A Visit with Patrick Leigh Fermor, Part 1
May 17, 2013 | by Ben Downing
It has been said of Ulysses that, were Dublin ever obliterated, the city could be substantially rebuilt by consulting its pages. Along these lines, if all Europe were, God forbid, laid waste tomorrow, one might do worse than attempt to recreate it, or at least to preserve some sense of its historical splendor and variety, by immersing oneself in the travel books of Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Patrick who? Although popular both in his native England, where his books are available in Penguin paperback, and in many other countries—he has been translated into any number of languages—Leigh Fermor (who died in 2011) is known to only a devout few in this country, where, scandalously, his work is not distributed. I myself came to him three years ago, when a friend pressed me to seek out A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), the first two volumes of a projected trilogy about his teenage walk across Europe in the early thirties. By chance, that very week I stumbled across a used copy of A Time of Gifts. I began reading straightaway, but after a few pages stopped and rubbed my eyes in disbelief. It couldn’t be this good. The narrative was captivating, the erudition vast, the comedy by turns light and uproarious, and the prose strikingly individual—at once exquisite and offhand, sweeping yet intimate, with a cadence all its own. Perhaps even more startling was the thickness of detail, and the way in which imagination infallibly brought these million specificities to life. In the book’s three hundred or so pages, scarcely a paragraph was less than spirited, cornucopian, and virtuosic.
I am not given to idolizing writers or reading them entire, but this was a special case. Before long I had tracked down, whenever possible in their beautiful John Murray hardback editions, not only Between the Woods and the Water (which sees Leigh Fermor as far as the Iron Gates of the Danube) but also his remaining work—two travel books about Greece, one each about the Caribbean and Peru, a slim volume on monasteries, and a novella. Having devoured these, I started trying to find out more about Leigh Fermor himself. Piecing together information from his books and other sources, I came up with the following.
A clever but unruly student, Leigh Fermor was expelled from a series of schools and at sixteen dropped out altogether. After a period in London halfheartedly cramming for Sandhurst and (far more eagerly) partying with the last of the Bright Young People, he set out in December 1933 on his journey to Istanbul, which took him over a year. At this point the picture grew vague; there was some improbable story about his tagging along with a Greek royalist army as it quashed a rebellion, another about his falling in love with a Romanian princess.
The war years were somewhat clearer. Leigh Fermor enlisted with the Irish Guards; was commissioned in the Intelligence Corps; was sent as a liaison officer to the Greeks fighting the Italians in Albania; took part in the Battle of Crete; and escaped to Cairo in the general retreat. Having joined SOE (Special Operations Executive), he became one of a handful of officers secretly landed back on Crete, where, dressed as a shepherd, he lived in mountain caves and organized the guerilla resistance. His military career peaked in April 1944 when he led one of the most daring operations of the war. Disguised in Nazi uniform, Leigh Fermor and W. Stanley Moss, along with seven Cretan fighters, hijacked a car carrying General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of a division then occupying Crete. After bluffing their way—with Leigh Fermor impersonating Kreipe—past more than twenty checkpoints, they made for the mountains with their captive and spent three harried weeks dodging the thousands of troops sent to catch them, until finally a British boat slipped in to pick them up and take them to Cairo. For his role in the abduction Leigh Fermor was awarded the DSO.
After this the picture blurred again. I gathered that in the late forties and fifties Leigh Fermor had traveled at length in the Caribbean, Central America, and Greece; that he had hobnobbed—and often developed close friendships—with everyone from Diana Cooper to George Seferis; and that eventually he and his wife, Joan, had built a house in the Mani, a remote corner of the Peloponnese, where, reportedly, they still lived. But no more.
Even so, it had become clear to me that Leigh Fermor was not only among the outstanding writers of our time but one of its most remarkable characters, a perfect hybrid of the man of action and the man of letters. Equally comfortable with princes and peasants, in caves or châteaux, he had amassed an unsurpassedly rich experience of places and people. “Quite the most enchanting maniac I’ve ever met,” pronounced Lawrence Durrell, and nearly everyone who’d crossed paths with him had, it seemed, come away similarly dazzled. Also inspired, as witness this entry of 1958 from the Bloomsbury diarist Frances Partridge: “This evening over dinner the conversation turned to present-day pessimism, or cafard. Where can one look to find enthusiasm for living? I could only think of Paddy Leigh Fermor.”
