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It’s been a terrible year for travel–locally, nationally, and especially, internationally–and while things seem to be easing up some on the domestic front, it looks as if it may be a while before other countries feature prominently on anyone’s itinerary. So this month’s group writing theme of “journeys” has come at just the right time for me, and has already transported me to Jerusalem, Hawaii, Minnesota, and Ireland; as well as filling my head with musical, literary, and cultural whimsy and insight.
I can’t wait to see where we go next!
Just for today, though, I’d like to step back into the realm of the written word and take a quick look at the man who’s often been described as the best English-language travel writer of the twentieth century, and in particular, at the book that established his reputation.
That book, A Time for Gifts: On foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube, was published in 1977, when Paddy Leigh Fermor was 62 years old. It’s the first of a trilogy: The other two books cover the rest of the journey–to the gates of the Balkans, and then, finally, to Mount Athos in Greece. (The third book, he left unfished, and it was published after his death, compiled from his copious notes and manuscripts.)
But it was A Time for Gifts which made his name a household word.
Not that Leigh Fermor was completely unknown prior to its publication. Born in 1915, he’d been left in the UK by his parents when they journeyed to India, and had been raised by relatives living in the country. His formal education was haphazard and he was often in trouble, and regularly under discipline. Most of what he learned, he learned outside the classroom, as he was a voracious reader who eventually decided to become a writer himself.
Alas, things did not go well for our young hero, so he did what any enterprising fellow with a thorn in his shoe would do: He formed the intention of walking-alone-across Europe, setting out at the age of eighteen in December of 1933 with the clothes on his back, some letters of introduction, The Oxford Book of English Verse, and a collection of Horace’s Odes. As might be imagined, his living conditions were rough, his experiences and adventures were vivid and extraordinary, and thank goodness, they’ve been compiled and preserved for posterity in the three volumes mentioned above.
But more of them, anon.
By the start of the Second World War, Leigh Fermor was living in a watermill in Romania with a noblewoman he’d met and fallen in love with. But when he heard that war had broken out, he left her, returned to Britain, and joined the army where his skill with languages (particularly Greek) marked him for promotion and especially for dangerous work with the Special Operations Executive. At one point, Leigh Fermor led a team of redoubtables who kidnapped Major-General Heinrich Kreipe and extracted him from Greece, taking him, eventually, to Egypt. Wikipedia gives a pretty comprehensive “short version” of the incident:
On the night of 26 April 1944 General Kreipe left headquarters in Archanes. The car headed without escort to a well-guarded residence, “Villa Ariadni”, about 5 km outside Heraklion. Major Leigh Fermor and Captain Moss, dressed as German military policemen, waited for him 1 km before his residence. When he arrived, they asked the driver to stop and asked for their papers. As soon as the car stopped, Leigh Fermor opened Kreipe’s door, jumped in, and threatened him with his pistol, while Moss took the driver’s seat. (The abduction is now commemorated near Archanes.) Moss drove the kidnappers and the General for an hour and a half through 22 controlled road-blocks in Heraklion before he left Leigh Fermor to drive on and abandon the car, with material being planted that suggested their escape from the island had been made by submarine. Moss set off with the general on a cross-country march, supported by the Greek resistance, soon rejoined by Leigh Fermor. Hunted by German patrols, the kidnappers crossed the mountains to reach the southern side of the island, where a British Motor Launch (ML 842 commanded by Brian Coleman) was waiting to rendez-vous. Eventually, on 14 May 1944, they were picked up from Peristeres beach near Rhodakino and ferried to Egypt. Kreipe was interrogated and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Canada. Later transferred to a special camp in Wales.
After the war, Leigh Fermor got cracking on his writing career in earnest, authoring several books which were very well received, about his travels in and around Europe and the Caribbean. Always making himself part of the landscape and absorbing himself with, and into, the local culture and scene, Leigh Fermor was observed with fascination by the natives, who invented (or perhaps not) all sorts of interesting background and stories about their new friend, and he has passed into legend in more than one part of the world. (The definitive biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor is Artemis Cooper’s Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, published two years after his death. It’s a wonderful book. I’m only about four chapters in.)
