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The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo: Meeting Patrick Leigh Fermor

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.

Paddy on his 94th birthday (February 11, 2009)

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.

Related article:

Images of Iasi

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Snail’s pace to Byzantium: journey of a lifetime

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

by Ann Elder

First Published in Athens News, 9 Jan 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Conington’s translation)

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

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

He’s the top

The following review of Words of Mercury was first published in The Spectator. It is unusual as it was written by the Marques de Tamaron who was the Spanish Ambassador in London in 1999-2004. He and his wife stayed with Debo  at Chatsworth in November 2000 (see p 322 In Tearing Haste). The Marques is clearly a fan!

by  Santiago Tamaron

First published in The Spectator Oct 4, 2003

The perfect anthology, like the perfect hors d’oeuvre, should turn us into gluttons. The many small dishes add up to a balanced and nourishing meal, but they are so exquisite that they whet one’s appetite for more. And the anthology should also include unexpected delicacies, things that even the literary gourmet had not heard about.

This book fulfils both requirements but also a third, more difficult one: it presents a complete portrait of the author. The compiler, Artemis Cooper, writes an introduction which is a model of informative brevity, but also succeeds – with her selection of essays and book chapters, plus an unpublished letter and a dazzlingly original poem, under the headings of Travels’, ‘Greece’, ‘People’, ‘Books’ and ‘Flotsam’ and with a few explanatory words now and then – in capturing the essence of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the man as well as the literary oeuvre. If there was ever a writer of whom it can be said that le style c’est l’homme, it is he. And the essence of Paddy (as the compiler and many others call him) is not his superb English or his arcane erudition, but his obvious and contagious enjoyment of everything he writes about.

Of course, if he enjoys the sights and sounds and smells of the landscapes he travels through, and the words he hears and reads in a dozen languages or two, if he admires the stones and paintings, the plants and trees and the strangely shaped clouds and mountains in the Balkans or the Danubian basin or the Himalayas, if he cares and makes you care about Mozarabic liturgy (in Latin only, naturally, and only in Toledo), or about Phanariot genealogy or Bulgarian shepherd dances or the punctilio of Cretan blood-feuds, it is because all these wonders are not dry-as-dust erudition for Paddy, they are perfectly alive, in his memory and, through his magical language, in our minds.

It is not that he refuses reality and the unprecedented scale of the destruction brought upon civilisation by the bestiality of the 20th century. He knows and indeed he tells us that the island of Ada Kaleh in the Danube, with its melancholy and beautiful remnant of Ottoman life, was flooded by the Iron Gates dam built in 1971. He knows that the happy Transylvanian country house of his friend Tibor (‘jolly, baronial, rubicund, Jager-hatted and plumed, an ex-Horse Gunner’) had been turned by the communists into a lunatic asylum. Even sadder, when he returned to Baleni, the house in Moldavia belonging to his friend Balasha Cantacuzene and her sister, where he lived during the months before the start of the second world war (the most poignant memory in this book is the perfect early autumn mushroom-gathering picnic on the last day of peace), he found that ‘the house had completely vanished. Some industrial buildings, already abandoned, had taken its place, and the trees had been cut down long ago.’ The author is fully aware that many of the things he loves have been destroyed, but I think that he also realises that the joy and pain and privilege of a writer is to save the memories and thereby the physical beauty of past glories, and this he does supremely well and with an immense joie de vivre.

Two months ago he told friends that he had read in the morning Othello, which had depressed him so much that in the afternoon he had read A Midsummer Might’s Dream, which had greatly gladdened him. Clearly Shakespeare, like so many other muses and marvels, is no museum piece for Paddy but part of his daily life. That is why he is truly cultured and never pedantic.

