A SIGH IN QUESTION

One of the most eagerly -awaited books in years, ‘PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR: An Adventure,’ by Artemis Cooper, has just been published* by John Murray and extensively reviewed. The following piece first appeared in my column in the Sunday Telegraph in October 1986.

WHEN HIS GREEK MANSERVANT called out “the gentleman’s here” he came from somewhere out of the shadows, glass in hand, countering my apology with eager reassurance. No; not at all; it really didn’t matter. The only thing he was a bit sad about was missing the sunset. But look here! What was I going to drink?

To have watched the sun go down beyond the Gulf of Messema from the cypress-flanked stone seats at the extremity of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s terrace would indeed have been something. My late arrival had frustrated not only my host’s desire that I should enjoy the experience for its own sake, but also his wish to show me a moment of which he was especially fond. What we both drank was rather a lot of whisky: enough at least so that at some stage before dinner I was asking whether perhaps in both A Time of Gifts and Between The Woods and the Water too much space was given to somewhat recondite detail. He suffered the near impudence with characteristic courtesy. Oh dear! Did I think so? But it was such fun looking things up and tracking things down!

The fun has resulted in a small but classic collection of titles. The first, The Traveller’s Tree (1950) remains probably the best account ever published of travel in the Caribbean. The Violins of St Jacques (1953) provided a unique portrait of Martinique. After what he himself has called “monastic travels and halts” came the short, but intensely personal and moving A Time to Keep Silence in 1957. The following year, Mani, the account of his travels— many with Joan, his wife— in the southern Peloponnese. In 1966 Roumeli was hailed as, among other things, “a masterpiece of intellectualism.” Then, in 1977 came A Time of Gifts.

Expelled from his school in 1933 at the age of 18, Leigh Fermor set out to walk from Rotterdam to Constantinople. The journey took him almost two years. A Time of Gifts (1977) was the first part of his intended three-volume “travel autobiography” based upon the achievement. Between the Woods and the Water is the second. Work has started on the third. “If one is settling in the wilds”, says Leigh Fermor, “a dozen shelves of reference books is the minimum”. His many reference volumes occupy only a very small part of the notably eclectic library accommodated in the large, beautiful room that the Leigh Fermors designed from the ground up and to which the rest of the stone-built house seems incidental. Much music is played there. But tonight is mostly talk. “Wasn’t that a lovely lot of wine we got through?” says Leigh Fermor next day, meaning the quantity as a measure of conviviality, assuming the quality. Lovely enough for the visitor to misquote what he confidently announces as Verlaine, and which is easily and accurately continued for a while by Leigh Fermor. Next morning a copy of Victor Hugo’s collected poetry accompanies my breakfast tray, open at the verses of the night before. In others the gesture could have been unsettling; in Leigh Fermor it was flattering.

“No point in hurting feelings,” he says, seeking a precautionary assurance that there will be no identification of several well-known contemporary writers whose names we have mentioned but none of whom he admires. Newby? “Oh, yes. I like him”. Thubron? “Oh, yes. Absolutely”. Jan Morris? “Oh very good too. She’s been here”. Glancing through the visitors’ book, one wonders if anyone of much achievement in serious contemporary letters has not been here. Socially also, a well-used path appears to lead to the deliberately- hard-to-find Leigh Fermor door. Conspicuously missing are the jet set and the pop, the fashionable communicators, the egregious new rich. It is nothing to do with a reputed (and, Leigh Fermor thinks, not entirely merited) reputation for reclusiveness. Long resident in the Mani, he is yet a member of Whites, Pratts, The Travellers, The Beefsteak and the Special Forces clubs, and when in London uses all of them.

“He really quite likes being a bit of an enigma, you know,” says one of his oldest friends. If so, he has little need to work at it. Not innocent of vanity or unaware of the practical value of publicity, he is yet far from easily accessible. Able to ask almost any price he likes for a thousand words, he rarely engages in casual journalism. Equipped with firsthand experience enough for half a dozen best-sellers about World War II (parachuting into Crete to fight with the guerrillas and capture a German general was only part of it) he has written none. “He ought to,” says Joan, as Leigh Fermor goes to get another jug of the Nemea red wine. There are those (“the Russians of course”) who are concerned to falsify the account of what happened in Crete. Leigh Fermor finds it “rather upsetting.”

That he never will write such a story seems more than likely. A Time Of Gifts took him ten years. Between The Woods And The Water, nine. “I’m going to do the third book much faster. Other people do that sort of thing in a year; there’s no reason why I shouldn’t”. But who are the fast-working authors whose every published word was originally written with ink and pen? The question is not put. It is a flawless early autumn morning and heads need clearing. Besides, Leigh Fermor likes to swim every day. Plunging from a rock, he begins the sort of slow, lazy side-stroke that  two years ago, at the age of 69, took him in a trifle under three hours across the Hellespont; a distance of some four miles.

Now, returning to swim more gently beside me, he says, “Do you know what we call that rock? Jellicoe’s Leap!” Then later, wistfully as it seems to me, “Do you remember? It was such fun!”

I remember. I had been on a yacht chartered for an extensive Aegean cruise by a Greek general with whom Leigh Fermor had been closely associated in various wartime exploits of unconventional soldiering and whose other British guests had included two of the same ilk. Leigh Fermor was known to be building his own house on the coast of the Mani and it was decided to pay him a surprise visit.The legendary self-taught scholar and adventurer of towering capabilities and achievements had been living in a tent on the cliffs while the works were in progress. Spotting the yacht approaching, fearing intruders, he had fled his camp; cautiously, almost furtively appearing again only when word had reached him as to the welcome identity of the invaders of his jealously-guarded privacy. Luncheonhad been conjured up. There in a truly Arcadian olive grove we had sat until flagons of local wine and the sun had gone, accompanied by moments of boisterous reminiscence and celebration.

Now the Greek general, too, was long gone. On the rocks, dry in the sun but loath to start the business of the day, Leigh Fermor and I sit without talking, listening to the gentle lapping of the water. Then, gazing out to sea at nothing in particular, he sighs, “Oh dear!”

What is he thinking about? That it is almost noon and his packing for an imminent journey not yet started? That another summer is over? That the luncheon in the olive grove was 20 years ago?

*   *   *

*Available from books.telegraph.co.uk

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