Category Archives: Uncategorized

The global choir of roosters

Dear readers,

I am on a train and have received an email from a follower of the blog who asks “can you help me find a passage in which Paddy describes a global choir of roosters crowing as the sun rises around the globe?”

My first thoughts are to Roumeli, but then perhaps Mani.

Can anyone help us both?

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 1926-2022

Queen Elizabeth II photographed at Windsor Castle in May 2022 CREDIT: Ranald Mackechnie /PA

Buckingham Palace has published the Order of Service for the State Funeral of HM Queen Elizabeth II, which will be held in Westminster Abbey today Monday 19th September 2022.

The service will be conducted by the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle, who will say in his Bidding: ‘In grief, to this House of God and House of Kings, where Queen Elizabeth was married and crowned, we have come from across the nation, from the Commonwealth, and from the nations of the world, to mourn our loss, to give thanks to almighty God for her long life, and lovingly, confidently to entrust her immortal soul to the mercy of God, our Maker and Redeemer.’

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend and Right Honourable Justin Welby, will preach the sermon and will lead the commendation.

Among the hymns will be The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended; The Lord’s my shepherd, which was sung at the wedding of the late Queen when she married HRH The Duke of Edinburgh in the Abbey in 1947; and Love divine, all loves excelling, in an arrangement first sung at the wedding of TRH The Prince and Princess of Wales in the Abbey in 2011.

Like as the hart, a setting of Psalm 42 by Master of the King’s Music, Judith Weir, and the anthem Who shall separate us?, drawing on words from Romans 8, by Sir James MacMillan, have both been composed specially for the service.

The Right Honourable The Baroness Scotland KC, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth will read from Corinthians 15; and the Right Honourable Elizabeth Truss MP, the Prime Minister, will read John 14: 1 – 9a.

The prayers will be led by the Abbey’s Precentor, the Reverend Mark Birch, and will be said by representatives of the churches of the United Kingdom.

Last Post will be sounded by the State Trumpeters of the Household Cavalry, before a two-minute silence observed in the Abbey and throughout the United Kingdom.

The service will be sung by the Choirs of Westminster Abbey and His Majesty’s Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, under the direction of James O’Donnell, Organist and Master of the Choristers of Westminster Abbey.

You can download the Order of Servce here.

Prague to Dresden – a walk down the River Elbe

A view of the Elbe looking North towards the “Saxon Switzerland”

 

My Elbe walk was completed a couple of weeks ago. I walked about 160km in seven days, plus a rest day. I followed Paddy’s little paper boat and on the one occasion I was beside a boat paddled by two men, I was walking at the same speed, so that little paper boat would have taken a very long time to reach the sea at Hamburg, not to mention the hazards of passing through locks!

It was a varied walk. The first part being somewhat dull, with unvarying scenery, although I did hear at least five cuckoos. It has been more that ten years since I heard one in England. I didn’t follow the river all the time as I cut off some bends or sought out sites and interesting country by following countryside and forest tracks.

I have added a selection of photos to a Google shared album so that you might get a flavour. The journey starts in (very ) beautiful Prague, thence to Melnick, and some photos taken at Terezin, or as most of us would know it, Theresienstadt. Spending a night there was very peculiar; you can really feel the ghosts of those who suffered and died at the hands of the 20th century Nazis. The Bohemian and Saxon Switzerland (Sächsische Schweiz) was a very enjoyable change and I spent two days walking through some spectacular rock formations with equally amazing views of the river. I took a rest day at Bad Schandau. Dresden was the real surprise. We know it suffered devastating bombing, but the restoration is outstanding. Lots of grand baroque buildings and churches, as well as great food, with music in every square.

A final thank you to those who made donations to support the work of the Red Cross in Ukraine.

The selection of photos is here.

Obituary: Dervla Murphy

Dervla Murphy in 1990. She had a tolerance for hardship and a curiosity about everyday elsewheres, which she kept through half a century of advancing by bike, foot, mule and cart (she never drove a car) on and off road across four continents. Photograph: Gamma-Rapho/Getty

Travel writer who famously journeyed alone from her native Ireland to India on a bicycle, armed with a pistol and a compass

First published in The Guardian

Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle, published in 1965, is now as much a historical document of a gone world as a travel book, but its feeling of release, cycling towards a wide future while running away from a confined past, still exhilarates. Like notable 19th-century women travellers such as Isabella Bird Bishop, when at last released from a cage of domestic duty Murphy travelled, riding through the cold, snowy winter of 1962-63.

She went armed with a .25 pistol and basic instruction from the County Waterford gardai on how to use it, which she did to confront wolves and thieves, and also with the maps and compass through which she had explored the planet in her imagination since childhood. Most of all she had a tolerance for hardship (her total budget was £64) and a curiosity about everyday elsewheres, which she kept through half a century of advancing by bike, foot, mule and cart (she never drove a car) on and off road across four continents.

Murphy, who has died aged 90, wrote 26 books, many in the diary style of Full Tilt, approaching each day, person and place, fresh on the page as she had experienced it. That directness appealed to readers, along with Murphy’s viewpoint, which was novel because of her background: she was a voracious reader but with little formal education and, being from the Irish countryside, outside those higher levels of the class structure that dominated travel writing. Rural poverty around the globe was no surprise to Murphy, who had attended a village primary school with barefoot, hungry classmates, and knew families dying of tuberculosis.

She arrived alone at each destination without social introductions, was shy at home but en route talked with anyone who responded, and, in life as well as writing, downplayed risks and tribulations – from injury, sickness and assault to dirt and nothing for supper.

Aged 10, she had realised on riding her first bike that simple pedal power might one day take her to India, and on the way there she discovered how each day’s whizz of the wheels of her Armstrong Cadet cycle, Roz (short for Rozinante, Don Quixote’s horse), carried her forward to kind strangers’ hospitality. Coming fast down a mountain road always thrilled her; touring the Balkans in her 70s, she was clocked descending at 65mph by a military patrol and reproved for not applying her brakes.

Murphy’s attitude to gender and social norms was also uncommon at the time. Tall, deep-voiced, muscled, practical and with a decisiveness accrued from constant solo choices, she was often taken for a man by other societies, and occasionally romanticised the restricted roles of those societies’ womenfolk, which she would never have put up with herself.

Dervla Murphy in India

She was sure of her own life’s direction, if uncertain of its meanderings. She never intended to marry, but once able to support herself through writing, did want a child. Her daughter, Rachel, deliberately conceived with Terence de Vere White, the literary editor of the Irish Times, was born in 1968, and her mother raised her alone, never naming the father publicly until after his death in 1994.

Rachel had her fifth birthday in Kodagu (then called Coorg), south-west India, on the first of her journeys with her mother; they later went to Baltistan, Peru, Madagascar and Cameroon. Until Rachel reached puberty, when the people they met travelling began to regard her as an adult who shared a sealed bubble of foreignness with her mother, she was an asset, a connection to families, though also, sometimes, a distraction, interrupting Murphy’s communion with the deep, pre-modern silence of the Himalayas or Andes. Their relationship could be difficult, but it lasted, and in time Murphy, Rachel, and Rachel’s daughters, Rose, Clodagh and Zea, all dossed down together on a Cuban beach for a three-generation trip on the usual shoestring, in 2005.

Murphy’s own hard family situation had formed her, she wrote in Wheels Within Wheels (1979). Her parents went from Dublin to Lismore in Waterford when her father, Fergus Murphy, was appointed county librarian. Soon after Dervla’s birth, her mother, Kathleen, contracted a rare rheumatoid arthritis that crippled her: perhaps in compensation she nurtured Dervla’s daring, giving her that first bike despite money always being short. But, aged 14, Dervla was withdrawn from the Ursuline convent boarding school in Waterford to serve as Kathleen’s carer for 16 years. Kathleen encouraged her brief bike jaunts to England and Europe, though Dervla had to return from each few weeks’ freedom to burdensome duty.

Fergus died in 1961 and Kathleen the following year, leaving Murphy with a house, books (her lifetime collection grew to 9,000), strong convictions about political and social injustice, and her freedom. After Full Tilt, based on diaries published only because of a chance meeting in Delhi with Penelope Chetwode, John Betjeman’s wife, came Tibetan Foothold (1966) and The Waiting Land (1967), which grew out of work with Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal. From the late 1970s, the purpose of her travels shifted to inquiring into the effects of recent history on people and places, beginning with A Place Apart (1978), a bike ride round Northern Ireland, then at an implacable stage of its Troubles.

