This is from the television review pages of the Independent covering Benedict Allen’s 2008 ‘Traveller’s Century’ series and the episode that focused on Paddy’s walk ending at the Iron Gates. I have seen this programme and share some of the frustrations of the author, but on balance it was a pretty fair programme given the tight time slot of just one hour.
by Deborah Orr
First published in The Independent 8 August 2008
The bit that delighted us all in this final episode of Travellers’ Century was a clip from another television show. There he was, Patrick Leigh Fermor, the star of the Greek version of This Is Your Life, meeting all the resistance fighters that he had worked with on Crete during the Second World War. And there, unbelievably, and every bit as thrilled to be reunited with Leigh Fermor as all the others, was the German former general Heinrich Kreipe. The two men grinned, hugged and fell into excited conversation, absolutely chuffed to see each other again. That is charm, is it not, the ability to inspire the deep affection of a man you only ever knew because you had spearheaded his humiliating wartime capture, then imprisoned him in a cave? A man, indeed, who was then portrayed in the film of the operation, Ill Met by Moonlight, as a bull-necked, grunting, Nazi ugly, while his nemesis was played by Dirk Bogarde?
I’ve been lucky enough to meet Leigh Fermor – dazzlingly charismatic company in his nineties – on a couple of occasions. So it seemed apposite to gather round the telly with the mutual friends who introduced us, so that we could all watch this film about his life together. Such is the fervour of loyalty that the man inspires, though, that it quickly became apparent that this show, or perhaps any show, would disappoint us. The first heckles came when Benedict Allen described Leigh Fermor as “the accidental superstar of travel writing”, a description we all decided would make him squirm. Concerns over tone were swiftly replaced with outright indignation, when Allen announced that he would be retracing the steps of Leigh Fermor’s first great walk across Europe, which he set off on in 1933, aged 18, in order to judge whether his descriptions had been “accurate”. This idea, again we all agreed with some disgruntlement, was facile beyond belief.
Allen’s idea was perhaps not such a weird one, though. Leigh Fermor’s book detailing the first leg of his journey had been published in 1977, after all, decades after he had made it. The delay had come about because his notes had been stolen in Romania. Again, it is testament to the affection he inspires that the local people who recovered the young Englishmen’s journal hung on to it in the hope that they would one day get the opportunity to return it to him. We all abhorred Allen’s attitude, nevertheless. When he suggested that Leigh Fermor’s two books describing his travels, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, might have been “endlessly worked and reworked, with whole decades of hindsight”, there was a generally mutinous feeling in the room that our man was being seriously impugned.
Allen regained a little trust when he decided, having visited some little-altered spots in Heidelberg, that the writer had indeed told it like it was. But when Allen changed his tune, and started suggesting that the books were weirdly apolitical, and offered too little detail about his own inner life, we sank again into despondency. The purity of Leigh Fermor’s writing comes from his scrupulous observation of what he encountered, and the beauty with which he describes it. He doesn’t bang on about himself. Anyway, on it went, as we nit-picked every assertion. By the time Allen got to interview Leigh Fermor, at his home of very many years in the Peloponnesus, we hated and resented him, and were only too happy to dismiss the interview itself as a dead loss. “And the programme was too long,” we agreed at the end. “If we thought that, what did everyone else think?” Actually “everyone else” would probably have enjoyed the thing a great deal more, not being hampered, like us, by an almost deranged sense of hyper-loyalty.