Patrick Leigh Fermor in Ithaca: At school a teacher bemoaned his “dangerous mixture of recklessness and sophistication”
Biographers who are friends and admirers of their subjects have a hard task. Artemis Cooper knew and liked Patrick "Paddy" Leigh Fermor, the British author and traveller who died in 2011 aged 96. Friendship helps her portray his best side well, though it may have stayed her pen a little when it came to his flaws.
Leigh Fermor's life was perfectly timed for a man of his gifts. He was born in time to travel in interwar Europe, and to soak up the cultural highs (and to plumb the lows) of Bohemian London. He had a successful and glamorous war as a soldier-spy in Crete. And he lived to see Communism crumble and Europe reunited. He also died in time to avoid seeing his beloved Greece descend into the abyss.
Born of an erratic mother and a cold, distant father, his childhood was punctuated by misery and disruption. But the early bits were blissful, in rural Northamptonshire in the care of "Mummy Martin"—a foster mother from whose care he was wrenched, without explanation, at the age of four. Cooper hints at, but does not presume to know, the effect that early trauma had on her subject.
School was an ordeal. Educators now might appreciate his rare gifts, for languages, writing and talking. But they won scant praise in the austere schools of 1920s Britain. A teacher bemoaned the young Leigh Fermor's "dangerous mixture of recklessness and sophistication". It was to stay his hallmark.
At a loose end after failing to get into Sandhurst, he resolved, at the age of 18, to walk to Constantinople. The plan was less madcap then than it would have been in the decades that followed (it might be fun now, though).
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