Daisy Dunn

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Paddy Leigh Fer­mor’s Trav­els in Greece

On ar­riv­ing in Sikaráyia, a lit­tle-known vil­lage in Thrace, Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor saw dozens of huts, ‘gi­ant bee­hives swelling and ta­per­ing in tiers of cropped reed which over­lapped with the pre­ci­sion of the plat­ing on a seven-banded ar­madillo’. As a de­scrip­tion it could not be bet­tered. Bees, ar­madil­los. Who would have guessed that the peer­less travel writer had landed among sheep-farm­ers? The Sarakat­sáns, a re­mote, moun­tain-lov­ing peo­ple who called these huts home, had been busy pre­par­ing for a wed­ding when Leigh Fer­mor came. He was to be their guest.

Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor (1915-2011), Paddy to all who knew him, had an en­vi­ably keen eye for de­tail. Noth­ing es­caped him, from the red vel­vet of the groom’s waist­coat and silk of his sash, the struc­ture of his fus­tanella and colour of his tights, to the some­what sober black and white pat­terned skirt and tu­nic of his bride. The cel­e­bra­tions he de­scribes in the open­ing pages of Roumeli: Trav­els in North­ern Greece, first pub­lished in 1966, are every bit as thrilling as the ar­madillo huts. Guests sing and dance and sit cross-legged on the ground to feast on spit-roasted lamb (what else?) and hefty chunks of bread. No salad here. It is, he says, as we imag­ine the squab­bles break­ing out over lamb-brain and ‘highly prized’ eyes, ‘in a way, a Stone Age ban­quet’.

I have al­ways loved Leigh Fer­mor for be­ing braver than me. Even when he wasn’t en­tirely com­fort­able in the com­pany in which he found him­self he re­mem­bered to ask the right ques­tions. Re­cently re­vis­it­ing Roumeli and Mani (his 1958 ac­count of trav­els in the South­ern Pelo­pon­nese), I was struck anew by the depth of his en­quiries. He never sim­ply vis­ited a place. He tore it back to its bones (to its eye­balls, brains...). Would it ever have oc­curred to me to ask the guests at the Sarakat­sán wed­ding how many words they had for sheep? Could I have re­mem­bered any of the vo­cab­u­lary

they taught me for ‘tup­ping, lamb­ing, wean­ing, shear­ing, card­ing, spin­ning, milk­ing, seething, scald­ing, strain­ing, bas­ket-weav­ing, path-find­ing, tent­pitch­ing, camp-strik­ing, trough-scoop­ing and weather-di­vin­ing’, if I tried?

Leigh Fer­mor had seen a lot by the time he pitched up in the cu­ri­ous sheep vil­lage. He served with both the Ir­ish Guards and SOE dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, and for his suc­cess­ful, much-re­counted SOE mis­sion to kid­nap Gen­eral Hein­rich Kreipe in Ger­man-oc­cu­pied Crete in 1944, he earned an OBE and DSO. It topped many a tale of der­ring-do. In Roumeli, he takes us back there, to the is­land he called ‘an epit­ome of Greece’, for all its many idio­syn­cra­sies.

The three years he spent in Crete, con­cealed within the ranges be­tween the White Moun­tains and Cre­tan Ida, were event­ful. He re­calls, al­most wist­fully, how he avoided en­dan­ger­ing the lo­cal peo­ple by stay­ing not in vil­lages but in ‘goat-folds and aban­doned con­i­cal cheese-mak­ers’ huts’ and dank cav­erns. Some of the cav­erns were so deep, he said, that you could well imag­ine a Cy­clops and his sheep were in­side. Homer is rarely far away.

The spirit of the an­cient bard and the oral cul­ture that pre­served his epics were thriv­ing when Paddy ar­rived in these wild moun­tains. As a clas­si­cist I nat­u­rally savour glimpses of an­cient cul­ture em­bed­ded in mod­ern Greece. Many of the Cre­tans Leigh Fer­mor met were il­lit­er­ate but had ex­tra­or­di­nary mem­o­ries which en­abled them not only to keep calm in the face of ad­ver­sity - they had sur­vived worse - but to put thou­sands of lines of po­etry to heart. He lis­tened as old men, dressed in knee-high boots, baggy trousers, black shirts and silk-fringed tur­bans, re­cited - or rather, in­toned - line after line of verse from heart. The poem they all knew was the Erotókri­tos, an early sev­en­teenth-cen­tury saga of love and witches and mys­te­ri­ous forests, com­pa­ra­ble to Ariosto’s Or­lando Fu­rioso. It is of a sim­i­lar length to Homer’s Odyssey. And yet, there were men who could in­tone it all. The pos­si­bil­ity of an­cient Greeks mem­o­ris­ing and per­pet­u­at­ing Homer down the ages no longer seems so re­mote.

In Mani, the po­etry is darker. Here Leigh Fer­mor lis­tens to fu­neral dirges known as miroloyia (words of des­tiny) sung at the grave­side. It all feels very an­cient. The con­ti­nu­ities of an­cient Greece, as he says, are of­ten most vis­i­ble in su­per­sti­tions and re­li­gious cus­toms. An­tiq­uity haunts the land­scapes of the South­ern Pelo­pon­nese, a re­gion Leigh Fer­mor likens to a ‘mis­shapen tooth fresh torn from its gum’ with its ‘three penin­su­las jut­ting south­ward in jagged and car­i­ous roots’.

Leigh Fer­mor even­tu­ally set­tled in Mani, at Kar­damyli, with his pho­tog­ra­pher wife Joan (née Eyres Mon­sell), whom he mar­ried in 1968. While she never quite emerges from the texts of Roumeli or Mani, Joan is ever-present as the hands be­hind the ex­quis­ite pic­tures which il­lus­trate them. She cap­tures, among much else, the Sarakat­sán bride in her black and white fin­ery and the monas­ter­ies which cling to the moun­tains on the north­ern coasts of Greece.

Six years after his death, it is ex­tra­or­di­nary to think that Leigh Fer­mor’s Greece books have never been out of print. Just this year, The Fo­lio So­ci­ety reis­sued Roumeli and Mani - com­plete with Joan’s pho­to­graphs - as a hand­some dou­ble-edi­tion. Young trav­ellers con­tinue to traipse around Greece with crum­pled old re­prints in their pock­ets. Have the books not aged? Stylis­ti­cally, they are ev­ery­thing that mod­ern travel writ­ing is not. Clauses mount upon clauses, ad­jec­tives upon ad­jec­tives. There is noth­ing spare about their prose. If the Greece books were be­ing re­viewed for the first time to­day, I dare say they would be de­scribed as ‘over­wrought’ and un­duly ver­bose. But per­haps it is the fact that they break the nar­row rules of what con­sti­tutes good writ­ing in con­tem­po­rary crit­i­cism that makes them so ap­peal­ing. Hem­ing­way it is not, but the travel writ­ing of Paddy Leigh Fer­mor is as richly wo­ven, tex­tured, and dy­namic as the Greece it de­scribes.

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