Patrick Leigh Fermor - Hero, historian, traveller & writer
Patrick Leigh Fermor played a suspenseful and successful role behind the lines during the Battle of Crete in 1941. In subsequent yearshe became famous for his travel literature. With the face of “a hawk with a sense of humor”, he was cool in a crisis and dangerously capable. He had an admirable capacity for both self-sacrifice and pleasure.
After a lawless youth bumping around schools in which he studied classics but from which he never earned a degree, Leigh Fermor became a nomad. Like his 19th century predecessors, he was brilliant at languages, and he enjoyed exploring countries and peoples and slipping under their skin. Before he was twenty he had walked across Europe.
But as the Nazi menace grew, the "time of gifts" ended. Known to friends and acquaintances alike as Paddy, Leigh Fermor became a gentleman warrior who parachuted into Crete. A major in Special Operations Executive, he harassed Nazi German forces with hazardous guerrilla operations during the Second World War. His daring brought him to the brink of capture, torture, and death.
in 1944 Leigh Fermor and several Cretan and British operatives disguised themselves and kidnapped Major General Karl Kreipe, the German commander, on a dark bend of road. They bluffed their way through more than twenty checkpoints and three weeks later, escaped Crete with their prey. They had brilliantly elevated Cretan morale without bringing down German reprisals.
During these hectic events, Paddy took time for literature, for its “incantatory music” and its “body of accumulated wisdom. . . .His delivery of poetry has a brisk, practical air that makes a sonnet seem as indispensable as a decent suitcase or a pair of binoculars – part of the well-made equipment that a gentleman should be expected to carry” (Anthony Lane,"The Englishman Abroad", May 22, 2006 New Yorker).
After the war, with “a commanding modesty,” and “a perennial fear of boredom”, Leigh Fermor lived half the year in England and half the year in southern Greece with his wife of fifty years. An Englishwoman, Joan was his "boon companion". Sometime during those years, he instilled in himself the discipline of writing. Like Xenophon, who had also been a warrior, Leigh Fermor lived in the Peloponnese. He wrote about this ancient Greece in Mani.
Paddy had "a virtuoso skill with words, a robust aesthetic passion, an indomitable curiosity. . .and a rapturous historical imagination” (Philip Toynbee, The Observer). As a hero he was dignified, polite, amused, and capable of rising to desperate challenges.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Leigh Fermor returned to the past to describe his journey on foot across Europe in 1933. Two beautiful classics resulted: A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), both reissued by the New York Review of Books.
Earlier, he had written A Time to Keep Silence, a study of his monastic experiences in 1952. Visiting several French monasteries, to find the quiet he needed to finish a book, Leigh Fermor found a doorway into contemplation. He took pleasure in “the rigor of the regime that the monks espouse and the tranquility that it breeds in their character”.
Leigh Fermor liked to drink whisky and wine, and he loved his friends. His code of honour impelled him to avoid “the use of that which should be loved and the love of that which should be used.”
He was awarded a military OBE in 1943, and appointed a Companion of Literature in 1991. He received a knighthood in the New Year's Honours List in 2004.
He died on June 10th at the age of 96.
The Telegraph obituary is here.
Ave atque Vale.