Daniel Craig’s Swann song

 

© Eon Productions

 

At last!  Two years after its first scheduled release in November 2019 (abandoned when Danny Boyle, originally lined up to be director, departed from the project), and a year-and-a-half after its next scheduled release in April 2020 (abandoned because of the Covid-19 pandemic), and a couple of months after it went on release in the UK, the 25th James Bond movie No Time to Die has made it to Sri Lanka and I’ve been able to watch it on a big screen.

 

It was odd to finally see the movie in its 163-minute entirety.  I’d become accustomed to seeing it as a two-and-a-half-minute trailer during my infrequent trips to the cinema during the past two years.  Up it popped before Tenet (2020) last summer, up it popped again before Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) in May this year…  And when the No Time to Die trailer popped up yet again before I started watching Dune (2021) in a cinema a few weeks ago, I thought, ‘My God, am I ever going to see this thing as a film?’

 

Anyway, here are my thoughts on No Time to Die, which marks Daniel Craig’s final appearance as James Bond.  I’ll start by listing what I didn’t like about it, then what I did like about it, and then I’ll give my overall verdict.  I will, as much as I can, try to avoid spoilers.  But be warned that some spoilers will inevitably appear.

 

DIDN’T LIKE…

Rami Malek’s character

I’m not dissing Malek’s performance as the film’s big villain Lyutsifer Safin.  It’s just that he doesn’t get enough time to establish Safin as a character or a threat.  Yes, he’s effective in No Time to Die’s opening sequence, which with its arty snowbound setting, violence and jump-scares resembles something from an especially stylish 1970s giallo movie.  But after that we hardly see him again until the film’s final reel.  Also, while a twisted and unsettling connection clearly exists between him and Lea Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann character, the love of Bond’s life, we frustratingly never learn much about it.  Contrast that with 1999’s The World is Not Enough, which was a generally clunky Bond entry.  But at least it was more disturbing in how it depicted the warped relationship between Bond’s nominal love interest Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) and psychotic bad guy Renard (Robert Carlisle).

 

© Eon Productions

 

Rami Malek’s character’s age

Also, Rami Malek looks too young to be the same character who menaced Madeleine Swann when she was a child, as seen in that opening sequence, and who menaces her again as an adult.  My partner watched the film with me and speculated that, because he’s disfigured, his damaged facial skin might have slowed the development of wrinkles…  But no, I’m not buying it.

 

While we’re on the subject of age, I was perturbed that when Bond goes to mourn at the tomb of Vespa Lynd (Eva Green), his late and much-lamented love interest in Casino Royale (2006), a plaque on the tomb-door informs us that she was 23 years old when she died.  What?  In Casino Royale she was working as an agent with the British Treasury’s Financial Action Task Force.  I know her character was young and something of a whizz-kid, but surely she wasn’t that whizz-kiddish to have landed such a job and such responsibilities at the age of 23?

 

Blofeld’s bionic eye

Despite having been banged up in Belmarsh Prison since the events of 2015’s Spectre, it transpires that Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) has been secretly running his Spectre organisation from his cell with the use of a sneaky high-tech bionic eye (replacing the eye he lost in the helicopter crash at Spectre’s finale).  We even get a daft scene where, during a Spectre party, Blofeld manages to orchestrate and comment on events via a bionic-eye-receiver that a minion is carrying around on a tray.  Where did this bionic eye come from?  How did Spectre smuggle it into him at Belmarsh?  Was it Blofeld’s birthday, and a visitor managed to get it to him hidden inside a birthday cake?  And why didn’t the prison’s security systems – which seem pretty thorough, considering that Blofeld only gets to meet visitors inside a mobile metal cage, which is shuttled along tramlines to the meeting area – let this past them?  No, it’s a total failure of plot-logic.

 

How You Only Live Twice’s ‘Garden of Death’ gets shoehorned in

Ian Fleming’s 1964 novel You Only Live Twice is one of my favourite Bond books, largely because of its bizarre plot.  This has Blofeld retiring to Japan, acquiring a castle and taking up gardening.  Blofeld being Blofeld, though, the garden he cultivates around his castle is a Garden of Death.  It’s infested with poisonous vegetation and wildlife and dotted with boiling, sulphurous mud-pools.  Perversely, the garden’s lethal features begin to draw visitors – Japanese people who want to commit suicide head there to die.  I’d always hoped one day the Garden of Death would feature in a Bond film and it does, finally, in No Time to Die.  But it appears only for a couple of minutes while Safin gives the kidnapped Madeleine a tour of his headquarters and, as a setting, its potential is wasted.

