Boys’ own adventure: the wandering mind of great travel writer Fermor

WARRIOR POET: Fermor was an elegant writer, and man of action. Picture: Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive, reproduced by permission of the Trustees of the National Library of Scotland

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure
Artemis Cooper
John Murray, hb €34.99 / ebook €16.99

If Artemis Cooper’s book was a novel, not a biography, you would not believe the story.

Born in London, in 1915, Patrick Leigh Fermor — Paddy — was one of the best travel writers in the English language in the 20th century. Insatiably curious about other cultures, his ornate, elegant writing reflected his fascination with languages, and their etymology.

Fluent in eight languages, Fermor was a cultural magpie, delighting in the shiny and the rare.

But Fermor was no donnish wordsmith. He was a decorated war hero: he orchestrated the abduction of a German general, from Crete, in 1944. He took part in the last cavalry charge in Europe. A ladies’ man, he had an affair with a Hungarian countess, and yet, craving solitude, often holed up in remote monasteries.

Fermor also wrote a novel, was the subject of a blood-feud vendetta on Crete, swam the Bosphorus in his 60s as a homage to Lord Byron, and lived the life of the renaissance man.

When he died, in 2011, Fermor was mourned in England and Greece, although common reaction to the news of his death was, ‘Has he finished the third volume?’

Born into a middle-class family, Fermor was expected to become an engineer, lawyer or doctor. Instead, the boy was expelled from a number of schools, his fizzing imagination and irrepressible spirit refusing to conform. A magnet for trouble, he was a sponge for poetry and literature, for history, geography and philosophy.

At the age of 18, living a dissolute ‘miniature Rake’s Progress’ in London as he waited to join the army at Sandhurst, he had a fantastic notion: he would walk Europe, from England to his beloved Greece.

Setting out in December, 1933, Fermor tramped across the Continent against a backdrop of rising fascism, walking through Holland and Germany, Hungary and Romania, and through the Balkans to Constantinople.

In the first book of his travels, A Time of Gifts (1977), Fermor told of how he would sleep in a hayrick one night, a castle the next, as he marched from Holland to Hungary.

In the second instalment, Between the Woods and the Water (1986), Fermor walks deep into the Balkans, and the third instalment — well, we wait still.

Long before A Time of Gifts was published, Fermor had established himself as the pre-eminent travel writer of his generation, with his debut, The Traveller’s Tree, (1950) an insightful account of Caribbean cultures, and the twinned Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966), both fabulous accounts of life in the Greek Peloponnese.

Fermor’s feeling for the Greek character was honed by his wartime experiences as an SOE operative, when he parachuted onto Crete and spent years behind German lines, liaising with the local resistance groups, or andartes, an experience that culminated in the storied account of how Paddy led the abduction of General Kreipe, in 1944, at the time a propaganda coup for the Allies. Dirk Bogarde played Fermor in the film about the abduction, Ill Met By Moonlight (1957).

Cooper is a family friend of Fermor’s, and she was a young girl when she met Fermor. If the book reads as a breathless Boy’s Own adventure tale — it is subtitled ‘An Adventure’ — she can hardly be faulted, given that Fermor spent his life in search of the next challenge, the next curiosity.

The book is more biography than hagiography. The fabled story of Fermor’s participation in the last cavalry charge on European soil is here presented as a precocious teenager taking advantage of his gracious host, in Hungary, and stealing a horse so that he could gallop along at the ragtag end of the charge.

Fermor’s womanising is not glossed over, and neither are the consequences, particularly how it impacted on his long-suffering partner, the Honourable Joan Rayner (there’s also an extensive quote from a funny, but revolting, letter from Fermor about the latest invasion of pubic lice).

Cooper digs into the legend of Fermor’s time on Crete, raising questions about the practicality of the famous abduction of General Kreipe, especially given the German penchant for ruthless reprisals against the Cretans. She also details how Fermor wasn’t universally revered among the Cretans, because he had accidentally shot and killed one of the andartes during the war.

On a return visit long after the war, she writes, Fermor would be received with great celebration in a village, while those who maintained the blood vendetta waited beyond the village borders, guns cocked.

The man who emerges from the pages of Cooper’s biography is fascinating, a flawed, brilliant throwback to the warrior poets of yore, a man of letters and a man of action.

It’s a page-turning story to the end, although it’s arguable that Fermor is such a ripe figure for biography, his life so dense with incident and adventure, with contrast and contradiction, that listing the bewildering number of his accomplishments soaks up all Cooper’s time and effort.

Beautifully researched, particularly how Cooper points up the discrepancies between Fermor’s experiences and his poetic rendering of his memories, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure is a solid addition to the canon of work on Fermor.

It may not provide many startling new revelations for Fermor fans, but it’s an outstanding introduction to the man’s life and writing for those who have yet to make his acquaintance.

- Declan Burke is a journalist and award-winning writer. His latest novel is Slaughter’s Hound.

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