A delightful and moving account of one of the finest travel writers of the 20th century, the author of The Broken Road and A Time of Gifts
In 2009 Dolores Payás, Spanish translator of several of Patrick Leigh Fermor's books, visited her subject in his house in Greece for the first time. Out of this encounter emerged a friendship that lasted until Fermor's death in 2011. It was from those hours spent together chatting that this charming, personal, and soulful sketch of the English author and traveler was born—a man made fascinating by his life story, his charisma, his generosity, and his talent. This short book conveys a portrait of a man who became indomitable, proud, and charming in old age while retaining his other attributes. A snapshot of the colorful adventurer in his final years surrounded by drinks, guests, and above all his books, it is an original and witty study in nostalgia mixed with personal fortitude.
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|Publisher:||Bene Factum Publishing Limited|
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About the Author
Dolores Payás has written for film and has directed two feature-length films. She is also a translator and her Spanish translations of Patrick Leigh Fermor's work have been published by Acantilado. Amanda Hopkinson is a translator.
Read an Excerpt
In the Company of Patrick Leigh Fermor
By Dolores Payas
Bene Factum Publishing LtdCopyright © 2014 Dolores Payás
All rights reserved.
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Kardamili)
Cooled in summer by the breeze from the gulf, the great screen of the Taygetus shuts out intruding winds from the north and the east; no tramontana can reach it. It is like those Elysian confines of the world where Homer says that life is easiest for men; where no snow falls, no strong winds blow nor rain comes down, but the melodious west wind blows for ever from the sea to bring coolness to those who live there. I was very much tempted to become one of them ...
The route to Kardamili is a treacherous one. "Very deceptive" as Paddy used to say, working hard to pinpoint the right adjective, which to a Spanish listener possesses a sonority with hints of disappointment (even while this is not its literal meaning). That's for sure. After passing over the Corinth Canal, one has to cross the Peloponnese from one end to the other. It is a demanding journey. Bare, dark mountains, sharp escarpments, sheer descents; long hours of bends and menacing lorries. At length you reach Kalamata on the opposite coast. Kardamili lies at the edge of the sea, a few kilometres further south, and natural logic would dictate a better route might be to get there by venturing along the coast. Instead the reverse turns out to be the case. The road switches back to meet the sky and returns deep into the labyrinthine mountains once more. It twists and turns, so much so that one can all too easily become lost in a mass of precipices, under the misleading impression you are continually going in the wrong direction, all the time increasingly convinced that you are penetrating further into the inhospitable hearts of the Taygetus mountain range, rather than heading down to the gentle shores of the sea at Messenia. It makes no difference how often you have made the journey, every time you are bound to worry whether you are on the wrong track. It is a feeling that persists for the best part of an hour. But if you resist the temptation to perform an about turn and retrace every step thus far taken, reward finally arrives. Finally, after a terrifying bend that takes one along the edge of a vertiginous precipice, the horizon opens and the coastline of Mani appears, where the enchanting village of Kardamili nestles at the foot of the mountains.CHAPTER 2
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Of gallantry and grace)
"I wouldn't in the least object to having another glass. Would you be so kind, darling?"
He would hold out the glass awaiting a refill, and the ice cubes in it jingled. Elpida had hidden away behind the living room door, from where she would issue half-concealed and conspiratorial gestures. Despite her silent and desperate messages, the situation was hopeless. Paddy's glass had to be filled up again. "Try to drink slowly, that way you can postpone pouring the second – or third – glass ... The doctor says you need to serve him smaller quantities." The problem was that whenever Paddy held out his glass for topping up, the only possible option was to obey. Nor was there any chance to substitute good for gold, of replacing full measures of whisky – or gin, or vodka, for he drank all kinds of spirits – with extra tonic or soda water. Paddy would notice immediately, and just as immediately demand rectification. He became irritated, for he couldn't stand to be treated with condescension. Here, as in so many other instances, Paddy remained invincible. Beneath the outward appearance of a fragile, elderly and amiable old man there persisted a will of iron. No counsel and no warning succeeded in getting him to alter his lifestyle by one iota. And, given that he had survived ninety-six boisterously merry years in this style, one has to conclude that he had right on his side, rather than all those who strive to increase life expectancy by making it boring. (Now Paddy is departed the years do indeed appear all the more tedious).
Many opinions were advanced concerning his supposed fortitude or its opposite. Most people regarded him rather as one might an oak tree; his longevity alone inevitably fed such a perception. Those who had known him longer, sometimes over decades, added that he had never really been all that strong. Even as a young man, Paddy had suffered several major ailments, and he had fallen fell seriously ill during the war. In fact his doctors at the Military Hospital where he spent a number of months were on the point of giving him up as a hopeless case. Mention was made of polio, then of various types of rheumatic fever, possibly precipitated by the harsh conditions he had undergone during his time as an SOE officer working with the Cretan Resistance movement: long night marches, extreme cold, living in caves dripping with humidity, where he had slept little and eaten less. Not only did he survive, but he stubbornly manoeuvred to get himself sent back behind enemy lines, back into his beloved Crete – "my refuge where the Minotaur roars" – and where he resumed living as unhealthily as before. He was a heavy smoker until the age of fifty, and a "monsoon drinker" – the term was of his own description – until the very last night of his life. He ate with relish, and there was little that reached his table that could have qualified as a light meal. He defied every medical statistic in the same way as he ignored every medical opinion, although a fair few had been brought to assist in a diagnosis. With reference to alcohol, it was utterly impossible to throw him off its scent. He could scarcely see, yet he retained an eagle eye for seeking out bottles. If the wine jug used at meal times vanished from its place on the table cloth, or its level dropped more than he reckoned it should, Paddy noticed immediately and, in tones of polite authority, demanded the provision of replenishments.
