It was still a couple of hours till dawn when we dropped anchor in the Hook of Holland . . .

 

A Time of Gifts, 1977

Continuing our celebration of the 85th anniversary of Paddy setting out on his journey in 1933, we have an extract from A Time of Gifts covering his arrival in Hook of Holland.

It was still a couple of hours till dawn when we dropped anchor in the Hook of Holland. Snow covered everything and the flakes blew in a slant across the cones of the lamps and confused the glowing discs that spaced out the untrodden quay. I hadn’t known that Rotterdam was a few miles inland. I was still the only passenger in the train and this solitary entry, under cover of night and hushed by snow, completed the illusion that I was slipping into Rotterdam, and into Europe, through a secret door.

I wandered about the silent lanes in exultation. The beetling storeys were nearly joining overhead; then the eaves drew away from each other and frozen canals threaded their way through a succes­sion of hump-backed bridges. Snow was piling up on the shoulders of a statue of Erasmus. Trees and masts were dispersed in clumps and the polygonal tiers of an enormous and elaborate gothic belfry soared above the steep roofs. As I was gazing, it slowly tolled five.

The lanes opened on the Boomjes, a long quay lined with trees and capstans, and this in its turn gave on a wide arm of the Maas and an infinity of dim ships. Gulls mewed and wheeled overhead and dipped into the lamplight, scattering their small footprints on the muffied cobblestones and settled in the rigging of the anchored boats in little explosions of snow. The cafes and seamen’s taverns which lay back from the quay were all closed except one which showed a promising line of light. A shutter went up and a stout man in clogs opened a glass door, deposited a tabby on the snow and, turning back, began lighting a stove inside. The cat went in again at once; I followed it and the ensuing fried eggs and coffee, ordered by signs, were the best I had ever eaten. I made a second long entry in my journal – it was becoming a passion – and while the landlord polished his glasses and cups and arranged them in glittering ranks, dawn broke, with the snow still coming down against the lightening sky. I put on my greatcoat, slung the rucksack, grasped my stick and headed for the door. The landlord asked where I was going: I said: ‘Constantinople.’ His brows went up and he signalled to me to wait: then he set out two small glasses and filled them with transparent liquid from a long stone bottle. We clinked them; he emptied his at one gulp and I did the same. With his wishes for godspeed in my ears and an internal bonfire of Bols and a hand smarting from his valedictory shake, I set off. It was the formal start of my journey.

Extract from A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, with thanks to John Murray Publishers

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Setting out: Siân Phillips reads from A Time of Gifts

Today marks the 85th anniversary of the start of Paddy’s journey on 9 December 1933. Sian Phillips reads an extract from A Time of Gifts covering his departure “from the heart of London”.

The anchor-chain clattered through the ports and the vessel turned into the current with a wail of her siren. How strange it seemed, as I took shelter in the little saloon – feeling, suddenly, forlorn; but only for a moment – to be setting off from the heart of London! No beetling cliffs, no Arnoldian crash of pebbles. I might have been leaving for Richmond, or for a supper of shrimps and whitebait at Gravesend, instead of Byzantium.

. . . The reflected shore lights dropped coils and zigzags into the flood which were thrown into disarray every now and then, by the silhouettes of passing vessels’ luminous portholes, the funereal shapes of barges singled out by their port and starboard lights and cutters of the river police smacking from wave to wave as purposefully and as fast as pikes. Once we gave way to a liner that towered out of the water like a festive block of flats; from Hong Kong, said the steward, as she glided by; and the different notes of the sirens boomed up and downstream as though masto­dons still haunted the Thames marshes.

. . . A gong tinkled and the steward led me back into the saloon. I was the only passenger: ‘We don’t get many in December,’ he said; ‘It’s very quiet just now.’ When he had cleared away, I took a new and handsomely-bound journal out of my rucksack, opened it on the green baize under a pink-shaded lamp and wrote the first entry while the cruets and the wine bottle rattled busily in their stands. Then I went on deck. The lights on either beam had become scarcer but one could pick out the faraway gleam of other vessels and estuary towns which the distance had shrunk to faint constellations. There was a scattering of buoys and the scanned flash of a light-house. Sealed away now beyond a score of watery loops, London had vanished and a lurid haze was the only hint of its whereabouts.

. . . I wondered when I would be returning. Excitement ruled out the thought of sleep; it seemed too important a night. (And in many ways, so it proved. The ninth of December, 1933, was just ending and I didn’t get back until January, 1937 – a whole lifetime later it seemed then – and I felt like Ulysses, plein d’usage et de raison, and, for better or for worse, utterly changed by my travels.) But I must have dozed, in spite of these emotions, for when I woke the only glimmer in sight was our own reflection on the waves. The kingdom had slid away westwards and into the dark. A stiff wind was tearing through the rigging and the mainland of Europe was less than half the night away.

Extract from A Time of Gifts, with thanks to John Murray Publishers. Artwork, The Pool by Charles Edward Dixon, 1904.

Robert Macfarlane: When I first read ‘A Time of Gifts’ I felt it in my feet. It spoke to my soles . . .

On 9th December 1933, Paddy set out on the journey that would change his life, and those of many others. Today we have Robert Macfarlane and his reaction when first he picked up A Time of Gifts. 

