A Song for Europe: Remembering Patrick Leigh Fermor
What do a British war hero and a present day Cardiff photographer have in common? One answer is that both Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) and Michal Iwanowski walked across Europe: Fermor in 1933-4, and Iwanowski in 2018. Another answer is that both figures have been frequently on my mind during the appalling black comedy of Brexit (as one friend put it to me, ‘like a Jacobean tragedy in slow motion – all torture and no conclusion’). Fermor was a British icon of whom any right-wing patriot could be proud. He also loved Europe with a lifelong and consuming passion – utlimately making his home in one of the wildest and most romantic parts of mainland Greece. And part of this passion was an unceasing and infectious delight – as he tramped dauntlessly from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople – in everything new, different, strange or exotic. It is this that I keep recalling at the present time, as a life-giving antidote to the attitudes that have created and sustained the New Xenophobia in England and Wales.
26 April 2019 is the 75th anniversary of Fermor’s most famous escapade during World War Two. For those who do not know the story of how he, Billy Moss and several Greek partisans abducted General Heinrich Kreipe on Nazi-occupied Crete, I offer a brief appetiser here, before turning to his account of that youthful pilgrimage across Europe. The sheer romance of the 1934 adventure would be enough in its own right to make these three volumes essential reading. But Fermor’s writing additionally bewitches the whole epic journey into one of the greatest pieces of non-fiction of the last century.
It would be a pleasure to offer nothing more than a simple celebration of a great British character – a man so charmingly improbable that he was once likened to a cross between James Bond, Indiana Jones and Graham Greene. Unlike the first two, Fermor really existed. In the present circumstances, however, some words on our own times seem unavoidable. It was as far back as 2008 that Iwanowski saw near his Cardiff flat a piece of graffiti reading ‘Polish, Go Home’. With the kind of resilient genius that Fermor would have admired, he turned this into an opportunity, and walked from Cardiff to his home village of Mokrzeszów in Poland – setting out, oddly enough, on 27 April, the day after Fermor and co whipped Kreipe out of his car back in 1944. He photographed his journey as he went, and it has been running as an exhibition for some months now.
Here are two more recent versions of what it feels like to be a European Briton in the Brexit world. In the unusually glorious summer of 2018 two old friends and I stayed, with their small girls, in a cottage near Tintern Abbey. The girls’ mother is Catalan. At one point she and one girl went into a village pub for some cold drinks and crisps. She told us later that she was nervous about speaking in the small, quiet bar, because of her accent. In fact, when it transpired that she could not pay with a card (and had no cash) someone at the bar intervened and bought the drinks and crisps for her. Meanwhile, back in the eminently middle class milieu of Bristol a few weeks ago, an Italian couple were riding in a shopping centre lift, talking in their native language. Suddenly, a middle-aged British man began telling them how they were going to be sent home, soon, to their own country. Not a single other passenger in the lift interrupted or challenged him. Who knows just what that contrast means in wider terms? What I do know is that my Catalan friend had never felt like that until Brexit, having lived in England since 1997. There is something very wrong with a country when that happens – just as there was on the Brexit Results Day, when another friend’s little boy, aged 7, burst into tears. His father is Welsh and his mother is German.
Abducting a General
On 4 February 1944 a British parachutist jumped from a plane above Crete’s Katharo plateau, guided by three signal fires. ‘Small figures were running in the firelight’ as he sailed down, ‘and in another few moments, snow muffled the impact of landing’, before Fermor was caught up ‘in a scrum of whiskery embracing, a score of Cretan voices, and one English one’. The eagle had landed. The other Englishman was Captain Sandy Rendel, with whom Fermor would share a cave for the next seven weeks, whilst the plan to kidnap the German General took shape. As Fermor points out in his account of the abduction, he had by this time been holed up in such hideouts for almost two years, operating as an irregular soldier along with the Cretan resistance. In February he had just flown in from Cairo, where he made periodic trips to the Middle Eastern HQ of Britain’s Special Operations Executive.
