He was born in London, the son of Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, a distinguished geologist, and Muriel Aeyleen (née Ambler). Shortly after his birth, his mother left to join his father in India, leaving him in England with another family. As a child, Leigh Fermor had problems with academic structure and limitations. As a result, he was sent to a school for "difficult children". He was later expelled from The King's School, Canterbury, when he was caught holding hands with a local greengrocer's daughter. His last report from The King's School noted that the young Fermor was "a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness." He continued learning by reading texts on Greek, Latin, Shakespeare and History, with the intention of entering the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
At the age of 18, Leigh Fermor decided to walk the length of Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. He set off on 8 December 1933, shortly after Hitler had come to power in Germany, with a few clothes, the Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horace's Odes. He slept in barns and shepherds' huts, but also was invited by landed gentry and aristocracy into the country houses of Central Europe. He experienced hospitality in many a monastery along the way. Two of his subsequent travel books, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), detail this journey. Written decades later, they benefit from his scholarly learning, and give a wealth of historical, geographical, linguistic and anthropological information as the narrative proceeds.
Leigh Fermor arrived in Constantinople on 1 January 1935, then continued to travel around Greece. In March, he was involved in the campaign of royalist forces in Macedonia against an attempted Republican revolt. In Athens, he met Balasha Cantacuzène (Bălaşa Cantacuzino), a Romanian noblewoman, with whom he fell in love. They shared an old watermill outside the city looking out towards Poros, where she painted and he wrote. They moved on to Băleni, the Cantacuzène house in Moldavia, where they were living at the outbreak of World War II.
Leigh Fermor joined the Irish Guards, but due to his knowledge of Greek, he was commissioned in the General List and became a liaison officer in Albania. He fought in Crete and mainland Greece. During the German occupation, he returned to Crete three times, once by parachute. He was one of a small number of Special Operations Executive (SOE) officers posted to organise the island's resistance to German occupation. Disguised as a shepherd and nicknamed Michalis or Filedem, he lived for over two years in the mountains. With Captain Bill Stanley Moss MC as his second in command, Leigh Fermor led the party that in 1944 captured and evacuated the German Commander, General Heinrich Kreipe. The Cretans commemorate Kreipe's abduction near Archanes.
Moss featured the events in his book Ill Met by Moonlight: The Abduction of General Kreipe (1950). It was later filmed as Ill Met by Moonlight, directed/produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and released in 1957. In the film, Leigh Fermor was portrayed by actor Dirk Bogarde.
The National Archives in London holds copies of Leigh Fermor's wartime dispatches from occupied Crete in file number HS 5/728. A documentary film on the Cretan resistance movement, entitled The 11th Day (2003) and produced by Christos and Michael Epperson, contains extensive interview segments with Leigh Fermor, in which he recounted his service in the S.O.E. and his activities on Crete, including the capture of General Kreipe.
In 1950, Leigh Fermor's published his first book, The Traveller's Tree, about his post-war travels in the Caribbean. The book won the Heinemann Foundation Prize for Literature and established his career path. He went on to write several further books of his journeys, including Mani and Roumeli of his travels on mule and foot around remote parts of Greece. Critics and discerning readers regard his 1977 A Time of Gifts as one of the greatest travel books in the English language. He translated the manuscript, The Cretan Runner, written by George Psychoundakis, the dispatch runner on Crete during the war. Leigh Fermor helped Psychoundakis get his work published. Leigh Fermor wrote a novel, The Violins of Saint-Jacques. It was adapted and set to music as an opera by Malcolm Williamson.
His friend, Lawrence Durrell, in Bitter Lemons (1957) recounts how, during the outbreak of Cypriot insurgency against continued British rule in 1955, Leigh Fermor visited Durrell's villa in Bellapaix, Cyprus:
"After a splendid dinner by the fire he starts singing, songs of Crete, Athens, Macedonia. When I go out to refill the ouzo bottle...I find the street completely filled with people listening in utter silence and darkness. Everyone seems struck dumb. 'What is it?' I say, catching sight of Frangos. 'Never have I heard of Englishmen singing Greek songs like this!' Their reverent amazement is touching; it is as if they want to embrace Paddy wherever he goes."After many years together, Leigh Fermor was married in 1968 to the Hon. Joan Elizabeth Rayner, née Eyres Monsell, daughter of the 1st Viscount Monsell. She accompanied him on many of his travels until her death in Kardamyli in June 2003 aged 91. There were no children. They lived part of the year in their house in an olive grove in the Mani Peninsula, southern Peloponnese, and part of the year in Worcestershire. In the 2004 New Years Honours Patrick Leigh Fermor was named a Knight Bachelor. In 2007, he said that, for the first time, he had decided to work using a typewriter - having written all his books longhand until then.
