Travel writers of the twentieth century: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts

 

At eighteen years young, spirited by an insatiable curiosity and inherently poetic soul, Patrick Leigh Fermor departed the England of his youth to walk a modest 600 miles from the Hook of Holland across to the Bosporus Straits of Istanbul, cutting Europe in two. Leigh Fermor’s Europe, that of the Thirties, is a lost one. Many of the cities, and sadly many of those vivacious personalities, that colour his books’ pages were consumed by the conflicts defining the century. All the more so, his trilogy recollecting his epic wanderings and meditations gleam with a light irresistibly dazzling to a modern reader.

 

In his own words, he sets out:

 

‘To change scenery; abandon London and England and set out across Europe like a tramp – or, as I characteristically phrased it to myself, like a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar, a broken knight…I would travel on foot, sleep in hayricks in summer, shelter in barns when it was raining or snowing and only consort with peasants and tramps. If I lived on bread and cheese and apples…there would even be some cash left over for paper and pencils and an occasional mug of beer. A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!’

 

It remains to be seen if the wet-eared and bedraggled schoolboy was looked upon as a fallen Arthurian knight, but he certainly met with unbelievable hospitality in every hamlet and schloss he visited, and his charm won over everyone from the German forester to the Hungarian Contessa. Part of Fermor’s success in inspiring such kindness in his many hosts and tapping into the histories and arts of the lands he traverses, is inexplicably derived from his readiness to laboriously work at every language and dialect he encounters. In his maturity it is impossible to begrudge him the title of polyglot. In his first weeks in Germany, he strikes out at mastering the tongue by reading Hamlet in the country’s vernacular. At rural firesides he will trade nouns with Romani – tree, hare, star – and you’d be hard-pressed to find a pastoral song he does not overhear and note down to gleefully unlock its meaning. The youth’s fondness for life is movingly refreshing and is mediated to us through the established travel writer Fermor would become; he writes the recounts largely from memory some forty years later. Fermor’s own path would see him swept up in a five-year romance with a Romanian noblewoman – more than the average post-A-level interrailer might happen upon – before stepping into European legend himself. During his involvement in the Cretan resistance of the Second World War, disguised as a shepherd, he would capture and hold prisoner in the island’s mountains the German General Kreipe, earning himself honours in both Britain and Greece.

 

My fascination with Fermor begun four years ago in my sixth-form college in Telford and Wrekin when an old-boy of the school came in to give us a lecture on a trip inspired by A Time of Gifts. Paddy Devlin had left the stasis of his job to walk the Sultans’ Trail (Vienna to Istanbul) and back, over the period of 16 months. His photographs of the Carpathians in full winter and stories picked up in Bosnia, Croatia, the Ukraine, were given to us like a constant stream of trinkets emerging from a magician’s hat; I immediately purchased Fermor’s first installation after getting off school.

 

It is hard not to be taken away with childish intrigue as you flick between pages to track with fingertip Leigh Fermor’s winding path on the books’ maps. His route principally follows Europe’s great rivers: Siegfried’s golden Rhine, the blue Danube, Romania’s grand Mures. This may deceptively imply a stagnancy of subject matter and tiresome narrative linearity, yet this is far from the case. Fermor falls slave to digressive spontaneity both as youthful wanderer and mature man of letters, he is saved by a natural incline for adventure and a capacity for the most roaring and colourful mental associations that electrify his pages. His journey is interrupted by wonderful impromptu episodes, including a summer elope in a motor car, sourced by István the runaway Hussar, with a married noblewoman around Transylvania and a massive deviation from Bratislava up to Prague to look upon the turrets and spires of Bohemia. Galleries, schlosses, monasteries, and cathedrals are conjured up before us and their relationship to place and histories brooded over. We are familiarised with the custom of topping our coffee with schnapps, the movements of the Danube’s sturgeon stock, the art of Peter Brueghel, the Winter Queen, chamois hunting, the Thirty Years War, and the fashion trends of Germany’s landsknechts.

 

Some have found issue in Leigh Fermor’s lack of political commentary in his journey, some others would prefer more of the inner journey, in the spirit of the bildungsroman. However, I would say he is all the more charming for not entertaining these angles. Politicising and self-centring would inevitably distract from the brilliance of Fermor, which lies in his ability to create the immediate in front of us and extend his loving fascination for newly met people, languages, histories, landscapes, unto the reader. He is no Childe Harold.

 

I’ll leave you with Fermor’s selection of epigraph for his Three Letters from the Andes, you may well find it precocious, but I think it captures something of his humour and spirit:

 

‘He has written a slim volume on Hittite ivories.’

‘There are no Hittite ivories.’

‘That is why the volume is so slim.’

Imaginary Conversations, Walter Savage Landor

Image: M.Appleman on Flickr

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