Tag Archives: William Dalrymple

Walks amid the watchtowers of the Mani

An early 19th-century watchtower, now the Tainaron Blue Retreat guesthouse, overlooking the coastline of Cape Matapan

The most recent of quite a number of articles about visiting the Mani that I have seen of late. This being the best, written by William Dalrymple.

First published in the Financial Times, 28 August 2015.

I first came to the Mani through the pages of my literary hero and travel writing guru, Patrick Leigh Fermor. Paddy, who was once described by the BBC as a “cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene”, published Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, in 1958. It was the first non-fiction book he wrote about Greece, and in many ways it is his most passionate: a love song to the middle prong of the trident-shaped southern coast of the Peloponnese. This was the place where he had been happiest, and the destination he would eventually pick in which to settle down, and spend the final years of his life.

For Paddy, the Ottoman Mani was to Greece what Cornwall was to 18th-century Britain: the most remote of places, cut off from the rest of the country by distance, unpredictable tides and wild cliffs, the abode of brave brigands, chivalrous smugglers and gentleman pirates. It was, he liked to point out, the southernmost point of mainland Greece: only a few islands intervene between Cape Matapan, the tip of the peninsula and location of the cave which the ancients believed to be the Mouth of Hades, and the shoreline of north Africa.

Many years later, shortly before his death in 2011, I went to stay with Paddy at the house he built in the Maniot village of Kardamyli. His villa was the most perfect writer’s house I have ever seen, designed and partly built by the man himself in an olive grove a mile outside the town, and with a view out to a small coastal island. Each morning, until a heart bypass prevented him, he would swim around the island, before returning home for breakfast.

Since Paddy’s death, however, the house has been given to the Benaki museum in Athens, and on my most recent visit I could only drive past it with a melancholic wave. Instead I headed on a further 90 minutes southwards, past tavernas hung with vine trellising, past chapels with red pepper pot domes, through stripfields and a patchwork of walled olive groves. These lower slopes rose to steep and arid hilltops, and it was on one of these, above the whitewashed village of Kotronas, that lay the beautiful house where I would be staying. It dominated a blue, mirror-like bay on the south-east coast of the peninsula and it was here, watching the ships come and go below, and with the mountains rising on all sides, that I planned a succession of treks into the deep Mani to see for myself the landscapes that Paddy had described so lovingly in his book.

To my surprise, the more I walked in the cactus-haunted hills, through spires of yellow verbascum and the seed heads of dried grasses as straight as miniature cedar trees, the more I found that the wildness of the Mani reminded me less of the bucolic Mediterranean than the bleakly beautiful mountains of the north-west frontier of Pakistan. For both the turbulent Maniots and the Pashtuns have an ancient tradition of blood feuds, which has led them to live in the fortified towers that are still the dominant architectural feature of their regions. In both, every man is a chieftain, and every farm a fort.
Tourism bounces back

“In these contests,” wrote Paddy, “the first blow was never struck without warning. War was formally declared by the challenging side. The church bells were rung: We are enemies! Beware! Then both sides would take to their towers, the war was on, and any means of destroying the other side was fair.” These included, apparently “bombarding them from above with boulders and smashing their marble roofs; so the towers began to grow, each in turn, during periods of truce, calling his neighbour’s bluff with yet another storey.” Paddy was fascinated by the proximity of the combatants in these feuds, “the equivalent, in distance, of the cannonading of Brooks’s by White’s, Chatham House by the London Library . . . or of the Athenaeum and the Reform by the Travellers’.”

There was apparently only one thing that could reconcile the warring hamlets of the Maniots: “a Turkish inroad, when, suddenly, for brief idyllic periods of internal harmony, their long guns would all point the same way.”

Such a moment came in 1826 when the Ottoman commander Ibrahim Pasha arrived, intent on crushing the resistance of the most independent-minded of all the Sultan’s Greek subjects. From the point of view of the Sublime Porte, the Maniots were merely pirates and brigands, and a thorn in the flesh of honest Turkish shipping going about its business in the Mediterranean. The Maniots had a rather different view of themselves: as the flower of Hellenic chivalry and the last pure-blooded descendants of both the ancient kings of Sparta and the emperors of Byzantium. Both sides were spoiling for a fight; and they got it.

To block Ibrahim’s advance, the Maniots concentrated their forces at Verga, the entrance to the desolate passes of the Taygetus mountains, in the extreme north of the region. Ibrahim therefore decided instead to launch a surprise marine attack on Areopolis, far to the south, which the patriots had left undefended. Ibrahim successfully landed 1,500 Egyptian troops on the shingle beaches in Diros Bay, south of Kardamyli, a magnificent natural cauldron where the peaks of Taygetus dip down to the blue waters of the Aegean, so clear, even today, that it is said you can still see the wrecks of galleys lying on the seabed below. Soon the Ottoman troops were marching inland, up the coastal paths, looting as they went, and heading for the walls of Areopolis.

Ibrahim Pasha had achieved complete surprise; but he had not taken the women of the Mani into his calculations. As the church bells pealed from their Byzantine belfries, several hundred women who had been out in the fields harvesting converged on the Ottoman rear with their sickles and farm instruments. In an indignant song still sung in the region, the woman allegedly declaimed:

O Turkish men, have you no shame
To war with womenfolk?
We are alone, our men are gone
To fight at Almiro.
But we with sickles in our hands
Will lop off your heads like corn!

Within a few hours, those Egyptians who lived to tell the tale were running headlong for their boats. Only a third were rescued; the rest fell where they stood on the beach. That, at least, is the version of the story they tell today in the Mani.

Modern travellers to the region may end up feeling a certain sneaking sympathy with the Egyptians; for the descendants of those feisty Maniot women are still alive and well, and today they guard the keys to their village churches as determinedly as they once defended Areopolis. As Paddy knew, and wrote about so beautifully, the Mani contains some of the most ancient and Byzantine chapels and basilicas in Greece, dotted around olive groves above steep coastal cliffs; but any traveller who wants to get inside and see their celebrated frescoes must first find the guardian grannies who keep the keys, and then persuade them to disgorge them and to let you into their carefully tended holy places.