On a Greyhound bus crossing the US, she passed close to Three Mile Island, the site in 1979 of the US’s worst nuclear power accident, which inspired Nuclear Stakes, Race to the Finish (1982), the first of the books in which her politics mattered more than the travelling, through Kenya and Zimbabwe during the Aids epidemic, Romania after its revolution, Rwanda after genocide, the Balkans after a decade of wars.

These culminated with an unfinished trilogy on Palestinian territorial fragments – Gaza Strip, West Bank, Jordanian camps – researched as ever over coffee in crowded tenements or tea on tent floors. She was strongly for socialism, and against almost everything else, especially mass tourism.

A hip replacement after a fall in Jerusalem, aged almost 80, plus arthritis and emphysema, finally confined Murphy to her austere base in Lismore, the remnant of a 17th-century cattle market plus eccentric outbuildings, where she organised a travel-writing festival and received pilgrims, including Michael Palin, visiting for a television documentary, Who Is Dervla Murphy?, in 2016. She asked him to join her daily skinny dip in the River Blackwater.

Her daughter and granddaughters survive her.

Dervla Murphy, traveller and writer, born 28 November 1931; died 22 May 2022

In the wake of Paddy’s paper boat

I’m in Prague. I have my battered, and much marked up copy of A Time of Gifts with me, and I’ve been struck just how wrong Paddy’s memory was! That section, whilst beautifully written as usual is a bit of a nonsense.

Anyway. Why am I here and not in England celebrating the Jubilee of our gracious Sovereign Elizabeth?

Many months ago I got the idea in my head to walk one of Germany’s great rivers. I have never been to Saxony and that appealed well enough. Then I discovered an area called Saxon Switzerland and knew I had to visit this beautiful sandstone landscape. So a walk down the Elbe seemed to fit. There’s a route for cyclists which is my guide and it starts in Prague and finishes Dresden. I’ve only discovered in the last couple of days that this “German” walk is actually 80% in the Czech Republic but that just adds to the enjoyment. 225 km in nine days. Easy peasy.

As you can see from the extract from ATOG, Paddy imagined a little paper boat making its way downstream. I shall be following in the wake of that little boat.

I also thought that it would be a good excuse to ask you, dear readers, for some money. If you would like to sponsor me please make a donation to the British Red Cross and the Ukrainian Red Cross Society (URCS) to support those who are suffering in Putins war of aggression against a peaceful sovereign state.

I’ll try to update you.

The link to donate is below. Maybe add a comment on the blog when you have done so. It would be nice to hear your thoughts.

https://donate.redcross.org.uk/appeal/ukraine-crisis-appeal

Seeking monastic peace from the world

Rievaulx Abbey was a Cistercian abbey in Yorkshire (Photo: Getty/Andrea Pucci)

Rievaulx Abbey was a Cistercian abbey in Yorkshire (Photo: Getty/Andrea Pucci)

This interesting item which I’ve had ready to go for over a year reminds me a little of A Time to Keep Silence. Given the state of the world now, it is perhaps even more relevant.

By Sarah Sands

First published in inews.co.uk

As editor of the Today programme, I was addicted to news – but now I’m seeking monastic peace from the world. Sarah Sands believes there is a forgotten wisdom in monasteries that provides an answer to the tumult of our times – monks and nuns have acquired a hidden knowledge of how to live.

On a winter’s day, in which the sky hangs like a flat sheet over Norfolk, I look out at the remains of a 13th-century monastery wall. It’s in the field at the edge of my garden – all that remains of Marham Abbey, a Cistercian nunnery destroyed by Henry VIII.

The king found nothing of note in the abbey – the total loot was worth £46 – yet its last remnants exist as a centre of gravity in my life. The lessons of monastic life are contained within this wall, lessons that have increasingly offered guidance and inspiration for me in times of stress.

The great English Cistercian monastery is Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire, a five-hour drive from my home. Deciding that I needed to learn more about the community who built my wall, one day in 2019 I set off with an inexplicable sense of purpose. I drove past miles of skeleton trees, descending into a remote valley of the river Rye in the North Yorkshire moors. The hidden nature of Rievaulx makes its revelation all the more heart stopping.

St Aelred, abbot of Rievaulx monastery, once said, ‘everywhere peace, everywhere serenity and a marvellous freedom from the tumult of the world”(Photo: Getty/Ian Forsyth)

St Aelred, abbot of Rievaulx monastery, once said, ‘everywhere peace, everywhere serenity and a marvellous freedom from the tumult of the world”(Photo: Getty/Ian Forsyth)

There, alone, I wandered through the vistas of columns and framed views of stirring countryside. I imagined the first monks who sheltered there under the rocks of the valley and among the elm trees. The remoteness of monasteries – best viewed from the heavens – is in their essence; it is a rejection of the material world, its rhythms and its values.

The monks lived by sunrise and sunset and spent their time between in learning, meditation and manual labour. This inner concentration buoyed them in an extraordinary weightlessness. In the 12th century, St Aelred, abbot of Rievaulx monastery said: “Everywhere peace, everywhere serenity and a marvellous freedom from the tumult of the world.”

When I returned from Rievaulx, I was changed. I saw my wall in a different light. My sense of kinship with it deepened and my curiosity tingled. I saw that it was part of a network of monasteries across the country; ruined, silent, consigned to history, they all had stories to tell.

I began travelling to more and more of them, exploring them one by one – and travelling to monasteries around the world, too, from Greece to Egypt, from Japan to Bhutan, journeys I’ve been since reflecting on for my book The Interior Silence.

There was wisdom in these institutions. There was medicine. From the monasteries came both universities and hospitals, and the monks showed an early understanding of what we now call mental health.

The monastic way of living intrigued me – it had become a secret corner of my life. My work is in London, but Norfolk is my place of sanctuary. The wall represents something antithetical to my London life. It is the still small voice that provides a contrast to the needy, WhatsApp-ing, power-conscious world of politics and media.

‘Today’ and tomorrows

The job that I held when I visited Rievaulx was editing the BBC’s flagship news and current affairs show, the Today programme, during the most politically and socially fractious of periods. People were angry about whether or not Britain should leave the EU, and Today was a lightning rod.

I was responsible for the running order of the show, which was a work in progress over 24 hours. My phone beeped incessantly. There were months when it buzzed hysterically between 3am and 5am, until I realised that, apart from all the journalistic messages, I had somehow become the switchboard for all the taxis ordered by the BBC news department.

Skimming six hours sleep a night and ever part of a jittery and constant news conversation, I was finding it hard to switch off.

One night, during which I simply could not sleep, I picked up a book. It was a slim volume, called A Time to Keep Silence, by the great adventurer Patrick Leigh Fermor. Published in 1957, it is an account of his sojourns at three wonderful French monastic buildings: the Abbey of St Wandrille, Solesmes Abbey and La Grande Trappe.

In the book, Leigh Fermor confessed to depression and anxiety; he yearned for peace and stillness. “In spite of private limitations I was profoundly affected by the places I have described,” he wrote.

“The kindness of the monks has something to do with this. But more important was the discovery of a capacity for solitude and (on however humble a level compared to that of most people who resort to monasteries) for the recollectedness and clarity of spirit that accompany the silent monastic life.”

There is a wisdom in the monasteries which answers the affliction of our times (Photo: Getty/Ian Forsyth)

There is a wisdom in the monasteries which answers the affliction of our times (Photo: Getty/Ian Forsyth)

He also experienced a higher plane of sleeping: “After initial spells of insomnia, nightmare and falling asleep by day, I found that my capacity for sleep became more remarkable and my sleep was so profound that I might have been under the influence of some hypnotic drug… Then began an extraordinary transformation: night shrank to five hours of light, dreamless and perfect sleep, followed by awakenings full of energy and limpid freshness.

Can you imagine this? City sleep resembles an operating theatre of lights, movement and bleeping devices. We seek instant remedies for sleep, as for everything else. Of course, I am not going to give up alcohol, but I will throw in a herbal tea at the end of the evening. And I know to close the day with a book, although every few paragraphs my hand slides towards my iPhone, just to check messages or to Instagram.

Sometimes I try to meditate for a few minutes, which only jolts my memory of the emails I should have sent. This is not the path to the dreamless and perfect sleep of which Leigh Fermor writes.

