Saturday, 10 October 2020

Seferis, Leigh Fermor and the Cyprus crisis

The above programme is from Greek TV in 1972; it's an episode of This is Your Life involving the British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, known as much for his books on the Mani and Roumeli as for his exploits in Nazi-occupied Crete, where as an SOE officer he executed with the Cretan resistance the kidnap  of the island’s senior German commander, General Heinrich Kreipe, an incident captured in the 1957 Powell & Pressburger film Ill Met By Moonlight, in which Leigh Fermor is portrayed by Dirk Bogarde.

In the moving and almost surreal TV show, Leigh Fermor is reunited not only with two of the Cretan fighters involved in the kidnap, Manolis Paterakis and Giorgos Tyrakis, but with the unfortunate Kreipe himself!

I've been thinking a bit about Leigh Fermor recently. I’ve never read any of his books on Greece, but he does crop up as part of the Katsimbalis circle, the group of Greek, British and American writers brought together by the literary critic and publisher, Giorgos Katsimbalis, the eponymous Colossus of Maroussi as depicted by Henry Miller.

Katsimbalis was responsible in the 1930s for launching the literary careers of, among others, Giorgos Seferis, Odysseas Elytis and Giorgos Theotokas, though his idol was the poet of the Megali Idea, an Idea Katsimbalis shared, Kostis Palamas. The American and British writers and intellectuals involved in the Katsimbalis circle included Steven Runciman, Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller, the translator Rex Warner, Osbert Lancaster, Leigh Fermor, Philip Sherrard – all of whom, through their intimacy with Katsimbalis and the Greek poets in his circle, developed a passion for and knowledge of Greece, which they converted into literature that inspired a generation of Britons and Americans sympathetic to Hellenism.

However, this Anglo-Greek circle was ruptured by the Cyprus crisis in the 1950s, which pitted Greek against British nationalism.

Seferis, in particular, was deeply involved in the struggle of Cypriot Hellenism. The poet and diplomat was an ardent admirer of Makarios and strong supporter of Grivas and the armed revolt he led – regarding it as pure and just as the Cretan resistance to Germany Leigh Fermor participated in – and as such Seferis cut off all contact with Britons he knew during this period.

I’ve not been able to find any explicit details regarding Leigh Fermor and Cyprus – whether he supported Greek demands or British imperialism – but he was one of the Britons Seferis broke with; although, unlike with Durrell – who not only moved to Cyprus during the EOKA revolt, but was also recruited into the colonial administration’s Information Office (Seferis refers to Durrell as assuming the role of a gauleiter) from where he argued for the virtues of continuing British rule in Cyprus and, indeed, that the Cypriots were not Greeks and their demands for Enosis illegitimate – relations with Leigh Fermor were later resumed.

Nevertheless, the bitterness of the rupture was sincere, particularly on the side of the Greeks, who felt their British friends, who they had embraced, trusted and guided, were little more than parasites and hypocrites.

On 18 April, 1955 – two weeks after EOKA began its armed struggle to unite Cyprus to Greece – Katismbalis, the Venizelist and veteran of the Macedonian campaign, the attempt to liberate Ionia and the Albanian epos, wrote to Seferis:

»Είμαι μπαρουτιασμένος με τους φίλους μας τους Άγγλους… Είναι όλοι τους πούστηδες και καθίκια (και δεν εξαιρώ κανέναν εκτός από το Ρεξ και τον Όσπμερτ – ίσως).»