The romance of the past: that’s what drives the traveller’s impossible quest

‘Kardamyli now makes most of its money from tourism. It wasn’t as immune to tourism as Leigh Fermor imagined or wanted it to be.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Writing in 1958 about the little Greek town that was eventually to become his home, the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor was satisfied to note that the Guide Bleu gave it only half a line. “It is better so,” Leigh Fermor wrote. “It is too inaccessible and there is too little to do there, fortunately, for it ever to be seriously endangered by tourism.”

By Ian Jack

First published in the Guardian

His next paragraph describes the town in early evening when, waiting for a freshly caught fish to cook on a grill, he and a few fishermen sit under a mulberry tree outside a taverna and watch the sun sink over the mountains. Caiques – the wooden working boats of the Mediterranean – rock gently “with each sigh of the green transparent water … tethered a few yards above their shadows on the pebbly bottom”. One of Leigh Fermor’s typically exact (and perhaps exacting) images follows when he describes the sea lapping over a flat rock “with just enough impetus to net the surface with a frail white reticulation of foam which slid softly away and dissolved while a new one formed”.

Some of these things still exist. The Mediterranean is clear and green and blue, and on a calm day it will rise and fall against the rocks as Leigh Fermor describes. The sun goes down as he depicts it. There is even a caique or two; and, of course, tavernas – more tavernas than ever. But in most other ways the township of Kardamyli in the Peloponnese is utterly changed. Charter flights land at the little airport in the regional capital, Kalamata, and from there a twisting, expensively engineered road takes taxis, hire cars and air-conditioned coaches over the mountains to a resort that has nice hotels, trinket shops and olive-oil boutiques, as well as pretty restaurants with tea-lights on their tables that look down on the sea. The usual story: Kardamyli now makes most of its money from tourism. It wasn’t as immune to tourism as Leigh Fermor imagined or wanted it to be, and the writer himself is partly to blame.

The tumbledown factory loomed on the shore, a picturesque ruin in brick and concrete where fig trees grew. First, he published an account of his travels in the southern Peloponnese, the peninsula known as the Mani, which was then not much visited, and invested it with the beauty and mystery of a place and people that the 20th century had passed by. Then, six years later, in 1964, he bought a plot of land there – in a bay to the south of Kardamyli – and built a beautiful villa that he lived in almost to the last day of his life, in June 2011. Today his books are available in at least three languages in the local bookshop. People go there because of him – to experience similar sights and sensations to those he saw and felt, even though they understand this can never be completely accomplished, the world having moved on.

But was it ever quite as he described it in the first place? Leigh Fermor’s view of the Mani was essentially romantic: there are few better describers of landscape, but it’s a landscape with omissions. His first sight of Kardamyli is of an enchanting, castellated hamlet at the sea’s edge, where towers, turrets and cupolas rise above houses built of golden stone. “It was unlike any village I had seen in Greece,” Leigh Fermor writes in a page-long depiction that somehow ignores the village’s tallest manmade attribute: the factory chimney of the old olive-oil works. This is difficult to miss. Look down on Kardamyli from almost any vantage point and there it stands, its bricks pale against a background of blue sea and rather more noticeable than the towers and the turrets lying further inland among the cypresses and the olive groves.

The towers date from the age of banditry, feuding clans and resistance to the Ottoman empire. The chimney has cleaner and more peaceable origins. This month I lived next door to it for 10 days in a fine little hotel, and swam morning and afternoon from a ladder bolted to the rocks. The tumbledown factory loomed on the shore behind, a picturesque ruin in brick and concrete where fig trees grew and rusting pipes sprang from the wall at odd angles. A high fence surrounded it, with warnings to keep out.