The following day, I bumped into my friend Tom Bradby, the ITV news anchor who had been off work for many months, suffering from extreme insomnia. He had recovered but had not forgotten his state or the causes of it. He had a new awareness of the meaning of what he called “the worried mind”.

I reflected again on what Leigh Fermor had written: “In spite of private limitations, I was profoundly affected [by the monasteries].” This was how I felt about my Norfolk ruins. I knew they touched me deeply but did not know why and certainly did not attribute it to any virtue on my part.

There is a wisdom in the monasteries which answers the affliction of our times. Renouncing the world, the monks and nuns have acquired a hidden knowledge of how to live. They labour, they learn and they master what is described as “the interior silence”. Some orders are in permanent retreat, but others are expected to maintain the stillness of self in the midst of public bustle.

How can they do that? Is the virtue of interior silence something that can prevail in an era of peak technological distraction? I was beginning to question my 5G life. The connectivity, the drip feed of news, the superficiality of politics.

As Radio 4 listeners will know, in the middle of the Today programme is Thought for the Day, a three-and-a-half-minute sermon by a religious figure. It is an anomaly in a daily news show, but I have come to appreciate it as an oasis of reflection. News counts but meaning matters more.

I experienced that juxtaposition of connectivity and meaning at a dinner for the tech industry in the same week that I had read Leigh Fermor’s book from cover to cover – properly read it, rather than speed-read it as I usually do.

The conversation at the tech gathering was all about pace of change and personal realisation. We are driven by multiples of success and scale. Meanwhile, at my table, a broadcaster was looking furiously at her Twitter feed because a political joke had started a bush fire of condemnation. By the end of the evening, her resignation from the BBC was being demanded. This was a time of maximum hubris, before the arrival of the great reckoning.

The ubiquity of news media is a form of hubris, at odds with monasticism. Aggravated by social media, the journalistic impulse is exhibitionism and noise and entitlement.

The former Conservative strategist Lynton Crosby, who campaigned for Boris Johnson as London mayor and later as prime minister, said to me that people were motivated by jobs, money and family. His candidates won, he said, because he and they understood this. The remarkable thing about the monasteries is that they are inspired by none of these things. They are there on behalf of humanity, suspended between heaven and earth.

What if I were able to step away, I thought, even in the midst of political and media battle? There is a history of spiritual retreat after all.

Lockdown isolation

After three years of editing the Today programme, I left the BBC last September. I had made the decision at the start of 2020. The addiction to news had become corrosive to me and I had learned how to exist outside the news cycle, thanks to contemplative trips to monasteries. My hectic, distracted mind had experienced stillness.

News is generally regarded as a form of enlightenment but it is often just information wrapped in judgement, or worse, incitement. News demands drama and hyperbole. I remember when I was the editor of The Sunday Telegraph more than a decade ago, looking at a headline claiming local ‘fury’ over a piece of planning permission. I remarked to the news editor that having read the quotes from residents it seemed more a case of mild irritation than fury. The news editor responded wryly: “Irritation isn’t a headline word.”

I was planning to visit more monasteries ahead of my departure. Easter week was meant to have been spent in Salzburg, at the Nonberg Abbey – otherwise known as the setting for The Sound of Music – but in March last year lockdown arrived. Flights were halted, hotels closed. Monasteries continued in their customary state of self-isolation, and I was unable to reach them.

The Government demanded that the population return to their homes: mine was in Norfolk, in the remains of Marham Abbey. A monument to mortality and the futility of secular ambition. Henry VIII destroyed this monastery but could not destroy its meaning; perhaps because its endurance was based on acceptance of powerlessness.

Newspapers carried photographs of vats of beer and wine being tipped away. This was the London economy – bars and coffee shops. Farewell to my working life.

The existence that I was trying to escape suddenly seemed unbearably delightful. I watched television scenes of dinner parties or concerts as if through a looking glass. My bank statements read like an historical archive. Soho House, Joe the Juice, Caffè Nero, Daniel Galvin and, in the final days, Wigmore Street Pharmacy, Boots, Boots, Boots.

The Today programme was being produced remotely, and I spent hours pacing the garden on Zoom. What were the latest death figures? What was the state of the Prime Minister’s health? The country staked its identity on the principle of caring for the sick. A principle begun in its monasteries. Indeed, St Thomas’ Hospital in London, where the Prime Minister was treated, grew out of a priory.

Like everyone else, I was separated from what and whom I knew and loved. My younger son FaceTimed me from Hong Kong. He told me that he would not be coming home for his summer break because of the strict rule of quarantine. My elder son sent me a photograph of my grandson, only 20 miles away, but beyond reach now. My daughter went into lockdown in London, the epicentre of the virus. Every family had a story to tell of separation.

Monasticism teaches that you can love and participate, while being absent. This was what I had to learn; to appreciate relationships in the abstract. To delight in the existence of others without physical engagement in their lives.

I would describe the feelings I associated with the wall in my garden during those weeks of isolation as intense serenity and a sense of belonging. Most of all, I associated it with birdsong. The trees surrounding the abbey remains were full of birds – blackbirds, blue tits, finches, wrens, chiffchaffs, robins, rooks and, descending from the wide skies, the first swallows.

There was one thing I wished to learn in isolation: the distinctive differences in birdsong. On the first day I picked up the alarm call of the blue tits and the different whistles of the great tit. I wondered at the lung capacity of the tiny wrens. The busy sound of the chiffchaff will always remind me of this time, this period of death tolls and birdsong.

I hope to be visiting more monasteries soon, when life opens up again, but I’m lucky to have my wall. There is something about the melancholy ruins against a Norfolk sky that reminds you that a contemplative life has a natural setting and that the endless striving and building around it will not last. The tranquil message of my ruins of Marham Abbey and the great Rievaulx is humility. Personal ambition is an impediment, not a triumphant force.

This is an edited excerpt from The Interior Silence: My Encounters with Calm, Joy, and Compassion at 10 Monasteries Around the World by Sarah Sands. Buy it here.

Beautiful Ukraine – Spring is coming


Like all of you I have been shocked and totally absorbed by the war (yes it is Mr Putin) in Ukraine over the past few weeks. I have work colleagues and friends there.

We have all seen too many dreadful images coming out of that beautiful and sophisticated country. I wanted to share something completely different. A music video called Vesna (which means Spring) that celebrates the beauty of the countryside, cities and people of Ukraine. It is by Dakha Brakha whose music is quite eclectic. This image of people caught up in the powerful rhythmic music always makes me smile and feel good. I hope it does the same for you.

Slava Ukraini !!

 

Thank you for Friday!

Just a quick note to thank all of you who attended the Paddy Chat on Friday. We had a really interesting and eclectic mix of people from the USA, Germany, Belgium, the UK, a Briton on holiday in Greece, and a particularly devoted fan from Melbourne, Australia (0300 his time!).

We covered a range of topics, but mostly how we came to find Paddy.

Perhaps we might have one in the lead-up to Christmas, and I thought we could discuss Paddy at Christmas 🙂

For those who attended and still wish to access the information I mentioned, please contact me using the Gmail account on the About and Contact page.

A sensual Greek goddess

Joan: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor by Simon Fenwick is perhaps the outstanding biography of the Fermors. This review includes the background to Fenwick’s growing interest in Joan as a person, as Paddy’s muse, and not just the wife.

By Nicholas Shakespeare.

First published in The Spectator.

Joan Leigh Fermor died in 2003, aged 91, after falling in her bathroom in the house on a rocky headland of the Peloponnese which she had financed by selling her jewellery. Afterwards, whenever Joan’s husband and companion of nearly six decades reclined in her place on the sofa to read, eight of her 73 cats would gather round him in a recumbent group — but after a few minutes slope off. Paddy (who died in 2011) wrote: ‘They had realised they were being fobbed off with a fake.’

This biography, by the archivist who went to sort out Paddy Leigh Fermor’s papers before they returned to England, makes a charming case for Joan to be considered the proper foundation of Paddy’s existence; his muse and ‘greatest collaborator’, whose wealth and talent as a sounding board underpinned his career as an author. ‘Joan made it possible for Paddy to write.’