Watchtowers in the town of Vathia

Watchtowers in the town of Vathia

This can be more difficult than it sounds. On one occasion, trying to get inside the famed 11th-century church of the Taxiarches at Charouda, I was directed to the door of Antonia, a black-clad matriarch in widow’s weeds who looked so ancient she could almost have lost her husband to Ibrahim Pasha’s Egyptians. Yes, she said, with deep suspicion in her voice, she did hold the keys, but no, this was the time of her lunch. I should come back in an hour. I did as I was bid, only to find she was taking her siesta. Deciding to walk along the coast until she woke, I returned only to be told she was unable to take me to the church as she was feeding her great-grandchildren. Then she was putting out fodder for her donkeys: wouldn’t I like to come back tomorrow morning?

It was well past 7pm when, after a lot of begging and pleading, a huge primeval key was finally, reluctantly flourished and I followed the bent-backed matriarch to the church on the edge of the village. The sun was now slowly sinking over the hills at the end of a hot day; from the higher slopes, the tinkle of unseen goat bells cut through the background whirr of cicadas as shepherds led the flocks back for their night.

The church — in truth it was barely larger than a chapel — was very small, but very beautiful. It had a domed, tiled roof and round arcaded windows, whose brick tiles were made from fired red mud. It lay in a rocky graveyard dotted with oleanders and ilexes at the edge of olive groves, and was built from stone the colour of halloumi cheese. Only when Antonia finally ground the key in the wards of the ancient lock, and had crossed herself several times, was I allowed to step inside.

Nothing prepares you for the darkly melancholic and baleful beauty of the wall paintings of the Mani churches; but remote as it is, the church of the Taxiarches at Charouda is especially fine. The anonymous painter had a particular quirk of giving some of the saints a black triangular lower eyelid. The intention seem to be to enhance their gaunt asceticism and melancholic sadness, but I thought it gave them a look oddly like the buffoonish Pierrot in the Commedia dell ’Arte.

A grim-faced Christ Pantocrator glowers down from the decorative brickwork of the dome, hands opened and upheld as if in surprise at the wonders of his own creation. Below him, ranks of cherubim and seraphim stand with their wings raised. A phalanx of prophets line the lower drum; nearby stylites preach from pillars; and patriarchs in monochrome vestments like Malevich abstracts grip their bibles and proudly display the instruments of their martyrdom. More martyrs have their flesh ripped and eyes gouged out over the walls of the nave, the background landscapes to both virgins and saints as high and mountainously craggy as the Taygetus themselves, the men and the jagged rocks of the mountains sharing a clear affinity, and a similar angularity.

The most beautiful images of all lay at the west end, near the porch where the matriarch Antonia still stood silhouetted by the last rays of the sun. That light, reflecting off the foot-polished stone floor, illuminated a pair of youthful Byzantine soldiers: a young, swaggering St George astride his white charger, all glittering armour and levelled spear, while standing at ease slightly to his left, leaning on his javelin, was a swarthily beautiful St Demetrius with a glistening mail coat, a bow slung over his shoulder and sporting a single, rather dandyish earring; the very model of Maniot resistance to the encroachments of the outside world.

Looking both at Antonia, and the St Demetrius, it was no longer impossible to believe the old legends: that these remarkable, tough, independent Maniots really were the last descendants of Spartans who took refuge here when their hegemony beyond the Taygetus was finally destroyed, their struggle finally over.

Read more about where William Dalrymple stayed here.



In the footsteps of Marco Polo: the journey that changed William Dalrymple’s life

Taken from the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of William Dalrymple’s first book In Xanadu: A Quest, and first published in The Spectator on 24 June 2015

At the end of the windy, rainy April of 1986, towards the end of my second year at university, I was on my way back to my room one evening, when I happened to trudge past my college notice board.

There my eyes fell on a bright yellow sheet of A4, headlined in capital letters THE GAILLARD LAPSLEY TRAVEL SCHOLARSHIP. It hadn’t been a good week. I was 21: broke, tired of revision for exams and already longing for the holidays. But stopping to look closer, I found that the notice was an announcement concerning a fund that had been established in the memory of some recently-deceased history don; its stated aim was to fund research travel for the college’s mediaeval historians. There were, I knew, barely a handful of mediaevalists in the college.

I walked straight over to the library, found a large quarto edition of The Times Atlas of World History and leafed through the pages to see what was the longest and most ambitious mediaeval journey I could think of following: the longer the trip, I figured, the larger the grant I could apply for.

An hour later I had typed out an application for an expedition to follow the outward journey of my childhood hero, Marco Polo, from Jerusalem to Kubla Khan’s Xanadu in Mongolia. The place names were the stuff of fantasy, and so, I felt sure, was the application. But I happened recently to have seen an article announcing that the Karakorum Highway linking Pakistan to China had just been opened to travellers. This meant that following Polo’s journey was technically feasible for the first time since the Soviet invasion had cut the hippy’s overland route a decade earlier. I posted the application in the letterbox of the don responsible, then went back to my revision and forgot all about it.

A month later, I was returning to my rooms from the last of the year-end exams when I found an embossed college envelope had been slipped under my door. Inside was a short letter and a cheque for the princely sum of £700: much the largest cheque anyone had ever written me. To my immense excitement, but also real foreboding, I found I had just committed myself to an enormously long and dangerous journey through a part of the world I was almost entirely ignorant about. To make matters worse, I had just been chucked by the girlfriend with whom I had planned to make the journey.

It was not a promising start; but the expedition which followed remains by far the most exhilarating I have ever undertaken: nothing I have done since, in half a lifetime of intense travel, has ever begun to equal the thrill of that 16,000-mile three month journey, walking, hitchhiking and bussing from one side of Asia the another. It was also a journey that, in a very real sense, changed my life forever.

