Friday, November 02, 2012
‘Patrick Leigh Fermor – An Adventure’ By Artemis Cooper
Reviewed by Maggie Rainey-Smith
You could not ask for a more apt title to a much awaited biography. Indeed, the life of Patrick Leigh Fermor (affectionately known as Paddy), reads like a fictitious adventure from a bygone era, and although it is a bygone era, it isn’t fiction. I have to confess to owning a hardback first edition signed by the author which was mailed to me from the famous Heywood Hill Book Shop in London. My apologies to local booksellers but the reason I purchased my book from this store is the opportunity to go into a draw to win several very tempting prizes including signed copies of PLF’s books or artwork. The draw goes on all through November, so I remain hopeful.
I found myself drawn into what Barnaby Rogerson of The Independent calls, the ‘cult of Paddy’, back in 2007 when I had the good fortune to be living for two months in Kalamata in the Southern Peloponnese. I’d never even heard of Patrick Leigh Fermor at that time and it was due to my own small adventure that I became acquainted with his writing, and then by delightful coincidence his actually company.
I have dined out more than I should on my encounter with this great man himself but in truth my brief but memorable meeting in Kardamyli in 2007 has brought me many new friends. It now seems fitting that I was led to finding both the work of PLF and the man himself through a rash decision to drink ouzo alone at a cafe one hot afternoon in the lovely city of Messini (not far from Kalamata). This led to me talking to the cafe owner who shouted me another round of ouzo and convinced me I ought to come with him to meet his French girlfriend. Fortunately for me, there was a French girlfriend (and more ouzo) and she told me about Patrick Leigh Fermor. She said I was looking in all the wrong places, that I should visit the Mani if I wanted to know more about the Greek Civil War. After reading this biography, I imagine Paddy would have heartily approved the ouzo.
Artemis Cooper was a good friend of her subject and there was always the possibility that this biography might have become hagiography – well, thankfully not. But too, there are some aspects of the man I might have preferred to remain ignorant of (his ability to sponge off his friends so frequently and successfully). You get the feeling that he was mostly hugely welcomed and his ebullience and optimism was more than enough payment when he landed unexpectedly on someone’s doorstep and stayed. Although in the case of Somerset Maugham, this was not so! Maugham was heard to describe him as ‘that middle-class gigolo for upper-class women’.
It seems he was most fortunate in having both the financial and emotional support of his wife Joan, who amazingly turned a blind eye (or seemed not to mind) when many of his adventures included affairs with other women. It’s not difficult to see why many Englishmen hold Paddy in the highest esteem and look back with nostalgia on ‘a lost era. One of his lovers “was astonished at how warmly she was welcomed by Joan, and with what ease and equanimity. Paddy told her that there was no sexual jealousy between them, and she could see it was true…”
His most famous exploit in Greece was the abduction of the German Colonel Kreipe on Crete during the German occupation and this was made into a movie starring Dirk Bogarde as Paddy. As much as he enjoyed being involved in the making of this movie, he was also embarrassed by the inaccuracies. In a letter to Deborah Devonshire (their letters to each other became the subject of a recent book ‘In Tearing Haste’), he writes “I’m having a terrific tussle getting them to change these bits in the film, not because I really mind, but because anyone who also knows anything about the operation knows that it’s all rot.”
Patrick Leigh Fermor was a decorated War hero, a man’s kind of man, and yet too, even more so, a woman’s kind of man, a writer and a great adventurer (he swam the Hellespont at the age of 69). He is a mixture of bravado, adventure, romance, carelessness, and generosity, as well as modesty and integrity. That he accidentally shot a man on Crete while cleaning his gun seems careless, but this was war-time. Thankfully, after many years and death threats from the Cretan family involved, he was forgiven. Like Byron, Patrick Leigh Fermor appears to have become a legendary character in Greek history.
I did find the detail in the biography of Paddy’s friends, their wives, ex wives and lovers, at times rather frustrating. But too, I recognise that many people will be equally fascinated by this. I guess because I knew so few of them, I was less interested, but too I must add when names like Freya Stark and Lawrence Durrell were mentioned, I was of course galvanized. And on balance, I admire the research and meticulous attention to these details to give context to Paddy’s life. Unlike the writer himself, his biographer is never tempted to fanciful and imaginative conjecture. There are so many strands to his life and his own writing about his adventures has been ‘doctored’ in places to give license to his imaginative digressions (the very essence of his writing) – his virtuoso verbosity. Doctored may not be quite the correct word, but when writing of his love affairs, he discreetly altered names or left characters out, evidently. An act of chivalry perhaps?
If you haven’t ever read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s work, then the biography stands on its own as a splendid account of an amazing life. Once you’ve read his biography, there’s no doubt in my mind that you will be drawn to his books, to reading the man himself - my favourite being his book ‘Mani – Travels in the Southern Peloponnese’. But I’m probably a wee bit biased here because I own a personally inscribed copy from the man himself to me. He is probably better known for ‘A Time of Gifts’ and ‘Between the Woods and the Water’, the account of his extraordinary pilgrimage on foot across pre-war Europe at the age of 18 – written decades after the event – and indeed, a third volume on this journey is to be published posthumously.
I’ll end with a quote from the back of the book which seems to sum up the man rather nicely ‘What is charm? In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s case it is an infinite curiosity about other people. He treats Bulgarian peasants and English dukes exactly alike... War hero, linguist, adventurer, he is at heart a great storyteller.’
‘Patrick Leigh Fermor – An Adventure’
By Artemis Cooper
John Murray Publishers, 2012
Maggie Rainey-Smith (right) is a Wellington writer and regular reviewer on Beattie's Book Blog. She is also Chair of the Wellington branch of the NZ Society of Authors.
As Maggie says in her review she met Patrick Leigh Fermor in 2007. He died recently of course and Maggie paid him tribute on her blog at the time which includes a number of most interesting photographs.
The link to that post is here. I warmly recommend it to you.