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Patrick Leigh Fermor: Crossing Europe and kidnapping a German general

By Andy Walker
Today programme

image copyrightAP

A new account of the kidnap of a German general in WW2 from occupied Crete sheds light on one of the 20th Century's most interesting men.

"One man in his time plays many parts," wrote Shakespeare in As You Like it. If that is any measure, then the late Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor blew it into a cocked hat.

A decorated war hero, brilliant conversationalist, historian, Hollywood scriptwriter, perhaps the finest travel writer of his generation - the list of the achievements of Paddy, he was never called Patrick, goes on and on.

And now, three years after his death at the age of 96, Leigh Fermor's own account of the audacious wartime exploit, capturing General Heinrich Kreipe, the commander of a division on the island of Crete, evading his pursuers and getting him to Cairo, has been published, further gilding his glittering reputation.

The book, Abducting A General, recounts the incident with typical Fermor erudition and flair.

He recalls how he and his colleague W Stanley "Billy" Moss dressed as German corporals, flagged down the general's car on an isolated road. Their Cretan comrades helped them overwhelm the driver and, with Fermor wearing the general's braided cap in the front of the staff car, they negotiated 22 German checkpoints with their quarry out of sight in the back.

Then, he writes: "A mood of riotous jubilation broke out in the car; once more we were all talking, laughing, gesticulating and finally singing at the tops of our voices, and offering each other cigarettes, including the general."

On the journey to a rendezvous with a British submarine the party traversed the island's highest point, Mount Ida, where Fermor and the general traded some lines of Latin from Horace.

It was, he explained later, "as if the war had come to an end, because we had drunk of the same fountains. Everything was very different afterwards".

image copyrightThe estate of william stanley moss
image captionLeigh Fermor at the hideout at Kastamonitza, 20 April 1944
image copyrightThe estate of william stanley moss
image captionMoss, General Kriepe and Leigh Fermor at Xyloris' hideout, 28 April 1944
image copyrightThe estate of William Stanley Moss
image captionThe abduction party, 28 April 1944 (Leigh Fermor standing second from left in German uniform)

Fermor was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, while Moss, who penned his own account of the incident, Ill Met By Moonlight, later to be made into a movie starring Dirk Bogarde, was given the Military Cross.

But this was but one achievement by the man once described as "a cross between Indiana Jones, Graham Greene and James Bond".

At just 18, the wild and wilful son of distant parents, Fermor had been "sacked" from a series of schools before being taken in by the bright and bookish denizens of bohemian London. He started a journey.

image copyrightALAMY
image captionIll Met By Moonlight (1956) dramatised the wartime exploits of Leigh Fermor (Dirk Bogarde, fourth from left)

"Hopeless, idle, easily distracted, unemployable," as his biographer and friend Artemis Cooper puts it, Fermor resolved to travel on foot from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul living on just £5 a month - part wandering scholar, part tramp, in order to reboot his life.

His journey, chronicled between 1977 and last year in three books - A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road - is a poetic and romanticised evocation of a Europe as much of the mind as of reality, one which was swept away by WW2 and the upheavals which came in its wake.

Through Holland he wandered, then followed the Rhine through German cities like Cologne, where "salients of carved eagles and lions and swans swung from convoluted iron brackets along a maze of lanes," and Coblenz, remarking that "the accent had changed and wine cellars had taken the place of beer-halls".

This was a Germany in the first year of the Nazi regime with people giving the "Heil Hitler!" greeting "as though the place were full of slightly sinister boy scouts". In the midst of this, though, Fermor's descriptions are lyrical, cultural, rarely political.

image copyrightJohn murray

His charm eased his passage. One day he might sleep in a barn, the next in the palace of former Austro-Hungarian nobility, playing polo on bicycles in the grounds.

And later in the journey he fell in love with a Romanian princess, Balasha Cantacuzene, tagged along in a royalist cavalry formation deployed against an abortive Greek revolution in 1935 and visited the monasteries of Mount Athos.