On that snowy night there also landed, in separate drops, Fermor’s fellow soldier Billy Moss, and two veteran Cretan resistance fighters, Manoli Paterakis and George Tyrakis, along with supplies for the abduction. As Fermor explains, these were ‘maps, pistols, bombs, commando daggers, coshes, knuckledusters, telescopic sights, silencers, a sheaf of Marlin sub-machine guns, ammunition, wire-cutters, sewn-in files for prison bars … signal fires, disguises, gags, chloroform, rope ladders, gold sovereigns, stealthy footwear … every type of explosive from gelignite and gun-cotton to deceptive mule-droppings which, they said, could blow a tank to smithereens’, and finally ‘morphine, knockout drops and suicide pills to bite under duress, if captured in the wrong clothes’.
Just before mid-April General Kreipe looked out of the window of his chauffeured staff car, on the road between Knossos and Archanes, to see a Greek shepherd waving at him. He ‘raised a gloved hand in acknowledgement’ and the two men’s eyes crossed. Kreipe had no idea that the shepherd was Fermor in disguise (complete with typical Greek moustache), or that he was then staking out the Abduction Point, over which the car was passing at that moment. As we will see, this curious moment of contact was to prove oddly prophetic a few days later – and not in the way one might expect.
Shortly after celebrating the Greek Orthodox Easter with a roasted paschal lamb, a demi-john of wine, and much singing and dancing, Fermor shaved off his moustache in readiness for the abduction, in which he was to play the part of Kreipe himself. There followed some tantalising false starts and delays. Finally, at 9.30pm on 26 April, two German soldiers flagged down Kreipe’s car, requesting to see papers. The soldiers were Fermor and Billy Moss, dressed in German uniforms. The moment the car door was opened, Fermor yanked out Kreipe, thrashing and swearing, and pinned him tight. When Moss wrenched open the opposite door, the chauffeur went for his gun. He was coshed on the head and carried away by Cretan partisans. After a storm of understandably delirious triumph amongst the whole party – Cretans most of all – Fermor smashed the car’s giveaway inside light and got into Kreipe’s seat, and Moss took the part of chauffeur. In the back, Kreipe was wedged between Manoli, George, and Strati Saviolakis, pulled well down out of sight, and with a knife at his throat. They drove off. As Fermor points out, the whole thing had taken just 70 seconds. If it had taken much longer, things would have gone very differently. Moments after the remaining Cretans had cleared away the mess, two truck-loads of German soldiers rumbled past the General’s car, heading for Archanes.
Fermor now explained in German to Kreipe that ‘I am in command of this unit and you are an honourable prisoner of war. We are taking you away from Crete to Egypt. For you the war is over. I am sorry we had to be so rough. Do everything I say and all will be well.’ Moss now spied a check-point, where he slowed down before two real German soldiers recognised the car and jumped to attention, offering sharp salutes which were returned by Fermor-cum-Kreipe. When Kreipe asked where they were going in the car, he was told, ‘To Herakleion’. ‘There was a pause, then, several keys higher, in complete incredulity, TO HERAKLEION?’
And yes, they did. Nerveless as a tourist out on some casual day-trip, Moss drove the car through crowds of German soldiers and around reversing trucks, hooting and maneuvering adroitly. In the rear, a Greek hand clamped firmly over Kreipe’s mouth. Moss drove on, through twenty more German check-points. Salutes from the soldiers, returned by Fermor. And now came the final hurdle. They were approaching the Canea gate in the city’s old Venetian wall. There was no other way out. Faced with any trouble here, Fermor and Moss planned to ram through the barrier at speed, ‘and then, if pursued, fire long bursts out of the back window … and hurl the Mills grenades with short fuses which weighted down all our pockets’.
As it turned out, the gate was unusually crowded with soldiers, one of whom was about to aim a torch into the car. ‘Billy slowed down … cocked his automatic and put it in his lap … behind, we heard the bolts on the three Marlin guns click back’. As one of the guard approached, Fermor put down the window and yelled ‘Generals Wagen!’ The torch ‘was lowered just in time’, salutes made, and ‘a gruff goodnight’ given by Fermor, before the car sped away to freedom. Moments later, amidst ‘a mood of riotous jubilation’ and cigarettes all round, Fermor gave the General his hat back ‘and asked him if he would give his parole not to attempt to escape; to my relief he gave it’.
