Wednesday, March 06, 2013

An Amazing Adventurer - Patrick Leigh Fermor

the new book by Artemis Cooper
There is almost something Faustian in the fever of travel, the exploring and questing spirit of the late Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor. He was one of those people seized by a fiery restlessness that never deserted him to his last breath and among many astonishing feats, his most remarkable was the journey he began in December 1933 at the age of eighteen when he set off on a walk starting at the Hook of Holland and making his way across a pre-war Europe to Constantinople. (Istanbul of today) His curiosity enveloped and absorbed people, languages, customs, music and dance with a detached observation that belongs to the 'outsider' personality, the watcher of life. Yet, at the same time, he was able to wholeheartedly throw himself into whatever and whoever he met with a sense of full participation and innocence. He was fearless, full of fun, adventurousness, reckless; a Peter Pan who never quite grew up to take on a 'sensible grown-up job'. In other words a puer aeternus figure who managed to find a Wendy or two in his travels to help mother him and keep him afloat financially so that he could devote himself to his travel writings, his adventures and escapades.

Yet amongst all this movement and excitement and adventure, there was also an inner yearning for some kind of peace. He was frequently drawn to the life of monasteries where he would sojourn for a brief while to enjoy a spell of calm. At first he resisted the quiet and orderliness of such places with the restlessness of an impetuous young man who must be always on the go, always proving himself to himself (and perhaps his father who was always a judgemental shadowy distant figure for him) but after a while Patrick came to realise that there was some point to the life of prayer, quiet and slow orderly ritual. But it was impossible for a temperament such as his to sustain this for long and he would hitch his rucksack on his back and be off again.

Sir Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor DSO, OBE - or Paddy as he was known to rich and poor alike - was born on 11th February 1915 in London. His father, Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor came from humble origins, born into lower middle class family of six born in Peckham, but rose high in the Indian Civil Service and gained a name for himself in scientific work. Though his parents and elder sister lived in India, Patrick was boarded out as youngster and grew up in the countryside. Meeting his mother and sister again at the age of four was a meeting with strangers for him and he hated to leave the adoptive parents who had been so kind and warm and loving.

While at school, Patrick was hopeless at sports, schoolwork and study in general. He was however a great and voracious reader and had a tremendous flair for languages. He was sent from one school to another in an effort to 'make something of him' but all failed and his fondness for the eternal feminine led him to expulsion from one school for canoodling with the local grocer's daughter. Paddy was always a magnet for the ladies. His looks were almost godlike, a real Apollo, fair, handsome, well built, tall and full of charm and sweetness of nature that won him many friends and the entry to houses, chateaux, castles, mansions, monasteries, gypsy tents or mud huts. His nature was never least not the under emphatic Britishness of the era in which he was born. He had far more of the dash of the continental, the flair, charm, colour and drama that appealed to the European mentality.

Patrick in Greece
With no inclination to go to University and without qualifications, his only ambition was to become a poet and a writer. Thus he conceived the idea of becoming a wandering scholar and began the epic journey which later in life was to be written down from his vivid memories as travel books such as A Time of Gifts and Between The Woods and The Water as well as many other great books which have come to be considered as classics in that genre.

Princess Balasha Cantacuzene

For four years, he became the lover of a mature, beautiful Hungarian countess, Balasha, who painted his portrait and introduced him to many fascinating people. He left to join the war that was now brewing in Europe and she sadly let him go, knowing nothing would ever be the same again. Her own lands and possessions were seized by the communists when they moved across Eastern Europe and when Paddy met her briefly after the war, she was very ill and living in poverty. Told to pack a case and nothing more when evicted from her beautiful home, Balasha managed to grab a green covered diary Paddy had left behind when he left. She presented this to him when they met and he kept it like an amulet till his death.

As always, Paddy was not easily able to fit into the conventional role of a soldier during the war. His talents were used instead by appointing him to the SOE and he ended up in Crete working with the Cretan Resistance. His greatest exploit during the war was the kidnapping of the German General Kreipe on Crete. This exploit was later made into a film starring Dirk Bogarde as Paddy called Ill met by Moonlight

The Greeks took Paddy to their heart and he and his wife, Joan, made a home at Kardamyli in Mani in the Southern Peloponnese. A friend visited him there when he was in his nineties, still amazingly fit despite smoking 80-100 cigarettes a day!

'Young man' said Patrick, 'go and fetch that bottle of ouzo and we'll have a little drink.' My friend expected a glass or two but they finished the bottle between them and Patrick none the worse for wear. However, in the end he suffered from throat cancer and returned to his Worcestershire home to die, dining with friends the last evening, then dying peacefully the next day. An extraordinary round journey yet, like all travellers one that ended back home for...'it's oh, so nice to come home' as the song says.

Artemis Cooper's new book on his life is a beautifully written and inclusive biography and well worth reading.  I was left full of admiration for this amazing man who lived his life to the full and like all extraordinary people, fitted everywhere and nowhere and was deep down rather a lonely and depressed man.  It's the fate of the great.  The price paid by the driven Faustian man who can find no real peace in his heart..

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  • My home is my retreat and resting place from the wars: I try to keep this corner as a haven against the tempest outside, as I do another corner of my soul. Michelle de Montaigne
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