagined or wanted it to be.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Writing in 1958 about the little Greek town that was eventually to become his home, the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor was satisfied to note that the Guide Bleu gave it only half a line. “It is better so,” Leigh Fermor wrote. “It is too inaccessible and there is too little to do there, fortunately, for it ever to be seriously endangered by tourism.”

By Ian Jack

First published in the Guardian

His next paragraph describes the town in early evening when, waiting for a freshly caught fish to cook on a grill, he and a few fishermen sit under a mulberry tree outside a taverna and watch the sun sink over the mountains. Caiques – the wooden working boats of the Mediterranean – rock gently “with each sigh of the green transparent water … tethered a few yards above their shadows on the pebbly bottom”. One of Leigh Fermor’s typically exact (and perhaps exacting) images follows when he describes the sea lapping over a flat rock “with just enough impetus to net the surface with a frail white reticulation of foam which slid softly away and dissolved while a new one formed”.

Some of these things still exist. The Mediterranean is clear and green and blue, and on a calm day it will rise and fall against the rocks as Leigh Fermor describes. The sun goes down as he depicts it. There is even a caique or two; and, of course, tavernas – more tavernas than ever. But in most other ways the township of Kardamyli in the Peloponnese is utterly changed. Charter flights land at the little airport in the regional capital, Kalamata, and from there a twisting, expensively engineered road takes taxis, hire cars and air-conditioned coaches over the mountains to a resort that has nice hotels, trinket shops and olive-oil boutiques, as well as pretty restaurants with tea-lights on their tables that look down on the sea. The usual story: Kardamyli now makes most of its money from tourism. It wasn’t as immune to tourism as Leigh Fermor imagined or wanted it to be, and the writer himself is partly to blame.

The tumbledown factory loomed on the shore, a picturesque ruin in brick and concrete where fig trees grew. First, he published an account of his travels in the southern Peloponnese, the peninsula known as the Mani, which was then not much visited, and invested it with the beauty and mystery of a place and people that the 20th century had passed by. Then, six years later, in 1964, he bought a plot of land there – in a bay to the south of Kardamyli – and built a beautiful villa that he lived in almost to the last day of his life, in June 2011. Today his books are available in at least three languages in the local bookshop. People go there because of him – to experience similar sights and sensations to those he saw and felt, even though they understand this can never be completely accomplished, the world having moved on.

But was it ever quite as he described it in the first place? Leigh Fermor’s view of the Mani was essentially romantic: there are few better describers of landscape, but it’s a landscape with omissions. His first sight of Kardamyli is of an enchanting, castellated hamlet at the sea’s edge, where towers, turrets and cupolas rise above houses built of golden stone. “It was unlike any village I had seen in Greece,” Leigh Fermor writes in a page-long depiction that somehow ignores the village’s tallest manmade attribute: the factory chimney of the old olive-oil works. This is difficult to miss. Look down on Kardamyli from almost any vantage point and there it stands, its bricks pale against a background of blue sea and rather more noticeable than the towers and the turrets lying further inland among the cypresses and the olive groves.

The towers date from the age of banditry, feuding clans and resistance to the Ottoman empire. The chimney has cleaner and more peaceable origins. This month I lived next door to it for 10 days in a fine little hotel, and swam morning and afternoon from a ladder bolted to the rocks. The tumbledown factory loomed on the shore behind, a picturesque ruin in brick and concrete where fig trees grew and rusting pipes sprang from the wall at odd angles. A high fence surrounded it, with warnings to keep out.

Olive oil had once been made here – not virgin, cold-pressed or estate bottled, but the roughest kind, which goes into soap. Some accounts online suggest it was owned by the Palmolive company (and when I read this I understood, for the first time, how that familiar name had come about); others say a local family were the proprietors. It used olives – and the residues left from edible oil production – from as far away as Crete, shipped to a concrete pier nearby whose size was inexplicable unless you knew its original purpose. It was said to have employed 150 workers, with steam machinery that, as well as operating its crushers, had the spare capacity to supply the village with its first electricity. Opened in 1932, it closed in either 1958 or 1975 – local memories differed – when new techniques of oil production made it redundant. Since then, a dispute among the site’s three or four owners had prevented demolition or development.