I had already travelled in India, and the previous summer had hitchhiked from Scotland to Jerusalem following the route of the First Crusade. I read more widely still among the English travel writers, and Eric Newby, Bruce Chatwin, Peter Fleming, Patrick Leigh Fermor and especially Robert Byron were then my literary Gods, at whose altars I worshipped with an almost fundamentalist fervour. Now I was determined to write my own travel book, and from the first morning of the trip, on arrival in Jerusalem, I kept detailed notes with a view to producing a book that I wanted to be an updated homage to Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, a text I loved so much and had read so often, that I knew great chunks of it by heart.

The result was In Xanadu: A Quest. The book, which was first published quarter of a century ago, in 1989, had a lucky reception. The early 1980’s was a time of disenchantment with the novel, and travel writing seemed to present a serious alternative to fiction. A writer could still use the techniques of the novel – to develop characters, select and tailor experience into a series of scenes and set pieces, arrange the action so as to give the narrative shape and momentum – yet what was being written about was true. Moreover, unlike most literary fiction, travel writing sold.

The success of Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, with its sales of 1.5m copies, had dramatically breathed life into the sort of travel memoir that had flourished in an earlier age, but which had languished since the European empires imploded after the Second World War. Its success inspired Bruce Chatwin to give up his job as a journalist and to go off to South America. The result – In Patagonia – was published in 1977, the same year Leigh Fermor produced A Time of Gifts. The final breakthrough came in 1984 with the publication of the celebrated travel writing issue of Granta: ‘Travel writing is undergoing a revival,’ wrote Bill Buford, the magazine’s editor, ‘evident not only in the busy reprinting of the travel classics, but in the staggering number of new travel writers emerging. Not since the 1930s has travel writing been so popular or so important.

So In Xanadu came out at just the right moment, when travel writing was at its most popular. Partly as a result of this lucky timing, the book got generous reviews, was an immediate bestseller and won a small clutch of prizes. It allowed me for the first time to think of writing as a feasible career. It nonetheless remains a text I have always felt deeply ambiguous about.

For In Xanadu records the impressions, prejudices and enthusiasms of a very young, naïve and deeply Anglocentric undergraduate. Indeed my 21 year old self – bumptious, cocky and self-confident, quick to judge and embarrassingly slow to hesitate before stereotyping entire nations – is a person I now feel mildly disapproving of: like some smugly self-important but charming nephew who you can’t quite disown, but feel like giving a good tight slap to, or at least cutting down to size, for his own good.

And yet this book brings back so very many happy memories. It retains, bottles and distills all the good humour, cheerfulness and joie de vivre of one of the very happiest periods of my life, a period when every day contained an adventure, a discovery or an epiphany. Re-reading it now, on the cusp of my 50th birthday, what was even more pleasurable than being reminded of forgotten places and adventures, was that sensation of recovering the raw intoxication of travel during a moment in life when time is endless, and deadlines, responsibilities and commitments are non-existent; when the constitution is elastic, and the optimism of youth undimmed; when experience is all you hope to achieve and when the world is laid out before you like a map, ready and waiting to be explored.

The great Swiss travel writer, Nicolas Bouvier, wrote that being on the road, ‘deprived of one’s usual setting, the customary routine stripped away like so much wrapping paper,’ reduces you, yet makes you at the same time more ‘open to curiosity, to intuition, to love at first sight… Travelling outgrows its motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you—or unmaking you.’

For better or worse, In Xanadu made me. I am still with the editor who bought the book for Collins, Michael Fishwick: we have now worked on eight books together about the Middle East, and South and Central Asia – the world opened up for me by that 1986 journey. Shortly after it was published, I married my very charming flatmate, who had edited much of the manuscript, even though she was then working for finals. Together, we moved out to Delhi. She wanted to paint; I wanted to begin work on the book which became City of Djinns. Thirty years later, we’re still there, with three children, the eldest of whom is now herself at university, planning her own ambitious trips around the world.

I still see my two long suffering travelling companions. Lousia is now a skilled picture restorer, married a very handsome and rich young man, and they live in some style in the Anglo-Welsh marches south of Hay on Wye. Laura went on – to no one’s surprise – to become one of the country’s most successful – and formidable – businesswomen and pops up in the press every now and then having climbed some dizzying new corporate pinnacle.

Many of the countries we passed through have fared less happily. Syria, so hospitable to us, is now gripped by civil war and the Islamist anarchy of Isil. Pakistan, so thrillingly wild yet alluring then, is now a much more dangerous and tortured country than it was in the 1980s. Conversely, China – then a land of bicycles, Mao suits and tannoys blaring strident political slogans down every main street – has become the world’s newest economic superpower, something unimaginable at the time. So much has changed.

Travel writing has also changed. If travel writing used principally to be about place – about filling in the blanks of the map and describing remote places that few had seen – the best 21st-century travel writing is almost always about people: exploring the extraordinary diversity that still exists in the world beneath the veneer of globalisation. As Jonathan Raban memorably remarked: ‘Old travellers grumpily complain that travel is now dead and that the world is a suburb. They are quite wrong. Lulled by familiar resemblances between all the unimportant things, they miss the brute differences in everything of importance.’

Raban is not alone in this conviction. Colin Thubron, perhaps the most revered of all the travel writers of the 80s still at work. He is also clear that the genre is now more needed than ever: ‘Great swaths of the world are hardly visited and remain much misunderstood – think of Iran,’ he told me recently. ‘A good travel writer can give you the warp and weft of everyday life, the generalities of people’s existence that is rarely reflected in academic writing or journalism, and hardly touched on by any other discipline. Despite the internet, google maps and the revolution in communications, there is still no substitute.’

