An Awfully Big Adventure

Enda O'Doherty

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper, John Murray, 448 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1848546707

In summer 1933 the eighteen-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor moved out of the London house of his tutor, Denys Prideaux, who had prepared him for the London Certificate after he had been expelled before sitting his final examination from the King’s School at Canterbury. The immediate cause of his expulsion was being caught in flagrante delicto, holding hands on the street with the pretty Nellie Lemar, the daughter of a Canterbury greengrocer, but in fact this offence was more in the nature of a last straw, a previous housemaster’s report having diagnosed Leigh Fermor as “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness” whose possible influence on other boys was a matter for concern. Prideaux had meanwhile successfully guided his young charge through his examination, qualifying him to enter Sandhurst military college, which he intended to do in the autumn. Somewhat predictably however he fell in with a bad set, the decadent, bohemian upper class youths who hung about the bar of the Cavendish Hotel whom the Daily Mail, not without a curl of the lip, had christened “The Bright Young People”.

Young Leigh Fermor enjoyed his post-Prideaux freedom, and the boozing and the clubs (the Nuthouse, the Boogie-Woogie, Smoky Joe’s), but his debts were mounting, his allowance very limited and his aspirations towards a literary career apparently going nowhere. By this stage his parents had come to accept that he had gone cold on the idea of Sandhurst. His father’s suggestion that he might consider training to become a chartered accountant seems to have concentrated the young man’s mind; he was immediately overcome with “ ... a sudden loathing of London. Everything ... seeming unbearable, loathsome, trivial, restless, shoddy ... Detestation, suddenly, of parties. Contempt for everyone, starting and finishing with myself.”

The solution was simple: to leave England and travel. With his pound a week allowance he would walk across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, sleeping in barns and shepherds’ huts, living off bread and cheese and keeping the company of tramps and vagrants. Leigh Fermor bought his ticket for passage to Holland on the Stadhouder Willem, leaving from Tower Bridge on December 9th, 1933, bringing with him some comfortable and serviceable clothes, drawing blocks, notebooks, pencils and a few books – a small English-German dictionary, The Oxford Book of English Verse and the first volume of the Loeb Horace, the latter a present from his mother, on the flyleaf of which she had inscribed the translation of a short poem by Petronius:

Leave thy home, O youth, and seek out alien shores ... Yield not to misfortune: the far-off Danube shall know thee, the cold North-wind and the untroubled kingdom of Canopus and the men who gaze on the new birth of Phoebus or on his setting ...

That Leigh Fermor’s journey across the continent, which lasted from December 1933 until his arrival in Constantinople in January 1935, turned out not to be quite as tramplike as he had anticipated was down to two factors. First, the father of a friend gave him a generous present of twenty pounds before he set out; second, a friend of his landlady, a Mrs Sandwith, wrote two or three letters of introduction for him to friends in Germany. Mrs Sandwith’s friends were neither tramps nor shepherds but cultivated and well-connected members of the central European landed gentry.

Leigh Fermor’s travels eventually furnished him with the material for two books, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). (A third, posthumous one, The Broken Road, is promised for later this year, reconstructed from a diary and a short early draft by Artemis Cooper.) The gap of forty or fifty years between the books’ publication and the events they described led some reviewers to question the authenticity of the lush artistic sensibility they conveyed:

Curves like the slits in a violin began to complicate and soften the zigzags of the gable, and, from the burgeoning crow-steps, florid finials and elaborated obelisks were soon shooting up.

Was this really what a raw nineteen-year-old saw? Very likely not, but as Dervla Murphy observed in a review in The Irish Times, the writing was so enjoyable that “it doesn’t matter a damn whether he is describing it as he remembers it in 1934 or in 1964 or simply as he fancies it might have been in 1634”. Most of those who have read A Time of Gifts or Between the Woods and the Water will agree.

Mrs Sandwith’s introductions tended to have a multiplier effect. Baron Rheinhard von Liphart-Ratshoff, whose estate was at Gräfeling, just outside Munich, not only rested and watered the young man who arrived at his gate but sent letters in turn to his own friends, among them Graf Arco-Valley, Count and Countess Botho Coreth and Count and Countess Trautmannsdorff of Pottenbrunn, a small town some fifty kilometres west of Vienna. Decades later Leigh Fermor wondered what had become of these hosts who had lavished kindness and hospitality on him in the terrible years that followed. Finding out was not always pleasant: Count and Countess Trautmannsdorff were shot dead by a party of SS men just after the German surrender (the count, they knew, had been involved in a local resistance group); Ernst and Alice Ziegler, with whom he stayed in Prague, died in Nazi concentration camps, Ernst in Theresienstadt, Alice in Auschwitz.

Leigh Fermor’s wanderings continued, after Constantinople, in Greece, where he became involved with a royalist military unit putting down a Republican revolt. In 1935 in Athens he met and fell in love with Bălaşa Cantacuzino, a Romanian/Phanariot-Greek noblewoman with whom he stayed until he returned to England and duty at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Leigh Fermor hoped to enlist in the Irish Guards, being, as he believed, of Irish descent (a possible link on his mother’s side to a seventeenth century Sir John Taaffe of Ballymote). But due to a combination of illness and a difficulty, during training, conforming to army discipline (sergeant-majors being ever alert for someone “trying to be funny”) the Guards commission did not materialise. Instead he was shunted across to the Intelligence Corps, whose cap badge he found not nearly so dashing as the Star Saltire of St Patrick (“a pansy resting on its laurels”, according to the corps’s detractors). Another round of training brought another assessment: “Quite useless as a regimental officer, but in other capacities will serve the army well.”

