The Byron of Our Time

'Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure'

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915–2011) achieved three impressive goals in travel, war, and art. In 1933 and ’34, in his late teens and after expulsion from school, he walked southeast across Europe, passing through nine countries: Holland, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece. This 1,700-mile ramble (about the distance from New York to Denver), while not the equal of the agonizing treks made by Henry Morton Stanley across Equatorial Africa or by Wilfred Thesiger across the Empty Quarter of Arabia, was a feat of social and cultural exploration.

In the course of his journey, Fermor, a penniless wanderer and frequent guest, met many interesting down-at-heel aristocrats, who, bored on their crumbling country estates, welcomed the company of a well-read, high-spirited, and entertaining young man. In castles and libraries, with hot baths and good wine, he indulged his curiosity about genealogy, his great capacity for drink, and his sexual desires. His principal lover was a Romanian princess, Balasha Cantacuzene, whom he described as “so fresh and enthusiastic, so full of color and so clean.” By contrast, in the wilds of Bessarabia he met the Skopzi, adherents of a religious sect who “castrated themselves to achieve a closer union with God.”

In April 1942 Fermor set out on his second and most famous Byronic adventure. Fermor, who spoke modern Greek, joined a handful of British Special Operations officers sent into the mountains of Nazi-occupied Crete to fight with the resistance and unleash a guerrilla uprising. He gathered intelligence, attacked airfields, and blew up a fuel base. He also watched helplessly as the Nazis took revenge by destroying whole villages and massacring hundreds of civilians. While on Crete, he fired a rifle he thought was unloaded and killed a Greek comrade, and the blood feud was not settled for many decades.

Fermor’s greatest wartime achievement was the daring capture of a German general, Heinrich Kreipe, in April 1944. Dressed in German uniforms, Fermor and his men set up a roadblock. As Kreipe’s car rounded a sharp curve, the armed soldiers poured out of the darkness and restrained the general, who shouted, swore, and lashed out until he was handcuffed and shoved into the back of the car. They then smuggled their prisoner through the main town and down to the coast. He was shipped to Cairo and then sent on to Canada, where he sat out the war in a POW camp. The capture inspired a novel and the film Ill Met By Moonlight (1957), with Dirk Bogarde playing Fermor. When Fermor and Kreipe were reunited on Greek television in 1972, the general said he’d been treated chivalrously, like a medieval knight.

Olivia Manning’s brilliant novels The Balkan Trilogy (1965) and The Levant Trilogy (1982) describe the same geographical area where Fermor lived, fought, and worked before, during, and after World War II—Romania, Greece, Egypt, and Palestine—and provide a useful background to his adventures. After the war Fermor worked for the British Cultural Institute in Athens; met his wealthy future wife, who supported him; and traveled in the Caribbean. He thought “all the Caribbean islands have something wrong with them. All are founded on bloodshed and slavery, and are now miserable.” Nevertheless, they inspired his first travel book, The Traveller’s Tree (1950), and his only novel, The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1953).

As Artemis Cooper writes in her new biography, Fermor then “embarked on a ten-year odyssey in which he was rarely in one place for more than a month or two, shifting mainly between Italy, Greece, England, and France.” In Crete, he was rather embarrassed by the way he constantly had to live up to his image as a war hero and said, “I have to conform to an outgrown tradition of myself—but how one changes!” Cooper has difficulty making these endless nomadic wanderings seem interesting.

Finally, in 1964, Fermor came to a halt in the Peloponnese, where he built a home that he called “a loose-limbed monastery and farmhouse with massive walls and cool rooms.” In October 1984, at the age of sixty-nine, he imitated Byron’s feat and swam a turbulent mile across the Hellespont, the winding Turkish channel that separates Asia from Europe. Cooper’s biography fizzles out at the end and covers Fermor’s last twenty years in only six pages.

The first third of Cooper’s book mainly paraphrases Fermor’s three widely spaced travel books about his youthful journey across Europe, which appeared decades later and were his third major achievement: A Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and the Water (1988), and the unfinished The Broken Road, which has just been published in the United States. A slow, procrastinating writer, blocked for much of his life by the weight of too much material, he resembled Penelope, unraveling at night what he had woven by day. His wanderings abroad to write, often in Benedictine and Trappist monasteries, were also an escape from writing. His mannered, Mandarin prose, which Lawrence Durrell called “truffled and dense with plumage,” was influenced by the work of Charles Doughty, T. E. Lawrence, and Norman Douglas. The elaborate style clashed with his descriptions of primitive gypsies and bandits, all rioting, singing, drinking, and firing their rifles into the air.

I corresponded with Paddy (as everyone called him) when writing my lives of Errol Flynn, John Huston, and Somerset Maugham. Paddy had written the screenplay of one of Flynn’s best movies, The Roots of Heaven (1958), and was on the scene during the disastrous filming in French Equatorial Africa. Flynn, Trevor Howard, and Paddy were all drinking heavily, and there was considerable conflict when Paddy fell in love with the French singer Juliette Gréco, the co-star and mistress of his boss, the producer Darryl Zanuck. For Fermor, Hollywood screenwriting was a lark that enabled him to hang around and drink with colorful characters in an exotic setting.

