Monday, 5 November 2012

Patrick Leigh Fermor | A Time Of Gifts | Mr Foote's Other Leg

These days, “adventurous” is buying an airline ticket and Skyping home to mum from a Thai beach bar. For Patrick Leigh Fermor, “adventurous” was flunking school and heading off, aged 18, to walk across Europe on a pound a week. No iPhone for him, it was 1934, and the journey took him a year.

He ended up in Greece, but when WW2 began dashed back to join the Irish Guards, because he thought if he was going to die he might as well have an attractive uniform. When he missed out on a commission he grudgingly accepted a transfer to the Intelligence Corps.

But Fermor was an extraordinary individual: outgoing, widely read, good with languages. His walk across Europe, “from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople”, immortalised in the much lauded travelogue A Time Of Gifts (1977), had broadened his horizons and formed his life view and he turned out to be a brilliant wartime agent.

The SOE sent him to Nazi occupied Crete where, for almost two years, he led a group of resistance fighters. Apparently he was one of several classical scholars working there – a knowledge of ancient Greek seen as a shortcut to the modern language.

Later, he was awarded the DSO for a daring mission in which he kidnapped a Nazi general and smuggled him off the island. He even left a note in the man’s car making it clear that it had been a British operation, signing it PM Leigh Fermor, Maj, O.C. Commando. In peacetime, his activities on the island earned him a “blood vendetta” from those who blamed him for terrible Nazi reprisals. And yet he carried on living on Crete for most of his life.

When he died last year at the grand old age of 96, Fermor was fittingly described as a cross between “Indiana Jones, James Bond and Grahame Greene.” Artemis Cooper’s excellent, un-put-downable biography of lives up to this mix and offers a third person viewpoint Fermor’s own books, by definition, lack. She is lucky in her subject, not just because his life is littered with famous connections – the Sitwells, Lauren Van Der Post, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – but because even from birth Fermor’s circumstances were extraordinary, and his attitude to life formidable. He loved to party, drank like a fish and squeezed the maximum from life.

While Fermor was famous for crossing Europe on foot, Samuel Foote was famous for having just one foot – he lost one in a riding accident. I’ve been relishing Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg, about this once-celebrated 18th century actor, comedian, true crime author and friend to Princes.

Like Oscar Wilde in a later era, Foote was said to be the wittiest, most famous man in London, at a time when a clever remark in a coffee house was the equivalent of appearing on Radio 4 or getting a million followers on Twitter.

He made his name with a scandalous pamphlet describing how one of his uncles killed another in an argument over a will – a long running family dispute Dickens is said to have used as the basis of the interminable legal case Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Bleak House. Then he traded on his fame by taking to the stage.

But rather like Wilde, Foote was brought low by the scandalous suggestion that he was homosexual. For a 21st century reader, the transcripts from the court case are shocking and yet also, strangely hilarious. Foote might have recovered from the scandal, but according to Kelly his bitterness and wit got the better for him. He was ruined, forgotten and died, his one remaining foot in his mouth.

This review appeared in The Big Issue

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