 

The action finale

No Time to Die’s ending has proved controversial.  I have no problem with the events that occur in the last 20 minutes or so.  But I’m annoyed that the finale is rather fragmented and isn’t the big sustained rush of excitement I’d wanted for the end of Daniel Craig’s tenure as Bond.  There’s a bit of action, then things stop for a while, then there’s another bit of action, then things stop again, then a bit more action, then another pause…  It isn’t so much Craig going out with a bang as with a stuttering series of pops.

 

Lashana Lynch’s excellent Nomi character features here but isn’t given enough to do.  Come to think of it, instead of just her and Bond being sent to infiltrate Safin’s lair, wouldn’t it have been better if they’d led an army of commandoes to attack the place?  That way, the action might have been more sustained, widespread and exciting.

 

© Eon Productions

 

LIKED…

Madeleine Swann’s arc

Lea Seydoux isn’t my favourite Bond-lady of the Daniel Craig era.  (Four days of the week, I worship at the temple of Eva Green.  The other three days, I worship at the temple of Naomie Harris, aka Miss Moneypenny.)  But at least her character Madeleine Swann gets to develop beyond the supposedly happy ending of Spectre and explore darker territory in No Time to Die.  This is a relief, as I’d heard rumours that the movie would be a re-tread of 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and I’d feared that her character’s only function would be to get bumped off early on, leaving Bond to spend the rest of the film on a simplistic revenge mission.

 

Ana de Armas and Lashana Lynch

Meanwhile, the other main actresses in No Time to Die are great.  De Armas (who co-starred with Craig in Rian Johnson’s splendid 2019 whodunnit Knives Out) is a delight as Paloma, the supposedly inexperienced CIA agent who’s assigned to help Bond with some espionage-related business in Cuba.  I shudder to think how a Roger Moore-era Bond movie would have portrayed her.  She’d have been a bumbling incompetent whose klutziness was a source of slapstick gags and mocking, sexist humour.  But here, when the shit hits the fan, Paloma proves to be more than capable.  Indeed, if the character has a fault, it’s that she’s not in the film long enough.

 

© Eon Productions

 

As I’ve said, Lynch’s Nomi character – whom, Bond discovers, has been made the new 007 in his absence – could have been given more to do too.  But she still makes an impact and if producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson want to stay in this version of the Bond-verse a little longer and give Nomi her own spinoff movies, I’d happily pay money to go and see them.

 

The regulars

One of the pleasures of Craig’s stint as Bond has been seeing the gradual reintroduction of the franchise’s regular characters, rebooted and played by new but dependable actors – Jeffrey Wright debuting as Felix Leiter in Casino Royale, Rory Kinnear as Bill Tanner in Quantum of Solace (2008), Ralph Fiennes as the replacement for Judi Dench as M in Skyfall (2012), and Naomie Harris as Moneypenny and Ben Wishaw as Q also in Skyfall.  All are excellent again in No Time to Die.

 

I suspect the next Bond will be another reboot and we won’t be seeing these actors in these roles again – Wishaw has already remarked that this is probably his last outing as Q – which is a shame.  I haven’t enjoyed a Bond ensemble like this since Bernard Lee played M, Lois Maxwell played Moneypenny and Desmond Llewellyn played Q back in the days of Connery, Lazenby and Moore.

 

© Eon Productions

 

The fan service

As Casino Royale made clear, Craig’s Bond is a new Bond.  He’s not the same bloke as the one who encountered with Mr Kidd and Mr Wint in Diamonds are Forever (1971), or battled against Jaws in a space station in Moonraker (1980), or rampaged through downtown Moscow in a tank in Goldeneye (1995).  Still, it’s nice that No Time to Die contains references to the pre-Craig Bonds, though not so intrusively that they threaten the continuity established since 2006.  It’s cool, for example, that Bond drives the Aston Martin DB5 that Sean Connery drove in Goldfinger (1964), complete with similar gadgets, and we also see him climb into an Aston Martin V8 Advantage that Timothy Dalton drove in The Living Daylights (1987) – it’s even got the same number plate (B549 WUU)!  In MI6 headquarters, we see not only a framed portrait of Judi Dench’s M, but also one of Robert Brown, who played M during the late Roger Moore years and the Timothy Dalton ones.  Meanwhile, the title sequence echoes that of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by featuring a trident-holding Britannia figure, Union Jacks, clocks and hourglasses.

