I’ve never done anything but dream. This, and this alone, has been the meaning of my life. My only real concern has been my inner life. FERNANDO PESSOA

Sunday, 14 October 2012

An Adventurous Life

Robert MacFarlane reviewing Artemis Cooper's new biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor in yesterday's Guardian...

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Patrick Leigh Fermor's legendary life is that it lasted as long as it did. He died in 2011 at the age of 96, having survived enough assaults on his existence to make Rasputin seem like a quitter. He was car-bombed by communists in Greece, knifed in Bulgaria, and pursued by thousands of Wehrmacht troops across Crete after kidnapping the commander of German forces on the island. Malaria, cancer and traffic accidents failed to claim him.

He was the target of a long-standing Cretan blood vendetta, which did not deter him from returning to the island, though assassins waited with rifles and binoculars outside the villages he visited. He was beaten into a bloody mess by a gang of pink-coated Irish huntsmen after he asked if they buggered their foxes. He smoked 80 cigarettes a day for 30 years, and often set his bed-clothes ablaze after falling asleep with a lit fag in hand. He drank epically, and would 'drown hangovers like kittens' in breakfast pints of beer and vodka. As a young SOE agent in Cairo in 1943, the centrepiece of his Christmas lunch was a turkey stuffed with Benzedrine pills; at the age of 69 he swam the Hellespont — and was nearly swept away by the current.

Yes, Leigh Fermor was an insurer's nightmare, an actuary's case-study, and his longevity was preposterous. He might best be imagined as a mixture of Peter Pan, Forrest Gump, James Bond and Thomas Browne. He was elegant as a cat, darkly handsome, unboreable, curious, fearless, fortunate, blessed with a near-eidetic memory, and surely one of the great English prose stylists of his generation.

Mosques in Istanbul (Constantinople). Image: Wikimedia Commons. Attribution: Christiaan Briggs.

Fermor wrote two of the last century's outstanding travel books — A Time Of Gifts (1977) and its sequel Between The Woods And The Water (1985) — about a walk he did as a young man from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. I've read and enjoyed immensely both these books. The final volume of the trilogy will appear posthumously from John Murray next year. I can hardly wait.

To read MacFarlane's whole piece, please click here.

13 comments:

George said...

What more can one say? Utterly fascinating!

Bouncing Bertie said...

Robert MacFarlane writing on Patrick Leigh Fermor. A timely reminder of why I am still happy to pay good money for my paper copy of the Guardian.
Gail.

martin said...

ah, they don't make men like that any more...

Rubye Jack said...

Maybe he lived so long due to his excesses causing him to have little stress. Who's to say. He does have an amazing story regardless.

pilgrimpace said...

Thanks for this Robert - an exceptionally full weekend meant I haven't bought the papers. Really looking forward to the biography - and the end of the trilogy

Andy

Ruth said...

Thrilling. And even more so with Istanbul's minarets.

This reminds me of the Baudelaire poem "Be Drunk" — You have to be always drunk. Drunk with life!

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, what a larger-than-life character, George...

Agreed, Gail. I'm so happy reading my paper copy of the Guardian Review on a Saturday morning while eating Marmite on hot, buttered toast. Two of the great joys in life.

Martin — indeed they don't!

Rubye — I think he was lucky!

Me too, Andy... and Ruth: that Baudelaire poem is fantastic!

The Weaver of Grass said...

Yes, I read that in the Guardian too Robert. I am just seduced by the photograph of Istanbul. I spent a fortnight there some years ago before going across the Dardenalles and through the Taurus mountains. Istanbul is such a magical city - I would love to go back there.

Goat said...

Yet another reminder from you that I need to order those books -- and take more risks. Well, I did walk for nine hours on a Korean road on the weekend. Not the same as being hunted by Nazis, though.

I can't get enough true-survival stories in any setting, but I have a special fondness for WWII tales. They really were a special breed, by necessity I suppose.

Re: the Guardian. I tried the iPhone app! Not quite the same, obviously. And I only got it free for a week - then you have to subscribe. Maybe when I get an iPad and I can actually read the thing in some comfort... But have you ever got Marmite/Vegemite all over a keypad? Ghastly.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Pat, for your comment... and Goat, yes, I love those kinds of stories too. VEGEMITE? Don't tell me you eat the, err, inferior product? (I had this controversy on the blog a while ago, and it ran and ran!)

Susan Scheid said...

I had no idea of the man behind these books! "A turkey stuffed with Benzedrine pills," now that has got to beat all.

The Solitary Walker said...

Indeed, Susan. Christmas must have been interesting, to say the least. I bet he was so off his head, that he didn't even NOTICE the in-laws. Lucky man!

Amanda said...

good lord - i had no idea the man had survived that long! just read the piece about longevity on the greek island of ikaria - fermor's lifestyle is quite a bit more chaotic than the ikarians but he still managed to make it well into his 90s. perhaps rubye is right in that he had little stress due to indulging his excesses. regardless of the reason, what a life.