In Xanadu records a world that has in many ways already disappeared, and it is an oddly avuncular pleasure to see one’s own memories slowly turn into the raw material of history. Yet for all its youthful innocence and naivety, and the excruciating sense of entitlement exuded by the narrator, as well as the occasional downright silliness of the opinions he expresses, I am still immensely proud of this book, and prouder that the Folio Society have chosen to reissue it. This, after all, was the journey and the book which started everything for me. I feel immense nostalgia looking through the photographs the Folio Society has painstakingly selected from bundles of my old negatives, and hope that the text too still retains some interest, 25 years on: a message in a bottle from a lost moment in time and space, fished ashore and opened up anew.

An awfully big adventure: William Dalrymple on Paddy Leigh Fermor’s wartime exploits

William Stanley Moss, Leigh Fermor and Emmanouil Paterakis before the kidnap of General Kreipe. Photo: The Estate of William Stanley Moss

It is always good to read stuff by William Dalrymple. He is one of the writers whom I enjoy whatever he happens ot write, and I like listening to him too. In this New Statesman review he compares Abducting a General with Kidnap in Crete by Rick Stroud.

by William Dalrymple

First published in the New Statesman 4 December 2014

On 20 May 1941 the German army launched its airborne assault on Crete with the largest parachute drop in history: in less than an hour 15,000 men fell slowly into the olive groves and vineyards of the island. They had no idea that the British, using Ultra intercepts, knew of their plans and were sitting waiting for them. Resistance was so staunch – as much from ordinary Cretans as the Greek, New Zealand or British army units stationed there – that the elite Fallschirmjäger regiment was almost entirely wiped out in one day.

The story of that extraordinary civil resistance, and the long saga of the continued Cretan defiance of the Nazis throughout the rest of the war, is now well known. Perhaps the most famous moment of all is the abduction of the Nazi commandant of the island, General Heinrich Kreipe, on 26 April 1944 by a team of Special Operations Executive agents led by Paddy Leigh Fermor, later one of the great contemporary prose stylists and travel writers of our time.

There already exist at least four excellent accounts of this story. The first off the block, only five years after the war, was William Stanley Moss’s yarn Ill Met By Moonlight, which became a popular Powell and Pressburger film with the role of Paddy played by Dirk Bogarde. Five years later, a Cretan perspective came from a messenger in the resistance, George Psychoundakis, whose Greek manuscript, The Cretan Runner, partly written in prison, was translated into English by Paddy. I was a devoted disciple of Paddy, and the last time I went to stay with him in Greece he gave me his own annotated copy of Psychoundakis’s book. I have it by me as I write.

In 1991 the young Antony Beevor wrote the episode up in the first of his celebrated sequence of Second World War books, as Crete: the Battle and the Resistance. Finally, two years ago, Beevor’s wife, Artemis Cooper, brilliantly retold it in her biography Patrick Leigh Fermor: an Adventure.

Given the startling quality of these four accounts it is fair to ask if there is anything a new account can possibly add. The answer in this case is, surprisingly: a lot. Abducting a General brings into print for the first time Paddy’s own account of the kidnap, originally written for Purnell’s History of the Second World War, but up to now never published at full length (5,000 words were commissioned; Paddy characteristically delivered 30,000; 25,000 words were cut, and appear here for the first time, other than a brief extract in Cooper’s 2003 anthology Words of Mercury). The book also contains Paddy’s intelligence reports, sent from caves deep within Crete. Meanwhile Kidnap in Crete by Rick Stroud provides a rollicking outsider’s account, written with great verve and dash, containing much telling new material, some of which is gathered from previously untapped Cretan sources.

In 1941 the Allies seemed on the verge of defeat. The Nazis, who had already swept through most of northern Europe, had succeeded where the Italians, their Axis allies, had failed in Greece, and within a few weeks had broken through and taken Athens. Now they wished to take Crete and hold it as a staging post for evicting the British from Egypt and North Africa.

Given the advance knowledge of Nazi plans, Crete should have been the first German defeat of the war. But a fatal misunderstanding, which led the British wrongly to expect a substantial naval assault, turned the battle into a defeat. Despite record casualties the Germans managed to take several crucial airfields and land large numbers of reinforcements. By 27 May the British had begun to withdraw, but could rescue only half their soldiers: 16,000 were ferried to Egypt, but 17,000 spent the rest of the conflict as prisoners of war.

Nevertheless, communications remained open between the Allies in Alexandria and the spirited Cretan Resistance, and by early 1942 plans were afoot to raise morale through a series of intelligence operations. These were designed to disrupt the German occupation and avenge its horrors – mass executions and the punitive massacre of entire villages.

As a fluent Greek speaker, the 26-year-old Leigh Fermor was quickly singled out for intelligence work on the southern front and was sent first to Albania, 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 German invasion. From there he was evacuated to Alexandria, where he set up house with several other SOE 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 Captain Leigh Fermor was sent back to Crete to work with the resistance. He and an odd collection of recently enlisted Greek-speaking classical scholars and archaeologists were parachuted into occupied Crete disguised as shepherds. For a year they lived a troglodyte existence in sheepfolds and under the stalactites of Cretan mountain caves, commanded by Tom Dunbabin, a former classicist who was a fellow of All Souls.

Occasionally, Paddy, dressed in a double-breasted suit as “a Heraklion gadabout”, would descend to the capital to gather intelligence. There he delighted in tempting fate by carousing at parties where German officers were present, on one occasion even teaching them the pentozali, a traditional Cretan dance said to make the dancers dizzy five times over. Paddy’s bravado once came close to backfiring when his companion Micky Akoumianakis offered everyone cigarettes that were quickly recognised as English, “and the dance came to an abrupt halt when the Germans asked him where he had got them. Thinking on his feet, Micky said he had bought them on the black market, which had been flooded with stuff left behind by the retreating allies. The soldiers fell for the story, drank more raki and the dizzying lessons went on.”

The port from which Paddy set off was captured by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps the day after he left. “It was a bad, low moment in the war,” he once told me. “The Germans seemed to be advancing in triumph in all directions.” He described watching wave after wave of Luftwaffe planes heading over in formation, and wondering if there were any hope of defeating the advance. It was partly for this reason that his bosses gave permission for his wild scheme to raise morale by kidnapping the German commander of the island.