She was like one of her cats, all of whom descended from a single Abyssinian ‘which had mated freely with the village toms’: fiercely independent (she and Paddy had a ‘pact of liberty’), alluring, a watchful presence in the shadows. ‘Sensual, somewhat aloof and deeply private,’ writes Simon Fenwick. ‘This is Joan.’

Tall, slender, with her blonde hair cut short: Lawrence Durrell called her the ‘Corn Goddess’. To John Betjeman, who made a late declaration of love, she was ‘Dotty’, with ‘eyes like tennis balls’. To Cyril Connolly, with whom she went to bed during her first marriage — and whose photograph, ‘eaten by tiny insects’, she kept in her bedroom — she was a ‘lovely boy-girl… like a casual, loving, decadent Eton athlete’. To Noel Annan, on the first page of his 450-page history, Our Age, she was a ‘life-enhancer’. Careful never to tread into the foreground, she runs like a silken thread through the memoirs of her generation, a thread which Fenwick skilfully tugs out and spins into a gossamer portrait, reminiscent of Ann Wroe’s biography of Orpheus, composed of glances and glimpses — and fingerprints, like those that Joan left on Cecil Beaton’s bathroom wall at Ashcombe, ‘to the left of the towel rail’.

A semi-professional photographer, with a taste for bombed-out buildings and cemeteries, Joan ‘always hated being photographed’, and left her films to be developed by other hands. The image she had of herself was of a bad-tempered, selfish Aquarian, withdrawn, given to grumbling, and indecisive. In a 1936 pocket diary, one of only three fragments of the paper trail that survives from before the 1940s, she confessed her lifelong dilemma:

A gregarious loner, she steps across Fenwick’s pages as simultaneously self-effacing and attention-seeking — once gaining notoriety for wearing ‘a single extraordinary earring’ consisting of ‘a bunch of 42 small gilt safety pins’. To almost everyone (including the author of this review, who met her in Kardamyli), she exuded, as Michael Wishart remarked of Barbara Skelton, ‘a tantalising quality of needing a tamer, while something about her suggested she was untameable’. A walk-alone feline who fluttered at will into a social butterfly, and a pin-up for other androgynous admirers, like the Oxford don Maurice Bowra, she has, not surprisingly, proved hard to pin down.

She was born Joan Eyres Monsell, into ‘a great deal’ of money. The family wealth came from a rich skinflint, a Leeds wool baron, who, when asked why he travelled third-class on the train, answered: ‘Because there’s no fourth class!’ She claimed to have nothing in common with her family, but her father — an ‘odious’ bully — was a sailor (and later first lord of the Admiralty), and on both sides there were writers, travellers and explorers — like her cousin Gino Watkins, who disappeared in Greenland, his kayak discovered floating upside down ‘and his trousers on an ice floe’.

As well, she had the example of her triumphantly profligate great-uncle Charles Kettlewell, ‘the Wicked Uncle’, who spent two years sailing his 420-foot schooner on a scientific voyage round the Far East, before dying bankrupt aged 49, having got through his entire inheritance (£4.5 million per year in today’s money), leaving only a collection of stuffed birds that ended up in Leeds Museum.

The most remarkable thing about much of Joan’s life was its lack of focus. Her first 20 years were spent in the shadow of her gay brother Graham and his Eton and Oxford friends, such as the penniless aesthete Alan Pryce-Jones, with whom Graham had probably slept. When Joan accepted a marriage proposal from Pryce-Jones, Betjeman wrote to him: ‘There is one thing you must do before you marry— you must explain that you were once inverted. She won’t mind at all.’ But her father did. ‘No, no, Pryce-Jones, come back in a few years when you have something behind you.’

The person Joan came back with, after a wartime marriage to the Express journalist John Rayner (‘we gradually drifted apart,’ she explained), was an equally penniless aesthete: an officer with the Special Operations Executive called Paddy Leigh-Fermor, ‘with few clear prospects’, whose riches largely consisted in his appetite for life — described in his own phrase as ‘that of a sea-lion for the flung bloater’.

They met in Cairo in 1944. Their affair continued until they tied the knot in 1968; in the same year, their home in Kardamyli was completed. Leading separate lives had sustained their enchantment for each other. ‘At this distance you seem about as perfect as a human being can be,’ Paddy wrote from the French monastery where he was writing The Traveller’s Tree, in one of the letters that formed the marrow of A Time to Keep Silence. Whenever they came together, as they longed to do (‘I shall have tiny Fermors every year,’ wrote Joan, desperate for a family), they often found it hard to adapt, and there would ensue, in Paddy’s words, ‘a tremendous mutually vituperative blow up’. This might explain the most evocative entry in Joan’s commonplace book, the single Fuegian word mamihlapintafoi, meaning: ‘Looking-at-each-other-hoping-that-either-will-offer-to-do-something-which-both-parties-desire-but-are-unwilling-to-do.’

When Fenwick opened the calf-bound visitors’ book at Kardamyli he discovered ‘a Who’s Who of 20th-century society’. With only one of Schizo Joan’s diaries to rely on, and no memoir, his affectionate scrap-book of a portrait more closely mimics the ‘personalised disorder’ which he found in Paddy’s desk; one drawer was ‘aptly’ labelled ‘Total Confusion’; another drawer contained stray photographs, broken spectacles and ‘wads of small printed notices saying that he was very busy and unable to answer his correspondents’; at the bottom of a tin trunk were two pennants from General Kreipe’s staff car. ‘Somewhere, amidst all this disarray, was the story of Joan and Paddy and their lives together.’

September Paddy chat – 24 September

The online event we held on 2 July was very successful and great fun. Those who attended wanted more, and there were many others who were unable to make it on that occasion. We sort of agreed to run another sesson after the summer.

To that end I’d like to suggest the next event as Friday 24 September after I return from my trip to the Mani! It could start at 1730 BST or 1800 BST. Please suggest what works best for you in your timezone and I’ll make a Solomon-like call.

I spoke with Chris O’Gorman recently and we thought that this time (as many of us would have introduced ourselves before) that we try to run with some broad headings. We came up with ideas like:

– What is your favourite book or passage of writing by Paddy, and what attracts you to it?

– If you did meet Paddy in the past, is there a personal account you can share about the experience?

– What do you think Paddy has to say now to our fragile and pandemic struck world?

– Where should writers and scholars focus their attention next on Paddy’s life and times?

There are many more possibilities. Why not add your ideas to the comments section? We wil probably only have time for two of these at most; maybe three. We can always run another event.

Details

Date and Time: 1730-1900 or 1800-1930 BST Friday 2 July. Your call by majority!

Location: Google Meets – see link here for requirements including web browser

Invitation: a link will be posted on the blog nearer the time – you will have to click in or accept. There will be no invitation to your calendar so you will have to make your own reminder.

Special Invitations: If you have in mind someone that you would like to attend, please pass on the details to them. If there is anyone you might like me to invite eg a writer or someone similar, please make your suggestion and I’ll see what I can do.

Hosting and Admin: I shall host to start with but this is your meeting so very happy that you take over! If anyone wishes to contact me via email to help with any admin that will be welcomed.

Dress and Protocols: Wear anything you like, or not as the case may be! Bring a drink (Vodka tonic?). I see this as a “camera on” event, otherwise things get very sterile talking to blank black windows on a conference call. As a courtesy to others I think that you should be prepared to have your camera on so we can see you if you wish to attend. In my experience, the quality of video calling makes for flattering images!

If you have any questions or suggestions, please post a comment below or contact me via gmail address.

The Travel Writing Tribe by Tim Hannigan review – an elitist genre?

Rory Stewart on his trek across northern Afghanistan in 2002. Photograph: Rick Loomis/LA Times via Getty Images

This article is well worth a read. I don’t know about the book, but the ideas that it explores are interesting. The hypothesis is that travel writing used to be dominated by Old Etonians with colonialist tendencies; but this critique apparently shows that the ‘travellees’ are writing back.

By  Ali Bhutto

First published in The Guardian

In the decades following the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978, academics have shed light on some of the uncomfortable truths about travel writing. These include its tendency to be a white, male-dominated genre that glorifies colonial sensibilities and reduces individuals encountered on a journey to mere caricatures. Over time, however, scholars adopted a more nuanced approach, recognising attempts by some works of travel writing to rectify such imbalances of power. 

Nevertheless, it is fitting that the opening chapter of Tim Hannigan’s book, The Travel Writing Tribe, is titled “The Long White Track”. The book is unusual in that Hannigan, who is well versed in the scholarly critique of the genre, confronts these questions from the perspective of both an academic and a travel writer.

