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A meeting with Patrick Leigh Fermor

Thursday 22 Nov 2012

The Old Man of Mani

Looking at the chart with my friend David Lea to plan the next stage of my voyage around the Aegean, I recalled that Patrick Leigh Fermor, a Second World War hero on Crete and the author of several classic travel books, including two on Greece, Mani and Roumeli, had lived in the Mani for many decades on the shores of the Gulf of Messenia. I had read avidly his books about his walks as a young man across Central Europe to Constantinople on the eve of the Second World War which combined adventure and scholarship in an elaborate, digressive and engaging style.
We tracked him down to the village of Kardamyli in the north west of the Mani. The stone houses and tiled roofs of the small seaside village were covered with vines and purple bougainvillea. I enquired in a local store after the legendary author who was now in his nineties. The owner, a round man with soft hands, explained that his house was down a track by the sea further along the coast. He telephoned Leigh Fermor and passed the phone over to me. In a well-modulated and slightly clipped voice, he told me he would be delighted to meet us for lunch the following day.
A tall elegant woman dressed in black who had been listening to our conversation interrupted in a German accent.
‘Another British writer, Bruce Chatwin, came here before he died. He’s buried in the hills above Leigh Fermor’s house.’
David pricked up his ears. He had known Chatwin as a boy; their parents had been friends and they had gone to the same kindergarten.
‘That’s interesting’, David said. ‘After Bruce’s death, his mother Margharita told me that he had wanted to be buried in an olive grove. He died of AIDS although at the time they said it was a rare bone marrow disease which he had picked up in a cave in China.’
‘It’s perhaps no coincidence’ I said, ‘that two of the greatest travel writers of the twentieth century should have wanted to end their days so close to each other in the Mani. They were both sophisticated intellectuals in search of the simple and the elemental, what an earlier age would have called the primitive.’
‘A bit like you then!’, joked David who had been my neighbour in the mountains of North Wales.
‘You too!’, I said.
After spending the night in an old, dark stone guest house, we walked along the winding coastal road towards Leigh Fermor’s villa. It was at the end of September and squalls were blowing across the Gulf of Messenia, hurling waves on to the rough cliffs and stony beaches below. After a sharp bend, we found a likely track which dropped down towards the sea. Another side track through olive trees and myrtle bushes took us through dappled light to a wooden door in the high wall of Leigh Fermor’s home. The door was open. Inside a path made from pebbles in the carefully-designed courtyard led to the main door of the house. It was thoughtfully placed on a low promontory between two small bays.
‘What a marvellous sequence of spaces! And what a tremendous sense of place!’, David exclaimed.
A young woman from the village invited us in and asked us to wait in the master’s study which was at the end of a loggia open to the sea. It was a large sunken room with seats around the wide window and a Persian-style fireplace. The walls were packed high with books and a few Modernist paintings.
Patrick Leigh Fermor came in with a straw hat, stick and basket of fruit which he had gathered in his garden. He was thin and small of stature with very dark eyes, a slightly hooked nose and thick thatch of curly grey hair. He was dressed in old slacks and a blue shirt while his bare feet were tucked into some old, comfortable slippers. It was difficult to imagine that he was in his nineties. He was very different from the dashing hero played by Dirk Bogarde I had seen as a boy in the film Ill Met By Moonlight about his exploits in Crete during the war. He and his fellow resistance fighters had captured the German commander of the island, taken him over the mountains and then handed him over to an off-lying motor launch.
When I introduced ourselves, he said:
‘People call me Paddy.’
The young woman served us vodka and David asked after his old friend Bruce Chatwin.
‘Yes, he came here towards the end of his life and spent his last two winters writing The Songlines in a villa of the hotel you passed on your way here. He moved the table to the window in his room so he could look out to sea. He told me about an aboriginal elder who travelled to where he wanted to die and then lay down on a metal bed and happily awaited his death. It was a bit like that with Bruce. We buried his ashes in an olive grove just in front of the ruined chapel of Ayios Nikolaos which he loved so much on the mountainside above here. He converted to the Greek Orthodox Church a few months before he died. My wife Joan and his wife Elizabeth were there and no one else. We said a short prayer, opened a bottle of wine, poured a libation and had a picnic.’
He leant over and reached for a letter. ‘You might be interested in this David. It’s a letter from Bruce to his wife from Katmandu in the Himalayas.’
It was about the death of Penelope Chetwode, John Betjeman’s wife, and written on a typewriter in a smoky café. As might be expected, the descriptions of Katmandu were ornate, vivid, and precise.
David then observed how much he liked the layout, the loggia and the gardens of the house we were in.
