Tag Archives: A Time of Gifts

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

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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.

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!

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.

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