From the very start, he picks up on a curious pattern. Almost all the better-known male British travel writers, including Wilfred Thesiger, Peter Fleming, Robin Hanbury-Tenison and Rory Stewart, attended prestigious independent schools, most commonly Eton College, followed by a higher education at Oxford. Not all of them, however, made it to university. Patrick Leigh Fermor was “kicked out of more than one boarding school … An alarmed housemaster once described him as ‘a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness’”. Likewise, Colin Thubron suffered from a “growing tally of educational miscarriages”. He sat his maths O-level at Eton three times and failed “by a wider margin each time”; he failed the entry exam to Cambridge and was later declared ineligible for national service, after which he started working at a publishing house.

Hannigan’s research takes him deep into the heart of the British establishment as he sifts through Thesiger’s diaries at the Eton College archives. He notices that the students, clad in the trademark black tails, pinstripe trousers and white ties, stood out from the rest of the townsfolk, as if they belonged a separate tribe. He writes: “I was still keen to pursue an idea about Old Etonian travel writers having some particular predilection for ‘tribal cultures’ in other parts of the world, and the possibility that this had something to do with their schooling.” This was, to an extent, evident in Thesiger’s choice of company during his travels: “In Arabia and beyond, his preferred society seems always to have been a small group of young men and boys, possessed of some elite and initiated status, perfectly isolated from the great plurality of town and village.”

The travel writing genre is often criticised for its unfair treatment of the “travellee” – the people encountered by the narrator during a journey. But a significant number of works have made a concerted effort to empower the same. In 1996, Nick Danziger, who lacks the public-school background of his fellow travellers, profiled a series of marginalised communities in Danziger’s Britain, giving their voices more space in the text than his own.

Similarly, in This Divided Island: Life, Death and the Sri Lankan War, Samanth Subramanian is challenged by a local of Kattankudy, who asks him: “What good will this conversation do for me?” – a question Subramanian is unable to answer convincingly.

Travel writing and journalism, Hannigan observes, were inextricably linked, yet there appeared to be a “strange tussle” going on between the two: “For a writer with literary aspirations, the word ‘journalist’ seemed to suggest relegation to the lower divisions … But on the other hand, for a writer with established literary credentials, eager to claim the kudos of empiricism, ‘journalist’ might appear a higher designation than ‘travel writer’.”

There was also, Hannigan notes, the genre’s complicated relationship with the portrayal of facts. Some writers had the tendency to fictionalise various details for aesthetic purposes. He had, for instance, noticed, “the slight disconnect between the raw records of Thesiger’s journeys and his books”.

Hannigan also visits the veteran travel writer Dervla Murphy, who cycled from her home in Ireland to India in 1963 and wrote about it in her debut work, Full Tilt. He learns from Barnaby Rogerson, the publisher at Eland, that despite her age, she was open to receiving visitors as long as they brought some beer with them. Her home, which “can hardly be described as a house”, was a collection of small old buildings scattered across a walled compound; it had once been the town market. During the interview, she tells him that her reputation for being a recluse is undeserved and only while writing a book does she go into “purdah”.

Murphy, whose anti-colonial middle-class Irish background sets her apart from most travel writers of her time, is hesitant to pin her books down to a specific genre, preferring instead to describe them as “journalistic records”.

Haunted by the grim commercial prospects of professional travel writers, Hannigan seeks reassurance wherever possible. According to Rogerson, limited funding for writers may in fact be producing better travel books. The best books, he argues, are not the ones churned out when writers try to meet deadlines, but those that are “oscillating inside them and had to come out … because the experience is so strong and profound”.

Thubron, meanwhile, is more optimistic about the future of travel writing. He refers to an edition of Granta that lists Mohsin Hamid, Rana Dasgupta and Subramanian on its cover, alongside his own – and there are others, such as Monisha Rajesh and Kapka Kassabova, both of whom Hannigan interviews. The future of the genre is fluid and adaptable, and in the hands of writers from all over the world. “The voice of those once written about is coming back and writing about us,” he says.

The 4th Book Festival in Transylvania is confirmed

Lucy Abel-Smith has confirmed that she is going ahead with an extra special edition of the 4th Transylvanian Book Festival this year, 9th to 12th September 2021. 

Due to ongoing restrictions and uncertainties over COVID, they will be limiting the size of the audience to a maximum of 40, making it a smaller event than in the past but just as special, if not more so.  

By keeping it so deliberately small, they aim to be able to enjoy the unique features of the traditional party atmosphere, with guests and speakers having an even greater chance to meet over delicious meals and wine. 

The hope is to reach out to friends and patrons from around the world who are unable to travel this year, by recording a number of talks and making them available online.

Currently travellers from the UK can enter Romania without having to quarantine if they can show proof of a full course of vaccination against Covid-19, completed at least 10 days before arrival. Return to the UK from Romania is currently subject to testing and quarantine but the government has just announced that they are planning to allow fully vaccinated UK residents to travel from amber listed countries without the need to quarantine, later this summer. During the pandemic, it is more important than ever to get travel insurance and check it provides sufficient cover.

Full details on the website.

Let’s keep the channel open!

It seemed like it took the whole of the 90 minutes of the “Paddy Chat” that took place yesterday evening just to get through our introductions to each other, such were the fascinating backgrounds and stories of the 16 or so people who attended. It was difficult to make an actual count with the continual movement of what I still see as the Potteresque images of a mass online meeting.

I think it fair to say that it was a tremendous success. We only scratched the surface of observations, experiences, and possible discussions given the professions and passions of the attendees including theology, archaeology, sculpture, the law, medicine, IT, meteorology, academia, writing, and much more. People were logging on from Canada, Germany, the UK, Brussels, Hungary, Italy, Romania, the USA; a good balance from many locations. Even my 20 month old grandson Mark made an apperarance. His first literary conference!

We all enjoyed listening to individual stories and discovering the connections between us that emerged. We heard the exciting news from Dan Popescu in Romania that he has two books imminently due publication covering exchanges of letters with Paddy during that less well known period of his time in Romania before the war.

Paddy is the obvious connection, but the conversation ranged widely and was not just limited to him. We discussed biographies about Paddy and Joan, with some agreement that Simon Fenwick’s Joan is perhaps the most entertaining and revealing. I appreciate that is a controversial statement!

There was no agenda for the meeting but attendees did make some suggestions about the format of future events. Yes, we agreed we would like to arrange others! I do hope that more people can attend on the next occasion, perhaps something in September after our summer of restriction-free travel 🙂

Personally I’m so glad I got round to arranging it. I did point out that there is nothing to prevent others arranging their own, especially where time zones don’t match particularly well (calling on Maggie Rainey-Smith and Brent McCunn to organise the Antipodean version 🙂 ). Please feel free to use me as a contact point and the blog as one of your channels of communication. I can create an events section with calendar for easy reference. If you like I can arrange on your behalf if you’d rather.

It would be great if you could add suggestions to the comments section and let’s take it from there. Clearly we can arrange events to discuss particular books (or even just sections of books), or have guest writers etc discuss their work.

As Francesca, an Italian lawyer living and working in Brussels, said at the end, thinking about future events, ‘this has been a marvellous event, and let’s keep this channel open!’

Dr Foster finally got to Gloucester

Just reporting in to those who sponsored me way back in October when I started a walk from Winchester to Gloucester. My first attempt ended after three days with a painful injury as reported here.

Lockdown and much else prevented me from completing the endeavour until these last few days. I set off from Pewsey on Saturday, walking the Kennet & Avon canal to Bradford-on-Avon, turning north across the (wet) Cotswolds, via Laurie Lee’s home in Slad, and finally hit Gloucester city limits around lunchtime yesterday, a trek of 110 km in 3.5 days.

Not the most enjoyable of my walks, but I felt I ought to complete what I set out to do.

Thank you once more to those that donated.

Proposed online discussion to remember Paddy – 2 July 2021

A few weeks ago when I asked for suggestions as to how we might mark the tenth anniversary of Paddy’s death, some of you suggested an online discussion.

Little more has been heard about ideas for taking this forward, so I have decided to try to run something myself. There is no specific agenda, but we will have to have some sort of order. We might wish to introduce ourselves; talk about how we came to discover Paddy; our meetings with him; what inspires us about him or his work, even today; perhaps some selected readings. 

