Anthony Powell said that John Betjeman had ‘a whim of iron’. To judge by these compulsive letters, Patrick Leigh Fermor had a pleasure-loving streak of purest titanium. From the first letter, written in 1940, soon after he joined the Irish Guards, until the last in 2010, sent when he was ninety-four, he was on a lifelong search for erotic, alcoholic, intellectual and courageous diversion. One moment he’s in Crete, meeting the partisans who helped him kidnap the Nazi general Heinrich Kreipe, his most dashing escapade. The next he’s at Chatsworth, sitting next to Camilla Parker Bowles – ‘immensely nice, non-show-off, full of charm and very funny’.
In between, it’s back to the Mani peninsula and the enchanting seaside home he and his wife, Joan, built in the mid-1960s. It was only there, in Greece, and then, in his fifties, that Leigh Fermor had a real adult home and reined in the wanderlust – and the lust. Until then, he’d continued the manic travels that began with his walk as a teenager across Europe in the 1930s. In the letters we follow him as he flits from borrowed Italian castello to French abbey to Irish castle, taking the edge off his ‘high-level cadging’ by making jokes about it. In 1949, he wrote to Joan: ‘Darling, look out for some hospitable Duca or Marchesa with a vast castle, and try and get off with him, so that he could have us both to stay.’
Leigh Fermor was less in search of luxury than entertainment. A 1954 letter to Ann Fleming skewers the super-rich aboard Stavros Niarchos’s gin palace: ‘it’s pretty good hell aboard: no sort of connecting link between all the guests, disjointed conversation, heavy banter, sumptuous but straggling meals at all hours … Why the hell don’t they have more fun with their money?’ After each of his gilded weekends, there arrives the perfectly weighted and amusing thank-you letter for the relevant duchess or Schloss-proprietor. For those in search of the model of the perfect bread-and-butter letter, look no further.
Reading these letters is like gobbling down a tray of exotically filled chocolates, with no horrible orange creams to put you off. What prevents Leigh Fermor’s eternal pleasure hunt from getting a bit sickly are two things: the undeniable bravery – and seriousness – of his war record, and his intellect. Unlike most playboys, he was an addicted reader of high-minded obscurities, among them John of Ruusbroec, a 14th-century Flemish mystic, and St Angela of Foligno, a 13th-century founder of a religious order. Hardly light holiday reading. His literary gifts were considerable and are on display in a pitch-perfect Betjeman pastiche from 1954, reprinted here: ‘Beadles and bell ropes! Pulpits and pews! … And patum peperium under the yews!’ Moreover, Leigh Fermor’s appetite for socialising extended beyond dukes and Cretan war heroes. In a coffee house in Macedonia, his interest in other people and countries is so great that he recognises all the languages being spoken: Greek, Pontian, Turkish, Bulgarian, Romanian, Ladino, Russian, Georgian and Gheg, an Albanian dialect.
Unlike most writers – a narcissistic bunch, largely – Leigh Fermor had a longing to amuse. His letters are illustrated with little drawings of maps, castles and his half-built Mani house. The letters explain what propelled this desire: ‘whorish anxieties about being liked’. Underneath the titanium, pleasure-seeking exterior and the intellect lay melancholy, sparked by the failure to complete books on time – or at all, in the case of the third volume of his self-styled ‘Great Trudge’ memoir of his 1930s walk. Ever self-aware, he refers to himself as ‘L’Escargot des Carpathes’, a nickname first coined by Le Monde. He acknowledges, too, the inevitable ‘inaccuracies of memory’, which meant that journeys that had taken place half a century earlier were sexed up in his travel writing.
He is also aware of the selfishness of the affairs he conducted with the knowledge of his future wife, Joan, even as she subsidised him from her private income. The letters to his mistresses include grippingly salacious, easily decoded euphemisms. When he thinks he might have given crabs to Ricki Huston, wife of the film director John, he writes of ‘the beginnings of troop-movements in the fork’. And here’s an entry for the 1959 Bad Sex Award: ‘Woke up at midday, longing for ping-pong, and sentimentally stroked the handle of your cast-down bat.’
You get the impression that, after he was kicked out of King’s, Canterbury for holding hands with a greengrocer’s daughter, Leigh Fermor never really grew up; that he started walking across Europe, aged eighteen, and never properly stopped. References to his mother – ‘so terrifying and destructive … so full of odd delusions and manias’ – might explain why.
Adam Sisman is a model editor. He is prepared to admit faults in his subject, not least the baroque style of Leigh Fermor’s books, ‘which can seem convoluted and overworked’. Not so the letters, aimed more precisely at amusing rather than dazzling their recipients, albeit with the odd bit of purple prose – ‘Their horses are caparisoned to the fetlocks.’
Leigh Fermor was charm personified. It isn’t evanescent British charm, as described by Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited: ‘Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art.’ Leigh Fermor’s charm was of a healthier, more worthwhile variety, because underneath lay intellect and, ultimately, love and art.