Category Archives: A Time of Gifts

“A dangerous mix of recklessness and sophistication”: Themes of identity and nostalgic ideas of Europe in the travel writings of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Paddy after the war in Byronic costume – Benaki

Dear readers I hope that you all remain well. During what was almost a global “lockdown” I attempted to publish articles that might have been somewhat longer than usual on the basis that you might have more time on your hands to absorb them! I do wish that I had remembered to offer this masters thesis by Matthew Staite at the time, as it is a good read; absorbing and well written, exploring themes that make us think about Paddy’s work, the times he describes, and his own character. This is only a study of A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water and does not purport to analyse his other work. I commend it to you and hope that you might find the time to read it.

A PDF of the thesis can be found here: Matthew Staite Leigh Fermor Thesis.

Here’s how Matthew introduced himself to me back in April:

Two years ago I completed a masters degree at the University of Amsterdam in the field of European Studies, in a track attempting to study the Identity & Integration of Europe. As a British person with a love of travel writing, I chose to write my thesis on Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books. Very little academic scholarship exists about his writing, so I attempted to academically analyse the first two books about his European walk and look at themes of memory and how he splits Europe between East and West in the texts. I found your site very interesting and helpful when writing the thesis (I even made reference to you at one point), so I thought I would send it to you in case you found it of any interest!

If nothing else it is worth reading Matthew’s conclusion.

While this thesis has travelled across the width of the European continent alongside Leigh
Fermor, it is time for this journey to come to an end. It has been demonstrated that, while Leigh Fermor sought a Europe bound by common culture and history upon his travels, this was a nostalgic search for a Europe rooted in the past. While the texts may describe his youthful adventuring through Europe, they were written and narrated by an older Leigh Fermor who was more nostalgic for this lost past and who desperately searched for the glimpses of it that remained.

The interaction with memory that this entails proves crucial to both books. As a result of the
parallax structure, the narrative is split between the past time of his journey and the future time of his writing. As a rhetorical device it allows Leigh Fermor to jump seamlessly between the past and the present, enabling him to write in a way that both captures the younger Leigh
Fermor’s boyish charm and the older Leigh Fermor’s wisdom and knowledge. It lends narrative power to the images of lost Europe that he constructs, for Leigh Fermor has experienced this past and can contrast it with the narrative present.

The Europe that Leigh Fermor was travelling through was in many ways on the cusp of
modernity, and many of the things he describes were to completely destroyed or changed by
the effects of the Second World War. He is implicitly critical of the period under communism
that followed the Second World War in Eastern Europe; a criticism of communism (still present at the time of the book’s writing) forms the ‘elephant in the room’ of his narrative. Despite his sympathy for Eastern Europe, Leigh Fermor’s texts also conform to the tradition of writing against Eastern Europe as a backwards and savage place. While there are elements of his narrative that go against this trend, they certainly form the lesser part of his narrative.

The two tiers of class (the peasants and the elite) that Leigh Fermor encounters throughout
Europe stem from this lost past, and he only lightly deals with the contemporary changes that
were happening to the societies he travelled through at the time of his journey. Despite this
criticism, the texts remain a wonderful journey across the European continent and back into
its past. Leigh Fermor’s personality and enthusiasm for knowledge permeate the texts, and
the rich descriptions of history, literature and language that ensue read as a beautiful tribute
to European culture.

This thesis has attempted to alert scholars of the scope for analysis and research that Leigh
Fermor’s travel texts provide. However it is far from a comprehensive study of Leigh Fermor
and his writing. By conducting a close study of only A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods
and the Water, it has only looked at the themes of identity and ideas of Europe that Leigh
Fermor established between Holland and Romania. Due to the complications presented by
artificially constructed nature of the unfinished The Broken Road, there has not been the space to conduct a close analysis of it within this thesis. However that book is certainly of use to scholars, for there is certainly scope for analysis as to how Leigh Fermor includes Bulgaria
within his conception of Eastern Europe, or whether he others with it alongside Turkey as a
demarcation of the orient.

I have also not chosen to incorporate Leigh Fermor’s interpretation of Greece and its
importance within Europe. The latter half of A Broken Road is set in Greece, along with Leigh Fermor’s other travel texts Mani and Roumeli. As the south-eastern edge of Europe, and a nation where he spent a significant part of his life, it would be interesting to analyse how Leigh Fermor’s depictions of Greece correspond with the same themes of identity and nostalgia for Europe’s past that this thesis has explored.

Finally this thesis has largely treated A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water
as a single and coherent travel narrative. In doing so it has readily jumped between the two
texts despite them being published nearly a decade apart. There is certainly scope for analysis
into the effect of this time on the differences of the two books.

Easter – the bridge at Esztergom, and Between the Woods and the Water free audiobook

Crowd river watching Esztergom  1934

A happy Easter to you all wherever you are and however much space in which you have to move around; I hope that you remain well. The weather here in England is lovely. The South Downs, which are a short run away for me, were soggy and treacherous for runners just four or so weeks ago. Now, after a number of weeks of dry sunny weather, the chalky soil has drained, and is even cracking apart it is so dry on the surface.

The South Downs, and Chilcomb church at Chilcomb near Winchester, England, UK, Easter 2020

Back to Paddy. At Easter time we always find we have left him mid-stream on the Mária Valéria bridge which joins Esztergom in Hungary and Štúrovo in Slovakia, across the River Danube. The bridge, some 500 metres in length is named after Archduchess Marie Valerie of Austria, (1868–1924), the fourth child of Emperor Franz Josef, and Empress Elisabeth (now she has a sad tale to tell).

Paddy crossed into Esztergom and watched an amazing Easter service led by the bishop with crowds nobles, soldiers and their ladies dressed in their finest clothes and colourful uniforms. A sight that will never be seen again.

This Easter I offer you a selection of photos of Esztergom, some from 1934, and the Audible audiobook of Between the Woods and the Water, to complement that of A Time of Gifts which I posted a couple of weeks back.

Enjoy this strange Easter as best you can. Please keep inside, safe and well, so that your medical services are not stretched to the point of collapse by this terrible virus.

Solvitur Ambulando – A Time of Gifts audio book

A Time of Gifts, 1977

Hello dear readers. I hope that you and your families are well, but I am guessing that some may have been hit by this dreadful virus and I wish you a speedy recovery. I am hunkered down in Winchester with my youngest daughter and my five month old grandson. It is a rare opportunity to for a grandpa to spend so much quality time with a grandchild; there are some blessings in all of this.

For us in the UK, this is the end of the first week of our soft “lockdown”. Perhaps further measures may come depending on the figures. Some of you will have been in a harder lockdown for longer in places like Italy and Spain. These measures will continue for some time and we all have a lot more time on our hands, so how about listening to A Time of Gifts as an audiobook? It is available on Audible if you have an account, but also it is freely available on You Tube but who knows for how long? You get two free downloads using a product like Airy https://mac.eltima.com/youtube-downloader-mac.html .

I hope that you enjoy listening. If Solvitur Ambulando, the Latin phrase which means “it is solved by walking”, is true, then perhaps some virtual walking may help us all at this time.

Repeat – Kennt ihr das Land in deutschen Gauen

I guess that many of us enjoy the chapter in A Time of Gifts when the eighteen year old Paddy spent two nights in Stuttgart with two very pretty nineteen year old German girls, Lise and Annie. It was Epiphany, 6th January 1934, and they went to a party where Paddy had to pretend to be Mr Brown, a family friend. He particularly enjoyed singing a song about the Neckar Valley and Swabia. Paddy could not remember all the words but his stunning memory recalled most of them (page 66).

As we approach that time of year I thought we ought to share this delightful song. It is one of my favourite posts, so here it is again!

Even better James has found it on You Tube 🙂

Here is a link to the music sung by a German choir. The words are below so that you too can sing along! Let’s hear it now, one two three ….

  1. Kennt ihr das Land in deutschen Gauen,
    Das schönste dort am Neckarstrand?
    Die grünen Rebenhügel schauen
    Ins Tal von hoher Felsenwand.

Refrain:
Es ist das Land, das mich gebar,
Wo meiner Väter Wiege stand,
Drum sing’ ich heut’ und immerdar:
Das schöne Schwaben ist mein Heimatland!

2. Kennt ihr das Land in deutschen Gauen,
Mit Wald und Flur so reich bekränzt,
Wo auf den weiten, reichen Auen
Im Sonnenschein die Ähre glänzt?
Es ist das Land, . . . . .

3. Kennt ihr das Land in deutschen Gauen,
Wo Tann’ und Efeu immer grün,
Wo starke Männer, edle Frauen
In deutscher Kraft und Sitte blühn?
Es ist das Land, . . . . .4. Kennt ihr das Land im deutschen Süden,
So oft bewährt in Kampf und Streit,
Dem zwischen seiner Wälder Frieden
So frisch die deutsche Kraft gedeiht?Ja, wackre Deutsche laßt uns sein!
Drauf reichet euch die deutsche Hand;
Denn Schwabenland ist’s nicht allein:
Das ganze Deutschland ist mein Heimatland!

Travellers’ Century: Patrick Leigh Fermor on YouTube


Posting the Stanford awards notice the other day, made me think again about Benedict Allen’s profile of Paddy on the Travellers’ Century series which is available on You Tube.

Whilst relaxing with your loved ones over the festive period, or at any other time, why not take an hour out to watch this lovely little documentary? Perhaps it’s an opportunity to introduce the family to this mysterious Patrick Leigh Fermor. A good entry point for the uninitiated.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Rhineland Christmas

The restored Liebefrauenkirche in Koblenz

This has been posted once before on the blog, but if you need a Christmas Day digital fix, here is something  from A Time of Gifts.

