The Long Life of a Charming Nomad

In her biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Artemis Cooper tells the compelling story of an extraordinary career

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Patrick Leigh Fermor in Ithaca: At school a teacher bemoaned his “dangerous mixture of recklessness and sophistication” 

Biographers who are friends and admirers of their subjects have a hard task. Artemis Cooper knew and liked Patrick “Paddy” Leigh Fermor, the British author and traveller who died in 2011 aged 96. Friendship helps her portray his best side well, though it may have stayed her pen a little when it came to his flaws.

Leigh Fermor’s life was perfectly timed for a man of his gifts. He was born in time to travel in interwar Europe, and to soak up the cultural highs (and to plumb the lows) of Bohemian London. He had a successful and glamorous war as a soldier-spy in Crete. And he lived to see Communism crumble and Europe reunited. He also died in time to avoid seeing his beloved Greece descend into the abyss.

Born of an erratic mother and a cold, distant father, his childhood was punctuated by misery and disruption. But the early bits were blissful, in rural Northamptonshire in the care of “Mummy Martin”—a foster mother from whose care he was wrenched, without explanation, at the age of four. Cooper hints at, but does not presume to know, the effect that early trauma had on her subject.

School was an ordeal. Educators now might appreciate his rare gifts, for languages, writing and talking. But they won scant praise in the austere schools of 1920s Britain. A teacher bemoaned the young Leigh Fermor’s “dangerous mixture of recklessness and sophistication”. It was to stay his hallmark.

At a loose end after failing to get into Sandhurst, he resolved, at the age of 18, to walk to Constantinople. The plan was less madcap then than it would have been in the decades that followed (it might be fun now, though). 

As so often in his life, an extraordinary natural charm smoothed his way. Chance introductions that in other hands would have proved useless helped him to leapfrog from country house to country house. In his masterwork about that trip, A Time of Gifts, he makes it all sound like easy good fortune. But Cooper does a good job in explaining why the grand decaying families in grand decaying houses so gladly opened their doors to the smelly, cash-strapped and careless young man, who was “polite, cheerful and cannot hear enough about the family history . . . instead of feeling like the useless fragment of a broken empire, the Count is transformed”.

The great trip also brought him the great love of his pre-war life, Balasha Cantacuzene, a Romanian noblewoman 12 years older than him. She guarded his travel diary (a thick, green notebook) through Communist expropriation and banishment, and eventually reunited it with its owner. It is the only real source he had, apart from his memories, when he came to write the trip up many decades later. Cooper’s insights into its dog-eared pages, filled by a snobbish but sharp 19-year-old, and her reflections on the book written by the mature Leigh Fermor decades later, are among the many masterly pages of this biography.

A Time of Gifts was a sensational success (in 1980 it set this reviewer on eastern paths that he has trodden ever since). It was not exactly reportage. Scenes and characters blurred and merged, timelines shrank and stretched. The prose is exuberant to the point of absurdity in places. But it gives a definitive account of a slice of Europe before the cataclysm, a world as vanished as Atlantis.

Yet he was famous long before his long-suffering publisher ever saw the manuscript. The first edition, in the public eye, was not the schoolboy tramp but the dashing hero of wartime resistance in Crete. His great exploit was the kidnapping of the German commander, General Heinrich Kreipe, who was spirited off the island: a great stunt, though one that brought devastating reprisals on the Cretans.

The kidnap brought about a poignant moment which epitomised Leigh Fermor’s life, poised between Europe’s shattered common culture and the demands of wartime. When his captive, sighting Mount Ida, murmured, “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte?” (Do you not see how Mount Soracte stands white in deep snow?) Leigh Fermor, who knew Latin, continued, “Nec iam sustineant onus silvae laborantes, geluque flumina constiterint acuto.” (The toiling woods can bear the load no longer, and the streams stand still in the sharp ice). The general said laconically, “Ach so, Herr Major.” Leigh Fermor wrote: “We had both drunk from the same fountains long before and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.” They had a touching reunion in Crete a few decades later.

Leigh Fermor found post-war London a bit tiresome, not least because he had no money. But he did have a good woman, Joan Rayner. She is the unsung heroine of his life—Wendy to his Peter Pan—and it is a pity that the reader is left with so many puzzles. In the beginning they had a passionate though open relationship. Then she stopped sleeping with him. They never had children. She gave him money for prostitutes. Some might think Leigh Fermor was a shameless sponger and even a bit of a cad. 

Certainly critics saw his flaws vividly even in his glory days, describing him as a bumptious, exhausting know-all. Cooper could have reminded the reader more explicitly that charm, courage and eloquence may be bewitching, but are not moral qualities. Leigh Fermor’s warts are well on display in his dealing with his long-suffering publisher Jock Murray. Manuscripts arrived in abominable condition, unbelievably late. His literary output was both slender and delayed by a penchant for correspondence and journalism. 

Yet the visage behind the warts is still magnificent. He did not pretend to be anything that he was not. His adventures would have been splendid if he had never described them. What he did write has a sparkle that leaves rivals in the shadows. And it all really happened, more or less as he described it. What a pity that so much of it  is ruined. 

 This article was edited on December 18 to correct a misquotation of Horace.