He is a generous writer. I have never found an ounce of spite or envy in his books, or sarcasm in his occasional irony (‘the agglutinative harshness of the Turks, laced with genteel diaereses, sounded like drinking out of a foeman’s skull with a raised little finger’). He genuinely likes and understands Greeks and Turks, Magyars and Rumanians, Germans, Austrians and Jews, even enemies in times of war like General Kreipe whom he abducted in Crete. There is not a dull character in the vast gallery in these pages where barons, bandits and beggars abound, where scholars and poets are colourful and ladies are beautiful (although the latter circumstance is usually left untold, for Paddy is most un-Byronic in his reticence about his own loves).

Some years ago, a group of friends gathered to celebrate Paddy’s birthday. John Julius Norwich wrote and sang a new version of ‘You’re the Top’ in his honour:

You’re the million volts of the thunderbolts of Zeus, /You’re Leda’s swan, you’re the square upon the hypotenuse! …/And you’ll fill and thrill our hearts until we drop: /So from Bath to Burma, Fermor, you’re the top!

Most readers of Words of Mercury will, I think, agree with this assessment.

The Marques de Tamaron is the Spanish Ambassador in London.

Voyages around a genius

At some point, when I get truly organised, it is my intention to create a section on the blog for all the book reviews I can find that relate to Paddy’s work. Until that time I beg your indulgence for yet another review of Words of Mercury. However, this has two strong claims to your time and attention. Firstly it is short, and secondly it is a delightful read!

ByRoger Hutchinson

First published in LivingScotsman.com 15 November 2003

If you or I were to take a hike in December down a deserted Black Sea coastline in Bulgaria, miss our way after dark, fall into a deep, cold pool and lose our torch and boots, we would certainly drown on the spot or die shortly afterwards from exposure.

When Patrick Leigh Fermor does exactly the same thing he crawls out alive and is adopted within the hour by half-a-dozen Greek fishermen who dry him, clothe him, sit him beside a bonfire, feed him slivovitz and mackerel, play bouzoukis, sing songs and perform antic dances through the night. Some travel writers are born or made; others have it wished upon them.

Leigh Fermor is undoubtedly the greatest travel writer to have emerged from the 1980s genre-boom. Comparisons with the likes of Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron, William Dalrymple, Jan Morris and even the mythical avatar of them all, Robert Byron, are fruitless – Leigh Fermor out-travels them, out-scholars them and out-writes them by a country mile.

He writes English, in fact, as well as anybody else alive and a great deal better than most. Leigh Fermor’s prose style is a wonderful thing. He was born with an uncanny facility for languages and the ability to pick up a local demotic – any local demotic – almost on contact. His deployment of his native language is consequently blessed with a huge and exotic vocabulary, instinctively flawless grammar and what he usefully describes – while attributing the advice to Auberon Herbert – as “the importance of keeping a proper balance between words of Anglo-Saxon and Latin root … a Latin preponderance endangered one’s themes and sent them ballooning away in abstract drifts … that could only be rescued by tethering them to the ground and reality with short Anglo-Saxon pegs.”

This hardworking, heavenly English has been set loose in half a dozen books on the most suitable of themes: the life and times of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Since he set off to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in 1933 at the age of 18, Leigh Fermor has led so adventurous an existence that without evidence to the contrary we would be tempted to dismiss it as fantasy.

But the evidence is there. He really did stay in fairytale castles and sleep with glamorous mittel-Europeans. He really did parachute into occupied Crete, swagger around with banditti and kidnap a German general. He really did explore the West Indies, climb the Andes and the Himalayas, write books in monasteries, follow the rainbow and return always to his adopted homeland of Greece. He is impossibly, infuriatingly, irresistibly romantic.

He has written sparingly. There has been almost a decade between each of his last four books. As the last pair of those – A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water – were the first two volumes of a trilogy recalling that magnificent pre-war hike to the Bosphorus, we and his publishers have been on tenterhooks since 1986, prayerfully beseeching Leigh Fermor to tear himself away from Mani and escort us to old Stamboul.

The publishers, John Murray, have meantime sated our hunger, firstly with a collection of letters home from the Andes and now with Words of Mercury, a short anthology, edited by Artemis Cooper, which is best described as a Patrick Leigh Fermor primer. About half of the entries are filched from his earlier books. The rest are reprinted magazine articles, doodles and a glorious gift of a letter to Artemis’s grandmother, Lady Diana Cooper.

