In December 1933 the engaging 18-year-old drop-out Paddy Leigh Fermor set off to walk from the Hook of Holland to the city which, as a lifelong philhellene, he would always call Constantinople.
First published in The Scotsman.
With many diversions and congenial breaks in the company of woodcutters and aristocrats, the journey took him a year. Decades later it became apparent to Leigh Fermor and others that he had not only crossed the continent on foot; he had traversed a Europe which was on the brink of irreversible social and political change.
It nonetheless took him a while to write about it. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s literary career was delayed by his characteristically flamboyant wartime activities with the Special Operations Executive. After the Second World War he spent time in the Caribbean. He published his first book, The Traveller’s Tree, about the West Indies in 1950, when he was 35 years old.
Leigh Fermor settled in Greece and his next two books of serious note, Mani and Roumeli, were gorgeously articulated expressions of his love affair with his adopted country.
They also took an ominously long time to write. Mani was published in 1958 and Roumeli in 1966. That was partly due to Leigh Fermor’s painstaking search for stylistic excellence – Melvyn Bragg would later suggest that he was “trying to write the perfect book”. It was also because the author was at least as interested in living the perfect life, which involved heroic quantities of wine, women and song.
A further 11 years lapsed before he considered his account of the first third of his pre-war walk to be fit for print. A Time of Gifts took him from Holland through the simmering early months of Nazi Germany to the border between Czechoslovakia and Hungary. The second volume, which walked from Czechoslovakia to the Danube’s Iron Gates gorge between Serbia and Romania, was titled Between the Woods and the Water and published in 1986.
The exuberance, off-the-wall scholarship, characterisation and teenaged derring-do of those two books initiated and rode the high wave of the 1980s travel writing boom. Patrick Leigh Fermor was garlanded with praise and internationally recognised as one of the greatest of 20th century authors.
The world, not least that part of the world occupied by his publisher John Murray, held its breath and waited for the third and final volume. Leigh Fermor was 71 years old in 1986. But he enjoyed robust good health in his Peloponnesian retreat and he had written on the last page of Between the Woods and the Water the three promising words “To be Concluded”.
There seemed at first no reason not to hope. Only slowly did it become apparent that one of the saddest cases of writer’s block in recent times had descended on that villa in the Mani. Patrick Leigh Fermor had a towering pile of notes and draft manuscript covering his passage from the Iron Gates to Constantinople, but he was unable to convert them into the book which satisfied his own unique standards.
John Murray persuaded his author to publish collections of letters and essays. As the years passed it became clear that those were pale substitutes for the completion of what would have been an immortal trilogy. Patrick Leigh Fermor died in June 2011 at the age of 96 years. He left no third volume. He did leave the pile of notes and first-copy manuscript.
They have been worked up by his friend and biographer Artemis Cooper and his friend and fellow travel writer Colin Thubron and published as The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos.
The editors’ title, an acknowledgement that Leigh Fermor’s literary journey was unfinished, is perfect. In their introduction Thubron and Cooper are honest to the point of apology in admitting that this story cannot reasonably compare to the finished product of Patrick Leigh Fermor in midseason form.
The sentences are almost all Leigh Fermor’s, and usually recognisably so. But as Cooper pointed out in her biography, part of the brilliance of the first two volumes lay in the fact that Leigh Fermor novelised his travels. That is not to say that he made much up. It is to say that he constructed and polished his narrative; he expertly conflated characters and relocated incidents. From the fertile ground of his own irrepressible self and his glorious adventures he cultivated an astonishing Bildungsroman in a world so lost that it may as well be fictional.
The Broken Word, on the other hand, remains a draft, albeit a draft edited by skilled and sympathetic hands. It is also a Patrick Leigh Fermor draft, which makes it superior to the finished work of most other writers. The youthful joy shines through, and the deep cultural learning that was superimposed in later years is there in sufficient quantity to lend wonder to this fragmented tale.
The book is rarely less than invigorating. At times, as when our hero finds himself riotously overnighting by the Black Sea with a congregation of Bulgarian shepherds and Greek fishermen, The Broken Road has all the verve of the finished article.
It strides towards an ideal conclusion – not in Constantinople, of which Leigh Fermor mysteriously left few accounts, but on Mount Athos. There we find the boy who would come to know Greece better than most Greeks first grasping with delight the modern vernacular and the traditional ways of a land that never ceased to captivate him, and through him, his readers.
This will be the last full book by Patrick Leigh Fermor to appear in print. Anybody who loved its two preceding volumes will fall upon it hungrily. Anybody who has not read the two preceding volumes should do so without delay.