Paddy spent Christmas, 1933, in Coblenz/Koblenz a German town on the Rhine. From A Time Of Gifts:

Coblenz is on a slant. Every street tilted and I was always looking across towers and chimney-pots and down on the two corridors of mountain that conducted the streams to their meeting. It was a buoyant place under a clear sky, everything in the air whispered that the plains were far behind and the sunlight sent a flicker and a flash of reflections glancing up from the snow; and two more invisible lines had been crossed and important ones: the accent had changed and wine cellars had taken the place of beer-halls. Instead of those grey mastodontic mug, wine-glasses glittered on the oak. (It was under a vista of old casks in a Weinstube that I settled with my diary till bedtime.) The plain bowls of these wine-glasses were poised on slender glass stalks, or on diminishing pagodas of little globes, and both kinds of stem were coloured: a deep green for Mosel and, for Rhenish, a brown smoky gold that was almost amber. When horny hands lifted them, each flashed forth its coloured message in the lamplight. It is impossible, drinking by the glass in those charmingly named inns and wine-cellars, not to drink too much. Deceptively and treacherously, those innocent-looking goblets hold nearly half a bottle and simply by sipping one could explore the two great rivers below and the Danube and all Swabia, and Franconia too by proxy, and the vales of Imhof and the faraway slopes of Würzburg journeying in time from year to year, with draughts as cool as a deep well, limpidly varying from dark gold to pale silver and smelling of glades and meadows and flowers. Gothic inscriptions still flaunted across the walls, but they were harmless here, and free of the gloom imposed by those boisterous and pace-forcing black-letter hortations in the beer-halls of the north. And the style was better: less emphatic, more lucid and laconic; and both consoling and profound in content; or so it seemed as the hours passed. Glaub, was wahr ist, enjoined a message across an antlered wall, Lieb was rar ist; Trink, was klar ist. [“Believe what is true; love what is rare; drink what is clear.”] I only realized as I stumbled to bed how pliantly I had obeyed.

It was the shortest day of the year and signs of the seasons were becoming hourly more marked. Every other person in the streets was heading for home with a tall and newly felled fir-sapling across his shoulder, and it was under a mesh of Christmas decorations that I was sucked into the Liebfrauenkirche next day. The romanesque nave was packed and an anthem of great choral splendour rose from the gothic choir stalls, while the cauliflowering incense followed the plainsong across the slopes of the sunbeams. A Dominican in horn-rimmed spectacles delivered a vigorous sermon. A number of Brownshirts — I’d forgotten all about them for the moment — was scattered among the congregation, with eyes lowered and their caps in their hands. They looked rather odd. The should have been out in the forest, dancing round Odin and Thor, or Loki, perhaps.

Paddy imaginatively and sensually explores local landscapes by drinking its wine. Notice too the glorious description of the Catholic church in Coblenz at Christmastime.  That beautiful old church, the Liebefrauenkirche, was virtually destroyed in the Second World War, but has since been restored.

Robert Macfarlane reads from ‘The Gifts of Reading’

Robert Macfarlane is a splendid writer, and a great admirer of Paddy. His books are always worth reading. His latest, Underland: A Deep Time Journey is published today.

But I wanted to highlight a little known work of his. Called The Gifts of Reading. This essay is a joy in itself celebrating the enjoyment of reading and inspired by Macfarlane receiving a copy of a Time of Gifts as a gift. This little pocket sized book is an ideal little present for those you love, just to show that you care and wish them to share in your joy of the gift of reading. The Gifts of Reading

It was still a couple of hours till dawn when we dropped anchor in the Hook of Holland . . .

 

A Time of Gifts, 1977

Continuing our celebration of the 85th anniversary of Paddy setting out on his journey in 1933, we have an extract from A Time of Gifts covering his arrival in Hook of Holland.

It was still a couple of hours till dawn when we dropped anchor in the Hook of Holland. Snow covered everything and the flakes blew in a slant across the cones of the lamps and confused the glowing discs that spaced out the untrodden quay. I hadn’t known that Rotterdam was a few miles inland. I was still the only passenger in the train and this solitary entry, under cover of night and hushed by snow, completed the illusion that I was slipping into Rotterdam, and into Europe, through a secret door.

I wandered about the silent lanes in exultation. The beetling storeys were nearly joining overhead; then the eaves drew away from each other and frozen canals threaded their way through a succes­sion of hump-backed bridges. Snow was piling up on the shoulders of a statue of Erasmus. Trees and masts were dispersed in clumps and the polygonal tiers of an enormous and elaborate gothic belfry soared above the steep roofs. As I was gazing, it slowly tolled five.

The lanes opened on the Boomjes, a long quay lined with trees and capstans, and this in its turn gave on a wide arm of the Maas and an infinity of dim ships. Gulls mewed and wheeled overhead and dipped into the lamplight, scattering their small footprints on the muffied cobblestones and settled in the rigging of the anchored boats in little explosions of snow. The cafes and seamen’s taverns which lay back from the quay were all closed except one which showed a promising line of light. A shutter went up and a stout man in clogs opened a glass door, deposited a tabby on the snow and, turning back, began lighting a stove inside. The cat went in again at once; I followed it and the ensuing fried eggs and coffee, ordered by signs, were the best I had ever eaten. I made a second long entry in my journal – it was becoming a passion – and while the landlord polished his glasses and cups and arranged them in glittering ranks, dawn broke, with the snow still coming down against the lightening sky. I put on my greatcoat, slung the rucksack, grasped my stick and headed for the door. The landlord asked where I was going: I said: ‘Constantinople.’ His brows went up and he signalled to me to wait: then he set out two small glasses and filled them with transparent liquid from a long stone bottle. We clinked them; he emptied his at one gulp and I did the same. With his wishes for godspeed in my ears and an internal bonfire of Bols and a hand smarting from his valedictory shake, I set off. It was the formal start of my journey.

Extract from A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, with thanks to John Murray Publishers

Setting out: Siân Phillips reads from A Time of Gifts

Today marks the 85th anniversary of the start of Paddy’s journey on 9 December 1933. Sian Phillips reads an extract from A Time of Gifts covering his departure “from the heart of London”.

The anchor-chain clattered through the ports and the vessel turned into the current with a wail of her siren. How strange it seemed, as I took shelter in the little saloon – feeling, suddenly, forlorn; but only for a moment – to be setting off from the heart of London! No beetling cliffs, no Arnoldian crash of pebbles. I might have been leaving for Richmond, or for a supper of shrimps and whitebait at Gravesend, instead of Byzantium.

. . . The reflected shore lights dropped coils and zigzags into the flood which were thrown into disarray every now and then, by the silhouettes of passing vessels’ luminous portholes, the funereal shapes of barges singled out by their port and starboard lights and cutters of the river police smacking from wave to wave as purposefully and as fast as pikes. Once we gave way to a liner that towered out of the water like a festive block of flats; from Hong Kong, said the steward, as she glided by; and the different notes of the sirens boomed up and downstream as though masto­dons still haunted the Thames marshes.

. . . A gong tinkled and the steward led me back into the saloon. I was the only passenger: ‘We don’t get many in December,’ he said; ‘It’s very quiet just now.’ When he had cleared away, I took a new and handsomely-bound journal out of my rucksack, opened it on the green baize under a pink-shaded lamp and wrote the first entry while the cruets and the wine bottle rattled busily in their stands. Then I went on deck. The lights on either beam had become scarcer but one could pick out the faraway gleam of other vessels and estuary towns which the distance had shrunk to faint constellations. There was a scattering of buoys and the scanned flash of a light-house. Sealed away now beyond a score of watery loops, London had vanished and a lurid haze was the only hint of its whereabouts.

. . . I wondered when I would be returning. Excitement ruled out the thought of sleep; it seemed too important a night. (And in many ways, so it proved. The ninth of December, 1933, was just ending and I didn’t get back until January, 1937 – a whole lifetime later it seemed then – and I felt like Ulysses, plein d’usage et de raison, and, for better or for worse, utterly changed by my travels.) But I must have dozed, in spite of these emotions, for when I woke the only glimmer in sight was our own reflection on the waves. The kingdom had slid away westwards and into the dark. A stiff wind was tearing through the rigging and the mainland of Europe was less than half the night away.

Extract from A Time of Gifts, with thanks to John Murray Publishers. Artwork, The Pool by Charles Edward Dixon, 1904.

Robert Macfarlane: When I first read ‘A Time of Gifts’ I felt it in my feet. It spoke to my soles . . .

On 9th December 1933, Paddy set out on the journey that would change his life, and those of many others. Today we have Robert Macfarlane and his reaction when first he picked up A Time of Gifts. 

A Plan Unfolds: Siân Phillips reads from ‘A Time of Gifts’ by Patrick Leigh Fermor

To mark the 85th anniversary of Paddy starting his “great trudge”, I would like to share some readings over the next few days. We start with Sian Phillips describing the moment that inspiration for the journey came to the young, bored Paddy one desultory November day in 1933.

About lamplighting time at the end of a wet November day, I was peering morosely at the dog-eared pages on my writing table and then through the panes at the streaming reflections of Shepherd Market, thinking, as Night and Day succeeded Stormy Weather on the gramophone in the room below, that Lazybones couldn’t be far behind; when, almost with the abruptness of Herbert’s lines at the beginning of these pages, inspiration came. A plan unfolded with the speed and the completeness of a Japanese paper flower in a tumbler.

To change scenery; abandon London and England and set out across Europe like a tramp – or, as I characteristically phrased it to myself, like a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar, a broken knight or the hero of The Cloister and the Hearth! All of a sudden, this was not merely the obvious, but the only thing to do. 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 year like Lord Durham with a few noughts knocked off, 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!’

Extract from A Time of Gifts, with thanks to John Murray Publishers.

