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Vol. 13, No. 6, 2014
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footloose and free



John M. Edwards middlenamed his daughter after his favourite travel writer, Bruce Chatwin. His work has appeared in, CNN Traveller, Missouri Review,, Grand Tour, Michigan Quarterly Review, Escape, Global Travel Review, Condé Nast Traveler, International Living, Emerging Markets and Entertainment Weekly.


“Soon the delightful cry of ‘Delphinia’ went up: a school of dolphins was gambolling about half a mile further out to sea. They seemed to have spotted us at the same moment, for in a second half a dozen of them were tearing their way toward us, all surfacing in the same parabola and plunging together as if they were in some invisible harness.” Patrick Leigh Fermor (Mani).

Patrick Leigh Fermor, “Paddy” to his pals, is now a not-so-neglected name to reckon with. Knighted in 2004, Sir Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) is considered by many, despite the Irish-sounding surname, to be England’s greatest travel writer. Or as the BBC put it, a cross between “Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Graham Greene.”

Even so, Paddy -- author, scholar, soldier, spy -- gained lasting literary acclaim only late in his life. He wrote about events long past without the help of his lost journals (one of them was recovered years later from a former mistress), ending up writing with an intriguing mix of memory and imagination. His nonfiction books are so well written, we feel like we have lived through them ourselves.

Ordering on Amazon, I dropped all of Paddy’s books in my shopping cart and sped through checkout, ready to eye his entire oeuvre exclusively for The Smart Set. As someone who actually believes in the pagan gods of classical antiquity, as fallible as mere mortals -- and a big fan of Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi to boot -- I wanted to steep myself in Paddy’s technicolour world of Mediterranean maenads lost in siren song straight out of a Ray Harryhausen flick.

Best known for his classic trilogy about his bildungsroman voyage by foot across Europe -- A Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and the Water (1986), and The Broken Road (2013), the last of which was published posthumously -- -Paddy wrote about a “dream odyssey of every footloose student,” according to his friendly rival Colin Thubron.

In 1933, Paddy, at the age of 18, set out to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (the Philhellene’s term for modern-day Istanbul, Turkey). A recent biography worth reading, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper, brings out the romantic tradition of the ‘vagabond’ in all of us, with colourful operatic characters, priceless cultural artifacts, and vaguely improbable landscapes. Luckily, Paddy waited over thirty years to release his finest narrative work, sifted through mercurial memory and addended by artistic license, rather than settling upon slapdash diary.

Home for Fermor, as he has said more than twice, is “a base to be nomadic from,” while he keeps company with tramps and vagabonds, peasants and gypsies, and sleeps in uncomfortable hayricks and baronial manors. We can almost visualize Paddy right there in the thick of it, through the bohemian hobo haze of Looney Toons-ish cartoon bums, usually sporting handkerchiefs impishly tied to walking sticks.

Born in London and died in Dembleton, Paddy ended up a decorated war hero and pub raconteur. Farmed out to friends while his parents were away in Raj-ruled India, Paddy did not properly get to know his parents until the age of four. No surprise, Paddy had a troubled youth, managing to get himself put into a school for difficult children, before later being expelled from the King’s School in Canterbury for holding hands with a greengrocer’s daughter.

Paddy describes his young self thus: “A cruel Fauntleroy veneer masked a Charles Addams fiend that lurked beneath.”

His only real ambition was to dance the Charleston at Roaring Twenties Jazz Age parties and become a famous writer, which in 1933 took him to boho Shepherd’s Market in London, and soon after to the Balkans and Greece. What Colin Thubron called “the longest gap year in history.”

To retrace our trail a little bit, Paddy ranks right up there with Paul Theroux, Erik Newby, and Norman Lewis. One of the so-called Bright Young Things (which included Evelyn Waugh and Robert Byron), Fermor’s fermented writings evidence fruit-forward diction with a noble-rot nose on it, uncorked way past their expiration dates.

No other travel writer I can think of so effortlessly relies on hindsight, such as the following excerpt from A Time of Gifts at a “hoggish catalepsy” in the famous Haufbrauhaus in Munich, Germany, right after Hitler came to power in Deutschland in 1933:

I was back in beer territory. Halfway up the vaulted stairs a groaning Brownshirt, propped against the wall on a swastika’d arm, was unloosing, in a staunchless gush down the steps, the intake of hours. Love’s labour lost . . . Hands like bundles of sausages flew nimbly, packing in forkload on forkload of ham, salami, frankfurters, krenwurst and bludwurst and stone tankards were lifted for long swallows of liquid which sprang out again instantaneously on cheek and brow . . . It was some terrible German saga, where snow vanished under the breath of dragons whose red-hot blood thawed sword blades like icicles . . . Or so it seemed, when the third mug arrived.

