Book Review: The Man and the Road

Traveler, soldier, linguist, scholar, bon vivant, grand flaneur, Patrick Leigh Fermor was one of the greatest travel writers of the 20th century. Artemis Cooper recounts his peripatetic life with great affection and humor in Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure. 

Today “Paddy” Fermor is best known for walking from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul in 1933-35, which he chronicled in A Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and the Water (1986) and the long-awaited The Broken Road (published posthumously in 2013).  The son of a British colonial bureaucrat who chafed at the constraints of middle-class life, Paddy set off at the age of 18 to discover Europe and find himself. Living off an allowance of five pounds a month and the kindness of strangers, he slept in barns, monasteries and castles as he crossed the Continent. By coincidence, he arrived in Vienna during the short-lived 1934 civil war, unaware of what was happening. He spent three weeks visiting Vienna’s cafes and salons, earning money by sketching portraits and sleeping in a Salvation Army shelter before continuing his journey.

Handsome and charming, Paddy was a genial seducer with a talent for collecting interesting friends, whose ranks included intellectuals and aristocrats, dockworkers and farmers, students and seminarians. His social skills and natural linguistic talents sustained him on his journey, as well as through later decades of his nomadic life. He was in his 50s when he and his lifetime companion, Joan Rayner, finally put down roots in Greece, a country he loved as ardently as Byron and where he felt most at home.

Paddy’s walk across Europe was only the beginning of his fascinating story. At his journey’s end, he spent a few years in the arms of a Moldavian princess, but when war broke out he returned to England and enlisted. Trained in intelligence, Paddy spent two years with the Greek resistance, where his greatest exploit was kidnapping the Nazi commander of the German forces in Crete. One of his compatriots in this ripping adventure, W. Stanley Moss, recounted the tale in Ill Met by Moonlight (1950), which was later made into a movie starring Dirk Bogarde as Paddy.

In the 1950s, Paddy produced books about the Caribbean, Greece, and monastery life, as well as his only novel but his real passion was for the research behind his work. His insatiable curiosity and profound knowledge of art, architecture, geography and the early history of peoples and languages, as well as his deep love for nature, are evident everywhere in his writings. But Cooper reveals that while Paddy could produce reams of erudite prose, he also struggled with writer’s block, particularly when it came to the books about his youthful
European adventure.

Cooper also notes his attraction to older women, yet she insists “he was not looking so much for a mother, as for someone to be Wendy to his Peter Pan.” Joan in particular gave him the freedom and stability to pursue his travels (which he kept up into his 90s) and his writing.

Paddy died at 96, before his final book was finished; Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper edited The Broken Road. Although his long life is now over, readers, writers and adventurers continue to be inspired by his curiosity, his acute perception and his appetite for living.




Artemis Cooper, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure

New York Review Books, 2013

pp 480


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