Leave thy home, O youth, and seek out alien shores . . . Robert Macfarlane reads Petronius

One of the first things Patrick Leigh Fermor is given in A Time of Gifts is a book: the first volume of the Loeb edition of Horace. His mother (‘she was an enormous reader’) bought it for him as a farewell present, and on its flyleaf she wrote the prose translation of an exquisite short poem by Petronius, which could hardly have been more appropriate as a valediction to her son, or indeed to anyone setting out on a voyage into adulthood:

Leave thy home, O youth, and seek out alien shores . . . Yield not to misfortune: the far-off Danube shall know thee, the cold North-wind and the untroubled kingdom of Canopus and the men who gaze on the new birth of Phoebus or upon his setting

The journey of A Time of Gifts is set going by the gift of a book—and it is a book that has in turn set going many journeys. The edition of A Time of Gifts that Don gave me that day in Cambridge had as its cover a beautiful painting by John Craxton, commissioned specially for the book, and clearly alluding to Petronius’s poem. It shows a young man standing on snowy high ground, puttees on his ankles and a walking stick in his right hand, looking eastwards to where the sun is rising orange over icy mountains, from which runs a mighty river. Black crows fly stark against white trees: there is a sense of huge possibility to the day ahead and to the land beyond.

Extract from The Gifts of Reading , Robert Macfarlane. First published in Slightly Foxed Quarterly. Continue reading

A Great Adventure

‘When I first read A Time of Gifts I felt it in my feet. It spoke to my soles. It rang with what in German is called Sehnsucht: a yearning or wistful longing for the unknown and the mysterious. It made me want to stand up and march out – to walk into an adventure.’ Robert Macfarlane

Andrew Merrills finds himself betwixt the woods and the water in this charming piece from Slightly Foxed Issue 38.

by Andrew Merrils

Few people living at the time would have regarded the early Thirties as a golden age, nor has posterity been kind to the period that W. H. Auden described as ‘a low, dishonest decade’. In 1933, the Japanese invaded Manchuria, Hitler became Chancellor of the Reich, and the first stirrings of the Spanish Civil War were felt in Catalonia. While hindsight bathes 1914 in the gentle summer glow of a prelapsarian world, the early Thirties seem autumnal and telescope all too easily into the bitter winter that was to follow. But for one man at least, the cold months of 1933–4 provided a still moment in time, which he would remember with fondness for the rest of his life.

In late December 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor set out on foot for Constantinople (as he anachronistically termed it). Recently expelled from school for the unpardonable crime of holding hands with a local girl, and insufficiently inspired by the prospect of Sandhurst and a career of peacetime soldiering, the 19-year-old decided to head east on foot. His backpack was evidently stuffed to the brim, with a greatcoat, jerseys, shirts (including white linen ones for dressy occasions), puttees, nailed boots, a selection of stationery, a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse and the first volume of the Loeb Horace. The clothing was soon lost but was replaced as he headed east by many generous donations from hosts and chance acquaintances. The literary ture was a more permanent part of his baggage; though he lost his Oxford volume, this was complemented by a vast corpus of writing in English, French and Latin that he had committed to memory. A little over a year later, the young traveller arrived at the Golden Horn.

Writing the account of the journey would take much longer. The first of three projected volumes, A Time of Gifts, was published in 1977, when the author was 62; the second, Between the Woods and the Water, which traces the journey from the Hungarian frontier (where the first leaves off) to the Iron Gates in Romania, came in 1982. The third book remained unfinished at the time of the author’s death in 2011.

Between the long adventure itself and its eventual publication, Patrick Leigh Fermor had led an improbably rich and full life. He was famous for his wartime heroism in occupied Crete, where he lived as a shepherd among the resistance fighters in the mountains and masterminded the daring abduction of the German garrison commander. These actions were commemorated in the memoir Ill Met by Moonlight by his colleague Sandy [sic] Moss, and his own role was played by Dirk Bogarde in the 1957 Powell and Pressburger film of the same title. In the decades that followed, Leigh Fermor produced some of the finest travel writing in English. His published books included a seminal study of the Caribbean in The Traveller’s Tree, a reflection on the monastic life in A Time to Keep Silence, and two remarkable books on Greece, Mani and Roumeli.

Much has been written about him since his death, and each of his books has its own admirers. But for those new to his writing, there is no better place to start than with A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, as an introduction both to the young man on the brink of a great adventure, and the mature writer at the height of his powers. While both shine through in these two books, it is the former who strikes the reader most forcibly. Almost immediately, we are confronted with the extraordinary personality of the young man who wanders across their pages, and it is easy to imagine how this spirit must have charmed and delighted those with whom he came into contact.

His was a well-populated road, from the two German girls in Stuttgart who swept the young ‘Mr Brown’ into an exhilarating tumble of drinking, singing and Christmas parties, to the lugubrious Frisian in Vienna who shared his poverty and some ingenious schemes for generating money before disappearing into the murky world of saccharine-smuggling on the Middle Danube. And these are some of his less remarkable social successes. By the time he reached Mitteleuropa proper, Leigh Fermor had become the darling of the fading imperial aristocracy. We read of raucous games of bicycle polo on the lawns of castles, of horses borrowed for a few days’ ride across the Great Hungarian Plain, and a seemingly endless succession of benevolent Anglophiles who welcomed the dusty young traveller with food, alcohol and the free run of their libraries.

Even if we sometimes feel a tinge of envy at the ease with which the young Patrick drifted into this travellers’ inheritance, it is hard to begrudge him it: the same easy charms that won over the inhabitants of central Europe in the 1930s can still delight a reader eighty years later.

Leigh Fermor has always been loved for the richness of his prose, and both books do full justice to the deep romantic undercurrents of the rivers along which he was travelling. Yet even in his most purple passages, he has a peculiarly literary sensitivity; he writes, not as a traveller in uncharted lands, but as one who is acutely aware of the many writers who have come before him. Nor is this simply the prerogative of the adult writer, usurping the fresh observations of youth with his own literary stylizations. The wide-eyed observer at centre stage also views the world through the lens of his reading. Take this account of Wachau in A Time of Gifts:

Melk was the threshold of this unspeakably beautiful valley. As we have seen by now, castles beyond counting had been looming along the river. They were perched on dizzier spurs here, more dramatic in decay and more mysteriously cobwebbed with fable. The towered headlands dropped sheer, the liquid arcs flowed round them in semicircles. From ruins further from the shore the land sloped more gently, and vineyards and orchards descended in layers to the tree-reflecting banks. The river streamed past wooded islands and when I gazed either way, the seeming water-staircase climbed into the distance. Its associations with the Niebelungenlied are close, but later mythology haunts it. If any landscape is the meeting place of chivalrous romance and fairy tales, it is this. The stream winds into distances where Camelot or Avalon might lie, the woods suggest mythical fauna, the songs of Minnesingers and the sound of horns just out of earshot.

If anyone was attuned to the mythic properties of Old Europe it was the knight errant of 1934. Leigh Fermor gazed at the unfolding landscape with a romantic longing inflamed by a short life stuffed with literature and history. When he passed through the Low Countries, he looked through Bruegel’s eyes; his view of Vienna was a palimpsest of Ottoman armies and Habsburg emperors, against which the complex realities of the mid-1930s were not always visible to him. And when not prompted into reverie by the landscapes around him, he turned inward to the rich body of literature that he had committed to memory. The list of these works is among the most famous passages of Leigh Fermor’s writing. I won’t cite it in full here, since it runs to several pages, but it includes (among many other things) Shakespeare, Spenser, Keats, ‘an abundance of A. E. Housman’, the Sitwells, Norman Douglas and Evelyn Waugh, ‘large quantities of Villon’, and a respectable body of Virgil, Horace, Catullus and Lucan.If a love of literature brightened the colours of Leigh Fermor’s world, it also created a deeper yearning, and this is perhaps his most appealing trait, at least to me. Time and again, he writes of the fervour with which he engaged in spirited conversation with his learned hosts or plunged himself into their well-furnished libraries. Here, he gulped great draughts of European history, poring over details of Germanic folklore or piecing together the complex literary heritage of the world through which he was passing, and which was soon to be lost forever. In recounting these moments, his prose reaches its sublime best, as when he talks about the libraries of Prague:

Where, in this half-recollected maze, do the reviving memories of the libraries belong? To the Old University, perhaps, one of the most ancient and famous in Europe, founded by the great King Charles IV in 1384. I’m not sure. But I drive wedge-shaped salients into oblivion nevertheless and follow them through the recoiling mists with enfilading perspectives of books until bay after bay coheres. Each of them is tiered with burnished leather bindings and gold and scarlet gleam on the spines of hazel and chestnut and pale vellum. Globes space out the chessboard floors. There are glass-topped homes for incunables. Triangular lecterns display graduals and antiphonals and Books of Hours and coloured scenes encrust the capitals on the buckled parchment; block-notes and lozenges climb and fall on four-letter Georgian staves where Carolingian uncials and blackletter spell out the responses. The concerted spin of a score of barley-sugar pillars uphold elliptic galleries where brass combines with polished oak, and obelisks and pineapples alternate on the balustrades.

The conceit which underscores this passage – the image of memory as a library – is a key theme throughout both books. Not only does this recall the prodigious literary memory of the young man, it also reminds us of the act of memory that went into the composition of the books themselves. While A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water do an exquisite job in representing the world through the eyes of a 19-year-old, the reader never forgets the mature writer who acts as mediator and amanuensis. For the successful travel writer, war hero and beloved raconteur who wrote these books, these are stories of a half-remembered youth as well as a half-forgotten Europe.‘For now the time of gifts is gone’ runs the line from Louis MacNeice that provides Leigh Fermor’s first title, and it is this faint melancholy which makes both books so powerful. These are the memories of a lifetime, and in writing them down, in revisiting the notebooks and the maps that had lain untouched for years, the writer creates them anew. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the conclusion to the most intimate episode of the sequence. For a giddy chapter, the traveller had careered around Transylvania in a car with his close friend István, and with Angéla, something of a kindred spirit. The reader is caught up in the breathless pleasure of the episode, which climaxes in a manic motor chase with a west-bound train, but which deflates as the companions consider their parting:

The reader may think that I am lingering too long over these pages. I think so too, and I know why: when we reached our destination in an hour or two, we would have come full cycle. It wasn’t only an architectural world, but the whole sequence of these enchanted Transylvanian months that would come to a stop. I was about to turn south, away from all my friends, and the dactylic ring of Magyar would die away. Then there was István; I would miss him bitterly; and the loss of Angéla – who is little more than a darting luminous phantom in these pages – would be a break I could hardly bear to think of; and I can’t help putting off the moment for a paragraph or two.