Armed with this outline, I proceeded to write for The New Criterion a longish essay about Leigh Fermor, focusing mostly on his books. About two months later, in March 2001, I received a letter from him. An English friend of his had brought my essay to his attention. His response, infinitely gracious, concluded by exhorting me to drop in for “a proper feast” if ever I were in the area. That was all the invitation I needed. With typical American forwardness, I promptly called him and asked whether next month I and my wife, Michele, a fellow fan, might come and hang about for a few days, I perhaps interviewing him a bit. Whatever alarm he felt at the prospect of our invasion was muffled by good manners. He apologized for being unable to put us up—his sole guest room would be occupied that week—but said he could arrange accommodation at a nearby hotel, and that we would, of course, take all our meals with him and Joan.
Within hours I had booked our tickets.
Driving west from Athens, we crossed the Isthmus of Corinth onto the Peloponnese and spent the first night in the handsome seaside town of Nauplia. The next day we pushed on, marveling at the unaccustomed verdure—our previous visits to Greece had been in summer, when the heat turns everything brown—and at the profusion of flowers and blossoming Judas trees. After passing Sparta, we headed up into the Taygetus range, then down to Kalamata (of olive fame), where we swung south along the coast, and so to the village outside which Leigh Fermor lives, and which he has asked me not to name. Our Pisgah sight of the village was to be, our guidebook rather sternly declared, memorable: “Anyone who approaches it from these heights and is not moved by its combination of tiny islands, indented coastline, stone houses, and rugged hills, has the soul of a peanut.” Whatever the condition of our souls, they apparently are not leguminous, for we found the view every bit as sublime as advertised.
On arrival at the hotel, we discovered waiting for us at the front desk a welcome card that Leigh Fermor—to whom I shall, for the sake of brevity and informality, henceforth refer as Paddy—had dropped off earlier in the day. When I called him, he asked us to come round for dinner.
Shortly after dark, a rough dirt track brought us to the house. The front gate standing ajar, we entered and followed a lamplit cobbled path to an open door, which gave upon an L-shaped arcade. The sea could be heard heaving just below. As there was still no sign of life, we called out. A few seconds later, from one end of the arcade, Paddy and Joan emerged, greeted us warmly, ushered us into an immense book-lined living-cum-dining room where a fire crackled, and swiftly plied us with ouzo. (Their alcohol regimen, we soon discovered, dictates obligatory ouzo or vodka before dinner and red wine or retsina during; lunch is the same, minus the vodka option.)
Although immediately convivial, the Leigh Fermors had had a trying day. There had been some sort of plumbing trouble, which resulted in workmen ripping open part of the terrace. The dust kicked up by the jackhammers had irritated one of Paddy’s eyes, so that it now teared incessantly—and, as he pointed out, adopting a mock-plummy tone, “The other one weeps in sympathy.” Encouraged by his levity in distress, I reminded him of the light verse that he and his old friend John Julius Norwich had concocted together, which I had recently read in the first of Norwich’s delightful Christmas Crackers miscellanies. Over lunch, writes Norwich, he and Paddy “talked about how all Englishmen hated being seen to cry. Then and there we improvised a sonnet… The odd-numbered lines are mine, the even his.” The sonnet runs as follows:
When Arnold mopped the English eye for good
And arid cheeks by ne’er a tear were furrowed,
When each Rugbeian from the Romans borrowed
The art of ‘must’ and ‘can’ from ‘would’ or ‘should’;
When to young England Cato’s courage stood
Firm o’er the isle where Saxon sows had farrowed,
And where Epicurean pathways narrowed
Into the Stoic porch of hardihood;
Drought was thy portion, Albion! Great revival!
With handkerchief at last divorced from cane,
When hardened bums bespoke our isle’s survival
And all the softness mounted to the brain.
Now tears are dried—but Arnold’s shade still searches
Through the groves of golden rods and silver birches.
Although Paddy laughed at recollection of the poem—“A bit feeble here and there, as it was done very fast”—he was clearly in agony. We suggested bandaging his eye, and once some tape and gauze were found Michele and I rigged up a patch of sorts. To find oneself, a few minutes after meeting one’s esteemed host, clumsily dressing his eye—this represents a curious and not unawkward turn of events. The fact that Joan already had (for reasons more serious than dust) a patch of her own added a weird hint of piracy. To our relief, Paddy again buoyed up the situation by hailing his wife as Long Joan Silver, who in turn joked, “But where’s my parrot?”
Over a simple but delicious Greek dinner, Paddy, gamely struggling to play the perfect host, continued to make brave little sallies of wit. At one point we were discussing the great Moroccan adventurer Ibn Battuta, whose travels were, like Marco Polo’s, set down by an amanuensis. Suddenly brightening, Paddy floated the image of “a Rolls-Royce Phantom filled with a skeleton staff of ghost writers.” But the patch kept falling off his eye, and he seemed increasingly miserable. At last, profusely apologetic, he begged leave from the table and went to bed. Joan kept us company for the remainder of the meal, explaining how she and Paddy had met—in Cairo during the war—and talking about her own wartime experience.
