William Dalrymple introduces Artemis Cooper discussing Paddy’s writing including his first major work, The Traveller’s Tree, at the Jaipur Literature Festival
We continue our series of articles looking at the work of Ian Fleming who was a friend of Paddy. Fleming was influenced by Paddy’s exploits and he used the Traveller’s Tree in particular as a source for Live and Let Die.
By Matthew Woodcock
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 14 December 2013
There is one last James Bond book from the late 1950s that remains unpublished. We will not find the typescript lurking in the archives, nor hidden amongst the papers held by Ian Fleming’s estate, for this book is not about James Bond but written by Bond himself. It is from Fleming’s 1959 novel Goldfinger that we learn that 007 spends his hours on night duty at the Secret Service compiling a manual on unarmed combat called Stay Alive!, containing the best that had been written on the subject by his peers in intelligence agencies around the world. Bond is more industrious in the field than at the typewriter and no more is heard about this great unfinished work once his thoughts drift back to his previous assignment and time spent enjoying the company of the ill-fated Jill Masterson.
It should come as no surprise that Fleming’s hero has writerly pretensions. Yet again, Bond and his creator have interests or characteristics in common, along with their shared dash of Scottish ancestry and background in naval intelligence, and a similar penchant for custom-made Morlands cigarettes. During his twenties, Fleming read widely in French and German literature — Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain was a particular favourite — and he subscribed to all the avant garde literary magazines of the day. He experimented briefly with poetry, collected first editions for a while, and launched the Book Collector magazine. Ultimately, through his friend and later editor, the poet and novelist William Plomer, he entered the literary world of postwar London, met T.S. Eliot and befriended Edith Sitwell. But to what extent did these kind of literary and bibliographic interests shape or influence Fleming’s work when he began writing the Bond books?
Bond too is, of course, a man of books. Fleming took the name of his hero from the spine of a trusted ornithological guide to the West Indies. And the seemingly effortless, spontaneous genesis of the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, published in 1953, drew as much upon the author’s reading of Dornford Yates, John Buchan and ‘Sapper’ (creator of Bulldog Drummond) as it did on his wartime experiences.
The clubland stalwarts were formative influences on Fleming, but they are — at best — literature spelt with a very small ‘l’. Bond himself has bookish impulses: the book-lined sitting-room glimpsed briefly in Moonraker is a valuable resource, used in preparations for forthcoming missions, furnishing him in this instance with a volume on card-sharping by John Scarne. Researching details of voodoo rites in Live and Let Die, Bond consults The Traveller’s Tree by Fleming’s friend Patrick Leigh Fermor. Appropriately enough, 007 also likes a good thriller and purchases the latest Raymond Chandler at the close of Goldfinger, and in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service displays a ready familiarity with the Nero Wolfe series, written by the equally well-read Rex Stout. It turns out that M too knows of Wolfe. En route to Istanbul in From Russia with Love, Bond enjoys a literary busman’s holiday by reading Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios.
One might pause to consider just how do spies respond to fictional rehearsals of their trade? Did 007 snort in derision at Ambler’s accidental hero — himself a crime writer — or nod in recognition at his frustrations and disillusionment? Would he compare the quality of Ambler’s villains with those that he himself routinely faced in the field? Fleming’s villains themselves also appreciate a good book. At the start of From Russia with Love we discover that SMERSH’s chief executioner, Red Grant, likes to unwind by reading P.G. Wodehouse, and no one in the organisation would dare question such a choice.
Literary references and analogies frequently run through Bond’s mind: an allusion to Paradise Lost appears in the short story ‘Risico’, where he is disguised, naturally, as a writer; a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson strikes him in Diamonds are Forever, when he realises that he is sharing a ship with two of the Spangled Mob’s henchmen; he even attempts composing a haiku in You Only Live Twice.
None of the above, read in context, would have found a receptive audience with the likes of Eliot and Sitwell, or indeed among the literary pals of Fleming’s wife Ann. Fleming’s at times uneasy proximity to such circles never influenced the Bond books’ plot or structure, nor determined his initial choice of genre, but it did shape the author’s conception of the ‘literary’ and his recognition of how appreciation of ‘fine’ writing and the ‘right’ kind of books might be used for rhetorical effect, to engender the desired impression of his central character. The literary references in the Bond books are comparable to the furnishing of technical details about cars, dining, drinks, gambling and the like that the author employs to ground his fantastic plots in a recognisable reality — what Kingsley Amis identified as ‘the Fleming effect’. They help to build up Bond’s characterisation in deft, if brief, brushstrokes.
