Charles Moore reviews ‘Patrick Leigh Fermor: an Adventure’ by Artemis Cooper (John Murray)
By Charles Moore
First published in the Daily Telegraph 08 October 2012.
The single most famous story about Patrick Leigh Fermor is his kidnap of the German General Kreipe in occupied Crete in 1944. The fugitive party of two British officers and three Cretans spent an uncomfortable night on the slopes of Mount Ida. As the dawn broke, and lit the mountain, Leigh Fermor heard the General muttering the first line of Horace’s Ode to Thaliarchus: “See, Soracte’s mighty peak stands deep in virgin snow.” Leigh Fermor recognised the Latin, and quoted the rest of the poem. As he later put it, “…for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”
This moment of ancient, shared civilisation overcoming a terrible present is a great theme. It is the subject, for example, of Jean Renoir’s film La Grande Illusion, in which a French and a German officer on opposite sides in the First World War feel that they share what really matters.
Leigh Fermor’s long life (he died last year aged 96) was full of dash, variety and colour. He wrote beautifully, and entranced beautiful women. He was physically brave, and travelled widely, intrepidly and observantly. He was, in a self-taught way, learned, and a superb linguist. He could sing, dance, compose impromptu poetry and make everyone laugh. He and his wife Joan built a house in Greece of such character and interest that John Betjeman called it “a book in itself”. He was a war hero and, like Byron, a model for many aspiring writers greedy to combine art and life, rather than choosing between one and the other. I knew Paddy a bit myself, and I have never met a man with more charm, by which I mean the ability to create in his interlocutor the feeling of pleasure and possibility. But was it all a grande illusion, a wonderful holiday from reality?
Artemis Cooper was a family friend of Leigh Fermor, and loved him dearly. This excellent, well-sourced book is sympathetic to him. But she is aware of how he could be painted differently, and states the case. Was he, for example, a show-off and a sponger (he was chronically short of money and depended heavily on Joan’s private income)? Was he, as Somerset Maugham put it, “a middle-class gigolo for upper-class women”? Was he, both in life and art, a sort of Peter Pan, shying away from anything grown-up (such as fatherhood), always looking for a Wendy so that he could go on having smiling, heartless fun? He was once asked to contribute to a book about great parties in history with the astonishing title of Memorable Balls: does the phrase fit the life of Patrick Leigh Fermor?
There are certainly moments when it feels like it. The information that Joan used to give him cash so that he could visit prostitutes is one. So – though there is artistic reason for it – is his tendency to present the product of his imagination as fact. Some even argue that the famous kidnap was a piece of useless swagger – what Kreipe called a “hussar-stunt” – which ensured that the Cretans, in reprisal, were treated even more bestially by the Germans.
One cannot ignore these criticisms, and Leigh Fermor felt them himself. Like many delightful, gregarious companions, he doubted whether he deserved to be loved. But, in Artemis Cooper’s convincing reading, he wins in the end.
First, he wins as a friend. He was always grateful to people who helped him (not a well-known characteristic of most writers). He thanked them beautifully, and he did what he could to help them in return. He was famously hospitable, and his life was cluttered by efforts to advance the careers of others, particularly impecunious Greeks. As an editor, I quite often asked Paddy to write things. Most commissions would be refused or – he was famous for this – arrive incredibly late, but whenever I asked him to contribute a memoir of a friend who had just died, he did it with great speed and generosity.
Second, he wins as a writer. Not everyone likes what Lawrence Durrell called (in praise) his “truffled style”, but, unlike so much “fine writing”, it is saved by its energy and wit, its close attention to detail, and its astonishing virtuosity.
I think the friendships and the art went together. Leigh Fermor was profoundly sensitive to human character, particularly in its oddities. His interest in peasants, or monks, or petty gentry, cut off from industrialisation, his fascination with their traditions and customs, their languages and dialects (the more obscure the better) was a human interest, not an academic one. He loved them, and he wanted to rescue and decorate their story.
His most famous books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, describe his journey on foot, which began in 1933, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. They capture, with painterly vividness, what he saw and whom he met. And because those scenes and people were almost obliterated by the Second World War and then by communism, by writing about them afterwards, he gave them the eternal status of literature rather than mere memoir.
In the early Seventies, Greek television did a sort of This is Your Life, in which Leigh Fermor was reunited with his Cretan companions and with General Kreipe himself. How had Paddy treated him, journalists asked the general. “Ritterlich. Wie ein Ritter,” Kreipe replied – “Chivalrously. Like a knight.” Possibly such virtues are dead, but if so, we are the poorer. In life and in literature, Patrick Leigh Fermor proved that chivalry was not all illusion.