There was a special table that also served as a bar in the sitting room at his house. It was propped up against a wall and its surface had long since disappeared beneath an enormous tray crammed with drinks, along with an ice bucket and a bowl containing slices of lemon. That particular corner of the room exerted a magnetic attraction over Paddy. At one-thirty in the afternoon and at a quarter to eight in the evening, he would head off in its direction without a moment's hesitation. It didn't matter where he had been or what he had been doing there, Paddy set out for the bar with the sure-footedness of a half-blind connoisseur following signposts in Braille. It made one want to laugh out loud to see him planted there beside his arsenal, eyes shining with the pleasure of anticipation and rubbing his hands like a celebrant prepared to bestow liquid blessings.
"Here we are. Here we are. What are we going to drink today, my dear?"
Paddy had the characteristic features of a dynamic vitalist. Every morning he would emerge from his chamber bright and beaming as a bell and fresh as a daisy. He would eat his breakfast, a few hours later his aperitif, then his lunch, pause for afternoon tea, before going back for another aperitif followed by an abundant dinner. He never skipped so much as one of these formal punctuation points to his day: on the contrary he relished each of them, as if every day each pause were entirely unexpected or highly unusual. If in addition there were company, then so much the better. He adored having guests. It was the perfect pretext for long chats and much drinking, as well as stories, poetry recitals, laughter and songs. He also took great pleasure in physical activity. He had once been a tireless walker and a very keen swimmer. He covered many kilometres on a daily basis until well into old age, most of them going steeply uphill (almost inevitably on the way out since he lived at the foot of the mountains). Among his favourite walks was one that ran from his house to Exohori and Agios Nikolaos, where a miniscule chapel was situated on a hilltop with the most magnificent views. That was where he and his wife Joan, together with Bruce Chatwin's wife, Elizabeth, interred Chatwin's ashes beneath an olive tree.
At eighty-plus years, Paddy continued with his daily swims, meaning something rather more serious than a bit of splashing about in the shallows near the shore. Even when he entered his nineties and started using a cane, it was we – his guests – who were at greater risk of missing our footing than he was, for he kept an assortment of sticks and canes along the route, positioned where he could easily find them, on the backs of chairs, hanging on a handrail or propped against the stone chimney breasts ... The villagers regarded him as something approaching a god. They were in the habit of murmuring that his will to live was stronger than ever. It was certainly true that he seemed to hang onto life like one of the limpets clinging to the rocks below his terrace. Yet in his desire so to do, Paddy exhibited no sign either of anxiety or of greed. He remained the most delectable company because he was always relaxed and serene. His will to live was like a vital appetite combined with an inexhaustible sense of wonder. Almost a century after his birth, well aware of the line of the dead now gone before him, and despite the vast vacuum left by the departure of Joan, his life's greatest companion, life persisted in continually cultivating his interest. It absorbed and provoked him, granting ever more episodes of euphoria and fits of hilarity.
Paddy's immense sense of humour and minimal sense of his own importance must have been instrumental in this. Ever ironic and distanced, he was only very rarely cutting or wounding. His naivety suggested the malice no worse than that of a rogue or a young rascal.
I retain a very clear memory of the first time the two of us ate alone together in his house. I had come to our appointment in a spirit of respect verging on reverence; it also approached something very close to fear. He was a greatly admired author, in addition to which a venerable elderly gentleman. But every jot of reserve evaporated in the second gin and tonic, for we met in time for aperitifs. We spent the entire meal choking ourselves on yells – he being stone deaf, having left his hearing aids he knew not where – and guffaws. When, before returning to my hotel, I asked him to sign a couple of his books for me, neither of us was in any state to elucidate precisely what day of the month we had now reached. We arrived at a decision through approximation and consensus. He took the first volume, entering his dedication and the date on the flyleaf, before illustrating the month and the year between somewhat wobbly clouds and swallows in full flight. Then Paddy opened the second volume, and stared at the blank frontispiece in comic confusion. "Do you think we are still on the same date?" he enquired. We decided we probably were, and he returned to sketching more clouds and swallows. Finally, he put down his pen, lifted his arms, clicked his fingers, executed a balletic whirl, and launched into singing several verses from an old Parisian vaudeville. The old devil's eyes were flashing fire. In them, one could catch a glimpse of the youthful rascal: a sense of mischief still lurking inside the skin of the old man. Later on I would more frequently witness the same transformation. It was a wonder to behold.