Presently the car was abandoned, with a note which stressed that Kreipe had been kidnapped solely by British troops, without Cretan aid. ‘Your General is an honourable prisoner of war and will be treated with all the consideration owing to his rank. Any reprisals against the local population will thus be wholly unwarranted and unjust.’ After Fermor’s and Moss’s names, the final words read: ‘P.S. We are very sorry to have to leave this beautiful motor car behind.’ The fiction of pure Britishness was compounded artfully with an SAS beret, an Agatha Christie paperback, Cadbury’s chocolate wrapper and Player’s cigarette ends scattered in or around the car. Breaking off the car’s two flags as trophies, the party set off on foot towards Mount Ida under a new moon. ‘The only people we saw … were two boys with pine torches hunting for eels in a brook … Every hour or so we lay down for a smoke. The night was full of crickets and frogs and nightingales’.
At this point, the party expected to be taken off by ship from southern Crete on 2nd May. In fact, communication problems and unexpected troop movements prolonged the whole adventure until the night of 14 May. And, just as those pivotal 70 seconds had been preceded by weeks of careful planning, the following days saw many hours of cold, discomfort and danger. Every German soldier on Crete (a tally just short of 50,000 men) was combing the island for the fugitives, who had to keep hidden by day and travel by night. Some of the route lay over steep, trackless wastes of loose stones and boulders, or through howling winds, rain and sleet, up to 8,000 feet above sea level. Late on in the journey Kreipe slipped and fell many feet, ultimately leaving the island with his arm in a sling. For Fermor, one of the darkest moments of the whole escapade came when they learned that the wounded driver, Alfred, had had to be killed by his captors, because he was unable to keep pace with their flight from encircling German troops.
Throughout all this, Fermor managed to continually evoke the beauties of Crete and the courage and generosity of the islanders. Along with those torchlit eel hunters, he recalled Cretans coming out after rain to gather snails. He gave vivid thumbnail sketches of numerous Cretan resistance fighters – not least the old man who stated: ‘My house was burnt down four times by the Turks; let the Germans burn it down for a fifth!’ Throughout the trip Cretans sheltered and fed the outlaws. Returning from the village of Aya Paraskevi one morning, Antoni unpacked a basket filled with ‘bread, cheese, onions, a dish of fried potatoes, some lamb and a napkin full of kalitsouna!– crescent-shaped fritters full of soft white cheese and chopped mint’, along with a bottle of mulberry raki and a gallon of dark amber wine. In the flooded ditch where the outlaws were hiding, Antoni poured the raki into little tumblers and ‘splashed politely over to our guest with the first one, saying, “Stratege mou” [My General]’.
Finally, as the fugitives made their arduous way across the pathless and crevass-broken Krioneritis mountains, just hours from the escape beach near Rodakino, Fermor reminds the reader that, if only he and Moss and the Cretans could have pulled the whole thing off, no one save Paddy could have recalled this passage as he did.
“But, tormenting as our journey was, the dazzle of the moon and, when it set, of a blaze of stars that was nearly as bright, undermined this commotion of rock and then, by a planetary device in collusion with the optical tricks of which, at some moments, Crete seems to be composed — involving manipulated reflection and focus, levitation, geometrical shifts and a dissolving of solids balanced by a solidification of shadow — filled the hollow, then porous and finally transparent island under foot with lunar and stellar properties and, while hoisting it several leagues in the air, simultaneously, with moves as quiet as an opening gambit followed by those advances of knights and bishops, fast and stealthy as grandmother’s steps, which lead to penultimate castling and a sudden luminous checkmate, regrouped all the mountain tops of Crete within touching distance. The valleys and foothills had dropped away from this floe of triangles; they drifted in the windless cold starlight with the pallor, varying with their distance, of ice or ivory.”
Throughout the whole affair, there was a certain old school Britishness at play – a beguiling mixture of dash, charm and outright eccentricity. A main reason for Fermor’s being on Crete at all during the occupation was simply that he had learned Ancient Greek at school (during a typically troubled spell at the King’s School, Canterbury, from which he was finally expelled when he was caught holding the hand of the greengrocer’s daughter, in the back of the greengrocer’s shop.) When the Greeks come by to wonder at their captured prize (‘they couldn’t feast their eyes on him enough’) Fermor remarks: ‘the atmosphere was rather that of the Sheriff of Nottingham brought captive to Sherwood Forest’. Robin Hood, surely, would have been proud – if not jealous. At the beach near Rodakino, Moss and Fermor were due to flash ‘S.B.’ in Morse code as their password of authentification to the incoming ship. Only as they stood there with the torch did they realise that, neither being a regular soldier, they had no idea of the Morse signal for ‘B’. (Fermor admits that he thought of asking Kreipe, but was held back by soldierly pride.)