Olive oil had once been made here – not virgin, cold-pressed or estate bottled, but the roughest kind, which goes into soap. Some accounts online suggest it was owned by the Palmolive company (and when I read this I understood, for the first time, how that familiar name had come about); others say a local family were the proprietors. It used olives – and the residues left from edible oil production – from as far away as Crete, shipped to a concrete pier nearby whose size was inexplicable unless you knew its original purpose. It was said to have employed 150 workers, with steam machinery that, as well as operating its crushers, had the spare capacity to supply the village with its first electricity. Opened in 1932, it closed in either 1958 or 1975 – local memories differed – when new techniques of oil production made it redundant. Since then, a dispute among the site’s three or four owners had prevented demolition or development.

I liked the chimney; three stepped rings of brick, progressively larger in diameter, gave its top a decorative flourish. But then, I’ve always been fascinated by factory chimneys of all kinds, for reasons that I’ve never really examined, the most important probably being that I spent some of my childhood among them: the great smoking verticals of the Lancashire plain, formerly beloved of geography textbooks as the illustrations to the chapter on the textile industry. To find them situated outside what might be considered their natural homelands – the old industrial towns of northern Europe and North America – is always a surprise. They look solitary, like isolated monuments to a faraway and not properly understood revolution. One still standing on the coast of Argyll marks the site of a Victorian factory that made acetic acid from the oak and birch wood. Another on the Ionian island of Paxos served the same kind of mill as Kardamyli’s.

Smoke was most probably still drifting from the Kardamyli chimney when Leigh Fermor reached here in the mid-1950s, but he can hardly be blamed for omitting it from his picture. Like many travellers in our age, he had a distaste for modernity. (He hated radios, for instance, and was relieved that the Mani had so few of them. “Rabid wirelesses should be hunted out and muzzled or shot down like mad dogs.”) He travelled to reach some agreeable form of the past, which has been a motive for the holidaymaker since the days of the Grand Tour.

On an afternoon last week in Kardamyli, I climbed up the ladder from the sea to find three or four men inside the factory fence inspecting the ruins. One wore a pith helmet and carried a theodolite. Another unpacked a drone from its box and directed its flight to the chimney, which it hovered above rather threateningly. It looked as though change was in the offing. I’d known of the chimney for less than a week – and, really, what was it to me? But already I felt a slight alarm that it too might pass, just like the fishermen who watched the sunset with Leigh Fermor from underneath a mulberry tree.

Advertisements

Sir David Attenborough – A Poetic Eye: John Craxton on Cranborne Chase and Crete

Dorset County Museum’s art exhibition A Poetic Eye: John Craxton on Cranborne Chase and Crete was officially opened by Sir David Attenborough and Hilary Spurling OBE on the 27th March 2015. Many of us were able to see this either at the museum or when it moved to Salisbury.

This video includes an explanation by Sir David Attenborough on why he loves the work of John Craxton. Sir David has been a lifelong fan of Craxton’s work.

John Craxton (1922-2009) was one of the most interesting and individual British artists of the 20th century. His life story, starting with wanderings on Cranborne Chase, was as colourful as his later pictures of the light, life and landscapes of Greece, and illustrations for Paddy’s books..

This exhibition at Dorset County Museum in Dorchester charted Craxton’s journey from Cranborne to Crete, from early paintings of dark and menaced war-time landscapes to joyful scenes painted under bright Cretan skies.

Event 3 October 2018: More Dashing – Further Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Adam Sisman will be speaking about his new book on Wednesday 3rd October at 7.15pm at The Hellenic Centre, 16-18 Paddington Street, London W1U 5AS.

If you would like to attend, please email info@patrickleighfermorsociety.org

Admission is free but non-members are asked to make a £10 contribution towards the expenses of the evening or to join the Society, which entitles members to free attendance at all events. The new book will be for sale at a special launch price.