Everyone has their favourite sections of these extraordinary books, whether they are drinking songs in snow-bound Germany, the majestic descriptions of pre-war Vienna, or the madcap charabanc rides through Transylvania. Mine comes at the beginning of the narrative. The account of the Groote Kirk in Rotterdam isn’t as succulent as some of the richer morsels later on – the young traveller had only just entered the continent, and both he and his older self were keen to get on. But it captures the themes of the book perfectly:

Filled with dim early morning light, the concavity of grey masonry and whitewash joined in pointed arches high overhead and the floor diminished along the nave in a chessboard of black and white flagstones. So compellingly did the vision tally with a score of half-forgotten Dutch pictures that my mind’s eye instantaneously furnished the void with those seventeenth century groups which should have been sitting or strolling there: burghers with pointed corn-coloured beards – and impious spaniels that refused to stay outside – conferring gravely with their wives and children, still as chessmen, in black broadcloth and identical honeycomb ruffs under the tremendous hatchmented pillars. Except for this church, the beautiful city was to be bombed to fragments a few years later. I would have lingered, had I known.

‘I would have lingered, had I known’: these are books for readers, for poets and for travellers. But most of all, they’re books for lingerers.

Easter 1934 Paddy arrives at the Danube read by Siân Phillips

An Easter treat for you. Siân Phillips reads from page 277 of A Time of Gifts (paperback) as Paddy arrives at the Danube, spots Esztergom, has his passport stamped by the Czechoslovakian border guards, and lingers ‘in the middle of the bridge, meditatively poised in no man’s air.’

‘The air was full of hints and signs. There was a flicker and a swishing along the river like the breezy snip-snap of barbers’ scissors before they swoop and slice. It was the skimming and twirling of newly arrived swifts. A curve in the stream was re-arranging the landscape as I advanced, revealing some of the roofs of Esztergom and turning the Basilica to a new angle as though it were on a pivot. The rolling wooded range of the Bakony Forest had advanced north from the heart of Transdanubia, and the corresponding promontory on the northern shore – the last low foothills of the Marra mountains, whose other extremity subsides in the north eastern tip of Hungary – jutted into the water under the little town of Parkan. Reaching for each other, the two headlands coerced the rambling flood yet once more into a narrower and swifter flow and then spanned the ruffie with an iron bridge. Spidery at first, the structure grew more solid as the distance dwindled. (Twenty miles east of this bridge, the Danube reaches a most important point in its career: wheeling round the ultimate headland of the Balcony Forest and heading due south for the first time on its journey, it strings itself through Budapest like a thread through a bead and drops across the map of Europe plumb for a hundred and eighty miles, cutting Hungary clean in half. Then, reinforced by the Drava, it turns east again, invades Yugoslavia, swallows up the Sava under the battlements of Belgrade, and sweeps on imperturbably to storm the Iron Gates.)

In an hour, I had climbed the cliff-path into the main street of Parkan. A little later my passport was stamped at the frontier post at the Czechoslovakian end of the bridge. The red, white and green barrier of the frontier post at the far end marked the beginning of Hungary. I lingered in the middle of the bridge, meditatively poised in no man’s air.’

(Extract from A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, with thanks to John Murray Publishers.)

A funeral at Melk

The abbey at Melk

The abbey at Melk

Paddy described it as a “quinquireme amongst abbeys”. It is a benevolent sleeping giant above the little town of Melk and the Danube. To the east lies the Wachau, one of the most magnificent stretches of river scenery in Europe, and the eastern foothills of the Alps, to the west, Mauthausen and Bavaria. The huge and imposing Abbey at Melk continues to fascinate.

By Roslyn Jolly

First published in The Saturday Paper

This sure is a quiet town.” I’m almost whispering, unwilling to have my voice ring out in the silent streets. “Where is everybody?” It’s about seven in the evening, and as we climb the zigzag pathways to the great church on the hill, there is scarcely another soul around.

We’re going to a funeral. My friend saw the notice pinned unobtrusively to a post in the hotel bar: There will be a service at the abbey tonight for one of the monks, who has died suddenly, before his time. A popular man, a local favourite, highly regarded, sadly missed, the notice says. The community is invited to pay its respects.

We are not of the community, but we are curious, so through the dark streets and up the stone staircases we go. I haven’t yet connected the desertion of the town with the funeral at the abbey. As we approach the elegant arched entrance to the monastery precinct, we see fire engines crowding the forecourt. My friend interprets the scene better, and more quickly, than I do. I’m thinking, “A fire at the abbey? During a monk’s funeral? How very Umberto Eco.” But my friend has lived long enough in Austria to understand that not a Gothic but a civic explanation is required.

The people of Melk and all the parishes of the surrounding Wachau district have turned out in force, in uniform, through whatever structure of collective identity they can call upon, to mark the passing of their brother. Every club, team, order, guild, society, brotherhood, sisterhood, Bund, Verein and Gesellschaft is here. Not just represented here, but actually here, in body, en masse. Every fireman, policeman and Boy Scout wears his uniform; every teacher, nurse and union official is badged. The farmers are here, and so are the municipal councillors from nearby villages. Their gleaming trucks, cars and engines, freshly washed and highly polished, identify the various communities, trades and professions to which these people are clearly proud to belong.


This is the guard of honour outside the church. We walk through it. At the church door, uniformed officials keep watch. I would have turned away, but my friend is unabashed. His six years’ residence in Vienna probably helps. “We’re here for Brother A—’s funeral,” he says confidently, I forget whether in English or in German. The young man in his uniform scrutinises us for a second or two, then opens the door and gestures for us to proceed.

Inside there is colour, gold, incense, music, faces, voices, more gold. The Stiftskirche is a baroque jewellery box, glorious in candlelight, vibrant with song and incantation. There is only standing room. The service is already under way and, of course, being neither Austrian nor Catholic, I understand very little of what is being said or done, but experience the funeral as a dance of feeling between priests and townspeople. A modestly draped coffin is the focus for the energies of community expressed in music and liturgy, which, soaring, match the visual splendour of the scene.

Tomorrow we will come back, and we will see the abbey as the guidebooks and the travel writers promise it. We will see the palatial exterior, painted in sunny Schönbrunn yellow. We will see the beautiful rococo courtyard, with its palms and fountains, and think of it as a prettier Versailles. We will see the famous library with its ancient books, and peer into the pastel-coloured whorl of the shell-like spiral staircase. We will stand on the terrace and gaze at the lovely view of the Danube Valley. We will do all that a visitor to Melk is supposed to do, and it will be wonderful, but it will not be like this.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, in A Time of Gifts, called Melk Abbey the “high noon” of Europe, the highest point of the “high baroque style”. The prose he used to describe it is sunshiny and light-saturated. He even makes noon at Melk his hour of epiphany as well as his key metaphor: “Meridian glory surrounded us as a clock in the town struck twelve.” But I’ve fallen for Melk Abbey at night – not at midnight, the Gothic hour when romance writers find dark mysteries in conventual spaces, but at a civil hour, between seven and eight in the evening, when the river cruisers have gone back to their ships and the people of the town may come out, after work and an early dinner, to interact with the real working life of the monastic order that has existed here for more than a thousand years.

The funeral ends and we file out with the hundreds of mourners to watch the coffin carried to a vehicle that will take it to a burial ground beyond the monastery walls. My friend is troubled by the seeming severity of this custom. “But he would have served here his whole life,” he says. “Why can’t he be buried here too? It’s as if, at his death, he’s being expelled from the religious community.”

We puzzle over this and can’t really do anything with it. It feels harsh. The coffin looks very solitary as it waits to be conveyed through the gates into the darkness beyond. After the uplifted atmosphere in the church, the mood in the forecourt has become sombre, almost austere. All stand in silence, many with heads bowed. We – my friend and I – watch our unknown brother set out for the undiscovered country.

After the coffin has left, the firemen return to their trucks, the policemen to their cars. The Boy Scouts form lines and leave under the supervision of their troop leaders. We depart through the same archway by which we entered. At first we’re part of a throng, but the crowds quickly melt away. No one walks the same path as we do, the path that leads down stone stairs and through narrow alleys to the main street, where the hotels and restaurants are.

Melk will glow tomorrow in autumnal sunshine and we will see all that should be seen by a visitor to this beautiful mediaeval town. But tonight we’ve seen something different. We have interloped. We have slipped through the net that keeps tourists within the spaces designed for them. We’ve found our way to the secret life of a town. Just for an hour, we have gone to the other side.

The gravitational pull of a unique personality

Patrick Leigh Fermor, left, met Heinrich Kreipe, his former captive, at a reunion in Greece in 1972 which included the famous Greek TV show

Patrick Leigh Fermor, left, met Heinrich Kreipe, his former captive, at a reunion in Greece in 1972 which included the famous Greek TV show

We all discovered Paddy by different routes, but if one follows the thread of certain ideas, one can often find it leads to Patrick Leigh Fermor. My own journey started with my interest in Byzantine history; the link with Constantinople and Steven Runciman being my link. It was therefore a great joy to hear from a former colleague with whom I had lost touch some years ago. Chris Wares has discovered Paddy through his interest in the work of Antony Beevor, and after finding this blog he wrote to me explaining his own Paddy journey. He has agreed to me publishing it here. How did you first encounter Paddy? Maybe you can tell us in the comments section.

by Chris Wares

Unlike probably everyone reading this I have yet to actually read any of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books. In fact I’m ashamed to say that a year ago I hadn’t even heard of the man. But over the past twelve months I have found myself being inexorably drawn towards the man and his books. Unknowingly at first and then, after what I can only describe as a sort of literary epiphany, I realised that I was in the gravitational pull of a unique personality, a name that kept turning everywhere I looked. Gradually I came to terms with the realisation that I would be compelled to read his books.

