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Ghika – Fermor – Craxton: 3 places, 3 creators

October 21, 2014

From the left: Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas, John Craxton, Barbara Hutchinson-Ghika, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Lydia Aous, 1958

Our favourite museum, the Benki, is presenting an exhibition dedicated to three creators, whose lives were bonded through common places: Hydra, Kardamyli, Corfu. Three houses-refuges, which became a source of artistic inspiration, and housed a friendship that lasted over 40 years.

Sir Patrick Leigh-Fermor, English travel writer, built his house in Kardamyli of Mani, a house that was later bequeathed to the Benaki Museum. There, he hosted since the 1960’s the painters N. H. Ghika and John Craxton, among other friends, whose works decorated the place.

Earlier, main feature for all three of them was Ghika’s manor in Hydra, “a perfect prose-factory” as it was called by Fermor, who lived there for two years, writing most of his book “Mani”.

John Craxton as well, was attracted by the landscape of Hydra and painted a series of them. His valuable help the days that folowed the fire at Ghika’s house in Hydra, in 1961, is described at their extensive correspondence. In one of these letters Craxton is suggesting to Niko and Barbara Ghika that perhaps it is about time to move on to other places. Indeed, the Corfu house was going to replace the void and become a new place of meeting and creation.

Letters, manuscripts, editions and photos are the main theme of the exhibition, accompanied by drawings by N. H. Ghika and John Craxton. Works of the above painters coming from the Fermor house in Kardamyli form a separate section at the exhibition which runs from 17 October 2014 to 10 January 2015. Further details here.

Why you should never meet your heroes

October 19, 2014

Would you have been disappointed if you had met Paddy?

By Philip Sidney

First published in The Spectator 14 October 2014

As we become steadily accustomed to life in the Age of Celebrity, it’s become a truth that, as Mark Mason put it in the Speccie last month, ‘meeting your heroes is almost always a bad idea’. Reading the letters page in the London Review of Books, it seems that this advice extends to visiting any place associated with your heroes. Last summer Max Long, an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, arrived at Patrick Leigh Fermor’s old house at Kardamyli in Greece, hoping to pay homage to one of his heroes (see The House is Not Always Empty). His visit, he reports, was unideal:

‘To the hairy, shirtless, sandalled old man who occupied Paddy’s studio as though he owned the place, and who refused entry on a sweaty August morning to a travelling student, despite his pleadings (and tears): you ruined a young man’s pilgrimage.’

It’s hard not to sympathise, particularly given the hospitality with which Fermor was himself received on his travels. But this kind of disenchantment isn’t exclusive to unsceptical youth. Jeremy Clarke laments the speed at which authors’ auras disperse:

‘Nothing lingers. When they’re gone, they’re gone. Even with a commemorative plaque on the wall, one is left only with a sense of vertigo at how easily all vestiges of even the recent past are obliterated and we move on.’

Both Long and Clarke are part of a rich tradition of disappointed pilgrims which began in the late 19th century, the joint result of improved transport networks and the growth of a mass audience for literature. In those days it was possible to be rebuffed by the great men themselves, as were the rather impatient tourists that called on Thomas Hardy in 1903:

‘[…] I have given mortal offence to some by not seeing them in the morning at any hour. I send down a message that they must come after 4 o’ clock, & they seem to go off in dudgeon.’

After any famous writer goes their own long journey, the difficulties of preserving their home for would-be pilgrims become more fraught: whether a literary shrine is tended or neglected, there will always be enthusiasts claiming that their idol has not been treated appropriately. As Simon Goldhill observes in Scott’s Buttocks, Freud’s Couch, Brontë’s Grave, Charlotte Brontë would have been horrified had she seen her stockings on public display at Haworth Parsonage, but in the 21st century they’re a precious link – however creepy – to a great talent now gone.

What options remain, then, for the would-be literary pilgrim? Continue to travel hopefully, sifting the let-downs for a trace of longed-for genius loci? Or stay at home, cherishing places in the imagination? Nick Hunt’s book, Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn, provides a possible answer. His journey across Europe in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor shares the landscapes through which his hero moved (not to mention the physical strains incidental to thousand-mile walks), while also conscious of the changes that have reshaped the continent in the intervening 80 years. However fervently we revere our literary pin-ups, we must remain conscious, and as far as possible accepting, of the things that stand between us and them: be they an accumulation of years, a glass vitrine, or hirsute jobsworths in shorts.

