Patrick Leigh Fermor led one of the most enviable of 20th-century lives. The usual difficulty confronting the biographer of another writer – that the subject did little but sit at a desk and write – does not apply here.
By Roger Hutchinson
First published in The Scotsman 20 October 2012
Once he knuckled down to it, Leigh Fermor loved playing around with words. He was one of our greatest stylists and he was devoted to producing unimprovable books. But writing did not come easily to him, at least partly because it was something of a distraction from the main event, which was living an unimprovable life.
The difficulty in this case is rather how to tell the story of an inimicable writer whose own published work, from the travelogues to the letters, was itself autobiographical, without producing an inferior cover version. Patrick Leigh Fermor has a legion of devoted fans who can recite the story of his wartime abduction of General Heinrich Kreipe, for instance, by rote – and often do. In describing Leigh Fermor’s life, Artemis Cooper had often to revisit a told tale while correcting detail, expounding and inserting context. It was not an easy commission, and she has delivered it brilliantly. Cooper’s biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor is subtitled “An Adventure”. That is how we will remember him, as one of the post-imperial explorers; as a man who refused to accept that there were no undiscovered cultural territories left, even within the crowded borders of Europe.
To summarise his adult life: as a restless 18-year-old in 1933, Paddy Leigh Fermor crossed the Channel and then walked from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, as this most philhellene of modern philhellenes would always call Istanbul.
During the Second World War he joined the Special Operations Executive, who parachuted him into German-occupied Crete. There he liaised comfortably with Cretan partisans and bandits to pull off one of the war’s greatest coups de théâtre: the abduction and safe delivery to Allied captivity of a German commander, General Heinrich Kreipe.
After the war he travelled widely but was always drawn back to Greece. He built a house on the Mani peninsula – which had been, significantly, the only part of Magna Graecia to resist Ottoman colonisation since the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Before his death last year at the age of 96, he wrote some of the most acclaimed travel books of the 20th century.
Two of those books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water told of the first two-thirds of his walk through pre-war Europe. Artemis Cooper is surely right to lay great significance on that particular adventure. Wherever else he went – Leigh Fermor’s first book, The Traveller’s Tree, was about the Caribbean, and he later published three long letters from the Andes – Europe retained his fascination and Greece, the wellspring of Europe, remained his muse.
Walking from Holland to Turkey gave the young Leigh Fermor a pedestrian’s-eye view of an interconnected continent. He saw how customs and dialects changed gradually, mile after mile, from one valley to the next. He used his facility with languages to tease out links between apparently independent cultures. In Cooper’s words, he acquired a “three-dimensional panorama of Europe … both in memory and imagination”.
That panorama, that cultural and historical landscape, was Leigh Fermor’s uncharted territory. His walking companions in the hills of northern Greece would dread the sight of a lonely shepherd, for Paddy would invariably stop and interrogate the man for half-an-hour while his friends kicked their heels and looked nervously at the sinking sun. But Leigh Fermor was not passing the time of day. He was exploring.
Since their deaths, inventions, embellishments and fantasies in the travelogues of Bruce Chatwin and Ryszard Kapusciski have become the subject of critical examination. If any modern travel writer’s experiences seem to skirt the borders of mythology, they would be those of Patrick Leigh Fermor. But Artemis Cooper acquits him of making up anything substantial. He did not in fact ride across the whole of the Great Hungarian Plain. He walked most of it. But “I decided to put myself on horseback for a bit. I thought the reader might be getting bored of me just plodding along … you won’t tell anyone, will you?”
Different characters were sometimes conflated into one person for literary convenience. “Paddy was making a novel of his life,” writes Cooper. That may be so. His working title for the transcontinental epic was Parallax, which suggests a degree of displacement from reality. But if so, it was a novel based firmly on non-fiction. Cooper is nonetheless right to query the spirit if not the detail of what has become, for male readers at least, one of the most memorable incidents in Paddy’s travels.
