Book Festival review: Artemis Cooper on Patrick Leigh Fermor | James Fergusson
Foreign reporting is given a thorough examination as Artemis Cooper discusses the work of writer Patrick Leigh Fermour, while James Fergusson and Ben Rawlence chew over reporting in Africa. By David Robinson
How much can you believe of what a writer – even a great one – writes when he’s writing about events decades ago? Can you ever trust a foreign correspondent’s reports filed from a war-torn country where the only way to get about is to be embedded with a foreign army? Suppose you’re convinced that a country is always misreported and you want to counter that bias: aren’t you automatically going to go to the other extreme?
The first question came to mind in Artemis Cooper’s engaging talk about Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose Byronic good looks and talent as a writer made him envied by men and irresistible to women, quite apart from his wartime heroism (record: one Italian general willingly taken off Crete to join the British, one German general kidnapped and escorted through no fewer than 22 checkpoints).
She knew Leigh Fermor for nearly all of her life and realised that his legendary charm, if anything, increased with age. Before he died last year aged 96, he seems to have bowled over everyone he met – apart from Somerset Maugham who called him “a middle-class gigolo for upper-class women. For most of us, though, even his charm and heroism take second place to the two books he wrote about his pre-war walk across Europe from the Hook of Holland to the city he always called Constantinople. A Time of Gifts appeared in 1977, 44 years after he set out on that journey, and Between the Woods and the Water was published a full nine years later. The long-awaited final volume, which Cooper has edited along with Colin Thubron, will be published in three weeks’ time.
How much of the trilogy can be relied on? Cooper gave a typically elegant answer, quoting that other great travel writer, Jonathan Raban, to the effect that most travel writing is a series of disjointed experiences of no intrinsic value unless linked by imagination – “like scraps of wool caught on a barbed wire fence that have been woven and spun into fiction in a book”.
Cooper is well placed to sort out the wire from the wool. Even though Leigh Fermor always seemed to be the most fascinating man in any room (“like a bubble of Champagne, he’d rise to the top of whatever society he found himself in”), her book isn’t a complete hagiography. After all, some 200 Cretans were killed by the Germans, largely (though not entirely) in reprisal for General Kreipe’s abduction. On a personal level, Leigh Fermor’s wife Joan had to tolerate endless womanising, even to the extent, as Cooper revealed, of giving him the money he needed to pay for it.
Earlier, James Fergusson and Ben Rawlence had chewed over some of those other issues of truth in reportage, in this case from Africa. Rawlence’s aim in writing a book about the Congo was, he said, to challenge the stereotypical way in which most most Westerners wrote up the continent as the training school for the four horsemen of the apocalypse. It’s not all war, famine, pestilence and death, he insisted: and the more we get used to thinking of it as a place of unavoidable danger, the longer it will take before we start treating Africans as equals.
Fair enough, I thought. Then it was time to hear from Edinburgh-based foreign correspondent James Fergusson. The title of his book about Somalia? The Most Dangerous Place in the World. As a Somali in the audience pointed out, pinning that label on his homeland wasn’t going to help anyone.
To his credit, Fergusson agreed – perhaps it was his publisher’s idea – and went on to talk about some of the absurdities he’d come across while travelling in what he agreed could be a very pleasant land (apart from the al-Shabab-controlled area, where they’d cut off your head as soon as look at you). He was there to cover the terrorism more than the famine that killed 260,000 people between 2010 and 2012, and the contempt with which he spoke about those who flew in (and quickly out again) to report on it was obvious (“famine is always a story that makes journalistic careers”). Certainly it’s hard to imagine anything more troubling than reporting on dying babies in the morning and then repairing to the contractors’ camp within the Ugandan army base, scoffing down a massive meat-based meal, and heading out again for a few more heart-rending pictures.
Rawlence was also keen to talk about the politics of aid, but apart from talking about the hospitality of the Congoese people, he hardly mentioned them. Did the millions dead in the recent war there and the fact that mass rape became a commonplace war crime in it spoil his argument?