I am sure everyone has their own story on how they became acquainted with PLF but, as I stand on the precipice of opening one of his books for the first time, I thought I would describe how I arrived at this point.

It all began about a year ago when I read Crete: The Battle and the Resistance by Antony Beevor. Beevor is one of my favourite authors and so, while not being especially interested in the war in Crete, I was confident that my investment would be rewarded. Amongst the broad sweep of battle Beevor describes the tale of a British SOE soldier who possessed a larger than life character. A man who captures a German general from under their noses and then marches him across the mountains with half the German army on his tail. It was a scintillating story but the name of the hero didn’t particularly register in my mind.

A few weeks later I read Natural Born Heroes: The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by another of my favourite authors, Christopher McDougall. McDougall’s stories of long distance runners provide great inspiration for those that are needing motivation to get down to the business of training for a marathon. In the book McDougall writes of ancient Greek demigods who had discovered the secrets of endurance running. Switching to the twentieth century, he describes in reverential tones the superhuman endurance of a British soldier called Paddy who possessed the same qualities. It’s the same guy.

OK. So it’s a good tale and worth retelling but surely this was just coincidence. Sure, it’s a great yarn about the Battle of Crete and it also works as a modern day fable about god-like feats of endurance. But this was just one of those things right? The sort of tale anyone writing about Crete includes.

Then several months later I booked a romantic weekend in Brasov, Transylvania, for my wife’s birthday. A rare opportunity for us to get away without the kids and visit somewhere slightly off the beaten track. To get to know the place better I decided to do my homework and read up on Romania. These days, tied down by kids and mortgages, my wanderlust is largely restricted to armchair adventures. Travel books and histories providing an enjoyable way of vicariously travel the world.

I picked up Anthony Eales Blue River, Black Sea, a light and enjoyable read recounting his journey by bicycle and boat from the source of the Danube down to the Black Sea. Eales opens by describing how he decided to emulate the journey some guy called Patrick Leigh Fermor made in the 1930s down the Danube who also happened to kidnap a German general in Crete…. Hang on a minute? Kidnapped a German general in Crete? This can’t be the same bloke can it?

It’s at that point I turn to Google. Who was this guy? A good story can be a matter of circumstance; a combination of events that a person can just be caught up in. But appearing heroic in two separate dramas suggests a character that possesses something special. A man who “drank from a different fountain” as some might say.

I quickly found myself getting up to speed on the basics – SOE, renowned travel writer, author of three books about walking across Europe in the 1930s, the last of which was edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper. This was sounding good. I like Colin Thubron. And Artemis Cooper? That’s a name that rings a bell? Of course! – she co-wrote Paris After the Liberation: 1944 – 1949 with Beevor (which I also just read).

Another Google search and I realise that Beevor and Cooper are married and obviously share an admiration for PLF. And – just to reinforce the impression that everything was in some way joined up and connected to the man – it turns out that Cooper is the daughter of John Julius Norwich whose A History of Venice I read in August. I was beginning to get the feeling that Patrick Leigh Fermor was something special. I was in the orbit of something that deserved further investigation.

My armchair exploration of Romania continued through the Autumn and it soon felt as if all roads led to Patrick Leigh Fermor. The author Nick Thorpe talks about him in The Danube: A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest while travelling along the Danube in the opposite direction to Eales. Nick Hunt follows in his footsteps in Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn. William Blacker quotes him extensively in Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania (which incidentally is one of the loveliest books I have read in a long time) and Dervla Murphy contrasts 1990s Romania with his descriptions of the 1930s in Transylvania and Beyond. Georgina Harding quotes him in In Another Europe: A Journey to Romania. At times it felt as if everyone who had ever visited Romania in the past 40 years had read his books.

With his writing venerated by so many, the signs were clear that I needed to read him for myself. Here was someone who is not only considered one of the best travel writers ever but someone whose books inspired so much else that I read and enjoyed. My curiosity piqued I enthusiastically went on a bookstore spending spree and purchased all three books of the trilogy as well as his biography.

The books have sat patiently on my bedside table for some time now, but the moment of turning that first page is fast approaching. Logically the trilogy should form part of my Romanian literary journey but I have purposely set them aside and held back until the moment is right. The books may be the finalé to my Romanian odyssey but I feel as if they may also be first steps of an entirely new journey.

It’s rare to have such a sense of anticipation ahead of reading a new book. Such a build up runs the risk of the reality failing to live up to the expectation and I am nervous that perhaps I may not find his books as exquisite as I have come to imagine them to be. But on the other hand I am reassured with the knowledge that I am following in the footsteps of many others.

And now to turn that first page and follow path that is well trodden; one which all of those who are reading this will have already travelled….

Twelfth Night by Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice

We all know the line “For now the time of gifts is gone” but are we familiar with the full poem? Louis MacNeice wrote Twelfth Night shortly after the end of World War 2. It is one of a group in which MacNeice records the loosening of the social bonds that bound British citizens, and the armed forces in particular, during the war.

Twelfth Night by Louis MacNeice

Snow-happy hicks of a boy’s world –
O crunch of bull’s-eyes in the mouth,
O crunch of frost beneath the foot –
If time would only remain furled
In white, and thaw were not for certain
And snow would but stay put, stay put!

When the pillar-box wore a white bonnet –
O harmony of roof and hedge,
O parity of sight and thought –
And each flake had your number on it
And lives were round for not a number
But equalled nought, but equalled nought!

But now the sphinx must change her shape –
O track that reappears through slush,
O broken riddle, burst grenade –
And lives must be pulled out like tape
To measure something not themselves,
Things not given but made, but made.

For now the time of gifts is gone –
O boys that grow, O snows that melt,
O bathos that the years must fill –
Here is dull earth to build upon
Undecorated; we have reached
Twelfth Night or what you will … you will.

Kennt ihr das Land in deutschen Gauen

One of my favourite posts from 2011. I thought I would share this one more time at this Christmas time. A Merry Christmas to you all and I wish you a peaceful 2017. Thank you for supporting the blog during the course of another year. Please keep sending in your contributions and comments; they keep it lively …

I guess that many of us enjoy the chapter in A Time of Gifts when the eighteen year old Paddy spent two nights in Stuttgart with two very pretty nineteen year old German girls, Lise and Annie. It was Epiphany, 6th January 1934, and they went to a party where Paddy had to pretend to be Mr Brown, a family friend. He particularly enjoyed singing a song about the Neckar Valley and Swabia. Paddy could not remember all the words but his stunning memory recalled most of them (page 66).

As we approach that time of year I thought we ought to share this delightful song.

Here is a link to the music sung by a German choir (it should download the file to your computer which is harmless and does still work). The words are below so that you too can sing along! Let’s hear it now, one two three ….

  1. Kennt ihr das Land in deutschen Gauen,
    Das schönste dort am Neckarstrand?
    Die grünen Rebenhügel schauen
    Ins Tal von hoher Felsenwand.

Refrain:
Es ist das Land, das mich gebar,
Wo meiner Väter Wiege stand,
Drum sing’ ich heut’ und immerdar:
Das schöne Schwaben ist mein Heimatland!

2. Kennt ihr das Land in deutschen Gauen,
Mit Wald und Flur so reich bekränzt,
Wo auf den weiten, reichen Auen
Im Sonnenschein die Ähre glänzt?
Es ist das Land, . . . . .

3. Kennt ihr das Land in deutschen Gauen,
Wo Tann’ und Efeu immer grün,
Wo starke Männer, edle Frauen
In deutscher Kraft und Sitte blühn?
Es ist das Land, . . . . .4. Kennt ihr das Land im deutschen Süden,
So oft bewährt in Kampf und Streit,
Dem zwischen seiner Wälder Frieden
So frisch die deutsche Kraft gedeiht? Ja, wackre Deutsche laßt uns sein!
Drauf reichet euch die deutsche Hand;
Denn Schwabenland ist’s nicht allein:
Das ganze Deutschland ist mein Heimatland!

Transylvanian Saxon and polymath, Rudolf Fischer – obituary

Rudolf Fischer

Rudolf Fischer

Rudolf Fischer, who has died aged 92, was a historian, linguist and polymath who advised and guided foreign writers through the minutiae of eastern European history, language, etymology and ethnography; the foremost of these, Patrick Leigh Fermor, acknowledged in 1986 that his debt to Fischer was “beyond reckoning”.

First published in the Telegraph 12 June 2016.

Fischer’s friendship with Leigh Fermor began after Fischer wrote a letter to him full of praise for A Time of Gifts (1972), the first volume of Leigh Fermor’s travel trilogy, with, attached to it, a long list of all the inaccuracies, misspellings and contradictions. Months passed without a response, and Fischer feared that his constructive criticism had gone down badly. In fact, Leigh Fermor was delighted, and wrote, eventually, asking if Fischer could bear to advise on his next volume. Gradually drafts of Between the Woods and the Water starting appearing in parcels from the Peloponnese which Fischer pored over meticulously.

There resulted a correspondence which lasted for decades, thrashing out the finer points of Transylvanian history, language, costume, traditions and legends. Fischer also read and made corrections to Leigh Fermor’s final, posthumous, volume of the trilogy, The Broken Road, published in 2013, and edited by Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron.

Among others he also helped Bruce Chatwin, Robert Kaplan (who devoted an entire chapter to him in Eastward to Tartary), Dervla Murphy, Colin Thubron, Robin Hanbury-Tennison, Adam Sisman and William Blacker, many of whom made the pilgrimage to his small book-lined flat in Budapest.

Rudolf Fischer was born on September 17 1923 in the medieval city of Brasov, Kronstadt, in the Transylvania region of Romania. His father, Josef Fischer, was a Hungarian Jew, a descendant of the Hatam Sofer, the 19th-century leader of the Haredic movement which resisted modernisation and mysticism. His mother, Bertha Meldt, was a Saxon Lutheran. Rudolf attended the local Saxon school. But talk of war prompted his father to migrate with him to Australia, leaving his wife and younger son behind, for fear that the older one, Rudolf, would be enlisted.