He was the mentor of Bruce Chatwin, and Chatwin's ashes were scattered near a Byzantine chapel above Kardamyli in the Peloponnese, close to the home of Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Patrick Leigh Fermor died on 10 June 2011, aged 96, following a long illness.
Awards and Legacy
1950, Heinemann Foundation Prize for Literature for The Traveller's Tree
1978, WH Smith Literary Award for A Time of Gifts.
1991, elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
1995, Chevalier, Ordre des Arts et Lettres
February 2004, accepted the knighthood which he had declined in 1991
2004, awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award of the British Guild of Travel Writers
2007, the Greek government made him Commander of the Order of the Phoenix
His life and work were profiled by the travel writer Benedict Allen in the documentary series Travellers' Century (2008) on BBC Four
The Traveller's Tree (1950)
The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1953)
A Time to Keep Silence (1957)
Mani - Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958)
A Time of Gifts - On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (1977)
Between the Woods and the Water (1986)
Three Letters from the Andes (1991)
Words of Mercury (2003) edited by Artemis Cooper
Introduction to Into Colditz by Lt Colonel Miles Reid, Michael Russell Publishing Ltd, Wilton (1983). The story of Miles Reid's captivity in Colditz and eventual escape by faking illness so as to qualify for repatriation. Reid had served with Patrick Leigh Fermor in Greece and was captured there trying to defend the Corinth Canal bridge when the Germans launched an attack with paratroops in 1941.
Foreword of Albanian Assignment by Colonel David Smiley, Chatto & Windus, London (1984). The story of SOE in Albania, by a brother in arms of Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was later a MI6 agent.
In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh-Fermor (2008), edited by Charlotte Mosley
A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Paperback: 344 pages
Publisher: NYRB Classics (October 3, 2005)
Amazon: A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube
At the age of eighteen, Patrick Leigh Fermor set off from the heart of London on an epic journey—to walk to Constantinople. A Time of Gifts is the rich account of his adventures as far as Hungary, after which Between the Woods and the Water continues the story to the Iron Gates that divide the Carpathian and Balkan mountains. Acclaimed for its sweep and intelligence, Leigh Fermor's book explores a remarkable moment in time. Hitler has just come to power but war is still ahead, as he walks through a Europe soon to be forever changed—through the Lowlands to Mitteleuropa, to Teutonic and Slav heartlands, through the baroque remains of the Holy Roman Empire; up the Rhine, and down to the Danube.
At once a memoir of coming-of-age, an account of a journey, and a dazzling exposition of the English language, A Time of Gifts is also a portrait of a continent already showing ominous signs of the holocaust to come.
In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor edited by Charlotte Mosley
Hardcover: 416 pages
Publisher: New York Review Books (October 12, 2010)
Amazon: In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor
In the spring of 1956, Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, youngest of the six legendary Mitford sisters, invited the writer and war hero Patrick Leigh Fermor to visit Lismore Castle, the Devonshires’ house in Ireland. The halcyon visit sparked a deep friendship and a lifelong exchange of highly entertaining correspondence. When something caught their interest and they knew the other would be amused, they sent off a letter—there are glimpses of President Kennedy’s inauguration, weekends at Sandringham, filming with Errol Flynn, the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, and, above all, life at Chatsworth, the great house that Debo spent much of her life restoring, and of Paddy in the house that he and his wife designed and built on the southernmost peninsula of Greece.
There rarely have been such contrasting styles: Debo—smart, idiosyncratic, and funny—darts from subject to subject, dashing off letters in her breezy, spontaneous style. Paddy, the polygot and widely read virtuoso, replies in the fluent polished manner that has earned him recognition as one of the finest writers in the English language.
As editor Charlotte Mosley writes, “Much of the charm of the letters lies in their authors’ particular outlook on life. Both are acutely observant and clear-sighted about human failings, but their lack of cynicism and gift for looking on the bright side bear out the maxim that the world tends to treat you as you find it. On the whole, the people they meet are good to them, the places they visit enchant them, and they succeed splendidly in all they set out to do. This lightheartedness—a trait that attracted many, often less sunny, people towards them—gives their letters an irresistible fizz and sparkle.”
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