Llewelyn Morgan describes himself, rightly as “a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I’ve got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.” We all know so much about Paddy’s tale of the Horace Ode with General Kreipe. This piece from Morgan’s blog goes into a little more detail; essential for those of us not to have had a thorough classical education. My thanks to Peter Golden for passing this to me.
By Llewelyn Morgan
First published on Lugubelinus, 15 October 2013
For reasons that will emerge, I’m intrigued by the practice of travelling with a copy of your favourite classical author in your pocket; and I’m struck by the fact that Horace seems to be the most commonly chosen travelling companion. In Horace’s fifth satire, when he describes setting off on a journey with Heliodorus, there’s a theory that Heliodorus is a book (it was the name of the author of a book called The Wonders of Italy, or possibly The Wonders of Medicine) rather than a flesh-and-blood companion, so that’s kind of appropriate for starters.
It isn’t always Horace. The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński did all his foreign reporting accompanied by a gift from his editor, “a thick book with a stiff cover of yellow cloth. On the front, stamped in gold letters, was Herodotus, THE HISTORIES.” Europeans trudging through Afghanistan in the nineteenth century cited chapter and verse on Alexander’s itinerary with such accuracy that I can’t help but suspect they had copies of Quintus Curtius Rufus’ Histories of Alexander the Great secreted somewhere about their persons.
Virgil is another favourite, and with him the unhealthier aspects of this practice come to the fore. Abraham Cowley was the author, among other things, of an epic, The Civil War, which he wrote as the English Civil War unfolded in the 1640s (and which mutates from an epic into a satire as Cowley’s favoured side, the Royalists, lose ground.) According to John Aubrey he “alwaies had a Virgil in his pocket”, and his reverence for the Aeneid is very obvious in The Civil War: he even imitates Virgil’s “half-lines”, lines left unfinished by Virgil at his death (he died before the Aeneid was completely finished), but which Cowley thought were deliberate, and expressive.
But Cowley’s devotion to Virgil didn’t stop at the odd half-line. Aubrey recounts a story of Cowley using his pocket Virgil to consult the “Virgilian lots” (sortes Vergilianae) with the future Charles II, opening the pages of the Aeneid at random as a way of predicting the future. And predictably enough, Cowley and the prince happen on Dido’s curse of Aeneas at the end of Aeneid 4, where the queen of Carthage prays that Aeneas will see his friends fall before his eyes, make peace on unjust terms, and die before his time: Virgil was telling them what would happen to the prince’s father Charles I.
That is a story with many variants, and it doesn’t always involve Cowley. But we can establish that Cowley had a habit of consulting the sortes Vergilianae. Dr Johnson quotes a letter written by Cowley in which he discusses the prospects for an alliance with the Scots. Cowley is confident of a positive outcome to negotiations: “The Scotch will moderate something of the rigour of their demands; the mutual necessity of an accord is visible; the king is persuaded of it. And to tell the truth (which I take to be an argument above all the rest) Virgil has told me something to that purpose.” Virgil has told me… The text in the pocket has become the intimacy of a direct word in the ear.
Well, Virgil can play with people’s heads: Cowley’s consultation of the Virgil in his pocket is a bit like Jackson Knight’s consultation of a medium (supposedly channelling Virgil himself) when he was writing his Penguin translation of the Aeneid (just in case anyone thought Morrissey’s inclusion in the Penguin Classics was the maddest thing to happen to that series).
Chaps with Horace in their pockets are a more stable bunch all round, I like to think. But if that’s true, it has a lot to do with the focus of Horace’s poetry. His most famous and quoted poems are the Odes, and the concerns of these short lyric poems weren’t the profound mysteries of existence delved by Virgil (a figure further amplified by the strange mythology that built up around him after his death). Horace is all about the demands of this life we’re living, the inevitability of aging and death, the pleasure of the present moment. His genius is to give incomparable expression to simple principles of living. Carpe diem, etc.
As he set off to travel on foot to Constantinople in 1933 Paddy Leigh Fermor packed an Oxford Book of English Verse and, a gift from his mother, “the Loeb Horace, Vol. I”, containing the Epodes and Odes; and as he walked across Europe he memorised his favourite odes. That special relationship with Horace featured in Leigh Fermor’s most famous exploit, when he captured the German General Karl Kreipe, commander on Crete, and had him smuggled out to Cairo. As they climbed Mount Ida, Kreipe muttered the first line of Horace’s ninth ode, Vides ut alta stet niue candidum Soracte, “You see how Mt Soracte stands white with deep snow,” and Leigh Fermor responded with the rest of the poem:
The general’s blue eyes had swiveled away from the mountain top to mine – and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” “Ah, yes, Major!” It was very strange. As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.
