Tag Archives: Colin Thubron

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.

Escape from Fortress Crete

Patrick Leigh Fermor and William Stanley Moss (top row, second and third from left) with ­other members of the group that abducted the German general Heinrich Kreipe, Crete, April 1944. Estate of William Stanley Moss/Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive/National Library of Scotland

Patrick Leigh Fermor and William Stanley Moss (top row, second and third from left) with ­other members of the group that abducted the German general Heinrich Kreipe, Crete, April 1944. Estate of William Stanley Moss/Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive/National Library of Scotland

In one of the most audacious feats of World War II, two British undercover agents and a group of Greek partisans in Nazi-occupied Crete kidnapped General Heinrich Kreipe, the commander of the German garrison’s foremost division. Over eighteen days, with a net of enemy troops tightening around them, they marched him across the island’s mountains to be transported on a motor launch to Egypt.

By Colin Thubron

First published in the New York Review, March 11 2021

“Of all the stories that have come out of the War,” a radio announcer declared triumphantly, “this is the one which schoolboys everywhere will best remember.” The exploit was celebrated in 1950 by its deputy leader William Stanley Moss in his book Ill Met by Moonlight, which became a popular movie produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

The leader of the operation, Patrick Leigh Fermor (played onscreen by Dirk Bogarde), was to become a legendary figure in postwar Britain and Greece, as well as the most revered travel writer of his generation. But his full account of the action, Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation in Crete, wasn’t published until several years after he died. Beside its sheer drama and the frequent fineness of Leigh Fermor’s writing, the story resonates with half-answered questions. Was the exploit worth it? What, if any, was its strategic effect? Above all, were the atrocities visited afterward on Cretan villages by the Germans an act of vengeance for the abduction?

Recent years have seen a surge of interest in Leigh Fermor’s life and work. Since his death in 2011, a fine, full-scale biography by Artemis Cooper has appeared; his archive at the National Library of Scotland has been mined for new material; and two volumes of his letters, Dashing for the Post and More Dashing, in which he recounts inter alia his periodic returns to Crete, were edited by Adam Sisman. On the last of these journeys, in 1982, Leigh Fermor was delighted—and perhaps relieved—at his rapturous reception from his Cretan comrades-in-arms, still inhabiting his wartime haunts: whiskery old men now, who feasted him mountainously for days.

Their memories are long and bitter. The Nazi occupation of Crete, and of all Greece, was a particularly brutal one, in which perhaps 9 percent of the nation’s population perished, and almost the entire Jewish population of the island, destined for death camps, was drowned when their transport ship was mistakenly torpedoed by a British submarine. Hundreds of villages, including many in Crete, were razed.

These memories have recently surfaced again in the rhetoric of Greek politicians. Germany, ironically, is Greece’s main creditor. In protesting German stringency in the face of their towering debt, the Greeks raised the old question of war reparations, maintained by Germany to have been settled in 1990. In 2015 the Greeks demanded a further $303 billion for damaged infrastructure, war crimes, and repayment of a Nazi-enforced loan from Greece to Germany. The present Greek prime minister has pursued this less stridently than his predecessor, but the demand remains.

This rankling bitterness would not have surprised those members of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) who operated undercover in the Cretan mountains, and who witnessed firsthand the Greek hatred of their oppressors. Part of Leigh Fermor’s motive in producing his own account of Kreipe’s abduction was to pay tribute to the intransigent courage and resolve of the local inhabitants.

Yet the writing of the operation originated by chance. In 1966 the editor of Purnell’s History of the Second World War, an anthology of feature-length essays, commissioned Leigh Fermor to record the operation in five thousand words. But Leigh Fermor was not one for shortcuts, and he produced over 30,000 words, almost a year late. Eventually a version appeared in Purnell’s History, stripped down by a professional journalist, and shorn of most of the color, drama, and anecdote that characterized the original.

It is easy to see how this original—published as Abducting a General —exasperated the Purnell’s History editor. From the start, although it records every tactical move, it reads more like a vivid and expansive adventure story than a military report. On the night of February 5, 1944, signal fires glitter on a narrow Cretan plateau as Leigh Fermor parachutes out of a converted British bomber. It is the start of things going wrong. Clouds close in, and his fellow officer “Billy” Moss cannot drop down after him. It is two months before they rendezvous on the island’s southern shore, after Moss has arrived from Egypt by motor launch.

Leigh Fermor was twenty-nine, Moss only twenty-two, but both had seen hard war service. Moss, a captain in the Coldstream Guards, had fought in North Africa, but had no previous experience of guerrilla warfare. Leigh Fermor, on the other hand, had already been in Crete fifteen months, disguised as a shepherd, gathering intelligence and organizing resistance. He spoke fluent Greek and had struck up warm friendships among the andartes, the region’s guerrillas.

