Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mythmaker

Artemis Cooper reflects on Patrick Leigh Fermor’s flexible approach to historical fact.

Patrick Leigh Fermor towards the end of the Second World War. Trustees National Library of Scotland
Patrick Leigh Fermor towards the end of the Second World War. Trustees National Library of Scotland

Patrick Leigh Fermor could not look at a landscape without wondering who had been there before him and how they had shaped what he saw. This was the springboard for all his travel books. Yet alongside this curiosity about the past ran a more imaginative impulse. Some writers might have tried to curb it, especially when tackling historical passages. Not Paddy, who had great faith in what he called ‘letting it rip,’ which added such zest to his prose. Yet when he came to write about his own history, as an undercover agent in occupied Crete between 1942 and 1945, scruples seemed to stifle even his irrepressible style.

While he cared passionately about getting facts and details right, he rarely set foot in an archive. Most of his ‘mugging up’ came out of encyclopedias, books and conversations. He found the legends surrounding a person or an event every bit as interesting as the truth. Even an old chestnut, like the story of Richard I’s minstrel Blondel singing outside every fortress in the hope of hearing his master’s voice, was worth retelling. ‘[The story] is almost too good to be true’, wrote Paddy in A Time of Gifts (1977), ‘but on the spot, it is impossible to doubt it.’

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