It could be suggested that the spy thriller itself — certainly after Somerset Maugham’s 1928 Ashenden — became the perfect genre with which to explore so many of the anxieties about identity and its representation to which the modernist greats gave expression. Like Eliot’s Prufrock, Bond and his peers are for-ever preparing ‘a face to meet the faces’ that they meet, always working with that lurking uncertainty as to whether they are the hero or the anti-hero of their own life’s narrative. Joseph Conrad had earlier delved into similar territory in his thriller The Secret Agent.
Had Fleming lived to tell of 007’s eventual retirement from the Secret Service we would undoubtedly have witnessed Bond swap his Walther for a pen and become a writer, thus following the career path of previous agents turned authors, W. Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, John le Carré, Stella Rimington and, of course, Fleming himself. He might even have completed Stay Alive!
Ryan Eyre lives in Seattle, and took a journey to Kardamyli to meet Paddy in 2009. He has written this article for the Journal of the Book Club of Washington, and has asked to publish it here as well. Ryan tells us, as many others have done, about Paddy’s remarkable memory, which he utilised to the full to write A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. I have seen evidence of this myself. On a recent visit to Cluj I was able to enter the public rooms of the fabled Hotel New York (Continental) clutching a copy of BTWW and marvelled at the accuracy of Paddy’s description of its decor … but the cocktail bar was closed!
Update: I met Ryan last month (5 June 2013) in London and was able to show him the site of the original John Murray publishing house at 50 Albemarle Street. Ryan was on a holiday from his post in the Republic of Georgia where he is teaching English. He reminded me of this article which was posted in the week following Paddy’s death. It may have got lost in all the high frequency posting at that time, so I promised him that I would give you all another chance to read his account.
Meeting Patrick Leigh Fermor
by Ryan Eyre
On a February evening in 2009 I alighted from a bus in the village of Kardamyli, in the Mani region of southern Greece. I had arrived at this remote corner of the Peloponnese with one purpose: to meet the celebrated English author Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century and arguably far less well known than he should be. Now in his nineties, Paddy (as he is known by his friends) still divides his time between England and his adopted home of Greece, where he lives in a house he designed himself in the 1960’s on a headland just south of Kardamyli. Patrick Leigh Fermor (PLF) has had an extraordinarily full and remarkable life. For the sake of some background for those unfamiliar with him I provide a brief biographical sketch:
Born in 1915 and educated at the King’s School in Canterbury until he was expelled at the age of sixteen, he was preparing for the entrance examinations for Sandhurst when a sudden inspiration came over him. He decided to walk across Europe, with the final destination point as Constantinople, living, in his words, “like a tramp or a wandering scholar.” It was December 1933 and he was eighteen years old. He set out almost at once, catching a tramp steamer from London to Rotterdam and beginning his walk from there, passing through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and European Turkey before arriving in Constantinople on New Year’s Day, 1935. His experiences on his thirteen-month peregrination later provided the material for his two most celebrated books: A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, which were first published in 1977 and 1986, respectively. These two volumes recount the first two-thirds of his amazing journey by foot from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn. Richly descriptive and full of historical and literary allusions they provide a portrait of a pre war Europe long since vanished. Apart from the extremely high standard of prose and the author’s obvious enthusiasm for history, literature and art, perhaps the most appealing aspect of his account of this remarkable journey is that it was completed on foot. It has been said that the human mind can only properly absorb its surroundings at a walking pace. The gradual transitions of landscape, language and culture were carefully observed by PLF because of the patient, unhurried approach that he took; a faster form of travel would have failed to capture nearly as much of the richness and complexity of the lands he passed through.
After completing this walking journey, he spent the next couple of years in Greece and Romania. He was romantically involved with the Romanian princess Balasha Cantacuzene, living with her on her estate in Moldavia until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, at which point he returned to Britain to enlist in the army. During the war he served with distinction in Greece, both during the German invasion of 1941 and afterwards during the occupation. As a SOE (Special Operations Executive) agent he helped coordinate the resistance movement on Crete. The highpoint of his war was the celebrated kidnapping of the commanding German general Heinrich Kreipe on Crete in 1944, which he and a fellow British officer devised and accomplished with a band of Cretan partisans, abducting the luckless general from his car outside of Iraklion and spiriting him away into the mountains and eventually Egypt. After the war and in the company of his wife, the late Joan Eyres-Monsell, he travelled all over Greece, exploring the most remote rural areas on foot or mule, and developing a deep appreciation of the folk customs, dialects and traditions that have in the last half century largely vanished (see his books Mani and Roumeli). His travels and books have never been limited to Greece, though: his first book The Traveller’s Tree (first published in 1950) was written after an extensive journey around the West Indies in the late 1940’s. Possibly his best book (according to New Yorker columnist Anthony Lane), A Time to Keep Silence, explores the nature and meaning of silence as he experienced it living in various French monasteries. Whatever topic PLF has written about, his natural enthusiasm, curiosity and exquisite writing make it compelling reading.
