Patrick Leigh Fermor is rapidly turning into the sort of writer who is more prolific in death than in life. Between his first book, The Traveller’s Tree in 1950 and his death in 2011 he produced ten books, four of them in the first decade. But after Roumeli in the mid-60s the gaps between books grew ever longer, and there are numerous reports of publishers and commissioning editors tearing their hair out trying to extract something, anything from him. It is notable that the last three books published in his lifetime were all at least partly the work of someone else. Three Letters from the Andes (1991) was precisely that, three long letters that he had written during a visit to South America some years before and that someone else shaped into a book. Words of Mercury (2003) was a collection of previously published pieces edited by Artemis Cooper. And In Tearing Haste (2008) is a collection of the letters PLF and Deborah Devonshire exchanged throughout their long friendship, again put together by someone else. Continue reading
Back in my teens, in the mid- to late-Sixties, I used to subscribe to the occasional Purnells partwork. The two in particular that I remember were Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples, which I collected in its blue and gold binders and in which I learned that the accompanying essays were far more interesting, informative and better written than the chapters from Churchill’s original book that opened each weekly part, and the History of the Second World War which came with black and gold binders. I still had both sets until a few years ago, I think they disappeared when I was redesigning my study.
Anyway, Patrick Leigh Fermor was originally commissioned to write about the abduction of General Kreipe from Crete for the History of the Second World War. What I have learned, from reading as much about Fermor as I seem to have done over the last few years, is that if you wanted 5,000 words from him it was probably wise to commission 500. The editor of History of the Second World War asked for 5,000 words; sometime after the deadline, Fermor delivered 30,000 words. The editor, exasperated, as I am sure he must have been, slashed the article down to the required 5,000 words and published it. This book is the first time the original piece has been published in full. Continue reading
I have just finished, very close together, Hide and Seek by Xan Fielding and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré. At first glance, you’d think they have nothing much in common. Fielding’s book, first published in 1954, is primarily an account of the years he spent on Crete as an SOE agent and guerrilla leader during the war; Le Carré’s novel, first published 20 years later in 1974, is one of the finest spy thrillers ever written. Fielding’s prose is crisp, matter of fact, undecorated; Le Carré’s prose is richer, more discursive, full of digressions; both are effective, but they work in very different ways. Continue reading
Artemis Cooper’s superb biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor begins with an extraordinary evocation of his childhood.
The local children taught him how to run his hand up the dried stems of wild sorrel, and feel his palm swell with the kibbled seeds that he threw to the wind. They scrambled into half-used ricks and jumped; it was prickly but soft, so you sank into the sweet-smelling hay. They helped him clamber into the saddles of old apple trees, but soon he would be able to hoist himself into tall trees like the bigger boys. Then he would climb into the topmost branches, invisible, hidden by leaves, and no one would be able to find him. For now he hid in sheds and barns, and sometimes behind the big double doors leading into the yard of the Wheatsheaf, and people shouted, ‘Paddy-Mike, where are you?’ while he hugged himself because no one could see him, and no one knew where he was.
It was the last summer of the Great War. Patrick Leigh Fermor was not quite four years old and living with family friends in rural Northamptonshire. By the summer of 1919, before he was five, his mother would have returned from India and taken him to live in London. He would never return to that rural idyll. Continue reading
I must have first read a novel by John Fowles back in the mid-70s. It would have been The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the first time I ever encountered the tricks of construction and perspective that have since become common currency among postmodernists, though they have seldom been done better. Then, later, I picked up a paperback of the revised edition of The Magus before it was officially published, which gave that magnificent novel an illicit thrill to my younger self. Since then I’ve become, inevitably, a fan of his work. (Though not unquestioning: The Aristos is unreadable, and Mantissa is self-indulgent.) Now there’s The Journals, Volume One (Cape, 2003), which takes us from Oxford in the late-40s to Lyme Regis in the mid-60s. Right from the word go he is clearly a man determined to be a writer (and very sure of his own talents), but we are three-quarters of the way through the book abefore he finally manages to sell The Collector to Tom Maschler at Cape, and when the diaries end he has just sold The Magus, though it hasn’t yet appeared.
He comes across as arrogant, often uses the word ‘priggish’ about himself (with some justification), behaves at times abominably towards his wife Elizabeth, and spends an awful lot of time bemoaning the fact that no-one recognises his genius. And yet, in flashes, genius is there. The writing, rather mechanical and uninvolved before, suddenly comes alive in the early 50s when he goes to Spetsai for two years to teach (the setting, eventually, for The Magus). His observations of nature are superb; his comments on the passing political and artistic scene amount to little more than a grumpy old man avant la lettre; and the life story of grinding poverty and sudden wealth would in most people be uninteresting. But this is a large book that I read remarkably quickly for me. I’ve never yet read the journals or letters of a favoured writer that did not reveal feet (and often shins, knees and thighs) of clay; but they also reveal what makes him a writer I so love to read.
As for Patrick Leigh Fermor, I first encountered his work in the late 70s when a book club had a special offer on A Time of Gifts. I was enchanted by this story of a 19-year-old who, in 1934, set out to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, and who, as the journey went on found himself taken up by the last pre-war remnants of the landed aristocracy of central Europe. The story, continued in Between the Woods and the Water but still not completed, is a fascinating glimpse of Ruritania. And it was marked by a precise, old-fashioned writing style that was clearly in love with words, and a way of capturing the social and cultural context of everything he saw. It turned me, for a while, into a fan of travel writing, so that when I started reviewing professionally I often found myself doing travel books until I discovered how rare were Leigh Fermor’s particular skills. (It was a long time after I fell in love with his writing that I discovered it was Leigh Fermor who kidnapped the German general on Crete, the true story behind Ill Met By Moonlight.)
Now there is an anthology, Words of Mercury (John Murray, 2003), that includes extracts from his various books, but also various articles, book reviews, letters etc that have not been collected elsewhere. It’s like sinking into a hot bath of words, wonderful, rich, idiosyncratic, vivid, colourful, enchanting. He is, of course, a dreadful snob, dropping names like Louis MacNeice and Nancy Mitford as if everyone had them coming round to tea. And the precision of his writing, the formality of it, feels more old-fashioned than ever; it’s almost impossible to read without affecting a crisp, upper-class accent. Yet he clearly has an enviable ability to get on with everyone he meets: there is a glorious description of a night he spent in a cave with Bulgarian shepherds and Greek fishermen, with bottles of raki going round and wild music and suggestive dances.
If you’ve never read Leigh Fermor, then you’ve never discovered what good travel writing is all about. This is a brilliant introduction.
First published at Livejournal, 2 February 2004.