For all his geniality and charm, Patrick Leigh Fermor – ‘Paddy’ to his great army of friends – is a surprisingly divisive figure. To his admirers, myself included, he is the greatest travel writer of the last century, a master of English prose whose seemingly enchanted life included walking across Europe from Rotterdam to Istanbul at the age of 18 and, as a member of the resistance in German-occupied Crete, capturing a German general and shipping him to Egypt – an episode later filmed as Ill Met by Moonlight, in which Leigh Fermor was played by Dirk Bogarde. Less romantic souls find his prose over-elaborate and long-winded, and are irritated by his readiness to burst into song at the least provocation, as often as not in Greek or Romanian. They cast a cold eye on the two books in which he described his prewar hike on the grounds that, writing half a century after the event, no one could have remembered what happened in such meticulous detail, and they worry (like Leigh Fermor himself) about the extent to which German reprisals against Cretan villages were prompted by the abduction of General Kreipe.
Although, in later years, Leigh Fermor mixed in very grand circles (his close friends included the Devonshires and Lady Diana Cooper), his parents were modest middle-class folk. His father, a geologist, was a remote figure, while his Irish mother was an over-possessive drama queen: when he told her about Balasha,