Patrick Leigh Fermor died in early June, 2011 — almost three years ago. At the time, I posted on Ricochet a brief memoir of our friendship. His last book, which he was working doggedly on when I last saw him eight years ago this month, was released today. Reading the review published in Saturday's Wall Street Journal by Robert Kaplan (whom I also got to know in Greece back in the 1980s, when the world was young), catapulted me back one more time to those bygone days.
Paddy was larger than life. As I put it three years ago, he "was – there is no other word for it – a hero."
He lived the strenuous life. There was in him an exuberance that could not be contained. Christopher Marlowe, who was of a similar temperament, managed to make it through the King’s School in Canterbury, but Paddy did not. There was some hanky-panky with the daughter of a greengrocer, but that cannot have been the whole story. “He is a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness,” his housemaster wrote in an official report, “which makes one anxious about his influence on other boys.” I would have been anxious myself.
Not long thereafter, with the support of his mother, who mailed him a fiver from time to time, Paddy set out in December 1933 by ship for the Hook of Holland – and walked from there to Constantinople and on to Mount Athos and its monasteries. It took him more a year, and you can read about his adventures in two of the books that he later published – A Time of Gifts (1978) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) – which together constitute what the Germans call a Bildungsroman. In those volumes, you will encounter a world of peasants and aristocrats, of socialists and fascists that no longer exists.
On that journey, Paddy met an older woman. He was 19. She was married and 31. You can find a description of the beginning their affair in the second of the two volumes mentioned above. Her name was Bălaşa Cantacuzino, and she was a Romanian princess descended from the Byzantine royal house. When his trip was over, they settled down together, oscillating between Athens and her country house in Moldavia. Then came the Second World War, and he volunteered for the British army. The two would not meet again until after the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989.
During the war, Paddy fought in Albania, Greece, and on Crete. After being evacuated to Cairo, he joined the Special Operations Executive and spent much of the remainder of the war running guerrilla operations in the mountains of Crete. He left the island in May 1944 under truly exceptional circumstances. On 26 April, 1944, on a bet made with friends back in Cairo, Paddy, W. Stanley Moss, and a group of Cretan shepherds kidnapped General Karl Heinrich Georg Ferdinand Kreipe, the German commander on the island.
The two Englishmen dressed up as German police corporals and stopped Kreipe’s car as he was making his way back one evening to his villa near Knossos. Having eliminated the chauffeur, Paddy put on the general’s hat, and Billy Moss drove the car. Kreipe was hidden beneath the back seat – on which three hefty Cretan andartes sat. They then bluffed their way through Heraklion and an additional 22 checkpoints before ditching the car and hiking into the mountains – where, for three weeks, they evaded German search parties before being picked up by a British motor launch on the south coast.
At one point, as they neared the top of Mount Ida at the break of dawn, Kreipe quoted the first line of Horace's ode Ad Thaliarchum – "Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte" (See how Soracte stands white with snow on high), and Paddy finished the poem to its end. “At least,” the general remarked, “I am in the hands of gentlemen.” In the days that followed, before they were evacuated to Cairo, the two discussed Greek tragedy and Latin poetry. In 1972, they would meet again in Athens to tape a television show. Afterwards, Paddy once told me, they went out to dinner and sang old German drinking songs. Well before that time, however, Billy Moss had published a book on the incident entitled Ill Met by Moonlight, and Michael Powell had made a movie with the same name in which Dirke Bogarde was cast as Paddy.
After World War II, Paddy took up his pen, and he wrote a series of books (all still in print): The Traveller’s Tree (1950), which won the Heinemann Foundation Prize for Literature; a novel set in Martinique entitled The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1953), which was turned into an opera by Malcolm Williamson; a meditation on monasticism entitled A Time to Keep Silence (1957); and two travel books focused on two of the wilder regions of Greece: Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966).
When I first met him in 1983, he had published A Time of Gifts, and he was working on Between the Woods and the Water. A year or two later — when, as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, I was wandering and writing about Turkey, Greece, Cyprus — I stopped into Kardamyli, where Paddy lived with his wife Joan, and the next thing that I knew I had been commissioned to carry the manuscript of the latter book to the British embassy in Athens, which dispatched it to London in a diplomatic pouch.
If you have the time, you should purchase these two books, which capture wonderfully a long vanished world. And when you have read them, you should order the sequel, The Broken Road: From the Iron Gate to Mount Athos, as I did today.
When I last saw Paddy in Kardamyli in March 2006, he was halfway through the book. I knocked on the door; he shouted out to ask who it was; and when I replied, he shouted back, "Paul Rahe! I don't believe my eyes. Come in, my dear boy.” And when I mentioned my family, his response was immediate: “Bring them in. You can all stay here,” which is what we did.
He had had a devil of a time with this volume. After the Cold War, he had gone back to Roumania to see Bălaşa Cantacuzino, and he had retraced his steps through Bulgaria to Istanbul and on to Athos. But much of it was not as he remembered it, and, fearful that what he was about to compose was wholly imaginary, he found it impossible to write. In the 1990s, when I was for the most part footloose and fancy-free, I would fly to Athens, spend some time exploring a corner of Greece I had never visited in the past, and then I would fly to Kalamata, and Paddy and Joan would send a cab to bring me down to Kardamyli. If I mentioned the third volume, Joan would caution me not to bring it up.
The fact that he was working on the thing only increased my delight on seeing him again in 2006. And when he died five years later, I predicted that it would someday appear. This past October, Artemis Cooper — daughter of Paddy's pal John Julius Norwich and granddaughter of Duff Cooper and Lady Diana Cooper — published the biography of Paddy that she was wrestling with; and now, with the help of the travel writer Colin Thubron, she has brought out The Broken Road.
It is, Bob Kaplan reports, not complete. Among other things, there is nothing in it on Constantinople, which gives me a pang. Back in the mid-1980s, when I was living in the Cihangir district of Istanbul, Paddy asked me to track down the hotel he stayed in while there. It was located in Beyoglu, a few hundred yards from the apartment building in which I lived. But I could not find it. Time had passed. Things had changed. Hotels had come and gone, and, perhaps most telling, names had changed. It was these changes that inspired in Paddy writer's block, and there was nothing that I could do to help.
Nonetheless, I look forward to getting my grubby hands on his book -- if only to enjoy the pleasures of his company once more.