Philip Sidney is a writer and academic, specialising in travel, literature and travel literature

Abducting a General: Crossing Europe and kidnapping a German general

October 17, 2014
The abduction party, 28 April 1944 (Leigh Fermor standing second from left in German uniform)

The abduction party, 28 April 1944 (Leigh Fermor standing second from left in German uniform)

A very rare profile of Paddy by the BBC. Barely anything is available on the BBC about one our greatest Englishmen. Since his death the amount has increased with an obituary and the serialisation of Artemis Cooper’s biography. This review is welcome.

From BBC News Magazine

By Andy Walker

Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation and Soe in Crete is a new account of the kidnap of a German general in WW2 from occupied Crete and sheds light on one of the 20th Century’s most interesting men.

“One man in his time plays many parts,” wrote Shakespeare in As You Like it. If that is any measure, then the late Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor blew it into a cocked hat.

A decorated war hero, brilliant conversationalist, historian, Hollywood scriptwriter, perhaps the finest travel writer of his generation – the list of the achievements of Paddy, he was never called Patrick, goes on and on.

And now, three years after his death at the age of 96, Leigh Fermor’s own account of the audacious wartime exploit, capturing General Heinrich Kreipe, the commander of a division on the island of Crete, evading his pursuers and getting him to Cairo, has been published, further gilding his glittering reputation.

The book, Abducting A General, recounts the incident with typical Fermor erudition and flair.

He recalls how he and his colleague W Stanley “Billy” Moss dressed as German corporals, flagged down the general’s car on an isolated road. Their Cretan comrades helped them overwhelm the driver and, with Fermor wearing the general’s braided cap in the front of the staff car, they negotiated 22 German checkpoints with their quarry out of sight in the back.

Then, he writes: “A mood of riotous jubilation broke out in the car; once more we were all talking, laughing, gesticulating and finally singing at the tops of our voices, and offering each other cigarettes, including the general.”

On the journey to a rendezvous with a British submarine the party traversed the island’s highest point, Mount Ida, where Fermor and the general traded some lines of Latin from Horace.

It was, he explained later, “as if the war had come to an end, because we had drunk of the same fountains. Everything was very different afterwards”.

Leigh Fermor at the hideout at Kastamonitza, 20 April 1944

Leigh Fermor at the hideout at Kastamonitza, 20 April 1944


Fermor was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, while Moss, who penned his own account of the incident, Ill Met By Moonlight, later to be made into a movie starring Dirk Bogarde, was given the Military Cross.

But this was but one achievement by the man once described as “a cross between Indiana Jones, Graham Greene and James Bond”.

At just 18, the wild and wilful son of distant parents, Fermor had been “sacked” from a series of schools before being taken in by the bright and bookish denizens of bohemian London. He started a journey.

“Hopeless, idle, easily distracted, unemployable,” as his biographer and friend Artemis Cooper puts it, Fermor resolved to travel on foot from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul living on just £5 a month – part wandering scholar, part tramp, in order to reboot his life.

His journey, chronicled between 1977 and last year in three books – A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road – is a poetic and romanticised evocation of a Europe as much of the mind as of reality, one which was swept away by WW2 and the upheavals which came in its wake.

Through Holland he wandered, then followed the Rhine through German cities like Cologne, where “salients of carved eagles and lions and swans swung from convoluted iron brackets along a maze of lanes,” and Coblenz, remarking that “the accent had changed and wine cellars had taken the place of beer-halls”.

This was a Germany in the first year of the Nazi regime with people giving the “Heil Hitler!” greeting “as though the place were full of slightly sinister boy scouts”. In the midst of this, though, Fermor’s descriptions are lyrical, cultural, rarely political.

His charm eased his passage. One day he might sleep in a barn, the next in the palace of former Austro-Hungarian nobility, playing polo on bicycles in the grounds.

And later in the journey he fell in love with a Romanian princess, Balasha Cantacuzene, tagged along in a royalist cavalry formation deployed against an abortive Greek revolution in 1935 and visited the monasteries of Mount Athos.

This six-year “ultimate gap-year”, as the writer Benedict Allen has called it, ended with the outbreak of war in 1939, Fermor’s facility with languages (speaking four fluently with a working knowledge of many more), plus a tried and tested self-sufficiency, meant that he was an ideal candidate for special operations.

After the war he stayed on in Greece, worked for the British Council and met his muse, Joan Rayner, who was Wendy to his Peter Pan, as Cooper puts it.

An intellectual counter to the polymath Fermor, she was there when, aged 69, he swam the Hellespont in imitation of his idol Lord Byron. The couple married in 1968.

She was the unseen presence in works like The Traveller’s Tree, an account of a journey through the geography, history and customs of the Caribbean Islands, and two books about Greece, Mani and Roumeli.