Joan – a blog review

When Simon Fenwick, a professional archivist, was asked to sort Paddy’s papers at Kardamyli after his death in 2011, one would imagine that it would be the illustrious Paddy who would fire Simon’s imagination to write a book. But, as Simon worked his way through the accumulations of a lifetime, it was Joan, the woman who lived in Paddy’s shadow who started to fascinate and inspired him to write Joan: Beauty, Rebel, Muse: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor.

Although Joan’s money enabled Paddy to write, and she accompanied him on many of his post-war journeys, there is barely a mention of Joan in Paddy’s work. Simon’s painstaking research has resulted in a thoroughly enjoyable biography that gives Joan real shape and depth. Not only has Simon managed to produce a book about a woman who barely left any archive of her own (a diary from 1936 and some letters from John and Penelope Betjeman is about it), he has a very engaging and entertaining style.

Paddy of course features prominently in the latter half of the book, but Simon is careful to retain the focus on his subject. We do, however, learn a lot more detail about Paddy to supplement Artemis Cooper’s 2012 biography Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure. Simon has had the benefit of access to a very wide range of different source information, and dare I say, material that now is much better organised than when Artemis was writing.

Simon Fenwick is very candid about the lifestyles and affairs of Joan, Paddy and their assorted friends. It was Joan who was friends first with Cyril Connelly, Maurice Bowra, John Betjeman, Patrick Kinross etc, and introduced Paddy into their world where he found immediate acceptance. There is a degree of honesty about his work which will appeal to those who want to know what the lives of these people were really like. We may think that we know them, but Simon Fenwick truly brings a new perspective and introduces us to new material. It is certainly a good read, and in paperback, an ideal stocking filler for Christmas.

Buy Joan: Beauty, Rebel, Muse: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor

A Plan Unfolds: Siân Phillips reads from ‘A Time of Gifts’ by Patrick Leigh Fermor

To mark the 85th anniversary of Paddy starting his “great trudge”, I would like to share some readings over the next few days. We start with Sian Phillips describing the moment that inspiration for the journey came to the young, bored Paddy one desultory November day in 1933.

About lamplighting time at the end of a wet November day, I was peering morosely at the dog-eared pages on my writing table and then through the panes at the streaming reflections of Shepherd Market, thinking, as Night and Day succeeded Stormy Weather on the gramophone in the room below, that Lazybones couldn’t be far behind; when, almost with the abruptness of Herbert’s lines at the beginning of these pages, inspiration came. A plan unfolded with the speed and the completeness of a Japanese paper flower in a tumbler.

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 or the hero of The Cloister and the Hearth! All of a sudden, this was not merely the obvious, but the only thing to do. 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, jogging along on fifty pounds a year like Lord Durham with a few noughts knocked off, 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!’

Extract from A Time of Gifts, with thanks to John Murray Publishers.

The return of the Travellers’ Film Club

Those lovely people at Eland Books who publish the most amazing range of classic travel books have announced that the Traveller’s Film Club is to return!

Previously held at Waterstones, Piccadilly, the film club will be relaunched in the hall of the magnificent Holy Redeemer Church on Exmouth Market on Thursday 6th December.

The first film will be Night Mail, a 1936 black and white classic that documents the nightly postal train operated by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. Narrated by John Grierson and Stuart Legg, the film closes with the much loved lines from W. H. Auden with a score by Benjamin Britten.

‘This is the night mail crossing the border, bringing the cheque
and the postal order.’

The film is widely considered a masterpiece of the British documentary film movement.

Entry is free. 6.30pm drinks and pop-up bookshop

8pm film showing (The film is 23 minutes long)

The Extraordinary Life of Mike Cumberlege SOE

Great to have been contacted by Robin Knight the author of this book about a truly brave friend and colleague of Paddy’s.

This first-ever biography of Lt. Cdr Mike Cumberlege DSO & Bar, Greek Medal of Honour, murdered in Sachsenhausen concentration camp in February-March 1945, recalls a man who was ‘truly Elizabethan in character – a combination of gaiety and solidity and sensitiveness and poetry with daring and adventurousness – and great courage.’

Cumberlege came from a maverick sea-going family. He was highly resourceful and lived by his wits, skippering ocean-going yachts for wealthy Americans before the war. In 1936, he married Nancy; their relationship was close and, with the sea, forms a thread in The Extraordinary Life of Mike Cumberlege SOE.

From 1940, Cumberlege served in undercover roles in the Royal Navy in Marseilles and Cape Verde and was on the staff of General de Gaulle in London. Posted to Egypt in 1941 in the SOE, he formed a para-naval force of fishing vessels, took part in fighting in Greece, attacked the Corinth Canal, escaped from Crete, was wounded and returned three times to Crete clandestinely. On a second operation to destroy the Corinth Canal in 1943, he was captured. Tortured in Mauthausen concentration camp, he was transferred to Sachsenhausen and spent twenty-one months in solitary confinement.

The book contains unique material gathered from the family and from well-wishers in places as far apart as Ukraine, Australia and the US.

Robin’s book claims to offer:

  • Unique insights into the pre-1940 world of top-end ocean sailing in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Aegean
  • Never-before published letters, images and original documents about SOE para-naval activities in the eastern Mediterranean during the Second World War
  • More than seventy previously unpublished photographs, many taken during the war by the subject
  • A story of love and hope, identity and belief, tragedy and evil

The book can be purchased at Fonthill Media for £17.50 or on Amazon