Several years before I had been travelling in Romania and by chance a fellow American in the hostel had shown me a copy of Between the Woods and the Water, in which PLF recounted travelling through the same area in the 1934. Intrigued when I returned to Seattle several months later, I had checked A Time of Gifts out from the library and was instantly enthralled by it. The subject matter, the style and the sensibilites were immediately appealing. I can state unequivocally that PLF’s writing had a powerful influence on me. He seems almost the embodiment of an ideal-the literary man of action. Highly erudite but also a man of the world, unapologetically articulate and learned but with enough graciousness and charm to avoid being a pedant, equally comfortable with the humble as well as the high born. I’m not the only one who views him this way – Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron and William Dalrymple have all cited PLF as a major influence on their writing and lives. From PLF I developed a deeper appreciation of art and literature, and renewed an interest in history-particularly European. Because of him I also became a better traveller– by slowing down, more closely observing my surroundings and immersing myself in the history of a place before I visited.
I became determined I had to meet this man. I knew he was old and in declining health so time was of the essence. In January of 2009 I was in England visiting relatives and went to his literary agent’s offices in London hoping to get a formal letter of introduction. I only spoke to a secretary, who passed on an email address to which I wrote but predictably from which I heard no reply. My cousin said “The only way to meet the blighter is to show up where he lives-I’m sure you’ll be able to meet him.” I decided to take his advice and hope for the best.
Thus a month later I arrived in Kardamyli with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, after having travelled over land and water from Portugal all the way to Greece. I had done my homework: I knew his former housekeeper (a woman named Lela) ran a taverna with some rooms in the town-that seemed the obvious place to stay. Before my arrival I had telephoned and had spoken to her son Giorgios (Lela spoke no English). In the winter the taverna was closed, Giorgios explained, but they would make an exception for me and at a reduced rate. Giorgios, a moustachioed and world- weary but courteous man in his fifties met me when I got off the bus, and after introductions were made, he walked me to Lela’s a few blocks away. It was a simple two story building by the sea, with a restaurant on the ground floor and a few rooms upstairs looking directly out on the sea. Lela appeared from the kitchen, in her seventies but still sprightly, with a craggy and quintessentially Greek face. After showing me to my room she and Giorgios disappeared quickly, leaving me as the only guest. Strolling out from Lela’s along the water onto a jetty and looking up towards one of the clearest starlit skies I had ever seen, with the only sound coming from the waves crashing against the rocks, I understood immediately why Patrick Leigh Fermor had decided to settle here years before.
The next morning I awoke early and walked along the road going south from Kardamyli. A Greek man out in his garden saw me and gestured for me to come inside. Without asking any questions he sat me down in his kitchen and served me coffee; this was exactly the type of hospitality towards strangers that PLF had described in his books on Greece. Somewhat timorously I broached the subject of Patrick Leigh Fermor (known as Michalis by the locals) and asked where he might be found. He gesticulated southwards, saying in broken English that PLF lived a short way down the road, in the next cove known as Kalamitsi. I thanked him for the coffee and continued walking. I had with me an anthology of PLF’s work titled The Words of Mercury, which included an article he had written on how he had designed his house in Greece. He described it as resembling a faded Byzantine monastery, with a view framed by cypress trees overlooking a cove with a small island offshore. Down a path and through an olive grove there was a house that closely resembled this description; in fact, it had to be his residence as it looked far older than any other house in the vicinity.
Emboldened by this discovery I walked back into town, just as the villagers were exiting the church service on a Sunday morning. Approaching Lela, I tentatively mentioned PLF’s name and pointed to The Words of Mercury, with a photograph of PLF in the 1940’s on the cover. She gave Giorgios soon appeared and I explained that I had come to Kardamyli to hopefully meet PLF, and handed him a note of appreciation that I entreated to pass along. Giorgios told me that PLF was in England at the moment, but would be back by Tuesday and would gladly give him the note once he saw him. So my timing had been providential! Now I simply had to wait. I spent the next couple of days either reading (finishing War and Peace to be exact) or going on long walks exploring the myriad of small coves and hills. The Mani is very quiet in winter and felt refreshingly unexplored. Each evening I would go to the kafeneon to sit with the local men as they chatted and watched football on the television. Giorgios would be there every evening and he was quite friendly and talkative to me. Every evening I would tactfully bring up the subject of whether or not he had seen PLF. Each time he responded he hadn’t yet. One evening as I was returning to Lela’s she insisted on cooking me a meal in the kitchen, sitting me down in a table in the restaurant and plying me generous portions of pork, potatoes and vegetables. On a table in the corner was a pile of black and white photographs; examining them more closely I saw they were informal snapshots of Lela and her family from the 1960’s with a younger looking Patrick Leigh Fermor in a number of the them. Seeing these candid photographs gave my purpose a lot more immediacy.
