Paddy the Englishman
Published 23/12/2012 | 06:00
Patrick Leigh Fermor – "Paddy" – was one of the English-speaking world's greatest travel writers but also a war hero who kidnapped a German general and enjoyed dozens of affairs during his long and unorthodox life.
An obituary following his death earlier this year said he "was one of the few genuine Renaissance figures produced by Britain in the 20th century" – and it's impossible to disagree, although this new biography makes it clear that Fermor also had a few character flaws.
Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper is the first attempt to present a full description of his life – a task that is not easy because Fermor was an unreliable witness from time to time and also very private.
While Fermor claimed Irish roots and sometimes stayed in Lismore with his friend the Duchess of Devonshire, he was a quintessential Englishman, shaped by the 1920s when Britain was still a world power.
He is also an inspiration for late developers. He may have ended up with all the trappings of a grand old man of letters including a DSO for military bravery, a knighthood and veneration but his early life was far from easy or serene. The son of a cold father who lived mostly in India and a flighty, selfish mother, Fermor was a school and army reject.
University or the army were out of the question which led to a life-changing decision to escape London by walking from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul.
The 19-year-old tramped for more than a year through Nazi Germany and on into Hungary and Romania and Turkey, staying with everybody from shepherds to aristocrats. The walk, which was described more than 60 years later in his two masterpieces A Time For Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water began as a mechanism for a wild young man to escape tedium but turned Fermor into a writer and linguist.
After arriving in Istanbul (which seems to have been an anti-climax), Fermor drifted on to Athens where he fell in love with Princess Balsha Cantacuzene, a beautiful and sophisticated divorcee who was 16 years his senior.
The affair continued in Athens and Moldovia for several years until the outbreak of World War Two brought the relationship to an end and sent Fermor charging back to London to join the army.
Fermor's belief that he had Irish origins combined with his love of uniforms led him to join up with the Irish Guards, one of the most snobbish regiments in the British army. Luckily for him, his relative poverty and knowledge of German and Greek quickly saw him become an intelligence officer instead with a posting in Crete where he witnessed the German invasion and brutal suppression of local population.
He was pulled out of Crete to the comfort of Cairo, which was the somewhat louche centre of British operations in the Middle East. Fermor was often in love in a city where pretty much anything went during wartime, but the lotus eating stopped when he was sent back to Crete to join the bandits who had temporarily put their centuries of animosity to one side to fight the Germans.
Most of the war involved a tedious game of cat and mouse but it also saw Fermor lead a daring mission that saw him and a few comrades from the Special Operations Executive dress in Wehrmacht uniforms, kidnap General Heinrich Kreipe who was the commander of Crete, and drive through a dozen checkpoints by waving papers impatiently. Kreipe was then spirited to an awaiting submarine.
The end of the war saw life slow down a little and Fermor began the long process of establishing himself as a man of letters with books such as The Traveller's Tree and A Time to Keep Silence as well as the beginnings of a relationship with Joan Eyres-Monsell who he married many years later.
The relationship was "open" and sometimes difficult but they stayed together until she died at 91 in 2003. Joan was older and wealthier than him and acted as a Wendy character to Fermor's Peter Pan, subsidising him, looking after him, and turning a blind eye to his flings – or even encouraging them. A friend recalled that after dinner in Cyprus one night, she handed Paddy some cash saying: "Here you are, that should be enough if you want to find a girl."
Fermor never held down a job for more than a few months but partied, drank and flirted well into his 80s instead. One typical anecdote among hundreds will have to serve: while visiting Oonagh Guinness, he went to a local hunt ball in Kildare where he was punched in the nose for asking whether it was true that the 'Killing Kildares' were in the habit of raverishing their foxes.
After decades of fun and games Fermor and Joan designed and built a very simple house in Kardamyli, deep in the Peloponnese where they lived in relative seclusion.
While all immensely fun, the tales of high jinks among Britain's aristocratic demi monde can sometimes pall, the odd page describing Balkan or Greek politics can be skipped entirely. But this book is sure to satisfy the curiosity of Fermor fans and hopefully create a new generation of readers who will be tempted to follow in his footsteps.