The general’s routine was studied and the various possibilities for ambushing considered. In the end it was decided to stop his car at night on a deserted stretch of road between the officers’ mess, where Kreipe liked to play cards of an evening, and Villa Ariadne, his residence on the edge of the Palace of Knossos, where he would return each night for his dinner. The plan was to knock out the driver with a cosh and bundle the general on the floor of the staff car, with a knife to his throat, while Leigh Fermor would take his place, and his hat, and impersonate him as they drove to safety. That he was a man of the strictest routine and great punctuality made the idea in the end irresistible.

In Paddy’s own account of the abduction of Kreipe, the climax comes not as the general’s staff car is stopped at 9.30pm by a British SOE party dressed in the stolen uniforms of German military police, nor as they drive coolly through no fewer than 22 German checkpoints in the city of Heraklion with the general lying gagged at their feet, nor as the Cretan partisans help smuggle Kreipe into the Cretan highlands and thence 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 is the opening line of one of the few Horace odes I know 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.

In her biography, Artemis Cooper has already drawn attention to the terrible moral dilemmas Leigh Fermor suffered during his work with the Cretan resistance, when the Nazis would wipe out whole villages in response to a single ambush. She also writes illuminatingly about the moment Paddy accidently shot his Cretan friend Yanni Tsangarakis, embroiling himself in a blood feud that was resolved only in the 1980s.

Rick Stroud’s account in Kidnap in Crete also examines these matters at length and provides what is probably the fullest, most fluent record of the kidnap yet written, while giving the Cretan partisans a more central role than they have received in any account since that of Psychoundakis. Weighing up the operation in the final chapter, he concludes that, “seen in isolation, the abduction was exactly what Kreipe called it: ‘a Hussar stunt’ – dangerous, exhilarating and with elements of an undergraduate prank about it. But Kreipe’s capture was one in the eye for the oppressors and a great morale booster for the islanders. Whatever it cost in life and property, many saw it as worth it. Even so, it is impossible to argue that the kidnap caused no reprisals.”

Reading these two accounts, it is easy to see why Pressburger originally landed on the Kreipe Operation for a movie: it inspired further fictional accounts (and then films) of similar operations, by Alistair MacLean in books such as The Guns of Navarone, which were once essential reading for all schoolboys of my generation. Having tried out these films on my kids, and seeing how slow they now look by contemporary standards, I can only hope that some producer quickly buys up the rights for both these books. It’s clearly time for a reshoot. l

Buy Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation and SOE in Crete

Buy Kidnap in Crete: The True Story of the Abduction of a Nazi General

Buy William Dalrymple’s Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan

William Dalrymple and Artemis Cooper discuss Abducting a General on BBC’s today programme


Justin Webb introduces this package on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme on Thursday 9 October 2014. Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor was one of the world’s great travel writers. In the grand old tradition he was a scholar and a war hero and a general all-round high achiever. Top of his achievements was the capture of a German general on Crete – and today for the first time his account of that capture is published. Travel Writer and historian William Dalrymple and biographer Artemis Cooper discuss.

You can listen to the programme on BBC iPlayer for a further four weeks if the BBC let you listen in your country. Click here to find the webpage for Thursday then slide the cursor to 02.23 to start the interview which lasts about six minutes. I had problems using it with Firefox. OK with IE.

Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation and Soe in Crete by Patrick Leigh Fermor is available to purchase. Click on the highlighted text.

Travel Writing Giants – Remembering Peter Matthiessen and Patrick Leigh Fermor

Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen

BBC Radio Four rarely disappoints. At least not over the course of a few hours where there will be enough variety and quality for everyone. On Good Friday the Point of View programme was given over to William Dalrymple William who celebrated the writing of Peter Matthiessen who died this month. Dalrymple compares him with another of his favourite travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor. “Both were footloose scholars who left their studies and libraries to walk in the wild places of the world, erudite and bookish wanderers, scrambling through remote mountains, notebooks in hand, rucksacks full of good books on their shoulders.”

Listen here on BBC iPlayer. The programme begins after about 30 seconds. If you are in a location where this is not possible, the text is below.

Happy Easter to all of you.


William Dalrymple pays tribute to two fellow travel writers – Peter Matthiessen, who died recently, and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

The great American writer Peter Matthiessen died earlier this month at his home in Sagaponak, New York, after a prolonged struggle with leukaemia. He was 86.

Matthiessen was one of my great literary heroes, a wonderfully versatile and profoundly truthful writer whose sentences oozed integrity and an austere clarity of thought and spirit. His writing drew on his richly restless and enviably courageous life, which was as remarkable an artefact as anything he actually wrote. He remains the only author to win the National Book Award for both fiction and non-fiction.

Matthiessen, a craggily handsome man, with clear blue eyes and a face that seemed to have been sculpted out of basalt, was at different times a naturalist-explorer and a deep sea fishermen, a pioneering environmentalist and editor, an artist and activist defending the rights of migrant labourers and Native Americans, as well as a CIA agent who underwent a strange metamorphosis into literary shaman and Buddhist sage. He lived and travelled in a variety of wild landscapes (rainforests, oceans, mountains, deserts and swamps) around the globe, and he set his books in these remote places – the Peruvian Andes and the jungles of New Guinea, Tierra del Fuego and the Tibetan Plateau, the Serengeti and the Bering Straits.

He is perhaps best known for a single great masterpiece, The Snow Leopard, a jewel of a book and one of the great travelogues of our time. The book tells the story of a long journey on foot to the Crystal Mountain in the Himalayas to study the wild blue sheep and to catch a glimpse of the rare and almost mythical snow leopard. But for Matthiessen, a Zen Buddhist recovering from the recent death of his wife, it was more of an inner journey of recovery and resignation than some zoological field trip.

