The writer Peter Levi once asked a Cretan veteran what he thought of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Having fought beside Fermor in the Second World War, the Cretan replied, in all seriousness: “What I liked about Paddy was that he was such a good and moral man. He could throw his pistol forty feet into the air and catch it by the handle.”
There were plenty of accounts just like this one that betrayed not only who Fermor was, but the sort of company he preferred to keep. The author of Mani, Roumeli, and A Time of Gifts, is a giant among travel writers, a father figure to Bruce Chatwin, with whom he shared an interest in tribes, and an idol to Lawrence Durrell, a man who also had the ability to articulate geography and anthropology through the lyre of poetry and myth. But Fermor was happiest among the rogues. Over a lifetime on the road, he sought them, and in turn they responded to his charm, nose for adventure, and his famous wit. He was a keenly-anticipated dinner guest—once outshining Richard Burton at a London soirée, who he cut-off midway through a recital of Hamlet. As Burton stormed out, the pleading hostess said, “But Paddy’s a war hero!” to which Burton replied, “I don’t give a damn who he is.”
Paddy wouldn’t have given a damn either. He hadn’t starred in films, but he sure inspired characters in them. So notorious were his heroics in Crete, capturing German General Kreipe at a crucial turning point of the war, his brother-in-arms Stanley Moss would write up the account in his bestselling Ill Met by Moonlight, with a 1959 adaptation starring Dirk Bogarde as the dangerous Major Patrick Leigh Fermor. His character was the only one to keep the original name. It all contributed to an image that Paddy welcomed, and as his contemporaries (not least his Cretan friend) could attest to, was entirely true. The BBC once called Fermor ‘a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Graham Greene.’
It was an image he made great sacrifices to cultivate. Paddy was born to Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, a renowned geologist. His stars pointed to an affluent, scholarly life similar to his father’s, but instead, at eighteen, he departed England to reach Constantinople (now Istanbul) on foot—a journey that would be recounted in A Time for Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. All he had on him was a few clothes, some letters of introduction, Horace’s Odes, and the Oxford Book of English Verse. On his way, Paddy would forgo his aristocratic connections to rest in monasteries, learn how to duel in a Bavarian tavern, and become a soldier-for-hire in a Greek Royalist campaign. He only returned home when Britain declared war on Germany, and when the promise of new adventure and glory seemed irresistible.
But for all the soldiers, society types, and villagers, there was one person with whom Paddy kept closest. His wife Joan Fermor (née Monsell) was not only a lover but a companion on his journeys across Greece—constantly referenced in both Mani and Roumeli as “we”. She was the love of his life. And as a talented—and sadly overlooked—photographer, her sepia-washed images of Paddy, their home in Kardamili, and their travels across the peninsula immortalise and pay tribute to the different peoples of Greece: the cosmopolitan Athenians, the short and eagle-eyed Maniots, and the Balkan Thracians. Landscapes that are now overrun with tourists seem desolate and untouched. Ghosts of the past frolic on yachts and sandy beaches. In her many images of him, Paddy appears heroic; a bronzed god set against the Aegean—photographed by someone with a curious and loving eye. One of the great cultural injustices is that five-thousand of her ‘snaps’ (as she laxly called them) were rediscovered in recent years tucked away in shoeboxes and discarded folders.
Paddy saw in Joan his kindred spirit. Like him, she spent much of her youth travelling to where she pleased; largely in France, where the photographer Cyril Connolly became besotted by her. In 1946, she met Leigh Fermor in Athens, while he was deputy director of the British Institute. The pair would travel to the Caribbean together under the invitation of Greek photographer Costas, falling madly in love. She was the only woman that—after decades of sexual scandals, not least a married Hungarian princess—matched his own erratic behaviour. Stories of how they dined fully-clothed in the Mediterranean, dragging a table into the sea, as well as their myriad cats and olive groves, paint a restless couple, who, when not out articulating the peoples of their adopted homeland, kept themselves very busy.
They were a Power Couple in the modern sense. When Paddy bought their house in Kardamili—now a boutique hotel—they would find all worldly society on their doorstep. Painters and artists arrived to hear war stories, before packing off home with a bottle of their absinthe-green olive oil. Paddy also had a famous habit of bursting into Greek folk song, even among strangers. Lawrence Durrell recalls one such instance when the pair met in Cyprus, and the Cretans knew him as ‘Philadem’ after a local folk tune of the same name that he would sing while gearing up for battle. The lyrics, coincidentally or not, could have had significance to Paddy, mirroring the married Hungarian princess he had fallen for a couple of years earlier:
To deny her husband,
And love me instead.
To leave her husband,
And love me instead.
For the intellectuals of their time, visiting Paddy and Joan at Kardamili was a pilgrimage worth undertaking. And he was always fast to explain to his visitors that she was his ‘greatest collaborator’. Fiercely independent (a trait that must have enamoured Paddy) they were best imagined as two pillars of a Greek temple, beside one-another but capable of holding up the roof of the world that they had built for themselves through the lens of ancient history and Hellenic culture. Indeed, it was said that they had a special ‘pact of liberty’. It is this unconquerable aura that led poet laureate John Betjeman to declare his love for her (he called her ‘Dotty’ and remarked that her eyes were as large as tennis balls). For Cyril Connolly, the photographer she shadowed, and with whom she had a scandalised affair during her first marriage, she was a “lovely boy-girl” and Laurence Durrell named her the ‘Corn Goddess’ because of her slender figure and short hair. But of all of these worthy candidates, it was the warrior-poet Patrick Leigh Fermor who finally won her heart.
To Joan, who described herself as a ‘lifelong loner’ in her diaries, her companionship with the uncomplicated Paddy was a relief. They had no children, nor did they want any—their dozens of cats gave them the slightest paternal satisfaction. Her morbid fascination with photographing cemeteries painted a much darker side.
She passed away at the age of ninety-one, after suffering a fall in the Mani. Her body was repatriated to Dumbleton, the place of her birth—ironic that her dream was to be as far as she could possibly go from the rolling humdrum Worcestershire hills. But perhaps she intended to return all along. When Paddy died in 2011, he was buried beside her; so that the ‘pact of liberty’ the two lonely souls had forged themselves could be tested in the great elsewhere. Joan was more than his muse (as many of her obituaries were at pains to declare) but his greatest adventure. Poignantly, General Kreipe, the German commander Fermor had captured—once an enemy, and later a friend—left behind notes and photographs from across his life. On one of those notes, it was discovered, the following was scribbled from a brief visit to Greece: “Somewhere, amidst all the disarray, was the story of Joan and Paddy, and” it concluded, “…of their lives together.”