As with the Cretans and that hospitably proffered first tumbler of raki, there was also an impressive amount of old world courtesy shown to General Kreipe. For a fair deal of the way he travelled by mule, whilst everyone else trudged along on foot. Most memorable of all is the moment when the party wakes up in a cave on Mount Ida, the mythical birthplace of Zeus. Moss, Fermor and the General had all been sleeping under one blanket, guarded on either side by Manoli and George with Marlin guns, sleeping in turns. Following a typically rough night beset by vermin,
“a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mt Ida which we had been struggling across for two days. We were lying smoking in silence, when the General, half to himself, slowly said
Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte
‘See, how it stands, one pile of snow’. I was in luck. It is the opening line of one of the few odes of Horace I know by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off:
nec iam sustineant onus
silvae laborantes geluque
flumina constiterint acuto
and continued through the other [five] stanzas to the end of the ode. The general’s blue eyes 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. ‘Ja, Herr General.’ 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.”
There must, in almost six years of warfare, have been similarly improbable moments of contact between opposite sides. But I know of none quite like this. When Max Hastings asked ‘What is charm?’ and replied, ‘In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s case it is an infinite curiosity about other people’ he may well have had that episode in mind. But there are innumerable others. Fermor had an extraordinary genius for friendship. As we will now see, his first contacts with Germans were very different ones, and these almost certainly made him more receptive to his captive of 1944.
A Time of Gifts
We must go back a bit. By 1933, the wayward Paddy had been thrown out of many schools besides Canterbury. But this was to prove his last. He was soon in London, with the remnants of Waugh’s Bright Young Things, enjoying a stream of parties, nightclubs and general social glitter, whilst also trying to write during the day. That November, however, he fell into a rut. Part of the problem, surely, was that the ever restless Fermor needed a wider field across which to hurl his boundless energies. And, ‘about lamplighting time at the end of a wet November day, peering … through the panes at the streaming reflections of Shepherd Market’ he suddenly found it. ‘A plan unfolded with the speed and the completeness of a Japanese paper flower in a tumbler.’ He would walk to Constantinople.
There was, of course, no question of anything so craven as waiting for spring. Rifling Millets in the Strand, borrowing a rucksack, and seizing a well-balanced ashplant at a tobacconist’s on 8 December, Fermor was aboard ship the next afternoon, drinking a toast to Constantinople with a Rotterdam café owner before six the next morning, and waking up bemusedly the one after that to the sound of clogs on cobbles, under ‘a low and slanting ceiling and an eiderdown like a giant meringue’ in Dordrecht. The landlady, who had led him upstairs after he fell asleep amidst the glasses of the tavern the previous night, accepted payment for his supper, but refused any for the room. ‘This was the first marvellous instance of a kindness and hospitality that was to occur again and again on these travels’.
A time of gifts indeed. The title of Fermor’s first volume of travels might as well be watermarked across every page of the entire account. Christmas eve saw him entering Bingen at dusk, where ‘I unslung my rucksack in a little Gasthof’ to find ‘the innkeeper’s pretty daughters … aged from five to fifteen … helping their father decorate a Christmas tree’. In a room lit only by the candles on the fir branches, he listened to the family singing carols, and the next morning ‘the smallest of the daughters gave me a tangerine and a packet of cigarettes wrapped beautifully in tinsel and silver paper’. Despite pleas for him to stay, Fermor felt reluctant to intrude, and so found himself tramping along the Rhine over a layer of new snow on a sunny Christmas morning.
Stopping for lunch in an inn (‘Geisenheim? Winkel? Ostrich? Hattenheim?’) he sat alone at the bar whilst a long table was set for a party of around thirty Germans. Drawn in and sat down by one of them, he soon found himself lost in a happy kaleidoscope of food and drink, a ride in a packed car, music, dancing, and spilled glasses, waking up ‘dizzily next morning on someone’s sofa’. And so it went on. In Heidelberg, ‘With freezing cheeks and hair caked with snow, I clumped into an entrancing haven of oak beams and carving and alcoves and changing floor levels … It was more like a room in a castle and, except for a cat asleep in front of the stove, quite empty’. Here at The Red Ox inn, upon learning that Paddy is an English student walking to Constantinople, the owner and his wife insist, ‘You must be our guest’. Going upstairs and getting out his dirty clothes to be laundered at their request, Fermor wondered, ‘as I did so, how a German would get on in Oxford if he turned up at The Mitre on a snowy December night’.