The idea is to run an initial 90 minute session (come and go as you please) early on a Friday evening as this should allow the widest time-zone coverage, allowing for breakfast in California and evening across Europe. Despite a reasonably large Paddy following in Australia, it is almost impossible to arrange a respectable time that works (for what is a social event) for the Antipodes. We may be able to record the meeting for later viewing.

In order to keep this as simple as possible I plan to use Google Meets. This is free and we have no real limit on numbers. To attend you will need a Google account. If you don’t have one you can create one just for this meeting. Using Zoom would have involved cost; it may be something to consider if we decide to repeat the idea on a regular basis.

If you are interested in attending please add a comment below so I get an idea of interest in order to decide whether or not to proceed.

Details

Date and Time: 1800-1930 BST Friday 2 July

Location: Google Meets – see link here for requirements including web browser

Invitation: a link will be posted on the blog nearer the time – you will have to click in or accept. There will be no invitation to your calendar so you will have to make your own reminder.

Special Invitations: If you have in mind someone that you would like to attend, please pass on the details to them. If there is anyone you might like me to invite eg a writer or someone similar, please make your suggestion and I’ll see what I can do.

Hosting and Admin: I shall host to start with but this is your meeting so very happy that you take over! If anyone wishes to contact me via email to help with any admin that will be welcomed.

Dress and Protocols: Wear anything you like, or not as the case may be! Bring a drink (Vodka tonic?). I see this as a “camera on” event, otherwise things get very sterile talking to blank black windows on a conference call. As a courtesy to others I think that you should be prepared to have your camera on so we can see you if you wish to attend. In my experience, the quality of video calling makes for flattering images!

If you have any questions or suggestions, please post a comment below or contact me via gmail address.

Calling all former PLF Society members; can you help?

Thank you to all of you who have responded so quickly to this appeal. I have all that I need now and my inboxe(s) are overflowing! If you were going to help, thank you, but nothing further is needed. I’ll try to sort this out over the coming period (some of you know how slow I can be so the vagueness is deliberate!). Have a great weekend.

As all readers will no doubt be aware, the misson of this blog is to try to gather all Paddy related material into one useful place, and that has been more or less achieved. The PLF Society commissioned a number of articles and published these in its more than a dozen newsletters. With the demise of the Society and its website, much of this material has been lost to the public (and even former members who have lost or deleted).

I plan to create a little corner of the blog dedicated to PLF Society material as a tribute to the late Charles Arnold, founder of the Society. I believe I have about 40% of what was in the public domain, but would like to get this to 100%. This includes, in the main, the regular newsletters, The Philhellene.

I’m asking all readers if they can forward copies they still have of the Philhellene to atsawford[at]gmail.com . Thank you all in advance for your assistance. I shall update you all on progress.

Dinner commemorating the death of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor 10 years ago

The dinner event at Aphrodite Taverna (see here) is one month away. Thanks to Chris Joyce for organising everything. There are a couple of places still available, so if you would like to attend please let Chris have your details via chrisjoyce14 [at] outlook.com. 

A deposit of £20 per person is needed, payable to Chris who has covered this so far, upon your confrmation.

Looking forward to seeing you all there for what will be a splendid evening of drinking, eating, singing, reading and spechifying!

The church at Agios Nikolaos

This morning’s post about Bruce Chatwin has been most popular. Thank you for all the lovely comments. Nigel Dipper sent the above photo taken on one of their many visits to Agios Nikolaos. I hope that you enjoy it.

Hi Tom

Thanks for the reminder of the birthday of Bruce Chatwin; a remarkable man and a fine writer.
We often picnic at Agios Nikolaos where Chatwin’s ashes were laid to rest. It is a beautiful spot. This picture was taken in spring 2011 just before the death of PLF. I thought you might like a copy.
Up in the village above, a beer or a coffee can be had at the very friendly ‘Gorge Hotel’. The view of the Taygetos is spectacular

Regards, Nigel.

Complimentary access to Stanfords Travel Writers Festival Online Spring Edition – 8-9 May

A little short notice, but some my find this of interest.

Standfords are partnering up with Destinations: The Holiday and Travel Show to bring you a Spring Edition of the Stanfords Travel Writers Festival.

Destinations TV will host a line up of scheduled talks, interviews and Q&A sessions at Destinations presents Travel 2021 on Saturday 8 – Sunday 9 May.

The line-up includes four brand new author talks from the Stanfords Travel Writers Festival.

Saturday 8th May: 12-1pm

I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain with Anita Sethi

Saturday 8th May: 3-4pm

We Are Nature: How to reconnect with the wild with Ray Mears

Sunday 9th May: 12-1pm

Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul with Taran Khan

Sunday 9th May: 3-4pm

A Year of Living Simply with Kate Humble

All talks will be available to watch on demand until the 11:59pm 16 May.

Register for complimentary access here.

A milestone: over two million views

Some of you may be interested to know that sometime over the last few days the blog passed the point of two million views since I started it on 21 March 2010. The first post being about Ralph Stockbridge and not Paddy!

There are now 1,007 posts, and we have over 452,000 visitors to the site in that time. I do have around 250 posts in some form of draft state. I guess many of them may be duplicates or redundant now, but there is some life left in us yet!

You made this happen and thank you to all visitors for your support over these eleven years.

Don’t forget if you wish to publish something just get in contact with me atsawford [at] gmail .com

Travel Writing World podcasts

Eric Newby on the trip that would make him famous: a climb up Mir Samir in Afghanistan in 1956. Credit...Hugh Carless/Press Association, via Associated Press

Eric Newby on the trip that would make him famous: a climb up Mir Samir in Afghanistan in 1956.
Credit…Hugh Carless/Press Association, via Associated Press

I was recently directed to this excellent site following a mention in the Eland Books newsletter. Travel Writing World is an award-winning podcast and website featuring interviews with travel writers, book reviews, author profiles, and resources for travel writers and their readers.

To date I have enjoyed a discussion about Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, and Peter Fiennes, former publisher at Time Out, talking about his 2020 publication Footnotes: A Journey Round Britain in the Company of Great Writers.

There are no discussions (yet) about Patrick Leigh Fermor, but I am looking forward to listening to Colin Thubron talk about the recent death of his friend Jan Morris, travel writing in general, and the tenth anniversary of his book To A Mountain in Tibet. An excellent group was assembled to remember Bruce Chatwin on what would have been his 80th birthday.

I hope that you enjoy listening to an episode or two.

Visit Travel Writing World

Medieval Pilgrimage

Are those of us who are locked down like those in medieval times who coud not actually go on pligrimage and were only able to imagine it?

In the always fascinating BBC Radio 4 programme, In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg (who in 1989 interviewed Paddy on The South Bank Show – short extract here) and guests discuss the rise of pilgrimage for Christians in Europe in the Middle Ages and options for those who could only imagine pilgrimages and imitate them at home.

The podcast archives go back many years, divided into categories like ‘Culture’, ‘Religion’ and ‘History’. The Margery Kempe and Thomas Becket episodes are brilliant too, both linked to pilgrimage.

Lock yourself away and give 45 minutes to fascinating discussion, where you are sure to learn a few things.

Listen to the episode here.

There are almost 900 episodes in the In Our Time archive which you can browse here.

Paddy’s Great Walk: A great author, adventurer remembered in print

A recent artilce about Paddy to add to our blog collection.

By Alan Littell
First published in Olean Times Herald Dec 12, 2020

I met him only once.

It was 21 years ago, in Athens, Greece, on the occasion of a speech he gave growing out of his wartime exploits as a British special agent serving with Greek resistance fighters in German-occupied Crete.

At the time of the talk he was a world-famous author, traveler, and cultural and historical polymath. And what should have been, for me, the pleasure of a long-anticipated conversation about his singular brand of literary magic turned instead to dismay and embarrassment on my part and obvious anger on his over a question I had put to him.

His name was Patrick Leigh Fermor. According to the people closest to him, the failure of the late war hero and travel writer known familiarly as Paddy to complete the third and final memoir of his extraordinary mid-1930s walk across Europe was for decades a gnawing source of pessimism and wounded pride.

The author had set out as an 18-year-old schoolboy to make the journey — from the Dutch coast to Turkey — but it was not until some 40 years later that the memoirs would begin to appear. “A Time of Gifts” was published in 1977 and “Between the Woods and the Water” in 1986. They won immediate acclaim. The New York Review of Books, for example, praised the works as incomparably “vivid, absorbing, and beautifully written.”

