Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 December 2019

Patrick Leigh Fermor, the travel writer's travel writer

A tribute to Paddy Fermor, both a storyteller and a scholar, who died last week.
Writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died on June 10 at the age of 96, is pictured here at his home at Kardamyli in the Mani. Courtesy of Justin Marozzi
Writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died on June 10 at the age of 96, is pictured here at his home at Kardamyli in the Mani. Courtesy of Justin Marozzi

Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died on 10 June, at the venerable age of 96, was widely regarded as the greatest travel writer of his time. The travel writers' travel writer, he was not prolific but of the eight books he produced, at least two of them, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, can be counted, not just in the literature of travel, but in the canon of 20th-century English literature. His boundless curiosity, his infectious enthusiasm, his penchant for the arcane, his fondness for an anecdote, and his gift for language combined with a keen eye and a sharp ear produced some intoxicating prose.

Patrick Leigh Fermor (always Paddy) was born in London on February 11, 1915, the younger child and only son of Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, director of the Geological Survey of India. Eileen, his glamorous bohemian mother's family name was, appropriately, Ambler. She had returned to England to have him but soon returned, with Paddy's sister, to India, leaving him for four years with a farmer's family in Northamptonshire, where he ran wild. He was expelled from most of his schools.

In December 1933, after a footloose time with a bohemian circle known as Bright Young Things, Paddy, not quite 19, resolved to set off, on foot, from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul (or, as his insisted on calling it, Constantinople). He was inspired by Robert Byron's The Station, and was given the knapsack that accompanied the author to Mount Athos. Into it he packed pencils, notebooks, a volume of Horace and The Oxford Book of English Verse. He had also read George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, and was determined to travel frugally. With a monthly allowance of £5 (Dh30) he may not have had much choice. He slept in haystacks and hostels, in castles and caves, doss-houses and schlosses as he made his way "south-east through the snow into Germany, then up the Rhine and eastwards down the Danube ... in Hungary I borrowed a horse, then plunged into Transylvania; from Romania, on into Bulgaria".

At New Year, 1935, he crossed the Turkish border at Adrianople and reached Istanbul. A Time of Gifts (1977) was his first account of that journey. Between the Woods and the Water followed in 1986, and still he had only reached the Iron Gates, a gorge on the Danube. His billowing style, full of vivid images and teeming with historical and literary references, was a revelation. Both works have a Proustian quality about them. Written by a man in middle age recalling his journey as an 18-year-old, he captures the meaning, value and excitement of travel, combining the romance of youth with the knowledge and wisdom gathered over the following three decades.

Once in Istanbul, his journey was still not over. It was quite some gap year. He went to Mount Athos where he spent his 20th birthday and a month later, as only he could, found himself on a borrowed horse with a lance charging across the River Struma in a Greek royalist cavalry charge against Venizelist rebels. It must have been the last cavalry charge in the history of Europe. He reached Athens where he met a Magyar princess; and so began two great love affairs - with Balasha Cantacuzène and with Greece.

On the outbreak of war, he left his princess and returned to England and enlisted in the Irish Guards, a natural choice for a member of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, but he was assigned to Special Operations on German-occupied Crete. On the night of 26 April 1944, Paddy and a fellow officer, Bill Stanley Moss, impersonating German corporals, intercepted the car of General Heinrich Kreipe. With the help of a handful of Cretan partisans, Kreipe was pushed into and under the back seat while Paddy donned the General's hat. They managed to pass through 22 separate checkpoints. With the Germans in pursuit, it took three weeks to spirit him off the island. The episode formed the basis of a book by Moss and the 1957 film, Ill Met by Moonlight. Paddy was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for this act of bravery-bravado.

There is a fascinating postscript to this adventure that says much about Paddy. Waking up among the rocks as dawn broke over Mount Idas, the prisoner murmured a line in Latin from Homer's ode, Al Thaliarchum. Paddy picked it up and continued it until the end. After quite a silence the General said, "Ach so, Herr Major". It was, Paddy recalled, "one of the few odes of Horace I know by heart ...things were different between us for the rest of our time together."

In 1946 Paddy met Joan Eyres-Monsell, the clever, beautiful daughter of a politician, Viscount Monsell. She became his companion and muse and travelled with him to the Caribbean, which led to his first book, The Traveller's Tree, in 1950. They eventually married in 1968, having built a remarkable house of stone by the sea in the Mani, a remote corner of the Peloponnese.

He had resolved to make Greece his home after the war. It inspired him to write Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese in 1958 and Roumeli in 1966, characteristically erudite accounts of his travels on mule and foot around remote parts of Greece. He was nothing if not discursive - perhaps this was part of his charm? - and in Roumeli he provided an uproarious account of his attempt to retrieve a pair of Lord Byron's slippers from a man in Missolonghi.