Taking the bus one day into Kalamata (the nearest city-some 20 miles away) I fell into conversation with a local woman about my age. I explained that I had come all the way here to hopefully meet PLF. She raised her head backwards and clicked her tongue, the universal Hellenic gesture for disapproval. “The Patrick Leigh Fermor is very old man, many people, journalists come here to meet him, they have to book appointment…it’s not so easy to see him.” Discouraging words and with each passing day I realized that Giorgios was probably protecting PLF’s privacy…it was perfectly understandable but I made up my mind to take a more direct approach. I wrote another, longer letter of appreciation (I wrote about eight drafts before I was satisfied) and screwed enough courage up to go to what I was almost sure was PLF’s house to give it to whomever answered the door. Just as I was about to knock an Englishman in his forties opened the door and walked out to the driveway. He introduced himself as Hamish Robinson and confirmed that PLF did indeed live there. Hamish added PLF wasn’t very well at the moment but he would gladly pass on the note of appreciation and went back inside. I decided to walk south several miles to the next village called Stoupa. I had done everything realistically possible to meet PLF and if I wasn’t able to at this point I accepted that it just wasn’t to be. Walking along the coastal road with its stupendous views of the Messenian Gulf to the west and the snow-capped Taygetus Mountains to the east, I felt fortunate and privileged to be there at all.
Returning to Kardamyli later that afternoon in a state of calm resignation, my interlocutrix from the bus the previous day came running down the road. “Ryan, where you been? We been looking for you all day. Patrick Leigh Fermor wanted to have a drink with you but we couldn’t find you.” Patrick Leigh Fermor wanted to have a drink with me? Suddenly a car pulled up. It was Hamish. “We were looking for you earlier today –come round for lunch at 1:00 tomorrow,” and then drove off. I couldn’t believe my luck…all the persistence had paid off…I was actually going to have an audience with Patrick Leigh Fermor after all — it was more than I could have asked.
The appointed hour couldn’t come fast enough and it was in state of mild disbelief that I found myself being admitted into PLF’s house by his housekeeper and into the sitting room (which doubled as a dining room), with prodigious book shelves on three sides. I found myself standing in front of a distinguished, slightly frail looking man wearing a blazer and a tie. It was Patrick Leigh Fermor. Shaking my hand, he briefly mistook me for somebody else before apologizing with, “I’ve got this blasted tunnel vision and I can’t see that well…so you’re the young man…so glad to meet you.” His hearing and his eyesight were poor and I had to speak loudly to be heard. Hamish Robinson was there as well (his presence helped facilitate conversation) and for the next two and a half hours the words flowed, abetted no doubt by the several vodka and tonics that were consumed as well as the generous glasses of retsina that accompanied lunch. Conversation ranged from Lord Byron (PLF: “I didn’t care for him much when I was younger but now I adore him”), the Greek Orthodox Easter service, and the fate of King Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066-to name a few of the topics discussed. When I told him I had visited Romania several years before he asked me, “Did you go by foot?” Unfortunately, of course I had to answer no. He also asked me questions about Seattle (“Where does the name come from?”). He had only visited the United States once -when he was invited by a Cretan-American association in New York as an honoured guest to commemorate the anniversary of The Battle of Crete.
PLF’s short-term memory was a bit faulty at times, he would forget the course of the conversation a bit but if I asked him about something from decades past or a literary reference he could recall it with instant clarity. For example, I showed him my copy of The Words of Mercury and asked him the significance of the title. “It’s from Love’s Labour’s Lost. You know that in the last act there’s a play within the play that’s performed for the amusement of the King of Navarre and the Princess of France. At the end of it they receive news that the King of France has died and the Princess and her entourage must leave. The last line of the play is ‘The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo’. It’s rather a strange play.”
Surprisingly he seemed a little fussier and more self-deprecating than I would have thought. When I quoted from his writings a couple of times he responded, “That’s a bit fruity” or, “What absolute drivel.” I mentioned that I had tried to contact his literary agent in London but without success. His reply: “Oh do you know, I’ve never met him either.” Time passed quickly and after the meal was finished we walked onto the terrace of his house, overlooking the sea. I thanked him for the invitation. He replied, “If you’re ever in these parts again, do come round.” And then he retired for his customary afternoon nap, “Egyptian PT,” in his words. Hamish showed me the adjacent building where Paddy does his writing, giving me a recent photograph of him taken on his 94th birthday as a memento, and then with good-byes and sincere thanks, I gracefully made my exit. I felt a mixture of elation –having the extraordinary privilege of actually being a guest of the celebrated author in his home — and a bit of melancholy in seeing him in his twilight years. It was surely the only occasion I would meet him, and there was so much more I wanted to ask that would never be said. I also suppose, perhaps there was the realization that for all this accomplishments and marvelous writing he was still human after all.