On the night I met him, Leigh Fermor, a brilliant prose stylist yet notoriously slow writer, was widely rumored to be struggling to finish the third volume of the trilogy.

As we chatted over drinks at the end of his talk, I asked how he was getting on with it. His response was immediate and explosive.

“Oh, don’t ask me that!” And he turned on his heel and stalked off.

I was aghast not so much at his reaction to what I had said as at my inexcusable want of tact. I had caused pain to this remarkable man.

We know now that the writing Paddy had done on volume three had not even come close to achieving a publishable manuscript. For as hard as he had tried — and as old age, debility and a crippling case of writer’s block held him in their grip — the task confounded him.

Two books tell the story of Patrick Leigh Fermor and of the last leg of that celebrated trek — what commentators invariably refer to as Paddy’s Great Walk but which he himself offhandedly dismissed as The Great Trudge.

The first is Artemis Cooper’s handsomely crafted biography, “Patrick Leigh Fermor,” published in Britain in 2012 and a year later in the U.S. In it, Cooper relates the life of a trim, square-shouldered, curly-haired adventurer of enormous charm and courage.

She had known Paddy for most of her life. She admired him as an author whose books on travel — particularly his works celebrating an enduring love affair with Greek culture, language and landscape — were triumphs of 20th century literature and scholarship. But at no time does she let her personal friendship and affection for Paddy blunt a balanced portrait of a sometimes moody, sometimes depressive, sometimes bumptious character addicted to women, alcohol, endless talk and round-the-clock partying.

“He had always resented going to bed,” writes Cooper “[He] revelled in the smoky world of tarts and nightclubs, all-night cafés, seedy bars and chance encounters.”

Paddy was also afflicted by an almost pathological need for distant travel. As Cooper makes clear, he was essentially rootless. He wrote his books in getaways that ranged from Greek islands and French monasteries to a clutch of English country hotels and private estates. In late middle age he built the only home he would ever possess, in a shaded olive grove overlooking the sea in his beloved Greece.

The second of the two recent works is the one that Paddy on his own was unable to finish. Assembled and published posthumously from existing manuscripts and diaries by biographer Cooper and the travel writer Colin Thubron, it tracks the conclusion, in 1934, of his European ramble. The book appeared in 2014. Its title is “The Broken Road.”

While lacking some of the youthful exuberance of Paddy’s first two memoirs, the final volume is told in the author’s distinctive voice. He continues his trek as the traveler and observer we have come to know — historian of art and architecture, geographer, antiquarian, ethnologist, speaker of Balkan languages, scholar of classical literature. Above all, he continues as a peerless story teller.

“‘The Broken Road’ may not precisely be the ‘third volume’ that so tormented him,” note his literary executors, “but it contains at least the shape and scent of the promised book.”

Still, of all Paddy’s writing, it is a much earlier work, “Mani,” that strikes me as his most personal and idiosyncratic. A dazzling account of a season of travel in a remote corner of southern Greece, it wonderfully captures the spirit of place: a bare, desolate upland terrain peopled by a breed of dark-visaged relics of ancient Sparta.

The book also traces Paddy’s lifelong quest for order and tranquility in a career of frenetic wandering. Order and tranquility, however, are oxymorons. They are attributes he rarely attained. In a revealing passage of longing for an irrecoverable past, he takes the reader with him on a Zen-like jaunt among the “smashed and scattered masonry” of antiquity.

“A spell of peace lives in the ruins of ancient Greek temples,” he tells us.

“As the traveller leans back among the fallen capitals and allows the hours to pass, it empties the mind of troubling thoughts and anxieties. …

“Nearly all that has happened fades to a limbo of shadows and insignificance and is painlessly replaced by an intimation of …simplicity and calm which unties all knots and solves all riddles and seems to murmur a benevolent … suggestion that the whole of life, if it were to unfold without hindrance or compulsion or search for alien solutions, might be limitlessly happy.”

Alan Littell is a longtime contributor to the Times Herald. He lives in Alfred. Note: All of the books mentioned in this piece as well as others by Patrick Leigh Fermor are still in print. They are available in larger bookstores and on Amazon.

Shortlist revealed for Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year

The shortlist has been announced for this year’s Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year prize.

This year’s eight-book shortlist includes Without Ever Reaching the Summit by Paolo Cognetti (Harvill Secker), The Border by Erika Fatland (Quercus), Shadow City by Taran Khan (Bodley Head) and Travelling While Black by Nanjala Nyabola (Hurst).

Also in the running are Wanderland by Jini Reddy (Bloomsbury), The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts (Transworld), Along the Amber Route by C J Scholar (Sandstone Press) and Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan Slaght (Allen Lane).

Part of the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards, the £2,500 prize is run in association with the Authors’ Club. The judging panel features author Lois Pryce, explorer Benedict Allen, author and past recipient of the Edward Stanford Outstanding Contribution to Travel Writing Award Colin Thubron, journalist and author Monisha Rajesh, and author Nick Hunt.

Vivien Godfrey, chairman and CEO of Stanfords, said: “We’re delighted to announce the shortlist of such varied and truly unique titles. These books act as a tonic for us all during these times when travel has been halted and adventures have been limited.

“It’s been a tough year for Stanfords and travel writers, and the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards this year are a much-needed boost to our spirits and a great excuse to celebrate what the genre has to offer.”

Held in March, the awards will also crown the Bradt Travel Guides New Travel Writer of the Year, from a list of four finalists who have submitted original writing of between 600 and 800 words.

The winner of the Edward Stanford Outstanding Contribution to Travel Writing Award, previously scooped by authors including Bill Bryson, Michael Palin and Paul Theroux, will also be announced on the night.

Obituary: Jan Morris, a poet of time, place and self

Jan Morris, who has died aged 94

One of the true greats of travel writing and journalism, Jan Morris, has died. She is also known as a pioneer, changing her gender whilst maintaining her relationship with her partner Elizabeth for over 70 years.

First published on BBC News 21 NOvember 2020.

Jan Morris, who has died at the age of 94, was one the finest writers the UK has produced in the post-war era.

Her life story was crammed with romance, discovery and adventure. She was a soldier, an award-winning journalist, a novelist and – as a travel writer – became a poet of time and place.

She was also known as a pioneer in her personal life, as one of the first high-profile figures to change gender.

Born 2 October 1926 in Somerset, it was while sitting under the family’s piano – at the age of three or four – that Morris made a decision. Feeling “wrongly equipped” as a boy, there was only one conclusion. Morris should have been a girl.

Morris attended Lancing College in West Sussex and then the cathedral choir school at Christ Church in Oxford, attending lessons in gorgeous “fluttering white gowns”. “Oxford made me,” she later wrote.

The heady mixture of High Anglican ceremony and the city’s architectural majesty sensitised Morris to an aesthetic that was to influence her as both a writer and a human being.

As a teenager, training as a newspaper reporter in Bristol involved interviewing the victims of bombing raids at the height of the Second World War.

Morris tried to join the Navy but was ruled out by colour-blindness, instead joining the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers.

A spell at Sandhurst was followed by a posting as an intelligence officer that led to stints in Italy and Palestine by way of two more cities that came to be inspirations: Venice and Trieste.

Demobbed in 1949, Morris returned to Christ Church to read English, and seized the opportunity of a 12-month fellowship at the University of Chicago to visit every state of the union.

The result was a first book, Coast to Coast. “I love the idea of America,” she later wrote. “It has let itself down very badly since in many ways, but that doesn’t mean to say I don’t admire and love the core values.”

In the same year, Morris married Elizabeth Tuckniss, the daughter of a tea planter. It was, they both recalled, love at first sight – and a partnership that would produce five children and last for 70 years.

Everest scoop

Upon graduating, Morris indulged a fascination with the Arab world by taking a job at a news agency in Cairo. That experience eventually led to a job at the Times.

In 1953, Morris brought the newspaper a world exclusive, travelling with Edmund Hillary as far as the base camp on Everest to witness the historic attempt on the summit.

Morris greets Edmund Hillary on his return from the summit of Mount Everest

It was a physically arduous assignment. “I was no climber, was not particularly interested in mountaineering. I was there merely as a reporter.”