 

That said, I could have done with a little less of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s music on the No Time to Die soundtrack.  John Barry’s OHMSS theme accompanies one scene set in London and Louis Armstrong’s We Have All the Time in the World plays over the end credits.  This is wonderful, timeless music, of course, but it shows up the inferiority of No Time to Die’s theme song, sung by Billie Eilish – which, while it’s way better than Sam Smith’s dire The Writing’s on the Wall from Spectre, is still no classic.

 

Bond’s arc

Daniel Craig’s Bond movies have been a daring experiment.  Since Casino Royale, we’ve seen him carry out his first mission and make his first kill, fall in love, suffer tragedy, discover some uncomfortable truths about his upbringing and fall in love again.  In No Time to Die, he falls out of and back into love and has to make some difficult, final decisions.  Things haven’t always gone smoothly – Spectre, in particularly, had to do some clumsy retconning to the story – but generally it’s been a success.  Daniel Craig’s performance in the lead role has helped hugely, of course.  So, hats off to Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson for being bold and keeping their nerve.

 

Mind you, I was relieved to see the words JAMES BOND WILL RETURN at the very end.

 

VERDICT?

Well, I liked it more than Quantum of Solace and Spectre.  But due to the issues I’ve described above, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Casino Royale or Skyfall.  Which is a pity, because I’ve liked Daniel Craig’s Bond and wanted him to go out on the highest note possible.  As it stands, I think No Time to Die is pretty good, but it’s not going to alter the rankings in my top half-dozen, or possibly even my top ten, Bond movies.

 

© Eon Productions

Stop getting Bond wrong! (Part 2)

 

© Eon Productions

 

Continuing my ranking of all the James Bond films from worst to best, here are my candidates for the franchise’s top twelve.  Candidates?  No, they are the top twelve.  Don’t even try to argue with me.

 

12: The Living Daylights (1987)

Lately, The Living Daylights, Timothy Dalton’s debut as Bond, has seemingly been reappraised and now figures highly in some rankings of the franchise.  It was even placed at number 4 in a recent feature in the Independent.  Well, hold on.  It’s good, but not that good.  After 14 years of quips, raised eyebrows and safari suits, Dalton’s more serious Bond is a breath of fresh air.  While preparing for the role, he even read Ian Fleming’s original books, which no doubt helped.  He and love interest Maryam d’Abo make a likeable couple and the film begins strongly, its first act following Fleming’s 1962 short story of the same name.  Later, alas, it gets unnecessarily muddled and the two main villains, despite being played by Jeroen Krabbé and Joe Don Baker, are rather blah, although Andreas Wisniewski is memorable as the lethal hitman / henchman Necros.  The scene where Necros engages in vicious hand-to-hand combat in a kitchen, using various kitchen utensils and appliances, was evoked in last year’s Christopher Nolan epic, Tenet.  I hated Aha’s theme song at the time, but since then it’s grown on me.  (The same can’t be said for Duran Duran’s A View to a Kill.)

 

11: Dr No (1962)

I feel guilty ranking Dr No, the first entry in the series and the film that turned former Edinburgh milkman Sean Connery into a superstar, at only number 11 on this list.  However, when I saw it as a kid I was disappointed and that sense of juvenile disappointment has lingered ever since.  This was because I’d read Ian Fleming’s 1958 novel Dr No beforehand and loved the fact that (1) it had a giant squid in it and (2) Bond killed Dr No at the end by burying him alive in bird-guano.  I was looking forward to seeing these things in the film, but neither appeared – the squid presumably because of budgetary restrictions and the guano presumably because it would have grossed out the audience.  So, if Connery had got to have a scrap with a giant squid and got to drown Dr No (Joseph Wiseman) in bird-shit, I’d have enjoyed the film more and placed it higher.

 

10: Thunderball (1965)

The previous movie in the series, Goldfinger (1964), got the emerging Bond formula exactly right.  In comparison, Thunderball seems slightly askew.  It’s overlong and the copious underwater sequences slow the pace somewhat.  Still, it has much to enjoy.  Connery is at the top of his game and the film shows off its set-pieces (for example, Bond being pursued during some Bahamas Junkanoo festivities), its gadgets (for example, the jet-pack in the opening sequence) and its villains (for example, Luciana Paluzzi as Fiona Volpe) with as much brassy aplomb as big-lunged Welshman Tom Jones sings the theme song.

