In the December edition of The Browser, Paddy’s good friend Colin Thubron talks about why A Time of Gifts remains one of this favourite travel books…
This is the first volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s journey in 1933-34 from the Hook of Holland, as he called it, to what he insisted on calling Constantinople [Istanbul]. It was to be in three volumes. This one takes him beyond Vienna. The second volume, Between the Woods and the Water, takes him through Hungary to the Balkans. The third volume was going to get him across Romania to Istanbul, but he never wrote it.
Like many people, I love the idea of this young 19-year-old gypsy going off on foot on his own, with just a pound a week, footloose and fancy free, full of delight at the world and fascination at where he’s going. That’s one of the lovely things about the book. It’s beautifully written, very rich prose. It’s model was Norman Douglas – rich in language, vocabulary, scholarship. It’s rather an acquired taste, and may seem old-fashioned to a younger generation.
I love the delight in everything, with all its byways in history or folklore, and the people he meets are so marvellously and generously described. He had such a big heart, a generous spirit. You feel he must have been a delightful companion for anyone to meet on the road. Some people find it a little bit showy-offy, because of all of the stuff he quotes as having by heart – but he did, it’s perfectly true. He had an excellent memory, and into his old age he was a great raconteur.
I know that you knew him quite well. Will you tell us about his character? He died not long ago of course.
Yes, he died [last June]. Well, he was what you would expect. In some ways, he was rather an innocent. He wasn’t an intellectual, but he loved facts and data and history and architecture. He also loved show, and a good story. He was a delightful companion, very funny, and he was a bit original. He would sometimes say something rather fanciful, he had a marvellous imagination. But there was this innocence about him.
It’s as if he was in a time warp, and in rejoining his youth in these two books he was rejoining somebody he still was, in a sense, his sensibility was so young. He hadn’t changed in many ways, he hadn’t been disillusioned. They are very “illusioned” books, if you like. It’s a very wonderful idea to go back to who he was, because he could so easily enter into the spirit of that liberated delight in the world which he kept with him always. He was very frail when he died, but he still kept that with him.
How does travel change a person? It’s a platitude that a physical journey is also an inner journey, but some platitudes are true.
I don’t know really. It’s supposed to broaden the mind. If I look at the travel writers I know and have known, there’s a certain breadth of knowledge. One would hope there’s a breadth of understanding or of sympathy too. Of course, it makes you a sort of amateur. You’re a free agent, you’re the oddball. One can understand why dictators find travellers a threat – you’re not beholden to anyone and you’re doing what you want, which is a marvellous privilege. But what it does to you character-wise, I don’t know.
The title A Time of Gifts comes from a line of poetry by Louis MacNeice …
“For now the time of gifts is gone / O boys that grow, O snows that melt.”
That certainly hints at growth of character.
Yes it does. This was his great extended epiphany, to be suddenly going out travelling. That was the time of gifts for him, when the world opened to him. He was obviously ready for it. He was always on the wrong side of authority in England, and he was expelled from school. He got into a rather posh artist society in London and he was enormously entertaining and fun, and very handsome as a young man. But he hadn’t travelled anywhere. So suddenly to loose yourself on the world was surely his time of gifts.
I love Leigh Fermor’s motto. Solvitur ambulando.
It is solved by walking