The next few years were spent helping his father on a chicken farm on the outskirts of Sydney and serving in the alien corps of the Australian army in New Guinea, before attending Sydney University, where he met his first wife, Janet Gleeson-White.

At university Fischer studied under John Anderson, a Scottish philosopher, whose acolytes formed the libertarian movement known as the Sydney Push, one of whose principles was that no statement or assumption was to remain unchallenged. This, as one writer on Australian philosophy, James Franklin, later observed, was all very well but “hard on the wives and children”.

In the early 1950s Fischer moved to Britain, earning a living as a teacher. He felt that cultural life of London compensated for the poor living conditions in an attic flat; it was a view not shared by his wife, who was struggling with small children. So in 1957 the family travelled back to Australia. The marriage broke down, however, and Fischer returned alone to Europe in 1962 where, on a visit to Romania, he met his second wife, Dagmar von Melchner, a distant cousin.

After living in Greece for eight months, the couple moved to London, where, in 1968, Fischer became English Language editor for the New Hungarian Quarterly – an achievement given that his first language was German – and so they moved to Budapest, where they remained for 48 years. There, with Dagmar, he brought up his second family, deepened his knowledge of Central Europe and became a guide, critic and friend to writers of all nationalities who passed through Budapest.

Fischer’s library was packed with obscure 19th-century reference books on the Balkans and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as a large map from 1853 of Europäischen Turkei – more accurate, he assured everyone, than the modern ones. Rudolf Fischer was a link to the pre-war Saxon world of Transylvania, and with his fine moustache, upright and dignified manner, collection of exotic Eastern European hats and excellent grasp of all the relevant languages, he more than fitted the part.

He was buried in Brasov in the family grave in a small Saxon Lutheran cemetery at the end of the street on which he had been born.

He is survived by his second wife Dagmar and his five daughters.

Rudolf Fischer, born September 17 1923, died February 18 2016

Paddy’s World – Transcript of John Julius Norwich’s talk for the PLF Society

Many blog readers and members of the PLF Society were privileged to her John Julius Norwich give a very personal account of his memories of Paddy at the Hellenic Centre in London on 10 November. My account of the evening is here

I am very lucky to be able to present the full transcript of the talk. Didn’t I say we had some good stuff coming up? Enjoy this 🙂

On 22 February 1951 my mother wrote to me: “Just off for my jaunt to Passy sur Eure to spoon with P. Leigh Fermor. Shy. Fluster.” At that time she had only just met Paddy and hardly knew him, and she would have been – as indeed she confessed she was – extremely nervous. But all was well. The next letter read:

Well, the gallivanting was a red letter. It took me a good two hours cross-country by Pontoise and Mantes. Strange little village house in which he lives – the loan of a Lady Smart – was warm and welcoming and I really felt myself back in the pond I was raised in. Fascinating conversation with a male man who delights in one. Paddy was superb. Cultured, funny, telling wonderful sagas, zealous. We had a charming filthy little lunch over the stove of sardines, Pernod and vin ordinaire and afterwards we walked for two hours over low wooded downs in sparkling sun, talking ten to the dozen about people, grievances and enthusiasms

That was the beginning. My parents saw quite a lot of Paddy and Joan – whom my mother thought looked just like Joan of Arc, except that Joan of Arc didn’t wear sun-glasses – in the next year or two. I was at Oxford at the time, and I remember seeing them once or twice during vacations, and being invariably knocked sideways – as everyone was – by the sheer brilliance of Paddy, and the glorious fun of him. Every time he walked into a room it was as if the sun had come out; never have I laughed more uncontrollably round a luncheon or dinner table, and as for his erudition, never have I met anyone who knew so much about everything under the sun, yet wore his learning so lightly. There seemed to be no language he could not speak, or indeed sing songs or recite poetry in: French, German, Italian, Spanish, Greek and Rumanian for a start, but there were probably several others as well.

Then, in the summer of 1955, a wonderful thing happened. By then I had joined the Foreign Service. My first wife Anne and I were by that time living in Belgrade, where I was Third Secretary at the British Embassy. Another letter arrived from my mother. She had been lent a Greek caïque by the ship-owner Stavros Niarchos for a fortnight’s sail through the isles of Greece. Paddy and Joan were coming; could we come too? As far as we were concerned, it was a question of “can a duck swim?” At the end of August we drove down from Belgrade – which in those days had no airport – to Athens, and thence to the Piraeus, where we boarded the Eros.

It was my first time in the Aegean, and Paddy gave it a whole new dimension. It was the first time I had seen him, as it were, on his home ground, and it was wonderful. He lived and breathed his beloved Greece – fluent in its language, encyclopaedic in his knowledge of its history, its customs and its literature. But nobody – and that was the wonder and joy of him and – I know I’ve said this before – nobody has ever carried his learning more lightly. His conversation was consistently dazzling. As we sailed from island to island – and in those days there were virtually no tourists, and I can’t begin to tell you what a difference that made – he talked about Greece, about Greek history, about Greek beliefs and traditions, about Byron and the Greek War of Independence, with those monstrously magnificent Greek heroes – men like Mavromichalis and Kolokotronis whose names roll so satisfactorily across the tongue – and about the Greek Orthodox Church and its quarrels with the west over more of those words, like filioque and ͑ομοούσιον; but his talk roamed far wider than that, taking in the whole eastern Mediterranean and, in particular, Byzantium.

Now in England Byzantium has always had a terrible press. The great nineteenth-century historian W.E.H. Lecky wrote that it constituted, “without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilisation has yet assumed…. There has been no other enduring civilisation, he claimed, “so absolutely destitute of all the forms and elements of greatness”. He went on,

Its vices were the vices of men who had ceased to be brave without learning to be virtuous…. Slaves, and willing slaves, in both their actions and their thoughts, immersed in sensuality and in the most frivolous pleasures, the people only emerged from their listlessness when some theological subtlety, or some chivalry in the chariot races, stimulated them to frantic riots…. The history of the Empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude, of perpetual fratricides.

Strong words indeed – although to modern ears that last sentence makes Byzantine history sound not so much monotonous as distinctly entertaining. But that long campaign of denigration continued well into the twentieth century. It was only in the time of which I’m speaking – the fifties – that the writings of people like Robert Byron, David Talbot Rice and Steven Runciman, together with the new-found ease, speed and relative comfort of travel in the Levant, made the glorious heritage of the Byzantine Empire at last generally accessible. Now, thank heaven, the Empire has come into its own again, and is seen as a worthy successor to the two mighty civilisations which it followed and so beautifully combined, the Greek and the Roman.

The trouble was, for most of us, that we knew so little about it. Those old attitudes died hard. During my five years at Eton, the entire subject was the victim of what seemed to be a conspiracy of silence. I can’t honestly remember Byzantium being once mentioned, far less studied; and so complete was my ignorance that I should have been hard put to define it even in general terms till I went to Oxford. And, for heaven’s sake, why? After all, it was not even the successor, it was that same old Roman Empire of Augustus and Tiberius and Claudius and the rest, which continued to exist in its new capital of Constantinople for another one thousand, one hundred and twenty-three years before it was finally captured by the Ottoman Turks on that fateful day, Tuesday 29 May 1453, after one of the most heroic sieges in all history. It was Paddy and Paddy alone who revealed to me its mystery and its magic, although he also recommended to me, among much else, that I should read an extraordinary book by Robert Byron, The Byzantine Achievement, which that most precocious author wrote when he was twenty-five. I read it with utter fascination, and ended up completely captivated. When I got home I devoured every book I could find on the subject, and the following year Anne and I drove to Istanbul for a week. Twenty years later I was to write a History of Byzantium myself – three volumes of it, which were necessary if I was to cover more than a millennium; but I very much doubt whether, had it not been for that fortnight on the Eros, those three volumes would ever have been written.

One evening, I remember, Paddy was talking about a poor fisherman at Kardamyli – this was long before he went to live there – a friend of his called Strati Mourtzinos, who, he told us, might just possibly have been the last heir to the imperial throne of Byzantium. Suddenly his imagination took over, and he built a magnificent castle in the air. It seemed, by some miracle, that the Turks had restored Constantinople to Greece. Byzantium was reborn and Strati Mourtzinos was formally crowned as its Emperor. Paddy was later to work up the idea further in his first book about Greece, Mani:

Bells clanged; semantra hammered and cannon thundered as the Emperor stepped ashore. Then, with a sudden reek of naphtha, Greek fire roared, saluting in a hundred blood-red parabolas from the warships’ brazen beaks….. In the packed square of Constantine, a Serbian furrier fell from a rooftop. An astrologer from Ctesiphon, a Spanish coppersmith and a money-lender from the Persian Gulf were trampled to death; a Bactrian lancer fainted and, as we proceeded round the Triple Delphic Serpent of the Hippodrome, the voices of the Blues and Greens, for once in concord, lifted a long howl of applause. The imperial horses neighed in their stables, the hunting cheetahs strained yelping at their silver chains. Mechanical gold lions roared in the throne room, gold birds on the jewelled branches of artificial trees set up a tinkling and a twitter. The general hysteria penetrated the public jail: in dark cells, monophysites and bogomils and iconoclasts rattled their fetters across the dungeon bars. High on his Corinthian capital, a capering stylite, immobile for three decades, hammered his calabash with a wooden spoon….

Would you like a bit more? All right: Continue reading

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Rhineland Christmas

This may just be a little late but I guess it is still “seasonal”. I have been recovering from the long walk (raised over £3,600 so thank to all who pitched in) and then my very own time in Germany up to Christmas with my youngest daughter Harriet followed by an English Christmas. All very hectic. I have promised myself a calmer 2016, with hopefully more time for the blog. Thank you for your continued readership, kind thoughts and ideas. A very Happy New Year to you and those you love.