Back at the hotel that night, I was swarmed by doubts. Paddy had seemed, if nowhere near his full quotient of eighty-six, tired and frailer than expected, and I worried that he either wasn’t up to being interviewed or, worse still, would try so hard to accommodate me as to exhaust himself entirely. But when next morning we went back to the house everything had changed. His eye had cleared up, he’d gotten a good night’s sleep, and overall he looked at least twenty years younger. Shaking his hand, I noticed how massive and muscular it was, and that his wrists were like two-by-fours.
Having pronounced himself willing and eager to get on with the interview, Paddy led us into his studio, a separate, trellis-topped stone building, its French windows letting in a flood of light. He put some logs on the fire, and his housekeeper brought us Turkish coffee in small cups. Once we were cozily ensconced, I asked him to pick up the narrative at the end of his Wanderjahr—which had taken him through Holland, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria—and he began to go back, his voice resonant and decidedly U (as his friend Nancy Mitford would have said), yet laced with a mirth and self-mockery that banished all suspicion of conceit. (I should say that the interview sections of this article, while based on taped conversations, have been amplified and polished. All the same, Paddy’s spoken style closely resembles what is documented here.)
“The penultimate phase of the great trudge followed the Bulgarian coast of the Black Sea. I started from Varna, where I stayed with the kind British consul, Fred Baker. Slogging on south, I lost my way after dark, fell into the sea, and waded soaked into a glimmering cave full of shepherds and fishermen—Bulgars and Greeks—for a strange night of dancing and song; it was like a flickering firelight scene out of Salvator Rosa. The next night I slept on the desolate Mesembria peninsula, crowded with Byzantine churches and ruins of churches, and finally reached Burgas, close to the border with Turkey, where the second consul, Tony Kendal, and his wife saw me through a bout of malaria and then a marvelous Christmas. (The last one had been with a friendly innkeeper’s family at Bingen, on the Middle Rhine. It might have been a lifetime ago.) Burgas was very remote, the end of Europe, which made the Kendals’ haven seem doubly welcoming and snug.
“But the discovery that it was forbidden to cross the frontier along the coast came as a surprise. It meant a long loop back into the Bulgarian hinterland, by bus to Svilengrad, where I boarded a train and proceeded along those tracks which have played such a role in crime novels and films. I crossed the border at Adrianople (Edirne in Turkish): a wonderful sheaf of clustered minarets and bubbling domes and cupolas, and the first Ottoman capital in Europe. A defense regulation—perhaps a hangover from the Balkan wars—obliged me to travel to my journey’s putative end (though it proved anything but the real one) tamely by rail, and I chafed bitterly as we chugged across the rough Thracian plain. But at least, as we drew closer, I could gaze through the windows at the vast city walls that had kept invaders out of Byzantium for ten centuries, except for the Fourth Crusade. We steamed past the looming Castle of the Seven Towers and the Adrianople Gate and along the continuing city walls, with the Sea of Marmara lapping just below and all Asia and the Mediterranean beyond.
“I seemed to be the only passenger, except for a handful of Turkish soldiers in queer pointed caps. I slung on my rucksack, grasped my Hungarian walking stick, and found my way to the Otel Bensur, in the tangled lanes of Taksim, where someone had told me I might stay very cheaply. It was moth-eaten, run by a fierce Croatian woman, and teeming with Croatian students and three Germans who told me they’d invented a new kind of submarine and piloted it here to sell to the Turkish government. There was singing in several tongues, for it was New Year’s Eve, 1934. I was soon involved in all this chaos, and to such a degree that I slept through the whole of New Year's Day.
“After a month exploring the city, I caught a steamer to Salonika. As we sailed through the Hellespont, I leaned over the rail and thought I might try to swim across it, like Leander and Lord Byron, if I ever got the chance. (It came fifty years later.) From Salonika I headed to Mount Athos, where I wandered from monastery to monastery—there are thirty of them—and spent my twentieth birthday in Roussikon, the Russian cloister of St. Pantaleïmon. By now the entire Holy Mountain was deep in snow.
“Late in February, I struck north to stay with Mr. Petros Stathatos, a friend of friends, much older than me, a man of great kindness and erudition. All of a sudden, in early March, the Venizelist Revolution broke out, and Petros, a reserve officer and ardent royalist, was called to his regiment in Salonika, so he shook the mothballs out of his old uniform from the Asia Minor campaign that had followed the Great War in these parts. Although I had only a vague idea of what the conflict was about, I said, ‘Could I come too—as an observer?’ He didn’t see why not, and when we got to Salonika he put it to his general, who said that, as I was still a minor, I would need permission from the British consul, who, when tackled, promptly and severely said, ‘You keep well out of it!’