The next day I left Kardamyli. Spending even a week in the Mani gives Patrick Leigh Fermor’s life and work so much more immediacy. When I read a passage in Mani describing the view looking out towards the Messenian Gulf with “dragon headed capes in the distance,” I know exactly what this looks like because I have seen this view myself. That means almost as much as having met the man, and both memories will last for the rest of my life.
This was presented at the RGS in the afternoon talk on 12 December “Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Appreciation by Alexander Maitland, FRGS”.
My thanks to the Royal Geographic Society for permission to present this.
Download a pdf of this document here.
…. 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
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]
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.
Bo Nensén, Örnsköldsvik, Sweden
Before he was a writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor was merely a war hero, having earned his first fame from deep-cover exploits with the Greek Resistance. During World War II he hid in the rugged mountains of Crete, leading cat-and-mouse strikes against the German occupiers—experience that surely served him well a couple years later when, as he describes in his account of postwar travels in the Caribbean, The Traveller’s Tree, he ventured once again into hostile territory: the Dunghill in Kingston, Jamaica. This rickety slum, the “refuge of all the robbers and footpads and murderers of Jamaica,” was also the stronghold of the “passionately anti-white” Rastafari. Despite being warned that even police officers and black Jamaicans scarcely dared enter their compound, he strolls in with only feigned ignorance for armor. “I was just going for a walk,” he explains when accosted. “What are the Rastafari?”
First published in Book Forum
Before long, the droopy-lidded devotees of Jah are not only answering his question in detail but also “hospitably” rolling him a joint “unwieldy as an ice-cream cone.” Here already in Leigh Fermor’s first book, originally published in 1950, is the winning mix of nerve, curiosity, and cheer, so charming to readers and other cultists, that marks his two-part masterpiece, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), an account of a rather longer walk, from Holland to Turkey. But unlike those volumes, The Traveller’s Tree, which skips along the Antillean island chain from Trinidad to Cuba, was written within only a year or two of the trip it records. Leigh Fermor’s European trek, on the other hand, had four decades to mellow and ramify in memory before he wrote about it. For all its remarkable vivacity, that later work doesn’t preserve the sort of small irritations that give some passages here a cranky (and often very funny) edge, complementing his usual lyricism. He notes that “hotel cooking in [Trinidad] is so appalling that a stretcher may profitably be ordered at the same time as dinner,” complains of the “thuggish vegetation” that blankets the southerly islands, and, on realizing that he has been the victim of a friendly prank, emits a “H’m” of pique.
The pranksters are three black waitresses—not a coincidence in a book that unavoidably centers on racial tension. Leigh Fermor revels in genealogy and loves explaining why who ended up where, historically speaking; elsewhere, he focuses on the “ethnological rock-pools of Europe,” peripheral groups whose racial history, rightly or wrongly, often feels slightly academic. But here, in presenting a “report on the birth pangs of our postwar world,” as Joshua Jelly-Schapiro puts it in his introduction, Leigh Fermor confronts again and again the raw wounds of incipient decolonization. A chance meeting with a Guadeloupean woman sets the tone: “You’re white and we’re black,” she shouts. “What of it?”
He worries at that question throughout with an open-mindedness unusual for his class and era (notwithstanding the use of terms, such as childish and primitive, that have long since been struck from the anthropological lexicon). He doesn’t just condemn segregation, he seems actually to feed on cultural miscegenation. The “blood-curdling gentility” of white Barbados looks all the more pathetic when juxtaposed with his portrait of “startlingly cosmopolitan” and “fantastically carefree” Trinidad—itself a mere appetizer compared with his thirty-eight-page treatment of Haitian voodoo (a certain slackness of narrative is one of the flaws he had yet to iron out). It supplements diligent fieldwork—he counts seventy distinct voodoo spirits—with library digging, Leigh Fermor being a man so book-drunk that he compares the delicate task of harvesting hearts of palm to the “handling of a codex.” In fact, he seems to stop at every library and graveyard in the islands, grateful for these rare outcroppings of history in the “recent world of the Antilles.”