In Munich he wakes in puzzlement in an unfamiliar carpenter’s shop, amidst glue and sawdust, and a tabby cat nestled in a heap of shavings. Tiptoeing over with bread and butter and coffee, the carpenter’s wife explains how her husband had found our pilgrim passed out amongst beer mugs at the Hofbrauhaus the previous night, and wheeled him home in his handcart. The German for hangover, Fermor learns from his hostess, is Katzenjammer.
Fermor did not quite stick to his original plan, of sleeping in hayricks and barns, and consorting ‘only with peasants and tramps’. By prior arrangement he stays, especially in Hungary, with a number of Counts and Countesses at various stately homes. But it is hard to begrudge him these intermittent holidays from the road; and harder still to imagine his narrative without all its spellbinding evocations of these timeless worlds: ‘biblical cedars swept in low fans … positively slumbrous with the cooing of a thousand doves … and the house … was a vast ochre-coloured pile’, loosely evoking Blois, Amboise and Azay les Rideaux, bewitching the traveller’s eyes with its broken geometry of ‘pinnacles, pediments, baroque gables, ogees, lancets, mullions, steep slate roofs’ and ‘towers with flags flying’. This sojourn at the home of Count Jószi is worth it, indeed, merely for Fermor’s part in a riotous bout of bicycle polo, into which he plunges moments after his arrival.
And these lotos-eating interludes also have the charm of contrast. The night after leaving Count Jószi, Fermor is stretched out beneath the stars on a hayrick. A stay with one Dr Arnold and family in Schloss Bruchsal is enlivened by watching his cigar-smoking host sit down at the piano, where he attacks the Waldstein sonata ‘with verve and authority’. Twenty four hours later Fermor is lost in the dark, only to be welcomed into a lonely farmhouse, where he is fed ‘among the cut onions and chipped pitchers and a brown loaf broken open’ before sleeping on straw in the barn, wrapped in a greatcoat and blankets, listening to two owls, and drowsing in a ‘composite smell of snow, wood, dust, cobwebs, mangolds, beetroots, fodder, cattlecake and the cows’ breath … laced with an ammoniac tang from the plip-plop and the splash’ of cattle. ‘This was more like it!’
In Hungary he has supper with two swineherds, Bálint and Géza, conversing in sign language about deer and pigs and wild boar. ‘I contributed some hard-boiled eggs to their supper of delicious smoked pork: they sprinkled it with paprika and we ate it with black bread and onions and some nearly fossilised cheese’. He also brings out a bottle of barack given to him by friends in Esztergom. ‘In defiance of language, by the time it was empty we were all in the grip of helpless laughter’.
Just outside Sofia he stays with a friendly peasant he meets in the village tavern, accompanying him home to ‘a mass of herbs and potatoes and young cucumbers over a fire of thorns, which he’, his wife and their children ‘all ate out of the same plate … seated cross-legged on the rug-covered floor around a low circular table’. Later, all sleep on the ledge encircling the room, ‘reclined on rugs chevroned with purple, yellow, scarlet and green’. Going out to the yeard in the night, ‘I tripped over something soft and enormous; a struck match revealed the accusing eye of a couchant buffalo’.
Approaching Gabrovo in the Balkan mountains, Paddy has a nail come loose in his boot and is lamed and bleeding. After limping an hour through the moonlight, he stumbles on a group of charcoal burners. From a hut woven of branches, three figures ‘leapt up … helped me off with my blood-filled boot, washed the damaged foot with slivovitz and wrapped it in a clean handkerchief, then plied me with slivo for internal use and then with bread and cheese’, before making him a leaf bed of fresh cut branches. In the morning one of them hammers the rogue nail flat using an adze blade.
