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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Friday, April 25, 2014

The accidental Man - and Traveller

The books about Scotland’s political future did not engage me - too dry and technical. I need more poetry! The 2-year timetable for the referendum discussion certainly gives the chance to concentrate the mind - although few seem to have risen to the occasion (save the sole (disciplined) blogger and websites I've mentioned). 
I turned instead to a novel from one of the several amazing contemporary Scottish writers - James Robertson and, specifically, his seminal And the Land Lay Still ( "a portrait of modern Scotland" the blurb says). In the last 12 months I've done a series of posts on Germany, Romanian culture and Bulgarian painting. Perhaps the next series should be on Scottish writers?  Andrew O'Hagen's essays would be a good start.
Before that, I was distracted, on my return to Bucharest, by material on Naples (where I hope to go soon); by Joseph Roth's riveting A Life in Letters - principally from France and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s - by a travelogue; and by a biography. A year ago, when browsing in the Koln bookshops, I came across a marvellous remaindered book about him with amazing photographs from that era.....Excess baggage costs deterred me from the purchase - as it was I paid an excess 50 euros to KLM!!! I regret the opportunity!!!!

The travelogue is Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water – a retracing in 2011 of Patrick Leigh Fermour’s steps from Hook of Holland to Constantinople taken in 1933 and enshrined in a trilogy which started in the 1970s and finished only a year after his death in 2011. Leigh-Fermour (“Paddy” as he is known amongst cognoscenti) was one of a trio of English travel-writers who inspired a generation of travel writers – the other two being Norman Lewis and Eric Newby.
One article which listed a few of the greats suggested that travel writing is a neglected genre. It is actually one of my favourite genres – being about the serendipidy of encounters, landscape and social history. An annotated list of 86 travel books doesn’t include what for me is one of the best – Gerald Brennan’s South of Granada (nor Robert Louis Stevenson’s jaunts)

Leigh-Fermour's biography came out just a year after his death. If ever someone typified the eccentric English traveller it was Paddy L-F. The various reviews are all worth reading – but I start with one of the most immediately informative -
In 1933 ‘a rather noisy boy’ with near-empty pockets and a head full of poetry set out from the Hook of Holland to walk to Constantinople. Paddy Leigh-Fermor was eighteen years old, fizzing with romance, curiosity and animal high spirits – eager, as his biographer explains, to step away from a fractured childhood, a chequered school career, and a remote suggestion from his even remoter father that he should try chartered accountancy if the army didn’t appeal.As he tramped across the Low Countries and down through Germany to Bratislava, two letters of introduction hoisted Paddy out of the hedgerows and into a half-forgotten world of castles and old libraries. Margraves and counts cheerfully passed him along, with hunts, and gallops, and long nights talking by the fire, and friendships forged, in the Ruritanian twilight. 
That world was swept apart by the war, and it would be forty four years before Paddy related the first part of his journey in "A Time of Gifts", followed seven years later by "Between the Woods and the Water". Artemis Cooper reveals (in the biography) what Paddy left out, changed, or never quite wrote – including his tumultuous love affair with a beautiful Romanian countess, and the final leg of the journey, which took him beyond Constantinople to Greece, the country that was to shape his life. He was in Moldavia, and in love, when war broke out. Too wild and singularly gifted for a regular commission, he fetched up in occupied Crete, where in 1944 he carried out the daring kidnap of a German general, an exploit unpicked in one chapter of this biography; the story entered popular legend through the book Ill Met by Moonlight, written by his companion-in-arms Billy Moss; in the film Paddy was played by Dirk Bogarde. 
Paddy’s own rich and energetic writing was an extension of the life, of a man who seized the world around him and shook it till it rattled. What dropped down in late nights and laughter, liquor and lovers, were the gems and diadems of his life and prose.He had eight languages and friends in all of them, from Cretan shepherds to waitresses, Vlachs to Duchesses, gypsies and kuss-die-hand German aristocrats. Some friends were lovers: horrid old Somerset Maugham, brooding on some perceived slight, defined Paddy as a middle class gigolo to upper class women, a mean twist on Paddy’s cheerfully seductive generosity. ‘Most men are just take, take, take – but with Paddy it’s give, give, give,’ said Ricki Houston.They could be generous in return – above all Joan Rayner, his lover and amanuensis, whom he married in 1968 (‘I don’t believe in long engagements’, he remarked; they’d been on and off since the War). Maurice Cardiff was astonished when Joan dropped money on the table at a Nicosia café, ‘enough if you want to find a girl.’ 
The books came slowly, growing through layers and revisions inspired, perhaps, by a 3000-word magazine commission: Paddy drove editors crazy. In The Traveller’s Tree, P L-F anatomised the islands of the Caribbean; A Time to Keep Silence explored the monastic world, through which he often derived peace and solace; but it was with Mani and Roumeli, in a projected series that would cover the whole of Greece, that his intense and multi-layered fusions of style and passions emerged at their fullest extent.The style – turreted like Guelf fortifications, bristling with knowledge, speculation, humour and keen observation – was the fruit of deep learning, which he wore lightly and absorbed freely, with dazzling leaps of imagination.
Until Joan and he built a house at Kardamyli, on the Mani peninsula, in 1965, his abode was never fixed for long: a succession of places lent or rented as need arose – a castle outside Rome where the rats attacked the butter, a cottage in Devon, a Greek villa, a small hotel, an Irish house, palaces and hovels in Spain, France, but of course especially Greece. For the wandering scholar Kardamyli was the answer. It contained what John Betjeman called ‘one of the rooms in the world,’ filled with books and stoked with friendships and drink, overlooking the sea. Everyone came, of course: Chelsea and Grub Street, toffs and dilettantes, drawn by Paddy’s gift for friendship and surprise; Bruce Chatwin moved in next door. Joan allowed stray cats to wander about ‘as free as air currents’: they ran their claws over the divans and Paddy found the right expression: he called them ‘born down-holsterers.’Not everyone got it: some people resented his bumptiousness and ebullience, and he could have a tin ear for the mood at times, as Cooper tells us.  But Paddy left most people feeling stronger (bar a hangover), their prose enriched, their humour and sense of wonder sharpened; and this marvellous biography, aptly named An Adventure, has the same tonic effect. Paddy’s exuberance could have overwhelmed his biographer, but whether describing a night attack on Crete, a love affair, or the political tensions over Cyprus that poisoned Anglo-Greek relations after the War, Cooper writes with a cool hand and clear head. Her book lives up to the majesty of the man who died at the age of 96.
This review of the biography gives some of the basic facts of his life and the Scotsman also has a good review but the real meat is in this one from the Times Literary Supplementary which is the only one to emphasise that "he learned, very early, that to sing successfully for his supper, not just personal charm, but having a genuine interest in the lives and activities of his hosts, were tremendously helpful”. 

