Patrick Leigh Fermor–A Time of Gifts

On foot to Constantinople: from the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube

paddy-picWe were given this book in paperback, and were instantly reassured by its combination of dense text and light binding. We’d been staying with Andrew and his family for a few nights, in the New Forest, when he handed us this volume, and told us it was “of a Canterbury lad”, who walked all across Europe before the second war.

Books are arguably the heavier of the portable luxuries, but they are food of a most golden kind, and we love them. So this was slotted into an already over-burdened backpack, to be chewed at leisure.

And what leisure it did provide. Paddy Leigh Fermor writes with verbal skill beyond our prior ken. His linguistic ability outshines the genre of travel writing, like stars above street-lamps. While perhaps not to everyone’s modern reading tastes, this book proves that taste is a faulty concept. It feels to be from an earlier age of rich mental aspirations, of relative poverty and willingness to share. Its day was prevailingly optimistic, when people believed they could learn greater communication, and more meaning; rather than today’s nihilistic literature of self-critique and reductive analysis. Fermor’s words glory in being elucidated; he has the mastery of a great magician, and the practised calm of a museum curator, informative and spectacular.

When describing buildings, a practise that today is typically sketched as a monologue of architecture’s impression on the writer’s petty pre-occupations (“looking up at it, I felt small and insignificant/remembered the gas was on/feared for my life…”) – Paddy Fermor instead tells us of parbolas, crennelations, balustrades and quatrefoils, Palladian belfries, corbles, gables and mullions. He carries his classical knowledge in the fervour of youth across a Europe as yet undefiled by the growing militarism of Nazism. He sees not a factory, but a ‘distant palisade of industrial chimneys’. When modern authors might be ‘wrapped up against the weather’, Fermor is ‘greaved and jambed and shod’. Canals are not found in straight lines, but they practise ‘geometric despotism’. When hearing people speak of the good reputation of the British army, Fermor does not ‘bathe in their glory’, he ‘basked vicariously in their lustre’.

Sometimes it can feel a little ‘dry-brown-bread’, but this fustiness is an impression which comes from our ignorance, is a distaste borne of our desire not to examine the depths of what we don’t know. Fermor’s writing, if we’ll let it in, is cleansing, nourishing, and fiercely intelligent; it is certainly good for you.

His historical knowledge is likewise encyclopaedic. He effortlessly discusses the Plantagenets, the Kingdom of Bohemia, Charlemagne, the Huns, the thirty years war, Saxony, Castille and Aragorn, Hannibal’s elephants, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in a couple of swift pages. It might feel like we’re being left behind, but he labours nothing, and if we’re not with him, Fermor is forgiving, is a gentleman, and he moves right on.

Clips of his early and later life are continually introduced, with iconic scenes such as his accompanying a captured German general, with the Greek resistance in 1943. The General gazes across the mountain vista, and mutters a few lines of an ode by Horace, in Latin of course. Fermor continues where the general falters, and completes the next five stanzas of Latin.

“It was very strange. As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

Fermor has a great time, naive to the unreasonable nature of his journey. He is 18 years old, having been kicked out of (a very good) school, and packs his bag and goes wandering. It is social madness, performed in the most erudite and formally colloquial manner possible.

He meets pretty girls, gets drunk with barons and financiers, sings in taverns, sleeps on hay with kindly families, and is accepted as a part of the natural landscape by a host of fascinating and elegantly described characters.

One passage was particularly impactful for us. It goes:

“In cold weather like this,” said the Innkeeper of a Gastwirtschaft further down, “I recommend Himbeergeist.” I obeyed and it was a lightning conversion. Spirit of raspberries, or their ghost – this crystalline distillation, twinkling and ice-cold in its misty goblet, looked as though it were homeopathically in league with the weather. Sipped or swallowed, it went shuddering through its new home and branched out in patterns – or so it seemed after a second glass – like the ice-ferns that covered the window panes, and carrying a ghostly message of comfort to the uttermost fimbria. Fierce winters gave birth to their antidotes: Kummel, Vodka, Aquavit, Danziger Goldwasser. Oh, for a thimbleful of the cold north! Fiery-frosty potions, sequin-flashers, rife with spangles to spark fuses in the bloodstream, revive fainting limbs, and send travellers rocketing on through ice and snow. White fire, red cheek, heat me and speed me.”

In a small village past Bournemouth, on the anniversary of Will’s dad’s death, Ed and Will stopped for a glass of this clear heat. We were walking with an Australian girl, and the three of us soon found the Finnish Vodka exceptionally helpful with the chilled temperature. With each shot, we’d crowd together, and chant: “White Fire, Red Cheek, Heat Us and Speed Us!”.

After an hour or so, we ran out of inclination to continue. The rain had started to come down, in sheets, blankets and mattresses. We stumbled along a path, Ed developing a massive headache, each of us desirous only to string up a poncho and lie down. We investigated a long strip of woodland, but after we’d clambered over the barbed wire, we found a landscape of stones and thick brambles, everywhere. We walked to what our map described as a church, hoping for an empty porch, but the building was modern brick, with no room for the wayfarer.

So we eventually discovered a place we could sleep, Ed muttering and cursing about this bizarre drunken difficulty, and Will telling him to shut up. We finally strung out our ponchos, and sat down without the rain on our back. All was well. Just as he was about to unpack his bag, Ed found a huge dog shit right where he had chosen to sleep.

We wonder why Patrick Leigh Fermor’s tales never told of such petty misadventures. His good fortune was to meet sufficiently kind people not to need to sleep outside. It is some months before he manages to lie down beneath a tree, and go to sleep. His horizons saw further, more ancient links between events, than ours do. He met Earls who wrote to their cousins, and he was accepted as a cultured fellow wherever he went. “Like a tramp, a pilgrim, a wandering scholar…” he did go his footloose way.

We salute Patrick Leigh Fermour, not only for his journey, in its majestic foolish success, but for his creation of a (if not the) talismanic piece of travel literature. This is a book that needs to be read, and read, and we urge you to do so.

One Response to “Patrick Leigh Fermor–A Time of Gifts”

  1. Helen Price says:

    You might also like to read “No Destination” by Satish Kumar editor of “Resurgence” which started off along the “pilgrims way” and went all round Britain. He initially did a “peace walk” from India to Berlin, London and Washington on the charity of others back in the 60’s. Hope you can get hold of a copy as it is well worth reading, with regards Helen Price

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