Tom

Paddy spent Christmas, 1933, in Coblenz/Koblenz a German town on the Rhine. From A Time Of Gifts:

Coblenz is on a slant. Every street tilted and I was always looking across towers and chimney-pots and down on the two corridors of mountain that conducted the streams to their meeting. It was a buoyant place under a clear sky, everything in the air whispered that the plains were far behind and the sunlight sent a flicker and a flash of reflections glancing up from the snow; and two more invisible lines had been crossed and important ones: the accent had changed and wine cellars had taken the place of beer-halls. Instead of those grey mastodontic mug, wine-glasses glittered on the oak. (It was under a vista of old casks in a Weinstube that I settled with my diary till bedtime.) The plain bowls of these wine-glasses were poised on slender glass stalks, or on diminishing pagodas of little globes, and both kinds of stem were coloured: a deep green for Mosel and, for Rhenish, a brown smoky gold that was almost amber. When horny hands lifted them, each flashed forth its coloured message in the lamplight. It is impossible, drinking by the glass in those charmingly named inns and wine-cellars, not to drink too much. Deceptively and treacherously, those innocent-looking goblets hold nearly half a bottle and simply by sipping one could explore the two great rivers below and the Danube and all Swabia, and Franconia too by proxy, and the vales of Imhof and the faraway slopes of Würzburg journeying in time from year to year, with draughts as cool as a deep well, limpidly varying from dark gold to pale silver and smelling of glades and meadows and flowers. Gothic inscriptions still flaunted across the walls, but they were harmless here, and free of the gloom imposed by those boisterous and pace-forcing black-letter hortations in the beer-halls of the north. And the style was better: less emphatic, more lucid and laconic; and both consoling and profound in content; or so it seemed as the hours passed. Glaub, was wahr ist, enjoined a message across an antlered wall, Lieb was rar ist; Trink, was klar ist. [“Believe what is true; love what is rare; drink what is clear.”] I only realized as I stumbled to bed how pliantly I had obeyed.

It was the shortest day of the year and signs of the seasons were becoming hourly more marked. Every other person in the streets was heading for home with a tall and newly felled fir-sapling across his shoulder, and it was under a mesh of Christmas decorations that I was sucked into the Liebfrauenkirche next day. The romanesque nave was packed and an anthem of great choral splendour rose from the gothic choir stalls, while the cauliflowering incense followed the plainsong across the slopes of the sunbeams. A Dominican in horn-rimmed spectacles delivered a vigorous sermon. A number of Brownshirts — I’d forgotten all about them for the moment — was scattered among the congregation, with eyes lowered and their caps in their hands. They looked rather odd. The should have been out in the forest, dancing round Odin and Thor, or Loki, perhaps.

Paddy imaginatively and sensually explores local landscapes by drinking its wine. Notice too the glorious description of the Catholic church in Coblenz at Christmastime.  That beautiful old church, the Liebefrauenkirche, was destroyed in the Second World War.

Link

Capture1A broadcast on France Culture radio featuring Paddy speaking his best French, supported by Artemis Cooper and her father John Julius Norwich. Lovely to hear Paddy speaking and also to brush up some of the old French given that we all know the context. With contributions from others. Click the picture above to visit the site and then press the play icon. The player will open in a new window and can be a little slow to load so just be patient but the quality is fine and worth the wait.

Interesting that with this and the TV interview alongside the brilliant Nicolas Bouvier, the French are running neck and neck with the BBC for airtime about Paddy. Watch Paddy here (he appears around 29 minutes.)

Items from Paddy’s archive

The news about the opening of Paddy’s archive to the public was quite exciting. It may herald some new studies into the life of this gifted but flawed man.

I had a bit of a sneak around the National Library of Scotland website and found the following images which may form the start of the on-line digital archive mentioned in the press release. They include an unpublished poem by John Betjeman written on the back of an envelope.

Related article:

Patrick Leigh Fermor archive now fully available to public at National Library of Scotland

Salmagundi Magazine special feature on Patrick Leigh Fermor

Paddy at BaleniI am grateful to Marc Woodworth for sending me this feature about Paddy posted in Salmagundi Magazine.

It includes excerpts from three essays:

  • Joanna Kavenna on memory and the past in A Time of Gifts
  • George Prochnik on Byzantium and style in Mani
  • Bina Gogineni on exoticism in The Traveller’s Tree

Plus exclusive online contributions from Nick Delbanco, Nick Delbanco, our very own Nick Hunt (Following Fermor in Romania)
and a Micro-Anthology selected by Michael Ondaatje, Thomas de Waal, Michael Gorra, Andrew Eames and photographs of Kövecses by Andrew Hillard.

Download the pdf here … salmagundi magazine

Travellers’ Century: Patrick Leigh Fermor now on YouTube


The event at Waterstones on Thursday with Benedict Allen introducing his 2008 film about Paddy’s life and work was a great success.

Organised by Barnaby Rogerson of Eland Publishing (who specialise in keeping the classics of travel literature in print), we were treated to a few glasses of wine before the film whilst chatting to an eclectic group who included general travel writing buffs, some who knew little about Paddy, and a group of keen PLF enthusiasts. Harry Bucknall, author of Like a Tramp, Like A Pilgrim: On Foot, Across Europe to Rome was in fine form, talking about a possible film project, and I particularly enjoyed meeting Rick Stroud who wrote the other book published this month about the abduction Kidnap in Crete: The True Story of the Abduction of a Nazi General.

Perhaps the highlight was a Q&A session afterwards where Benedict was joined by John Murray who features in the film talking about the challenges of editing Paddy’s work. John had some very interesting things to say about working with Paddy and shared some personal views about his life and relationships.

By strange coincidence I have now been told that the BBC film has now appeared in You Tube so you can all watch and enjoy it!

175 years of the Red Ox Inn, Heidelberg

Red Ox

Immortalised by Paddy who stayed here in the winter of 1934, the Red Ox Inn is celebrating 175 years managed by six generations of the same family. They say they are looking forward to the 200th anniversary. It is always worth a visit if you travel to beautiful Heidelberg.

In German, and I should warn you there are scenes of hearty German food and large glasses of beer, but fortunately no flash photography.

This does not appear to play in Firefox. It works in Internet Explorer. Click on the image to play.

Traveller’s Century – Benedict Allen seeking Patrick Leigh Fermor

Benedict Allen

Benedict Allen

Many will be aware of Benedict Allen’s 2008 BBC documentary where he follows Paddy’s journey and eventually gets to meet with Paddy at Kardamyli. It is rarely shown and unavailable on iPlayer. However, there will be a chance for some to watch the programme at Waterstones Piccadilly on Thursday 9th October at 6.30pm.

As part of their “Traveller’s Film Club” series of events, Benedict will introduce the programme after which there will be a screening. Further details of how to book are on this web page.

The Traveller’s Film Club are also showing films on Norman Lewis (September 16) and Wilfred Thesiger (November 13). See the same list.

Thank you to Mark Granelli for pointing this out to me. See some of you there!

 

Walking the Woods and the Water – Nick’s book cover revealed

Walking the Woods and the Water

Walking the Woods and the Water

After a lot of labour, a change of publisher and book title, Nick’s book is finally to be published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing in March. Many of you will remember that two years ago Nick walked Paddy’s great trans-European walk, taking about the same time, using only Paddy’s books as a guide, and visiting many of the houses he stayed in en route.

Nick wrote to me saying “The cover has been designed and I’m very pleased to tell you it’s by Ed Kluz, the same artist who did The Broken Road. Looks very different of course, and not (as I was worried it might) overly derivative of the style of Paddy’s books. But a nice continuity.”

It will be interesting to see what you all think about that. As soon as I have further news I will update you. I do know that Nick will be giving some talks to support the publication and I will pass on these details as soon as I have them.

Horace: The Odes, Book One, IX, translated by John Dryden

Following on from the article by Llewelyn Morgan about Horace, I thought it would be good to share Dryden’s translation.

by Carol Rumens

First published in The Guardian, 30 July 2012.

“For this last half-year I have been troubled with the disease (as I may call it) of translation … ” Thus John Dryden begins the preface to his volume, Sylvae, or the Second Part of Poetical Miscellanies (1685). It marks his emergence, relatively late in life, as a translator, containing work by various Greek and Latin authors: Theocritus, Lucretius, Horace, Ovid among them. Despite that “disease”, encompassing a nagging “un-ease” about the fidelity of his method, Dryden enjoyed translating Horace – and it shows. See, for example, the magnificent Ode 29 from Book Three presented by Dryden as his own imitation of “Pindarique Verse”. Its famous eighth stanza (“Happy the man, and happy he alone, / He who can call today his own … “) is treasured by readers still – as poetry and as advice on living. For this week’s poem, however, I’ve picked a smaller jewel: the wonderfully elegant version of Ode Nine, Book One.

Dryden described his method as paraphrase. The original author’s words were not as “strictly followed as his sense”. The sense could be amplified, and even altered. This was a practical and, in some ways, obvious technique. Horace’s word-order, for example, has to be altered to make sense in a non-inflected language. In taking further liberties, the justification is that the translator is himself making a poem. Dryden tried to create a work the author could have produced “if he were living and an Englishman”. He sets the standard for poetry translation as fidelity to the receiving language, and sets a further standard: he is honest with the reader about his strategies.

Horace didn’t think of these verses as Odes. The Renaissance gave them that title. To the author, they were songs, or “carmina”. Ode one/nine is written in Alcaics, a four-lined, largely dactylic strophe named after the Greek poet Alcaeus: it’s the commonest verse-form in the Odes, a flexible form-for-all-seasons. Using iambic tetrameter chiefly, with the rhyme-scheme A B A B C C (C), Dryden expands the quatrain, in the first four stanzas to six lines and in the last two to seven. The bold move works. The statelier English verse occupies its space comfortably. There’s no padding, no rigidity.

Dryden’s poem sometimes generalises, of course. He loses the address to Thaliarchus, master of the feast. He doesn’t mention Mount Soracte or name the trees. In the last stanza, there’s no reference to the girl’s ring. Yet he avoids dull exegesis or moralising. Like Horace, he balances his showing and telling.