In 1968, Leigh Fermor married his longtime traveling companion, Joan Rayner, and the couple split their time between her home in Dumbleton, Gloucestershire, and their house in an olive grove in southern Greece. It was at this time that he started work on a book about his youthful journey across Europe, an activity galvanized by the sudden and felicitous appearance of the contemporaneous diaries he’d kept as an 18-year-old — diaries that had been found in a Romanian castle and eventually returned to him. (Another story so improbable in itself that it simply must be true.)
It’s fascinating to read Leigh Fermor’s youthful, enthusiastic, sometimes naïve prose as he writes his impressions of a Europe between two World Wars, and then to follow his seamless commentary from the point of view of a decorated war hero, established author, world traveler and sophisticate in his late ’50s and early ’60s, and it gives this travel book a perspective, perhaps, like that of no other.
Except for the snow-covered landscape and the clouds and the tree-bordered flow of the Merwede, the next two days have left little behind them but the names of the towns I slept in. I must have made a late start from Dordrecht: Sliedrecht, my next halting place, is only a few miles on, and Gorinchem, the next after that, is not much more. Some old walls stick in my memory, cobbled streets and a barbican and barges moored along the river, but, clearest of all, the town lock-up. Somebody had told me that humble travellers in Holland could doss down in police stations, and it was true. A constable showed me to a cell without a word, and I slept, rugged up to the ears, on a wooden plank hinged to the wall and secured on two chains under a forest of raffish murals and graffiti. They even gave me a bowl of coffee and quarter of a loaf before I set off. Thank God I had put ‘student’ in my passport: it was an amulet and an Open Sesame. In European tradition, the word suggested a youthful, needy, and earnest figure, spurred along the highways of the West by a thirst for learning—thus, notwithstanding high spirits and a proneness to dog-Latin drinking songs, a fit candidate for succour.
And, from his walk through Germany, where the specter of Hitler and the S.A. already loomed over all:
The opaque spiralling of the leaded panes hid the snowfall and the cars that churned through the slush outside, and a leather curtain on a semi-circular rod over the doorway kept the room snug from cold blasts. The heavy oak tables were set about with benches, hearts and lozenges pierced the chair-backs, a massive china stove soared to the beams overhead, logs were stacked high and sawdust was scattered on the russet tiles. Pewter-lidded beer-mugs paraded along the shelves in ascending height. A framed colour-print on the wall showed Frederick the Great, with cocked hat askew, on a restless charger. Bismarck, white-clad in a breastplate under an eagle-topped helmet, beetled baggy-eyed next door; Hindenburg, with hands crossed on sword-hilt, had the torpid solidity of a hippopotamus; and from a fourth frame, Hitler himself fixed us with a scowl of great malignity. Posters with scarlet hearts advertised Kaffee Hag. Clamped in stiff rods, a dozen newspapers hung in a row; and right across the walls were painted jaunty rhymes in bold Gothic black-letter script: Wer liebt nicht Wein, Weib und Gesang, Der bleibt ein Narr sein Leben lang! Beer, carraway seed, beeswax, coffee, pine-logs and melting snow combined with the smoke of thick, short cigars in a benign aroma across which every so often the ghost of sauerkraut would float.
You can, quite literally, open the book to any point, and glorious prose like that simply falls off the page in front of you. I can’t recommend A Time for Gifts highly enough, especially if you’re feeling a bit blue, and don’t have any trips planned in the near future. The second book of the trilogy is equally charming; I haven’t read the third one yet. I just give thanks that a man who could write like that was generous enough in spirit to share his own gifts with the world.
Unlike many such a rolling stone, the footloose and fancy-free Leigh Fermor seems to have had an unusually constant heart, and he remained married to the slightly older Joan Rayner–a talented photographer in her own right–until her death at the age of 90 in 2003. (Leigh Fermor and Rayner met in 1944, at which time she was still married to her first husband. That marriage was dissolved three years later, and Leigh Fermor and Rayner lived together from that point forward, finally marrying in 1968. Although it appears (imagine my surprise) that neither of them may have been entirely faithful to their vows, their relationship seems characterized by an easy sense of companionship and affection. When the 96-year old Leigh Fermor himself went to be with Joan, on June 10, 2011, he was buried, not in any of the exotic or windswept, or magical, or prosaic, locations he’d written about and loved so much, but right next to her in the cemetery of St. Peter’s Church, Dumbleton, Gloucestershire.
Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.–Robert Louis Stevenson