In many ways, Matthiessen resembles Patrick Leigh Fermor, another lyrical writer who travelled widely and lived richly, setting his books across the globe. Like Matthiessen, Paddy – as everyone knew him- lived an enviable life. In his teens he walked from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, while in his sixties he swam the Hellespont, in homage to Lord Byron who swam it in 1810. In between, he joined possibly the last cavalry charge in European history, participated in a Haitian voodoo ceremony, and pursued a passionate affair with a Byzantine princess. He was car-bombed in Greece, knifed in Bulgaria and pursued by German troops after being parachuted into occupied Crete where he kidnapped the Nazi commander.

Paddy and Peter were very different men of very different generations. Matthiessen was a blue-blooded New Yorker, descended from Friesian whalers, and grew up on post-war Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, in the same building as George Plimpton, with whom he later co-founded the Paris Review. The American 1960s marked him forever. He experimented with psychedelia, especially LSD, became an anti-Vietnam activist and his friends were the great New York writers of that era – Kurt Vonnegut, EL Doctorow and William Styron. Leigh Fermor, by contrast, had the speech patterns, polished brogues and formal manners of a pre-war British officer, and his conversation was peppered with the likes of “ripping”, “topping”, “I say!”, “frightful rot” and so on. His friends tended to be Brits of a similar background and era – Noel Coward, Dirk Bogarde, Diana Cooper, the Mitfords and later, Bruce Chatwin.
Nepal Himalayas Matthiessen describes the Nepal Himalayas in lyrical terms

It is also true that these two great descriptive writers wrote very dissimilar prose. Matthiessen’s writing had a spare and austere simplicity, yet was as beautiful and craggy as his wonderfully weather-beaten face. Here he is waking up in the Nepal Himalaya: “A luminous mountain morning. Mist and fire smoke, sun shafts and dark ravines: a peak off Annapurna poises on soft clouds… Pine, rhododendron, barberry and purple gentians. Down mountain fields, a path of stones flows like mercury in the sunlight; even the huts have roofs of silver slates.”

In contrast, Paddy’s books, with what Lawrence Durrell called their “truffled style and dense plumage”, were sometimes “madly, intoxicatingly over-written”. Yet at his best he was a soaring prose virtuoso with hardly an equal in modern English letters. For many of us his descriptions of walking through midwinter 1930s Germany have the status of sacred texts: “Sometimes the landscapes move further back in time,” he writes in the Winterreise chapter of his masterpiece, A Time of Gifts. “Pictures from illuminated manuscripts take shape; they become scenes which Books of Hours enclosed in the O of Orate, fratres. The snow falls; it is Carolingian weather… Then the rooks fell silent; the light dwindled over the grey fields; and life ebbed with a shudder like a soul leaving the body.”

Yet these two very different writers had so much in common. Both were footloose scholars who left their studies and libraries to walk in the wild places of the world, erudite and bookish wanderers, scrambling through remote mountains, notebooks in hand, rucksacks full of good books on their shoulders. Both were writers of great sensitivity and erudition, yet both were also men of action who became intelligence agents – Leigh Fermor in wartime Crete, while Matthiessen worked for the CIA in post-war Paris spying on American expatriate communists suspected of KGB links.

Both men moved easily from the world of the flesh to the world of the spirit and back. They understood what Paddy described in A Time to Keep Silence as “the capacity for solitude that accompanies the silent monastic life”.

The same was true of Matthiessen, who while the lively centre of many a mescaline-fuelled literary party in his youth, ended his day as a Roshi, or Zen Master. “Zen is really just a reminder to stay alive and be awake,” he said in one of his last interviews. “Zen is about appreciating your life in this moment. If you are truly aware for five minutes a day, then you are doing pretty well. We are beset by both future and the past, and there is no reality apart from the here and now.”

The world of literary travel writing, usually associated with the drumbeat of hooves across some distant steppe, has recently begun echoing instead with the slow tread of the undertaker’s muffled footfall. Within the last few years or so, Wilfred Thesiger, Norman Lewis, Ryszard Kapuscinski and Eric Newby have all – like Peter and Paddy – gone on their last journey. But for me, Leigh Fermor and Matthiessen remain, along with Bruce Chatwin, the greatest of them all.

On my last visit to see Paddy at the villa he built in Kardamyli, deep in the Greek Mani, I went with him to see the Byzantine chapel around which Chatwin had had his ashes scattered. The chapel was very small with a domed, red-tiled roof and round arcaded windows. It was a perfect place for anyone to end their days, and as we headed back I asked Paddy whether he would like to be buried there too.
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“Oh no,” he replied instantly. “My wife, Joan, is buried in Gloucestershire. I’d like to end up there. England is not a foreign country to me.” The same was true of Matthiessen who in the end found peace in Sagaponak, where he set up a Zen meditation centre at the back of his estate.

It’s a characteristic of many of the greatest travellers that they come back home in the end. TE Lawrence, another wandering writer turned intelligence agent, was the same. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom he wrote about what is I think a surprisingly common dilemma, and one I certainly recognise in my own life – that of the traveller who moves abroad, embraces another culture, immerses himself in it, and then finds that he has been changed forever by the experience and cannot ever fully return.

I had dropped one form and not taken on the other,” wrote Lawrence, “the inevitable fate of the man who could see things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments.” Matthiessen could not have put it better.

A Point of View is broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 BST. Catch up on BBC iPlayer


A man of gifts

A review of Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by William Dalrymple which is a must read. He knew Paddy and wrote one of the best profiles of Paddy for the Daily Telegraph in 2008 which you can read here.

by William Dalrymple

First published in the Financial Times, 2 November 2012.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died last year aged 96, had a facility for bringing together worlds usually considered incompatible. Here was a war hero who was also one of the great English prose stylists; who adored Greece and Britain with equal passion; and who was celebrated for his love of both high and low-living. His masterpiece, A Time of Gifts (1977), an account of the first stage of his 1933-34 walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (“like a tramp, a pilgrim, or a wandering scholar”) has his 18-year-old self moving from doss-houses to Danubian ducal fortresses: “There is much to recommend moving straight from straw to a four-poster,” he writes, “and then back again.”

