Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper
|Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: A biography of one of the 20th century's most indefatigable travellers and travel writers, whose lifelong waderlust began at the age of eighteen when he decided to leave England and walk across Europe|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 448||Date: October 2012|
|Publisher: John Murray|
The sub-title of this biography is highly appropriate, for the ninety-six years of Patrick Leigh Fermor were packed with adventure. Born in 1915, he was something of a maverick at school, intellectually gifted but perpetually naughty, and his punishments for various refractions included suspensions and even expulsions.
For want of any other career, it seemed like he would spend much of the rest of his life in the army, but after a brief period of aimless drifting around London with the bright young things, at the age of eighteen he found his true vocation. Suddenly struck with abiding contempt for the capital, with everything suddenly seeming unbearable, loathsome, trivial, restless, shoddy, impatient with his own hungover idleness as well as tired of other people and his aimless society existance, he made up his mind to leave England, and travel. Sustained by an allowance of one pound a week, two books of poetry and a dictionary, he would walk from west to east across Europe, starting at Holland and finishing at Constantinople, sleeping in barns and hayricks, living like a wandering scholar or pilgrim, keeping company with tramps, vagabonds, peasants and gypsies.
It was the beginning of a long adult life which would see him almost constantly on the move, enjoying a life unfettered by routine, much of it enlivened by a carefree existence of wine, women and song. Despite the comfort of his privileged earlier years, the excitement of living on a shoestring, sometimes not knowing where the next meal was coming from, appealed to him. By the time war broke out in 1939 he was the lover of Princess Balasha Cantacuzene in Rumania, but he returned to England to join up. Although he had wished to serve in the Irish Guards, he was considered unpromising officer material but his gifts were rewarded with a job as an SOE liaison officer supporting the Cretan resistance to the German occupation.
After the war he resumed his peripatetic existence, and was consumed with a burning ambition to write a book about Greece, a country which had become particularly dear to his heart. With his passion for history, architecture and literature as well as travel, he had tremendous potential as a writer but proved agonisingly slow – for his long-suffering publisher at least – and published just eight books over the next forty years. Lack of self-discipline and a reluctance to adapt himself to keeping deadlines were not conducive to prolific authorship. However his experiences in Greece and a short post-war journey through the Caribbean all ensured that the books would be well-received, describing as they did at first hand his experiences of privilege and poverty, and the inter-war era with communism and fascism fighting for the upper hand throughout Europe.
For much of his career as a writer he owed much to the companionship and support of Joan Rayner, his travelling companion and editor, whom he married in his fifties in January 1968 after they had spent many years together. As he wrote to a friend, the process was nearly as easy as getting a dog licence, and when asked by another, taken rather by surprise, why they had married so swiftly, he explained that he had never believed in long engagements. Despite her death after thirty-five years of marriage, he continued to write, albeit at a slower pace, working laboriously in longhand until he finally took to a typewriter at the age of ninety-two, when he had another four years left.
That same year he undertook what would be his final expedition, to Macedonia and Albania, although by this time the long drives were increasingly tiring. Smoking and drinking to the end, his life was ample testimony to the maxim that 'a little of what you fancy is good for you'. After he was admitted to hospital and a cancerous tumour was removed from his throat, he decided the time had come to leave his beloved Greece and return to see friends in England. He died peacefully on the morning after his arrival.
This is a lively biography of an anything but dull character. Artemis Cooper knew him from an early age and was contracted to write the book some twenty years ago, but agreed that it would not appear within his lifetime in order that it should be an honest account, and so that he and his wife should be spared any embarrassment as a result of the retelling of some of his more racy exploits. She has had a vast archive of conversations and interviews with him and his friends, as well as unrestricted access to his correspondence and other papers, and the result is a very invigorating read about an extremely full life.
If this book appeals then you might also enjoy Panther Soup: A European Journey in War and Peace by John Gimlette.
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