Some people travel to blot home, or the past, from their minds. Not Leigh Fermor, who always keeps one compass leg fixed in his intellectual home—literary Europe. The book closes with words from his seatmate on the return trip, an emigrant Greek, and opens by describing his trip as an Odyssey. Sixty years and seven books later, that almost seems like an understatement. After all, Odysseus left home only once.
First published in The Times Literary Supplement, 6 July 2011
There was a time in the early 1950s when, upon arrival in the TLS office of a book about cannibalism or Voodoo, the editor would drop it in an envelope and say, “This is one for Paddy”. Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died last month at the age of ninety-six, is now best known for his connection to Greece and his youthful trek across Central Europe in the direction of Constantinople (as he insisted on calling it). But in his first book, The Traveller’s Tree, an account of a journey by schooner through the Caribbean islands published in 1950, he was in pursuit of “the whole phenomenon of Afro-American religion”. Before long, the TLS was commissioning the former mountain guerrilla fighter and Intelligence Corps Liaison Officer to write on related matters. He could open a review of a book on Haiti in 1953 by telling readers that “The bibliography of Voodoo – or Voudoun, as some purists insist, with little basis, on spelling it – mounts impressively”. A discussion of cannibalism in the correspondence columns of the TLS was just the sort of thing to elicit a contribution from Fermor: “Apropos of the recent letters about the ethical and culinary aspects of cannibalism, may I quote from a book I wrote years ago . . .”.
There followed a list of the gustatory advantages of various folk, according to the palates of the Caribs who “invaded the Caribbean chain, eating all the male Arawaks they could lay hands on and marrying their widows”. The book he wished to quote from was, of course, The Traveller’s Tree (it was by now 1980), which included this pre-Columbian version of a restaurant review:
“French people were considered delicious, and by far the best of the Europeans, and next came the English. The Dutch were dull and rather tasteless, while the Spanish were so stringy and full of gristle as to be practically uneatable.”
In later years, Paddy – as he was known to friend, reader and stranger alike – wrote for this paper on various topics, including Crete, scene of his wartime adventure. In the common run of Grub Street, there are many people one could call on to evaluate an anthology of nonsense – but Poiémate me Zographies se Mikra Paidia, which Paddy reviewed in 1977, was nonsense in modern Greek. In December 1979, he contributed a clamorous, ringing poem on the subject of Christmas:
What franker frankincense, frankly, can rank
in scents with fawn-born dawning
Weak we in Christmas week, lifetime a shriek-
ing streak – lend length and strengthen!
Poultice the harm away, charm the short
solstice day! Send strength and lengthen!
Among other curiosities we found on rooting through the archive was this plea from May 1968: “Patrick Leigh Fermor, author, traveller: biographical information, letters, personal reminiscences for biography”. The requester was J. Marder, writing from Athens. What became of it, and him? An authorized biography by Artemis Cooper is expected to appear at the end of next year.
We have received this “personal reminiscence” from a correspondent:
“In 2005, I was commissioned by a newspaper to write a profile of Patrick Leigh Fermor. A preliminary meeting took place at the West London home of Magouche Fielding, widow of Xan, PLF’s comrade-in-arms, but my editor insisted that no piece about Fermor could appear without a first-hand account of the house which he designed and helped build in the mid-1960s in Mani, at the southernmost tip of the Peloponnese. So it was that, after an overnight stay in Athens and a five-hour drive to the village of Kardamyli, I rang Paddy from a seaside pension.
“‘Good Lord. You’re here already!’ he exclaimed, though all proper warning had been issued. ‘Look here. Come to supper straight away. It’ll be a rotten supper. But come to supper straight away.’ Desiring nothing more than an ouzo followed by a soft pillow, I had the presence of mind to resist. Paddy was understanding. ‘Look here. Come to lunch tomorrow. It’ll be a much better lunch.’ Suppers and lunches, it transpired, were prepared by different maids.
“At about one the following day I set off for the two-kilometre walk from Kardamyli, with directions from a villager. ‘As the road bends to the left, you take the footpath to the right. Go through the olive grove, and arrive at Mr Fermor’s door.’ What could be simpler? There was indeed a bend in the road and a footpath to the right. But there was also another, closer to the bend, up ahead. Then another. After involuntary exploration of hitherto uncharted olive groves and what seemed a sizeable stretch of the Mediterranean coast, I squelched into Paddy’s house from the shore, to find him seated on the sofa reading the TLS. ‘Good Lord. I think you’re the only creature, apart from a goat, who has come in that way. We must have a drink straight away.’ The last was among his favourite phrases.