More Dashing: Further Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor is the follow-up of Dashing for the Post: Selected Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor (2016) which received terrific reviews including:

‘Here is a veritable feast for fans of Paddy Leigh Fermor…. Sisman has done a tremendous job selecting and editing this treasure-trove of letters’ The Spectator

‘Adam Sisman has done an excellent job of selecting and editing these letters, almost any one of which would have been a joy to receive’ Times Literary Supplement

‘Oh joy! … No other contemporary writer could have given us so much to relish and we’re fortunate that Adam Sisman has distilled such a treat from so much rich material…. The wit, the humour, and the dazzling intelligence make this, for me, the most unputdownable book of the year’ Country Life

A Review of Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania

From the July 2018 edition of the Hungarian Review. Gordon McKecknie reviews the recently published Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania by Michael O’Sullivan. “… he has (…) also given us, through personal and often tragic histories, poignant insights into the enormous social changes that Hungary underwent in the middle years of the twentieth century.”

In December 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor, then 18, set out from Hook of Holland to walk to Constantinople. It was the first year of Nazi power in Germany, and the last days of the old romantic era there and in the former Habsburg realms of Mitteleuropa, an era that had not quite been swept away by the First World War. Of course, the Second World War – and, for many of the countries that Paddy travelled through, the subsequent dark years of Communism – did sweep the old order away. Since then the landscapes that Paddy tramped through, and the populations he met, have undergone the further, and not-always benign, influence of the ubiquitous automobile, instant global communications, hordes of tourists, a camera in every pocket, the spread of English as the modern lingua franca, and cheap clothing made in distant sweatshops. The old aristocratic way of life that Patrick Leigh Fermor, also known PLF to his numerous friends, saw in its dying days, and nowhere more clearly than in Hungary and Transylvania, vanished not long after his “Great Trudge”.

PLF’s first volume describing his journey – A Time of Gifts – was published in 1977. It became an instant classic among travel books. In painterly and sometimes almost absurdly lyrical language, A Time of Gifts told of his travels through the winter landscapes of the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, and took him as far as the bridge across the Danube at Esztergom on Holy Saturday 1934, at the beginning of a magical spring and summer spent in Hungary and Transylvania. We had to wait until 1986 for Between the Woods and the Water recounting those Hungarian days. The third volume of the trilogy, The Broken Road, was pulled together from Paddy’s notes by Artemis Cooper (his biographer) and Colin Thubron (a fellow travel writer) after PLF’s death in 2011 at the age of 96. It appeared in 2013.

As PLF wrote in his introduction to Between the Woods and the Water, he had set out “meaning to mix only with chance acquaintances, but almost imperceptibly by the time I got to Hungary and Transylvania I found myself having a much easier time of it than I had expected or planned: ambling along on borrowed horses, drifting from one country house to another, often staying for weeks under patient and perhaps long-suffering but always hospitable roofs”.

Sometimes in his books, PLF tells us what became of the people he met on his 1930s walk across Europe. Fritz Spengel, son of the proprietors of the almost medieval Red Ox in Heidelberg “was killed in Norway (where the first battalion of my own regiment at the time was heavily engaged) and buried at Trondheim in 1940, six years after we met”. The Jewish, Proust-reading Baron Fülöp (Pips) von Schey de Koromla left his country house in Slovakia “when things began to go wrong in Austria and Czechoslovakia”, settled at Ascona on Lake Maggiore, and died in 1957 in Normandy at the home of his daughter, Alix, who had married into the French branch of the Rothschild family. But now, for a more comprehensive view, we have Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania.

In his very enjoyable book, Michael O’Sullivan follows PLF from the moment he was standing on that Danube bridge, with a letter of introduction to the mayor of Esztergom in his pocket, to Budapest, across the Alföld (the Great Hungarian Plain) and the Bánát region, and into Transylvania. On this part of his journey PLF was the guest of the aristocracy of the land. Continue reading

Anna Sándor de Kénos – BBC’s Last Word

Anna Sándor de Kénos

BBC Radio 4’s Last Word, obituary programme, speaks to Dr Michael O’Sullivan, author of Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania, about the life of the late Anna Sándor de Kenos.

Go to position 22 minutes 10 seconds here for the start of the piece (may not be available outside of UK – sorry!).