He was swimming naked in a central European river with a young aristocrat when – according to Leigh Fermor – two young peasant girls teased them from the bank. A chase ensued, which resulted in an orgy in a hayrick. All very Cider With Rosie, but Cooper wonders “were Rumanian peasant girls really so spontaneous and easy-going?” It appears that female migrant harvest workers of the time were “expected to oblige young gentlemen of the estate”. A carefree romp in the hay in the years before Europe burned may actually have been the cynical exercise of droit de seigneur.
If so, it was one of the last occasions that Patrick Leigh Fermor resorted to demanding sex. Peregrine Worsthorne tells of how, as a young man in post-war London, he occasionally found his chatting up of a pretty debutante abruptly curtailed by the arrival in their company of a dashing, handsome war hero, newly arrived from Jamaica or Rhodes and with the tan to prove it. Exit debutante, on Leigh Fermor’s arm.
His partnership with and then marriage to Joan Raynor was an open relationship, at least on Leigh Fermor’s side. More than that: Raynor’s inheritance subsidised his peripatetic life at least until the enormous success of A Time of Gifts in the late 1970s, which in turn created a new market for his previous volumes about Greece, Mani and Roumeli.
Like most enviable lives, it was far from blameless. Wounded women were littered in his wake. Some British visitors to Athens were less than impressed by this Englishman who posed as “more Greek than the Greeks”.
Some Greeks shared their disdain. Revisionist historians criticised his role in wartime Crete, and warned their fellow Hellenes that for all his fluency and charm, Leigh Fermor was no latterday Byron. His unoccupied car was blown up outside his Mani house, probably by members of the Greek Communist Party which he had vocally opposed. The accidental fatal shooting of a partisan in Crete led to a long blood feud which made it difficult for Leigh Fermor to re-enter the island until the 1970s, and possibly explains why he chose to settle in the Peloponnese rather than among the hills and harbours of his dreams.
His own books have already eclipsed those incidents, not only among readers of English but also in Greece, where in 2007 the government of his adopted land made him a Commander of the Order of the Phoenix for services to literature.
Travel writers such as Jan Morris have described Leigh Fermor as the master of their trade and its greatest exponent in the 20th century.
When A Time of Gifts was published in 1977, Frederick Raphael wrote: “One feels he could not cross Oxford Street in less than two volumes; but then what volumes they would be!”
They are not for everyone. Leigh Fermor wrote that written English is a language whose Latinates need pegging down with simple Anglo-Saxonisms, and some feel that he personally could have made more and better use of the mallet. His exuberance is either captivating or florid. It is certainly unique among English prose styles.
Artemis Cooper says that “Paddy had found a way of writing that could deploy a lifetime’s reading and experience, while never losing sight of his ebullient, well-meaning and occasionally clumsy 18-year-old self … this was a wonderful way of disarming his readers, who would then be willing to follow him into the wildest fantasies and digressions”.
Those fantasies and digressions took decades to express. A Time of Gifts had arguably been 40 years in the making when it was published in 1977. Its sequel, Between the Woods and the Water, did not appear until 1986.
The third and final volume has been awaited ever since. Following Leigh Fermor’s death, a foot-high manuscript was apparently found on his desk. It will be published next year.
In the meantime, Artemis Cooper offers us an abridged version of his last leg through Romania and Bulgaria to European Turkey. He stayed a while in Constantinople, we learn, before taking a boat via Salonika to Mount Athos early in 1935.
Greece was his true destination. Constantinople – Istanbul – was by 1935 no more than the cracked shell of Byzantium. From then on his pulse was with the Hellenes. In them he found the root of the European mystery.
From their midst he set out to solve it. It was a quixotic, endless quest. Artemis Cooper’s fine biography gives colour and substance to the adventure, and a delicate, sympathetic portrait of the man who made it his life.
Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure will also be the BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week from 19th November onwards.
You can buy Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure here.
Don’t forget to visit Artemis Cooper’s Facebook page for further information.