This six-year "ultimate gap-year", as the writer Benedict Allen has called it, ended with the outbreak of war in 1939, Fermor's facility with languages (speaking four fluently with a working knowledge of many more), plus a tried and tested self-sufficiency, meant that he was an ideal candidate for special operations.

After the war he stayed on in Greece, worked for the British Council and met his muse, Joan Rayner, who was Wendy to his Peter Pan, as Cooper puts it.

An intellectual counter to the polymath Fermor, she was there when, aged 69, he swam the Hellespont in imitation of his idol Lord Byron. The couple married in 1968.

She was the unseen presence in works like The Traveller's Tree, an account of a journey through the geography, history and customs of the Caribbean Islands, and two books about Greece, Mani and Roumeli.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionLeigh Fermor and Joan Rayner at their wedding in 1968

He was in his 60s when A Time of Gifts was published, followed 11 years later by Between the Woods and the Water - writing, rewriting and revising so slowly as to drive his publisher Jock Murray to distraction.

"I think life always got in the way," says Cooper. "He felt so unsure of himself in so many ways. He was willing to sponge off friends or live pretty rough, really, until he could get it right.

"It's very odd, a kind of real psychological problem."

But Fermor was not shackled to travel writing. He became an elegant translator, wrote a proto-magical realist novel, The Violins of Saint-Jacques, and even tried his hand at scriptwriting, co-writing The Roots of Heaven, a Hollywood feature directed by John Huston and starring Errol Flynn.

"Everybody else detested Errol Flynn," recalls the writer and historian John Julius Norwich. "But Paddy thought he was terrific. And he and Paddy had tremendous drinking bouts together. They were on the same wavelength."

And Fermor became a much sought-after raconteur, famously holding court on his visits to London.

More from the Magazine: Two travel writers

image copyrightThinkstock

Paddy Leigh Fermor and Peter Matthiessen were very different men of very different generations. Matthiessen was a blue-blooded New Yorker, descended from Friesian whalers, and grew up on post-war Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, in the same building as George Plimpton, with whom he later co-founded the Paris Review. Leigh Fermor, by contrast, had the speech patterns, polished brogues and formal manners of a pre-war British officer.

Yet these two very different writers had so much in common. Both were footloose scholars who left their studies and libraries to walk in the wild places of the world, erudite and bookish wanderers, scrambling through remote mountains, notebooks in hand, rucksacks full of good books on their shoulders.

Remembering Peter and Paddy (William Dalrymple, 18 April 2014)

Sir Max Hastings, who first encountered Fermor while in his early 20s, says: "Across the lunch table of a London club, hearing him swapping anecdotes, in four or five languages, quite effortlessly, without showing off. I was just jaw-dropped."

The writer Shusha Guppy remembers: "You're having a nice evening and he comes out with a Hungarian song and a Romanian poem... But his language is English. The way he manipulates the English language is like watching Paganini playing his Stradivarius."

And the travel writer William Dalrymple says his friend was "always generous and inspiring" even though his "well-polished brogues and pinstriped suits were those of an Establishment figure, giving no hint of the Bohemian inside."

"I think he was very anxious and had serious ups and downs," explains Cooper. "A longing for distraction and regret that he hadn't done more. But there was always a tendency to see him as built in a heroic mould."

Of all his friendships, that with Deborah, the late Duchess of Devonshire, sealed by a long-running and witty correspondence, was especially warm.

Musing on the future of travel writing, Fermor warned: "If you write too enthusiastically about a place, about its marvellous quiet and solitude, it'll cease to be either quiet or solitary in the end."

image copyrightGetty Images

And Cooper explains the fact that so much of the world has now been visited has changed Paddy Leigh Fermor's influence on today's writers. Today's mainstream writing is, she says, "more an interior journey and more gritty. But that makes him all the more extraordinary.

"But, even though he is not in the mainstream, he is a palpable presence, in that the good travel writers have read him and take a bit of magic from him."

To Dalrymple "his was an uncopyable style. A fertile stream of words. This bookish footloose wanderer in the wilds has inspired a generation of writers."

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