Article by Paul Dettman
Patrick Leigh Fermor, known widely as Paddy, was friends with the Mitford sisters, Ian Fleming, and numerous high ranking celebrities. Many of those names have not made it through to our generation, but I believe Paddy’s crowning achievement is that he was immortalised on the silver screen by none other than Dirk Bogarde. The only surprise is that it was not one of Fermor’s books that became the blockbuster 1957 movie Ill Met By Moonlight, but an account of their work for SOE on Crete by his friend Billy Moss. However, the escapade is classic Fermor.
Without official orders, Paddy and Billy found themselves on Crete, supporting the resistance against German occupation and somewhat at a loose end. Paddy’s perpetually fertile imagination led him to suggest the moonlit kidnap of not only a German soldier but a German general.
The rest is history. To everyone else, Patrick Leigh Fermor is ‘only’ a travel writer. But even in that disguise, he was a travel writer unlike any other. To slightly younger minds, Bruce Chatwin is a useful comparator, but Bruce didn’t take part in the war. In this short article, we take a closer look at the man behind so many legends, who died in 2011 with both the DSO and OBE, and a knighthood of course, in 2004 for services to literature and UK-Greek relations.
Ill Met By Moonlight
Almost every male, and very many females, of adult age in 1939 would become involved in the second world war. The only question was, how so? Younger chaps were the least lucky, and they would end up in cockpits over Dresden or jeeps in Burma. The conditions were rarely comparable to the Somme, but life was tough. Those who had the right sort of skill, or the right sort of background, could expect a slightly easier time.
The George Orwells and Graham Greenes of England could count on somewhat easy roles in writing reams of propaganda for the BBC or other semi-official outlets. Leaflets and posters for the war ministry, that kind of thing. Some were offered work as journalists, and asked to keep an eye out for anything that could help British intelligence in any number of exotic foreign locations across America, Europe and the Far East.
Patrick Leigh Fermor, regarded today as a fine writer, was to my mind a man of action. He was a traveller first and a writer second. The writing was simply the work that paid for the trip. He found himself in the Special Operations Executive, SOE. This was the unofficial service that was even more secret than MI6. Created by Churchill and associated with the great man’s approach and personality in books such as Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Fermor’s war was a secret one.
This was a background he shared with Graham Greene, who worked overseas for MI6, and Ian Fleming over in naval intelligence. But Paddy was the one who actually worked for SOE, the most secret of all secret agencies. So secret that its records were sealed, some were destroyed, and to this day there has never been an official, chronological history of all of their activities. If only Paddy had been a novelist, just think how famous he might have become. It could just as easily have been his secret agent that top actors now fall over themselves to play on screen. Tellingly, Paddy’s own account of his SOE antics was not published in his lifetime.
The Fleming Connection
Just as I have built up Patrick Leigh Fermor to be the best contender for James Bond out of all of his contemporaries, it turns out that he was friends with Ian Fleming. However, I argue that he was really friends with Ann Fleming, and Ian was just her sidekick. This becomes easier to understand when you realise that James Bond was in his infancy, still forming in the mind of his creator, when Fermor hung out at Goldeneye.
While in Jamaica Paddy, Joan and Costa spent a day at Goldeneye and Ann was making her first visit to Goldeneye chaperoned by Loelia, Duchess of Westminster. Loelia was swimming languidly when they arrived, while according to Ann, Ian had not yet emerged from the study where he spent his mornings on the typewriter ‘bashing away at a thriller.’ This was his very first Bond book, Casino Royale. When he emerged from his study Paddy described Fleming as having ‘a strong sneering face, but not a sneering character.’
It was Ann who drew the men, not Ian. Easier to believe when you realise that she was already married to Lord Rothermere when Ian caught her eye, and they finally married years later. Married three times, and famous for affairs with Labour politicians Hugh Gaitskill and Roy Jenkins, the Lady Ann strikes me as a very good template for John le Carré’s Lady Ann Smiley. But perhaps that is just my own predisposition to mention Le Carré in every spy article.
