A Visit with Patrick Leigh Fermor, Part 2
May 24, 2013 | by Ben Downing
See part 1 here.
Already familiar as I was with the main events of Paddy’s military career, I asked him to fill in the gaps. What had he done while in Cairo?
“My first leave from Crete, after many months in the mountains, was at the time of the Italian surrender in September 1943. I had managed, by devious means, to persuade the Italian general commanding the Siena Division to escape from the island with some of his staff, and I accompanied them. When they’d been handed over in Cairo, I found myself quartered in rather gloomy billets known as Hangover Hall. There I became great friends with Bill Stanley Moss, on leave from the Third Battalion of the Coldstream Guards, and later my companion on the Kreipe expedition. Couldn’t we find more congenial quarters? Almost at once Billy found a positive mansion on Gezira Island, which we shared with a beautiful Polish countess called Sophie Tarnowska—she and Billy were married later on—her Alsatian, two mongooses, and a handful of close SOE friends, also on leave.
“Tara (as we named the house) was an immediate triumph. With its ballroom and a piano borrowed from the Egyptian Officers’ Club, and funded by our vast accumulations of back pay, it became famous—or notorious—for the noisiest and most hilarious parties in wartime Cairo. At one of these, fired by the tinkle of a dropped glass, everyone began throwing their glasses through the windows until not a pane was left.
“It was to Tara that we returned after the Kreipe expedition. But the rigors of a year and a half of Cretan cave life, it seems, suddenly struck me with an acute rheumatic infection of the joints, akin to paralysis. After two months in a Cairo hospital—where King Farouk once kindly sent me a magnum of champagne—I was sent to convalesce in Lebanon. I stayed at the British summer embassy at Aley, above Beirut, with Lady Spears, who was the well-known American writer Mary Borden, and her husband, Sir Edward Spears, our ambassador there. We had all met in Cairo, which at that time was one of the most fascinating gathering points in the world.
“But I was itching to get back to Crete. By the time I managed to return, in October 1944, the entire German force had withdrawn to a small perimeter in the west of the island. The outcome was a foregone conclusion, and the Germans made only occasional sorties. With their imminent surrender in view, it wasn’t ‘worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier,’ as Frederick the Great said—or of a single mountaineer or Allied soldier, for that matter.
“I went back to Cairo for a last Tara Christmas. But Tara was dissolving, and in March 1945 I was sent to England, where I joined a rapidly-put-together unit called the Special Allied Airborne Reconnaissance Force—inevitably SAARF—for an odd emergency. There was a fear that during the ‘Eclipse Period’—the predictable days, that is, between the faster momentum of the Allied advance and the final surrender of the German army—the Germans might carry prominent Allied prisoners of war off to some Tyrolean redoubt and use them as hostages or bargaining counters; and it was hoped that SAARF would be able to prevent this. Its members all had SOE and parachute experience in enemy territory. The plan was that, at the right moment in Eclipse Period, each team of three—in some cases, two teams together—would take off from an airstrip at the Sunningdale golf course, in Surrey, and drop near its allotted prison camp in Germany. Dressed in tattered POW uniforms, we would lie up in the woods, spy out the land, slip into POW working parties, get inside the camp, and then contact the senior British officer and open W/T communications with the spearhead of our advancing troops; these would then drop arms and supplies and give air cover while the garrison was overpowered or the commandant bluffed, until Allied troops arrived.
“I found myself paired with Henry Coombe-Tenant, a major in the Welsh Guards, a brilliant pianist and a member of the Athenaeum who after the war became a Benedictine monk at Downside. Our commandant was Brigadier Nicholls, nicknamed ‘Crasher’; he was impermeable as a bison. The target we were destined for was the dread Oflag IV C at Colditz, where several Prominenten were prisoners, including the king’s cousin, Lord Harewood, and relations of Churchill and Field Marshal Alexander. The castle was deep in Saxony, and there was, of course, no resistance or SOE intelligence about it—nothing but aerial photographs to go on. We desperately needed more local detail.
“At this point I heard that an old friend, Miles Reid of the Phantom Reconnaissance Force, captured in Greece during the 1941 retreat, had been exchanged on health grounds, and precisely from Colditz; so I got leave to break security in the hopes of information, and dashed to see him at his home near Haslemere. When I told him of the Colditz scheme, he exploded. Had we heard nothing of the total impregnability of the fortress, of the thoroughness and rigor of the Appells, the checks and counterchecks, the scrutinies and roll calls? As for ‘working parties,’ since the inmates were all officers, these didn’t exist. There was absolutely no hope of the plan succeeding, and we would all be goners.
“We sat up late by the fire, and I drove back in a very chastened mood. Next day some ground-level photographs of the forbidding fortress arrived, posted by Miles, and, hotfoot after them, Miles himself turned up. He was closeted a long time with the brigadier, and when they emerged their brows were like thunder. ‘He doesn’t know what he’s up to,’ Miles said. ‘I’ll go straight to Winston, if necessary.’
“But it wasn’t. Suddenly things were moving so fast that the reality, and then the possibility, of our operation began to fade. It was both an anticlimax and a relief; we couldn’t help looking on Miles as our savior. Later, we learned that at Colditz all went well; Patton’s advance armor got there on the sixteenth of April, and those hundreds of jubilating hard-case prisoners, Miles’s old messmates, came tumbling out of the fortress like denizens of the Ark. It was a decrescendo finish to the war.”
I asked Paddy what he did immediately after the war:
“I longed for Greece, so I got demobilized as a fast as I could, joined the British Council, and went to Athens, as deputy director of the British Institute. I spent much of my time in the city’s tavernas with the poet George Seferis, the painter Nico Ghika, and the celebrated conversationalist and man of letters George Katsimbalis, immortalized by Henry Miller in The Colossus of Maroussi. I had met him before without knowing it, back in the winter of 1940, soon after arriving in Athens as part of the Military Mission; it was in the smoke and the noise of the Argentina nightclub, where everyone went to watch La Bella Asmara dance. I was a lieutenant with a deceptively heroic-looking bandage around my head, and because of it the barman, and several others, had insisted on standing me drinks; then a tall and interesting-looking, much older figure in a Greek artillery captain’s uniform—he was the dead spit of Piero della Francesca’s Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino—strolled up and did the same. Where had I been wounded, he asked. At Sidi Barrani or Sollum, perhaps? When I told him that I had merely been overturned by a drunk Black Watch driver in a Military Mission truck, he laughed and said, ‘Splendid! But don’t tell anyone, or we’ll get no more free drinks.’ Friends at once, we sat up talking, working our way through that long procession of glasses till the place closed, and we forgot to exchange names. (I left for Albania the next day, where I was attached to the Greek Third Army Corps.) The Colossus of Maroussi had not yet appeared, but I knew I had been listening to somebody extraordinary. Now, six years later, we recognized each other at once, and, for the rest of his life, I think we met pretty well every day whenever we were in Athens.
“One close bond between us was our shared friendship with Lawrence Durrell. Like Katsimbalis, he had a wonderfully fluent and inventive gift of speech—never an er or a sort of. The sentences came pouring out as though already composed in detail, and they were always infectiously spirited and original. He seemed to pump new oxygen into the air. He could swim as fast as a dolphin and play any instrument from a grand piano to an ocarina. He knew and loved the Greeks and they loved him.”
After a year at the British Institute, Paddy began a sabbatical from Greek life:
“In 1947, John Murray commissioned me to write the captions for a book of photographs of the Caribbean islands by the Greek photographer Costa Achillopoulos, an old friend, and he, Joan, and I set off for the Antilles aboard a French ship packed with islanders going home after demobilization. From Guadeloupe we moved about by plane and schooner to Dominica, Martinique, Granada, St. Lucia, Barbados, and Trinidad, then north again through the confetti of the Windward and Leeward Islands; and on to Puerto Rico and Haiti, where we stayed a long time. It was before Papa Doc came to power, and we became totally absorbed in voodoo ceremonies and the drums and dances and the crises of possession by the gods of the African pantheon. Jamaica followed, and a stupendous carnival in Cuba.
“A long jump by plane from Cuba landed us in British Honduras—Belize now—and from there we struck out over the unmarked forest border into Guatemala—first on horse, then, perforce, on foot—and into the thick of the Petén jungle, looking for overgrown Maya pyramids, with a Mopan-Maya guide called Exaltación Puk. Guatemala City, when we reached it, was in the throes of full-scale anti-British processions, dominated by huge and wicked John Bulls and vast papier-mâché bulldogs. The crowds were demonstrating their claim to Belize, but the inhabitants were welcoming and polite. El Salvador came next, then Honduras and Nicaragua with its lake and permanently smoking volcanoes, and three days by boat down the Rio San Juan to the Mosquito Coast, where Costa had to leave for Europe. Joan and I continued south. There was an armed revolution in Costa Rica, with bullets still flying about, and we arrived in Panama stony broke. We were kept going by a Greek from Samos who ran a hot-dog stand on the waterfront; he refused all payment when money arrived at last.”
Meanwhile, the Caribbean book had metamorphosed, captions usurping photographs until it became a long travel book with accompanying pictures, published in 1950 as The Traveller’s Tree. While working on it back in Europe, Paddy, who rivals Rilke and Coleridge in his sixth sense for what he calls “borrowed havens,” resumed with a vengeance his nomadic ways:
“The first problem was, Where to write the book? I began in a little hotel on the edge of Dartmoor, run by Mrs. Postlethwaite Cobb, the daughter of the chaplain at West Point, a firm friend; she had retired there after founding a home for superannuated donkeys in Algeria. Work was broken by fox hunting three times a week. Next came Paris, where I stayed at the bohemian Hôtel La Louisiane at the junction of the rue de Buci and the rue de Seine. From my bed I looked out onto the tossing manes of three gilded metal horses’ heads above the shop front of a horse butcher; it was like waking up holding the reins of a troika. The Deux Magots, the Flore, and a half-dozen other existentialist gathering places were just round the corner.
“A friend suggested that I might get more work done away from the capital, and I was allowed to take refuge in the guest’s cell of a beautiful and very old Benedictine abbey in Normandy. But the life and the history and the atmosphere of the abbey were so absorbing that I began piling up notes for another book, about monasteries instead of the Caribbean. The same tendency continued when I moved on to another Benedictine foundation, in Anjou—the very fountainhead, indeed, of Gregorian plainsong; and this monastic phase only ended further west at the chief house of the Trappist order, where they observed the strict Cistercian rule of silence. (This interim book, A Time to Keep Silence, emerged in 1957, like a blackbird out of a pie.)
“I felt I couldn’t go on forever using these hallowed precincts as a lost writer’s sanctuary, so I inflicted myself for a spell on two friends, Janetta and Jaime Parladé, who lived at Tramores in Andalusia. But the delights of the sojourn were such that the book didn’t get on very fast, so I decided to try my luck south of the Alps, like Hannibal, and made my way to Pienza, which is perched on the Tuscan hills like a city in a quattrocento painting. (It was the home of the Renaissance poet and humanist Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II.)
“But in Tuscany it was too cold for wielding a pen, so I caught a bus to Rome, and struck lucky. In the Sabine hills near Tivoli, opposite the circular temple of the Albunian sibyl, stood the disused Franciscan monastery of Sant’Antonio. The British embassy looked after it—it had belonged to Mr. Hallam, the senior classics master at Harrow—and I was allowed to move in for a few months. There was a sort of blessing on the place. One evening I started writing at sunset, and after what seemed an hour or two there were odd sounds and something queer about the light. It was daybreak, and the birds were waking up and the cocks crowing. This is the sort of session writers dream of. It happened several times after that, and all at once the book was finished.
“Clearly I was going through an Italian period. I wandered everywhere and settled in turn at Orbetello, San Gimignano, Montepulciano, and Ischia. Back in Rome, I met a man who owned a castle in the Alban Hills, not far from Palestrina. It looked about the size of Windsor, and it had been fought over by the Colonna and the Orsini for centuries, then abandoned for a further hundred years. I had developed a passion for places like this and I asked him if I could rent a couple of rooms there. He laughed and said, ‘You must be mad! You can have the whole place free.’ Spellbound by the rugged magnificence, I quickly developed folie de grandeur, imagining myself a sort of tyrant or condottiere of the Renaissance, and felt tempted to fly a banner from the topmost tower. But I soon had to move out, as an army of rats, which had prudently lurked in the cellars when I was settling in, suddenly broke cover and resumed their ancient sway.
“My final Italian venture was a long trudge in the mountains of Magna Graecia, to listen to the surviving Greek dialects of Apulia and Calabria; a mysterious half-troglodytic world, like a thousand years’ flight backward through time.
“Meanwhile, I had been returning often to Greece, exploring every corner of the mainland and the islands. I longed to write about it, and the notes had mounted up. Somehow I’d gotten it into my head that, to get the right proportion and focus, I ought to write about it from a distance. When I discovered that this was nonsense, Greek sojourns became longer and more frequent.
“One of the earliest borrowed havens for writing was the studio-hermitage of Angelos Sikelianos on the island of Salamis. I spent a happy and diligent spring surrounded by the great poet’s household gods and his books; and every evening the kind Orthodox nuns from the convent next door would bring me a steaming half-kilometer of spaghetti.
“But the roof under which I did the most work in the fifties was Nico Ghika’s fine family ziggurat in Hydra. He was seldom there, and, with boundless generosity, he lent it to Joan and me for two years. It was an inviolate island, as empty of wheels as pre-Columbian America. Many of our friends came to stay—Nancy Mitford, Diana Cooper, Cyril Connolly, Dadie Rylands, Maurice Bowra, Freya Stark, and others. Tragically, long after we left, this stronghold burned down, and the Ghikas moved to Corfu, where we often went to stay with them in the beautiful house they put up round an old olive-press, which led through to a trellised arcade full of swallows’ nests.”
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.