The weather in London on December 9th 1933 was typical. The sky darkened, the clouds lowered and then it rained hard. A young man walked the cold pavements towards Cliveden Place to collect a rucksack that his friend Mark Ogilvie-Grant had used on a journey to Mount Athos accompanied by Robert Byron. After stopping to buy a stout ash stick, and probably some cigarettes, at the tobacconist on the corner of Sloane Square, the young man collected his new passport – occupation ‘student’ – from the office in Petty France. He cast his eyes up to the ominous clouds and then made his way quickly north across Green Park. Now the rain splashed down as he dashed between the traffic on Piccadilly and entered the house of his landlady, Miss Beatrice Stewart, in Shepherd Market.
A former model who sat for Sickert, and Augustus John, and who is said to be the model for the bronze figure of Peace atop Wellington Arch, Beatrice Stewart’s career was cruelly cut short after she lost a leg in a road accident. She had arranged a lunch for the eighteen year old Patrick Leigh Fermor and two of his friends to wish him bon voyage before the start of what was to become one of the most famous journeys of all time, and certainly the longest gap year in history.
After lunch, Paddy said thank you and goodbye to Miss Stewart, and jumped into a waiting taxi, which drove off through Mayfair, around Trafalgar Square, up Ludgate Hill, and past the Monument towards the Tower of London. It was raining so heavily that all they could see out of the steamed up windows were hordes of umbrellas, some carried by bowler hatted men, as the rain splashed down in the dark. “Nice weather for young ducks.” said the taxi driver as he dropped the small party by the first barbican on Tower Bridge.
The two companions, one a young girl wearing a mackintosh over her head like a coal shifter, stood in the rain to watch Paddy descend the stone steps down to Irongate Wharf. With a final wave, he strode up the gangplank of a Dutch steamer bound for Hook of Holland.
This was the start of Paddy’s journey down the Rhine and along the Danube which he so memorably describes for us in his book A Time of Gifts. This part of the story ends on Easter Sunday 1934 as Paddy stood on the long bridge over the Danube, in no-man’s land, between Czechoslovakia and Hungary at Esztergom, just as the Easter celebrations started in earnest.
A Time of Gifts is almost universally acknowledged as a masterpiece of English literature; Sebastian Faulks is a dissenter, but he would be. Described by some as a travel book, it is essentially the journal of a young man with a superb gift of memory, for languages, and for making friends, written with the benefit of a lifetime of amazing experience and learning, forty years after the events it describes. It is embellished by anecdotes and essential historical background, making it a rounded piece of literature and no mere travelogue. It should be compulsory reading for all seventeen year olds; it is truly inspirational. The sad part is that the very reason for the ending of Paddy’s ‘gap year’ whilst with his lover Balasha Cantacuzene in Romania in September 1939, resulted in the destruction of many of the towns and cities he passed through, and certainly ended the way of life of the peoples of Europe that he describes so well.
I have no doubt that today, aged ninety-five, Paddy will pause for a while to recall that day, reflect on the events that followed during his amazing and full life, and the friends and lovers who have gone before him.
Perhaps Sir Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor DSO OBE, the Greatest Living Englishman, will pen a short letter to Debo?