The island where they landed was the formidable German Festung Kreta, Fortress Crete, garrisoned by some 50,000 soldiers, but menaced by a hinterland of lawless mountain villages. The British target at first had been the brutal General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller (who would be executed for war crimes in 1947). But he had recently been replaced by General Kreipe, a veteran of the eastern front, who for propaganda purposes was considered an equally promising prize.

Such a kidnapping would undermine the morale of the German forces, Leigh Fermor wrote; it would inspirit the resistance (which had suffered recent reverses) and prove a setback to the Communist propagandists who were seeking to divide the Greek island as they had the mainland. He proposed to his SOE superiors in Cairo that the action should be “an Anglo-Cretan affair”:

It could be done, I urged, with stealth and timing in such a way that both bloodshed, and thus reprisals, would be avoided. (I had only a vague idea how.) To my amazement, the idea was accepted.

In a curious lapse of German security, Kreipe was driven unescorted each evening five miles from his divisional headquarters to his fortified residence. At a steep junction in the road Leigh Fermor, Moss, and a selected band of andartes lay in wait after dark until a flashed warning from an accomplice signaled the car’s departure. As the Opel’s headlights approached, the two SOE officers, wearing the stolen uniforms of German corporals, flagged it down with a traffic policeman’s baton.

On one side Leigh Fermor saluted and asked in German for identity papers, then wrenched open the door and heaved the general out at gunpoint. On the other, Moss, seeing the chauffeur reach for his revolver, knocked him out and took his place at the wheel. Meanwhile the Cretan guerrillas manacled the general, bundled him into the back of the Opel, and dragged the driver to a ditch. Leigh Fermor put on the general’s hat, three andartes held the general at knifepoint on the seat behind, and Moss drove off in the direction that the enemy would least expect: toward the German stronghold of Heraklion.

Along the road, and within the city’s Venetian walls, the general’s car, with its signature mudguard pennants, cruised past raised barriers and saluting sentries. In the blacked-out streets the car’s interior was almost invisible. Moss drove through twenty-two checkpoints. Occasionally Leigh Fermor, his face shadowed under the general’s hat, returned the salutes. Then the car exited the Canea Gate and they went into the night.

In the eighteen days that followed, the party often split and reformed. The Opel was abandoned near a bay deep enough to give the impression that a British submarine had spirited the general away. Anxious that no reprisals should be taken against the Cretans, Leigh Fermor pinned a prepared letter to the front seat:

Gentlemen,

Your Divisional Commander, General Kreipe, was captured a short time ago by a BRITISH Raiding Force under our command. By the time you read this both he and we will be on our way to Cairo.

We would like to point out most emphatically that this operation has been carried out without the help of CRETANS or CRETAN partisans and the only guides used were serving soldiers of HIS HELLENIC MAJESTY’S FORCES in the Middle East, who came with us.

Your General is an honourable prisoner of war and will be treated with all the consideration owing to his rank. Any reprisals against the local population will thus be wholly unwarranted and unjust.

Beneath their signatures they appended a postscript: “We are very sorry to have to leave this beautiful motor car behind.” Other signs of British involvement—Players’ cigarette stubs, a commando beret, an Agatha Christie novel, a Cadbury’s chocolate wrapper—were scattered in the car or nearby.

At daybreak the general was hidden in a cave near the rebellious village of Anoyeia. Leigh Fermor was still in German uniform when he entered the village with one of the andartes. “For the first time,” he wrote,

I realised how an isolated German soldier in a Cretan mountain village was treated. All talk and laughter died at the washing troughs, women turned their backs and thumped their laundry with noisy vehemence; cloaked shepherds, in answer to greeting, gazed past us in silence; then stood and watched us out of sight. An old crone spat on the ground…. In a moment we could hear women’s voices wailing into the hills: “The black cattle have strayed into the wheat!” and “Our in-laws have come!”—island-wide warnings of enemy arrival.

Yet his party’s progress soon came to resemble a royal procession. Guerrilla bands and villagers who recognized what had happened greeted them with jubilation and supplied food, guides, and escorts. But the going was very hard. Thousands of German troops were fanning across the mountains in search of them. Reconnaissance planes showered the country with threatening leaflets. Still, the group vanished from German sight among the goat tracks and canyons east of Mount Ida, whose eight-thousand-foot bulk straddles a quarter of the island. They crossed it in deep snow.

The general was a heftily built, rather dull man who trudged with them in reconciled gloom. He was not a brute, like Müller, but the thirteenth child of a Lutheran pastor whose chief worry, at first, was the loss of his Knights’ Cross medal in the scuffle. Sometimes a mule was found for him, but he fell twice, heavily. “I wish I’d never come to this accursed island,” he said. “It was supposed to be a nice change after the Russian front.”

On the slopes of Ida one dawn, where the two SOE officers and the general had been sleeping in a cave under the same flea-ridden blanket, Leigh Fermor placed the incident that he celebrated more than thirty years later in his A Time of Gifts. Gazing at the mountain crest across the valley, the general murmured to himself the start of a Horatian ode in Latin. It is one that Leigh Fermor knew (his memory was prodigious), and he completed the ode through its last five stanzas:

The general’s blue eyes had swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine—and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.