I liked the chimney; three stepped rings of brick, progressively larger in diameter, gave its top a decorative flourish. But then, I’ve always been fascinated by factory chimneys of all kinds, for reasons that I’ve never really examined, the most important probably being that I spent some of my childhood among them: the great smoking verticals of the Lancashire plain, formerly beloved of geography textbooks as the illustrations to the chapter on the textile industry. To find them situated outside what might be considered their natural homelands – the old industrial towns of northern Europe and North America – is always a surprise. They look solitary, like isolated monuments to a faraway and not properly understood revolution. One still standing on the coast of Argyll marks the site of a Victorian factory that made acetic acid from the oak and birch wood. Another on the Ionian island of Paxos served the same kind of mill as Kardamyli’s.

Smoke was most probably still drifting from the Kardamyli chimney when Leigh Fermor reached here in the mid-1950s, but he can hardly be blamed for omitting it from his picture. Like many travellers in our age, he had a distaste for modernity. (He hated radios, for instance, and was relieved that the Mani had so few of them. “Rabid wirelesses should be hunted out and muzzled or shot down like mad dogs.”) He travelled to reach some agreeable form of the past, which has been a motive for the holidaymaker since the days of the Grand Tour.

On an afternoon last week in Kardamyli, I climbed up the ladder from the sea to find three or four men inside the factory fence inspecting the ruins. One wore a pith helmet and carried a theodolite. Another unpacked a drone from its box and directed its flight to the chimney, which it hovered above rather threateningly. It looked as though change was in the offing. I’d known of the chimney for less than a week – and, really, what was it to me? But already I felt a slight alarm that it too might pass, just like the fishermen who watched the sunset with Leigh Fermor from underneath a mulberry tree.

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Event 3 October 2018: More Dashing – Further Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Adam Sisman will be speaking about his new book on Wednesday 3rd October at 7.15pm at The Hellenic Centre, 16-18 Paddington Street, London W1U 5AS.

If you would like to attend, please email info@patrickleighfermorsociety.org

Admission is free but non-members are asked to make a £10 contribution towards the expenses of the evening or to join the Society, which entitles members to free attendance at all events. The new book will be for sale at a special launch price.

More Dashing: Further Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor is the follow-up of Dashing for the Post: Selected Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor (2016) which received terrific reviews including:

‘Here is a veritable feast for fans of Paddy Leigh Fermor…. Sisman has done a tremendous job selecting and editing this treasure-trove of letters’ The Spectator

‘Adam Sisman has done an excellent job of selecting and editing these letters, almost any one of which would have been a joy to receive’ Times Literary Supplement

‘Oh joy! … No other contemporary writer could have given us so much to relish and we’re fortunate that Adam Sisman has distilled such a treat from so much rich material…. The wit, the humour, and the dazzling intelligence make this, for me, the most unputdownable book of the year’ Country Life

Paddy the Great, king of Greece

From the April 2018 edition of The Oldie magazine, a remarkable podcast interview with the late John Julius Norwich to celebrate the Charmed Lives in Greece retrospective exhibition at the British Museum. John Julius recalls the special life and tremendous spirit of his friend Patrick Leigh Fermor, the man whom John Julius credits with opening up the Byzantine world to him – the subject of his first book on the subject Byzantium: The Early Centuries.

John Julius talks about Paddy’s incredible intellectual curiosity and lightness of touch: ‘All the time you were aware of being in touch with perhaps the most extraordinary man you’d ever met.’

Listen to the interview here.

John Julius Norwich – 1929-2018

Barry Cryer and John Julius Norwich at an Oldie lunch in 2017

Very sad news over the weekend to hear of the death of John Julius Norwich, writer, diplomat, broadcaster, father of Artemis Copper (Paddy’s biographer), and friend of Paddy and Joan. Thank you to AJ for sending me this link to his final article for the Oldie magazine. Like John Julius, it was Paddy that led me to my interest in Byzantium, although my Byzantine output is nothing like the wonderful three volume history of Byzantium that John Julius wrote.

First published in The Oldie, 1 June 2018.

By John Julius Norwich.