One of the world’s great walkers, Leigh Fermor was also a writer of great erudition and intelligence, reading widely in at least eight languages. He was gregarious and talkative, loved “saxophone-haunted nightclubs” and, according to Artemis Cooper’s magnificent new biography, was an enthusiastic explorer of Mediterranean brothels. Yet he also appreciated the ascetic and understood “the capacity for solitude and the recollectedness and clarity of spirit that accompany the silent monastic life … [where] the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away.”

Cooper’s book is the perfect memorial to this remarkable man. She had known him (he was Paddy to his friends) since her childhood and has written a lovingly admiring account of his life which is as full of joie de vivre as its subject. She is not uncritical, and is aware of Leigh Fermor’s frailties: his insensitivities and infidelities. She shows that he was not always the ebullient figure often sighted, glass in hand, at book launches: he frequently suffered from depression and writer’s block. She reminds us that editing a piece of lifeless prose was to him, “deadening, heartbreaking mortician’s work,” like “rougeing and curling a corpse.”

The mythic outlines of Leigh Fermor’s life are well-known. His most famous moment was in April 1944 when, against almost impossible odds, he led the British team that kidnapped the Nazi commander of Crete; but the rest of his life was no less filmic. He went to an experimental school, later closed down, where nude eurhythmics welcomed the rising of the sun. He took part in one of the last cavalry charges on European soil and had a prolonged love affair with a Byzantine princess, the last of the Cantacuzenes. He became the focus of a Cretan blood feud, and attended Molotov cocktail lessons in Palestine and voodoo ceremonies in Haiti. He was beaten up by Irish huntsmen after asking if they buggered their foxes and his car was bombed by communists. Well into his sixties, in homage to Byron, he swam the Hellespont.

He also found the time to pen some of the most beautiful travel books ever written. While his prose – with its “truffled style and dense plumage”, according to Lawrence Durrell, “madly, intoxicatingly overwritten” – is beyond any sane attempt at imitation, his travel books became models for generations of British writers of non-fiction, including Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron, Rory Stewart and Robert Macfarlane. All were inspired by the character he created, that of the erudite literary wanderer striding over mountain passes, notebook in hand.

In several places Cooper gently polishes away at the accumulated crust of legend that has begun to cling to Leigh Fermor’s breastplate. She reveals, for example, the moral dilemmas he suffered during his work with the Cretan resistance, when the Nazis wiped out whole villages in response to an ambush.

Cooper also shows that Leigh Fermor didn’t resign from the British Council in Athens after the war as he used to claim: he was sacked by the other great Hellenophile of his generation, Steven Runciman, who didn’t know what to do with Leigh Fermor and wasn’t prepared to pay for him to sit in his office “throwing a party, sitting with his feet on the desk and entertaining a stream of Cretan visitors,” as one colleague recalled. The classicist Maurice Bowra, also in Greece at the time, declared Leigh Fermor, probably correctly, as “unfit for office work.”

Cooper also reveals that, unlike almost all the other British writers of the 1930s, he was actively and successfully heterosexual from the outset. The walk across Europe was accompanied by many a tumble in a village haystack that the author, with his prewar codes of reticence and honour, does not even hint at in his books. He seems to have remained a generous lover until the end. “Most men are just take, take, take,” reported one of his girlfriends, “but with Paddy it’s give, give, give.”

His one drawback in this department seems to have been his tendency to attract pubic lice: “The crabs of the world seem to fly to me,” he writes apologetically to another girlfriend who complained she had found an embarrassing parasite on her eyebrow. “On getting your letter, I made a dash for privacy and thrashed through the undergrowth, but found everything almost eerily calm … The whole thing makes me scratch my head, if I may so put it.”

The last decade has seen the death of the many of our greatest travellers – Wilfred Thesiger, Eric Newby, Norman Lewis – and it is interesting that almost all of them came home in the end. Despite his years in Greece and the Balkans, and for all that he dreaded the damp of England – which he described as “like living in the heart of a lettuce” – Leigh Fermor remained almost absurdly English; to the end, he was completely certain that he wished to be buried in England rather than his adopted home of Greece. His funeral took place at Dumbleton in Worcestershire, where he lies beside his wife, Joan.

For those of us who loved him and his work, and for a whole generation of writers who set off in his footsteps, he was the exemplar, showing how magnificently an English life could still be lived. He remains – pubic lice apart – the model to which we still aspire.

William Dalrymple’s next book, ‘Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan’ is published by Bloomsbury in February.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure will also be the BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week from 19th November onwards.

You can buy Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure here.

Don’t forget to visit Artemis Cooper’s Facebook page for further information.

Related article:

Patrick Leigh Fermor: The man who walked – the excellent profile of Paddy by William Dalrymple.

Home truths on abroad – where now for travel writing?

William Dalrymple recalls an encounter with Paddy in the Mani in 2008, discusses the impact of Bruce Chatwin, and asks where next for travel writing.

First published in The Guardian, 19 Sep 2009

William Dalrymple

What is to become of travel writing now that the world is smaller? Who are the successors to Chatwin, Lewis and Thesiger? William Dalrymple names a new generation of stars and sees a sparkling future for the genre – one less to do with posturing and heroic adventures than an intimate knowledge of people and places

Last year, on a visit to the Mani in the Peloponnese, I went to visit the headland where Bruce Chatwin had asked for his ashes to be scattered.

The hillside chapel where Chatwin’s widow, Elizabeth, brought his urn lies in rocky fields near the village of Exchori, high above the bay of Kardamyli. It has a domed, red-tiled roof and round arcaded windows built from stone the colour of haloumi cheese. Inside are faded and flaking Byzantine frescoes of mounted warrior saints, lances held aloft.

The sun was sinking over the Taygetus, and there was a warm smell of wild rosemary and cypress resin in the air. It was, I thought, a perfect place for anyone to rest at the end of their travels.