 

© Eon Productions

 

9: You Only Live Twice (1967)

I’ve always had a soft spot for You Only Live Twice, which has Sean Connery battling Ernst Stavro Blofeld and SPECTRE in Japan, although it’s commonly rated as one of the lesser Connery Bonds.  Maybe it’s because I lived in Japan for a good many years myself.  The theme song by Nancy Sinatra is, of course, lovely and there’s a good supporting cast, including Donald Pleasence as Blofeld and Tetsuro Tamba as Tiger Tanaka, head of Japanese intelligence and one of the great ‘Bond allies’ – up there with Pedro Armendariz’s Karim Bey in From Russia with Love (1963).  Apart from the Japanese setting, the film jettisons almost everything in Fleming’s dark, introspective 1964 novel and replaces it with an archetypically ludicrous Bond-movie scenario: Blofeld wanting to trigger World War III by nicking American and Soviet spacecraft and hiding them in his secret hollowed-out Japanese volcano-HQ.  The futuristic volcano set, courtesy of production designer Ken Adam, is amazing.  Alas, its impact is vitiated in the final scenes when we see it as an obvious model, being rocked by explosions, with little dolls (representing the casualties of the film’s climactic battle) bouncing up and down on its floor.

 

8: Casino Royale (2006)

Any half-decent movie was going to look good after the debacle of 2002’s Die Another Day, and I feel Casino Royale, which rebooted the series and introduced current 007 Daniel Craig, is slightly overrated as a result.  But it’s still pretty good.  Craig gives Bond an impressively physical exterior whilst suggesting that not all is as solid internally.  As Vesper Lynd, the sublime Eva Green is easily the best Bond girl since Michelle Yeoh.  And Mads Mikkelsen is great as the evil but harried Le Chiffre.  For once, the violence actually looks like it involves pain, stress and fear, no more so than when Bond gets his nuts whipped on a bottomless chair.  Kudos to the filmmakers for keeping the scene in which Le Chiffre gets his comeuppance as low-key as it was in Fleming’s 1953 novel, although the subsequent stuff set in Venice, where Bond has to rescue Vesper from a building sinking rapidly into the Grand Canal, seems a tad gratuitous.  It’s as if it was decided that a big, dumb action climax was necessary to keep the traditional Bond audience happy.

 

7: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Some Roger-Moore-sized eyebrows will be raised at my inclusion of Tomorrow Never Dies in my top dozen Bonds.  But while this film isn’t massively memorable, it doesn’t do anything wrong either.  Michelle Yeoh as Wai Lin is easily the best Bond girl during Pierce Brosnan’s four-movie tenure, Vincent Schiavelli makes a brief but memorable appearance as mordant assassin Dr. Kaufman, and the scene where Q, played by a now-octogenarian Desmond Llewelyn, gives Bond custody of a remote-controlled car is delightful.  And Jonathan Pryce has fun playing villainous media tycoon Elliot Carver, trying to trigger a war between China and Britain – aye, right, the Chinese would really be quaking in their boots at the prospect of a war with Britain.  Pryce is clearly channelling Rupert Murdoch, so what’s not to love?

 

6: The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

Among Roger Moore’s entries (ouch), The Spy Who Loved Me is the one that undeniably belongs in the premier league of Bond movies.  On paper it looks as lazy as all the other ones made in the 1970s and early 1980s – cars that travel underwater, a villain who kills people by dropping them into shark-pools, a giant henchman with steel teeth and a plot that’s been copied from 1967’s You Only Live Twice, though with stolen nuclear submarines instead of stolen spacecraft.  But it’s done with such élan that Moore, director Lewis Gilbert and writer Michael Wood get away with it.  The corking pre-titles sequence here made it a rule for all subsequent Bond movies that they had to begin with a big stunt.  No wonder that in season two of I’m Alan Partridge (2002), Steve Coogan gets upset when he discovers that Michael-the-Geordie has taped over his copy of The Spy Who Loved Me with an episode of America’s Strongest Man.  “Now you’ve got Norfolk’s maddest man!” he rages.  Quite.

