From The Tablet – Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure

My thanks to David Platzer who wrote this review of An Adventure for the 1 December issue of The Tablet. It is the first time an article from the Catholic organ has made an appearance on the blog.

By David Platzer.

At the beginning of this splendid biography, Artemis Cooper tells us that one of the very first books Patrick Leigh Fermor, Paddy to his friends, ever read was Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill,  a  favourite to which Leigh Fermor yearly returned, along with another Kipling gem, Kim, until the end of his long life.  There was a bit of Puck in Leigh Fermor. To this was added a Buchan hero’s dash and a spice of Byron in good looks, a reputation as  heroes in Greece and both being published by John Murray. Byron and Leigh Fermor possessed as well a sympathy for Catholicism without ever converting even if Leigh Fermor identified himself as ‘R.C.’ during the Second World War.

The war made Leigh Fermor famous when, while fighting with the Greek Resistance he led the kidnap of General Kreipe, German Divisional Commander in Crete.  Any other  writer would have wasted little time in turning his wartime adventures into a book as did Fitzroy Maclean  did with regard to his experiences in Yugoslavia. Leigh Fermor was happy to let his comrade-in-arms, William Stanley Moss, tell their story; as it happened, Moss’s Ill Met by Moonlight, filmed by Michael Powell with Dirk Bogarde playing Leigh Fermor,only enhanced Leigh Fermor’s legend.   Leigh Fermor made his literary fame with The Traveller’s Tree, one of the few books that  James Bond is known to have read.  Years later Leigh Fermor finally did he accept a commission to write an article about his war; typically, the chronically dilatory Leigh Fermor was eleven months late in filing 36;000 words of  ‘Abducting the General’, well over the 5,000 limit specified. Cooper, Antony Beevor’s wife,  discusses in detail Leigh Fermor’s war. This included two darker moments, Leigh Fermor’s accidental shooting dead of a Cretan resistant and the killing, to Leigh Fermor’s horror,  of General Kreipe’s driver by the two Greeks guarding him.

Leigh Fermor’s dilatoriness was the cross of the long-suffering John Murray who died, still waiting for the third volume of the trilogy of Leigh Fermor’s masterpiece portraying his walk in his late teens from Holland to Constantinople in the Thirties. The always hard-up  Leigh Fermor approached his work as if he was a leisured gentleman writer,  blessed with unlimited time in which to write and re-write, his ‘Penelope-ising’, as his friend, the poet George Seferis, put it. He was fortunate indeed in his wife Joan, Wendy to his Peter Pan, who possessed the private income he lacked. Artemis  Cooper, who knew her subject  as a family friend, doesn’t shirk mentioning that Joan not only looked the other way to her companion’s sexual infidelities but even encouraged them.  Though Joan gave up sleeping with Leigh Fermor fairly early in their relationship and long before their marriage, she didn’t expect him to be celibate.  One is reminded of the biographer’s own grandparents, Duff and Diana Cooper, also bound together by a deeper link than the merely physical.

Other than his army pay in wartime and a brief stint at the British Council in Athens, Leigh Fermor never earned a salary and Cooper quotes Somerset Maugham’s description of him as ‘a middle class gigolo for upper class women.’  Maugham, always touchy about his speech impediment, was miffed by Leigh Fermor’s bibulous jokes about stammerers at the octogerian author’s table; nevertheless,  Maugham’s fiction often celebrates cheeky adventurers triumphing at the expense of rectitude and the remark may  have been more a compliment than a barb.  Friends and lovers found he earned his keep through his kindly thoughtfulness. ‘Most men are just take, take, take,’ Ricci Huston, one of Leigh Fermor’s loves said, ‘…with Paddy, it’s give,give, give.’ A few of Leigh Fermor’s  acquaintanceship found that his boisterousness, the frequent singing in nine different languages, often for his supper, and  the dazzling flow of erudition a little too much of a good thing. For the overwhelming majority, however, whether aristocrats or peasants, he was always welcome.  This enthralling biography may well convert even those sceptical to the charm of this endearing sprite, luckier than any Jim,  who succeeded in his early ambition of making his life into a novel.

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