“Lunch lasted some six hours. (Lemon chicken, with litres of retsina or red Lamia.) Songs in various languages were sung, including a rendering of ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ in Hindustani. Lost lines of poems were sought. An anecdote about my lately deceased father and his claim to have seen salmon leaping in a narrow Perthshire stream, confirmed only after his death, threw Paddy into a search for the perfect epithet: ‘The corroborating salmon. The justifying salmon. The proving salmon’. Well into the evening, I prepared to leave. ‘Look here. Come to lunch on Sunday’ (this was Friday). I said I would on be on my way back to Athens. He was startled. ‘Good Lord. You’re leaving already? Then come to supper tomorrow.’ I did so, after an all-day hike in the Tagetos mountains which rear up behind the house that Paddy built, as the Gulf of Messenia opens before it. This time, I arrived punctually, to be admitted by the allegedly rotten cook (in fact supper tasted very good). She directed me to Paddy’s study in a separate building in the garden. I knocked before entering, to find him at his desk, alone in Mani on a late March evening, dressed in Jermyn Street shirt, pullover and grey flannels, reading a Loeb Horace. Towers of manuscripts could not obscure him. Among them, perhaps, was a draft of the third and concluding part of his epic walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople – the first, though not the last, heroic adventure of Patrick Leigh Fermor.”
First published in the Boston Globe 6 February 2011
It’s impossible for me to put into words how much I would not like to take a winter vacation in the Caribbean. I have never had to, but do have fixed ideas of what it would entail, namely: air travel, the company of people in pastel clothing and not enough of it, and an oppressive, even dictatorial atmosphere of relaxation and fun. It would be different, of course, if I had interesting, well-to-do acquaintances with welcoming houses living on those islands and was traveling in the company of a couple of entertaining friends — and it was no later than 1950. Yes, I could bear that; and, indeed, just that very state of affairs may be found in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s richly detailed and ebullient “The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey through the Caribbean Islands,’’ first published in 1950 and now reissued (New York Review Books Classics, paperback, $19.95).
Fermor, born in London in 1915, is now best known for his accounts of walking from Rotterdam to Istanbul in the 1930s in “A Time of Gifts’’ (1977) and “Between the Woods and the Water’’ (1986). At the time of his trip to the Antilles in 1947, however, he was famous for his exploits in occupied Crete during the war, most especially his kidnapping of the German commander, General Kreipe.
“The Traveller’s Tree’’ was Fermor’s first book and, as Joshua Jelly-Schapiro notes in his excellent introduction, it is very much of its time, “brimming with the gratitude for life particular to a European generation that had just buried half its members.’’ Further, it is “suffused with the wondering spirit of an engagé asking after what will become of these New World islands which are passing from Old Europe’s imperial shadow.’’
It is clear to Fermor that American consumerism is going to be a powerful force in the region, signaled most aggressively by “the Coca-Cola plague.’’ (“It becomes the air you breathe, a way of life, an entire civilization — the Coca-Cola age, yoke-fellow of the age of the Atomic Bomb.’’) But, if Fermor is not happy with evidence of an Americanized future, he is also disparaging of certain manifestations of a colonial past, especially British ones. The middle-class British way of life in the Barbados reflects, he says, “the social and intellectual values and prejudices of a Golf Club in Outer London . . . which are not England’s most interesting or precious contributions to world civilization.’’
What he really likes and describes with infectious elation is the riot of diversity and exotic fusion that these islands have individually acquired from their vicissitudinary histories. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions of the past have left their furious marks, while side narratives of European history appear everywhere, written in frantic and fantastical hands. In Barbados he finds a ragged community made up of the descendants of the duke of Monmouth’s followers deported from England in the 17th century, and still “in the same humble plight as when they were first herded ashore.’’ In Jamaica he spends a pleasant time with the Maroons still living in the mountains where their ancestors, run-away slaves, had formed their own kingdom, finally acknowledged in a treaty with George II. He likes the way many women in the French Antilles wear costumes that hark back to 18th-century France, and he likes the cathedral in Guadeloupe constructed (he says) out of Meccano (the British equivalent of Erector Set).
He arrives in Haiti and grows exultant: “The sides of the road pullulated with country people chattering, drinking rum, playing cards and throwing dice under the trees. The air was thick with dust, and ringing with incomprehensible and deafening Créole. I felt I might like Haiti.’’ He does, for the most part, paying long and elaborate attention to voodoo and other island cults. His descriptions of what he witnesses are rich, spirited, and filled with curious detail. He attends a cockfight and describes the birds’ handlers filling their mouths with water and pressing “the birds to their lips, sucking and soaking the feathers so that they should cling to the body and afford no hold for the enemy.’’ As it happens, he and his friends find they cannot take the blood and gore and slink away.