Leave thy home, O youth, and seek out alien shores . . . Robert Macfarlane reads Petronius

One of the first things Patrick Leigh Fermor is given in A Time of Gifts is a book: the first volume of the Loeb edition of Horace. His mother (‘she was an enormous reader’) bought it for him as a farewell present, and on its flyleaf she wrote the prose translation of an exquisite short poem by Petronius, which could hardly have been more appropriate as a valediction to her son, or indeed to anyone setting out on a voyage into adulthood:

Leave thy home, O youth, and seek out alien shores . . . Yield not to misfortune: the far-off Danube shall know thee, the cold North-wind and the untroubled kingdom of Canopus and the men who gaze on the new birth of Phoebus or upon his setting

The journey of A Time of Gifts is set going by the gift of a book—and it is a book that has in turn set going many journeys. The edition of A Time of Gifts that Don gave me that day in Cambridge had as its cover a beautiful painting by John Craxton, commissioned specially for the book, and clearly alluding to Petronius’s poem. It shows a young man standing on snowy high ground, puttees on his ankles and a walking stick in his right hand, looking eastwards to where the sun is rising orange over icy mountains, from which runs a mighty river. Black crows fly stark against white trees: there is a sense of huge possibility to the day ahead and to the land beyond.

Extract from The Gifts of Reading , Robert Macfarlane. First published in Slightly Foxed Quarterly. Continue reading

A Great Adventure

‘When I first read A Time of Gifts I felt it in my feet. It spoke to my soles. It rang with what in German is called Sehnsucht: a yearning or wistful longing for the unknown and the mysterious. It made me want to stand up and march out – to walk into an adventure.’ Robert Macfarlane

Andrew Merrills finds himself betwixt the woods and the water in this charming piece from Slightly Foxed Issue 38.

by Andrew Merrils

Few people living at the time would have regarded the early Thirties as a golden age, nor has posterity been kind to the period that W. H. Auden described as ‘a low, dishonest decade’. In 1933, the Japanese invaded Manchuria, Hitler became Chancellor of the Reich, and the first stirrings of the Spanish Civil War were felt in Catalonia. While hindsight bathes 1914 in the gentle summer glow of a prelapsarian world, the early Thirties seem autumnal and telescope all too easily into the bitter winter that was to follow. But for one man at least, the cold months of 1933–4 provided a still moment in time, which he would remember with fondness for the rest of his life.

In late December 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor set out on foot for Constantinople (as he anachronistically termed it). Recently expelled from school for the unpardonable crime of holding hands with a local girl, and insufficiently inspired by the prospect of Sandhurst and a career of peacetime soldiering, the 19-year-old decided to head east on foot. His backpack was evidently stuffed to the brim, with a greatcoat, jerseys, shirts (including white linen ones for dressy occasions), puttees, nailed boots, a selection of stationery, a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse and the first volume of the Loeb Horace. The clothing was soon lost but was replaced as he headed east by many generous donations from hosts and chance acquaintances. The literary ture was a more permanent part of his baggage; though he lost his Oxford volume, this was complemented by a vast corpus of writing in English, French and Latin that he had committed to memory. A little over a year later, the young traveller arrived at the Golden Horn.

Writing the account of the journey would take much longer. The first of three projected volumes, A Time of Gifts, was published in 1977, when the author was 62; the second, Between the Woods and the Water, which traces the journey from the Hungarian frontier (where the first leaves off) to the Iron Gates in Romania, came in 1982. The third book remained unfinished at the time of the author’s death in 2011.

Between the long adventure itself and its eventual publication, Patrick Leigh Fermor had led an improbably rich and full life. He was famous for his wartime heroism in occupied Crete, where he lived as a shepherd among the resistance fighters in the mountains and masterminded the daring abduction of the German garrison commander. These actions were commemorated in the memoir Ill Met by Moonlight by his colleague Sandy [sic] Moss, and his own role was played by Dirk Bogarde in the 1957 Powell and Pressburger film of the same title. In the decades that followed, Leigh Fermor produced some of the finest travel writing in English. His published books included a seminal study of the Caribbean in The Traveller’s Tree, a reflection on the monastic life in A Time to Keep Silence, and two remarkable books on Greece, Mani and Roumeli.