Horace, whom both Germans and British had managed to convince themselves was the perfect encapsulation of their respective gentlemanly codes, established a mutual understanding between these two officers. Between them, for example, they managed to piece together the superb conclusion to the Regulus Ode (3.5), where the Roman general Regulus, heroically insisting on going to meet his death at the hands of the Carthaginians, leaves Rome as nonchalantly as a man heading off for a relaxing weekend at his country house. Read more…
A road trip that is as illuminating as it is incomplete made by a traveller, warrior, and jewelled stylist.
by Boyd Tonkin.
First published in the Independent, 13 Septembet 2013.
By then almost as mythical as the heroes of his beloved Greece, Paddy Leigh Fermor – traveller, writer, warrior and scholar – died rich in years and honours in 2011. He left behind, as an unfinished manuscript, a third volume of the memoirs that recreate his youthful “Great Trudge” across Europe between late 1933 and early 1935.
As recounted in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, this idyllic journey enshrines for countless readers two lost worlds: that of picturesque, romantic Europe before the Nazi and then Communist catastrophes, and of literary travel-writing at its most sensuous, mesmeric and iridescent – a prose equivalent of those Byzantine ikons and frescoes that he would come to love.
The Broken Road – named in token of its incompleteness by editors Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper, PLF’s outstanding biographer – itself arrives in print after a path as rocky, faint and winding as the upland Balkan tracks across which the author strides. He had lost, forsaken or otherwise parted company with almost all his original journals. Thus every book in this (now) trilogy counts as a “jigsaw of memory”, with some pieces forever gone astray, and a “private archaeology” in which layers of pristine preservation alternate with random rubble and silt.
In fact, PLF wrote much of this final stretch of the long walk first. It covers his, as always, circuitous trek through Bulgaria and southern Romania, breaking off at Burgas on the Black Sea (not far from his final destination, Istanbul). He began it in the early 1960s; then recollection hit a wall. Other books supervened, and only after 2008, in frail old age, did he return to edit this leg. As an appendix, the editors print a diary that has survived, of his winter sojourn among the monks of a snowbound Mount Athos. Its blend of near-adolescent naivety with glimpses of a jewelled stylist in embryo confirm that the mature PLF fashioned as much as he reported.
From the “Iron Gates” on the Danube, he sweeps down through the highland “wolf and bear world” of Bulgaria to Plovdiv, where a (so we assume) chaste romance with spirited, madcap Nadejda catches the trip’s recurrent mood of sudden affection that flares for a few days and then drops into the darkness of “minor valedictions” or even “shattering deracinations”.
An autumnal tinge, historical as well as seasonal, colours the walk: many of the bewitching Balkan folk he meets were “attached to trails of powder” that would consume them during the looming totalitarian decades. The young Englishman, with his vagabond charm and bubbling curiosity, seems to enchant everyone from Bucharest toffs to Pontic shepherds in a sea-girt cave. Women and men alike fall under his sway (a later page expands on Balkan and Levantine tolerance of homoerotic friendship); but did 19-year-old Paddy, who provokes operetta-like outbursts of devotion and then sulkiness in some male companions, know how much of a flirt and a tease he might have seemed?
Along the way, the “starter’s gun” of his lifelong passions fires: for Byzantine art and culture, and the Greek world in general; for ruggedly sublime scenery and (in contrast) the aristocratic suavity that he laps up, a pampered stray, in Bucharest. Above all, the book lopes from one hallucinatory set-piece to another: the look and feel of a hillside Bulgarian town, its lanes “crisscrossed by buckled and twisted tiger-stripes of sunlight”; the thick airborne carpet of storks on their autumn migration, “a sliding pavilion of feathers overhead”; the “holy and enchanted” ruined mosque where (overcoming his usual anti-Ottoman tilt) he lingers by moonlight accompanied by an equally fabulous black dog.
If his name-dropping immersion in Romanian high society begins to grate, then even the ball-and-salon scenes will be lit by some Proustian lightning-bolt, as when he recalls the “faint and scarcely discernible warp” of the parquet floor at the Palais Stirbey in Bucharest. That shimmering warp of memory and artfully distorting hindsight – “balloons” of afterthought” – reaches a culmination in that coastal cave, after a solitary swing down the deserted combes, slopes and crests of the Black Sea coast.
In a lamplit frenzy of mystic dance and song, among Homeric fisherfolk and swains, young Paddy discovers the underground ecstasies of rebetika in all its “quintessence of fatalism”. Glimpsed from the future, he sets a course for the Greece that would keep his prose dancing ever after.
