One of the most original of Paddy’s obituaries, with a real Indian perspective. It discusses his relationship with his parents and India, where Paddy’s father, Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, was director of the Geological Survey of India.
by Vikram Doctor
First published in Economic Times of India, 28 June 2011
Patrick Leigh Fermor , who passed away recently at 96, was the most incomparable of travel writers. Yet his reputation rested on relatively few books, which hardly seemed to cover the geographical range that might have been expected of a writer of his reputation and lifespan.
Fermor’s first published book, The Traveller’s Tree, about a Caribbean trip, got an unexpected endorsement from Ian Fleming , in Live and Let Die, James Bond’s Caribbean caper, as one of the great travel books. He wrote two books, Mani and Roumeli, set in Greece, where he was to live most of his life. There was a short book on an Andean trip, another short one on monastic life and a single novel, based on that Caribbean trip.
And then there were the two books that he was most celebrated for, based on his decision in 1932, aged just 18, to walk across Europe from the coast of Holland to Constantinople, as he romantically still referred to Istanbul. The first, A Time of Gifts, took him to the Hungarian border, and the second, Between the Woods and the Water, across Eastern Europe to the edge of the Islamic world. Fermor did make it to Istanbul, but never finished his proposed trilogy.
But this was it really – no North America, no Africa, no Middle East, no Far East, no India. Of all these omissions, India stands out because it was the one that might most likely have happened. Fermor had, as he put it in A Time of Gifts, a “voices-in-the-next-room relationship to India” thanks to his father, Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor , a geologist who devoted his life to India, becoming director of the Geological Survey of India, president of the Indian Science Congress and of the Asiatic Society of Bengal .
His obituary, written by another distinguished geologist, M.S. Krishnan, credits him with pioneering the scientific study of geology in India, and in particular with identifying the manganese ore deposits of central India, the coal deposits of Bokaro, the chromite and copper deposits of Singhbum and the iron ore deposits of Goa and Ratnagiri. (Coincidentally, Sir Lewis is not the only Indian geologist with a famous writer in his family. John Auden , the older brother of poet W.H. Auden, also worked as a geologist in India and there is a pass called Auden’s Col in Garhwal named after him).
As Fermor acknowledged, he could easily have become like Kipling, with a glorious Indian childhood, then exile back to a lonely, dreary life in England. It didn’t happen that way because he was never taken to India at all. Perhaps jokingly Fermor wrote that after he was born, his mother and sister left him back in England to ensure that in case their ship sank, someone in the family would survive. He was left with a family on a farm, where he had such a glorious childhood that he never really took to conventional family life when his mother came back.
Her return was also a separation from his father, and this must have been the other reason why, unlike the children of other Empire families, Fermor never made it to India. His father only came ‘home’ on furloughs every three years. Fermor did recall, in A Time of Gifts, a trip with his father to the Italian Alps: “Laden with his field glasses and his butterfly net, I would get my breath while he was tapping at the quartz and the hornblende on the foothills of Mount Rosa with his hammer and clicking open a pocket lens to inspect the fossils and insects of the Monte della Crocea¦ What a change, I thought, from those elephants and the jungles full of monkeys and tigers which I imagined, not wholly wrongly, to be his usual means of transport and habitat.”
This holiday apart though, Fermor’s father hardly features in his work. He made sure that a letter to his father was only sent after he set off on his trip across Europe, with the hope that he would accept his son’s fait accompli and send the occasional infusions of money to help it along. “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 yeara¦ 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!”
Fermor doesn’t record Sir Lewis’ reaction. He was, for all that he wrote of his own journeys, not an autobiographical writer. While one gets a vivid sense of his personality, as reflected through both the high spirit and sensitivity of his writing, actual personal details are sparse. The few given in A Time of Gifts are only to set the context of the journey, and Fermor never wrote about perhaps the most amazing episode of his later life – of how during World War II, while living and fighting with the partisan resistance to the Germans in Crete, he organised the kidnap of the German general in charge of the island.
This almost impossibly dashing episode was made into a film, Ill Met By Moonlight, yet Fermor himself only referred to it once, in a footnote. There was clearly much more in his life he could have written about – his three-year relationship with a Romanian princess and his participation in a Greek cavalry charge, both after he finished his trip to Istanbul – but he didn’t, and no one else dared tread on such a superb writer’s turf while he was alive. A biography will now presumably come soon, and some version of the last book in his trilogy – both much anticipated.
A biography might explain more about his relationship with his father and India, but at least one link could be made. Fermor’s exuberant style often runs the risk of becoming too lush and self-indulgent, yet it is saved, each time, by detailed description and a focus on facts. Perhaps it was this love of observation, a precision that grounds the poetry and puts the object observed, rather than the observer, in focus that he picked up from his scientist father? His father used facts to build theories about the forces that formed the Deccan, and his son used facts too, gleaned from conversations with everyone from innkeepers to aristocrats, to build his picture of a Europe both ancient, yet soon to vanish forever.
Fermor doesn’t labour the point though, and it is one reason why he is such an attractive writer. You know the fate, between Nazis and Communists, that would come to the Jewish woodcutters and Hungarian counts that he meets, but these tragic ends don’t have to define their lives, and it is their happier vitality that he enshrines. Perhaps it was best that he never came to India where the rigid hierarchies of Raj life would have constrained him in a way that he never had to be, walking across Europe, voyaging through Caribbean or Greek islands, living and writing of a life that we can only envy and enjoy through his books.
Fermor’s work is studded with passages of stunning writing, but many are too long or need too much explanation of context to give in short. This passage though, from A Time of Gifts, marks one of the few times he took the train on his trip (for an off-route visit to Prague) and, quite casually, it paints a vivid image of a train in motion: “A goods train at another platform indicated the sudden accessibility of Warsaw.
PRAHA – BRNO – BRESLAU – LODZ – WARSZAVA. The words were stencilled across the trucks; the momentary vision of a sledded Polack jingled across my mind’s eye. When the train began to move, the word BRNO slid away in the opposite direction then BRNO! BRNO! BRNO! The dense syllable flashed past the window at decreasing intervals and we fell asleep and plunged on through the Moravian dark and into Bohemia.”