Dashing hero – champion sponger
Ooops! I have a feeling Mr Peter Lewis will not be on the Cooper-Beevor Christmas card list.
By Peter Lewis
First published in the Mail Online, 25 October 2012
When he died last year at the age of 96, Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, DSO, OBE, inspired long and admiring obituaries. They described him as an intrepid traveller, war hero and ‘the greatest travel writer of his generation’.
All this is borne out in this admiring biography by Artemis Cooper, granddaughter of Lady Diana Cooper, who knew ‘Paddy’ since her childhood. So Artemis’s knowledge and access to his papers, letters, and many friends is unrivalled.
There is one disadvantage to being so close to your subject – a certain blindness to their shortcomings. Fermor was known above all for a charm that most people found irresistible. It allowed him to get away with selfish and unfeeling behaviour that wouldn’t have been liked in ordinary mortals.
And Sir Patrick was certainly no ordinary mortal. He decided when he was 18 to walk across pre-war Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, as a tramp with only £1 a week to live on.
Later, as an SOE (Special Operations Executive) officer during the war in Crete, he carried out another audacious plan: to kidnap and deport General Kreipe of the German occupying army. This escapade is the highlight of the book.
After ambushing Kreipe’s car, Paddy – wearing German uniform – and his SOE partner Billy Moss, drove through Heraklion, the German headquarters, clearing checkpoint after checkpoint with the General pinned down in the back of the car. Paddy even issued curt orders to the sentries in excellent German.
After some grim hungry days and nights crossing the mountains with the entire German garrison searching for them, they were taken off in a boat to Alexandria. By then General Kreipe and Paddy were almost friends, having discovered a mutual love of the Latin odes of Horace.
Paddy won his DSO for his part in the plot, which was written about by Billy Moss in his book Ill Met By Moonlight. His account was subsequently filmed, with Dirk Bogarde playing Paddy.
Yet Paddy’s start in life was inauspicious. He hardly saw his father, who was an archaeologist working in India. His mother fostered him out for his first four years then despatched him to prep schools that he hated.
Wild by nature, Paddy was nothing but trouble – expelled from school after school and failing every exam. He wound up at 18 as an incorrigible drunk and party-goer.
Then he turned his back on all that to tramp diagonally across Europe and write about its gypsies, remote towns, forgotten villages and colourful peasant customs – indulging his insatiable curiosity for foreign languages, history and architecture. He had few advantages but youthful ones: great looks and physical fitness (like a Greek God, said an admiring Freya Stark); a natural ebullience and eagerness to learn; a quick ear for languages; and an amazing memory for detail.
Wherever he went, women and men – whether peasants or aristocrats – took to him and offered him hospitality. One introduction led to another.
He sometimes slept rough in stables and barns but this was interspersed, we now learn, with sojourns in the castles and country houses of the eccentric, amusing, minor nobility of Bavaria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Rumania (as Cooper spells it).
It was a very superior form of tramping. And at the end of it, he was swept off by a Rumanian princess who took him to live with her in her manor house. Most of his hosts had splendid libraries that he ransacked for knowledge of local history and customs, on which he became a living encyclopaedia. He also had a great capacity for carousing, whether with peasants or princes, talking all night and singing songs in many languages.
Cooper chronicles many a riotous evening among Greeks and Cretans with near-unpronounceable names, until they dissolve into an indistinguishable blur.
The trouble is there is just too much of Paddy’s charm and charmed life, and they begin to wear thin after the halfway point.
Delightful company as he no doubt was, he made a wide range of upper-class friends in England and abroad, in whose houses he was welcomed. In short he was a champion sponger. There are also awkward questions that are not satisfactorily answered, such as an ugly incident in Crete when he accidentally shot dead one of his partisans by easing the bolt of a rifle that had – unbeknown to him – a round up the barrel.
He made profound apologies to the man’s family, which unsurprisingly they did not accept. No trained rifle handler would fail to notice a cartridge in the breech nor test the gun’s action other than by aiming at the sky.
Also, the 1944 kidnapping of Kreipe led to savage German reprisals on Cretan villages, which were razed to the ground. In fact it served no strategic purpose other than to raise morale.
Paddy was welcomed back to Crete as a hero (though not by the family of the man he shot) but one wonders how happy he was about his jape in retrospect. It may be why he never published his version of the story.
There is also his cavalier attitude to money. He was always borrowing it, even from the adoring office girls of the British Consul in Athens – and not often paying it back. Chronically short of finance for his incessant travels, he never stooped to earning any, except for the occasional magazine article.
For years he was financed by the love of his life, Joan Rayner – a photographer he met in Cairo in 1944. She fell hopelessly in love with him, and they travelled together in Greece and the Caribbean, and shared her homes in London and Athens.
She was the ideal travelling companion, his best listener, who tolerated his late-night binges and even his affairs with other women. She was seen to give him money, saying: ‘That should be enough to get a girl.’ But he would not marry Joan, though she plainly wanted it. He preferred what he called ‘intermittent concubinage’ with vague ideas of marriage, ‘which we talk of and then forget’.
They finally wed in 1968, 24 years after they met, ‘because it seemed idiotic not to’. By then they (or rather she) had bought land in a Greek bay and had built a fine house to settle in. Joan, it seems to me, is the real hero of this book.
The biggest and perhaps unanswerable question that nags throughout is: why did Paddy not get on with the writing, given his power with words? He had an ideally patient publisher, Jock Murray, who made him advance after advance on promised manuscripts, which Paddy spent on yet another journey or party.
When his books on Greece did appear, he got rave reviews and won prizes. Yet the magnum opus, the account of his youthful walk to Constantinople, remained unwritten for decades. The first part, A Time Of Gifts, was finished in 1977, followed by part two in 1986, more than 40 and 50 years respectively after the journey they described.
I have to admit that, dipping into them again, I would never guess that a man of almost 60 was describing his experiences at 19. And the last words of the epic were ‘To Be Concluded’. It never was.
Cooper’s biography, though enjoyable and spirited, is essentially a flawed book about a flawed character.
Many writers have remorselessly neglected or exploited others in their compulsion to write. Fermor did so while producing surprisingly little. What there was, however, was worth it.