Paddy offers an exceptional argument in favour of the vagabond life, reminiscent of the tramps in Depression Era America and the swells in Grand Tour Europe, sleeping in abandoned barns and shepherds’ huts, as well as being invited into the landed-gentry country homes of Central European aristocracy, such as Baron Blah Blah Blah, serving up roast goose and decent claret. (I’ll name just one of his myriad royal hosts with long unpronounceable names: Baron Tibor Solymosy).

More important, Paddy might be the very first genuine postmodern backpacker, since he travels only with what he can carry in a sturdy rucksack: clothes, letters of introduction, an Oxford Book of English Verse, and a copy of Horace’s Odes. Heavily influenced by Lord Byron, who died fighting in the Greek War for Independence, and Robert Byron, who drowned in 1941 like Shelley from a torpedo blast, Paddy too had a Hellenic obsession. He even reportedly swam across the Hellespont. Referring to his Olympian Buster Crabbe-like feat he was confident that he “had beaten all records for slowness and length of immersion.”

After at last arriving in Constantinople (now Istanbul since the eclipse of Ottoman power)) in 1935, Paddy moved on to amazing Greece, where he fell for his first love in Athens: a “Phanariot Roumanian noblewoman named Princess Balasha Cantacuzene. They set up shop in what would end up being Paddy’s second home: Kardamyli on southern Greece’s Mani peninsula. They then moved to Moldova right before calamity struck and ended up being separated by jagged-jigsaw-puzzle-pieces of nation states swept up in the worldwide conflagration.

During World War II, as a newbie in the elite Irish Guards, Paddy was involved in the Mission Impossible-y resistance in Crete against the Axis powers. There, disguised in a sheepskin jerkin, he helped with the war effort. Most famously, after three tours in occupied Greece, one including a dramatic parachute jump, in 1944 he kidnapped the German General Heinrich Kreipe.

Although nothing quite beats the lyrical A Time of Gifts, all of Paddy’s mostly successful work deserves mention. His first book, The Traveller’s Tree (1950), is still one of the best books ever written about the Caribbean. It won the Heinemann Foundation Prize for Literature and was excessively quoted by Ian Fleming in Live and Let Die. It was also, despite its antique handling of racial issues, one of the first books to mention the then-almost-unknown cult of Rastafarianism. Judging by the book’s unique tone, Paddy was no stranger to smoking the ganja, too.

His next book, a vaguely disappointing first novel called The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1956) is difficult to track down either on the megastore bookshelf or the omniscient web. Almost optioned as a film, the book went on to inspire an opera.

Ultimately avoiding failure in the nick of time, Paddy married Joan Elizabeth Rayner in 1968 (unfortunately right during the Sexual Revolution), daughter of a noble family. Even though she died in June 2003, aged 91, leaving the scholar-author-soldier decidedly bitter, Paddy, under her influence, pulled off of his proverbial wagon and released what is surely his best works, including the legendary classic – alluded to ad nauseum -- A Time of Gifts.

Obviously influenced by Byron (Robert, not Lord), whose Athos (1924) capitalized on the craze of Anglo classicist Philhellenes, Paddy’s two books on amazing Greece, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958) and Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (1966), are so exquisitely versed, even though way over our heads linguistically, with colorful Greek sur and place names and translations of poetically iconic terms, that we all fall under an olive-grove trance. It is not what is written that is important, but instead how.

A fashion-conscious blade, Paddy, in Roumeli, commented upon the rumour that the outlandishly dressed, ceremonial-dagger-wielding shepherd nomads Savakatsans (Black Departers) of Northern Greece never bathe from birth to death: “Oddly, they scarcely smell at all, perhaps because of the time-stiffening carapace of cloth which encases them.”

Although separated by nearly a decade, the two Greek books make excellent companions for the guest-room night table, dazzling us with unfamiliar terms and hard-to-pronounce locations. (Paddy, although occasionally supplying translations, seems to assume his learned readership has studied at least some Greek). Amidst a backdrop of hilltop Byzantine monasteries, hagiographic frescos of saints and martyrs, and illuminated manuscripts, Paddy involves us in his wayward philosophic peregrinations.

For example, from Mani, in Missolonghi, Paddy goes looking for Byron’s slippers; in Astakos (lobster in Greek), which he doesn’t find, and on the Mani peninsula, he investigates an ouzo-swilling Zorba the Greek fisherman claiming to be the rightful heir to the throne of Byzantium, as well as unsubstantiated rumours of a race of ancient Jews.

