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

Bungle in the jungle

 

© Legendary Pictures / Warner Bros.

 

Godzilla versus Kong.  The King of the Monsters versus the Eighth Wonder of the World.  The supreme clash of the titans, the ultimate showdown between the royalty of kaiju cinema.  In the left corner, we have King Kong, the giant simian star of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 classic that created the template for movies wherein prehistoric monsters rampage through human metropolises.  And in the right corner, we have Godzilla, the massive radioactive-breathed lizard who first surfaced in 1954, courtesy of Toho Studios, to flatten Tokyo as a thinly-disguised metaphor for the atomic bombs that’d flattened real Japanese cities a decade earlier – although, while he appeared in dozens of subsequent movies battling against similarly-sized monstrous adversaries, he gradually morphed from being the destroyer of Japan to being the unofficial champion of it.

 

Having this pair square up to one another – an event that’s only happened once before, in the ultra-ropey but endearingly goofy 1962 Toho movie King Kong vs Godzilla – should be an epic cinematic experience, the kaiju equivalent of Muhammed Ali versus Joe Frazer or Ali versus George Foreman, of the Thrilla in Manilla or the Rumble in the Jungle.

 

Alas, the recently released Godzilla vs Kong, the fourth entry in Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse franchise, isn’t so much the Rumble in the Jungle as a Bungle in the Jungle.

 

Of its three predecessors, the first instalment, 2014’s Godzilla, directed by talented Welshman Gareth Edwards, is the one that stands as a quality film.  It had some truly cinematic sequences and a memorably sombre tone, embodied in the apocalyptic clouds of ash and dust that swirled around Godzilla while he went about his city-demolishing business.  However, it wasn’t the big, enjoyably dumb monster-on-the-loose movie that many people expected and in some quarters it was met with disappointment.  And I have to say that while I admired Godzilla, I didn’t massively enjoy it.

 

Edwards’ downbeat film was the antithesis of the second film in the franchise, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island, which arrived three years later.  Set in the early 1970s, this was a brash, colourful rollercoaster of a movie that managed to balance crowd-pleasing action with enough smart touches to engage the more cerebral members of the audience – smart touches ranging from jokes about Richard Nixon to an outrageous sequence where Kong takes on what is basically the fleet of helicopters from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), though to the accompaniment of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid rather than Richard Wagner’s Ride of the ValkyriesKong: Skull Island also benefitted from having a cast of veteran character actors like John C. Reilly, Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman chew up any scenery that Kong wasn’t stomping on.

 

By the third movie, though, Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), the rot had set in.  The kaiju remained magnificent, but too much screen-time was devoted to the human characters, most of whom barely qualified as two-dimensional let alone three-dimensional.  Also, between the film’s set-pieces were sections where screenwriters Dougherty and Zach Shields couldn’t be bothered plotting in any credible or meaningful way.  You got ridiculous sequences like, for example, the bit where 12-year-old kid Madison Russell (Milly Bobby Brown) strolls out of the heavily fortified, heavily guarded lair of master-terrorist Jonah (Charles Dance) carrying a vital piece of technology that can communicate with and summon the monsters.  She then manages to set up the device and operate it in Kenway Park, home-ground of the Boston Red Sox.  Wow.   When I was 12 years old, I was still having problems tying a knot correctly in my school tie.

 

© Toho Studios

 

Brown’s Madison Russell character is, unfortunately, back in Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs Kong and the chasms in plot logic are as gaping as they were before.  Here, she and a couple of conspiracy-theory-obsessed associates infiltrate, no, wander into the premises of a secretive corporation called Apex, which they suspect is up to no good.  With almost no visible effort, this motley collection of teenagers / conspiracy nuts discovers and breaks into a series of secret subterranean levels that are full of futuristic technology.  Apex might be the bees’ knees when it comes to developing high-tech gizmos, but they are evidently shit at hiring competent security staff.

 

The human characters involved in the film’s other main storyline, played by Alexander Skarsgård and Rebecca Hall (who, by accident or design in this movie, looks a bit like New Zealand premier Jacinda Ahern), fare no better.  They’re saddled with a don’t-even-try-to-think-about-it subplot where they join an expedition, sponsored by that shifty Apex corporation, to travel to the fabled ‘hollow earth’ alluded to by previous movies in the franchise.  To get there, they need to use King Kong to lead them, like a giant homing pigeon or upstream-swimming salmon, through the labyrinthine tunnels that connect it with the earth’s surface.  The hollow earth, which looks like the planet in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) with some gravity-defying upside-down bits, is not only the home of Kong’s ancestors but also the location of a new energy source that Apex are keen to procure.  Once they find the energy source, they promptly download it to a computer in Hong Kong.  Yes, download it.  Don’t ask me how.

 

But I’ll try to be positive.  What did I like about Godzilla vs Kong?  Well, the first battle between the kaiju is a cracker.  Godzilla erupts out of the waves to confront Kong, who’s chained to the deck of one of a fleet of battleships and aircraft carriers, and the two beasties then slug it out while hopping from one beleaguered ship’s deck to another.  The sequence put in mind slightly of the 1974 Bond film Live and Let Die, in which Roger Moore escapes to safety by using some bobbing alligators as stepping stones.

 

Also, I liked the character of the little girl who learns to communicate secretly with Kong via sign language.  Played with a charming simplicity and straightforwardness by Kaylee Hottle, who in real life is a member of the deaf community, she wins more of the audience’s sympathy than all the synthetic, going-through-the-motions adult characters put together.

 

And I liked Milly Bobby Brown’s nerdy friend Josh, who gets unwillingly roped into her scheme to infiltrate Apex.  This is partly because he’s played by Julian Dennison from Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and partly because when we first meet him he’s listening to Breaking the Law by Judas Priest.

 

And I liked how, two-thirds of the way through, a third classic kaiju, one who made his debut in 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, suddenly shows up to give Kong and Godzilla a common foe.  It’s just a pity that the ensuing stramash, which takes place in Hong Kong, feels a bit second-hand.  Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) has already featured giant organic monsters and giant robotic ones beating the crap out of each other in Hong Kong.  Also, the final denouement, involving a heavily foreshadowed flask of whisky, is stupid even by the recent standards of this franchise.

 

At the end of the day, I can’t say I liked Godzilla vs Kong any more than Godzilla: King of the Monsters.  The earlier film at least treated us to spectacular re-imaginings of some of Toho Studio’s kaiju heavyweights, including the vicious three-headed dragon King Ghidorah, the scaly giant Pteranodon Rodan and the vast gorgeous lepidopteran Mothra.  The new film doesn’t have that level of interest, seeing as we’ve already met Godzilla and Kong in previous films.

 

At least I managed to see Godzilla vs Kong on a big screen, for this was my first outing to a cinema during the Covid-19 pandemic since I saw Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020) in one last summer.  That no doubt made the film appear more spectacular than if I’d seen it, streamed, on a domestic-sized screen.  And I have to say that in this large-sized format the film certainly held the attentions of the Sri Lankan kids and teenagers whom I watched it alongside.

 

I’m not, however, in any rush to see a fifth instalment in the MonsterVerse franchise.  Unless they figure out a way of getting Gamera into Movie Number Five.

 

© Daiei Film / Kadokawa Daiei Studio