Patrick Leigh Fermor

picture: The Guardian

I first read one of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books in the 1980s. I was working shifts at the time and one of the guys on shift brought in Roumeli, having bought it because he’d mistakenly thought it was a travel guide to northern Greece.

It was a slow Sunday with nothing much to do, so I started reading it and I was hooked. I’d read about a third of the book by the time my shift ended and took the book home and finished it within a day. It was one of the most fascinating and erudite books I’d ever read. At the time I knew nothing about Patrick Leigh Fermor at all, I didn’t connect him to the film Ill Met by Moonlight, which I know I must have seen at some point, black and white war films being a staple of British Sunday afternoon TV viewing throughout the 1960s.

I looked for Roumeli‘s companion volume Mani and read that also. It was then that I read his two volumes of autobiography, A Time Of Gifts and Between The Woods And The Water, which were even more of a revelation. He evoked a world that was destroyed during and after World War Two, a world of Habsburg aristocrats, Mitteleuropa as it would have made sense to anyone living between 1648 and 1939 and a place where cultures collided, overlapped and bled into one another. It was a world of dashing hussars, great houses, vampire-haunted villages, Landsknecht columns and steel-clad cuirassiers battling the Janissaries and Sipahis of the Ottoman Sultans, of icon-filled Byzantine churches in remote, tree-filled valleys, the fault line between Catholic central and Orthodox eastern Europe and the crucible of imperial ambitions from the Romans onwards.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books are endlessly romantic, he saw the world with a poetic sensibility, his writing is full of accounts of the grand sweep of history, the vanity of imperial power, the shattering of lost causes and the way that the tide of events has shaped our continent.

His writing isn’t just memorable for the huge canvas though, it is full of small details, human touches, small kindnesses and petty cruelties, the tiny events that combine to create the journal of people’s lives as they live and die within the majestic tapestry of history.

Above all, Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote about people. Events and landscapes, histories and geographies, these are the background to lives, his own as much as anyone else’s.

Not only a romantic and a scholar, I think that he was an optimist, his writing, full of longing and sadness for what we have lost, seems to me to be brimming with the unbounded possibilities that are there for us, so long as we have the curiosity and desire to seek them out.

Patrick Leigh Fermor was 96 when he dies, a great age. he leaves behind a great literary heritage.

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