(1915 – 2011)
Sir Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor, DSO, OBE (London, UK, February 11, 1915 – Dumbleton, UK, June, 10, 2011) was a British author, scholar, soldier and polyglot who played a prominent role behind the lines in the Cretan resistance during the Second World War. He was widely regarded as Britain’s greatest living travel writer during his lifetime, based on books such as A Time of Gifts (1977). In his New York Times obituary he is described, citing an earlier BBC report, as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene.”
Leigh Fermor was the son of Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, a distinguished geologist – later, founder and first president of the Indian National Science Academy and director of the Geological Survey of India – and Muriel Aeyleen Ambler, whose grandfather James Ambler had been Warrant Officer on HMS Bellerophon at Trafalgar, at the time of Napoleon’s formal surrender to that ship’s Captain, (Frederick Maitland). As a child, Patrick Leigh Fermor had problems with academic structure and limitations, and he was later expelled from The King’s School, Canterbury after having been caught holding hands with a greengrocer’s daughter. He continued learning by reading texts on Greek, Latin, Shakespeare and history, with the intention of entering the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. Gradually he changed his mind, deciding to become an author instead, and in the summer of 1933 relocated to London.
At the age of 18, Leigh Fermor decided to walk the length of Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (Istanbul). He set off on December 8, 1933 with a few clothes, several letters of introduction, the Oxford Book of English Verse and a Loeb volume of Horace’s Odes. He slept in barns and shepherds’ huts, but was also invited by landed gentry and aristocracy into the country houses of Central Europe; and he also experienced hospitality in several monasteries along the way. Two of his travel books, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), were about this journey. At the time of his death, a book on the final part of his journey remained unfinished. From Leigh Fermor’s diary of this part of his walk and an early draft account that he had written in the 1960s, his biographer Artemis Cooper, together with travel writer Colin Thubron, eventually compiled an account of the third part of Leigh Fermor’s cross-Europe walk, The Broken Road, which was published in September 2013.
After his January 1, 1935 arrival in Istanbul, Patrick Leigh Fermor continued to travel around Greece. In March of that year he was involved in the campaign of royalist forces in Macedonia against an attempted Republican revolt. He lived for a while in an old watermill outside of Athens, then moved to Moldavia (Romania), where he remained until the autumn of 1939. On learning that Britain had declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, Leigh Fermor immediately left Romania to return home and enlist in the army.
Due to his knowledge of modern Greek, he was commissioned in the General List in August 1940, became a liaison officer in Albania, and fought in Crete and mainland Greece. During the German occupation, he returned to Crete three times, once by parachute, and was one of a small number of Special Operations Executive (SOE) officers posted to organize the island’s resistance to the occupation. Disguised as a shepherd and nicknamed Michalis or Filedem, he lived for over two years in the mountains. With Captain William Stanley Moss as his second in command, Leigh Fermor led the party that, in 1944, captured and evacuated the German commander, Major General Heinrich Kreipe. Moss later described the events in his book Ill Met by Moonlight, whose later editions contain an afterword written by Leigh Fermor in 2001, setting the context of the operation. Moss’s book was adapted in a 1957 film by the same name, in which Leigh Fermor was portrayed by Dirk Bogarde. A documentary film on the Cretan resistance, The 11th Day (2005) contains extensive interview segments with Leigh Fermor, filmed in 2003, where he recounts his service in the S.O.E. and his activities on Crete, including the capture of General Kreipe. Leigh Fermor’s own written account, Abducting A General – The Kreipe Operation and SOE in Crete, was published in October 2014.
In 1950, Leigh Fermor 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 as a writer. He also wrote a novel, The Violins of Saint-Jacques, which was adapted as an opera by Malcolm Williamson. Having returned to Greece, Leigh Fermor went on to author several further books of his journeys, including Mani and Roumeli, of his travels on mule and foot around remote parts of the country. His friend Lawrence Durrell recounts in his book Bitter Lemons (1957) how, during the Cypriot insurgency against continued British rule in 1955, Leigh Fermor visited Durrell’s villa in Bellapais, 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.”
