The Royal Geographical Society was full to overflowing last week to hear Colin Thubron in conversation with Artemis Cooper, the accomplished biographer of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Memory, as we all know, can be an unreliable witness. As Cooper explained, Paddy, who died at the age of 96 last year, was a story teller: a complex man who struggled with depression, who loved life, who loved people, but who at his heart was intensely private. It amused me when I first arrived in Greece that everyone we met seemed to have a ‘Paddy’ story: rather like Princess Diana he was one of those charismatic icons that everyone wanted to own: a living legend. It was appropriate that he chose the wild Mani at Kardymili for his home, for it is a land of heroes and myths.
By Lauren O’Hara.
Published in The Cyprus Mail 3 November, 2012
It was brave of Cooper to tackle the question of the elaboration of truth, the ability of PLF like any good raconteur to give edited highlights: to cut and paste to make the tale more engaging: the spirit rather than the letter of historical accuracy.
She took head on too, the reasons for his mixed reception in Crete, the place where he won a DSO for the daring capture of General Kreipe. The place where he was parachuted in by British intelligence to live in the wilds, as a shepherd, to organise the Cretan resistance: the place where he was immortalised on celluloid, forever, by the dashing casting of Dirk Bogarde.
But there was a dark side: the accidental killing by Paddy, mishandling a loaded gun, of his comrade in arms in the Cretan resistance, Yanni Tsangarakis. It resulted in a long blood feud, after the war, leaving Paddy with a death vendetta on his head. Yanni’s family finally forgave him, but you cannot help but wonder if Paddy ever forgave himself. Cooper also tackled the terrible reprisals that happened as the Germans withdrew from Crete killing many of the men in the villages, and astutely blaming not Paddy but that policy, still used in wars today, which sees Special Operations’ forces sabotage and create havoc and then leave. For as we see in the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan it is always, however grateful for the intervention, those left behind that count the cost in lives and revenge.
A year ago we were at a party at Paddy’s house to celebrate his life and legacy which left the house as a permanent memorial to the Benaki Foundation: a ‘study centre’ – to be used for writers, scholars and historians. Inevitably, given the limitations of money, for the house comes with no endowment, plans will take time to unfold. Meanwhile, those lucky enough to go will find it full of the spirit of the man: to be loved even more, perhaps, once this biography humanises the hero, for like the Greek gods that squabble and feast in the high mountains behind the house, flawed heroes are far more fun.