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Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, By Artemis Cooper

Traveller, warrior, lover, champion sponger - this improbable hero earned his legend

I have disliked the cult of Paddy Leigh Fermor ever since reading Between the Woods and the Water, the first book of his pressed into my hands. It had won all sorts of travel awards, but seemed to chronicle a life of effortless ease moving from one country-house party to another, fuelled by intricate aristocratic connections and coloured by a frankly unbelievable glow of back-lit romance – like being trapped in a grown-up version of The Sound of Music.

I began to question the 50 years of unstinted hero-worship accorded him by my elders and betters, alongside his irritating lack of regard for either Turks or Islam, as well as the breathless accounts of two generations of British travel-writers who have sought to measure their shadow against that of Paddy's over a glass of ouzo on the terrace of his house overlooking the Aegean.

But, fortunately, I find myself to be totally in the wrong. Artemis Cooper's funny, wise, learned but totally candid biography reveals Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) to be an adventurer through and through. The artifice of effortless gentility is blown away and Paddy is revealed as a much more interesting character, a fascinatingly self-made and self-educated man. He is also placed in the pantheon of literary liggers, a consummate lifelong freeloader, a prince among sponge-artists, which he paid for with his unique energy, talent and enthusiasm for song, dance, talk, memorised verse, drink and other men's wives.

Freya Stark, describing her first meeting, left an impression of him "looking in this wine-dark sea so like a Hellenistic sea-god of a rather low period, and I do like him. He is the genuine buccaneer." Steven Runciman complained how in his office in Athens "all the girls were love with him… and how he used to borrow money from them". Somerset Maugham, with his customary acerbic malevolence, labelled him a "middle-class gigolo for upper-class women". That can be balanced (not exactly contradicted) by the fond memories of an old lover: "Most men are just take, take, take – but with Paddy it's give, give, give."

So the first third of the biography is bowled along by an inner tension, for the reader cannot but suspect that the sexy young man who occupies the centre of the stage isn't about to be exposed and fall very heavily from grace. Paddy consorted with the very grandest British families, at their country homes and in London, but yet had no money, no work, no home, no prospects and not much of an education, having been expelled from a number of prep schools and his second-rate public school.

Even his double-barrelled name is revealed to be a fake, one of the many deluded affectations thought up by his snobbish mother: the daughter of a prosperous Irish quarryman, unsuitably married to a brilliant scholarship boy from south London. Cooper gives us a grounding to Paddy's adventurous life by providing occasional glimpses of the parallel middle-class story of his elder sister, Venetia.

The making of Paddy was a decision, one hungover morning, in 1933, to hang up his borrowed tail-coat and abandon the Bright Young Things, buy some army surplus clothing, catch a ferry to the Hook of Holland and start walking to Constantinople. He took just three books, a German dictionary, the Oxford Book of English Verse and a present from his mother, a copy of Horace inscribed "leave they home, O youth and seek out alien shores".

She had lived this advice, abandoning him as a baby for four years to return to her geologist husband in India. But frustrated by her marriage and gifted with restless misdirected energies, she would return and teach Paddy to perform, while coping with her mood swings, before packing him off to an unsuitable prep school at a tender age.

Paddy loved life on the road, and all his life was genuinely fascinated by history, literature and architecture. He also had an extraordinary ear for languages, and lived with an intensity that attracted everyone he met, be it bargees giving him a lift after getting spectacularly drunk at a bar or Bohemian landlords astonished at the interest and encyclopaedic but disordered knowledge of this handsome tramp. The final making of him as a man was the love of Princess Balasha, who having been abandoned by her own husband, took Paddy off to live with her in a manor house in Moldavia.

His years in Romania with Balisha were his university, but more vivid. For here history smelled of blood, and pride in ancient chapels and mythology came alive in the spirit-possessed dances of the peasants.

Paddy only came back home in order to fight for Britain when war had been declared. Despite his ambition to serve in the Irish Guards, he was rightly judged "quite useless as a regimental officer but in other capacities will serve the army well". Those capacities, most especially as an SOE liaison officer with the Cretan resistance, have deservedly become legendary. Paddy's charm, his infectious delight in company, his ear for language, his physical strength and bravery, were matched by something much, much rarer in war: an innate sense of empathy, humanity and compassion.

The final touch to his birth as a writer was the unconditional love and financial support of the photographer Joan Rayner. She could cope with his fits of depression, his absences, his habitual philandering and was his travelling companion, editor and occasional restrainer. She was the enabling hero of the second half of Paddy's life, who shared his love of Greece and the open road, and provided the supporting mother and father that Paddy had so completely lacked as a child.

Paddy for his part would try to give back to the world all the many gifts he had received as a man: his books on Greece, first and foremost, but also by entertaining a stream of visitors, holidaying friends, translating for Cretan colleagues, denouncing British policy over Cyprus, writing reviews and forewords, and encouraging young writers. As Dilys Powell wrote, "a wandering scholar but with a difference; unlike the celebrated travellers of the past, he has become part of the country he describes". And since my reading of Cooper's page-turning biography, he has acquired yet another fan.

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