Throughout the book he traces each island’s history. Race is a continuing preoccupation for Fermor and, it must be said that by today’s standards, his unabashed laying down of opinion on the racial characteristics of peoples from different parts of Africa and with the various kinds and degrees of black and white mixtures is unseemly. On the other hand, that is the world of the late 1940s, and he is positively reticent in these matters when compared with Lafcadio Hearn, who visited some of the same islands 60 years earlier. But, there again, we really cannot criticize people for writing as our age would have it. Both travelers, in fact, find the varieties of race and racial mixtures part of the exhilarating vividness and dash that so distinguished the islands from Europe.
I don’t know why it has taken me so long to become smitten with Hearn, but it has finally happened. Born in 1850 in Greece, he grew up in Ireland and moved to the United States when he was a young man. After that he had a strange career, impossible to summarize except to say he became a writer, traveled a lot, lived in Cincinnati, Louisiana, Martinique, and, finally, Japan, where he died. The Library of America has devoted a huge volume to his writings ($40) and that is where I turned after polishing off Fermor, specifically to Hearn’s “Two Years in the French West Indies.’’
The years in question were in the late 1880s and his prose, gorgeous and bounteous, reflects the period’s fascination with the exotic — and the macabre. The pages he devotes to the treacherous viper, the fer-de-lance, aroused an exquisite horror in me such as I have not felt since I was a child. His description of St. Pierre, Martinique, “the quaintest, queerest, and the prettiest withal, among West Indian cities,’’ is especially transfixing as the place was completely destroyed by the eruption of Mount Pelée 15 years after he wrote those words. “Is the great volcano dead?’’ he asks, answering “Nobody knows.’’ Except we do, safe in our snowbound fastness, happier than ever that we’re staying at home with this wonderful book.
Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Traveller’s Tree – read more articles here
A selection of highly sought after first editions of Ian Fleming’s legendary James Bond books were sold by Gloucestershire auctioneers Dominic Winter at a sale on 16 December 2010.
Casino Royale, the book that introduced 007 to the world, was anticipated to be a highlight of the auction. This rare first edition with its original dust-jacket was expected to fetch £12,000, but in fact went for £19,000.
Other first editions included a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s first book ‘The Traveller’s Tree’ (1950), signed by Ian Fleming. There are also a few of Fleming’s marks in the margins on Haitian Voodoo, which he used for the scene-setting pages at the beginning of ‘Live and Let Die’.
This inspiration for one of the greatest Bond books was expected to fetch up to £800. In fact it finally went for £1,700.
I wonder if anyone can help? Andrew Booker Rennie has posted a question on the Welcome page as follows. I am sure he would be grateful for any assistance. Please reply by adding a comment below or emailing me and I will pass on to him.
“I am researching the development of steel-drum music in Trinidad. PLF came to Trinidad and in the Traveller’s Tree described vividly what he saw of steel-band then. The problem is that no where in this account did PLF indicate what year he visited Trinidad. It is absolutely essential that I identify the year, 1945, 1946 or 1947. Can any one of Paddy’s researchers provide this information?”
First publushed in the Daily Telegraph 12 Oct 2003
Paddy Leigh Fermor has lived one of the great picaresque lives of the 20th century. He left a minor public school under heavy clouds with no money and a penchant for wandering. From 1934, for five years, he sustained a lotus existence in eastern Europe and the Balkans, by charm, genteel begging and Byronic good looks. His parents must have despaired of him during this longest gap year in history.
One of Evelyn Waugh’s characters observed in 1939: “It’s going to be a long war. The great thing is to spend it with friends.” Leigh Fermor pursued this policy with notable success. His 18 months as a British agent in Crete made him a legend, not least for the kidnapping of the German General Kreipe, theme of the later film Ill Met By Moonlight.
After the war, Paddy resumed his leisurely course. One can no more imagine him occupying an office desk, queueing for the weekly envelope, than some marvellous beast of the African bush taking up employment as a security guard. He wandered the world until, in 1950, he suddenly produced a small literary masterpiece about the Caribbean, The Traveller’s Tree.
Thereafter, at irregular intervals, he has written travel books and fragments of autobiography. On his visits to England, rural grandees and metropolitan hostesses fight for the privilege of his society. The home he created with his wife Joan on the south shore of the Peloponnese at Kardamyli is a small work of art in its own right, owing much to their pets, or – as he writes here – to four-footed “downholsterers and interior desecrators”. How he loves language and words!
What is charm? In Leigh Fermor’s case it is an infinite curiosity about other people. He treats Bulgarian peasants and English dukes exactly alike. John Betjeman once spoke of Paddy “sitting there listening to you, his eyes sparkling with excitement as he waited to hear what you might say next”. Generosity of spirit is among his notable qualities.