It’s fashionable for humans to think themselves as adventurous, charming, erudite, courageous and gritty. Most of us have some of these qualities in varying degrees and even showcase it from time to time. I myself, at the mercy of caprice, flip my neural architecture every now and then and go out on a limb to do an action or make a decision that is profoundly uncomfortable to my central nervous system. Some of these include activities as silly as my very first venture into a strip club by myself (yes, yes, the silliness of my jitters only magnified after the pleasantness of the encounter) to activities as stupid as to spend ginormous amounts on an education in another continent that probably wouldn’t repay itself anytime in the near-distant future. There you go – the grand total of my risk-taking adventures thus far amounts to no more than a trouser button. The recurring line to exorcise any doubts or misgivings that occur in my head is one by Joseph Conrad: “Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it.” But at all times and ages, we do get an handful of men and women who not only codify the qualities that I had pointed out, but also succeed in transposing and transforming them. By doing so, not only do they grow in stature, but they make others who read about them grow as well. Patrick Leigh Fermor (or “Paddy”) was one of them, who, after innumerable adventures on foot, in his mind as a writer and historian, and in the battlefield as a patron of espionage and sabotage in Nazi occupied Crete, managed to stay pickled till he was 96.
I like to think of Paddy even at his advanced age as always a young chap who forgot all about aging and growing up, and was always in a sense or another, a blighter (a definite compliment in this instance.) After reading some of his works over the past two years and his biography by Artemis Cooper, something about his insouciance and Joie de vivre resonated at such a deep level with some of my inner organs that hardly does a week go by without my brain bringing the thought of him to me if I ever consciously forget to do so (which isn’t un-rare.) With such a capricious state of affairs, I’ve finally decided to unravel my mind and innumerate the qualities of this specimen that exudes a timeless simulacrum of the life-giving flash and dazzle of the blue-green mediterranean air.
So, here are a few reasons as to why you should immediately explore this man’s life and works:
He walked all the way from the tip of Holland to Constantinople
…And he wrote about it splendidly as well in two installments that are just beyond pleasure to read. These being A Time of Gifts and its corresponding sequel, Between the Woods and the Water. Young men going for a stroll today? Never heard of such a thing! Mind you, this was at a time of the austere 1930s with dire shortages being the rule of the day. But Paddy found no such shortages as the richness and variety in the remnants of ‘mitteleuropa’ were rewards beyond money: the last phase of a world that only exists in traces today. I don’t remember the exact source, but Paddy had once said that the inspiration for such an endeavor came from emulating Lord Byron as a sort of wandering poet and scholar and George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London – not bad influences to overcome one’s own cosy and comfortable can’t. Although courage may not be a virtue per se, it is the quality that makes the practice of all other virtues possible.
(An interesting titbit: in emulation of Lord Byron, Paddy too had once swam the Hellespont, from Sestos to Abydos.)
Although the achievement stands on its own, it wasn’t the only sojourn that he undertook
Travel writing is an art, as well a test of grit and endurance. Although I’d travel by modern conveniences almost all the time, it takes a completely different persona to have the mix of cosmopolitanism and ruralism that Paddy embodied. Thus I found it impossible to not explore his other meanderings as well, about which he wrote with as much imagination and acute powers of observation without losing a sense of history. In A Time to Keep the Silence, Paddy confronts his own bias of the city-dwelling, noisy and busy life by investigating why it is that men of all ages have continued to lead such a quiet and solitary life, which from an immediate outside perspective, seems like a graveyard of the mind with eternal boredom. His description of the European monasteries and even Turkish desert dwelling communities are as vivid and memorable as ever. He takes us along in the ride: the poetic descriptions, the painterly manner of portrayal, the verbal dexterity – it’s all there! Lover of life, larger than reality, and loquacious outbursts in a lean volume, this short account of the solitary lives of monks is a surety to humble one’s Dionysian excesses.
The other is a slightly more difficult read involving his explorations in the southern portions of the peloponnesian peninsula. Mani is the title by which it goes, and the account inspires nothing less than a need to explore the land and experience the culture by ourselves. But if it has to be delivered second hand, this courageous and majestic account takes the brandy and the cakes. At times, his over exuberant mind is brimming with details and makes it difficult for the reader to comprehend all the cultural and historical references, but that’s part of the allure as well. It doesn’t really matter if one doesn’t fully understand it: the words and descriptive details alone will feel like music to your ears.
Virtue in times of peace, but virtue in War as well
The famous Churchillian saying of “setting Europe on fire” also had coincided with the creation of the Special Operations Executive – or the SOE. This liaison and sabotage agency featured men as distinguished as Nick Hammond, who traversed on foot with rifle on back through the peaks of Epirus and West Macedonia. Or Bernard Knox, who had fought in the Spanish civil war and later led demolition expeditions in France and Italy. (They both went on to be distinguished scholars as well – Hammond helping to excavate the tomb of the father of Alexander the Great from his study of the terrain, and Knox carrying on to find the centre for Hellenistic study at Harvard.) Paddy belongs to this group of Warriors, Scholars and Wanders – men of letters and men of action.
Thus in German occupied Crete, Paddy along with Stanley Moss led an expedition and successfully captured German general Kreipe, abducting him from his headquarters in Create and safely bringing him back to British occupied Alexandria. The incident has ever since superbly been enacted on the screen (starring Dirk Bogarde) and titled Night Ambush (adapted from Stanley Moss’s account, Ill Met by Moonlight.) A scholarly warrior with a temperament for all ages, Paddy continues to be an unending source of inspiration in my life.
My mind reminded me of an anonymous drinking poem which I’ll use as my concluding remarks.
Liquor and Longevity by Anonymous
The horse and mule live thirty years
And nothing know of wines and beers.
The goat and sheep at twenty die
And never taste of Scotch or Rye.
The cow drinks water by the ton
And at eighteen is mostly done.
The dog at fifteen cashes in
Without the aid of rum and gin.
The cat in milk and water soaks
And then in twelve short years it croaks.
The modest, sober, bone-dry hen
Lays eggs for nogs, then dies at ten.
All animals are strictly dry:
They sinless live and swiftly die;
But sinful, ginful rum-soaked men
Survive for three score years and ten.
And some of them, a very few,
Stay pickled till they’re ninety-two.
Amongst other things, Paddy was also known for his legendary constitution for booze and cigarettes, finishing up two pre-lunch brandies with wine with the main course and post-food whiskey for good measures. Well, it certainly kept him pickled till he was ninety-six by beating all the healthbag bores and living a life which, one could say, was largely self-determined.