A new show at the British Museum – about three great lovers of Greece – takes me right back to the 1950s. The English painter Johnny Craxton (1922-2009) was a joy – the only dinner guest we ever had who came on his motorbike and left his leathers in the hall. He always came on his own; we were all intrigued by the idea of his long-term boyfriend, whom we never met. I think Johnny saw Greece as a larger Crete – just as Neville Chamberlain was always said to see Europe as a larger Birmingham. Johnny loved Crete with passion.

The Athenian painter Nikos Ghika (1906-1994) provided me with my first breath of Greece in the summer of 1954, when we went to stay with him in his lovely old house on the island of Hydra.

Also staying there were Paddy and Joan Leigh Fermor. Ghika later designed the serpentine pebble mosaic floors at Kardamyli – the Leigh Fermors’ enchanting house in the Mani. It was Paddy that I knew best of the three. Our friendship lasted from the 1950s until his death in 2011 at the age of 96.

In the spring of 1955, when we were living in Yugoslavia – I was working at the British Embassy – a letter arrived from my mother. She had been offered a caique for a fortnight’s sail among the isles of Greece. Paddy and Joan Leigh Fermor were coming; could we come, too? At the end of August, we drove down from Belgrade to Athens, and boarded the Eros at Piraeus.

It was my first time in the Aegean, and my best. Paddy lived and breathed his beloved Greece – fluent in its language, encyclopaedic in his knowledge of its history, people and literature. And nobody has ever carried his learning more lightly.

As we sailed from island to island – and, in those days, there were almost no tourists, and I can’t describe what a difference that made – he talked about Greece, Greek beliefs and traditions, about Byron and the Greek War of Independence, about those monstrously magnificent Greek heroes – men such as Mavromichalis and Kolokotronis, whose names roll so satisfactorily across the tongue – and about the Greek Orthodox Church and its quarrels with the West over words such as ‘filioque’ and ‘homoousion’, his talk taking in all the mystery and magic of the Byzantine world. Twenty years later, I was to write a history of Byzantium myself; but I doubt whether, had it not been for that fortnight on the Eros, I should ever have done so.

One day we were in a taverna on Santorini. Britain and Greece were then at the height of the Cyprus dispute and Paddy was, of course, firmly on the Greek side. Suddenly a member of the party at the next table, hearing us speaking English and being slightly drunk, launched into a stream of anti-British invective. We pretended not to notice. Then, suddenly, he and his companions burst into song.

‘Quick,’ whispered Paddy. ‘National anthem – everybody up.’

We leapt to our feet while he, naturally knowing all the words, sang them at the top of his voice. The mood of the other table changed immediately; and they were still more impressed when he continued with all the following verses – solo by now, since no one else knew them. Abject apologies followed: the ouzo went round once more, and we all departed friends.

It was characteristic of Paddy that, when he and Joan decided to build themselves a house in Greece, they chose the remotest corner: Kardamyli, at the far end of the Mani, the second of the three peninsulas that form the southern coast of the Peloponnese. And oh, how they loved it.

Paddy basically designed it himself. I remember him saying, while the building was in progress, ‘I want it to be part of outdoors, so that, if a chicken were found wandering through the library, no one would be a bit surprised.’

By November 1969, with its vast supply of bookcases, a huge desk and plenty of room to pace over a stone floor, the ‘powerhouse for prose’, as Paddy liked to call it, was ready at last. The two books describing his teenage walk across Europe, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, were both written there, together with hundreds of letters, articles and the jeux d’esprit which he so loved, and of which he was such a master. But those dread enemies procrastination and distraction were always hovering behind him, tempting him away. And as we shall see, they were to get him in the end.

Kardamyli was a huge success. It became the epicentre of Paddy’s world. For the first time, at 54, he had a home of his own. He continued to travel around Europe to see his innumerable friends, but it was here, I feel quite sure, that he was happiest. Outside Europe he was seldom tempted to roam. Except, surprisingly, for the Caribbean. A year or two after the war, he and Joan were persuaded by their old friend (and mine) Costa Achillopoulos to accompany him on a longish tour of the islands.

The result was Paddy’s first book, The Traveller’s Tree, which was published in 1950, and also his second, The Violins of Saint-Jacques, an exquisite little novella which was his only venture into fiction.

