First published in the Economist, Jun 16th 2011
ONE evening in the spring of 1934 19-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor, making his way on foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, found himself taking tea under flowering horse-chestnut trees at the kastely of Korosladany, in Hungary.
“We sat talking until it was lighting-up time, and indoors pools of lamplight were being kindled with spills along the succession of lavender-smelling rooms. It lit the backs of bindings, pictures, furniture which had reached exactly the right pitch of faded country-house shabbiness, curtains laundered hundreds of times over and music open above the keys of a piano. What music? I can’t remember; but suddenly, sailing into my mind after all these years, there is a bowl on the piano of enormous white and red peonies and a few petals have dropped on the polished floor.”
Wherever he went, the dusty young traveller stumbled on scenes like this. His hosts in the oddest corners of central Europe dressed in black tie for dinner, played ferocious bicycle polo in the courtyard, or catalogued their butterfly collections in cavernous libraries where he could lose himself deliriously among folios, almanacs and scrolls with dangling seals. They lent him pearl-handled pistols and a superb chestnut horse “with more than a touch of Arab to his brow” to take him across the plains. Long Turkish nargileh were indolently smoked, Tokay swigged from cut glass; while, upstairs, staff would be neatly laying out on his bed the rumpled canvas trousers and thin tweed jacket which were the smartest clothes he had, purchased for his odyssey from Millet’s army surplus in the Strand.
He had set out on his great walk for a jumble of reasons, but mostly to have fun. He felt “preternaturally light”, as he left London, “as though I were already away and floating like a djinn escaped from its flask.” Formal education didn’t suit him; the wild, noisy boy couldn’t bear to be hemmed in with rules or bounds, and had been expelled from King’s Canterbury for holding hands with a greengrocer’s daughter. Yet he loved books, especially the tales of Sir Walter Scott and Charles Kingsley’s “Heroes”, and could now see himself as a knight or a wandering scholar, going from castle to castle or, just as happily, sleeping in woods and barns or under the stars.
In his rucksack he carried, besides pencils and notebooks, poetry. As he went he recited Keats, Marlowe and Shakespeare, astonishing the rustics he met—just as he would later amaze his dinner guests, in Worcestershire or in his Elysian house by the sea in deepest Greece, with non-stop recitations, arcane facts, stories and songs, not infrequently ending with “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” sung in Hindi.
He was a compulsive autodidact, wanting to know the names and nature of everything. Entering a strange region, he would grapple with its history, rifling through the Encyclopedia Britannica and Meyers Konversationslexicon to trace the movements of tribes and the collision of cultures, producing in his books whole page-lists of Klephts and Armatoles, Kroumides and Koniarides, Phanariots of the Sublime Porte and boyars of Moldowallachia, until his readers swooned. With the same high-spirited eagerness, and a flask full of local fire-water, he would run into taverns, caves, shepherd huts and gypsy camps, hungry to pick up the unknown language and join in. Dashing and courteous, splendidly handsome, he wished often for the strange hats he saw, bowler or thin-brimmed, foot-high or scarlet-plumed, in order to flourish them high to all the people who wished him well.
Critics of his two best-loved books, “A Time of Gifts” (1977) and “Between the Woods and the Water” (1986), complained that he swanned through 1930s Europe without noticing the clouds. His visit to the Munich Hofbräuhaus mostly described the enormous girth and appetite of ordinary Bavarians, barely mentioning the black-clad SS men in another room. An encounter with orthodox Jews in Transylvania focused on a reading, which thrilled him, of the Song of Miriam in Hebrew. Though both books were written decades after the event, he added no politics to them. Culture, beauty, romance and laughter were what he saw and cared for.
By the same token, he never wrote about his wartime experience as a liaison officer with the partisan guerrillas in Crete—except to mention the swagger-black boots and mulberry sash of his disguise, and the evenings of drinking raki and cracking walnuts outside their mountain hideouts. He earned his DSO for crazily kidnapping a German general; but the moment he remembered was when that general, one dawn of his captivity, suddenly quoted a line of Horace, Vides ut alta stet nive candidum/Soracte; and Captain Leigh Fermor, aka Michali, finished the next five stanzas for him.
He refused a knighthood almost to the end, pointing out that he had written only a slow handful of books. This was true. He had become famous largely for chronicling a Europe that had been swept away, and had spent a charmed life without a regular job, fed—as he liked to put it—like Elijah, by the ravens. But he had done more. His wandering, writing life evoked the essential unity of Europe, the cultural and linguistic intertwinings and layer upon layer of shared history; and all with a lightness, and an infectious joy, that inspired many others to set out in the same way.