The Emperor's New Clothes (25/11/12)

Patrick Leigh Fermor is revered as one of the greatest, most poetic of travel writers. Matthew Bell, on the other hand, believes he is actually rather dull

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Patrick Leigh Fermor was an adventurer, a war hero and the writer of some much-lauded travel books. Aged 18, in 1934, he set off on foot across Europe, and his escapades formed the basis of his two most famous books. He had friends in grand places, and it helped that he was good-looking. Now, he is often referred to as "one of the greatest travel writers of all time". But is the idea of PLF, the dashing warrior-writer, in danger of obscuring the man himself?

My suspicions were first aroused in 2008, on the publication of In Tearing Haste, letters between PLF and Deborah Devonshire. He was obviously proud of his friendship with the chatelaine of Chatsworth. Trouble was, the brilliance of her writing made his seem somewhat wordy. Debo's missives sparkled with wit – she was, after all, one of the Mitford sisters. Often, they were just a few lines long, but no less entertaining. Paddy's, by contrast, rambled on at length, frequently filled with uninteresting domestic details most of us wouldn't think to share.

Then there are the books themselves. There's no doubt that A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water are lyrical and engaging: in his descriptions of the great schlosses and lowly inns he stayed in, he captures a Europe that Hitler would soon destroy. But, given that he wrote the books 30 years later, just how accurate were they?

I've always found PLF's claim to have read the whole of the Bible, Homer, Virgil, Ovid and Shakespeare by the time he was 18 a little hard to swallow, even for a polymath. Nobody wishes to malign the dead, and the fact his books remain in print is testament to his popularity. A new biography by Artemis Cooper – granddaughter of another of Paddy's elevated friends, Diana Cooper – has received unanimously positive reviews. But, as I listened to the closing chapter last week – it was, of course, Radio 4's Book of the Week – the niggle of doubt returned.

Paddy was telling Debo about his struggle to finish his book, and that he had given up smoking for three months. If that came from anyone else, would we care?

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