10 June 2011

The Life and Death of a Modern Hero

As I said earlier, I think the world was a richer place yesterday than it is today, as it seems we've been doubly impoverished. Patrick Leigh Fermor has died.

Whenever I've told people about Fermor they've tended to stop me, usually about halfway through, and ask whether I was talking about a real person. How could one person, they'd ask, have done so much?

I don't blame them. Walking from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople when he was eighteen back in 1933, staying in castles and barns along the way, drinking and dining with gypsies and aristocrats... fighting in a cavalry battle between Republicans and Royalists in northern Greece... falling in love with a Romanian princess and living with her in a watermill, her painting and him writing... joining the Irish Guards in the Second World War but being reassigned to SOE, stationed in Crete where we worked with the Cretan resistance and headed the mission to kidnap, hide, and bustle away the German commander of East Crete to Egypt... travelling in the Caribbean and writing a book about what he saw there that's cited in Live and Let Die as James Bond's perfect introduction to Haiti... his only novel, a slight yet beautiful work that's been turned into an opera... embracing the quiet rhythms of French monasteries and later beautifully evoking these rhythms in A Time to Keep Silence, published the same year that Dirk Bogarde played him in Ill Met by Moonlight... two marvellous books on travelling in northern and southern Greece, with his descriptions of the monasteries of the air in Meteora being second to none... and then, in 1977, perhaps the finest travel book of the last century, A Time of Gifts, beginning to tell the tale of his great teenage peregrination to Istanbul, this retelling only becoming possible after his teenage notebooks had been returned to him after being found in a Romanian castle... swimming the Hellespont when he was 69, with his wife Joan following behind him by boat... a second volume of his great epic, From the Woods to the Water, in 1986... another travel book, Three Letters from the Andes, in 1991... a translation and a lengthy introduction his friend and old comrade George Psychoundakis' The Cretan Runner in 1998... being knighted in 2004... being honoured by the Greek state as Commander of the Order of the Phoenix in 2007... a delightful and weighty collection of his letters to and from his old friend Deborah Devonshire, In Tearing Haste, in 2008...

He died today, 96 years old, after a long illness. I'd been a fan of his for years, quoting him at length once here and giving copies of A Time of Gifts to a friend as a birthday present only last month. I'd long wanted to meet him; indeed, I've envied a friend who was once in the same room as him. I got within a few miles of his home in Kardamyli last summer. Soon, I hope, his publishers will edit and publish the massive pile of pages that makes up the third and final volume of his great walk across Europe, the third volume that'll take us from the Iron Gates to the Golden Horn.

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, DSO, OBE, Commander of the Order of the Phoenix -- may he rest in peace. We'll probably not see his like again, but maybe we should just rejoice that he graced us with his presence as long as he did. This blog, doubtless, will be the place to go for all manner of obituaries and articles celebrating his brilliance. It's been a fine site for a long time, but I think it'll come into its own now.

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