Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, known affectionately as Paddy Fermor (1915-2011), was a 20th century Renaissance man: a dashing war hero, erudite man of letters and arguably the greatest travel writer of his generation. Fermor’s Telegraph obituary described him as ‘a modern Philip Sidney or Lord Byron’. His friendship with Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire who Fermor met in 1954 is chronicled in their witty and wise collected letters In Tearing Haste (2008).
Patrick Leigh Fermor was, in the words of his Guardian obituary, a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene. Self-reliance and derring-do were lessons learnt from the cradle. When Fermor’s geologist father was posted to India, he and his wife left the infant with family in Northamptonshire and did not return until his fourth birthday. In retrospect, he took great delight in being sent to a school for difficult children and getting himself expelled from the King’s School, Canterbury, when he was caught holding hands with a greengrocer’s daughter eight years his senior. His school report infamously judged him ‘a dangerous mix of sophistication and recklessness’.
Sharing a flat in Shepherd’s Market, one of Mayfair’s seedier corners, Fermor schooled himself in literature, history, Latin and Greek. He befriended literary lions such as Sacheverell Sitwell, Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. His travels began aged ‘eighteen-and-three-quarters’ when he rejected Sandhurst Royal Military College in order to walk the length of Europe from Hook of Holland to Constantinople. He took with him Horace’s Odes and the Oxford Book of Verse though Fermor could recite Shakespeare soliloquies, Marlowe speeches, Keats’s Odes and as he modestly put it ‘the usual pieces of Tennyson, Browning and Coleridge’ from memory.
Setting off from England in 1933, Fermor resolved to traverse Europe living like a hermit; sleeping in bars and begging for food. But his manly charms and boyish good looks found him being passed like a favourite godson from Schloss to palace by European nobility and he developed a lifelong penchant for aristocratic company. I his own words, ‘In Hungary, I borrowed a horse, then plunged into Transylvania; from Romania on into Bulgaria’. Having reached Constantinople in January 1935, Fermor continued to explore Greece where he fought on the royalist side in Macedonia quelling a republican revolution. In Athens Fermor met Balasha Cantacuzene, a Romanian countess with whom he fell in love. They were living together in a Moldovan castle when World War Two was declared.
Fluent in Greek, Fermor was posted as a liaison officer in Albania. Recruited as a Special Operations Executive, he was shipped from Cairo to German-occupied Crete where he lived disguised as a shepherd in the mountains for two years. On his third expedition to Crete in 1944, Fermor was parachuted alone onto the island and made connections in the Cretan resistance movement. While waiting for his compatriot Captain Bill Stanley Moss to land by water from Cairo, Fermor hatched a plot to kidnap German Commander General Heinrich Krieple.
Disguised as German soldiers, Fermor and Moss stopped Krieple’s car at an improvised check point en route back to Nazi HQ in Knossos. Abandoning the General’s car after a two-hour drive, Fermor left a note indicating that the kidnappers were British so that there wouldn’t be reprisals against Cretan nationals. When the abduction of the unpopular commander was discovered, a German officer in Heraklion allegedly said ‘well, gentlemen, I think this calls for champagne’.
Krieple was evacuated and taken to Cairo and Fermor entered the annals of World War Two’s most devil-may-care heroes. Moss’s memoir Ill Met By Moonlight was made into a 1957 film directed by Powell and Pressburger with Dirk Bogarde playing Paddy Fermor. With characteristic panache, when he was demobbed Fermor moved into an attic room at the Ritz paying half a guinea a night. But his first travel book, The Traveller’s Tree, was not about the European odyssey or the Cretan escapades and centred on Fermor’s adventures in the Carribbean. Published in 1950, The Traveller’s Tree was an inspiration for Ian Fleming’s second James Bond novel Live and Let Die (1954).
As a host and houseguest, Paddy Fermor was much sought-after. At one of his parties in Cairo, he counted nine crowned heads. He was a confirmed two-gin-and-tonics before lunch man and smoked eighty to 100 cigarettes a day. His party pieces included singing It’s a Long Way to Tipperary in Hindustani and reciting The Walrus and the Carpenter backwards. In Cyprus while staying with Laurence Durrell, Fermor apparently stunned crowds in Bella Pais into silence by singing folk songs in perfect Cretan dialect. As Durrell wrote in Bitter Lemons (1957), ‘it is as if they want to embrace Paddy wherever he goes’.
It was at the Devonshires’ Irish estate Lismore Castle that ‘Darling Debo’ and ‘Darling Pad’ met and began to correspond. A characteristic letter from the Duchess in 1962 reads ‘The dear old President (JFK) phoned the other day. First question was ‘Who’ve you got with you, Paddy?” He’s got you on the brain’ to which Fermor replies of a broken wrist ‘Balinese dancing’s out, for a start; so, should I ever succeed to a throne, is holding an orb. The other drawbacks will surface with time’.
In 1968 Paddy Fermor married the Hon. Joan Rayner who accompanied him on his many travels. They lived in a villa surrounded by olive groves in the Mani Peninsular of Greece. The first of his three volume memoir about his trans-European expedition of 1933, A Time of Gifts, wasn’t published until 1977. Of the delay, Fermor put it down to ‘laziness and timidity’. Unkinder critics questioned Fermor’s exceptional eye for detail after so much time had passed but the tone is Proustian and inspired such contemporary travellers as Benedict Allen who hero worship Paddy Fermor.
Fermor swam the Hellespont well into his eighties. He was knighted in 2004. In 1911 he predeceased Deborah Devonshire by three years aged ninety-six and was reported to have dined in full evening dress on the last night of his life.