The islands fascinated him. His chapter on voodoo is a masterpiece. And then, when he got to Barbados, what did he find? A tablet in the churchyard of St John’s, carved with Doric columns and the cross of Constantine, reading: ‘Here lyeth ye body of Ferdinando Palaeologus, descended from ye Imperial lyne of ye last Christian Emperor of Greece. Churchwarden of this parish 1655-1656. Vestryman twentye years. Died Oct 3. 1679.’

Later, Paddy discovered that Ferdinando’s son Theodore had returned to England and had settled in Stepney, where he left a posthumous daughter baptised with the typically 17th-century name of Godscall Palaeologus.

She may have married, and had countless children; but, for the time being, this little girl in Stepney remains the last authentic descendant of the Palaeologi, the last imperial family of Byzantium.

Of course Paddy was a superb linguist; but I have never known anyone who enjoyed his languages so intensely. He loved on-the-spot translations: ‘To be or not to be’ in German, for example – occasionally recited backwards – or D’Ye Ken John Peel in Italian, which my daughter Artemis (his biographer) and I sang at his memorial service:

Conosce Gian Peel, con sua giacca tanta grigia?

Conosce Gian Peel, prima cosa la mattina,

Conosce Gian Peel, quand’ è lontano, è lontano,

Con suoi cani e suo corno la mattina.

And then there were the letters –letters that could have been written by no one else. Reading them, written at such terrific speed that sometimes they grow faint because the fountain pen can’t deliver the ink fast enough, one marvels at Paddy’s facility and fluency. And yet, when he was writing a book for publication, every sentence was a battleground. When, in July 1988, Sotheby’s sold the autograph manuscript of A Time of Gifts, it was described in the catalogue as follows:

‘c.450 pages, the majority written on rectos only, some on both sides, the first chapter on lined foolscap sheets, some cartridge paper, others lined, heavily revised and corrected, revised passages frequently written on separate sheets and pasted or clipped over the original, corrections or elucidations often in red ink, foreign or difficult words printed in the margin, many sheets with encouraging notes to the typist, often stapled or stitched with coloured thread into gatherings, generally of ten pages.’

I have an idea – I hate to have to say it and desperately hope I’m wrong – that Paddy’s last years were not as happy as the rest of his life had been. He missed Joan desperately after she died in 2003, he was getting old and he gradually had to face up to the fact that he would never complete the third volume of the story of that glorious European journey in his early youth. He produced bits and pieces for it by the dozen, but something always prevented him from organising them, connecting them and making them into a single coherent document. It was, I suppose, a kind of writer’s block.

He would seize on anything – letters, articles, translations, those ingenious word games he so loved – rather than face one of two facts: the first, that he must finish the job; the second – far worse – that he couldn’t. Eventually he knew that the second was the truth. When he came to London, people would say breezily, ‘How’s Volume III coming on?’, little realising that they were driving a dagger through his heart.

Volume III is not entirely lost. The Broken Road, compiled by Colin Thubron and Artemis, breathes Paddy through and through. And anyway, he has left us so much more to revel in.

As a travel writer, he was surely in a class by himself. But he was much more than a travel writer; he was the most extraordinary literary – and social – phenomenon I have ever known, and I am proud to have been his friend.

Until I have reached Constantinople

Patrick Leigh Fermor working at his home studio on 3 October 2004, then aged 89. Kardamyli. by Sean Deany Copyright 2012

In the catalogue to the exhibition Charmed Lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor (at the British Museum until July 15), Michael Llewellyn-Smith writes that, in his later years, Patrick Leigh Fermor “had an all-purpose excuse to send to pesterers”. The note read: “It was very kind of you to write. The trouble is that I am having to work to a strict deadline for the completion of my new book. This makes me a poor correspondent until I have finished it and have reached Constantinople – I am not sure when this will be”.

By James Campbell

First Published in The Times Literary Supplement 12 April 2018

The warning to inquisitive readers, colour-supplement journalists, adventurous holidaymakers and others was despatched from Kardamyli in Mani, in the Southern Peloponnese, from the house which Fermor had built himself, with local labour and expertise, in the mid-1960s. It was where he had completed the first two parts of his account of the “great trudge” across ­Central Europe in the 1930s, projected to end, in a long-anticipated third volume, in “Constantinople”. The book itself had become something of a pest, and he failed to complete it before his death in 2011, aged ninety-six. His wife Joan had died there eight years earlier.

