Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Home in Greece

Paddy in Ithaca, 1946, photographed by Joan Rayner (Joan Leigh Fermor)

Paddy in Ithaca, 1946, photographed by Joan Rayner (Joan Leigh Fermor)

Over Thanksgiving Debra and I spent some time with Sid Mintz, whom I began to know while taking his first-year anthropology class at Yale, and his wife, Jackie. Both later moved to Baltimore when he co-founded the anthropology department at Johns Hopkins University.

Catching up, I asked Sid if he was familiar with Patrick Leigh Fermor, whom I’d been writing about lately. The answer was a surprised yes: while he knew little else about him, Sid said Leigh Fermor was the author of one of the best books on the postwar Caribbean. This is high praise from “the doyen of Caribbean anthropology,” as Wikipedia calls Sid.

The Traveler’s Tree was Paddy’s first book, written almost by accident. In her biography Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, Artemis Cooper relates that he’d been struggling to write about Greece and was out of money. A Greek friend, Costa Achillopoulos, offered Paddy his entire advance on a book of photographs he’d been commissioned to do of the Caribbean, if he’d come along and write photo captions and magazine pieces to help finance the trip.

Paddy and his lifelong companion, Joan Rayner, herself a photographer, set off with Achillopoulos in the fall of 1947 for a strenuous six-month journey through the region. Back in Europe, Paddy burrowed into a way of writing that would be with him all his life – deeply layered, wildly associative, often interrupted for other projects, requiring frequent moves, fueled (cheerfully, for the most part) by alcohol, and alternating between exhilaration, drudgery, and despair. The Traveler’s Tree took two years and was published to acclaim in 1950.

Paddy and Joan were already back in Greece, gathering material for the two most astonishing travel books ever written about that much-traveled country. Mani is mostly about the southern Peloponnese, where he and Joan later built their home, and Roumeli is concerned mostly with northern Greece, but the ostensible subject never confined him.

Early in Mani, for example, under the guise of commenting on the “absorptions and dispersals” of the Greek world, Paddy begins lightly: “I thought of the abundance of strange communities: the scattered Bektashi and the Rufayan, the Mevlevi dervishes of the Tower of the Winds, the Liaps of Souli….” The single sentence continues for two full pages without so much as a semicolon.

In a crime novel of mine set in Athens (now in progress), two characters have memorized Paddy’s riff, and mine it for code words:

“An empty shoulder holster!” Charleton turned to Scott, amazed. “Mr. Jordan! Would you by any chance be one of those English remittance men of Kyrenia?”

“No sir, I am one of the Basilian Monks.” Scott’s face was an expressionless mask.

“Idiorrythmic or Cenobitic?”

“Idiorrythmic, of course.”

“And of what use would an empty holster be to an Idiorrythmic Basilian monk, Mr. Jordan?”

English remittance men and Basilian Monks occur about midway through the list, nestled between the Sahibs and Boxwallahs of Nicosia and the anchorites of Mt. Athos. (The research to find out just who these people are is part of the fun of reading Mani, so I won’t deprive the reader.)

While scribbling these encyclopedic ruminations, Paddy was caught up in events that brought him both fame and distress. Ill Met by Moonlight, by W. Stanley (Billy) Moss, Paddy’s second in command during the abduction of General Kreipe, was finally published and shortly became one of Michael Powell’s lesser films, starring Dirk Bogarde as Major Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Paddy had read the first draft in 1945, when Moss first requested clearance from the Special Operations Executive. “It is not a very good book,” he wrote in his forwarding note to Colonel Talbot-Rice, preserved in Paddy’s SOE file made public after his death. He was particularly irritated at Moss’s “attitude of patronage to the Cretans that hints that they are only fairly gentle savages,” but recognized that after “pretty drastic editorial revisions … It will sell like blazes.”

He never stood in the way of Moss’s work; his own account of the kidnapping was published here and there in scattered passages. He never effectively challenged the idea that Kreipe’s kidnapping was directly responsible for the deaths of many civilians and the annihilation of numerous Cretan villages.

For me, Artemis Cooper’s discussion of these events was revelatory. Specifically, the destruction of Anogeia was retribution not for Kreipe but for a later operation directed by Moss, who blew up a nearby bridge and slaughtered a German patrol with no attempt to divert blame from the villagers.

Paddy returned to the subject in a 1991 private letter quoted by Cooper: a school teacher from one of the destroyed villages, although opposed to Kreipe’s kidnapping, had written him that “not a single inhabitant of the Amari would have been spared if the abduction had never happened.”

The underlying cause of the savagery was best summed up by Tom Dunbabin, a longtime SOE operative on Crete: “This was the last act of German barbarity,” he wrote, its object to cover the German retreat and “commit the German soldiers to terrorist acts so that they should know that there would be no mercy for them if they surrendered or deserted.”

“If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable,” T.S. Eliot wrote in Burnt Norton. Often in a long life Paddy visited and revisited the scene of his youthful bravado. His daunting memory could be as much a burden as a gift.


Here at last, the concluding volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s walk across Europe in the 1930s: The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos.

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