Whatever the web underneath their friendship, Ann and Paddy maintained a long correspondence. Paddy’s letters are at least as good as his travel writing, and several collections have been published. The most famous, In Tearing Haste, records both sides of the correspondence he held with Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire, until his death. But his side of the conversation is recorded in a more recent collection which reveals his correspondents to have included Deborah’s sister Nancy, herself a famous novelist, Lady Diana Cooper, and Ann of course . It was only researching this article that led me to realise the editor of these letters is none other than Adam Sisman, biographer of… John le Carré!
Paddy’s most famous and most enduring connection with the Flemings comes to us through his book about his travels around the Caribbean. Long forgotten, The Traveller’s Tree is a genuine classic. It recorded the reality of life on those famous islands as it was before 1950, when the book came out. A few years later, the book that really made Fleming into a household name, Live and Let Die, came out.
In Live and Let Die, the book is recommended to Bond by M, who says:
‘It’s by a chap who knows what he’s talking about,’ he said, ‘and don’t forget that he was writing about what was happening in Haiti in 1950. This isn’t medieval black-magic stuff. It’s being practised every day.’
Not only was Fleming inspired by Paddy’s evocative descriptions of Voodoo rituals, he simply copied paragraphs of Traveller’s Tree into his own novel. Yes, he credited the book, and early footnotes mentioned not only his source but also the publisher and cover price of Paddy’s work. It was much closer to an advert for Paddy than mere plagiarism. But to the modern eye, one that is a little more cynical and worldly than a 1954 reader of Live and Let Die might have been, the verbatim copy-paste of reams of Fermor’s book is jarring.
Couldn’t Fleming, with all his genius, have conveyed the power of Voodoo through the medium of drama, through the novel and its characters, without simply pasting in pages of his friend’s words? Yes, but the product of the novel, and the novelist, have both moved on since 1954. Fleming’s novels were written in haste. They were pulp fiction in the nicest possible sense. Nobody expected them to become the most famous spy novels of all. Nobody expected students to earn PhDs from studying their every comma. I choose, as Paddy would have done, to interpret the insertions from Traveller’s Tree to be the highest form of compliment. I admit, says our most revered spy writer, that Paddy just has it. I cannot do better, so why try?
And so, from immortality at Goldeneye and Live and Let Die, Paddy drifts a little and becomes a more distant target on the literary horizon. He returns to his primary role as traveller and letter writer. He writes up his most famous journey, the one he took on foot as a teenager from London to the edge of the earth at Constantinople. It took two years and has only recently been completed by a third book, The Broken Road, edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper from Paddy’s extensive journals and early drafts.
Later Life and Greece
Paddy spent many of his later years renovating a house on the Mani peninsula, just about attached to mainland Greece, well-known to Paddy connoisseurs as Kardamyli. His Mani years are so highly regarded that the Folio Society has put together a fabulous two-volume set. A long stone’s throw from his heroics on Crete, there was something about the climate and vibe in Greece that suited him. Never totally at ease in London, he seemed happier in the rural parts of Devon and Derbyshire whenever he was forced back to England to write, or to save up some cash and favours while he gathered resources for his next journey.
It wasn’t Fermor’s pathological need to be on the move that seals his legend, but the sheer style in which he did it. Although he did rely on the funds and support of high-flying friends throughout his life, he never turned up on a doorstep without a good quality Calvados to share. Yes, he sponged, if the English upper classes would recognise the word, but he did it with such panache that nobody ever minded. Inviting Paddy Fermor over for a long weekend would guarantee the host years of anecdotes and a lifetime of memories that providing a bed and a few dinners seemed a good trade.
The likes of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the original English playboy and eccentric, are rare indeed. He is missed around the world, by varied and seemingly incompatible groups. He was honoured not only in Britain but in France and Greece. Quite a life.
- In Tearing Haste, ed. Artemis Cooper (Letters to and from Deborah Devonshire)
- Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, Artemis Cooper (Biography)
- Dashing for the Post, ed. Adam Sisman (Letters)
- The Traveller’s Tree (as featured in Live and Let Die)
- The Violins of Saint-Jacques
- A Time to Keep Silence
- Mani & Roumeli, The Folio Society http://www.foliosociety.com/book/PLF/mani-roumeli
- His teenage walk across Europe: A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, The Broken Road
- Words of Mercury
- Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation and SOE in Crete
Paul Dettman runs excellent espionage walking tours in London at Spies of London.
The Traveller’s Tree (Fleming’s Bond)