Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper, John Murray, RRP£25, 464 pages
Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died last year aged 96, had a facility for bringing together worlds usually considered incompatible. Here was a war hero who was also one of the great English prose stylists; who adored Greece and Britain with equal passion; and who was celebrated for his love of both high and low-living. His masterpiece, A Time of Gifts (1977), an account of the first stage of his 1933-34 walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (“like a tramp, a pilgrim, or a wandering scholar”) has his 18-year-old self moving from doss-houses to Danubian ducal fortresses: “There is much to recommend moving straight from straw to a four-poster,” he writes, “and then back again.”
One of the world’s great walkers, Leigh Fermor was also a writer of great erudition and intelligence, reading widely in at least eight languages. He was gregarious and talkative, loved “saxophone-haunted nightclubs” and, according to Artemis Cooper’s magnificent new biography, was an enthusiastic explorer of Mediterranean brothels. Yet he also appreciated the ascetic and understood “the capacity for solitude and the recollectedness and clarity of spirit that accompany the silent monastic life ... [where] the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away.”
Cooper’s book is the perfect memorial to this remarkable man. She had known him (he was Paddy to his friends) since her childhood and has written a lovingly admiring account of his life which is as full of joie de vivre as its subject. She is not uncritical, and is aware of Leigh Fermor’s frailties: his insensitivities and infidelities. She shows that he was not always the ebullient figure often sighted, glass in hand, at book launches: he frequently suffered from depression and writer’s block. She reminds us that editing a piece of lifeless prose was to him, “deadening, heartbreaking mortician’s work,” like “rougeing and curling a corpse.”
The mythic outlines of Leigh Fermor’s life are well-known. His most famous moment was in April 1944 when, against almost impossible odds, he led the British team that kidnapped the Nazi commander of Crete; but the rest of his life was no less filmic. He went to an experimental school, later closed down, where nude eurhythmics welcomed the rising of the sun. He took part in one of the last cavalry charges on European soil and had a prolonged love affair with a Byzantine princess, the last of the Cantacuzenes. He became the focus of a Cretan blood feud, and attended Molotov cocktail lessons in Palestine and voodoo ceremonies in Haiti. He was beaten up by Irish huntsmen after asking if they buggered their foxes and his car was bombed by communists. Well into his sixties, in homage to Byron, he swam the Hellespont.
He also found the time to pen some of the most beautiful travel books ever written. While his prose – with its “truffled style and dense plumage”, according to Lawrence Durrell, “madly, intoxicatingly overwritten” – is beyond any sane attempt at imitation, his travel books became models for generations of British writers of non-fiction, including Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron, Rory Stewart and Robert Macfarlane. All were inspired by the character he created, that of the erudite literary wanderer striding over mountain passes, notebook in hand.
In several places Cooper gently polishes away at the accumulated crust of legend that has begun to cling to Leigh Fermor’s breastplate. She reveals, for example, the moral dilemmas he suffered during his work with the Cretan resistance, when the Nazis wiped out whole villages in response to an ambush.
Cooper also shows that Leigh Fermor didn’t resign from the British Council in Athens after the war as he used to claim: he was sacked by the other great Hellenophile of his generation, Steven Runciman, who didn’t know what to do with Leigh Fermor and wasn’t prepared to pay for him to sit in his office “throwing a party, sitting with his feet on the desk and entertaining a stream of Cretan visitors,” as one colleague recalled. The classicist Maurice Bowra, also in Greece at the time, declared Leigh Fermor, probably correctly, as “unfit for office work.”
Cooper also reveals that, unlike almost all the other British writers of the 1930s, he was actively and successfully heterosexual from the outset. The walk across Europe was accompanied by many a tumble in a village haystack that the author, with his prewar codes of reticence and honour, does not even hint at in his books. He seems to have remained a generous lover until the end. “Most men are just take, take, take,” reported one of his girlfriends, “but with Paddy it’s give, give, give.”
His one drawback in this department seems to have been his tendency to attract pubic lice: “The crabs of the world seem to fly to me,” he writes apologetically to another girlfriend who complained she had found an embarrassing parasite on her eyebrow. “On getting your letter, I made a dash for privacy and thrashed through the undergrowth, but found everything almost eerily calm ... The whole thing makes me scratch my head, if I may so put it.”
The last decade has seen the death of the many of our greatest travellers – Wilfred Thesiger, Eric Newby, Norman Lewis – and it is interesting that almost all of them came home in the end. Despite his years in Greece and the Balkans, and for all that he dreaded the damp of England – which he described as “like living in the heart of a lettuce” – Leigh Fermor remained almost absurdly English; to the end, he was completely certain that he wished to be buried in England rather than his adopted home of Greece. His funeral took place at Dumbleton in Worcestershire, where he lies beside his wife, Joan.
For those of us who loved him and his work, and for a whole generation of writers who set off in his footsteps, he was the exemplar, showing how magnificently an English life could still be lived. He remains – pubic lice apart – the model to which we still aspire.
William Dalrymple’s next book, ‘Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan’ is published by Bloomsbury in February