Rather than relying on his lost diaries, whose absence “aches like an old wound in cold weather,” he sifts his stories into meme memoir, and then some. In Between the Woods and the Water, for example, Paddy describes a chance meeting in Bulgaria inside “an abode harmoniously shared by Polythemus [the Cyclops from Homer’s The Odyssey] and Sinbad.” Paddy relates in seductive (no: shimmering) prose:

I crawled the path and I pulled open an improvised door, uttering a last dobar vecher [good evening] into the memorable cavern beyond. A dozen firelit faces looked up in surprise and consternation from the cross-legged supper, as though a sea monster or a drowned man’s ghost had come . . .

While re-reading Paddy’s essay collection Words of Mercury (2003) in Knossos, Crete, at an al fresco taverna with excellent retsina and grilled squid resembling asterixes, near the Temple of Minos (of Minotaur fame), I became enthralled with his twice-told tales of derring-do. It was here in 1944 that Paddy organized the resistance against the Axis powers and kidnapped the German General Heinrich Kreipe, with whom, after the war, he became friends: both of them were, after all, fans of Horace. I felt like I was frigging right there with the unfamiliar chthonic Greek language spewing out of unemployed Golden Dawn peasants mouths like black ink cartridges on an HP printer.

A film version of Paddy’s wartime exploits in Greece called Ill Met by Moonlight (1950), featured Dirk Bogarde as Paddy. A recipient of both the OBE (Order of the British Empire) and a DSO (Distinguished Service Order), Paddy was also an Honourary citizen of Crete, where he was nicknamed, for no apparent good reason, Michalis.

But it is the spirit of the journey that counts. Paddy, dressed in a sheepskin jerkin, “sleeps rough,” in barns and monasteries, inns and hostels, caves and sheepfolds, and people’s couches and under the stars. Often grubbing at monasteries for silence and solitude, in order to write, Paddy covers in his ode to unemployment what it is like to be young and free abroad, much like the vagabonding ethic now propounded by Rolf Potts. In the slender volume A Time to Keep Silence (1957), Paddy relates how he sponges off monasteries, such as the Benedictine Monastery at Saint Wandrille in Normandy, in order to make sense of his world.

Rereading Paddy’s impressive oeuvre of pulchritudinous prose and Klephtic songs in an Oriental register, a roundup worthy of repeating, abounding with footloose barons and beggars straight out of a game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, you will never take your own two legs for granted ever again.

His vanished Europe is a Grimm’s fairytale of an outcast depending upon the kindness of strangers, a stroll from one Schloss to another. Whether he is describing the pine-clad Carpathians or glorious Black Sea, Eastern Orthodox monasteries or Byzantine Empire onion domes, Paddy pads his text with the “rumour of wolves” (or, werewolves) and the legacy of Germanic Transylvanian Prince Dracula (or, Vlad Tepes [Vlad the Impaler]). Paddy proves that even the best-laid plans may run off course, like a colourful gypsy caravan from Universal Pictures. Especially due to lack of funds.

In Vienna, missing a monthly allowance payment of four pounds sterling in the poste restante while staying in a Salvation Army Hostel (much like a modern-day YHA joint), he is convinced by a fellow flaneur named Konrad to sell sketches door to door. Which is a better gig than Import-Export -- an international euphemism for chronic unemployment.

Artemis Cooper, Fermor’s biographer, says Paddy “smudged the facts a little.” Much like his close friend Bruce Chatwin, if not Lawrence Durrell, Paddy admitted that occasionally he ad libs, such as a highly dubious account of riding through the Hungarian puzhta by horseback. Response? Paddy “felt the reader might be getting bored of me, just plodding along . . . “ More than once, writes Cooper, Paddy’s “magpie mind” adds details freely.

Until 2007, Paddy wrote all of his books in longhand, only reluctantly turning to a typewriter in hopes of finishing his magnum opus on vagabonding through pre-war Europe right before the mappa mundi burst into flame.

A five-pack-a-day smoker, whose photos frequently feature him stylishly holding a dangling cigarette like Rod Serling narrating The Twilight Zone, Paddy was nevertheless physically fit. Splitting his time between the Mani peninsula in Greece and Worcestorshire, England, his last request was to be returned to his native soil. He died in 2011, aged 96, only one day after his return, the dearly departed spy in him as spry and sly as ever.


also by John M. Edwards:
Slovenly Slowdown in Slovakia
Poland: Potent Potables
Confessions of a Tasmaniac
The Bulgarian Way
Sumatra's Hex & Sex
Kutna Hora and the Chapel of Bones
Remembering Bruce Chatwin
Coffe Art of Sol Bolaños


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