In a vivid letter of May 5, 2000, Paddy described the horrendous conditions—heat, disease, swarming insects, and dangerous animals—while making the movie in the tropics. He got on well with the flamboyant Flynn—like Paddy, a congenial companion and ladies’ man—enjoyed his conversation, and gave a perceptive account of his character:

Errol seemed distinctly more intelligent than the run of actors. Full of original tangents, a great narrative gift, and a great sense of humor. He often referred to his learned father, a marine biologist at Belfast University. We talked about nearly everything, often until very late. He loved reminiscing, largely about Hollywood. I asked him what the leading and most beautiful stars of the day were like. “Well, pretty good,” he said. “They’ve all got my scalp, I’m afraid.”

When working on a biography of John Huston, who directed The Roots of Heaven, I made use of Paddy’s sharp memory of Bangui, now in the Central African Republic. Here’s how he described the savage Darwinian scene in the same letter:

The forests near Bangui were inhabited by very intelligent pygmies. We were “shooting” in the forest when the clouds broke and a large deluge of rain came down. Our procession of vehicles headed back to the ultra-modern hotel, like an upended mouth-organ on the banks of the Shari river, which was full of crocodiles. I got there with Errol and his girl, and we were astonished to find the whole of the ground floor a foot deep in termites, over which small bright green frogs from the Shari were leaping about in parabolas, while Juliette’s mongoose ran riot among them, killing and swallowing as many as he could, two legs sticking out of his mouth. A strange sight.

I got in touch with Paddy again as I was writing a biography of Somerset Maugham. Paddy was an Old Boy of Maugham’s alma mater, the King’s School in Canterbury. He was also a close friend of Ian Fleming’s wife, who was Maugham’s confidante. After the war he visited Maugham’s luxurious Villa Mauresque on Cap Ferrat. The visit turned out to be a legendary disaster. Since Paddy lived in Kardamyli in the Peloponnese and my daughter was then a Foreign Service officer in Athens, it seemed a good time to see him—and ask him about his encounter with Maugham. In May 2002 my wife, daughter, and I rented a flat overlooking the sea and a few kilometers from Paddy’s village. 

I rang him up from a local shop and he immediately invited me to come round for an interview. Since his house was hidden away and hard to find, he walked up to the main road and hailed me as I approached. Tall and straight, white-haired and suntanned, he was at eighty-seven still a virile and impressive figure. He’d designed his low, rambling, whitewashed and red-tiled house himself. It had a shaded patio facing the Mediterranean, a flourishing garden, and a huge library filled with books in ancient and modern languages. He’d created the setting he wanted and the life he wished to lead, traveled widely and wrote well, charmed everyone and seemed content.

Paddy wanted to correct Ann Fleming’s version of his embarrassing visit to Maugham, which she’d exaggerated—with shattered drinking glasses and blood on the floor—to amuse Evelyn Waugh. Maugham had asked Ann to bring Paddy with her for dinner and had invited Paddy to stay on as his guest and write at the Villa. Unnerved by Maugham’s severe expression and icy manner, Paddy drank far too much and ended up talking about the one thing he was strictly forbidden to mention, Maugham’s debilitating stammer. Paddy quoted the absurd belief that everyone in the College of Arms (a.k.a. Herald’s College) had a stammer. That was bad enough. But noting that the day was the Feast of the Assumption, Fermor mentioned Correggio’s painting on that subject in the Louvre and repeated a stammering friend’s bon mot: “That is a m-most un-un-w-warrantable as-assumption.”

Deeply offended, Maugham became even icier. Getting up from the table and taking his leave, he rescinded his invitation by saying: “Goodbye. You will have left before I am up in the morning.” The wretched Paddy, who had had no intention of wounding his host, managed to make matters even worse. Instead of waiting for the butler to pack his bag, he hastily threw his things together and caught a monogrammed sheet, trimmed with Belgian lace, in the zipper of his suitcase. He frantically tore it off, rushed down the stairs, and escaped from the villa with the shreds hanging out of his bag.

After drinks at Paddy’s house he invited all of us to dinner at a simple, traditional restaurant, set on a promontory overlooking the sea, which he’d bought for his former cook. I noticed that the cook’s son Giorgos—who’d been to America, greeted us warmly in excellent English, and recommended the best dishes—was tall, fair, and very un-Greek looking. Cooper’s biography reports that Fermor had no children, but years later my intuition that we had met his son that evening was unofficially confirmed by some of my daughter’s Greek friends when she told them the story of having met a national hero. Paddy, who didn’t see very well at night, asked me to drive him home in his battered old Peugeot, which had stiff gears and weak brakes. As we went down a steep hill, I had to swerve around a bend that was perilously close to the harbor’s edge and had no barrier between the road and the deep blue sea. Paddy was jovial and unconcerned about the potential disaster.

Paddy was the Byron of our time. Byron’s witty, racy, colloquial style was quite different from Paddy’s ornate elaborations and digressions. But, as Cooper observes, both men had an idealized version of Greece, were scholars and men of action, could endure harsh conditions but loved to dress up, fought for Greek freedom, and displayed a reckless courage and panache that was greatly admired by their Greek comrades.

Published in the March 7, 2014 issue: 

Thirty-two of Jeffrey Meyers’s books have been translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets. He’s recently published Remembering Iris Murdoch (2013), Thomas Mann’s Artist-Heroes (2014), Robert Lowell in Love and The Mystery of the Real: Correspondence with Alex Colville (2016).

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