The Greeks have a word for it, and call such an impassioned love of life leventeiá, endowing it with major significance. Leventeiá is audacity combined with a taste for wine, women, song – and dance. In the normal course of events, it comes associated with vigour, fieriness, and youthful impulses. But Paddy conserved his leventeiá until the end of his days.CHAPTER 3
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (The Books)
"What are you going to read today?"
It was one of his favourite phrases. A stock question that he broached every evening, over the dinnertime hotpot.
Books took up most of the conversation and were otherwise omnipresent in his house. Over the table, we would discuss literature, history, etymology, languages. The dining room was stuffed with books, and during mealtimes he would often send me over to consult one to find a particular piece of information, check the accuracy of some lines from a poem he was reciting, look up another he couldn't quite recall. "Now let's see, my dear. Down at the bottom, on the left and on the shelf of Spanish poetry, bring me the García Lorca ... It's a tiny bit higher up. Watch out, don't fall ..."
The library shelves reached all the way to the roof, and it went without saying that in order to reach for the highest books, one needed to stand on the sofas and then take another step up to perch on their backs. And wherever there were pieces of furniture one couldn't climb on, we deployed a set of ancient wooden steps designed for pukka sahib. This was an ingenious and prettily carved artefact, originally intended to be used to clamber up onto the back of an elephant. When folded, it took up no more space than a long narrow ironing board, and one could almost open it up single-handedly. Paddy was extremely attached to the thing. He would demonstrate it with pride and his visitors' "oohs" and "aahs" of surprise flattered him as greatly as if he himself had invented it.
His library boasted almost no contemporary authors at all. He was not interested in current fashions nor in future ones, as he candidly affirmed. With rare exceptions, I think he kept the clock turned back from the end of the '70s or '80s, at the absolute latest (we are here talking of the twentieth century; the twenty-first lay in some distant galactic future). By contrast he treasured literary classics and encyclopaedias. And he had an excellent memory on the occasions when it was necessary to know where any one book was stored.
Paddy was always nosing around extraneous subject matter, sniffing out authors who could potentially be included in his wide spectrum of interests. He was a restless and avid reader of poetry, and he would ask me to recite poems in Spanish, or to recommend new names beyond those he already knew from the classics. On one occasion I talked about Miguel Hernández to him, considering that the poet's force of expression and orotund sonority would be a good match for his theatrical tastes. So it was. Our subsequent late nights resounded to the vibrant stanzas of the poet of Orihuela (and Paddy found a particular pleasure in the pronunciation of the Spanish double rr).
Paddy was reading, forever reading. Always slowly and laboriously, however, since he had serious problems with his eyesight. "I see you as looking like something out of a Picasso painting. One eye pointing to the east and a mouth way out west," as he put it one day. Even so, he remained strictly disciplined, and spent many hours perusing the book in hand. He sought help from his optician and from numerous contraptions: loops, spectacles of varying gradations, and a patch over his left eye. That the patch was black and sported a skull and two cross-bones was a prank entirely of his own devising. (I suspect I fell definitively into his good books on the day he learnt of my unconditional admiration for Richmal Crompton's William Brown.)
The books were there, always there, objects of affection, almost of worship. Words intoxicated him, to the ultimate degree. He was unstoppable when he began reeling off literary material. He had a propensity for verbal fireworks, rattling off Baroque inventions, always with the brakes off. He was drawn by a thread he was impelled to pursue. When he became exhausted he sought out – or dreamt up – another line of enquiry, more forks in the road that led him along new paths, and so he was able to follow one theme after another, weaving them together without a break. He could orate almost as well as he wrote, and when he was in the mood, he could be the most entertaining and inspiring of performers.
His fertile verbosity was itself the fruit of an effervescent personality, no doubt, but also of his long life. Paddy belonged to a generation happily enamoured of words. The friends both of his youth and his maturity, were for the most part writers or artists who employed words immoderately. One has only to note Katsimbalis, Seferis, Durrell and Miller. They were cultured, literary ... and also philhellenic. The latter characteristic, linked to their knowledge of the land, often also of the language, meant that a fair few of them had ended up working for the Special Operations Executive – in other words, for one of Britain's secret services – during the Second World War. The men operated behind enemy lines, with their base in Cairo, where they met up between one mission and the next. Instead of opting for military barracks, one group chose to stay in an old tumbledown villa that they named Tara, after the fortress of the High Kings of Ireland. The nucleus of those occupying this rickety castle – it goes without saying that Paddy signed up with them at once – constituted a gang of adventurers who lived and breathed the War with wild jubilation. Artists and night owls, diplomats on missions and birds of many hues all congregated there. The place was famous for being the scene of reunions and parties with a tendency to end up in a madcap fashion. All the same, they were fiestas rich in ongoing literary references and verbal acrobatics.
Excerpted from Drink Time! by Dolores Payas. Copyright © 2014 Dolores Payás. Excerpted by permission of Bene Factum Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Kardamili),
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Of gallantry and grace),
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (The Books),
Kings, queens, and a couple of duchesses,
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Elpida),
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (At home),
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (On codes of honour),
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (A valiant man),
[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (The End),