Monday 25 April 2016

More from the Mani

Around this little church - Agios Nikolaus in the village of Chora - are scattered the ashes of the writer Bruce Chatwin. He and his friend Patrick Leigh Fermor were especially fond of this church hidden among the olive groves, and used to picnic in its shade, overlooking a glorious view of the Messenian Gulf and the surrounding hills. When Chatwin died in 1989, he left instructions for his ashes to be scattered there, at a site that he believed to be sacred as well as beautiful. A little band led by PLF and Chatwin's wife duly performed the al fresco ceremony, with copious libations along the way.
 Chatwin wrote The Songlines while staying at a hotel near PLF's house at Kalamitsi, the Fermors having balked at the prospect of accommodating him under their roof; one mighty, self-mythologising ego in the place was quite enough.
 The Fermor house at Kalamitsi is still there, and still much as it was when PLF died in 2011 (at the age of 96). It is owned by a Greek museum foundation, with the Patrick Leigh Fermor Society also keenly involved in securing its future. Very soon now, the entire contents of the house will be put into storage while the building is prepared for reopening as a museum - but happily our host had arranged for our little group to be shown around by PLF's housekeeper, Elpida (as seen on TV), while it is still as it was.
 When the Fermors had the house built, it stood quite alone, amid olive groves, and it it still well hidden, even though several buildings have gone up nearby. It is a beautifully designed villa set in an equally beautifully designed terraced garden leading down to the sea and the beach from which PLF swam every day until his knees finally gave out, a few years before his death. The house is cool and airy throughout, the garden full of shady corners, and the whole effect is altogether delightful, not to say idyllic.
 Inside all is indeed as if PLF had just stepped out for a stroll (or one of his epic swims); there has been none of the tidying-up and reordering that can so easily drain the soul out of a literary shrine. There are books and papers, photographs and miscellaneous bric-à-brac everywhere - especially books, of which every room has at least a bookcase-full. They are, for the most part, battered and worn and much read, often almost to destruction - the library of a true reader with an extraordinarily wide range of tastes and interests, all the way from the Greek and Latin classics to Tintin and P.G. Wodehouse and such surprising titles as Fuzz Against Junk (Olympia Press) and The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. In PLF's own bedroom - a decidedly ascetic room - there is only a set of Shakespeare, whom he read in his last years more than any other writer.
 Everything about the house looks as pleasingly worn and ragged as the books. The furniture is battered and miscellaneous, the decor far from smart - except for one room. This is the vast and beautiful sitting room cum library where PLF used to hold court, dazzling and charming his visitors well into his 90s. Coming across a library after having already seen so many hundreds (thousands?) of books is a bit of a shock, but the walls are indeed book-lined, and even roughly classified, though the hand-written labels don't often match what's on the shelves. Even in this relatively smart room there are miscellaneous bits and pieces everywhere - pens and pencils, shells, stones, letter-knives, curling photographs, a Patum Peperium pot... And there are PLF's vinyl LPs - a box-full and a cupboard-full - complementing his collection of tape cassettes, which live in a Bendinck's Buttermints box in another room.
 How much of this characterful disorder will survive when the house eventually opens as a museum remains to be seen. It certainly felt very special to be among the last to see the place as it is now, as the Great Man knew and inhabited it.

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