“Petros, seeing that I was bent on going, gave me a note to his head man, and I went back to the farm, picked a sturdy horse, and set off north along the coast to the mouth of the swollen Strymon River, where I turned inland up the west bank. The landscape on the other bank was totally empty. Why not cross over for a mile or two? I’d read about people swimming their horses through rivers, so I thought I’d try. When we rode in, the horse’s head stuck out like a chessman’s, and his tail spread out behind him in a great fan. He gave me a reproachful backward look, and the current started to spin us round, heading for the sea; so, with some difficulty, we scrambled out on the bank we had just left. These goings-on must have been noticed, for a bit later, trodding soddenly on, I was arrested. But the police chief knew Petros and he let me ride on upstream, under an escort of four cavalrymen, to the bridge of Orliako, to the north of which the combatants had massed.
“I watched the battle from an empty stork’s nest in an elm tree with my mount tethered in the field below. It seemed mostly puffs of smoke and thunder of cannon-fire from the hills and intermittent musketry from either side of the banked-up river. At length the movement of men and guns toward the main road meant that the insurgents were in full retreat, so I climbed down and joined the throng on our side, riding past a cart with three soldiers laid out in it, pale and dead, and several stretcher-parties carrying wounded men: harrowing proof that the swishing sounds high overhead had been real and fatal.
“The leading cavalry squadron was formed up at the bridgehead, including my escort, who were all friends now. There was nobody left on the other bank, but sabers were drawn with a massed clang, a trumpet sounded, and we cantered across, ringing the planks below. It was an exciting moment, and the closest any of us would ever get to a cavalry charge. We continued at a trot, and the men, their sabers back in their steel scabbards, unslung their carbines and took potshots at birds on the telegraph wires, and sang cheerful Athenian music-hall songs. The whole experience—the crossing of the Orliako bridge, the potshots, and the songs—brought home how informal battle can be.
“We rode on till we got to the plain of Philippi, where Brutus and Cassius fell. Then, after a brief sojourn among the Sarakatsáns—enigmatic nomads who herded enormous flocks of goats and sheep and lived in conical mountain huts—I rode on through eastern Macedonia and the Rhodope Mountains, then back from Komotini. After returning the horse to the farm, I continued south on foot and got to Athens by May.
“The whole of this next section of life runs too deep to be dealt with in an interview, but I’ll try to give you some sense of it. In Athens I made many friends, particularly a beautiful Romanian painter, and we vanished to a watermill in a steep lemon forest opposite the island of Poros, where we read, wrote, painted, and swam all summer; it was much more like the Arcadia of poetry than the geographical reality. When autumn came, we caught a steamer to Constanța, on the Black Sea, and thence by train and coach inland to the dales of eastern Moldavia, where the painter and her family had inherited a rambling, down-at-heel country house called Baleni. It was surrounded by hills and trees and full of books, there was snow on the windowsills all winter, and outdoors meant sleighs or horses: a Tolstoy or Turgenev kind of life. The family were Moldavian Cantacuzenes, and, as in certain spheres in pre-revolutionary Russia, French was the language used. They were civilized, warm-hearted, amusing people, and devoted to literature. (Through one of their writer friends I got the chance to translate Paul Morand’s Isabeau de Bavière and C. P. Rodocanachi’s Forever Ulysses, both from French. To our astonishment, the latter was chosen as Book of the Month in America, and as I had been granted a third of the royalties I felt like Danaë under a timely shower of gold.)
“It was a magical house, and the time I spent in it seemed to take the place of the university I was missing; I read more there, and in several languages, than anywhere else in my life. I don’t think it is entirely the decades of patina which may have accumulated between now and my early twenties which makes me say that the charm, intelligence, humor, fun, and range and stimulus of conversation at Baleni equal anything I can remember since.
“It was a time that only war could put a stop to. When, at a mushroom-gathering picnic, the news came across the fields that Germany had invaded Poland, I rushed back to England to join the army; the farewells were like marching orders out of Paradise. Thinking the war would be short, I left everything in the house, including my 1934 diary, to pick up when it was over.
“It was only twelve years later that I was allowed to return to Romania, because the new Communist authorities viewed me as persona non grata for having mixed with all these undesirable boyars. That the diary had survived seemed too much to hope for. When the Communists came, my Cantacuzene friends, before being chased from their home and plopped down in the foothills of the Carpathians (where they were given an attic to live in), had been granted all of fifteen minutes to pack one suitcase each. And yet among the few possessions they chose to salvage was the diary.”
Pausing at this point, Paddy rummaged for a moment in the paperdrift that passes for his desk and came up with the tattered volume itself.
Read Part 2 here.
This text originally appeared in issue 165 of The Paris Review.
Ben Downing is the author of Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross.