Sophistication and Recklessness: Patrick Leigh Fermor
Patrick Leigh Fermor, 1915-2011.
The many obituaries for the travel writer, war hero, adventurer, polymath and bon vivant Patrick Leigh Fermor share a general stunned tone that one man could have lived so many lives. His World War II exploits were portrayed on film by Dirk Bogarde,
yet he wrote a study on the pleasures of the monastic life. He
took untrammelled delight in company, wine, storytelling and parties, but he was a torturously slow and meticulous writer.
The twentieth century seems the wrong era for a figure like
Leigh Fermor – he lived the life of a Don Juan or a Don Quixote, more appropriately celebrated in a 16th-century ballad or a picaresque novel than on a paltry Facebook fan page. Even those labels that try to sum him up, like ‘travel writer,’ feel inadequate and inaccurate – are you really a travel writer if you never make it to your destination, and take fifty years to write up your journey?
Patrick Leigh Fermor was certainly born in a different world. His father was a director of the Geological Survey in India, and when his mother and sister travelled back there together after his birth in England, they left him behind with a local farming family. The war had made the seas treacherous, and the decision was taken pragmatically, ‘so that one of us might survive if the ship were sunk by a submarine.’ The family who looked after him gave him free rein for four years ‘of complete and unalloyed bliss.’ The older Leigh Fermor later identified this period of ‘early anarchy’ as the root of his lifelong aversion to authority. The introduction to his travel memoir A Time of Gifts zips through his colorful childhood and adolescence: he was kicked out of a string of conventional and alternative schools, sent to psychiatrists (including one consulted by Virginia Woolf) until he was finally expelled from the illustrious King’s School, Canterbury, for holding hands with the greengrocer’s daughter (‘She was twenty-four, a ravishing and sonnet-begetting beauty’). As so often, the root of his crime was restlessness against boundaries, an urge to escape confining walls.
At the age of seventeen, he and his family gave up on his formal schooling with what was probably great relief – his penultimate school report branded him ‘a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness,’ who would be a worrying influence on the other boys. He was headed for an army career when he fell in with ‘the remainder, more or less, of the Bright Young People, but ten years and twenty thousand double whiskies after their heyday,’ who intoxicated him with the dream of being a writer. In a house in London shared with fellow-Bohemians his visions of ‘Trollopian diligence’ were overtaken by parties and poverty, and in November, like Ishmael, he has had enough. His plan, which ‘unfolded with the speed and completeness of a Japanese paper flower in a tumbler’ was to walk, like a pilgrim or tramp or ‘errant scholar,’ across Europe to Constantinople, equipped with little more than hobnail boots and the Oxford Book of English Verse.
The lure of tramping, of walking and watching and writing, was a powerful one for a certain breed of romantically-minded young Englishman in the 1930s – like Laurie Lee, the author of Cider with Rosie, whose sequel As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning also takes place in 1934 and details a journey by foot from his Cotswolds home to London, and then across Spain. The common urge for adventure was likely sharpened for this generation, born just too late for the First World War, by the desire to prove their powers of endurance, and amid a flood of war stories, to find, as Leigh Fermor puts it, ‘A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!’ And like Laurie Lee in Spain and Christopher Isherwood in Berlin, Leigh Fermor soon found his personal pilgrimage striking up against the darker political forces at work in 1930s Europe. As he makes his way from Holland up the Rhine, he watches the Germany of his childhood and education, of Schiller and Goethe, beginning to sink in the tide of ascendant Nazism.
The wandering scholar starts out as he intended, mixing with peasants and laborers, reciting Shakespeare to keep out the cold; sleeping in barns or inns or perhaps barmaids’ beds, but convenient friendships and letters of introduction soon change the tenor of the journey. He upgrades from beer halls to Baroque palaces, enjoying the hospitality of baronets and discussing medieval Hun invasions in their ancient libraries, studiously avoiding much discussion of the politics of the present.
After I had said goodnight and made my way book-laden along an antlered corridor and up a stone spiral to my room, it was hard to believe I had been sleeping in a byre the night before. There is much to recommend moving straight from straw to a four-poster, and then back again. Cocooned in smooth linen and lulled by the smell of logs and beeswax and lavender, I nevertheless stayed awake for hours, revelling in all these delights and contrasting them with joy to the now-familiar charms of cow-sheds and haylofts and barns. The feeling would still be there when I woke up next morning and looked down from the window.
The last sunrise of January was sliding across a lawn, catching the statues of Vertumnus and Pales and finally Pomona at the far end and stretching their thin and powdery shadows on the untouched snow. Rooky woods feathered the skyline and there was a feeling in the air that the Danube was not far.
Because the books were written so much later, it’s surprising how fresh and non-judgmental a narrator he remains. Despite his often-elaborate language (an urge to match Baroque architecture with baroque sentences?) he remains an exemplary travel writer for the sharpness and clarity of his observation, his autodidact’s thirst for knowledge and an exceptional sense of history that seems to run as deep as DNA. He’s an autobiographer who can always see the past under the present as if through the thinnest gauze, and likewise can imagine himself back into the mind and body of his 18-year-old self. The cold really bites, the fireplace and the beer really warm. No wonder that he became an icon for travel writers – Bruce Chatwin’s ashes are scattered in the grounds of Leigh Fermor’s house in Greece, and one of the best obituaries, by William Dalrymple at the Daily Beast, is titled ‘My Hero.’
Leigh Fermor never wrote at such length about his next life, although there’s no shortage of stories about it (his previously unpublished account is in Artemis Cooper’s 2003 collection of his short writings, Words of Mercury.) After spells in Bulgaria and Greece, he lived on Crete during World War II as a member of the resistance, having fought in the losing battle against the invading Germans. In April 1944 he and his second-in-command, William Stanley Moss, along with a group of burly Cretan partisans, ambushed the German commander’s car and kidnapped General Heinrich Kreipe. They spent two weeks hiding out while search parties hunted and threatened, making their way up and over Mount Ida, sacred to Zeus, before delivering the General into the hands of the Allies. The 1957 Powell and Pressburger film Ill Met By Moonlight is based on Moss’s book about the kidnapping, with Dirk Bogarde horribly miscast, in the eyes of most of his friends, as the unlikely hero. The anecdote that Leigh Fermor himself told as the climactic moment of the adventure was not an example of derring-do but a moment of odd connection, when he is able to finish a verse from Horace that the General begins reciting from memory as they rest. The realization of this shared history is transformative: ‘We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.’ As Dalrymple notes in his obituary, ‘it is the archetypal Leigh Fermor anecdote – beautifully written, fabulously romantic and not a little showy.’
Life after the war was hardly less adventurous, such that it’s often hard to piece together a full picture of his travels from the various accounts that have been published (Artemis Cooper is reportedly working on a full biography, but no publication date has been set.) He worked for British Institute in Athens and was sent on extended lecture tour around Greece with the photographer Joan Rayner, whom he first met in Athens in the 1930s and married in 1968 (she died in 2003 – they are now buried together in the Cotswolds, in the west of England.) In 1949 he travelled to the French Antilles, out of which trip arose his first book, The Traveller’s Tree, and his only novel, set on Martinique, The Violins of St-Jacques.
A Time to Keep Silence, published in 1953, is a meditation on the pleasures of the monastic life, but he could not be a monk or a hermit for long – after he and Joan designed and built their perfect writers’ house, south of Kalamata in Greece, they filled it with books, wine and fellow travellers. Mani and Roumeli are his two books on Greece, and he only finished two volumes of the trilogy he intended about that epic 1934 trip – A Time of Gifts in 1977 and Between the Woods and the Water in 1986. He was a painstaking writer, averaging a book or two per decade, but they are all in print and available in lovely editions from New York Review Books. If you ever get to feeling you’ve been born in the wrong century, or you just want to be transported far from here and now, you couldn’t ask for a better travelling companion.
Joanna Scutts teaches literature – from the Greeks to Virginia Woolf – to unsuspecting freshmen at Columbia University. Originally a Londoner, she now lives in Astoria, New York, and is working on a book about modernism and memorialization after the First World War.