Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper,

John Murray, 464pp, £25 (hardback)

In 1986, Between the Woods and the Water was published, volume two of an account of a journey on foot across Europe in the 1930s. Reviews of the book were my introduction to Patrick Leigh Fermor: author, storyteller and lover of life. Excited by the praise lavished on this new work, I bought a second-hand copy of A Time of Gifts, volume one of his journeys. Only an exceptional book can keep a sixteen-year-old boy from thinking about girls for an entire afternoon.

Twenty-five years later, I went to his funeral. Like many other young writers, I had turned to Paddy for advice over the years, and received the sort of unqualified and enthusiastic encouragement that one ordinarily imagines is the prerogative of youth. After the funeral, when the mid-June showers permitted, we all stood in the garden of his Gloucestershire home, celebrating in some style the memory of the man we loved, whose absence had brought us together on that day.

Since his death, I have re-read Paddy’s slim, but far from slight books about foreign places and other times. Each book revisited brought forth some new treasures: ideas upon which to muse for an hour or two; glorious tales of love and discovery; and gems of words, mined from rich veins that less sympathetic writers would struggle to use honestly.

Any biography that examines a beloved subject chronologically must, inevitably, close on something of an elegiac note. Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure is no exception. Artemis Cooper brings this book to a close with some words Paddy wrote on the title page of a life of Marcel Proust he was reading in the year before he died: “‘Love to all and kindness to all friends,’ he wrote, ‘and thank you all for a life of great happiness.’”

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Paddy was always Paddy (except in his adopted Greek homeland, where he was always Mihali, making use of the Greek rendering of his otherwise neglected middle name), and Cooper is right to use this informal form throughout; Paddy was an open and convivial companion, who would not thank anyone who tried to portray him otherwise. The legend of his life consists of a brilliant patchwork of tales, deliberately constructed over time until the edifice could not possibly fit into a day less than his ninety- six years, and which Cooper does well to squeeze into the four-hundred- and-sixty-four pages of An Adventure.

Born in 1915, Paddy was introduced to his mother in 1919. The family, sans Paddy, had been in India for the first years of his life, while he spent the Great War in Northamptonshire in the care of ‘Mummy Martin’. Expelled from one school after another, not attending Sandhurst, and spending some dissolute months in London – which one might charitably characterise as Bohemian – the life of a bored, frightened, frustrated, and tired young man changed forever when he was struck with a simple plan of escape: ‘To walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople’.

Paddy woke up with a hangover on 9th December 1933, lunched with friends and then made his way to Tower Bridge, where he boarded a Dutch steamer bound for Holland. From there he walked to Constantinople, one- thousand-four-hundred miles to the southeast. As Petronius instructs, ‘Leave thy home, O youth, and seek out alien shores …’ Aged eighteen when he set out, the journey would prove to be just one adventure in Paddy’s long lifetime. Crossing Holland, Germany, under the recently triumphant Chancellor Hitler, Romania, Greece and a corner of Turkey, the first instalment of Paddy’s account of this slow epic would not appear until 1977.

Apart from the studied brilliance of his writing, Paddy was perhaps best known in literary circles for the length of time it took him to deliver a completed manuscript. Commissioned in 1947 to write about his travels in Greece, ‘The Greek Book’ as it was referred to in early conversations, was to have been Paddy’s first title, but fate intervened and sent him to the Caribbean.

It was eight years and three books later – including his lone novel, The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1953) – when Jock Murray, who had commissioned ‘The Greek Book’, suggested Paddy divide the material he had gathered and produce two volumes instead of one. Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese was eventually published eleven years after it was commissioned: readers had to wait another eight years for the second volume, Roumeli. When A Time of Gifts eventually appeared, Jock Murray was simply relieved that it came out at all. Cooper writes of A Time of Gifts that, ‘the book reads like a journey across a continent that exists somewhere between memory and imagination’. Yes, and what a beautiful country it is!

Murray died in 1993, and Paddy felt his loss keenly. Giving the address at his memorial service, Paddy acknowledged that he had lost not only, ‘the most loyal and painstaking publisher any author could have wished for, but also his literary midwife’. It is hard to imagine another publisher, in any era, being as patient with Paddy’s timeframe for producing a trilogy of relatively slim volumes: 1977 (vol.1); 1986 (vol.2); 2013 (vol.3, posthumous). But then Paddy was special, and so are his books. The genius of both A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water is the melding of two voices. One, the eager, wide-eyed excitement of youth, a soul set loose in the world for the first time; the other an urbane sixty-something-year old, who brings into play a lifetime’s reading and erudition, but without stifling the youth.

In 1964, Paddy and his wife, Joan, began to build a home in Greece, on a small headland on the Mani Peninsula. (It was amusing to learn that, for someone who was awarded a knighthood for services to Anglo-Greek relations, Paddy was not allowed to study Greek at school because his teachers did not feel he was up to the subject.) Their corner of Mani was paradise found, and when Joan inherited family money, the dream took shape more quickly. Although they met twenty years earlier, in Cairo in December 1944, this would be their first permanent base, a luxury that had thus far eluded them. Both in their mid-forties, Paddy and Joan were tired of their peripatetic existence that, while fun, often forced them to rely on the hospitality of friends and family, sometimes singly, sometimes together, for weeks or months at a time.

When visiting London, Paddy would stay at The Travellers Club. There is something comforting in the contrasting figures of Paddy the builder, stripped to the waist, at work in his shorts under a Grecian sun, and Paddy the Clubman, besuited and marching to lunch in highly polished shoes. He loved both worlds, and was at ease in them both, even if the Greece of his imagination did not always measure up to the reality of life as an expat.

At this stage in one’s life, it is a struggle to imagine a situation where one might be called on to kidnap a German General, but one never knows. I am naturally delighted not to be living in occupied Europe in the fifth year of the Second World War. Perhaps only under such circumstances would such a lunatic scheme make sense. Living for months on end in the mountains of occupied Crete, relying daily on the local population for their survival, Paddy and his fellow Special Operations Executive (SOE) officers dreamt up the scheme to kidnap General Kreipe, and take him to Egypt, a plan straight from the pages of Boys’ Own.

Written up by his fellow officer, Billy Moss, and later made into a film, with Paddy played by Dirk Bogarde, the critics may agree that ‘Ill Met by Moonlight’ is not a great film. So what? It is very easy to watch and enormous fun. The worst part is the growing tension, which builds around the innumerable occasions when the plot could, indeed should, have collapsed. For one thing, having taken the General hostage, the plan required the kidnappers to make their way through more than twenty German checkpoints, with Kreipe prone on the floor in the back of his car.

He survived the ordeal, as did a justifiably peeved Kreipe. The two men met again in 1972, for a television documentary about the episode. Asked by a journalist how he had been treated during his captivity: ‘The General replied, “Ritterlich! Wie ein Ritter” – chivalrously, like a knight. Paddy was deeply touched. ‘I felt a halo beginning to form, and am not quite back to normal yet,’ he confided to his mother.’

We know how the story ends, but wish we did not. Mid-way through the final chapter, ‘For Now the Time of Gifts Has Gone’, a tear of remembrance and gratitude made an appearance. No matter how solid the innings, one always wishes for another couple of runs. At least in the pages of An Adventure, we are able to reverse time for a spell, and luxuriate for some glorious hours in Paddy’s life story, chapter by extraordinary chapter.

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