Nomad who lived in caves and palaces

The review you have all been waiting for from the Daily Mail.

By Philip Marsden

First published in The Daily Mail, 15 October 2012.

Patrick Leigh Fermor was, to his many fans, a child of the gods. He was good-looking, charming and adventurous, his conversation a stream of brilliant references, jokes and anecdotes. He could recite poetry and sing songs in more than half a dozen languages. ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely,’ suggested one of his circle, ‘if Paddy came in pill-form so you could take one whenever you felt depressed.’

He was also a war hero. He spent a good deal of time behind German lines in Crete, and was awarded the DSO for capturing the island’s commander General Kreipe.

For rest and recreation he would slip across the sea to Cairo where he was at the centre of a group of fearless officers who lived and partied at a villa on the Nile. The baths were filled with alcohol and, for Christmas 1942, they served turkey stuffed with Benzedrine.

Yet in terms of his legacy, Leigh Fermor’s high jinks are far outweighed by his meticulously crafted writing. He produced prose of such lyrical power that almost single-handedly he freed travel writing from its backwater and pushed it into the literary mainstream.

Nowhere did his life and his writing combine to greater effect than in his masterpiece A Time Of Gifts. The book tells the story, the  first part at least, of his year-long, pre-war hike from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. He was 18. At one moment he might be sleeping in a cave in the Carpathians, at the next in a schloss or palace.

He makes friends wherever he goes. He has a number of dream-like affairs until he meets a Romanian woman, Balasha, with whom, until the war five years later, he lives and travels – alternately in Greece and on  her family estate in the forests  of Moldova. Life for Leigh Fermor continued in much the same way after the war. But now the Soviet shadow lay across much of the old Europe he knew.

The more poignant moments of Artemis Cooper’s captivating biography come from the intertwined story of Balasha. ‘They do not want us, our education and culture any more,’ she wrote to him in 1946. Years later, Leigh Fermor slipped into Ceausescu’s Romania to find her living in an attic.

For two days they laughed and reminisced, but loss and hardship had aged her. He left undetected, and set up a postal account for  her in a London bookshop.

For most of the Fifties, Leigh Fermor was on the move – flitting between Paris and Devon, monasteries in Normandy, a  half-ruined palace near Rome  and his beloved Greece.

He wrote and read and fell in and out of love. But increasingly he found himself returning to a photographer he had first met in Cairo, Joan Rayner.

It was a strange and open relationship. They finally married in 1968, and built the house in Greece where they lived for the rest of their lives.

It is not easy writing a biography of someone who has poured so much of his own life into his books, but Artemis Cooper has done a brilliant job.

The story rips along, as Leigh Fermor’s life did, with friends and lovers, books and journeys and parties, all milling and jostling around him in a noisy and joyous throng.

And in the quieter moments we are left with something far more enduring: a man for whom the world was endlessly fascinating, and who found that he could recreate for his readers with carefully crafted words the same wonder that it gave him.

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.


1 thought on “Nomad who lived in caves and palaces

  1. alexandraco46

    a delight! a delight the biography too. To be honest, I stopped for 2 days reading the biography before the chapter “Balasha”. Then I read it! And then I stopped again for another 2 days…


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