He was in his 60s when A Time of Gifts was published, followed 11 years later by Between the Woods and the Water – writing, rewriting and revising so slowly as to drive his publisher Jock Murray to distraction.

“I think life always got in the way,” says Cooper. “He felt so unsure of himself in so many ways. He was willing to sponge off friends or live pretty rough, really, until he could get it right.

“It’s very odd, a kind of real psychological problem.”

But Fermor was not shackled to travel writing. He became an elegant translator, wrote a proto-magical realist novel, The Violins of Saint-Jacques, and even tried his hand at scriptwriting, co-writing The Roots of Heaven, a Hollywood feature directed by John Huston and starring Errol Flynn.

“Everybody else detested Errol Flynn,” recalls the writer and historian John Julius Norwich. “But Paddy thought he was terrific. And he and Paddy had tremendous drinking bouts together. They were on the same wavelength.”

And Fermor became a much sought-after raconteur, famously holding court on his visits to London.

Kidnap in Crete: The True Story of the Abduction of a Nazi General is available for pre-order or purchase. Click on the highlighted text.

Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation and Soe in Crete by Patrick Leigh Fermor is available to purchase. Click on the highlighted text.

Map of Crete as drawn by Paddy on operations

October 16, 2014

This map was hand drawn by Paddy, probably whilst on operations in Crete 1943-44, including a self-portrait. The map is from Paddy’s SOE file. First published on this blog in 2011, I am republishing it as part of a series of unique materials on the blog to tie in with the 70th anniversary year of the kidnap and the recent publication of Paddy’s own account. Click on the pictures to zoom.

The reverse of the map …

The drawing is typical of Paddy’s style. Compare it with this sketch sent to us by John Stathatos, about which John tells us:

This delightful sketch of himself in Cretan dress was penned at the top of a letter to my mother dated 17th November, 1944; as he explains, “I have been lost again in a forest of whiskers for about three weeks, and my old mountain chums are down in the plains now, looking incredibly wild and shaggy”.

“I have been lost again in a forest of whiskers for about three weeks, and my old mountain chums are down in the plains now, looking incredibly wild and shaggy”

Related article:

Traveller’s Rest by John Stathatos

Duchess of Devonshire on meeting JFK

October 15, 2014

Another video from the delightful series of interviews with Debo. She recalls times with Jack Kennedy and his funeral. She was at the White House during the Cuban missile crisis and could not understand all the talk of “missuls”; she thought they were some kind of thrush.

Click on the picture to play and briefly endure the annoying advertisement before the main event (sound again low gain).

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Travellers’ Century: Patrick Leigh Fermor now on YouTube

October 12, 2014


The event at Waterstones on Thursday with Benedict Allen introducing his 2008 film about Paddy’s life and work was a great success.

Organised by Barnaby Rogerson of Eland Publishing (who specialise in keeping the classics of travel literature in print), we were treated to a few glasses of wine before the film whilst chatting to an eclectic group who included general travel writing buffs, some who knew little about Paddy, and a group of keen PLF enthusiasts. Harry Bucknall, author of Like a Tramp, Like A Pilgrim: On Foot, Across Europe to Rome was in fine form, talking about a possible film project, and I particularly enjoyed meeting Rick Stroud who wrote the other book published this month about the abduction Kidnap in Crete: The True Story of the Abduction of a Nazi General.

Perhaps the highlight was a Q&A session afterwards where Benedict was joined by John Murray who features in the film talking about the challenges of editing Paddy’s work. John had some very interesting things to say about working with Paddy and shared some personal views about his life and relationships.

By strange coincidence I have now been told that the BBC film has now appeared in You Tube so you can all watch and enjoy it!

William Dalrymple and Artemis Cooper discuss Abducting a General on BBC’s today programme

October 10, 2014

Capture1

Justin Webb introduces this package on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme on Thursday 9 October 2014. Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor was one of the world’s great travel writers. In the grand old tradition he was a scholar and a war hero and a general all-round high achiever. Top of his achievements was the capture of a German general on Crete – and today for the first time his account of that capture is published. Travel Writer and historian William Dalrymple and biographer Artemis Cooper discuss.

You can listen to the programme on BBC iPlayer for a further four weeks if the BBC let you listen in your country. Click here to find the webpage for Thursday then slide the cursor to 02.23 to start the interview which lasts about six minutes. I had problems using it with Firefox. OK with IE.

Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation and Soe in Crete by Patrick Leigh Fermor is available to purchase. Click on the highlighted text.

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