Paddy’s headstone was unveiled during a short service at Dumbleton on 8 November, his name day in Greece, the feast of the Archangel Michael (the Heavenly Brigadier as Paddy called him). It is Portland stone, like Joan’s.
The Greek inscription reads
‘HE WAS OF THAT EXCELLENCE WHICH IS OF GREECE’
Olivia Stewart, one of his executors chose it. The line is from a poem by Cavafy.
Among the friends gathered you can see Colin Thubron, Rita Walker (with poppy) who was with Paddy when he died, and Philippa Jellicoe (in black with hat), Bridget Kendall, married to Robert Kendall, Joan’s nephew. Also there were Cressida Connolly and her husband Charles Hudson (he’s the one holding the umbrella over Rev Nicolas Carter (who also toook Paddy’s funeral service), Olivia Stewart, Elizabeth Chatwin, Joey Casey (widow of Michael Casey, who was also Joan’s nephew), Martin Mitchell who was Paddy and Joan’s solicitor, Judith who designed the stone, and Artemis Cooper whose thumb is in the picture!
Last week as I drove back from my work in Sussex I stopped to buy some petrol. In the shop my attention was drawn to the picture in the local newspaper showing the funeral of a young local soldier who had recently died in an IED explosion in Afghanistan. Being away for so long I may have missed the news of his death, but I thought perhaps maybe I have just stopped noticing.
At 11.00 am GMT this morning we will observe a silence and remember all British and Commonwealth soldiers who have died in wars since 1914, but also those of our allies and those whom we fought against, particularly in the Great War. It is too easy to forget. Remembrance not only honours the fallen but it may, just may, make us think a little longer about “starting all over again.”
This song is by Scottish folk singer Eric Bogle and is about the struggles and fears of Australian soldiers who fought against Turkish troops and were wounded and killed in the Battle of Gallipoli in World War I. Mixed with pictures from Gallipoli are pictures of past and present Canadian troops because this song and powerful slideshow was played during a Remembrance Day assembly at a Canadian public school to remind those young people that whilst the scale of the slaughter is now thankfully much less, war is always with us, and those in our military risk their lives every day serving us. It is an extremely moving song.
by William Grimes.
First published in the New York Times, November 8, 2013.
Great storytellers can be terrible interview subjects. Patrick Leigh Fermor, the British travel writer, was one of them. Artemis Cooper, the author of “Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure,” recently published by New York Review Books, found out the hard way.
Leigh Fermor’s classic two-volume account of his yearlong walk across Europe in the early 1930s, “A Time of Gifts” and “Between the Woods and the Water,” disgorged a cornucopia of colorful characters, historical curiosities ancient and modern, reflections on geography and national psychology, and sparkling dialogue.
To a biographer, Leigh Fermor presented a series of tantalizing incarnations: the wayward child expelled from one boarding school after another; the footloose traveler across a darkening Europe; the wartime undercover agent in Crete, where he engineered the kidnapping of the island’s Nazi commander; and the celebrated travel writer, ranked by many critics among the greatest of the 20th century.
No wonder that Ms. Cooper headed into her assignment believing that she had taken on, as she put it in a recent interview, “one of the jammiest jobs in English biography.”
Not exactly. Leigh Fermor, who died at 96 in 2011, lived up to his reputation as a talker, but he turned out to be a maddeningly reticent and evasive one. On regular trips to his house in the Greek seaside village of Kardamyli, Ms. Cooper posed questions. Leigh Fermor ducked and weaved, charmingly.
“Paddy was not telling me anything he wouldn’t tell any journalist,” Ms. Cooper said. “He hated talking about himself. He hid behind this dazzling conversation, and I wasn’t getting anywhere.”
A breakthrough came when Ms. Cooper, 60, who has written books on wartime Cairo and the food writer Elizabeth David, volunteered to help Leigh Fermor organize his study. He would sit at his desk, pretending to be hard at work but dying to be distracted. Ms. Cooper would drop comments as she sifted through manuscripts and letters, causing Leigh Fermor’s ears to prick. Conversations ensued.
“It was no longer an interview,” Ms. Cooper said. “Tidying the room was a fig leaf. That is how I began to get pieces of the story.”
One piece was the unexpected discovery of an early version of that cross-Europe trek, which allowed Ms. Cooper and the travel writer Colin Thubron to bring the narrative to completion after Leigh Fermor’s death. “The Broken Road,” which picks up where “Between the Woods and the Water” ends, with its narrator still 500 miles from the city he always called Constantinople, was published in Britain in September. New York Review Books, which has made a cottage industry of reissuing Leigh Fermor’s work, plans to publish it in March.