Dryden enjoys some subtly brilliant word-play. In the first stanza, the mountains of line one are elevated in the next by “mounts of snow”, a linguistic effect and a snapshot revealing the snow itself as mountainous. There’s a wonderful gravitational pull in the rest of the stanza, from the “labouring woods” (suggesting more tonnage of snow on the trees) to the stream, imagined as a prisoner, fettered, benumbed, “cramp’d to solid ground”. The ensuing indoors scene introduces a contrasting glow and vivacity, with the heaped logs replacing the snow-heaps outside. The mood is merry and defiant, a mixture of Epicurean and stoic. It’s tempting to imagine the Restoration (1660) as Dryden’s political subtext here.

God now comes on stage in a somewhat Jovian manner, playful, not wholly reliable. He will provide, “if ’tis worth His care”, but there’s no knowing what so stormy, windy and capricious a deity might do next (think 17th-century politics again, perhaps?). The scene is set perfectly for that sound, pragmatic advice to seize the moment – “Nor love, nor love’s delights, disdain … ” Dryden works Horace into some sharp-suited epigrams, as in the final couplet of this stanza and the last line of the next (fifth): “The best is but in season best.”

It’s such a cohesive, tight little ship of a poem, yet the tone is relaxed. There is an ease of movement in the argument, so it never seems heavy-handed. All the stanzas work separately, and all work together in forming an overall architecture. There’s a satisfying balance of concrete and abstract. Dryden leaves out some of Horace’s specific details, but compensates with a focus on language.

In the wonderful last stanza, notice how appropriately he picks up the tercet’s rhyme-sounds (“feign/again/ordain”) from the fourth stanza’s couplet about the delights of love (“disdain/gain”). That extra room now allows him to present the courtship drama as a complete narrative-in-miniature. The faint sexual frisson is judged to perfection, and not a word is misplaced. Horace’s brevity is magical, here, but Dryden’s amplification works in another way. He closes with a line of hexameter, straightforward and serious: “These, these are joys the gods for youth ordain.” Do we hear the regretful tone of middle-age? Perhaps, and this may be another reason why Dryden’s English lives. He’s true to his own feelings.

Dryden was a great literary all-rounder. He is “the father of modern criticism” and a glorious prose-stylist. He’s no longer remembered as a playwright, perhaps unfairly. I recently read one of his comedies (An Evening’s Love), dipping my toe for the first time, and found it a highly entertaining piece of Spanish sitcom. But Dryden himself feared he had wasted his energies among “the steaming ordures of the stage”.

In 1685, of course, he was still to produce his great allegorical poems and the brilliant satires such as Mac Flecknoe (1682), and still to tackle his translation masterpiece, Virgil’s Aeneid. The Sylvae represent no less an achievement, showing Dryden in a perhaps unusual light – that of graceful poetic lyricist.

Horace’s original, with an interesting modern American translation and helpful commentary by William Harris, is here.

Horace: The Odes, Book One, IX, translated by John Dryden

Behold yon mountain’s hoary height
Made higher with new mounts of snow:
Again behold the winter’s weight
Oppress the labouring woods below’
And streams with icy fetters bound
Benumbed and cramped to solid ground.

With well-heaped logs dissolve the cold
And feed the genial hearth with fires;
Produce the wine that makes us bold,
And spritely wit and love inspires;
For what hereafter shall betide
God (if ’tis worth His care) provide.

Let Him alone with what He made,
To toss and turn the world below;
At His command the storms invade,
The winds by His commission blow;
Till with a nod He bids them cease
And then the calm returns and all is peace.

Tomorrow and its works defy;
Lay hold upon the present hour,
And snatch the pleasures passing by
To put them out of Fortune’s power;
Nor love nor love’s delights disdain –
Whate’er thou getts’t today, is gain.

Secure those golden early joys
That youth unsoured with sorrow bears,
Ere with’ring time the taste destroys
With sickness and unwieldy years.
For active sports, for pleasing rest.
This is the time to be posesst;
The best is but in season best.

Th’appointed hour of promised bliss,
The pleasing whisper in the dark,
The half-unwilling willing kiss,
The laugh that guides thee to the mark,
When the kind nymph would coyness feign
And hides but to be found again –
These, these are joys the gods for youth ordain.

Related article:

An Ode for the Road

“Now That the Time of Gifts Is Gone”: Poetry In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Books

The following article was written by Clarissa Aykroyd on her blog, The Stone and the Star. There is something for everyone in Paddy’s books, and here Clarissa discusses his references to poetry.

By Clarissa Aykroyd

First published on The Stone and the Star, 12 August 1013.

In December 1933, a young man named Patrick Leigh Fermor left England to travel on foot across Europe. Alternately sleeping in barns and in stately homes, he travelled from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (he always calls it Constantinople, although it was Istanbul by then.) He wandered in a leisurely manner through what now seem to be the dreamscapes of Mitteleuropa before World War II. Decades later he wrote about his travels in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Leigh Fermor died at an advanced age in 2011, but the final book, The Broken Road, is being edited posthumously and will appear later this year.

A great deal has been written and said about Leigh Fermor. He had an incredibly adventurous life which included the capture of a leading German commander in Crete during World War II. With a remarkable personal charm and magnetism, Leigh Fermor seems to have been a sort of cross between Casanova and James Bond.

I have just been re-reading A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. It is not so surprising that Leigh Fermor spent decades crafting these books – there really isn’t a word out of place. The prose is like crystalline mosaics or frescos, hovering on the edge of the unbelievable and fairytale-like, but still believable. It’s entirely possible that Leigh Fermor embroidered after the fact, but his tales of mountainscapes, of dream cities and kind eccentrics are so beautiful that I don’t really mind either way. The books certainly conjure up a world that disappeared – Leigh Fermor repeatedly comments on how, particularly with the rich and titled families who gave him hospitality, the people he met disappeared into darkness during the war and only sometimes emerged. It is true that this is also a world which is rather class-ridden and occasionally interspersed with casual racism, not to speak of the terrible looming shadow of Nazism in Germany. But so much of the books’ poignancy comes from the awareness of the awful storm that was to sweep over Europe, leaving so many scars and in many cases total destruction.

I wanted to write a little about the presence of poetry in these books. In some ways this, too, evokes a world that has disappeared or at least altered beyond recognition. A Time of Gifts is named after a line from a poem by Louis MacNeice, ‘Twelfth Night’:

For now that the time of gifts is gone –
O boys that grow, O snows that melt,
O bathos that the years must fill –
Here is dull earth to build upon
Undecorated […]

In A Time of Gifts, Leigh Fermor writes at some length (several pages) about his “private anthology” of poetry that he had memorized and would recite to himself while alone and walking. “The range is fairly predictable,” he says, “and all too revealing of the scope, the enthusiasms and the limitations, examined at the eighteenth milestone, of a particular kind of growing up.” The “private anthology” included Shakespeare as well as bits and pieces of Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Kipling, Wyatt, Marvell, Carroll and Lear, among others. “No Yeats later than the Ronsard paraphrase and Innisfree and Down by the Salley Gardens; but this belonged more to singing than reciting.” He then mentions that he wasn’t interested in Pound or Eliot but enjoyed Edith Sitwell. From other languages and cultures, he mentions a little Baudelaire and Verlaine, and Romans such as Virgil, Catullus and Horace.

Particularly in Between the Woods and the Water, in Hungary and Romania, poetry and poets dog his footsteps. In Hungary he mentions “the southern parts of the Cuman region celebrated by [Sandor] Petőfi – it is strange how the names of Hungarian poets cropped up the whole time in conversation and books!” He later mentions Ferenc Békássy, who studied at Cambridge and was “a friend of Rupert Brooke and James Strachey and especially Maynard Keynes” – this young poet died in battle in Bukovina in 1915. Later, in Romania, he comes across the oldest poem in Romanian, the traditional epic Mioritza. At the Baths of Hercules, an “ornate and incongruous watering-place” in a wild Romanian valley, he meets a young woman who quotes Kipling’s ‘If’.

All of this struck me, not just because my ears are pricked for poetry, but because it all seemed so much of another time. What young man (or woman) would now set out to travel across Europe with a memorised library of poetry to call upon, let alone all the multitude of cultural references that Leigh Fermor seemed to have at his fingertips even as a teenager? It just wouldn’t happen – even a poetry lover probably wouldn’t have more with them than a poetry app on their smartphone. Then, too, there were so many young poets who were also soldiers and who were destroyed in the wars. It seems to me that what started to be broken in World War I was irretrievably broken (in so many ways) in World War II, and this might include the idea of poetry as a sort of force for salvation.

On a more personal note, re-reading these books made me want to go back to Vienna, no small feat because it’s not one of my favourite cities. They also set up in me a longing to go back to Germany, to Prague, and to travel more extensively in Hungary and Romania particularly. I also had a strange experience while reading A Time of Gifts. Leigh Fermor praises the beauty of the German city of Regensburg, and writes about one of its sons, Albrecht Altdorfer. When he wrote about Altdorfer’s famous painting The Battle of Alexander at Issus, something swept over me – I had almost forgotten that I owned a small copy of it, from the gallery in Munich where it hangs. It is a remarkable painting and I think the feeling I had (and still have) for it ties into my fascination with certain types of fantasy landscapes – the first edition I owned of The Lord of the Rings featured cover art which now looks very Altdorfer-esque to me. Writing about the landscape depicted, Leigh Fermor said:

It was the valley of the Danube in the throes of one of its hundreds of battles. It must have been. But, on this first visit, how could I have realized it? The battle in the painted canyon is fought out under a lurid October sunset and the rival armies, like windswept cornfields bristling with lances and poppied with banners, collide in an autumnal light. Whereas the battlefield on my first encounter was dulled with snow, with all contours muffled and fanfares hushed. (from A Time of Gifts)

Here is Yeats’s The Lake Isle of Innisfree, cited as part of the “personal anthology”, and perhaps also appropriate for its final lines.

THE LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE (William Butler Yeats)

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.