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So No More He’ll Go A-Roving

Patrick Leigh Fermor was a maker of paradisiacal sentences that leave the reader hungry for life.

Toward the end of his life, the great writer, war hero and traveler Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died on June 10 at age 96, grew deaf and suffered from poor eyesight, sometimes wearing a rakish eye patch to correct his vision. But when I saw him last September he was still volubly alert, his memory undimmed as he retold stories of World War II. His hair was thick, hardly grayed, and his hands resting on the tablecloth resembled knots of wood. We were seated outside for lunch beneath the Byzantine-styled arches of his villa in southern Greece. Ilex trees cast shadows on the stone walls, and waves washed the rocky beach nearby.

It was good to be back.

by David Mason

First published in The Wall Street Journal, 18 June 2011.

Thirty years ago, my first wife and I had lived in a tiny stone hut next door to this magnificent house on a bay called Kalamitsi, land once considered sacred to the Nereids, sea nymphs of Greek myth. A young would-be writer, I was given the great gift of friendship by Paddy and his wife, Joan. They meant as much to me as models of gracious living as anyone I have ever known. Joan (tall, angular, quiet, unfailingly wise) died in 2003, and Paddy soldiered on in her absence, buoyed by friends and his own unkillable enthusiasm for life.

In September, Paddy talked of the British retreat from northern Greece nearly 70 years earlier, how he and several companions in a Special Operations Executive unit found themselves making a mad dash south with a suitcase of money meant to shore up the Greek war effort. They bought a fishing boat, but it was shot out from under them by dive-bombing Stukas, “sending the suitcase and all that money straight to Davy Jones”—and several British commandos, Paddy among them, into the Aegean to swim for their lives. Following more trials, they made it to Crete in time for another battle and another retreat.

Paddy would return in 1942 to the island by parachute to live in the caves and mountains among shepherds and guerrilla fighters. He is best known for having kidnapped the German commander of the Cretan occupation in 1944—a story often related with romantic dash and brio and even made into a movie. Dirk Bogarde portrayed Paddy onscreen in “Ill Met by Moonlight” (1957). Yet Paddy himself avoided starring roles. The movie was based on a fellow officer’s book on the raid, and Paddy preferred translating a Greek account by George Psychoundakis, “The Cretan Runner” (1955), to writing his own.

Never inclined to introspection, Paddy was endlessly curious about the world, and that curiosity distinguished his life and writing from our confessional age. He insisted that the reference library be near the dining-room table for consultation during mealtime arguments. Once, as he recounted in his lecture, “The Aftermath of Travel,” he started researching “the distribution of crocodiles on the Upper Volta River, where I had never been or ever wanted to go. I took down the right volume of the Encyclopedia, but must have opened it at the wrong page, for three weeks later I had read the complete works of Voltaire, but I still knew nothing about the distribution of those crocodiles.”

What made Paddy famous as a writer—or as famous as a writer’s writer can be—was his narrative of walking from Holland to Constantinople in the early 1930s. The writing was spurred by the unexpected recovery of diaries that he had assumed were lost forever, and what resulted was a pair of masterpieces, “A Time of Gifts” (1977) and “Between the Woods and the Water” (1986). A third volume completing the journey is still awaited. The glacial pace of Paddy’s writing frustrated many readers, but his weaving and unweaving of sentences resulted in some of the richest English prose we have. Here he is in Vienna with a young Frisian Islander who learned his English from reading Shakespeare:

Our way back took us along the Graben and the Kärntnerstrasse. About lamplighting time, I had noticed a small, drifting population of decorative girls who shot unmistakable glances of invitation at passersby. Konrad shook his head. “You must beware, dear young,” he said in a solemn voice. “These are wenches and they are always seeking only pelf. They are wanton, and it is their wont.”

The particular exuberance of his prose came from endless revision, where he added layer upon layer of detail as his mind leapt nimbly across cultures and centuries. He wrote to me in 1985 about the second volume: “I have just put the mss on the Oitylo-Athens bus where it is to be met by the typist, who will get to work on it at once: now for pruning, revision, scissors and paste, the moment I get it back.” His manuscripts were fringed with emendations, often covered with fanciful scrawls and illustrations.

I have a copy of one of them, “Notes on the Hellespont,” sent to me after he had celebrated his 70th birthday by swimming that legendary strait. The typescript is covered not only with marginal arrows and alterations but also with seagulls, clouds and waves drawn with his fountain pen. “I was swimming sidestroke, and began to notice a strange fluctuating and hissing noise under my submerged left ear; it was very eerie, like an echo in a vast dark room below, and I thought it must have been the grinding of pebbles and silt at the bottom of the sea.” Continue reading