I knew nothing of this when I posted a letter to Kardamyli in the autumn of 2003. I was not a Fermor devotee (there were many, though nothing like the numbers that exist today) and had read scarcely anything he had written. It was not my idea to seek him out, but that of my editor at the Guardian Saturday Review, for which I was at the time a contracted writer. The regular task was a literary profile, of a good length – 4,000 words – and of a certain seriousness. Starting from a position of ignorance didn’t bother me. I liked “finding out”, and enjoyed the homework.

Suggestions from Farringdon Road came by telephone, later email, and were always to the point. “How about Patrick Leigh Fermor?” That was it. No address, no telephone number, no deadline. The rest was up to me, but I was free to go where I liked and when I liked. I had fulfilled many commissions in this way, and had discovered something: it works better when you contact the intended subject yourself to make arrangements, rather than going through the publisher’s press office. The people there do necessary work, but with their more valued (and venerable) charges there is a protective instinct, and a need to control the show.

Fermor was definitely a protected species. His ninetieth birthday was approaching. His publisher John Murray was desperate for him to reach Constantinople. The journey, which had taken place in the 1930s, had been given elegant shape in two books written forty and fifty years after the events described: A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). The final volume, endlessly, pestiferously, inquired about, was said to be inching forwards. Both my editor and I made approaches to the publicity department; both received vague promises of representation. In the end, both were urged to think about volume 3, like everybody else.

I decided to take the direct route. But how to find him? I tried some acquaintances who might know his address. None did. Someone suggested Elizabeth Chatwin, widow of Bruce, Continue reading

Easter 1934 Paddy arrives at the Danube read by Siân Phillips

An Easter treat for you. Siân Phillips reads from page 277 of A Time of Gifts (paperback) as Paddy arrives at the Danube, spots Esztergom, has his passport stamped by the Czechoslovakian border guards, and lingers ‘in the middle of the bridge, meditatively poised in no man’s air.’

‘The air was full of hints and signs. There was a flicker and a swishing along the river like the breezy snip-snap of barbers’ scissors before they swoop and slice. It was the skimming and twirling of newly arrived swifts. A curve in the stream was re-arranging the landscape as I advanced, revealing some of the roofs of Esztergom and turning the Basilica to a new angle as though it were on a pivot. The rolling wooded range of the Bakony Forest had advanced north from the heart of Transdanubia, and the corresponding promontory on the northern shore – the last low foothills of the Marra mountains, whose other extremity subsides in the north eastern tip of Hungary – jutted into the water under the little town of Parkan. Reaching for each other, the two headlands coerced the rambling flood yet once more into a narrower and swifter flow and then spanned the ruffie with an iron bridge. Spidery at first, the structure grew more solid as the distance dwindled. (Twenty miles east of this bridge, the Danube reaches a most important point in its career: wheeling round the ultimate headland of the Balcony Forest and heading due south for the first time on its journey, it strings itself through Budapest like a thread through a bead and drops across the map of Europe plumb for a hundred and eighty miles, cutting Hungary clean in half. Then, reinforced by the Drava, it turns east again, invades Yugoslavia, swallows up the Sava under the battlements of Belgrade, and sweeps on imperturbably to storm the Iron Gates.)

In an hour, I had climbed the cliff-path into the main street of Parkan. A little later my passport was stamped at the frontier post at the Czechoslovakian end of the bridge. The red, white and green barrier of the frontier post at the far end marked the beginning of Hungary. I lingered in the middle of the bridge, meditatively poised in no man’s air.’

(Extract from A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, with thanks to John Murray Publishers.)

Who were Ghika, Craxton and Leigh Fermor?

A lovely video produced by the British Museum to accompany the exhibition Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor. Narrated by the exhibition curators. Discover more about their extraordinary friendship, creativity and life spent living together in Greece.

Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor
8 March – 15 July 2018
http://www.britishmuseum.org/charmedlives

Supported by the A. G. Leventis Foundation and organised with the A. G. Leventis Gallery. In collaboration with the Benaki Museum and Craxton Estate.