Friday, September 4, 2015

Patrick Leigh Fermor

“Paradox reconciles all contradictions.” 

The last time I met someone who described himself as an "adventurer" and "world-traveler", he was a trust fund kid who enjoyed engaging in "trauma tourism", which is the not-so-fine art of showing up in places where there has been some natural disaster or conflagration and...well..."appreciating the situation".  They are rarely of any real help and mostly engage in this activity so that they can return home and impress mom, dad, significant other and even, perhaps, college professors, with their concern about the human race.  Hollywood people like to do this, too, generally at the urging of their publicists.  After the earthquake in Haiti, the poor Haitians, already clobbered by the quake and two hurricanes within just a few years, also had to contend with a bunch of privileged Americans looking for an "authentic" experience. 

Archaeological sites often count on these adventurers to show up to "help" at the dig site, especially since they don't have to be paid anything.  They are generally useless, of course, and tend to leave after a few days of real labor and the absence of a discovery on the order of King Solomon's mines or the Ark of the Covenant.  Still, one can get at least eight or so hours of digging out of them before they realize the absence of glamour.  

It wasn't always so. In what I've come to regard as the last age of the true adventurer/traveler we have, on Fridays over the last few years, taken a biographic look at sailing adventurers such as Bob Manry, Bernard Moitessier, Max Hardberger, Joshua Slocum, Francis Chichester, and Cool Breeze; and also explorers such as T.E. Lawrence, the recent Sylvanus Morely, Jacques Piccard, Hiram Bingham, and Wilfred Thesiger.  While some may have had family money and high hopes of achieving or discovering something significant, none was afraid of or resistant to hard work or dull, repetitive labor.  

I realized, though, that there is another sort from that age of adventurers who has yet to be represented in The Coracle: the charming roue, scoundrel, sponge, and mooch.  To satisfy that absence, we have Patrick Leigh Fermor, author, wanderer, adventurer, commando, and general man of action.  He was also the sort of whom one would be warned, "Don't loan him any money."

Fermor was born in London in the midst of the First World War to a renowned geologist father and a prominent mother [her grandfather had been an officer on the ship that accepted Napoleon's surrender].  While still an infant, his parents left for India, leaving Fermor in the care of a very nice middle-class family in the northern provinces.  He would eventually be introduced to his parents when he was a rather mature four-year-old.

As might be expected from one so abandoned by his parents, he was a troubled and troubling child.  So much so that he was sent to a school that specialized in difficult children.  Even there, Fermor challenged their curriculum.  He was eventually "sent down" [that is, expelled] for taking liberties with the local grocer's daughter.  Well, they held hands, but that was enough.

He did love to read and, like Sir Richard Burton, was facile with languages.  Although he had hoped to attend college and/or take a commission in the King's Army, instead he decided, at the age of eighteen, to walk from De Hoek in the Netherlands to Constantinople [now Instanbul].  I mean, why not?  This is a journey of over 1500 miles across areas that were less-than-developed and politically volatile.  So much so that, around the time he began, Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany and fascism began its inexorable rise across Europe.

Undaunted, Fermor slept in caves, shepherd's huts, and at the homes of both the humble and the exalted, including a monastery or two.  Rarely did he pay for room or a meal.  In January of 1935, thirteen months after he started, Fermor arrived in Constantinople.  His momentum did not slake, though, and he made his way to Greece where he found himself taking sides, and even arms, against potential revolutionaries.  This activity subsequently introduced him to a Romanian noblewoman with whom he, as my mother would have said, "lived in sin" for a few years on a Greek island.  He was 24-years-old at this point and had begun to write...his memoirs.

Then, just as things were settling into an unusual routine, the Second World War began and Fermor, mainly due to his fluency in Greek, was commissioned a subaltern [or second lieutenant] in the Irish Guards, stationed in Greece to work with the local and Albanian patriots and, once Greece was occupied by the Nazis, would surreptitiously re-enter the country to aid in organizing the resistance efforts.  Again, as with Burton, Fermor revealed himself to be adept at disguising himself as a local shepherd and spent almost two years freely wandering the hilly regions, dutifully keeping track of German Army movements.  It was then that he developed an audacious, and mildly mad, plan.

We should pause to reiterate a point that has been made from time to time in The Coracle, especially when appreciating certain personalities.  There are people who never quite seem to fit into common society; they can be querulous, alcoholic, chronically unemployed, or prone to irresponsible behavior.  Suffice it to say that their decision-making paradigm is often in need of re-appraisal.  Then, in times of extremis, whether in war or natural disaster, they reveal themselves to be natural leaders, composed of courage both physical and moral, and irreplaceable in that they can often turn defeat into victory.

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that Fermor, by now a major, organized a small band of soldiers and Greek partisans to successfully kidnap the commander of a German Army division, directly from the midst of his own soldiers on his base on Crete.  In order to accomplish the mission, Fermor and his junior officer had to dress in the uniforms of German sentries, an act that would have resulted in their immediate execution if caught.  The details are spectacular enough to warrant at least two books and one movie; there is still a plaque commemorating the incident at the location.  Ironically, due to the current state of the Greek economy, these days the memorial site is maintained by the German government.

With that, Fermor was eventually awarded a handful of significant medals and related honors from at least two governments, and was named an honorary citizen of a few Greek provinces.  Such trinkets are generally of little use once war has ended, of course, but Fermor, through his own natural charm and guile, was able to turn them into a lifetime of free room and board as he began, at war's end, to be regarded as Britain's greatest travel writer.

Fermor wrote of his walk from Holland to Turkey, of the mountains of Greece, and of the Caribbean.  During the post-war period, while Europe was recovering, he inspired countless young people to travel the continent on foot, seeking whatever casual adventures they could discover.  So related did he become to touring by perambulation that there is still a Fermor Society that regularly meets and supports such activity, plus keeping his books in print.

As far as anyone can tell, Fermor never earned very much from this notoriety, even going so far as to borrow money from the under-paid women secretaries at the British Embassy in Athens, and lived mostly as a guest in the homes of the gentry in both England and Greece, eventually marrying a woman of means who adored him.  They had a long and happy life together, however, and enjoyed parties with artists, writers, and celebrities in the house she bought for them in Greece.  Between the socialization, the ouzo, and the music [Fermor could sing many of the Greek folk songs in a rather nice voice and would do so often, even when unbidden] his literary output is not what it could have been, but what is in print is cherished by a surprising number of people.  There is also a rumor that a completed manuscript, found among his personal papers, is to be published in the near future.

Despite smoking between 80-100 cigarettes a day and occasionally over-indulging, Fermor would live to the fit age of 96.  His legacy is considerable as his books are still in print and, at partial count, there are at least two lectures about him that will be offered in London this autumn.

Of his significance as a travel writer, the following was observed:
Reviewing “Between the Woods and the Water” for The New York Times, John Gross wrote that it was not primarily for the “information it contains that his book deserves to be read (though he packs in a great deal), but for its sumptuous coloring, the acuteness of his responses, the loving precision with which he conjures up people and places.”
A list of his books may be found at this link.  There is also a biography or two, including one written in recent years.  We should also note that he contributed the screenplay of a little-seen film, The Roots of Heaven, that should be viewed by those interested in cinema.  It is adventurous, environmentally aware in its address of the exploitation of African wildlife, and contains some rather stirring scenes.  Well, and it also stars Errol Flynn, among others.