Leigh Fermor and his wife Joan, whom he married in 1968, lived part of the year in their house in an olive grove near Kardamyli in the Mani Peninsula (southern Peloponnese) and part of the year in Gloucestershire. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s life and work were profiled by travel writer Benedict Allen in the documentary series Travellers’ Century (2008) on BBC Four. He died at age 96, having retained his legendary strong physical constitution until the last day of his life – despite a battle with cancer – and has influenced an entire generation of British travel writers, including Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron, Philip Marsden, Nicholas Crane, and Rory Stewart.
Major Awards and Honors
Honours of the United Kingdom
- 1943: Officer of the Order of the British Empire
- 1944: Distinguished Service Order
- 2004: Knight Bachelor of the Order of the British Empire
Royal Society of Literature (UK)
- 1950: Heinemann Award – “The Traveller’s Tree”
- 1991: Honorary Fellow
British Guild of Travel Writers
- 2004: Lifetime Achievement Award
W.H. Smith (UK)
- 1978: W.H. Smith Literary Award – “A Time of Gifts”
Hellenic Republic (Greece)
- 2007: Commander of the Order of the Phoenix
Honorary Citizen of Heraklion, of Kardamyli and of Gytheio
Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France)
- 1995: Chevalier de l’Ordre
- The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1953)
- The Roots of Heaven (1958)
– Adventure film, directed by John Huston.
On Foot to Constantinople from the Hook of Holland
- A Time of Gifts (1977)
- Between the Woods and the Water (1986)
- The Broken Road (2013)
– Edited by Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron.
Other Memoirs and Travel Books
- The Traveller’s Tree (1950)
- A Time to Keep Silence (1957)
– With photographs by Joan Eyres Monsell.
- Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958)
- Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (1966)
- Three Letters from the Andes (1991)
- Words of Mercury (2003)
– Anthology, edited by Artemis Cooper; contains excerpts from Leigh Fermor’s travel books as well as various shorter pieces.
- Abducting A General – The Kreipe Operation and SOE in Crete (2014)
- In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor (2008)
– Edited by Charlotte Mosley.
- Dashing for the Post: the Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor (2017)
– Edited by Adam Sisman.
- More Dashing: Further Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor (2018)
– Edited by Adam Sisman.
Magazine Articles and Other Short Nonfiction
- A Monastery
– In: The Cornhill Magazine, no. 979, Summer, 1949.
- From Solesmes to La Grande Trappe
– In: The Cornhill Magazine,, no. 982, Spring 1950.
- Voodoo Rites in Haiti
– In: World Review, October 1950.
- The Rock-Monasteries of Cappadocia
– In: The Cornhill Magazine, no. 986, Spring 1951.
- The Monasteries of the Air
– In: The Cornhill Magazine, no. 987, Summer 1951.
- The Entrance to Hades
– In: The Cornhill Magazine, London, no. 1011, Spring 1957.
- Introduction to Into Colditz by Miles Reid (1983)
- Foreword to Albanian Assignment by David Smiley (1984)
- No Innocent Abroad by C.P. Rodocanachi (1938)
(AKA Forever Ulysses)
- Julie de Carneilhan and Chance Acquaintances by Colette (1952)
- The Cretan Runner: His Story of the German Occupation by George Psychoundakis (1955)
A Selection of Quotes
A Time of Gifts
“All horsepower corrupts.”
“Paradox reconciles all contradictions.”
“I found my mind wandering at games; loved boxing and was good at it; and in summer, having chosen rowing instead of cricket, lay peacefully by the Stour, well upstream of the rhythmic creaking and the exhortation, reading Lily Christine and Gibbon and gossiping with kindred lotus-eaters under the willow-branches.”
“At school some learning by heart was compulsory, though not irksome. But this intake was out-distanced many times, as it always is among people who need poetry, by a private anthology, both of those automatically absorbed and of poems consciously chosen and memorized as though one were stocking up for a desert island or for a stretch of solitary.”
“[Poetry] is a field where England can take on all challengers.”
“The notion that I had walked twelve hundred miles since Rotterdam filled me with a legitimate feeling of something achieved. But why should the thought that nobody knew where I was, as though I were in flight from bloodhounds or from worshipping corybants bent on dismemberment, generate such a feeling of triumph? It always did.”
