‘A dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness’
Traveller, writer, adventurer, linguist, war hero and man of letters – amongst other things – Patrick Leigh-Fermor is best known for a super-tramp taken at the tender age of 18 from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul. Setting off in the winter of 1934 and, only returning home at the outbreak of war five years later, he wandered through a Europe on the brink of calamity and one that would soon be sucked into the maelstrom of mechanised violence yet Paddy encountered kindness and hospitality wherever he went. He slept in cow-sheds and country houses, wandered through sparkling winter scenes from Brughal, kindled a love of the Baroque, stalked along mighty rivers and through ancient forests and fell in love; twice. Later, during the war, he gained cult-status amongst the Cretans when he and his men kidnapped General Krieppe in a daring mission on the island. He then spent the next two years living in the mountains and caves of the inner island aiding the resistence.
It was during this capture that one of the best known and most illustrative anecdotes about Paddy was born and one which he always enjoyed telling. One morning when the band had awoken in some dusty cave high in the mountains the General, sat on the rocks, looked out over the landscape where the snow had recently fallen and suddenly said the words “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte…” Paddy, noticing the words, suddenly looked at the general and realised his luck was in, for it was the first line of one of Horace’s odes, and it just so happened to be one of which the young Paddy had memorised from a book given to him by his mother on that long walk many years ago. Paddy, without hesitation, and, here perhaps displaying his enthusiasm for showing off, then reeled off the rest of the poem with ease and when he finally finished there was a long pause, and the General’s blue eyes turned to his and he said “Ach so, Herr Major” “Ja, Ja General” replied Paddy and from then on things were completely different between them. For a moment “the war had ceased to exist, for we had drunk at the same fountains long ago”.
Fermor must have been an extremely challenging prospect for Cooper, for not only did he live the life of three men but he was famously reticent when asked about himself. Paddy was much more interested in other people and other things, completely unboreable by the world and there, I am sure, lies the foundation for much of his charm, his knowledge and his likability – but it is not a position favourable to a biographer seeking to uncover the man behind the legend.
One of the most interesting aspects to come from the book is Paddy’s difficulty in actually writing. He was incredibly slow, writing in longhand and often making a series of edits, notes and patched replacements on his work that must have bordered on complete impenetrability for his long-suffering publisher John Murray. Yet Murray was extremely understanding of Fermor and played an extremely important role in coaxing Paddy’s literary gifts into completed and well-rounded pieces. Another person who undoubtedly helped in this regard is Paddy’s wife Joan, described as ‘very fair, with huge myopic eyes’, who, more than anyone, gave Fermor not only the financial security to write, travel and party at whim but also the calming presence needed to still Paddy’s ever questing yet capricious moods. One gets the sense that such was paddy’s appetite for life, love and discussion that he could have very easily just talked and travelled all his life and never written a word – but even as a young man he had harboured the idea of writing a book and though it was not a physical discipline that came easily to him he had no problems conjuring the words, eloquence and eidetic memory that made him and his books so fascinating.
There is no doubt that this biography is a hugely rewarding and affirming book. It could have delved deeper, sought to reveal more and peeled back more layers but it seems somewhat injurious to the gifts and true meaning Paddy bestowed on the people he met for “he shone with joy … The greatest blessing a guest can bring to his host is the right kind of curiosity, and it bubbled out of Paddy like a natural spring.” That remains the true gift of Paddy; an irrepressible ebullience that inspires readers with a love of life and people. The figure that emerges is all the more human and admirable. Such was Fermor’s lust to live, “with an intensity that seemed only to exist in books”, even in his seedier moments one gets the sense of a man seeking only the truth of life and the enjoyment in all it’s manifestations. His last word’s before he died in Dumbleton, England aged 96 were “Love to all and kindness to all friends, and thank you all for a life of great happiness.”