Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, the British author, scholar, and WWII Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent, who fought with the Cretan resistance during the German occupation, died aged 96, on June 10. Fermor’s extraordinary life is the stuff of legend; as a travel writer, classical scholar and undercover soldier in Crete in WWII, the author leaves an indelible mark – on both 20th Century literature and Greece itself.
Born in 1915 in India to Eileen (nee Ambler), a playwright, and Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, Director of the Geological Survey of India, the infant Patrick was raised in Northamptonshire by a family called Martin until he was four years old. Later in life he would say with some pride that he had been sent to a school “for rather naughty children,” and that he had been expelled from two others, including the King’s school, Canterbury, where he had formed a liaison with a local greengrocer’s daughter, eight years his senior. His housemaster at the time described him as “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness.” After his parents separated, he lived with his mother in London. In 1933, rather than go to university and just before his nineteenth birthday, he set out to walk from the Hook of Holland, to what he insisted on calling Constantinople (Istanbul). In his rucksack was a volume of Horace. To pass the time on the route, he would recite aloud “a great deal of Shakespeare, several Marlowe speeches, most of Keats’s Odes” as well as “the usual pieces of Tennyson, Browning and Coleridge”. At New Year, 1935, he crossed the Turkish border at Adrianople to reach his destination.
Soon after this epic journey was complete, in Athens, Fermor met the first great love of his life, Balasha Cantacuzene, a Romanian princess who was twelve years his senior. He lived on her family’s estate in Moldavia until the outbreak of WWII, before enlisting in the British Army. Fermor joined the Special Operations Executive in 1941, and was soon helping to co-ordinate the resistance on the eastern side of Nazi-occupied Crete. With his knowledge of the Greek language he made the perfect undercover agent and relished the need to assume a Cretan identity. His most audacious act was the ambush and kidnap of the man overseeing the Nazi occupation of the island in 1944, General Heinrich Kreipe. Fermor and his group (disguised as German soldiers) ambushed the General’s car and led him through the mountains, eventually evacuating him to Egypt. This daring exploit was later made into the 1957 film Ill Met by Moonlight starring Dirk Bogarde. Fermor once said that, “it was all so much more interesting than it appeared in the film.” Fermor met his future wife Joan Eyres-Monsell in Cairo, the base for SOE operations into Greece. After some time in airborne reconnaissance over Germany in 1945, he was briefly vice-director of the British Institute in Athens, organising courses in Greek culture and archaeology. 1 “He returned to Britain to be demobbed, and “lived for a time in the couriers’ rooms high up in the Ritz hotel that cost half a guinea a night. He arrived there with Xan Fielding, his comrade in arms [from SOE days], who had a barrel of Cretan wine on one shoulder, and with Joan.”
In 1950, Leigh Fermor’s published his first book, The Traveller’s Tree, about his post-war travels in the Caribbean, Paddy and Joan lived the life of nomads for much of 1950s. Correspondence from that time, (published in 2008 as In Tearing Haste – an anthology of his letters to the Duchess of Devonshire) traces them to Italy, France, and Cameroon, as well as various corners of England and his beloved Greece. The 1950s would be the decade in which he wrote many of his most celebrated works – The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1953), A Time to Keep Silence (1957), and Mani – Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958). Greece always beckoned. 2 “In 1964, Paddy and Joan focused their energy on building a house on a peninsula about a mile outside the village of Kardamili, in the Mani. A local mason, Nikos Kolokotronis, provided the expertise. “Settled in tents, we read Vitruvius and Palladio,” Paddy wrote. “Learned all we could from old Mani buildings, and planned the house.” Limestone was quarried from the foothills of the Taygetos mountains, which rear up behind the building as the Gulf of Messenia opens before it.” In 1968 Joan and Paddy married.In 1977 A Time of Gifts – On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube, was published, 43 years after the journey had been undertaken. It was followed by the second installment of the epic voyage Between the Woods and the Water, in 1986. A planned third volume was never completed.
The passing of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, considered to be one of the greatest travel writers of the 20th century has been marked with tributes of great affection. “He was blessed with arete, that Greek quality liable to half translation as virtue, goodness or valour,” said The Times. The Economist said; “His wandering, writing life evoked the essential unity of Europe, the cultural and linguistic intertwinings and layer upon layer of shared history; and all with a lightness, and an infectious joy, that inspired many others to set out in the same way.”
Paddy and Joan Leigh Fermor had no children; the house at Kardamili has been left to the Benaki Museum. Joan died in 2003 and is buried in the English village of Dumbleton, Gloucestshire, where she was born. Paddy’s last resting place is by her side.
References: The Guardian, Books 10.6 11 1 Peter Levi 2 James Campbell.
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