My companion for the visit was Chatwin’s great friend and sometime mentor, Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was Chatwin’s only real rival as the greatest prose stylist of modern travel writing. Leigh Fermor’s two sublime masterpieces, A Time to Keep Silence and A Time of Gifts, are among the most beautifully written books of travel of any period, and it was really he who created the persona of the bookish wanderer, later adopted by Chatwin: the footloose scholar in the wilds, scrambling through remote mountains, a knapsack full of good books on his shoulder.

Bruce Chatwin, 1940-1989

Inevitably, it was a melancholy visit. Not only were we there to honour the memory of the dead friend who had introduced us, but Leigh Fermor himself was not in great shape. At dinner that night, it was clear that the great writer and war hero, now in his mid-90s, was in very poor health. Over dinner we talked about how travel writing seemed to have faded from view since its great moment of acclaim in the late 1970s and 80s, when both Leigh Fermor and Chatwin had made their names and their reputations. It wasn’t just that publishers were not as receptive as they had once been to the genre, nor that the big bookshops had contracted their literary travel writing sections from prominent shelves at the front to little annexes at the back, usually lost under a great phalanx of Lonely Planet guidebooks. More seriously, and certainly more irreversibly, most of the great travel writers were either dead or dying.

Wilfred Thesiger (1909-2003), who was in many ways the last of the great Victorian explorers, produced no less than four exemplary books in his final decade. More remarkable still, Norman Lewis was heading for his centenary when he published The Happy Ant-Heap in 1998, a characteristically bleak collection of pieces about trips to places so obscure, so uncomfortable and often so horrible, that they would tax anyone, never mind a man in his early 90s who should by rights have been shuffling around in carpet slippers, not planning trips to visit the smoked ancestral corpses of the highlands of Irian Jaya, or the torture chambers of Nicaragua, or any other of the grisly diversions Lewis settles on to bring “some stimulation and variety” to his old age.

One typical adventure of the nonagenarian Lewis took place on a trip to Kos. On reading a story in the local paper about a police investigation into rumours that “women on the small island of Anirini were disposing of unwanted husbands by throwing them down dry wells”, he merrily set off on a boat with three sponge fishermen and a prostitute they had picked up on the Piraeus waterfront (“they spent the crossing sleeping, eating and making love – the last on a strict rota”) in search of this barren island populated by homicidal widows. Before long Lewis, then aged 92, had hopped ashore, rented a room from one of the chief suspects, and was soon cheerfully peering down well-heads in search of rotting cadavers. Continue reading

Hay Q and A: Who are the three greatest living writers?

Well done William!

The Hay Q&A

We asked some of the leading authors at this year’s Guardian Hay festival a series of questions. Here are their answers

Q4: Who are the three greatest living writers?

William Dalrymple: “Among novelists, Cormac McCarthy; among travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor; among short story writers, Jhumpa Lahiri.”

From the Guardian.

Walking towards Byzantium

A Review of Artemis Cooper’s “Words of Mercury” by William Dalrymple published in the Guardian.

First published in the Guardian 13 December 2003

William Dalrymple relishes Words of Mercury, a selection from the work of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Britain’s greatest living travel writer.

Skill with the sword usually precludes much competence with the pen. For all that Sir Philip Sidney could write sequences of Petrarchan sonnets as well as lead buccaneering raids on the Spanish Netherlands, or Siegfried Sassoon write his anti-war memoirs while also winning the Military Cross, bookishness and military machismo are rarely found roosting together (after all, it’s no secret, as the old joke goes, that military intelligence is a contradiction in terms).

The great exception to this rule in our own time is Patrick Leigh Fermor. For though he is one of our finest prose stylists and – since the death this summer of his only possible rival, Norman Lewis – without question our greatest living travel writer, he was also responsible for one of the most audacious special operations coups of the second world war.

Leigh Fermor’s own account of the abduction of General Kreipe, the German commander of the Nazi occupation forces in Crete, is published for the first time in Artemis Cooper’s wonderful new anthology of Leigh Fermor’s work, Words of Mercury. The story is a famous one, and in the film version, entitled Ill Met by Moonlight, Paddy was played by the dashing Dirk Bogarde. But in Leigh Fermor’s own account, the climax comes not as the general’s staff car is stopped at night by a British SOE party dressed in stolen German uniforms, nor as the Cretan partisans help smuggle the general into the Cretan highlands and thence 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 Socrate’. It was the opening lines 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: beautifully written, fabulously romantic and just a little showy. For Leigh Fermor’s 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, Paddy has been responsible for some of the most highly coloured purple passages in travel literature. But at his best he is sublime, unbeatable.

For as well as being a war hero, one of the world’s great long-distance walkers, and as tough a traveller as you could find, Leigh Fermor has always been a writer of great intelligence, sensitivity and profundity. Here he is, for example, describing a French Cistercian monastery, where he says he discovered “the capacity for solitude and the recollectedness and clarity of spirit that accompany the silent monastic life. For in the seclusion of a cell – an existence whose quietness is only varied by the silent meals, the solemnity of ritual and long solitary walks in the woods – the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world.”

Words of Mercury is a cornucopia, full of the rarest gems, but it is also a rather odd book: part collected journalism, part greatest hits anthology, with a few other surprising odds and ends thrown in, such as a memoir about the eccentric Scottish genealogist Sir Ian Moncrieffe of that Ilk. This tells of Moncrieffe’s huge pleasure in discovering that he was directly descended from “The Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory, Monster of Csejthe [who] was convicted in 1610 of the slow murder – in order that their blood might magically preserve her beauty – of more than six hundred girls.” In a similar mood, there is also a letter from Paddy to the editor’s grandmother, Lady Diana Cooper, and a footnote directing the reader towards the “strongly recommended” work of the military historian Antony Beevor, who just happens to be the editor’s husband (though in fairness, it appears that this warm endorsement comes from Leigh Fermor rather than Cooper).
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