The handsome and adventurous Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died in June 2011, was a distinguished travel writer and leading authority on modern Greece. He had lived there before World War II and returned as a British officer in Special Operations. After the British were driven out of Greece he remained behind to fight alongside the guerrillas during the German occupation. On Crete in 1944 he put on a Nazi uniform, set up a roadblock and boldly captured the German commander. The general turned out to be a cultured captive, well versed in the Classics, and they had many lively talks before the prisoner was sent to a camp in Canada. Twenty years after the war they appeared congenially together in a Greek television programme. Paddy’s heroic exploit, still famous all over Greece, inspired a novel, Ill Met by Moonlight, and a film of that name with Dirk Bogarde.
I corresponded with Paddy while writing a biography of Errol Flynn. The two men were kindred spirits. During his early years in New Guinea Flynn had been a gold prospector, slave recruiter, bird trapper, plantation manager, copra trader, boat captain, pearl diver and diamond smuggler. Paddy had written the screenplay of one of Flynn’s best movies, The Roots of Heaven (1958), and been on the scene during the disastrous filming in French Equatorial Africa. Flynn, Trevor Howard and Paddy were all drinking heavily, and there was some conflict when Paddy fell in love with the French singer, Juliette Gréco, the co-star and mistress of his boss and producer Darryl Zanuck. In a vivid letter of 5 May 2000, Paddy described the horrendous conditions – heat, disease, swarming insects and dangerous animals – while making the movie in the tropics. He got on well with the flamboyant Flynn, enjoyed his conversation and gave a perceptive account of his character:
Errol seemed distinctly more intelligent than the run of actors. Full of original tangents, a great narrative gift, and a great sense of humour. He often referred to his learnedfather, a marine biologist at Belfast University. We talked about nearly everything, often until very late. He loved reminiscing, largely about Hollywood. I asked him what the leading and most beautiful stars of the day were like. ‘Well, pretty good,’ he said. ‘They’ve all got my scalp, I’m afraid.’ There were lots of memories of his early days there, and his adventures. He was very funny about a yacht he shared with David Niven, and the girls they would take on trips. ‘We looked on them to supply the food. One pretty girl came on board with nothing but a loaf and a contraceptive device.’ He took his acting seriously, and was absolutely adequate in his not very exacting role. He was on very good terms with all the other actors. His physical condition wasn’t too bad, troubled by hangovers now and then. Darryl was worried that he might have been on some drug, though I didn’t see the evidence of it.
When writing the life of Somerset Maugham a few years later, I got in touch again. Paddy was an Old Boy of Maugham’s alma mater, King’s School in Canterbury, and as a student had first read Of Human Bondage. He was also a close friend of Maugham’s friend and confidante, Ann, the wife of Ian Fleming. After the war he visited Maugham’s luxurious Villa Mauresque on Cap Ferrat. Since Paddy lived in Kardamyli in the Peloponnese and my daughter was a Foreign Service officer in Athens, it seemed a good time to see him. In May 2002 we rented a flat for three weeks, overlooking the sea and a few kilometres from his village.
I rang him up from a local shop and he immediately invited me to come round for an interview. Since his house was hidden away and hard to find, he walked up to the main road and hailed me as I approached. Tall and straight, white-haired and sun-tanned, he was – at eighty-seven – still a virile and impressive figure. He had designed his low, rambling, whitewashed and red-tiled house himself. It had a shaded patio facing the Mediterranean, a flourishing garden, and a huge library filled with books in ancient and modern languages. He had created the setting he wanted and the life he wished to lead; he travelled widely and wrote well, charmed everyone and seemed content.
Paddy wanted to correct Ann Fleming’s version of his embarrassing visit, which she had exaggerated – with shattered drinking glasses and blood on the floor – to amuse Evelyn Waugh. Maugham had asked Ann to bring Paddy with her for dinner and then (always generous to good- looking younger authors) had invited him to stay on as his guest and write at the Villa. Unnerved by Maugham’s severe expression and icy manner, Paddy drank far too much. Falling victim to the perverse tendency to talk about the very thing he was strictly forbidden to mention – Maugham’s debilitating stammer – Paddy quoted the absurd belief that everyone in the College of Heralds had a stammer. That was bad enough. But, noting that the day was the Feast of the Assumption, he mentioned Correggio’s painting on that subject in the Louvre and repeated a stammering friend’s bon mot: ‘that is a m-most un-un-w-warrantable as-assumption.’ Deeply offended, Maugham became even icier. Getting up from the table and taking his leave, he rescinded his invitation by saying: ‘G-G-Goodbye. Y-Y-You will have left b-b-before I am up in the m-m-morning.’ The wretched Paddy, who had no intention of wounding his host, managed to make matters even worse. Instead of waiting for the butler to pack his bag he hastily threw his things together and caught a monogrammed sheet, trimmed with Belgian lace, in the zipper of his suitcase. He frantically tore it off, rushed down the stairs and escaped from the Villa with the shreds hanging out of his bag.
After our interview Paddy signed some travel books I had brought along and, specially buying another one at the village gift shop, inscribed his book, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, surrounding his words with a cloud and a sketch of birds flying around the title page. When Paddy mentioned bees and my daughter used the unusual word for ‘buzz’, which he had not heard for many years, he praised her fluency in Greek. After drinks in his house he invited all of us to dinner at a simple, traditional restaurant set on a promontory overlooking the sea, which he had bought for his former and now ancient cook. I noticed that the cook’s son Giorgos – who had been to America, greeted us warmly in excellent English and recommended the best dishes – was tall, fair and very un-Greek looking.
Paddy, who did not see very well at night, asked me to drive him home in his battered old Peugeot, which had stiff gears and weak brakes. As we went down a steep hill, I had to swerve around a bend that was perilously close to the harbour’s edge and had no barrier between the road and the deep blue sea. Paddy was jovial and unconcerned about the potential disaster. As we descended the dirt road to his remote house, I was astonished to find myself in a traffic jam. I could not enter the driveway that was blocked by his maid leaving in her car. My daughter’s car, following close behind me, prevented me from reversing. And an impatient young Greek, trying to drive past us to dally with his girlfriend on the dark beach, blew his horn at us and was cursed in several languages.
My instinctive feeling that Giorgos was Paddy’s son was confirmed when my daughter returned to Athens and impressed her Greek friends by mentioning that she had dined with a national hero. Paddy reminded me of what a Bedouin chief had said about another famous warrior, T. E. Lawrence: ‘Tell them in England what I say. Of manhood, the man, in freedom free; a mind with no equal; I can see no flaw in him.’