‘Raven-fed like Elijah, I was no longer surprised; but never stopped rejoicing’. Fermor writes this of a long blissful canter across the heat-stunned Hungarian plain, atop a borrowed horse named Malek. But, were it not for ten wild and obscure shepherds and sailors, we might never have heard a single word of Fermor’s adventures between Rotterdam and Byzantium. At the start of December 1934, he was making his way with great difficulty, on a dark night, along the edge of the Black Sea, just south of Varna. Moments after wrestling a torch from his rucksack to light his way he slipped and crashed several feet down a slope into freezing water. Dazed and bleeding from a cut on his head, he gave up his torch, 25 feet underwater, and staggered desperately on, shaking all over, his calls of Dobro vetcher! (‘Good evening!’ in Macedonian) answered only by mocking cliff-echoes. Wading through freezing water, he emerged to find his ‘clothes turning to a plate armour of ice and lead’, and suddenly was ‘so beaten and exhausted and hopeless that I lay down on a ledge of basalt’, having visions of newspaper reports on his death: ‘no foul play suspected’.
Wrenching himself up in the knowledge that he probably will die otherwise, he suddenly spies faint cracks of light in the cliff-face. He pulls open an improvised door, and walks in to see ‘a dozen fire-lit faces’ looking up as though ‘a sea monster or a drowned man’s ghost had crossed their threshold’. Ten minutes later, changed into his spare clothes (miraculously dry) ‘with a sheepskin shepherd’s cloak’ around him, Fermor is
“crouched on a stool in front of a blaze of stacked thorns that reached the height of a bonfire, with three or four slugs of slivo burning inside me, sipping a second glass of tea brewed from some mountain herbs … One of the denizens of the place had washed the blood away and rubbed stinging slivo over my hands and face and feet; another had plied a towel from my rucksack. Recovered from the shock of this bleeding, chalk-white, bedraggled and sodden apparition, they had leapt to my help like Bernardine monks.”
His rescuers are a wild-looking lot of sailors and shepherds, sharing what proves to be a surprisingly large cave with about fifty black and white striped goats. Cheese is pouring liquid into goatskin bags, and a cauldron of whey simmering over a second fire, whilst half a dozen sheepdogs doze or scrounge around them. His hosts give him lentils and fry him some fish. After Fermor gets two bottles of raki out of his rucksack and passes them round, the shepherds and sailors begin singing Bulgarian songs. Fermor mends their broken bagpipe with a piece of tape – upon which someone starts playing it, followed presently by someone else plucking at a kind of hybrid lute-mandolin.
And at this point the evening has barely begun. There follow several pages of rapture from Fermor, as he describes the partly comic and partly extraordinary dances of his hosts. Having by now learned everyone’s name, he gapes in astonishment as Costa swings a heavy table top in his teeth, without scattering the four glasses, bagpipe, flask and much else sat upon it. Could anyone other than Fermor have so effortlessly fused a near-death experience into an impromptu party and a piece of Bulgarian anthropology?
But the overarching question which leaps up in that magic firelit cave is simply: did they save Paddy’s life? His rescuers, probably illiterate, and probably with very little idea where or what Britain was, would never guess how many thousands would later dream and laugh and gasp over Fermor’s pages. Do we owe it all to them? We certainly know that, for someone who made light of various brushes with death, Fermor sounds unusually grim in those benighted frozen lines. Next time you hear some miserable bigot insulting Bulgarians (or Rumanians or Hungarians) it is probably worth remembering that the wonders of Fermor’s story could, without those men, have melted in thin air before they were ever set down.
In many cases, Paddy repaid the kindness of his hosts merely by being himself. And being himself almost always meant being effortlessly, abundantly delighted with difference. Watch him now, during a seemingly ill-fated encounter with gypsies as he crosses the Great Hungarian plain. As luck would have it, he is in possession of that beautiful and borrowed horse, Malek, and is now terrified of losing it to people who are continually denounced as horse thieves. Nonetheless, he shares his wine and salami with them, and listens as they talk to him politely in Magyar, assuming that he will not understand Romany.
And then… in a burst of eccentric inspiration, Fermor ransacks his brain for scraps of vocabulary from George Borrow, along with Hindi words learned from his Anglo-Indian parents. He points at the water and says ‘Pani’. ‘There was a sensation! Bewilderment and wonder were written on their firelit features. When I held up the fingers of my hand and said “Panch!” – the word for five in both Hindi and Romany – the wonder grew … each time I pointed at something with a questioning look, back came the Gypsy word … An eager light had come into those swart faces’. Both he and Malek trot safely on next morning.
