Why you should never meet your heroes

Would you have been disappointed if you had met Paddy?

By Philip Sidney

First published in The Spectator 14 October 2014

As we become steadily accustomed to life in the Age of Celebrity, it’s become a truth that, as Mark Mason put it in the Speccie last month, ‘meeting your heroes is almost always a bad idea’. Reading the letters page in the London Review of Books, it seems that this advice extends to visiting any place associated with your heroes. Last summer Max Long, an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, arrived at Patrick Leigh Fermor’s old house at Kardamyli in Greece, hoping to pay homage to one of his heroes (see The House is Not Always Empty). His visit, he reports, was unideal:

‘To the hairy, shirtless, sandalled old man who occupied Paddy’s studio as though he owned the place, and who refused entry on a sweaty August morning to a travelling student, despite his pleadings (and tears): you ruined a young man’s pilgrimage.’

It’s hard not to sympathise, particularly given the hospitality with which Fermor was himself received on his travels. But this kind of disenchantment isn’t exclusive to unsceptical youth. Jeremy Clarke laments the speed at which authors’ auras disperse:

‘Nothing lingers. When they’re gone, they’re gone. Even with a commemorative plaque on the wall, one is left only with a sense of vertigo at how easily all vestiges of even the recent past are obliterated and we move on.’

Both Long and Clarke are part of a rich tradition of disappointed pilgrims which began in the late 19th century, the joint result of improved transport networks and the growth of a mass audience for literature. In those days it was possible to be rebuffed by the great men themselves, as were the rather impatient tourists that called on Thomas Hardy in 1903:

‘[…] I have given mortal offence to some by not seeing them in the morning at any hour. I send down a message that they must come after 4 o’ clock, & they seem to go off in dudgeon.’

After any famous writer goes their own long journey, the difficulties of preserving their home for would-be pilgrims become more fraught: whether a literary shrine is tended or neglected, there will always be enthusiasts claiming that their idol has not been treated appropriately. As Simon Goldhill observes in Scott’s Buttocks, Freud’s Couch, Brontë’s Grave, Charlotte Brontë would have been horrified had she seen her stockings on public display at Haworth Parsonage, but in the 21st century they’re a precious link – however creepy – to a great talent now gone.

What options remain, then, for the would-be literary pilgrim? Continue to travel hopefully, sifting the let-downs for a trace of longed-for genius loci? Or stay at home, cherishing places in the imagination? Nick Hunt’s book, Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn, provides a possible answer. His journey across Europe in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor shares the landscapes through which his hero moved (not to mention the physical strains incidental to thousand-mile walks), while also conscious of the changes that have reshaped the continent in the intervening 80 years. However fervently we revere our literary pin-ups, we must remain conscious, and as far as possible accepting, of the things that stand between us and them: be they an accumulation of years, a glass vitrine, or hirsute jobsworths in shorts.

Philip Sidney is a writer and academic, specialising in travel, literature and travel literature


7 thoughts on “Why you should never meet your heroes

  1. none

    I have always thought that if I was to meet a famous author or a person whom I admire, I would rather it was in the context of being introduced to them by a mutual friend, rather than through visiting their house just because I had read their book.

    I was introduced to a famous person whom I admire greatly by someone who is a great friend of his, and a chance acquaintance of mine. I was delighted to shake the hand of the famous person and to thank him for the great stuff he does, but I would not presume any further upon the connection.

    As a (not particularly famous) author myself, I am happy to respond to genuine feedback on my books, but if people started turning up at my house, I would be dismayed and startled, to say the least.

    I get loads of friend requests on Facebook from random people I don’t know, and ignore all of them unless they send an accompanying message to introduce themselves and say why they have friend-requested me. And that is just Facebook, which is less intimate than the home.


  2. John W. Gittins

    John W. Gittins – Revised text:

    In my opinion, to quote Bruce Chatwin in “What am I doing here” – the words of Henri de Montherlant quoting a remark of Tolstoy: “There is no point in visiting a great writer because he is incarnate in his works.”

  3. John W. Gittins

    In my opinion, to quote Bruce Chatwin in “What am I doing here? – the words of Henri de Monterlant seem appropriate, “There is no point in visiting a great writer for he is incarnate in his works.” and in the same vein this applies to visiting their houses.

  4. Tim

    I was not disappointed meeting Paddy, not in the least, indeed the esteem in which I held him increased considerably. But as I have mentioned before, seeing a sign, either a ‘no entry’ or ‘private property’, I forget which, outside his Kardamyli house when he was still alive, certainly did. I understand that he may have had very good reasons, but it was still a disappoinment.

  5. Maria

    more about PLF house and how the Museum Benaki is taking care of it. A month ago we were travelling in Greece and asked per mail the authorities at the museum, whether it would be possible to visit the house. We stressed in our mail that we are living in South America, and that a visit would be important to us, after the long way to Greece. We never became an answer.

    Back in South America, we saw the wonderful film by Benedict Allen, thanks very much to having posted this link.

    Kind regards

    Ms Cipolletti

    Dra. Maria Susana Cipolletti “Argos”. Avda. M. Ferreira y esq. 4 Parque del Plata. Canelones. Uruguay.

    Date: Sun, 19 Oct 2014 06:02:11 +0000 To: mariacipolletti@hotmail.com

    1. Max Long

      I’m very sorry to hear you never got an answer Maria – neither did I when I tweeted, emailed and visited the museum itself in Athens numerous times, before finally walking across the Mani and ending up at the house itself – only to be rejected. I hope you get another chance sometime!

  6. Willie Scraggs

    Perhaps the answer is to let no one have so great an influence in our lives as to become our hero. This position or status is best reserved for God Almighty, and when in due course we come to knock on His door, we’ll do well if we should be told to return at 4:00 o’clock.

    PLF was my (definitely) last hero of this world. Eventually, I had an opportunity to arrange to meet him, but I didn’t take it up. By then, I had already begun to wonder: were there not other greater, more elegant travelogues such as for instance: Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (RL Stevenson), Romanian Journey (Sitwell), Eothen (Kinglake), Seven Years in Tibet (Harrer), Lovely Is The Lee and Sweet Cork of Thee (Gibbings)…Many of the authors of these other works described their experiences and conveyed their thoughts in a simpler and, dare I say on this website, less pretentious style than that of PLF.

    Robert Carver travelled in Albania on the recommendation of PLF, leading to the publication of The Accursed Mountains. Though Carver’s writing does not, in my opinion, measure up to that of PLF, I suggest that Carver, unlike PLF, undertook his travels in a place and at a time far more dangerous than the travels of PLF from Rotterdam to Istanbul in the nineteen-thirties. I am not suggesting that danger of itself is a necessary or even an important feature of the subject matter of travel writing, but rather that many of us, including I think Robert Carver himself, assumed that PLF’s trek required great courage and that he hiked through dangerous places. In fact, there had scarcely been a safer time before or since (until about 1990) for undertaking such a hike. It was certainly safer than say walking along Dublin’s O’Connell Street today. And this is to say nothing of the extensive, luxurious hospitality afforded to PLF by his aristocratic connections along the way.

    The release is to come out of the spell cast by PLF, to enjoy such of his work as you care to read, and to happily ruminate upon his interesting life and the many celebrated and wonderful people with whom he shared his life. I am certainly glad to have read some of his books. But let there be no more heroes. Let no one have to come to burn our books as they came to burn Don Quixote’s romances about knights errant.


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