Rotterdam to Istanbul by foot
Patrick Leigh Fermor, 85, hasn’t quite finished the story of the epic walk he made at 18. He tells James Owen why. An old article I found in The Telegraph.
By James Owen.
First published in The Telegraph, 19 Feb 2000.
For an insular race, the English write surprisingly well about foreign places, and none better than Patrick Leigh Fermor. It was his intoxicating prose that first prompted me to travel and he occupies a prominent niche in my private pantheon of gods. But it is a quarter past three on a cold winter’s afternoon and, nice as is his doorstep is, my hero is late.
Patrick Leigh Fermor: resembles an amused sparrowhawk, alert and energetic
Then he comes scrambling out of a taxi and ushers me into his kitchen. “Really,” he says, “I’m awfully sorry. Will you have a drink?”
Age is bowing him a little now, but although he was 85 on Friday, Leigh Fermor still looks remarkably hale and, with his iron-grey hair and unlined face, could pass for a man 20 years younger, or even Trevor Howard in his prime. “Yes,” he says, “a cup of tea, that’s the thing”, and we begin to talk about his contemporary Sir Wilfred Thesiger, whom he remembers seeing stride down Piccadilly in hat and gloves “like a stern, immaculately attired eagle”.
Leigh Fermor himself resembles more an amused sparrowhawk, alert and energetic, his startled eyebrows a clue to the exuberant personality revealed in his books, most notably in the unfinished trilogy of his year-long walk from Rotterdam to Istanbul in 1934, when he was 18 and continental Europe was on the cusp of cataclysmic change.
It was a journey of physical adventure and cultural awakening, recalled in distinctive prose. His baroque and meticulously polished style, informed by a romantic eye, has brought him a host of admirers – yet there are those who doubt that he could remember such detail half a century on and accuse him of private myth-making. So, I ask him, do travel writers improve on truth for the sake of art?
“I say,” he declares, his vocabulary that of the schoolboy yarn, “that’s rather a difficult question. I think one does improve on things; it’s irresistible sometimes. After all, one is telling a story. I am a bit worried that I’ve got a slightly ‘disinfectant’ memory, as if some goblin had washed out the gloomy parts and let the luminous ones survive. But, overall, I don’t think I’ve sinned too heinously.”
Still, if you wanted to create the perfect fictional travel writer, you would be hard pressed to devise a better life story than Leigh Fermor’s. He was born of Anglo-Irish stock, his father a naturalist whose discoveries included a worm with eight hairs on its back and a particular formation of snowflake; his mother was a red-headed, cigarette-smoking, fur-boot-wearing playwright.
After his parents divorced, young Paddy’s education was sporadic. A spell at a progressive establishment where pupils and staff alike dispensed with clothes was followed by King’s School, Canterbury, from which he was expelled at 16 for holding hands with a greengrocer’s daughter. Dispatched to London, he lodged with Beatrice Stewart, the model for the figure of Peace at Hyde Park Corner, before planning his great trek across Europe.
Having reached his goal – what he insists on calling “Constantinople” – Leigh Fermor visited for the first time the country with which he would become most associated, Greece, spending his 20th birthday in a snowbound monastery on Mount Athos. He then found himself caught up in an anti-royalist revolt and, with customary dash, attached himself to a cavalry regiment. The campaign brought him novel challenges.
“I’d heard about swimming horses across rivers,” he recalls, “so I thought I’d give it a go. It was the most extraordinary thing – the water comes up to your waist, and the horse’s head sticks out like a chessman.” A little later, Leigh Fermor’s comrades were ordered to draw sabres for what must have been one of the last cavalry charges in Europe.
Fittingly for a philhellene, Leigh Fermor is a latterday Byron, a man of action as well as of letters, and long before he made a reputation as a writer, he was celebrated for one of the most daring missions of the Second World War. Having organised guerrilla operations in occupied Crete for two years, in 1944 he and a friend, disguised as German soldiers, kidnapped the island’s garrison commander, General Kreipe, and successfully bluffed their way through two dozen checkpoints in his official car.
For three weeks, they evaded German search parties, then marched the general over the top of Mount Ida, birthplace of Zeus. As the general gazed up at the snowy peak, he began to recite the first line of an ode by Horace; Leigh Fermor immediately continued the poem to its end, and the two men realised that they had “drunk at the same fountains” before the war. Kreipe was eventually taken off Crete by motorboat, Leigh Fermor awarded the DSO, and the whole exploit filmed as Ill Met By Moonlight in 1956, with Dirk Bogarde improbably cast as the burly commando.
The incident cemented Leigh Fermor’s standing on Crete (where he soon found himself with 27 godchildren), and his experiences there confirmed his love of the Greeks themselves. After the war, Greece became his adopted home and he built a house deep in the Peloponnese, close to the sea, where he likes to bathe (at the age of almost 70 he swam the four miles across the Hellespont). Now he and his wife spend most of their time in Greece, which has inspired perhaps his two most original books, Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966), distillations respectively of the history, folklore and culture of the far south and north of a country that has since vanished forever.
“I think Greece has changed, on the whole, for the good,” he says, “but tourism has spoilt it more than the Greeks themselves realise. Yet I still like the Greeks and one’s always grateful to countries where one is happy.”
He now intends to stay close to home, “tinkering with one’s work”. He much prefers research to the painful business of writing and re-writing; his prose usually goes through four or five drafts before he deems it to have passed muster. I ask him if he thinks he has written enough. “No!” he says sharply. “I’ve been far too slow, mucking about, wasting time. Of course, I ought to have written a great deal more.
“Sometimes it does rip ahead. The first time it happened to me I was in the deserted monastery of Sant’ Antonio, outside Rome, where I was toiling on The Traveller’s Tree [his book about the Caribbean]. I started after dinner and went on for what I thought was two or three hours, whipping away, when I noticed something funny about the light. Then the birds began to sing all around the monastery. I’d been writing from dinner time to dawn.”
There are two more books that he would like to write, he says. The first is an account of the Resistance movement on Crete, which he feels duty-bound to record. The other is his current project, and will come as welcome relief to those addicts of Leigh Fermor who have been waiting 15 years since the last instalment of his walk – Between the Woods and the Water – to see if he reaches Constantinople.
“It’s been very desultory and jerky,” he confesses, “but I’ve got to finish what I’m working on, the third step of that journey. I’m not sure now if this is a good title, but I’d thought of calling it ‘Parallax’, which means looking at the same thing from a different angle – the time when all this happened and now, when one is old Methuselah scribbling away.
“At my immense age, when I look back, I think: ‘Thank God I didn’t let every opportunity slip by.’ ” Good grief, I say, what did you fail to cram in? But Patrick Leigh Fermor just smiles good-naturedly, as if to say: “Yes, well, now that’s another story.”