In May 1940 Leigh Fermor, on the basis largely of his formidable linguistic skills, found himself in Crete, where he was to spend most of the war operating under the name Mihali, disguised as a shepherd, arranging for the evacuation of stranded British soldiers and helping to organise and supply arms to the Cretan resistance. Work of this nature often attracts a certain kind of swashbuckling soldier-intellectual, a type in which the English do not seem to be deficient. John Pendlebury had been curator of Knossos and director of excavations at Tel El Amarna in Egypt before the war. Now he was the main British liaison with Crete’s clan chieftains.

Speaking fluent Cretan, dressed in a shepherd’s cloak and armed with his swordstick, Pendlebury would stride into the mountains for days or weeks at a time. It was a delicate and difficult job, setting up chains of command and opening lines of communication among mountain men who had been feuding and rustling each other’s sheep for generations. Pendlebury won their respect and affection, and they liked the way he left his glass eye (the result of a childhood accident with a pen) prominently on his desk when he was not at home.

On occasional periods of leave, Leigh Fermor would join the British garrison in Cairo, where he could relax with the best society at the Gezira Club, the Kit Kat or Madam Badia’s. As the war progressed more women arrived, clerks, secretaries, cypherenes, ambulance drivers and nurses; in a situation where a young man on leave might well be dead in a few weeks sexual morals tended not to be overly strict. Enlisted men could not, of course, enter the more exclusive Cairene clubs but they had their own places of entertainment, Café Bar Old England, Cosy Corner and Home Sweet Home, where you could buy chips and dirty postcards and the young panders called out: “Hey, Mister! You want my sister? Very nice, very clean, all pink inside like Queen Victoria.” Leigh Fermor and his friends spent much of their time at a large villa they had christened Tara, throwing wild parties fuelled by cocktails made with prunes marinated in the bath with raw alcohol. The highlight of Christmas 1943 was a turkey stuffed with Benzedrine.

But it was not all fun. It was at Tara that Leigh Fermor worked on his plan to abduct a German general from Crete. This operation, meticulously planned and successfully carried out, was to become the subject of a postwar Powell and Pressburger film, Ill Met By Moonlight, with Dirk Bogarde in the role of Leigh Fermor. Ill Met is scarcely a wonderful film, but one can see why the subject matter of the escapade appealed. Whether the kidnapping of General Heinrich Kreipe was anything more than an escapade, a minor boost to Cretan morale at a time when the Germans were already clearly on course to lose the war, is a moot point. It certainly made Leigh Fermor a hero in Greece, the most popular Englishman there, some said, since Lord Byron.

There is a well-documented history in Britain of the peacetime decline of brave soldiers (see the Daily Telegraph obituaries), chaps who had had “a good war” but who never quite settled afterwards. Leigh Fermor, with his innate restlessness and love of the high life, might have seemed a prime candidate for this fate on demobilisation. That he did not enter a serious decline may be attributed to two factors, first, that great staple the love of a good woman and second, his own very considerable literary talents, which given time and a huge level of patience on the part of both his partner (and much later wife), Joan Rayner, and his publisher, Jock Murray, did eventually flourish. Leigh Fermor produced three travel books and a short novel during the 1950s and another travel book in 1966. This did not bring in much money. Under the pressure of an obligation to support his elderly mother he considered – for the first time, it seems – “[taking] a regular job on some newspaper soon”. He was thirty-nine at the time ‑ and he did not give in.

It was a help that Joan had a regular allowance from her wealthy family (on the death of her mother in 1959 she was to inherit about two million pounds in today’s terms) and of course there were always friends. A visit to Ireland brought Leigh Fermor to Oonagh Oranmore and Browne’s house at Luggala and to Birr Castle, but a night at the Kildare Hunt Ball ended with a trip to a surgeon for stitches after he asked if it was true, as he had been told, that the “killing Kildares” were in the habit of buggering their foxes.

The 1970s was the decade that eventually brought Leigh Fermor the wide recognition his work deserved as A Time of Gifts eventually, finally, was made ready for publication. (The title, from a poem by Louis MacNeice, was a late development. Leigh Fermor had always wanted to call the book “Parallax”, the difference in appearance of something seen from two angles, in this case youth and age; he also held the view that anything with an “x” in the title sold: “If sex were spelt segs, I question whether it would have caught on to the same extent.”) Between the Woods and the Water, appearing in 1986, was also a huge success. Leigh Fermor was recognised as one of the leading prose stylists of his generation. John Gross felt the book should be read “for its sumptuous colouring, the acuteness of his responses, the loving precision with which he conjures up people and places”, while Graham Coster in the Independent possibly got closer to Leigh Fermor’s wide popular appeal: “Every girl is pretty, every man dashing. Horses are strong, dogs eager”, the end result being “a quite ruthlessly pleasant journey”.

In their final decades Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor lived for part of each year in a house they had built at Kardamyli in the southern Peloponnese and continued to travel extensively. Joan died in 2003, aged ninety-one. In June 2011, suffering from terminal throat cancer, Patrick Leigh Fermor returned to England, to the house of Joan’s family at Dumbleton in Gloucestershire, where she was buried. He arrived, after a long flight and drive, on June 9th and died the following morning. He was ninety-six.

A note or message was later found folded into a biography of Proust he had been reading during his final few months in his house at Kardamyli. It read: “Love to all and kindness to all friends, and thank you all for a life of great happiness.”

Artemis Cooper has written a biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor which, with an assured style, a calm and well-bred reticence and an admirable freedom from obtrusive theorising, provides an affectionate, witty and touching portrait of a man of enormous gifts and charm who seems to have been particularly blessed ‑ and perhaps to some degree rescued from the consequences of his failings ‑ by his capacity to inspire and retain friendship.

28/01/13

Enda O’Doherty is a journalist and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.