 

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5: From Russia with Love (1963)

Although the first Bond movie, Dr No, sets the template for the series – larger-than-life villain hatches grandiose, ludicrous scheme amid gorgeous locations, gorgeous ladies and exciting action sequences – and the third one, Goldfinger (1964), consolidates that template, the intervening movie From Russia with Love does something a little different, with a scaled-down plot-MacGuffin (getting a Soviet defector to the West with a valuable cryptography device) and a storyline that’s unusually gritty and realistic by Bond standards.  Mind you, From Russia with Love still has a great roster of villains – Lotte Lenya’s Rosa Klebb, Vladek Sheybal’s Kronsteen and Robert Shaw’s Red Grant.  Shaw’s vicious battle with Connery late in the film has been emulated in other Bond movies – see Brosnan vs. Sean Bean in Goldeneye (1995) or Craig vs. Dave Bautista in Spectre (2015) – but never bettered.  Also praiseworthy is Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz as Kerim Bey, the wise, wily head of British intelligence in Istanbul who takes Bond under his wing.  Tragically, this was Armendariz’s last movie – during filming, he was dying from cancer, quite possibly caused by his participation in the notorious 1956 John Wayne film The Conqueror, shot just 137 miles from the location of an atomic-bomb test in Nevada.

 

4: Skyfall (2012)

Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace (2008), the latter a direct sequel to the former, and both preoccupied with Vesper Lynd and Jesper Christensen’s villainous Mr White character, can often seem like they’re locked in their own, private, non-Bondian universe.  From the old, pre-Daniel Craig movies, only Judi Dench’s M remains.  What makes Skyfall a pleasure is that it starts to join the dots and make the series feel like the Bonds of old again, adding a new Q (Ben Wishaw) and a new Moneypenny (the divine Naomie Harris).  It also, eventually, brings in a new M to replace Dench, Ralph Fiennes, who in a gratifying bit of character-development is initially presented as an arsehole but gradually wins Bond’s respect and trust.  Javier Bardem makes a good villain and, when Bond and Dench’s M take refuge at Skyfall, the Scottish Highlands estate where Bond spent his childhood, we get a welcome appearance by Albert Finney as the estate’s irascible but handy-with-a-shotgun gamekeeper Kincaid.  It’s been said that director Sam Mendes originally wanted to cast Sean Connery as Kincaid, which would have been weird… but awesome.

 

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3: Licence to Kill (1989)

The dark horse of the series in more ways than one, Licence to Kill got a bad rap because it underperformed at the box office, earned itself a British 15 certificate with its violence, and offended critics who, after condemning the Bond movies for years for being too silly, suddenly started carping about how they missed the loveable silliness of Roger Moore.  However, if you’re a Bond connoisseur who likes to see 007 taken seriously, it’s one of the best.  Timothy Dalton goes after drug baron Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) when Sanchez maims Bond’s best buddy Felix Leiter (David Hedison) and murders Leiter’s wife on their wedding night.  This, of course, echoes what happened to Bond after his wedding back in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), making Licence to Kill a spiritual if not direct sequel to that film.  Much mayhem ensues as Sanchez and his henchmen (Anthony Zerbe, Don Stroud, Everett McGill, Anthony Starke and a young Benicio Del Toro) meet a range of gruesome fates.  The sight of Del Toro’s sneering scumbag Dario getting fed into a grinding machine is particularly delightful.  But there’s light amid the darkness.  Carey Lowell is excellent as Pam Bouvier, a truly capable and no-bullshit Bond girl, and there’s a lovely sub-plot where Desmond Llewelyn’s Q turns up to give Bond some unofficial help, showing that however much they’ve bickered in Q-Branch over the years, the two men are actually friends.  Also, Robert Davi’s Sanchez is more than a simple thug.  Valuing friendship and loyalty, he likes Bond when he first meets him and is aggrieved later when he discovers that Bond has really come to destroy him.

 

© Eon Productions

 

2: Goldfinger (1964)

The film that ticks all the boxes in the list of things you want from a Bond movie.  Action-packed opening sequence where Bond puts a previous adventure to bed?  Tick.  Shirley Bassey booming her way through a classic John Barry composition?  Tick.  Memorable villains?  Tick.  Gadgets, gimmicks, classy cars?  Tick.  A great Bond girl?  With Honor Blackman, definitely a tick.  A great Bond?  Well, it’s Sean Connery, so definitely a tick too.  Basically, the series could have stopped here, because after Goldfinger there was nothing that could be done again any better – The Spy Who Loved Me’s refrain Nobody Does It Better might have been written about this film.  Incidentally, Auric Goldfinger’s scheme in the movie makes more sense than his scheme in Ian Fleming’s 1959 novel.  In the book, Goldfinger just wants to rob Fort Knox, which would be logistically impossible.  In the film, he cannily plans to explode a nuclear device in the fort, making the US’s gold reserves unusable and skyrocketing the value of his own gold.

