Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
There was good reason that the BBC once described Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene.” Last week I wrote about Robert Byron, the father of modern travel writing. But Leigh Fermor, or Paddy, as everyone called him, was the archetype that a thinking man tried to model himself after.
Born in 1915 to a father in distant India and a mother who joined her husband shortly after giving birth to her son, Paddy grew up brilliant but unruly. Finally he got expelled from boarding school for fraternizing all too successfully with local girls. But that never stopped Paddy, the quintessential autodidact, from teaching himself.
At the age of 18, Paddy decided to walk across Europe from the Netherlands to Istanbul. The journey would take him over two years to complete, after which he kept traveling in Europe. And as fate would have it, he walked into Germany in December 1933, less than a year after Hitler came to power.
Paddy eventually became a travel writer, and he eventually wrote about this grand, youthful adventure in a series of three volumes: A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and The Broken Road, the last of which he left unfinished at the time of his death in 2011, at the age of 96. The trilogy was his masterpiece among many other fine works.
And when he first began writing A Time of Gifts in the 1960s, Paddy wanted to call it “Parallax.” The term referred to the difficulty of discerning an object’s correct position from far away, because at the age of 18 he failed to understand that Germany was heading down the path of fascism and would lead to another world war.
When war finally did come in 1939, Paddy was shacking up with a Bulgarian princess on the continent. But the patriot rushed to his country’s defense. Back in the UK the British army recognized his talent and assigned him to the Special Operations Executive, the new special forces unit created by Winston Churchill himself. On the strength of his modern Greek (not to mention fluent German and Latin and knowledge of numerous other European languages), the SOE dropped him into Crete in Nazi-occupied Greece.
For a year and half Paddy disguised himself as a shepherd. Then in 1944 he came out of the mountains with his SOE comrades and Greek partisans to execute one of the most daring feats in the entire war. Major Leigh Fermor and Captain William Stanley Moss stole a couple of German uniforms, marched straight into the German HQ, and kidnapped General Heinrich Kreipe, the Nazi officer in command.
In an episode that Paddy described fondly in A Time of Gifts, marching across Mt. Ida to reach a British submarine waiting offshore, Paddy and Heinrich discovered that they were both lovers of Latin poetry and knew the odes of Horace by heart. After that, Paddy recalled, though they were on opposite sides of the war, though one was the captive and the other the captor, the two of them became almost friends. It was a last vestige of the aristocratic culture of Europe that the war would destroy. Indeed, Paddy in his old age was in a way a man out of time, a last representative of that older sophistication.
Later Paddy became friends with Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. When Fleming wrote the first draft of the first-ever Bond novel, Casino Royale, he sent a copy to Paddy for comments. Paddy was ruthless in his corrections, much to both Fleming’s embarrassment as well as gratitude.
And although Fleming had many wartime acquaintances to draw on as inspirations for Bond, and although in part he made the character a fantasy version of himself, I’d like to think that Paddy was at least one of the real-life sources. A man of sophistication as well as action; a heroic soldier irresistible to women; a chain smoker and profligate drinker with an iron constitution who, when push came to shove, always did the right thing; an autodidact and a writer of the most sumptuous prose.
Paddy also built a house in a corner of Greece that he loved, Kardamyli. The villa became a literary salon for writers, and many of Britain’s preeminent literary figures would go out to Peloponnesus to visit him. The 2013 film Before Midnight, itself part three of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, has Jesse and Celine traveling to Greece to stay with an elderly writer named “Patrick.” In fact it was filmed at Paddy’s house.
Ever since I discovered Patrick Leigh Fermor, I have thought that his was the fully lived life to which I aspired. Now that trouble brews and the liberal international order seems on the verge of collapse, I remind myself that Paddy, too, lived through a time of chaos. And like Byron, he did what was right.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."