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WRITER-WARRIOR: Was 'Paddy' Leigh Fermor a modern Byron or a middle-class gigolo?

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Patrick Leigh Fermor pictured in Ithaca Courtesy Of John Murray Collection. Photograph by Joan Leigh Fermor

Published: 15 November, 2012

SOME countries get under your skin. Greece for instance, the birthplace of democracy and creator of so much other wonder, now in  terrible, tearful turmoil.

Some people get under your skin. Patrick Leigh Fermor, for instance, legendary, cult figure, whose remarkable, inspired adventures and beautiful prose converts all those it captures into cherished prisoners.

Put the two together – and they fit like golden gloves – and you have the magical odyssey now poignantly told with love and learning by Artemis Cooper in her biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, known to all as Paddy except in Greece where they called him Mihali.

What a handsome charmer, courageous chancer, cultured charlatan, totally self-made and self-educated in five languages after being expelled from schools for wild behaviour, his prodigious memory escaping no nuance or detail as he strode through life like the romantic colossus he became.

For me there is a third link, the woman who got under my skin – and into my heart: my wife Delphine, daughter of a family of linguists, who learnt Greek caring for the children of one of those shipping tycoons. We met at Hampstead’s La Gaffe, the inevitable result taking her on a return trip to Athens. And proposing to her on the ancient steps of the Acropolis – at full moon – after we had travelled the Aegean islands where the Mediterranean sun first kissed us exactly half a century ago.

Paddy, the elegant, errant son of a geologist and a snobbish mother, is known to most as the SOE hero who parachuted into Crete to lead partisans in the capture of German General Heinrich Kreipe in 1944, an epic tale retold in the film Ill Met by Moonlight, in which Dirk Bogarde starred as Paddy.

That event provides the key to his amazing life when, one morning, Kreipe murmured the first line of an ode by the Roman poet Horace, the voice of Paddy standing behind him in their mountain hideaway completing the verse in Latin.
A copy of Horace inscribed “leave thy home, O youth, and seek out alien shores”, was in his rucksack with a German dictionary and the Oxford Book of English Verse when, aged 18, he blindly decided one evening of “dead-beat, hungover idleness” to hit the road and charge across Europe in moneyless madness.

Taking the ferry to the Hook of Holland, he was determined to walk to Constantinople dressed in riding breeches and greatcoat, along with puttees and a walking stick of ashwood, a fantasy journey that took a year and 21 days, his belief being that he wanted to live “with an intensity that seemed only to exist in books”.

There’s a wonderful parade of characters as Artemis faithfully follows her blue sky “wandering scholar” as he relentlessly tramps across many lands and cultural divides on the brink of Hitler’s holocaust, escaping his own past “in a miniature Rake’s Progress”.

He was the sex hungry stranger at the gate seeking hospitality from strangers, a supreme sponger, making love to a Romanian princess, milkmaids and office girls who fell into his dashing arms.  “For most of the night, he could drink himself into a genial euphoria,” Artemis reveals. “But in the chill hours between one party and the next, he grew ever more restless and depressed…

“Perhaps people did sometimes wonder when he was going to leave. Yet, whatever his faults, he had one gift so enchanting that it made up for all his shortcomings.

“He was genuinely fascinated by his hosts, and wanted to hear everything they could tell about their families, their history and their way of life.

“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. At this age, everything he came across was worth knowing.”

Indeed, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, his fascinating account of that journey, are now classics. So too Mani and Roumeli, compelling accounts of his travels written during his days where he delves into the roots of civilisation living in hidden parts o­f Greece.

They earned him the epithet of the last of a gifted generation of writer-warriors.

Yet his achievements – he died only last year at the grand age of 96 – were despite smoking 80 cigarettes a day for 30 years and a continuous consumption of breakfast-time beer and vodka and at times stuffing himself with Benzedrine pills to lift him out of his fits of depression.

Plus the fact that he attracted danger.  Attempts to kill him are legion, from being knifed in Bulgaria, being beaten by Irish huntsmen whom he dared asked if they buggered their foxes, chased across Crete by German troops, surviving a Cretan blood vendetta and suffering from malaria, even cancer, let alone car crashes.

A fearless modern Byron, Paddy, at 69, almost succumbed swimming the Hellespont, tattooed symbolically on his arm a double-tailed mermaid, the Gorgona that was supposed to rise from the waves shouting, “Where is Alexander the Great?”

He had his critics and those who accused him of smudging the truth.

Somerset Maugham insisted he was a “middle-class gigolo for upper-class women”. Freya Stark described him as “a Hellenistic lesser sea-god of a rather low period,” though admitting he was certainly “the genuine buccaneer.”
One lover, Ricki Huston, declared: “I have been to bed with many men, and all of them, without exception, take, take, take. But with Paddy, it’s give, give, give.”

Paddy, who sought meditation in a monastery at difficult times, admitted his own “rhinoceros-hide obtuseness” but, as death drew near, he scribbled a significant message in a biography of Proust at his bedside: “Love to all and kindness to all friends – and thank you all for a life of great happiness.”

You bet.

. Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure. By Artemis Cooper. John Murray, £25


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