 

1: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

It’s generally agreed that Australian actor George Lazenby wasn’t much cop as an actor.  Ironically, his single movie as Bond, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is in my opinion the best one of all.  It helps, of course, that the film follows Ian Fleming’s 1963 novel closely.  The main change is an upgrading of Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s fiendish plan.  In the book, he intends to decimate Britain’s agriculture, whereas in the film it’s the world’s agriculture that he’s gunning for.  (Accordingly, the instruments of Blofeld’s plan, the disease-carrying ‘Angels of Death’, are upgraded from a group of brainwashed English schoolgirl-types in the novel to a bevy of brainwashed international glamour-pusses, including Angela Scoular, Anoushka Hempel, Jenny Hanley, Julie Ege and Joanna Lumley, in the film.)  Director Peter Hunt orchestrates some brilliant action sequences on the icy slopes around Blofeld’s Alpine lair, the theme tune possibly constitutes John Barry’s finest hour, Telly Savalas makes a formidably physical Blofeld, and Diana Rigg is splendid as the confident but simultaneously vulnerable Tracy di Vicenzo, the woman who finally wins Bond’s heart and gets him to the wedding altar – though with events taking a dark turn soon after.  It’s arguable that because it’s so different from the usual entries in the series, wistful in tone and tragic in its ending, the awkward and uncertain Lazenby actually fits in nicely.  Here, Bond appears fragile and wounded, and Lazenby is believable in terms of what the character goes through.  You couldn’t imagine Connery swaggering through the movie with his usual insouciance and having the same impact.

 

© Eon Productions

 

And now we have a new Bond movie in the cinemas.  Where will 2021’s No Time to Die figure in future rankings of the 25 Bond films, from best to worst?  Well, I see that the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw has just given it a five-star review.  So… it’s probably rubbish.

Patrick’s progress

 

© John Murray

 

I’ve just finished reading a biography of one of the 20th century’s greatest travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor.  The biography, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, was penned by Artemis Cooper, who’d known him since her childhood, and was published in 2012, a year after his death.

 

My problem with biographies is that invariably the subjects are, or were, famous and successful.  Although I find the story of their fortunes interesting while they’re on the way up, and having to overcome hardships and obstacles, those stories become less compelling when the subjects have achieved success and settled onto a plateau of comfort, wealth and well-being.  With Fermor, at least, that secure but less interesting plateau is delayed because his success didn’t really come until when he was middle-aged.  And the first 200 pages of this biography, more than half of it, are devoted to Fermor’s youth.  Happily, these pages contain the two most dramatic events of his life: the epic trek he embarked on in 1933, at the age of 18, from the Dutch coast to Istanbul; and, while a Special Operations Executive officer during World War II, his heading of a mission in 1944 to kidnap Major General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of German forces on Nazi-occupied Crete.

 

Furthermore, the number of books Fermor had published in his lifetime barely reached double figures.  He also continued to travel.  This means that the latter part of Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, while more sedate, is still interesting because it isn’t just about the boring business of writing.

 

Cooper is clearly a fan.  She admits to once having a ‘schoolgirl crush’ on Fermor and writes early on: “Radiating a joyful enthusiasm, he was one of those people who made you feel more alive the moment he came into the room, and eager to join in whatever he was planning to do…”

 

However, she quickly acknowledges one of the controversies about Fermor, that he wasn’t adverse to embroidering reality with fantasy in his supposedly factual writing.  Sometimes, this was unintentional because he was trying to remember events from decades earlier, but sometimes it happened because, well, the fantasy made for a better yarn.  Indeed, Cooper introduces the issue with examples from the early years of Fermor’s life when he was being looked after by a family called the Martins in Northamptonshire, while his real family were in India. The setting was not as bucolic as Fermor liked to recall: “Mr Martin, whom he was later to remember as a farmer, in fact worked at the Ordnance Depot as an engineer and served in the local fire brigade.”

