Few authors have been able to equal Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ability to dissolve into the places described in his books.
Editorial, first published in The Guardian 18 June 2011
“I hate the French cookery, and abominate garlick,” Tobias Smollett told his readers 245 years ago, with a snooty disregard for foreigners that runs through too much travel writing today. Describing distant places fairly, curiously and entertainingly has never been easy. Few authors, in any century, have been able to equal Patrick Leigh Fermor’s liquid ability to dissolve into the places described in his books, so that he seemed to be less reporting on than living in them. His death this month, at 96, with the third of his great trilogy of prewar European exploration still unpublished, is a moment to ask what travel writing can still achieve.
Leigh Fermor was lucky, in that he walked through an archaic and aristocratic eastern Europe soon to be obliterated by the second world war. His two greatest books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, take readers into a time and place that can never exist again, and that, as much as his pitch-perfect writing, is why they are among those few books worth reading many times.
Few of today’s writers have this advantage. They must describe a world in which it is easier to communicate, and travel, than ever before. No teenager setting off from Tower Bridge now would find themselves amid ballgowns, hunting parties and lonely mountaintop shepherds. Facebook and text messaging have brought Bucharest and Birmingham closer. Describing difference has been made harder.
Leigh Fermor was one of the last of the great travel writers whose experience spanned the previous century. A varied assortment, mostly men, wrote books that still stand as classics today: among them Eric Newby, Norman Lewis and Wilfred Thesiger. Jan Morris, still writing, deserves to be among them. Two decades ago, a fresh crop of authors revived the art but then fell victim to their own celebrity, Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux included.
Where does travel writing stand now? There are fewer famous authors and fewer sales. Some of the best books involve almost no travel at all: Roger Deakin’s account of wild swimming in Britain, Waterlog, or Neil Ansell’s lovely Deep Country, about the birds and landscape of mid-Wales. William Dalrymple remains an explorer in the classical sense: in From the Holy Mountain he shows Byzantium is not quite destroyed. William Blacker’s Along the Enchanted Way, about eight years living in rural Romania, is the closest modern writing has come to Leigh-Fermor, and not only because the Gypsy and Saxon life he shares is almost gone.
Always, the attraction is the slow pace. There is no need for hurry, no requirement for horror, just immersion in a place and time that is different, even when it is not far from our own.