What for me is most striking is how "accidental" his life was - he left Britain, penniless, on a hunch in his late teens; making fortuitous contacts in a society far richer than he could aspire to;  "swanned around" for a few years ( as "we" were allowed to in the early and mid part of the century); took the opportunity offered by the Second World War to extend his networks; and then" swanned around" some more until one of his most committed lovers gave him an annuity......The total antipathy of the career focus which was dinned into most of us in the post-war period...... 

Let the Washington Post have the last word 
When Paddy began his European rambles, he was not quite 19. Up until then he had been an indifferent student, although passionate about reading and gifted with a phenomenal memory. Paddy also possessed, along with good looks, daring and boundless curiosity and a seemingly irresistible charm. He originally expected to doss down in haystacks and barns as he trudged along; in fact, he regularly smiled his way into country houses, consulates and baronial manors — and sometimes into the beds of young women and lonely divorcees. Letters of introduction then eased his way into other homes. As he cheerfully sauntered along, he would belt out each region’s folk songs.At the end of his journey, Paddy met Princess Balasha Cantacuzene, a scion of one of the great dynasties of Moldavia and Wallachia. She was 16 years his senior, but the two fell in love and the young Englishman passed four idyllic years living on her family estate at Baleni in what was then known as Rumania. During these years he read voraciously — history, reference works, Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Gide, Proust, Tolstoy and much else. To his personal magnetism and general sexiness, the magpielike Paddy soon added a mind filled with poetry and out-of-the-way knowledge.When Britain declared war on Germany, the stylish young adventurer immediately left Baleni to enlist. He was, at this point, all of 24. But Paddy already knew much of Europe intimately, had made friends everywhere, and could speak French, German, Romanian and Greek. He was a natural for the Intelligence Corps. 
Lieutenant, later Major Leigh Fermor spent much of the war behind the lines in Crete, helping to coordinate its resistance to the Germans. Periodically, though, he would be pulled out for R&R in Cairo, where he partied all night, slept in the arms of exotic girlfriends and drank champagne with King Farouk. During one particularly orgiastic revel, the young intelligence officer came up with a plan to kidnap the commanding German general in his area of Crete. It would give a boost to the partisans’ morale.
After the war, Paddy — now all of 30 — found work at the British Institute in Athens, where his colleagues included the historian of the Crusades Steven Runciman and the translator and novelist Rex Warner. But, despite all his gifts or because of them, Paddy couldn’t hold a 9-to-5 job. He was too free-spirited, too feckless, in some ways, too spoiled. For years he would rely on, sometimes live on, the generosity of rich and aristocratic friends and lovers. And there were many. When he finally returned to England, Paddy cemented his connections with the aging members of the Brideshead Generation.
The second half of Cooper’s biography is packed with the usual names: critic Cyril Connolly, the famous beauty Diana Cooper (the biographer’s grandmother), the Duchess of Devonshire (nee Deborah Mitford), Ann Fleming (wife of Ian), poet John Betjeman and many others. With Joan Rayner, whom he had first met in Cairo, Paddy would settle into a permanent, if extremely open relationship. By the time the two finally married in 1968, they had already bought property in Kardamyli, Greece, and built their ideal house (marble, open air, lots of books, cats), where they would welcome celebrated friends, former Cretan partisans and numerous admirers of Paddy’s books. Easily distracted and as much a perfectionist as Flaubert, Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor — as he eventually became — always found writing difficult. His descriptions are like tapestries, rich in color and intricate design; his bravura diction often requires a dictionary close at hand; and sometimes his weaker pages are clotted and overwrought.
Yet “A Time of Gifts” marvelously evokes an ancient Mitteleuropa now almost wholly vanished. If you’ve never read it, do; and if you have, you’ll certainly want to follow up with this fine biography of its adventurous and romantic author.

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