It will do to be going on with. Those of us who know almost by heart the Delphinia episode and the story of how he found Lord Byron’s slippers really have no objection to reading them again. Those who don’t, should. And the journalistic miscellenia, which include pieces on the building of his fabled house on the southern tip of the Peloponnese, Cavafy, and Iain Moncreiffe (of that Ilk) are more than valuable. But most tantalising of all, provocative to the point of cruelty, is the fact that Words of Mercury contains a couple of essays that point alluringly towards the last stage of his 1930s perambulation.

We left him meandering towards Turkey at the end of Between the Woods and the Water. We know he eventually got there. According to a 1965 article in Holiday magazine, which Cooper reprints, the journey involved that wintry escapade with Black Sea fishermen. “Laughing and out of breath,” Leigh Fermor recalls, “Costa collapsed with mock melodrama. The raki travelled round the cave in a hubbub of laughter and the flames threw a beltane chiaroscuro over hilarious masks. Another bottle was miraculously discovered …”

Yes, Patrick – open it. Do

Related article:

The mystery of The Black Sea Cave

Related category:

Words of Mercury

The mystery of The Black Sea Cave

It seems that summer is the time that Paddy’s fans stir themselves to try and find locations associated with his travels. We have had my recent ‘On the Same Steps’ article about the Hofbrauhaus; excerpts from the New York Times frugal traveller following part of the ATOG route; the OPRIG GAGINONANUS challenge; and now the submission of Jean-Marc Mitterer from Switzerland who has been trying to solve the conundrum of the true location of The Black Sea Cave, in the context of the challenge of understanding more about Paddy’s route on his last leg in Bulgaria in 1934.

Jean-Marc wrote to me a while back and we have exchanged a few emails since on this subject. He has read the story very closely (which is found in Words of Mercury but was originally published in Holiday Magazine in May 1965) and has been in contact with academics and others in Bulgaria to see if any more is known to try and narrow down the possible sites.

I hope as ever that someone out there somewhere will be able to comment and add to our shared knowledge about the gaps in Paddy’s life and stories. Here is what Jean-Marc has to say ….

“As you wrote, many readers of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books imagine travelling back on the route he followed. If the first part of the trip is pretty well documented, this might turn to be a bit more challenging for the third part – Vidin, Sofia, Vitosha, Plovdiv, Veliko Turnovo, Ruse, Southern Romania, Varna, Burgas, ending in Istanbul on New Year’s Day 1935. The publication of the third volume will probably give more details but one point might remain some kind of a mystery: the cave on the Black sea where PLF spent a night in December 1934.

This striking moment of PLF’s trip is described in Words of Mercury.” (Ed: I have added some background here)

Paddy had got lost on the coast and had plunged into either sea water or a pond near the coast. It was December and he was wet through and immediately felt the cold. He was exhausted and both his bootlaces had broken. I guess he was at a real low point, far away from civilisation; wet, cold, hungry and lost. Thoughts must have passed through his mind about how he would survive the night.

“… Breathless and exhausted, I lay on a ledge until spurred on by the cold. At last, lowering my half-shod foot on to what I thought was the surface of a pool, I felt the solidity of sand and the grate of pebbles. Another pace confirmed it; I was on the shore of an inlet. Round the buttress of a cliff a little way up the beach, a faint rectangle of light, surrounded by scattered chinks, leaked astonishingly into the darkness. I crossed the pebbles and I pulled open an improvised door, uttering a last dobar vecher into the measureless cavern beyond. A dozen firelit faces looked up in surprise and consternation from their cross-legged supper, as though a sea monster or a drowned man’s ghost had come in.”

Jean-Marc continues ….

“Its location is very vague: between Varna and Burgas.

PLF tried to retrace it after the war from memory in the area around  Nesebar, but without success.