Much has been written about him since his death, and each of his books has its own admirers. But for those new to his writing, there is no better place to start than with A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, as an introduction both to the young man on the brink of a great adventure, and the mature writer at the height of his powers. While both shine through in these two books, it is the former who strikes the reader most forcibly. Almost immediately, we are confronted with the extraordinary personality of the young man who wanders across their pages, and it is easy to imagine how this spirit must have charmed and delighted those with whom he came into contact.

His was a well-populated road, from the two German girls in Stuttgart who swept the young ‘Mr Brown’ into an exhilarating tumble of drinking, singing and Christmas parties, to the lugubrious Frisian in Vienna who shared his poverty and some ingenious schemes for generating money before disappearing into the murky world of saccharine-smuggling on the Middle Danube. And these are some of his less remarkable social successes. By the time he reached Mitteleuropa proper, Leigh Fermor had become the darling of the fading imperial aristocracy. We read of raucous games of bicycle polo on the lawns of castles, of horses borrowed for a few days’ ride across the Great Hungarian Plain, and a seemingly endless succession of benevolent Anglophiles who welcomed the dusty young traveller with food, alcohol and the free run of their libraries.

Even if we sometimes feel a tinge of envy at the ease with which the young Patrick drifted into this travellers’ inheritance, it is hard to begrudge him it: the same easy charms that won over the inhabitants of central Europe in the 1930s can still delight a reader eighty years later.

Leigh Fermor has always been loved for the richness of his prose, and both books do full justice to the deep romantic undercurrents of the rivers along which he was travelling. Yet even in his most purple passages, he has a peculiarly literary sensitivity; he writes, not as a traveller in uncharted lands, but as one who is acutely aware of the many writers who have come before him. Nor is this simply the prerogative of the adult writer, usurping the fresh observations of youth with his own literary stylizations. The wide-eyed observer at centre stage also views the world through the lens of his reading. Take this account of Wachau in A Time of Gifts:

Melk was the threshold of this unspeakably beautiful valley. As we have seen by now, castles beyond counting had been looming along the river. They were perched on dizzier spurs here, more dramatic in decay and more mysteriously cobwebbed with fable. The towered headlands dropped sheer, the liquid arcs flowed round them in semicircles. From ruins further from the shore the land sloped more gently, and vineyards and orchards descended in layers to the tree-reflecting banks. The river streamed past wooded islands and when I gazed either way, the seeming water-staircase climbed into the distance. Its associations with the Niebelungenlied are close, but later mythology haunts it. If any landscape is the meeting place of chivalrous romance and fairy tales, it is this. The stream winds into distances where Camelot or Avalon might lie, the woods suggest mythical fauna, the songs of Minnesingers and the sound of horns just out of earshot.

If anyone was attuned to the mythic properties of Old Europe it was the knight errant of 1934. Leigh Fermor gazed at the unfolding landscape with a romantic longing inflamed by a short life stuffed with literature and history. When he passed through the Low Countries, he looked through Bruegel’s eyes; his view of Vienna was a palimpsest of Ottoman armies and Habsburg emperors, against which the complex realities of the mid-1930s were not always visible to him. And when not prompted into reverie by the landscapes around him, he turned inward to the rich body of literature that he had committed to memory. The list of these works is among the most famous passages of Leigh Fermor’s writing. I won’t cite it in full here, since it runs to several pages, but it includes (among many other things) Shakespeare, Spenser, Keats, ‘an abundance of A. E. Housman’, the Sitwells, Norman Douglas and Evelyn Waugh, ‘large quantities of Villon’, and a respectable body of Virgil, Horace, Catullus and Lucan.If a love of literature brightened the colours of Leigh Fermor’s world, it also created a deeper yearning, and this is perhaps his most appealing trait, at least to me. Time and again, he writes of the fervour with which he engaged in spirited conversation with his learned hosts or plunged himself into their well-furnished libraries. Here, he gulped great draughts of European history, poring over details of Germanic folklore or piecing together the complex literary heritage of the world through which he was passing, and which was soon to be lost forever. In recounting these moments, his prose reaches its sublime best, as when he talks about the libraries of Prague:

Where, in this half-recollected maze, do the reviving memories of the libraries belong? To the Old University, perhaps, one of the most ancient and famous in Europe, founded by the great King Charles IV in 1384. I’m not sure. But I drive wedge-shaped salients into oblivion nevertheless and follow them through the recoiling mists with enfilading perspectives of books until bay after bay coheres. Each of them is tiered with burnished leather bindings and gold and scarlet gleam on the spines of hazel and chestnut and pale vellum. Globes space out the chessboard floors. There are glass-topped homes for incunables. Triangular lecterns display graduals and antiphonals and Books of Hours and coloured scenes encrust the capitals on the buckled parchment; block-notes and lozenges climb and fall on four-letter Georgian staves where Carolingian uncials and blackletter spell out the responses. The concerted spin of a score of barley-sugar pillars uphold elliptic galleries where brass combines with polished oak, and obelisks and pineapples alternate on the balustrades.

The conceit which underscores this passage – the image of memory as a library – is a key theme throughout both books. Not only does this recall the prodigious literary memory of the young man, it also reminds us of the act of memory that went into the composition of the books themselves. While A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water do an exquisite job in representing the world through the eyes of a 19-year-old, the reader never forgets the mature writer who acts as mediator and amanuensis. For the successful travel writer, war hero and beloved raconteur who wrote these books, these are stories of a half-remembered youth as well as a half-forgotten Europe.‘For now the time of gifts is gone’ runs the line from Louis MacNeice that provides Leigh Fermor’s first title, and it is this faint melancholy which makes both books so powerful. These are the memories of a lifetime, and in writing them down, in revisiting the notebooks and the maps that had lain untouched for years, the writer creates them anew. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the conclusion to the most intimate episode of the sequence. For a giddy chapter, the traveller had careered around Transylvania in a car with his close friend István, and with Angéla, something of a kindred spirit. The reader is caught up in the breathless pleasure of the episode, which climaxes in a manic motor chase with a west-bound train, but which deflates as the companions consider their parting:

The reader may think that I am lingering too long over these pages. I think so too, and I know why: when we reached our destination in an hour or two, we would have come full cycle. It wasn’t only an architectural world, but the whole sequence of these enchanted Transylvanian months that would come to a stop. I was about to turn south, away from all my friends, and the dactylic ring of Magyar would die away. Then there was István; I would miss him bitterly; and the loss of Angéla – who is little more than a darting luminous phantom in these pages – would be a break I could hardly bear to think of; and I can’t help putting off the moment for a paragraph or two.

Everyone has their favourite sections of these extraordinary books, whether they are drinking songs in snow-bound Germany, the majestic descriptions of pre-war Vienna, or the madcap charabanc rides through Transylvania. Mine comes at the beginning of the narrative. The account of the Groote Kirk in Rotterdam isn’t as succulent as some of the richer morsels later on – the young traveller had only just entered the continent, and both he and his older self were keen to get on. But it captures the themes of the book perfectly:

Filled with dim early morning light, the concavity of grey masonry and whitewash joined in pointed arches high overhead and the floor diminished along the nave in a chessboard of black and white flagstones. So compellingly did the vision tally with a score of half-forgotten Dutch pictures that my mind’s eye instantaneously furnished the void with those seventeenth century groups which should have been sitting or strolling there: burghers with pointed corn-coloured beards – and impious spaniels that refused to stay outside – conferring gravely with their wives and children, still as chessmen, in black broadcloth and identical honeycomb ruffs under the tremendous hatchmented pillars. Except for this church, the beautiful city was to be bombed to fragments a few years later. I would have lingered, had I known.

‘I would have lingered, had I known’: these are books for readers, for poets and for travellers. But most of all, they’re books for lingerers.