Echoes of this night sound out again on the Black Sea, shortly after his trial by water and rescue by fire. He finds himself in Mesembria – a ‘little floating town, where all was decayed, warped, waterlogged, rusted, falling into ruin and adrift with watery magic’ – and stays with an elderly Greek couple in a house like ‘the sterncastle of an old ship …. Through its pooplike windows and their infinity of small panes, there was only the Black Sea’. Here, eight years before his school Classics lessons form a bridge to modern Greek on Crete, Fermor recites Homer and Sappho to his hosts, along with some Greek folksongs picked up weeks before.
Still more vivid is Paddy’s meeting with Orthodox Jews in ‘a remote shelf of the Carpathians’. After silently watching two golden eagles for some twenty minutes, he strays down into a tree felling operation, where he meets a Rabbi and his brother and sons. He listens spellbound as they recite from the Torah in Hebrew, excitedly scribbling down his own phonetic translations of these haunting cadences. ‘They seemed astonished … that their tribal poetry enjoyed such affection in the outside world … A feeling of great warmth and delight had sprung up’. After this strange electric contact, they finally bid one another ‘good-night with laughter’.
“Stretched under one of the surviving oaks, I was brimming with excitement. I had thought I could never get on friendly terms with such unassailable looking men. I had often caught glimpses of similar figures … they had looked utterly separate and remote and unapproachable.”
What a different world it would be if everyone confronted with the separate and remote and unapproachable wanted nothing more than to get on friendly terms with it, spurred by an insatiable hunger for something new, and something else…
At other times the visual world itself bursts in Fermor’s eyes as a whole intriguing language of its own. He is fascinated by the different colours and styles of dress of each particular Romanian village: ‘braids, tunics, lace, ribands, goffering, ruffs, sashes, caps, kerchiefs, coifs and plaits free or coiled’, an assortment which ‘exploded on feast-days and at weddings in ravishing displays’. One of the fresh delights of Bulgaria, meanwhile, is the lingering evidence of Turkish rule.
“These different elements flourished their data everywhere: in the domes and minarets and the smoky tang of kebabs cooking on spits, in the jutting wooden houses … the black cylindrical hats, the flowing habits, the long hair and the beards of priests, and in the Cyrillic alphabet on the shop fronts … I settled down to a rather good, very oily stew of mutton, potatoes, tomatoes, paprika pods, courgettes and ladies fingers … A row of skinned sheeps’ heads gazed piteously from a shelf outside a butcher’s shop, livers, lights and decapitated carcasses dripped, and entrails were looped from hooks in a baleful fashion … The scent of jasmine was afloat. Mosquitoes zoomed and zinged. It was a grave moment. I realized that everything had changed.”
A little later he stays in Plovdiv with a vivacious Bulgarian girl called Nadejda and her grandfather. The grandfather is Greek, and aptly enough Fermor feels the old man’s warmth to the British to be rooted in his reverence for another great British romantic and champion of Greece, Lord Byron. Out in the fascinating new morning, Fermor drinks up the strangeness like a bee skimming pollen:
“These lanes were a cool penumbra crisscrossed by buckled and twisted tiger-stripes of sunlight. The wool-carders, squatting in a sea of fleece, worked with extraordinary instruments – huge curving bows rising three yards in the air and strung taut with a single wire, which resembled the harp … with which David assuaged the anger of Saul … Green and yellow melons were piled like cannon balls, grapes and figs were arrayed in enormous panniers; red and green paprikas, ladies’ fingers, and courgettes rose in heaps … now and then the lane was stampeded by a tidal wave of sheep, entire flocks which overflowed baa-ing into the shops, and were cast forth again, pursued by shepherds and barking dogs … Gateways led out of the pandemonium to quiet courtyards, to interior glimpes of women click-clacking away at their looms, and, under vine trellises, sheepskin hats and wide scarlet sashes and moccasins clustered around the tables of coffee and wine shops.”
The further Paddy pushes into the Muslim world, the more his rapture deepens. At Karlovo he takes ‘a siesta under some mulberry trees’, walks ‘to a deep cold cataract tumbling down the rocks’ face … and arrived back, just as I hoped, a few moments before sunset’. Soon ‘the slow, wailing, high-pitched Arabian syllables of the first affirmation of the muezzin’s call wavered across the evening air and fell silent. After a long pause, they were repeated. Another hush followed; and then the second and longer clause sailed slowly into the sky and stopped. The long intervals of silence were like the spreading of rings across a pool’ as the muezzin shifted along his platform to another point of the compass. At last ‘he completed his circle and the final summing-up slowly spelled itself forth until a longer pause lengthened into ultimate silence. The last hoop of prayer expanded to infinity’.