Between the Woods and the Water
“Scattered with poppies, the golden-green waves of the cornfields faded. The red sun seemed to tip one end of a pair of scales below the horizon, and simultaneously to lift an orange moon at the other. Only two days off the full, it rose behind a wood, swiftly losing its flush as it floated up, until the wheat loomed out of the twilight like a metallic and prickly sea.”
“Thoughts at a Café Table
Between the Kazan and the Iron Gates
Progress has now placed the whole of this landscape underwater. A traveller sitting at my old table on the quay at Orsova would have to peer at the scenery through a thick brass-hinged disc of glass; this would frame a prospect of murk and slime […] Moving a couple of miles downstream, he would fumble his way on to the waterlogged island and among the drowned Turkish houses; or, upstream, flounder among the weeds and rubble choking Count Széchenyi’s road and peer across the dark gulf at the vestiges of Trajan on the other side; and all round him, above and below, the dark abyss would yawn and the narrows where currents once rushed and cataracts shuddered from bank to bank and echoes zigzagged along the vertiginous clefts would be sunk in diluvian since. […]
He could toil many days up these cheerless soundings, for Rumania and Yugoslavia have built one of the world’s biggest ferro-concrete dams and hydro-electric power plants across the Iron Gates. This has turned a hundred and thirty miles of the Danube into a vast pond which has swollen and blurred the course of the river beyond recognition. It has abolished cayons, turned beetling crags into mild hills and ascended the beautiful Cerna valley almost to the Baths of Hercules. Many thousands of the inhabitabnts of Orşova and the riparian hamlets had to be uprooted and transplanted elsewhere. The islanders of Ada Kaleh have been moved to another islet downstream and their old home has vanished under the still surface as though it has never been. Let us hope that the power generated by the dam has spread well-being on either bank and lit up Rumanian and Yugoslav towns brighter than ever before because, in everything but economics, the damage is irreparrable.
[… M]yths, lost voices, history and hearsay have all been put to rout, leaving nothing but this valley of shadow. Goethe’s advice, ‘Bewahre Dich vor Räuber und Ritter und Gespenstergeschichten’,* has been taken literally, and everything has fled.
* Beware of the robber, the cavalier, and ghost stories.”
Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese
“These summer nights are short. Going to bed before midnight is unthinkable and talk, wine, moonlight and the warm air are often in league to defer it one, two or three hours more. It seems only a moment after falling asleep out of doors that dawn touches one gently on the shoulder, and, completely refreshed, up one gets, or creeps into the shade or indoors for another luxurious couple of hours. The afternoon is the time for real sleep: into the abyss one goes to emerge when the colours begin to revive and the world to breathe again about five o’clock, ready once more for the rigours and pleasures of late afternoon, the evening, and the night.”
“When Paris, a Trojan prince, stole the beautiful Helen from her husband, the King of Sparta, that,’ he pointed to the Marathonisi, ‘is where the runaways first dropped anchor. They left the caique and spent the first night together on the island. Homer wrote about it. It used to be called Kranae.’ We were dumbfounded. Kranae! I had always wondered where it was. The whole of Gytheion was suddenly transformed. Everything seemed to vanish except the dark silhouette of the island where thousands of years ago that momentous and incendiary honeymoon began among the whispering fennel.”
Find more quotes by Patrick Leigh Fermor on Goodreads.
- Patrick Leigh Fermor (unofficial site)
- Patrick Leigh Fermor’s official New York Review Books author page
- Patrick Leigh Fermor profile in the Financial Times (Marathon man, Jan. 2, 2007)
- Patrick Leigh Fermor and the Pleasures of Places and People (Wall Street Journal, Dec. 1, 2017)
- Patrick Leigh Fermor: Crossing Europe and kidnapping a German general (BBC News, Oct. 10. 2014)
- Patrick Leigh Fermor’s obituary in The Guardian
- Patrick Leigh Fermor’s obituary in the New York Times
- John Humphries: The Man of the Mani (BBC Radio 4)
- Elpida Belogianni’s memories of keeping house and cooking for Joan and Patrick Leigh Fermor at their Mani home
- Sofka Zinovieff: The Mani Sanctuary of a Hero-turned Scholar
- Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor’s house has now opened as a hotel (The Tatler, July 28, 2020)
- Reviews and blog posts related to Patrick Leigh Fermor on this blog, Lioness at Large