How can one live as a sponger?

Yes indeed. How can one live as a sponger? Quite well apparently if Paddy’s letters are to be believed. Sara Wheeler was clearly not that impressed by Paddy the man but she does like the book.

An extract from a Guardian book review by Sara Wheeler

The late Patrick Leigh Fermor was born 11 years before Morris, and the pair have long shone among the brightest stars in the travel writing firmament. Besides Artemis Cooper’s biography, we have recently had a selection of letters between PLF and Deborah Devonshire (In Tearing Haste). This new offering, Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor, contains 174 letters spanning 70 years, from 1940 to 2010. What does it add?

When the volume opens our man is a 24-year-old officer cadet. Besides the chronological spread, the book has a geographical one, ranging from what is now Cameroon to Panama via Cyprus (Leigh Fermor devotes many fascinating pages to the 1956 Cyprus crisis). Much was written in the house the Leigh Fermors built in the 1960s in the Greek Mani.

Many characters and episodes are new. Lady Wentworth emerges wearing “a gigantic and very dishevelled auburn wig that looked as though it was made of strands from her stallions’ tails gathered off brambles”. Errol Flynn is “a tremendous shit but a very funny one”, and Leigh Fermor reports from his own groin, where he notes “troop movements in the fork” and has to tell an adulterous girlfriend that he has pubic lice. The references to Mt Athos are topical, given that Putin is buying up the holy mountain.

Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor is hugely entertaining, funny and occasionally moving. Leigh Fermor was a prodigious and discerning reader and his literary comments are a joy. He quotes in French, Greek, Latin, Romanian and Russian. As a counterweight, in almost every letter he conjures a scene, whether “a square pool of icy starlight in the cloisters” or Greece in autumn, “suddenly clean deep earth and vegetation colours after the rain, lighter veils of shadow cast by solids, evening air the colour of hock, pale magnesium shadows, clarity of vision … all the way to Mars”. Diana Cooper is one of his most regular correspondents. PLF describes her letter-writing as “dazzling hell-for-leather style” – the phrase applies to his own style just as well.

One tires of the endless references to titled friends. It undignifies the writer, almost irretrievably
Adam Sisman has edited the book brilliantly and meticulously. At times he is wittier than Leigh Fermor. The great man, the reader learns from Sisman’s note, has been commissioned to contribute a chapter to a book “with the arresting title Memorable Balls”.

Great fun it might all be, but the reader balks at the man who emerges from these pages. First, how can one live as a sponger? PLF spent most of the years covered here cadging opulent dwellings from rich friends. If the accommodation isn’t up to scratch, he complains, describing a “scribbling stopgap” on the Greek island of Evia as “hellish”. I’ve spent many weeks in that particular house. It’s lovely. But it’s small, plain and simple, so not to his maj’s liking. Second, one tires of the endless references to titled friends. It demeans the writer, almost irretrievably. The people he lives among in his Greek village, on the other hand, “are so backward they don’t know the difference between nice and nasty”.

… one is left wondering about the inner life. Leigh Fermor talks of “whorish anxieties about being liked”, as if everyone doesn’t have them, and bouts of “melancholia”. Who knows? As Morris wrote: “Is that how it was?”

Buy Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor

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