‘We designed it ourselves in the sixties’, Paddy replied with enthusiasm. ‘Its design was inspired by Roman architecture with an Islamic influence. I visited an architect in Athens half a dozen times to make sure the plan was all right. The pebble work in the garden was inspired by the Romans. We built it from local limestone with the help of a local mason and his assistants. All the masons played the viola and we would stop for music. It was a joyful manner of building.’
He got out two volumes of photographs which recorded the building of the house. His wife Joan, who had been a photographer, was as involved as everybody else.
‘We all got on so well that I was asked to be the godfather to the mason’s son. We had a big party on his saint’s day’.
David appreciated the way a traditional design had been built with local materials.
‘You can’t build on spiritual emptiness and autistic beliefs’, Paddy said. ‘The trouble today is there’s no shared tradition. All are striving to be different.’
‘I agree’, said David, ‘but you can’t fabricate a shared tradition either. Society gets the architecture it deserves.’
I asked Paddy what brought him to the Mani in the first place.
‘I was looking for somewhere to live in Greece which was wild and inaccessible. I was staying with my great friend Lawrence Durrell on Corfu where I met the poet George Seferis. He recommended this place in the Mani and when I visited it I realized it was the just the place for us. You could only get here by foot or on a donkey in those days. I bought the land for a song. Joan and I lived here for over forty years until she died recently.
He had met Joan Eyres-Monsell, daughter of the First Lord of the Admiralty, at the end of the war. I expressed my condolences.
‘It hasn’t been the same without her. I still have lunches with friends here and old regular visitors, but I’m becoming a bit of a recluse.’
‘What about your neighbours?’
‘Many of the locals are republican. We have a Communist mayor but when he refused to pipe water up to the chapel, someone put a bomb under his car.’
At that moment, we were joined by a youngish man in a torn pair of shorts with a towel around his strong neck. His tousled hair was still damp and he carried a diving mask. He was introduced as the poet Hamish Robinson.
Paddy was very interested in the boat I had sailed from England and where she was built. I explained she was a 26-foot sloop made in Southampton by Westerly and was called a Centaur.
‘A very appropriate name for sailing the Aegean. Where do you live when not sailing?’
‘Near Tavistock on the edge of Dartmoor.’
‘I once spent two winters near Chagford in a writer’s retreat. It was recommended by Evelyn Waugh’s brother. The spherical owner of the hotel presided harshly over a discerning but dwindling circle. I used to escape and go hunting over the moors.’
We were called to lunch by a bell. We sat around a table in a corner of the loggia with a wonderful view of the wide, open gulf sparkling in the sun. The waves constantly crashed on the shore below.
We had a delicious and simple meal of finely cut cabbage salad, tsatsiki, meatballs and very hot, thin chips cooked in olive oil followed by a wheel of yoghurt, honey and walnuts. Since I was a vegetarian, I had a large tomato in place of the meat. The wine was good and flowed. Throughout Paddy was very polite, affable and attentive to his unknown guests who had just sailed in. We discussed the nature of the Socratic dialogues and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.
‘A wonderful historian’, was Paddy’s comment. ‘He told it as it was. I very much regret never getting to learn Classical Greek at school.’
The murmur of the sea, the sun in my eyes, a refreshing breeze ruffling the leaves of the olive trees, the smell of jasmine, the bitter-sweet taste of the wine, good conversation: what more could I ask for?
I asked him what he was writing at the moment.
‘I’m now writing the third volume of my walks across Europe to Constantinople.
I was sacked from school at sixteen and went off travelling. I was rebellious; perhaps it was because I’m a quarter Irish on my mother’s side’
‘I’m a quarter on my father’s side.’
‘Good for you.’
I recalled that Henry Miller had visited Durrell on Corfu and had written it up in his idiosyncratic book The Colossus of Maroussi.
‘What do you think of Miller’s book on Greece?’, I asked.
‘He was only here for a few months but he got it right! You ought to read Freya Stark too – she wrote a good book called The Lycian Shore about the Turkish coast. She came to visit us and invited us to stay with her in her house in Venice.’
After coffee, Paddy excused himself and went off for a siesta. Hamish showed us around the house, with its airy rooms off the central loggia opening on to the sea, and the garden with its intricate pebble designs and carefully chosen views. We then walked down a precipitous path to a small cove below the house where the waves crashed on the shore and where Paddy would go for a swim every day in the cool waters of the Gulf of Messenia. It was a good place to say farewell.
During our visit, I had given Paddy a bottle of Irish whiskey. When the wind blows up the gulf and the sea lashes the rocks below and the rain sweeps down his loggia, I liked to think of him sitting quietly by his Persian fire, reliving the epic journeys of his youth and his wartime exploits whilst sipping the warming elixir of his ancestors. It was with sadness that I later learned that he died in June 2011, aged 96, but I felt privileged to have spent some time with such a great traveller, writer and lover of Greece during my voyage.

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A meeting with Patrick Leigh Fermor

Travel - Thursday 22 Nov 2012