Even after the ice was broken, Leigh Fermor still threw up obstacles and obfuscated. Ms. Cooper quickly learned that any woman he described as “a terrific friend” was almost certainly a lover. There were many. In a relaxed mood, he would spin enticing yarns, only to pull up short and plead with Ms. Cooper not to use the material. Of course not, she assured him.
The writer Artemis Cooper said: “It’s a terrible thing being a biographer. One is such a rat.”
Connecting the dots and filling in the outlines, Ms. Cooper executed a detailed portrait that Christopher Benfey, in The New York Times Book Review, described as “affectionately intimate, informative and forgiving.”
It could hardly help being intimate. Leigh Fermor had popped in and out of Ms. Cooper’s family orbit ever since she was a child. He knew her grandparents, Lady Diana Cooper and Duff Cooper, and her father, the writer and television producer John Julius Norwich.
Leigh Fermor made a deep impression on Ms. Cooper, she said, when she visited her grandmother on the Greek island of Spetses during a school holiday. She was 17. Leigh Fermor, revered by the local residents for his wartime exploits, loomed a Zorba-like figure, always in the thick of things whenever a bottle of ouzo appeared, and the dancing started on the beach. This was the man whom the travel writer Robert Macfarlane, reviewing Ms. Cooper’s book in The Guardian, called “a mixture of Peter Pan, Forrest Gump, James Bond and Thomas Browne.”
Ms. Cooper was entranced. “I developed a schoolgirl crush from which I’ve never really recovered,” she recalled.
Initially, her husband, the historian Antony Beevor, proposed that he write Leigh Fermor’s biography, but when other projects got in the way, the task fell to Ms. Cooper. She quailed.
“I was daunted by the books and his reputation as a great prose stylist,” she said. “There were those great chunks of history. I thought, ‘Oh, God, I can hardly put Moldavia and Walachia on a map.’ I thought I’d have to know as much history as he did. But it turned out to be not so difficult.”
In 2008, at the offices of John Murray, Leigh Fermor’s lifelong publisher, Ms. Cooper came across three black ring binders containing a typescript with the title “A Youthful Journey,” the basis for “The Broken Road.” It was Leigh Fermor’s overenthusiastic response to a 1962 assignment from Holiday magazine, which had commissioned him to write 2,000 words on the pleasures of walking.
Leigh Fermor responded with 84 pages describing his trip across Europe, getting as far as the Romanian port of Orsova. Then, in a long burst, he generated a small book’s worth of prose on the final third of his journey.
With “A Youthful Journey” in hand, thanks to Ms. Cooper, Leigh Fermor regained a sense of purpose. Although nearly blind and deaf, and clearly at the end of his very long life, he began working on the manuscript. Ms. Cooper and Mr. Thubron finished the job.
“All the energy was there, and all the words,” said Mr. Thubron, who did the bulk of the editing. The manuscript was written in the stage that Leigh Fermor called “letting it rip,” and that Ms. Cooper calls “the first whoosh.”
“It is raw compared to the polished gems of the first two volumes,” she said. “But Paddy never said at any point, ‘This is not working, I don’t want this to come out.’ He knew that it would be published. Maybe it made it easier to leave the world, knowing that it would appear, and that we would tidy it up. “
This is the time of year when we particularly remember those who gave their lives in wars past and present. Our understanding of the first and second world wars in particular has been enhanced by the contributions of the well-known war poets. More recent wars have really failed to produce the same work, but recently I have discovered the songs of Fred Smith an Australian folk singer and diplomat (yes, slightly contradictory) who as a civilian appears to really ‘get’ what it means to be a soldier fighting the modern insurgent war, this forsaken war, in Afghanistan.
His work is powerful, witty, ironic, gritty and realistic, whilst being entertaining. This is a man who understands this war from his time serving as a civilian adviser in the Afghan province of Uruzgan in 2009-2010. He has produced an album called Dust of Uruzgan which covers the whole gambit of the soldier’s life: fighting; reflection; boredom; missing beer, home and loved ones; being a brother in arms; loving the action; death; and “swaffelen“.
The title song to his album is about the death of Aussie Private Benjamin Ranaudo as told from the perspective of his mate who set off the IED. Sounds morbid but it ain’t and you can almost feel that Afghan dust in your hair, your eyes and your boots.
Fred’s album, the Dust of Uruzgan can be found on Amazon. It is great. If you are an ex-serviceman you will want to own this.
His website is here.
This version of Fred’s performance includes a full explanation of all the TLA’s that is the daily vocabulary of the modern day soldier.