Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure
by Artemis Cooper
Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died in 2011 at the age of 96, enjoyed - by any objective standard - an extraordinary life. A handsome polyglot polymath, as attractive in separate (though bisecting) ways to men as to women, an unconventional war hero, superb literary stylist, renowned conversationalist and possessor of a scintillating, magpie mind defied and contradicted easy labels.
An independent-minded, scholastic misfit, at the age of 18 Leigh Fermor set off to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Aided by numerous letters of introduction, he was warmly welcomed into a world about to vanish forever in the ashes of Nazism and its communist aftermath.
Decades later, he wrote about this experience of a still largely Ruritanian Europe in the critically acclaimed A Time of Gifts.
During the second world war, he led a Special Operations Executive team behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied Crete. There he masterminded the kidnap of a German general, for which he was decorated. This exploit was made into a film, Ill-Met By Moonlight, in 1957.
As a literary stylist, Leigh Fermor had few equals. The Traveller's Tree, his account of a late 1940s Caribbean journey, is an erudite, beautifully written travel literature classic; his books on Greece are essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in that country.
His biographer Artemis Cooper was significantly helped (and somewhat hindered) by the fact that she had known her subject since early childhood and, like many others, she clearly adored him. Nevertheless, Cooper manages to acknowledge certain less appealing aspects of his character that did not make "Paddy" universally beloved. Like all talented chancers who have had to make their own way in the world, Leigh Fermor's charm was a two-edged sword; not everyone was entranced by his sometimes-overpowering charisma. After one not very successful meeting, English playwright and author Somerset Maugham acidulously summed him up as a "middle-class gigolo for upper-class women".
Leigh Fermor's pre-war relationship with a Romanian princess, with whom he lived for four years (without any other source of income) before the outbreak of war in Europe, closely formed his outlook on life. While his long, evidently happy marriage to Joan Eyres-Monsell was greatly helped by the fact that she had comfortable independent means, theirs was nevertheless a relationship of great and enduring friendship.
In a brief note, found shortly after his death, he wrote: "Love to all, and kindness to all friends, and thank you all for a life of great happiness." Leigh Fermor's incredible range of fabulous enthusiasms make this book a joy to read. And the marvellously multi-faceted life that it so richly depicts was, ultimately, an enviable one.