When Hillary and Tenzing Norgay returned in triumph, The Times had exclusive access to the expedition – but the reporter was terrified that someone else might break the news first.

Morris sent a coded message from a telegraph station: “Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop awaiting improvement.” Back in the newsroom, they knew what it meant.

The news was famously splashed on the day of the Queen’s coronation. The world’s highest mountain had been conquered and a new Elizabethan age had begun.

Suez shockwaves

In 1956, Morris left the Times – unable to support the newspaper’s editorial line in the Suez crisis. After joining the Manchester Guardian, as it was still called, the journalist set out to witness the looming conflict first-hand.

The reports Morris sent from the Suez crisis caused great difficulty for the British government. Allegations that Britain and France had secretly persuaded Israel to launch an invasion of Egypt had been hotly denied by all three countries. Morris discovered evidence that this was a pack of lies designed to give the two European powers an excuse to intervene and re-take the all-important canal.

Morris witnessed the fighting in the Negev desert and canal zone before flying to Cyprus to file a dispatch and escape Israeli censorship. While waiting for a flight, the writer struck up conversation with French pilots who said they had played a pivotal role in the attack.

“They told me quite frankly that they had been in action in support of the Israelis during the Negev fighting and had used napalm,” Morris later recalled. British pilots, they claimed, had also been involved.

The Manchester Guardian went with his story. It sent shockwaves through the British establishment and shamed both nations into withdrawing their forces. It was an incendiary revelation that caused huge embarrassment to Prime Minister Anthony Eden. A few months later, he resigned.

A writer who travels

In the 1960s, Morris left journalism, preferring to be simply known as a “writer who travels” rather than a “travel writer”.

Morris wrote about places that were inspirational – Oxford, Venice, Spain and the Arab world – with the dream of capturing the history, style, spirit and challenges facing every major city in the world.

Most dear of all was the trilogy on the history of the British Empire: Pax Britannica. Morris described it as “the intellectual and artistic centre-piece of my life”. Later, the author would reject the suggestion of being too kind to this period of history.

“There was a whole generation of very decent people, many of whom were genuinely devoted to the welfare of their subject peoples,” she later said. However, she conceded, the end was a mess.

In the same year, Morris began taking female hormones in the first stage of the life-long ambition to become a woman. Elizabeth, who had always known of her husband’s conviction, was supportive.

Morris had a high public profile and the publicity that surrounded her decision was stressful. As same-sex marriages were not then possible, they were required to get divorced. But as a family, they stayed together and remained tight-knit.

Jan Morris was legally required to divorce her wife, Elizabeth, but the couple remained together. Morris wrote about the process in her worldwide bestseller Conundrum – published in 1974. It describes the clinic in Casablanca where she had surgery and her subsequent adjustment to life as a woman with a female partner. She was generous to those who found it awkward and “the kindly incomprehension of sailors and old ladies”.

She was forced to ignore warnings from doctors that the procedure could change her personality and even affect her ability to write. The book was the first to be published under the name Jan. There was a sense in which all that travelling was a symptom of forces beyond her control. It was “an outer expression of my inner journey”.

The couple moved to a remote corner of north-west Wales. Jan embraced her father’s Welsh identity – becoming a convinced nationalist – and continued to write. Her output was prodigious. In all, she wrote more than 40 books – so many that she was often a little hazy about the exact number.

There were works on places she had visited, essays, memoirs and some well-received novels. One work remains unpublished because she did not want it made public until she died. “It’s at the publisher’s waiting for me to kick the bucket,” she breezily told one reporter.

On Oxford – the first city to inspire her – she wrote: “The island character of England is waning as the wider civilization of the West takes over. Soon it will survive only in the history books: but we are not too late, and Oxford stands there still to remind us of its faults and virtues – courageous, arrogant, generous, ornate, pungent, smug and funny.”

And on Venice – perhaps her most celebrated work – she recalled the “smell of her mud, incense, fish, age, filth and velvet” and predicted that “wherever you go in life you will feel somewhere over your shoulder, a pink castellated, shimmering presence, the domes and riggings and crooked pinnacles”.

Her biographer and agent, Derek Johns, described what he thought made her writing so distinctive. “She involves the reader,” he wrote, “while she remains unobtrusively present herself; who uses the particular to illustrate the general, and scatters grace notes here and there like benefactions. She is a watcher, usually alone, seldom lonely, alert to everything around her.”

In 2018 – by now in her tenth decade – Jan Morris published In My Mind’s Eye, a personal work collecting the musings of her everyday life.

The world had become kinder to people who had changed their sex, she told one journalist. Kindness and marmalade were her two essentials in life.

She was still living with Elizabeth – with whom she had entered a civil partnership – although the “subtle demon of our time, dementia, is coming between us”, she wrote.

As far as death was concerned, though, they had prepared for it. As a writer, Jan had chosen the words for their eventual headstone with some care. “Here are two friends,” it will say, “at the end of one life.”

Listen to Jan Morris discuss her classic travel book Venice on BBC Sounds.

Do not do battle with Greeks

My thanks to Stephen who added a comment a while back about Paddy’s experience amongst the Greeks, and offered an entertaining link to a rousing You Tube video which you might enjoy.

Hello, to PLF readers. To gain an insight into the nights in the Psiloriti mountains that PLF partook, he was inspired by its people. The Cretan musicians here play, “Do not do battle with Greeks,” played in the mountains among its people.

The art of David Walsh truly speaks to the walker in me

Across the Chalke Downs, Spring by David Walsh

One of the pleasures of running this blog is the opportunity to meet people who I would probably never come across in my day to day life. It is also quite surprising how many of them know Blandford Forum’s greatest travel writer, the ubiquitous Harry Bucknall. And so it was when a brochure for an art exhibition of David Walsh’s work dropped through my letterbox a couple of weeks ago.

I was immediately struck by how David brings real life and depth to his work, much of it being from the downland of Hampshire and Wiltshire. His skies are amazing and absolutely resonated with me as someone has walked on those same hills and Ox Droves. He also spends a lot of time in Italy and he has many works from there on display.

When I rang David to make an appointment to visit his studio we talked about how he may have come across my address and our main vector was Harry; everyone seems to know Harry!

Since then I have visited his studio and bought one of his paintings, something to remind me of the freedom, and the space and emptiness of the Ox Droves above Cranborne Chase close to where David lives. His planned London exhibition has had to be postponed due to Covid, but he is welcoming visitors by arrangement (Covid regs permitting).

If you are looking for something to remind you of better times (ironically much of his work was painted during the brilliant weather we had during the first lockdown with contrail-clear skies; probably a never to be repeated opportunity), please do drop David an email david@david-walsh.net or phone: Studio 01722 780097, Mobile 07806 750748. Do mention the Paddy blog if you do contact him. His work is selling quite quickly so do make contact if you are interested. All his paintings come framed in beautiful handmade frames by a craftsman in Florence.

Visit David’s website to view more of his work for sale as well as those he has sold. David is available for commissions.

Late Summer, Looking towards Salisbury by David Walsh

List your favourite out of print travel and nature books

Once Upon Another Time by Jessica Douglas-Home

As a fan of the Eland approach to seeking out and republishing out of print travel books, I had a recent discussion with a friend where we mused about our favourite out of print travel books. I came up with Jessica Douglas-Home’s Once Upon Another Time which is really enjoyed reading.

We thought that it might be fun to ask you to submit a list of your recommendations for out-of-print travel and environment books that you might want to see brought back into publication. The remit could include classics that have been forgotten about, to obscure works of eccentric genius that never saw the light of day. Not just old-school travel writing but nature writing also. This might be twentieth century stuff, but could be from earlier.

If you have anything that leaps to mind please email me (see About and Contact) or add a comment to this post; please say why you would like to see it published. I’ll publish a definitive list of your recommendations before Christmas. Perhaps we can have more than just recommendations for early twentieth century and late nineteenth century female travellers, mostly (for some reason) in the Middle East and Central Asia. My friend’s list appears to show that whole region crawling with intrepid women fighting off bandits, dressing as men and crossing deserts!

We are very much looking forward to your recommendations and the discussion they may bring.

Love walking? Looking for a walking related job in UK?

This may be of interest to a reader in the UK (south) who wants to work on establishing a new pilgrimage route to Canterbury.

A job for a practical Pilgrim working with the British Pilgrimage Trust. Looks good!

Click here to find out more.