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As so often in his life, an extraordinary natural charm smoothed his way. Chance introductions that in other hands would have proved useless helped him to leapfrog from country house to country house. In his masterwork about that trip, A Time of Gifts, he makes it all sound like easy good fortune. But Cooper does a good job in explaining why the grand decaying families in grand decaying houses so gladly opened their doors to the smelly, cash-strapped and careless young man, who was "polite, cheerful and cannot hear enough about the family history . . . instead of feeling like the useless fragment of a broken empire, the Count is transformed".

The great trip also brought him the great love of his pre-war life, Balasha Cantacuzene, a Romanian noblewoman 12 years older than him. She guarded his travel diary (a thick, green notebook) through Communist expropriation and banishment, and eventually reunited it with its owner. It is the only real source he had, apart from his memories, when he came to write the trip up many decades later. Cooper's insights into its dog-eared pages, filled by a snobbish but sharp 19-year-old, and her reflections on the book written by the mature Leigh Fermor decades later, are among the many masterly pages of this biography.

A Time of Gifts was a sensational success (in 1980 it set this reviewer on eastern paths that he has trodden ever since). It was not exactly reportage. Scenes and characters blurred and merged, timelines shrank and stretched. The prose is exuberant to the point of absurdity in places. But it gives a definitive account of a slice of Europe before the cataclysm, a world as vanished as Atlantis.

Yet he was famous long before his long-suffering publisher ever saw the manuscript. The first edition, in the public eye, was not the schoolboy tramp but the dashing hero of wartime resistance in Crete. His great exploit was the kidnapping of the German commander, General Heinrich Kreipe, who was spirited off the island: a great stunt, though one that brought devastating reprisals on the Cretans.

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