Early in 2010 Bulgarian speleologists and geography societies were asked about the existence of this place. The answers were disappointing and came with the regularity of clichés. There are well known cave areas between Kavarna and Shabla (north of Varna) and Sozopol and Tsarevo (south of Burgas). But no one knew of anything in-between.

This absence of cave is not only a mismatch with the broad location mentioned in Words of Mercury, but also with the actual situation. The north of Varna can be excluded as between 1913 and the Second World War the area up to Balchik was in Romania and not Bulgaria. The south of Burgas can also be excluded as, apparently, Paddy traveled (sadly) the last bit of his journey by train. [Ed: Is this the case?]

So this place must be between Balchik and Burgas.

Here are the actual elements we know from the article:

1. No human presence seen during his day walk except a lone Tatar fisherman.

2. A cave not very deep but big enough to have hosted more than a dozen (12) people, with room enough to perform wild dances, and to house a fishing boat, equipment, and a flock of 50 goats and up to six dogs.

3. The use of masonry elements [Ed: I believe these to have been rocks or dry stone walling. Paddy said they were interspersed with “branches, planks and flattened petrol tins stamped with Sokony-Vacuum in Cyrillic characters” – I do wonder how Paddy recalled this with his self-admitted “clumsy rudiments of” Bulgarian, his stressed physical and mental state, and the absence of his notebook]

4. The presence of a mixed Greek and Bulgarian population [either in the vicinity] or not too far away.

5. The presence of stalactites (which is a very challenging element; according to one speleologist interviewed the rocks on the coast are not suitable for these geological formations).

6. The proximity to the shoreline – remember PLF saw the light from the cave while walking along the coast. [Ed: my reading indicates that the cave was very near the shore, perhaps no more than 20-50 metres as the later descriptions indicate this and one has to ask how far the fisherman would have wished or been able to carry their boat which was seen in the cave. If any of you have carried wooden boats you will know they are very heavy; porting any great distance is unlikely.]

7. A fisherman with only one hand [with a star tattooed on the back of it.]

According to these elements, the place apparently most suitable must have been between Biala and Sveti Vlas. The area is rocky, little inhabited and the presence of a Greek population is confirmed in old maps. (for an interesting selection of maps visit this site of which perhaps the most relevant is this map)

Considering that such a place, even if it should have been destroyed since then [Ed: can you destroy a cave easily?], should have left some memories. In June 2009 locals in this region – Biala, Obzor, Bania, Emine, Elenite – were asked about the cave. Though elder people remembered many old stories (the visits of King Boris, shipwrecks before the first world war, purchasing fish at the fishermen’s settlements on the coast, etc…) nothing concerning a cave used by people or the memory of a handless fisherman (who could have lived on for a couple of decades after the visit of PLF) could be found.

This is not very encouraging… However, everyone remembered the presence of Greek people in this region and there are still a few elderly Greek people alive.

Tcheren Nos cave view

One cave was mentioned by local people, located on the Tcheren Nos. (between Biala and Shkorpilovtsi). This place is actually big arch (about 50- 80 m long), the deepest part being 15-20m above ground. There is a pond in front of it, with a little river reaching the sea. Currently it is difficult to access the place in the wood, there is no path from the shore, which is about 300- 400 m away, I was there in May 2009 and there were no stalactites or visible masonry, though the presence of black surfaces seems to indicate the presence of soot and human uses (from when ?). Considering the distance to the beach and the situation of the cave, it is difficult to imagine that this could have been the cave Paddy described. [Ed: I agree it is probably too far from the sea as per my earlier comments. However, there is always the chance that some form of change in sea level or silting up of the shoreline has increased the distance of the cave from the beach. Paddy does describe sand and shingle on the floor of the cave. From Jean-Marc’s photographs it does not appear that this exists.]

At this stage, these informal investigations reached a dead-end… Many hypothesis could be built (maybe Paddy’s memory confused some elements – like the presence of the stalactites or the dimensions of the cave) but further research would be useful.

