Among worldly travellers any description of improbable exploits in foreign places, ending on a note of hilarity, used to be met with the phrase “Pure Paddy!” This referred to Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, writer, war hero and raconteur, who died two years ago at the age of 96, leaving a long hoped-for final volume of his early memoirs still unpublished.
First published in the Economist, 14 September 2013.
In the 1930s, at the age of 18, Sir Patrick set out to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (his preferred name for Istanbul). “A Time of Gifts”, his account of the first section of the walk was a masterpiece of wit and erudition. A good deal of time was taken up being passed between schlosses and castles by the crumbling remnants of the German and Austro- Hungarian aristocracy, while in the background, the Nazis loomed. In the mid- 1980s a second volume, “Between the Woods and the Water”, covered his 1934 walk through Hungary and Transylvania, where he was as much at home in hayricks as in the hovels of gypsies.
“The Broken Road”, Sir Patrick’s final posthumous volume, has now been edited by his literary executors: Artemis Cooper, his biographer, and Colin Thubron, a fellow travel writer and president of the Royal Society of Literature. It takes the author from the Danube’s Iron Gates to Mount Athos and Constantinople. It remained unfinished while he lived for several years with a Romanian princess, and then the second world war intervened. Sir Patrick’s exploits there were indeed legendary: with some friends he kidnapped a German general in Crete and drove him through numerous Nazi checkpoints before spiriting him off to Egypt.
The book brings together two texts: a detailed diary of his time on Mount Athos and a description of the journey there. This last was written up from memory in the 1960s as some of Sir Patrick’s contemporary notes had been stolen in Munich and the remainder were lodged in the Harrods Depository during the war and later destroyed, unclaimed. The pages are filled with brilliant evocations of his life on the road, none richer than the time he spent in a Romanian brothel. A flavour of the “Pure Paddy” style is his description of the high-pitched Russians who drive carriages around Bucharest. It turns out they are an obscure sect of eunuchs who believe that Empress Catherine the Great’s murdered son will one day return as the Messiah. A final notebook was handed back to Sir Patrick in 1965 by his princess, but he chose not to elide or collate it with his then written account.
The only part republished here is the full contemporary account of his time at Mount Athos. The book is occasionally interrupted with later asides by the author on the fate of particular places or people, which drain a portion of the magic out of the account. Sir Patrick’s entire life was a Boy’s Own adventure, but he was an important footnote to the literary genre of English travel writing, which began in its modern form in 1844 with “Eothen”, a hilarious account of Alexander Kinglake’s adventures from Belgrade to Cairo.
“The Broken Road” has an elegiac tone. None of the people described survives and the countries visited have undergone wars and revolutions, leaving them virtually unrecognisable. It is a fitting epilogue to 20th-century travel-writing and essential reading for devotees of Sir Patrick’s other works—though eclipsed by his earlier books and the world they conjured.