 

Also, Weedon Bec, the Martins’ village in Northamptonshire, provided Fermor with a startlingly gruesome anecdote that he recounted in his book, A Time of Gifts (1977).  At a community bonfire celebrating the end of World War I, “…one of the boys had been dancing around with a firework in his mouth.  It had slipped down his throat, and he had died ‘spitting stars’.” However, Cooper notes: “There is no reference to this tragedy in the Northamptonshire Chronicle, nor is it mentioned in the Weedon Deanery Parish Magazine which described the celebrations in considerable detail.”

 

Similar question marks appear during Fermor’s accounts of his journey to Istanbul in his teens, which are recorded in A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water (1986) and the posthumously published (and edited by Cooper and Colin Thubron) The Broken Road (2013).  I’d known that the material about him crossing the Great Hungarian Plain on horseback in Between the Woods and the Water was suspect – the horse was a fanciful addition to events.  However, I wasn’t aware that a memorable scene in The Broken Road was questionable too. According to Fermor in 2003: “Slogging on south, I lost my way after dark, fell into the sea, and waded soaked into a glimmering cave full of shepherds and fishermen – Bulgars and Greeks – for a strange night of dancing and song.  It was like a flickering firelit scene out of Salvator Rosa.”  Cooper suggests that this incident was really a conflation of two incidents, one of which happened at a later time on Mount Athos.  As for the period described in The Broken Road, Cooper states: “At no point in his original account did he walk down this stretch of coast alone, nor did he lose his footing and find himself floundering among freezing rock-pools after dark.”

 

Unambiguous, though, is the bravery and audacity shown by Fermor and his comrades in wartime Crete.  It reflects well on Fermor that he valued the role played by the island’s tenacious resistance fighters in the operation to abduct General Kreipe from under the nose of the German forces he commanded.  Indeed, their high-ranking captive was astonished when he found out what was going on.  “For Kreipe,” writes Cooper, “being on the other side of the occupation was an eye-opener.  He had no idea that the Cretans and the British were working so closely together.”

 

© The Rank Organisation

 

Accordingly, Fermor wasn’t pleased at how the operation was portrayed on celluloid, in the 1957 Michael Powell / Emeric Pressburger movie IllMet by Moonlight, in which he was played by Dirk Bogarde.  Writing to another of the operation’s British participants, Billy Moss, Fermor said of the film: “You and I are perfectly OK, we emerge as charming, intrepid chaps.  It’s really the Cretans I’m worried about…”  The film’s depiction of the Cretans upset him because it relegated them “to the role of picturesque and slightly absurd foreigners constantly in a state of agitation, coolly managed by these two unruffled and underacting sahibs.”

 

Thereafter, with Fermor finding his vocation – a slow, gradual progress, because he was anything but a disciplined writer – the book inevitably becomes less eventful. However, there are still some intriguing moments.  A trip to the Caribbean brings him into the orbit of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, ensconced in his Goldeneye Estate in Jamaica.  I’ve heard speculation that the dashing war-hero Fermor inspired the character of Bond, but at this point Fleming was already “bashing away at a thriller”, the first Bond novel Casino Royale (1953), so Fermor couldn’t have been the original inspiration.  However, Fermor’s writings about voodoo, something he became immersed in whilst on the island of Haiti, informed Fleming’s depiction of it in the second Bond novel, Live and Let Die (1954).

 

Then we get an account of Fermor’s involvement with the 1958 John Huston movie The Roots of Heaven, for which he was commissioned to rewrite Romain Gary’s original screenplay and had to attend several weeks of filming in Chad, Cameroon and the Central African Republic.  The film, about “a maverick loner, Morel, who is determined to stop the slaughter of elephants by big game hunters and ivory poachers,” brought Fermor into contact with Trevor Howard, who “drank nothing but whisky from morning till night,” and Errol Flynn, of whom he wrote in a letter, “Errol and I have become great buddies…  He is a tremendous shit, but a very funny one…”  In a predictable instance of Hollywood hypocrisy, Cooper notes: “Despite the fact that The Roots of Heaven was a plea to save the elephants, John Huston was very keen to shoot one…  The back of his Land Rover was an arsenal of shotguns, rifles and ammunition, and it was obvious that he lived not for the film, but to slope off into the bush with a gun.”

 

© Darryl F. Zanuck Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

We also hear about Fermor participating in 1972 in a Greek TV programme reuniting the surviving members of the 1944 Kreipe operation.  The last participant to come onstage, “to gasps of surprise and a round of applause from the audience,” was the focus of the whole operation, General Kreipe himself.  When Fermor asked him in German if he held any grudges about what’d happened, the general gamely replied, “If I had any bad feelings…  I wouldn’t be here, would I?”