The location of this cave is a fascinating enigma that even PLF seems not to have been able to clarify. I hope that this question will also interest you.

Maybe you would consider that this issue could be raised on your website, with the hope that people having access to the 1935 notes taken by PLF (though if this data existed, I guess they would have been used by PLF during his second visit) or having a specific knowledge about the Bulgarian coast could help. I don’t think Paddy’s work has been translated in the Balkans [Ed; He is certainly known in Romania] and his work appears to be unknown in Bulgaria.

[Ed: Towards the end of his account Paddy again confirms that the cave was near the sea “A few yards off, beyond the twelve adjacent snores, I could hear the gasp of the Black Sea.” What is also useful is an indication of the direction the cave was facing as he could see “three quarters of Orion blazed in an icy slanting lozenge.” Where does Orion lie in the late December sky when in the Balkans?]

For Marion Worsley, after OPRIG GAGINONANUS, and for you all, this is a slightly more difficult challenge; to find the cave on the Black Sea where Paddy was simultaneously saved and experienced one of his wilder, most impromptu experiences.

Perhaps the defining episode of this blog will be the re-discovery this cave?

The challenge is now out there. Truly, finding this cave will place the person that discovers it in the Patrick Leigh Fermor Pantheon. It may be a fool’s errand. Paddy may have at the same time exaggerated and been confused after the passage of time. What is not in doubt is that he spent a night in a Black Sea cave with a polyglot group of Greek fisherman and Bulgarian fisherman. What needs to be done is to find that cave. Jean-Marc has set us upon our course. Will we reach our destination?

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A chronicler of a bygone age a rememberer of things past

An interesting background piece from Kathimerini which mentioned that Vol 3 was due in 2007! This is the first time I have come across a possible publication date. Obviously missed now, and who knows if that is due to editorial problems, being incomplete or perhaps this too will be delayed like his biography until after his death?

Patrick Leigh Fermor keeps alive in shimmering prose the spirit of the Greece he reveres

by Willard Manus, a freelance journalist who lives in the US and spends time in Greece

First published in Kathimerini 20 July 2006.

Reading Patrick Leigh Fermor today is both an exhilarating and depressing experience. Exhilarating because of the depth and brilliance of his prose, depressing because the Greece he portrays so memorably has been hammered to dust by the march of time.

Fermor, who was knighted in 2003, is best known in Greece and in his native Britain, where he was born 92 years ago. «The Traveller’s Tree,» published in 1950, dealt with the journey he made around the Caribbean islands in 1947-48. It won the Heinemann Foundation Prize for Literature, and established him as a writer of note.

His next two books were «A Time to Keep Silence» (1952), which described his stay in various European monasteries, and «The Violins of Saint-Jacque» (1956), a novel. A decade later, he published two books on Greece, «Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese» and «Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece,» which quickly earned him a reputation as the pre-eminent non-native writer on 20th century Greece.

Fermor’s attachment to Greece goes deep. His first experience of the country dated back to 1933, when, as a rebellious and untamed 19-year-old, he dropped out of Sandhurst and set out on a walking tour of Europe whose eventual destination was Constantinople. Envisioning himself as «a medieval pilgrim, an affable tramp with a knapsack and hobnailed boots,» he embarked, in midwinter, on a journey that eventually spanned three years and took him through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania and, eventually, Greece.

Remarkably, Fermor did not write about his picaresque adventures in pre-war Europe until many years later. «So when ‘A Time of Gifts’ appeared in 1977 and ‘Beneath the Winds and the Water’ in 1986, the life of the mid-30s that he described had been utterly destroyed,» his biographer Artemis Cooper has noted, «and much of the land he had walked over was in the grip of communism for years. Yet his memory recreated this world with an astonishing freshness and immediacy, and recaptured the young man he was then: full of curiosity, optimism and joy in the vibrant diversity of the world.»

The concluding volume of Fermor’s trilogy is scheduled for publication (by John Murray Ltd) in early 2007. Continue reading