All through these pages, everything new, strange and foreign melts through Fermor’s skin, to be alchemised into the wondering prose of those three extraordinary volumes. And they are extraordinary not just for their content, but for the curious process which produced them. Time and again, Fermor catches you by the hand and carries you along some snowy gabled street or sun-dappled woodland path as though you are simply there, with him, in 1933-4. But he did not publish even the first volume of his travels until 1977. The second came in 1986. And the third? The third very nearly broke the hearts of many of his readers. As his niece and biographer Artemis Cooper admits, no one really knew why he could not finish it. He tried hard – even going so far, at one point, as to learn how to use that alien and futuristic device we call the typewriter. Finally, the heroic efforts of Cooper and Colin Thubron brought it to light in 2013, two years after his death.
Apart from giving me another reason to start in 1944, and jump back to 1933 (as Fermor wrote of his travels long after World War Two), this odd chronology makes a certain stylistic sense to anyone who has luxuriated in the inimitable cadences of Fermor’s prose. If only a very young man could have made that trip, only a much older one could have written passages like this:
“the line of the moon’s reflection lay amidstream where the current runs fastest and shivered and flashed there like quicksilver. The reefs and shoals and islands and the unravelling loops of water which had lain hidden till now were all laid bare. Wastes of fen spread from either shore and when the surfaces were broken by undergrowth or sedge or trees, they gleamed like fragments of flawed looking-glass. All was changed. The thin-shadowed light cast a spell of mineral illusion. The rushes and the flags were turned into thin metal; the poplar leaves became a kind of weightless coinage; the lightness of foil had infected the woods. The frosty radiance played tricks with levels and distance until I was surrounded by a dimensionless and inconcrete fiction which was growing paler every second. While the light was seeking out more and more liquid surfaces for reflection, the sky, where the moon was now sailing towards its zenith, seemed to have become an expanse of silvery powder too fine for the grain to be descried. Silence transcended the bitterns’ notes and the industry of the frogs. Stillness and infinity were linked in a feeling of tension which, I felt sure, presaged hours of gazing watchfulness. But I was wrong. In a little while my eyes were closing under a shallow tide of sleep.”
By the time Fermor wrote this, after abducting a German general, building a house in the Mani without the use of a single power tool, and climbing the Andes in his late fifties, all that carelessly brushed pollen had been steeping for perhaps five decades into the rarest vintage honey any connoisseur could ever taste.
What would Fermor have done, had he chanced to be in a lift where one of his countrymen was abusing Italians who dared to speak their own language? It seems very unlikely that he would have stayed silent. My particular whim, however, is to imagine him singing. Some rousing Italian folk song, so loud and joyful that our sad xenophobe was soon hopelessly drowned out and forgotten. How is it that sometimes opposites collide, and the friction is music, not noise? In 1955 Fermor was staying with Lawrence Durrell on Cyprus. As Durrell later recalled,
“After a splendid dinner by the fire he 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, catching sight of Frangos. ‘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.”
If ever something strange or alien jars on our senses, we should remember Fermor, and try to catch the inner music of it instead.
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation and SOE in Crete (John Murray, 2014).
Words of Mercury, ed. Artemis Cooper (John Murray, 2004).
A Time of Gifts (John Murray, 1977).
Between the Woods and the Water (John Murray, 1986).
The Broken Road, ed. Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron (John Murray, 2013).
Artemis Cooper, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure (John Murray, 2012).
 To be fair, Indiana Jones almost did – the model for him allegedly being the explorer and naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews.
 For some years Bristol had the enviable distinction of having Tony Benn as MP; and more recently, one particular district produced the highest number of signatories for the Remain petition in early 2019.
 Below is Fermor’s own translation, courtesy of https://thesecondachilles.com/2013/12/08/vides-ut-alta-stet-nive-candidum-soracte/
See Soracte’s mighty peak stands deep in virgin snow
And soon the heavy-laden trees their white load will not know,
When the swiftly rushing rivers with the ice have ceased to flow.
 This dozen is more precisely given on the next page as two groups, of six and four.