Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Free as the Road: Patrick Leigh Fermor, 11 February 1915 – 10 June 2011

by Joanna Godfree

I struck the board and cry'd 'No more;
                I will abroad'.
What, shall I ever sigh and pine?
My life and lines are free; free as the road,
Loose as the wind.

from The Collar, George Herbert, 1633: one of the epigraphs to A Time of Gifts

On 11 February 2015 Patrick Leigh Fermor would have celebrated his 100th birthday. Many of his friends and admirers will be raising a glass to him on this day; though the man died in 2011, his books, his life and his spirit continue to amaze and inspire in equal measure.

I discovered his work some 30 years ago while exploring the travel writings of wanderers like Robert Byron, Laurie Lee and Bruce Chatwin. Coincidentally (or maybe not), Byron started his own journey (chronicled in the sublime Road to Oxiana) in 1933, just like PLF, and it was only 6 months later, in June 1934, that Laurie Lee set out on a midsummer morning to tramp through a pre-Civil War Spain. My first discovery by PLF was A Time of Gifts: on foot to Constantinople - from the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube. I was bowled over by the combination of poetic exuberance (grounded in the classics) and intense curiosity. An explanation for the accomplishment of the prose may lie in the fact that, although Paddy (as everybody called him) set out to walk to Constantinople on a grey December afternoon in 1933, at the age of 18, the resultant book was not written and published until 1977.  Thus Paddy was able to combine decades of mature and extraordinary experience with a miraculous ability to revive the feelings and perceptions of his youth.

The Europe through which the teenager walked was already shadowed by the rise of the Nazi Party and the threat of a second world war, and he chronicled a continent that would be utterly changed within the next few years. Looking back, Paddy described with a mixture of high romanticism and self-mockery his youthful vision of his destination, Byzantium/Constantinople: "The levitating skyline of Constantinople pricked its sheaves of thin cylinders and its hemispheres out of the sea-mist; beyond it Mount Athos hovered; and the Greek archipelago was already scattering a paper-chase of islands across the Aegean. (These certainties sprang from reading the books of Robert Byron; dragon-green Byzantium loomed serpent-haunted and gong-tormented; I had even met the author for a moment in a blurred and saxophone-haunted night club as dark as Tartarus.)"

Paddy's schooldays had ended abruptly with his departure from King's, Canterbury at 16 after being caught holding hands with a shop-girl - "twenty-four, a ravishing and sonnet-begetting beauty and I can see her now and still hear that melting and deep Kent accent." After this, he spent two years in London, taking the necessary exams, toying with the possibility of an army career and charming his way into the social whirl of the Bright Young People …"Where's that rather noisy boy got to? We may as well take him too." Fired now with the idea of being a writer, he took a room in Shepherd Market (on £1 a week), and it was sitting at his desk there - in late summer of 1933 - that the idea of a journey on foot across Europe sprang almost fully-fledged into his head. "A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!" And by December 9 he was off. Within 18 months - apart from all his other adventures - he had fallen in love with a Balkan princess 16 years his senior, and he returned to London with her in January 1937.

Paddy Leigh Fermor (centre)
This wartime anecdote (he was still only in his late 20s) hinges on PLF's rich store of classical learning. Because of his knowledge of Greek, the British posted him to Albania early in the war. He then joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was subsequently parachuted into German-occupied Crete. In 1944, Fermor and a small group of Cretan partisans and British commandos kidnapped General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of the German forces on the island, and drove him in his staff car through enemy lines disguised in German uniforms. (They would have been shot on the spot if discovered.) Kreipe was later spirited away to British Egypt, but as they were crossing Mount Ida, a legendary scene unfolded. In Fermor's own words:

"Looking across the valley at [the] flashing mountain-crest, the general murmured to himself: 'Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte.' [See how Mount Soracte stands out white with deep snow.] It was one of the [Horace odes] I knew! I continued from where he had broken off... The general's blue eyes had swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine—and when I'd finished, after a long silence, he said: 'Ach so, Herr 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."

Finally, Lawrence Durrell, who was living in Cyprus during the Cypriot revolt against British rule in 1955, writes in Bitter Lemons: "After a splendid dinner by the fire he [Paddy] starts singing, songs of Crete, Athens, Macedonia. When I go out to refill the ouzo bottle...I find the street completely filled with people listening in utter silence and darkness. Everyone seems struck dumb. 'What is it?' I say … 'Never have I heard of Englishmen singing Greek songs like this!' Their reverent amazement is touching; it is as if they want to embrace Paddy wherever he goes."

Happy birthday, Paddy.

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