 

And we get some short but melancholic accounts of him revisiting eastern Europe during, and just after, Communism.  During these visits he tried, often fruitlessly, to track down people and places he’d known during his wanderings through the region in the 1930s.  He found one, formerly aristocratic acquaintance in an old folks’ home in Budapest, physically broken and wits wandering.  This sad exchange ensues: “‘My old friend Patrick Leigh Fermor lives in Greece.’ – ‘Yes, Elemér, it’s me, it’s Paddy!’ – ‘No, no, you are much too young…  But if you go to Greece tell him I’m here, I hope he remembers me.’

 

Fermor belonged to an era when travelling (for pleasure) and, indeed, writing were largely seen as activities for the upper classes.  Thus, certain of his traits can be annoying, traits emblematic of being raised in that privileged stratum of English society: his boundless self-confidence, his shamelessness at making use of the contacts he’s accrued, the fact that he has all those contacts in the first place.  This struck me especially when I read Between the Woods and the Water, which sees him stay with a succession of posh eastern European aristocrats and enjoy lavish hospitality that, at times, he seems to think is his entitlement.

 

Cooper is at least aware of these potential criticisms. Regarding what happens in Between the Woods, she points out: “For his hosts, there was nothing unusual in having guests stay for days or even weeks at a time.” Also: “The greatest blessing that a guest can bring is the right kind of curiosity, and it bubbled out of Paddy like a natural spring…”, which must have been gratifying for his hosts, who by then probably felt like “a useless fragment of a broken empire.”  It’s worth mentioning too that Fermor never received a university education which, if it had happened, would presumably have put him among the elite in Oxford or Cambridge Universities and set the seal on him as an establishment figure.  Perhaps the fact that the system never fully processed him, and didn’t condition him entirely about what an English gentleman was and wasn’t meant to do, explains why he retained the ‘common touch’ throughout his life.  He seemed as much at home blethering with a Macedonian shepherd as he was with a Romanian Count.

 

If Fermor appears blessed with more than his fair share of luck, it’s probably more to do with Joan Raynor, who became his long-term companion and finally his wife.  The daughter of someone who was, successively, a Conservative MP, a First Lord of the Admiralty and a Viscount, she received a private income that enabled Fermor to continue with his travel writing even when he wasn’t reaping great financial rewards from it.  She was also  broadminded about their relationship, which at times could be described as an ‘open’ one, allowing Fermor to indulge in a few dalliances on the side.

 

Eventually, the Fermors built a handsome villa for themselves in a rustic part of Greece.  As I approached the biography’s last chapters, I wondered how they’d reacted to the country’s growing tourist industry in the late 20th century.  Wouldn’t they have been disgruntled at how travellers of a different pedigree from them, folk from less well-off backgrounds intent on getting a week’s break in the sun rather than on experiencing the glories of Greek culture and history, were swamping the beauty spots of their adopted home?  But the changes caused by mass-tourism seemed not to impinge on their idyll.  Neither did they object to their Greek neighbours making some money out of it.  In fact, the building of a hotel nearby seems to have come as a relief to them.  Their villa was frequently crowded with guests and now they could farm some of them out to the new establishment.

 

It must have been tempting to portray Fermor simply as an unstoppable force of nature / Renaissance man-of-action.  To her credit, Cooper admits that while he had many admirers, he didn’t charm everyone.  Turning up in Athens in 1935, he soon got an invitation from the son of the British ambassador to stay at the embassy.  But the ambassador himself proved “quite immune, if not allergic, to Paddy’s high spirits and exotic conversation”, growled at him, “You seem bloody pleased with yourself, don’t you?” and soon gave him his marching orders.  Nor was a post-war stint at the British Council in Athens a great success.  As one colleague observed, “There was a very insensitive side to Paddy…  He was very bumptious, a bit of a know-all, and his enthusiasm and noisiness could be rather wearing.”

 

While Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure is certainly no warts-and-all exposé, it doesn’t get entirely swept away by the awe-inspiring, larger-than-life aura that Fermor projected.  You’re left with the impression of someone who, yes, was remarkable but who, like all of us, sported a few imperfections too.  Which actually makes you like him more as a result.

 

Taken by Joan Leigh Fermor