Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mythmaker

Artemis Cooper reflects on Patrick Leigh Fermor’s flexible approach to historical fact.

Patrick Leigh Fermor towards the end of the Second World War. Trustees National Library of Scotland
Patrick Leigh Fermor towards the end of the Second World War. Trustees National Library of Scotland

Patrick Leigh Fermor could not look at a landscape without wondering who had been there before him and how they had shaped what he saw. This was the springboard for all his travel books. Yet alongside this curiosity about the past ran a more imaginative impulse. Some writers might have tried to curb it, especially when tackling historical passages. Not Paddy, who had great faith in what he called ‘letting it rip,’ which added such zest to his prose. Yet when he came to write about his own history, as an undercover agent in occupied Crete between 1942 and 1945, scruples seemed to stifle even his irrepressible style.

While he cared passionately about getting facts and details right, he rarely set foot in an archive. Most of his ‘mugging up’ came out of encyclopedias, books and conversations. He found the legends surrounding a person or an event every bit as interesting as the truth. Even an old chestnut, like the story of Richard I’s minstrel Blondel singing outside every fortress in the hope of hearing his master’s voice, was worth retelling. ‘[The story] is almost too good to be true’, wrote Paddy in A Time of Gifts (1977), ‘but on the spot, it is impossible to doubt it.’

He pursues the story in a long footnote. Richard was handed over to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI by his captor, Leopold of Austria, in 1193. In his place Leopold took a hostage, one Hugh de Morville – possibly the same de Morville who, with three other knights, had murdered Thomas Becket in Canterbury two decades before. ‘Some authorities think the two Morvilles are the same,’ wrote Paddy. ‘I do hope they are right.’

While prepared to concede that they might be wrong, the appearance of a historical figure in an unexpected place produced a charge in Paddy that set his imagination racing. Take the headstone of ‘Ferdinando Palaeologus, descended from ye Imperial lyne of ye last Christian Emperor of Greece’, which Paddy found in a graveyard in Barbados. He traces a direct line from Ferdinando back to the Emperor Constantine, who fell defending the walls of Constantinople in 1453. For the genealogy to hold, all depended on whether or not Constantine’s son Thomas had a son called John. Paddy admits that this figure is ‘shadowy’. Even if he had been told that his thesis was false, as has now been proved, I doubt whether it would have stopped him telling the story.

As well as anecdotal history, he could conjure up a great sweep of time. In A Time of Gifts a character called the Polymath describes the barbarian invasions of the fifth century and the sack of Rome. Paddy did not expect anyone to take it seriously, yet it is still a tour de force which sends the reader skimming over continents, to watch events unfold at exhilarating speed.

Friends urged him to write about his experiences in occupied Crete, especially the abduction of General Kreipe in April-May 1944, one of the most celebrated exploits of the war. He was reluctant because anything by Patrick Leigh Fermor about Crete would be translated and published on the island and, since this was bound to offend or displease someone, he preferred to remain silent. Then, in 1966, he was commissioned to write a 2,000-word article on kidnapping Kreipe, which grew into a typescript of 84,000 words called Abducting a General.  Until then the story had only been told in Ill Met By Moonlight, the 1950 bestseller by William Stanley Moss. 

Paddy’s account tells how, still wearing the German uniform in which he kidnapped the general, he enters the village of Aoyeia. As he walked up the main street, doors and windows slammed shut while the men in the café turned their backs on him. The cry went up: ‘Our in-laws are here! The black crows are in the wheat!’ When he approached the priest’s wife she was terrified. ‘It’s me, Pappadia,’ he whispered, ‘It’s me, Mihali!’ (he was always Mihali in Greece). ‘Mihali? I don’t know any Mihali!’ she cried. It took her a moment longer to recognise him, by the gap between his front teeth. 

History must be objective, but Paddy found it impossible to be objective about the Cretans. He could never forget how they had guided, fed and protected him during the German occupation, at such risk to themselves. The pages he devotes to their courage and endurance, their love of song and poetry, may make one smile; but we can only respect his devotion to the the people whose hardships he shared and whom he counted among his closest friends.

Artemis Cooper is author of Patrick Leigh Femor: An Adventure (John Murray, 2012)

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