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).