His only fiction, The Violins of Saint Jacques (1953), was more novella than novel, was also drawn from his travels in the Caribbean - a volcano erupts during a Mardi Gras ball on Martinique, leaving one survivor. Some critics have suggested this was not his only work of fiction. How could he possibly recall with all that astonishing detail after 40 years? He did have his diaries and would retrace his steps. As he told the New Yorker's Anthony Lane, "There are lost faces: chimney sweep, a walrus moustache, a girl's long fair hair under a tam o'shanter. It is like reconstructing a brontosaur from half an eye socket and a basket full of bones." Most of it can be attributed to his prodigious memory.

For 25 years, in fact since Between the Woods and the Water appeared, fans have clamoured for the last of the trilogy to complete that first epic journey. Although Three Letters from the Andes appeared in 1991, the words that appeared to gush in a torrent from pen to page seemed to have dried up. So in 2003, as if to partly satiate his disciples, Paddy's biographer, Artemis Cooper, collected a lifetime of articles, extracts and reviews in Words of Mercury. As The Times Literary Supplement observed, he "combines the resourcefulness and daring of Odysseus with the learning, culture and glamour of a latter-day Byron". He was knighted the following year. In 2008, his correspondence with his friend of 60 years, Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, the last of the Mitford sisters, was published. The pages of In Tearing Haste repeatedly bear witness to Paddy's pyrotechnic displays of wit and observation; and his genius for friendship.

Paddy remained at Mani until the day before his death, eight years after Joan's. It was his wish to be buried with her in Dumbleton, the Eyres home in Worcestershire, rather than at Mani.

Paddy's publisher says that the last volume of his trek that will take his readers to the gates of Byzantium is at last complete and will soon be published. This will be almost 80 years after he got there. In the self-deprecating way that made him so loved, Paddy joked recently it should be entitled The Carpathian Snail.

Storyteller and scholar

What better way to finish a long journey than lunch with Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, war hero and one of the finest writers in the English language? ... The housekeeper waved me down a vaulted stone gallery, cool air ruffling through the arches, an architectural reminder, perhaps, of Byzantium, which in a sense was always Leigh Fermor’s true north. I stepped into the sort of room to make a writer swoon. The English poet John Betjeman called it “one of the rooms in the world”. Whitewashed walls, flagstone floor and panelled wood ceiling framed a space that was both sitting room and library. Bookshelves rose from floor to ceiling. Light streamed in from tall windows thrown open towards the sea. In the garden to the north I could pick out a congregation of tufty cypresses, olive trees and rosemary hedges. Inside, piles of books jostled for space with armchairs, cushions, icons, sculptures, lamps, bowls and boxes, maps, Turkish kilims and flokati rugs of shaggy goats’ hair.

An alarmingly handsome figure was sitting in the sun-bleached garden room a step down from the library, clasping a Loeb edition of Herodotus. A more debonair specimen of the literary warrior would be difficult to imagine. “You’ve kept me up till 1.30 in the morning with this,” he said breezily, waving Herodotus in front of me. “I’ve been reading about the battle of Marathon.” Later, after our Herculean lunch was over and we were saying goodbye, he led me to another building, half hidden by the olives and cypresses. A fleeting glimpse into his writing room and inner sanctum: papers everywhere, more zigzagging stacks of books. His hero Byron stared at us from a plate in the centre of a broad chimney piece. Then the door closed and the momentary magic spell was over. “Do drop in again if you’re ever in the area,” he said. Mentally, I started making plans to leave my wife and become his amanuensis ...

Justin Marozzi, a historian and the author of The Way of Herodotus, visited Paddy at home in the Mani and wrote about the memorable experience for this section (published August 1, 2009)

Soon the delighted cry of “Delphinia!” went up: a school of dolphins was gambolling about half a mile further out to sea. They seemed to have spotted us at the same moment, for in a second half a dozen of them were tearing their way towards us, all surfacing in the same parabola and plunging together as if they were in some invisible harness. Soon they were careering alongside and round the bows and under the bowsprit, glittering mussel-blue on top, fading at the sides through gun-metal dune-like markings to pure white, streamlined and gleaming from their elegant beaks to the clean-cut flukes of their tails. They were beautiful abstractions of speed, energy, power and ecstasy leaping out of the water and plunging and spiralling and vanishing like swift shadows, each soon to materialize again and sail into the air in another great loop so fast that they seemed to draw the sea after them and shake it off in mid air ...

An extract from Mani by Patrick Leigh Fermor, taken from Words of Mercury, a collection of his work edited by Artemis Cooper and published by John Murray.

Updated: June 17, 2011 04:00 AM

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