Jaded at 18, Patrick Leigh Fermor embarked on a risk-filled life.

Jaded at 18, Patrick Leigh Fermor embarked on a risk-filled life. Photo: AP

BIOGRAPHER
By Artemis Cooper
Hodder & Stoughton, $49.99

DASHING good looks, a genius for friendship, and an ability to turn a lifetime of adventure into several collections of celebrated travellers' tales; Patrick Leigh Fermor's life seemed dusted with the gold of fable.

He kidnapped a German general during World War II; was a hero to the Cretans; and lived large portions of his life as a peripatetic but well-connected explorer in search of ancient customs and vanishing cultural habitats, weaving history, anthropology and poetry through stories of journeys to the Balkans, Greece, central Europe and the Caribbean. His publisher, the English firm of John Murray, had also published Byron 150 years earlier; the two were often compared, both for their Hellenic passions and their reckless courage and panache, or what the Greeks call ''leventeia''.

<p></p>

Heroic comparisons abound - he was once described as a cross between James Bond, Indiana Jones and Graham Greene - but, as Artemis Cooper shows in this excellent biography, the Anglo-Irish soldier-scholar also had shoes, if not feet, of clay. His famous charm and enthusiasm for partying also masked a lifelong battle with depression and a crippling propensity for procrastination when it came to his writing.

Paddy, as his friends called him, was born in 1915 to parents living in India (his father was a geologist) and was farmed out with a family in Northamptonshire until he was four. When they finally met, his parents and elder sister were strangers. A misfit at a succession of schools, which ended in expulsion, he dodged his parents' plans for him to join the army, spending his time in London in the company of hedonistic, hard-drinking Bright Young Things.

By the age of 18 he felt jaded and a failure, with vague plans of becoming a writer stalled by having nothing much to write about; the solution, which presented itself suddenly, was to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, and in December 1933, he set off, arriving more than a year later.

Initially sleeping rough or in cheap hostels, a couple of letters of introduction opened doors to a succession of schlosses; the aristocracy of central Europe, still living on their vast feudal estates, welcomed the scruffy but well-educated and ebullient stranger, who, in turn, was fascinated by their history, and the customs and languages of the countries he walked through. By the age of 20 Fermor had embarked on a serious love affair with 36-year-old Romanian princess Balasha Cantacuzene, and lived with her on the family estates and in Greece for almost five years until the outbreak of war.

Eager to enlist, he ended up as one of a select group of Special Operations Executive (SOE) officers, thanks to his fluency in modern Greek, and spent two years working with the resistance in German-occupied Crete disguised as a shepherd.

The kidnapping of General Kreipe in 1944 was a piece of audacious, though carefully planned, bravado. They struck up a strange friendship when Kreipe, staring at the mountains, started quoting in Latin from an ode by the Roman poet Horace, a poem Fermor then completed. The exploit became a book written by his deputy, Billy Moss and later a film, Ill Met by Moonlight, starring Dirk Bogarde.

Fermor's ebullience and recklessness extended to his social life - Christmas lunch in Cairo, 1943, consisted of a turkey stuffed with Benzedrine - and when on leave he was rarely sober.

In Egypt he met Joan Rayner, who became his main partner and confidante, and eventually, 23 years later, his wife.

There were plenty of other women along the way, including a passionate affair with Ricki Soma, the ballet-dancer wife of film director John Huston; Somerset Maugham rather sourly described him as a middle-class gigolo for upper-class women.

Cooper, the granddaughter of Lady Diana Cooper, one of Fermor's great friends, is particularly good at re-creating the milieu of talented bon viveurs who formed his circle, including Cyril Connolly, Lawrence Durrell, John Betjeman, Nancy Mitford and, from a younger generation, travel writer Bruce Chatwin.

Partying and perfectionism made the production of his books agonisingly slow; eight years passed between his two works on Greece, Mani (1958) and Roumeli; and his account of travel in the Balkans, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, didn't appear until 1977 and 1986.

By then, the lives of those he had known there had changed utterly; when he finally saw Princess Balesha again in 1965, she was an impoverished, broken old woman living in a tiny attic. Throughout the years of hardship, she had kept the battered green notebook in which Paddy had written his youthful observations, and could finally return it to him.