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Like any worthwhile biographical subject, the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor was a bundle of contradictions. A garrulous, worldly adventurer who secluded himself in French monasteries; an urbane clubman who yearned for the Greek countryside; and a bon vivant and seducer who built his life around one loyal woman. The excitable young Paddy (as everyone called him) might well have been insufferable but his story is one of rare gifts for writing, heroism and comradeship revealed in tumultuous times. An 18-year-old with a chequered schooling, in 1933 he decided to forsake career plans and set off on a walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Leigh Fermor wasn’t rich but there were always amiable aristocrats willing to open their doors to a venturesome young man.
He’s been blessed with another amiable aristocrat in Artemis Cooper – the Hon. Alice Clare Antonia Opportune Beevor, to use her full title – who’s written a sympathetic account spiced with the sort of racy details that prompted Somerset Maugham to upbraid Leigh Fermor for being “a middle-class gigolo for upper-class women”. Cooper diligently reveals the drama and romance that Leigh Fermor found on his life-changing walk, including details he left out of classic memoir A Time of Gifts, published 40 years later.
After witnessing the rise of the Nazis on that walk, Leigh Fermor’s own run-in with the Germans occurred a decade later on Crete, and Cooper captures the detail of the thrilling operation to kidnap a Nazi general, along with the strife of competing resistance movements, with admirable clarity. The later years are just as engrossing, particularly his friendship with Bruce Chatwin, and you have to applaud Leigh Fermor’s disdain for deadlines. His life was a very English adventure that makes for a remarkable biography.