Artemis Cooper’s superb biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor begins with an extraordinary evocation of his childhood.
The local children taught him how to run his hand up the dried stems of wild sorrel, and feel his palm swell with the kibbled seeds that he threw to the wind. They scrambled into half-used ricks and jumped; it was prickly but soft, so you sank into the sweet-smelling hay. They helped him clamber into the saddles of old apple trees, but soon he would be able to hoist himself into tall trees like the bigger boys. Then he would climb into the topmost branches, invisible, hidden by leaves, and no one would be able to find him. For now he hid in sheds and barns, and sometimes behind the big double doors leading into the yard of the Wheatsheaf, and people shouted, ‘Paddy-Mike, where are you?’ while he hugged himself because no one could see him, and no one knew where he was.
It was the last summer of the Great War. Patrick Leigh Fermor was not quite four years old and living with family friends in rural Northamptonshire. By the summer of 1919, before he was five, his mother would have returned from India and taken him to live in London. He would never return to that rural idyll.
Cooper takes her description largely from the opening of Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, but one has to ask where Fermor got it from. This sort of rural upbringing for middle class children seems to have been quite common in the first half of the century. Dirk Bogarde is similarly lyrical at the start of the first volume of his autobiography (A Postillion Struck by Lightning, 1977):
We lay on our backs under the ash tree by the top of the gully and watched the crows wheeling and gliding in the wind. All around my head sorrel, buttercup and long bendy plantains shimmered and nodded. I crumbled a little empty snail shell, transparent and silvery. My sister had her eyes closed, her hands folded on her chest like a dead Plantagenet. She has the same kind of nose, poky and long; her hair was scattered with pollen.
I leant up on one elbow and sprinkled the snail shell all over her face.
These memories of childhood are by far the best part of Bogarde’s memoirs, taking up half of the volume. Later he would expand it into a full length book, Great Meadow: An Evocation (1992). But Bogarde’s memories of growing up on the Sussex Downs take him from 1927 (when he was six) to 1934 (when he was entering his teens). Time enough, therefore, for distinct memories to form, and Bogarde also talks about family papers recovered after his father’s death, which gives him something to build his memories around. But Fermor?
He wasn’t yet five! How much do you remember from before you were five? In my case, next to nothing. Just before Christmas we dug out some old family photographs; I saw lots of me from when I was in a pram until when I was in my teens, they triggered nothing but the odd incoherent memory. Certainly there was nothing as structured as the feel of wild sorrel seeds. Maybe it’s just me.
But then, it’s not as if Fermor had much to base his memories on. Cooper’s book is stuffed full of stories of lost notebooks, of diaries going astray, of journals put into safe storage and then destroyed in the blitz or stolen or abandoned somewhere or not recovered until many years later. Fermor appears to have been an assiduous record keeper, but hopeless at retaining those records.
The central event in Fermor’s life was his famous walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople which began early in December 1933 and lasted through into 1935. He always intended to write about the walk, but by the time he reached Greece all his notes and diaries were lost (many years later he would recover one journal that covered the walk from Czechoslovakia to Mount Athos). In the end he only started to write about the walk in the 1960s, when he was commissioned to write a short piece about walking for a magazine. The short essay grew into an almost book-length piece that he called ‘A Youthful Journey’ (1963-4) that was never published. He decided he would turn this into a book, the first part of which would eventually appear as A Time of Gifts in 1977, and the second part as Between the Woods and the Water in 1986. The third and final part was never completed.
The trouble is, how much of this story are we meant to believe? The fact of the walk is true enough, the route as published is accurate. But we know that he elided characters or gave them different names. One incident on the walk that occurred after the part covered by Between the Woods and the Water was described in an article for Holiday Magazine in 1965 called ‘A Cave on the Black Sea’. In this he recounts how he was walking alone along the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria when he slipped and fell into the sea. Dragging himself out of the water he sought refuge in a cave where he encountered a group of shepherds and the spent the night riotously drinking and singing folk songs. It’s a wonderful story, typical of Fermor’s easy encounters with all sorts of people. But it didn’t happen. From Cooper’s biography we learn that he was not alone when he made his way along the Black Sea coast, and he did not fall into the sea there. Where he did fall into the sea was a year or so later when he got lost on Mount Athos, and he sought refuge not in a cave but in a local cottage.
Fermor seems to have been a romanticist who loved being the life and soul of the party. I suspect, if I had met him, I would have found him rather tiresome. But any encounter with anyone else seems to have been an excuse to hold court, telling stories and singing songs. And I suspect that in the telling and the retelling the stories acquired a patina. Not, you understand, that he was lying, but he was shaping the truth to fit the requirements of story. Sometimes this would glorify himself (the facts about his celebrated participation in a cavalry charge in Greece during a royalist uprising on the eve of the Second World War appear to have been considerably less glamorous than legend has it), sometimes he was simply being discrete (there is a rather charmingly old-fashioned veil drawn across his innumerable sexual adventures during that walk across Europe), more often, I think, it was just because the story worked better if he made these slight adjustments. And as he told and retold the stories (he was a painfully slow writer, drafting and redrafting sometimes for decades before delivering his manuscripts) the memories became fixed in a shape that may not have been actual, but was nonetheless true for all that.