By now German troops were spreading across the long southern coast, from which the general would most likely be shipped to Egypt on a motor launch or submarine summoned by radio. But the radios and their clandestine operators were forced to relocate continually by German maneuvers, a crucial wireless-charging engine broke down, and messages (carried by runners) quickly became redundant as enemy troops took over remote beaches.

Yet Leigh Fermor’s party, sometimes guided by andartes’ beacons, slipped through the tightening cordon, and arrived at the defiant haven of the Amari Valley villages. It was another eight days, far to the west, before they found an undefended beach, made contact with a radio operator and with SOE headquarters in Cairo, and were promised a boat for the following night. In a last, ludicrous hitch, as Leigh Fermor and Moss attempted to flash the agreed Morse code signal for the rendezvous into the dark, they could not remember the code for “B.” But another of the group did; the motor launch returned, and they embarked for Egypt in euphoria, after shedding their boots and weapons for those comrades left behind.

It was soon after his capture, on the road beyond Heraklion, that General Kreipe, a tried professional soldier, asked, “Tell me, Major, what is the object of this hussar-stunt?”

In Abducting a General Leigh Fermor stresses morale: the blow to German confidence and the boost to Cretan resistance and pride. Immersed as he was in the emotional politics of the island, he felt the endeavor to be worth the risk. But others questioned it. Strategically it was irrelevant, and under his eventual interrogation the general yielded nothing of interest. “Kreipe is rather unimportant,” concluded the British War Office. “Rather weak character and ignorant.” The historian M.R.D. Foot, to Leigh Fermor’s irritation, called the abduction merely a “tremendous jape,” and even before the project was sanctioned, a senior SOE executive in Cairo, when asked if it should proceed, objected. The executive later wrote:

I made myself exceedingly unpopular by recommending as strongly as I could that we should not. I thought that if it succeeded, the only contribution to the war effort would be a fillip to Cretan morale, but that the price would certainly be heavy in Cretan lives. The sacrifice might possibly have been worthwhile in the black winter of 1941 when things were going badly. The result of carrying it out in 1944, when everyone knew that victory was merely a matter of months would, I thought, hardly justify the cost.

The cost may have been high. Some three and a half months after the general’s kidnapping, with the brutal Müller again the island’s commander, the Germans razed to the ground the recalcitrant village of Anoyeia. Müller’s order of the day was unequivocal. For Anoyeia’s longtime harboring of guerrillas and of British intelligence, for its murder of two separate German contingents, and for its complicity in Kreipe’s abduction:

We order its COMPLETE DESTRUCTION and the execution of every male person of Anogia who would happen to be within the village and around it within a distance of one kilometre.

Nine days later the Amari villages suffered the same fate, with 164 executed. The Greek newspaper Paratiritis, an organ of German propaganda, cited their support for the Kreipe abduction as the reason.

Patrick Leigh Fermor and Yanni Tsangarakis, Hordaki, Crete
Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive/National Library of Scotland

Patrick Leigh Fermor (right) and Yanni Tsangarakis, Hordaki, Crete, May 1943

Leigh Fermor, by then convalescing in a Cairo hospital, was shattered by the news. Yet in retrospect he realized that some four months—an unprecedentedly long time—had elapsed before the German reprisals, which were usually instantaneous. There are historians who agree that citing Kreipe’s abduction was little more than an excuse, and that the real, unpublishable reason was that within two months the German forces were to start their mass withdrawal west across the island, exposing them to hostile regions like Amari that flanked their line of retreat. Colonel Dunbabin, Leigh Fermor’s overall commander, in his final report on SOE missions in Crete, shared this assessment, adding that Müller’s purpose was “to commit the German soldiers to terrorist acts so that they should know that there would be no mercy for them if they surrendered or deserted.”

When Leigh Fermor returned to the island soon after, his Cretan friends comforted him that the German revenge would have happened anyway: “These were consoling words; never a syllable of blame was uttered. I listened to them eagerly then, and set them down eagerly now.”

These thoughts and memories, of course, were written in retrospect. By the time of their composition in 1966 and 1967 Leigh Fermor had already completed a novella, a brief study of monastic life, and three travel books, including two fine descriptions of Greece, Mani and Roumeli. His Abducting a General, besides its value as a war document, slips readily into narrative reminiscent of a dramatic travel book, peppered with anecdote and irresistible asides. This is part of its allure. Military data merge seamlessly with the evocation of people and landscapes. A threatening storm is evoked in images of aerial pandemonium above a landscape of rotting cliffs and lightning-struck gorges. (One sentence of Proustian complexity runs to 138 words.) A cave in which the abduction party shelters from the exposing daylight is described with an eye for more than its military use:

It was a measureless natural cavern that warrened and forked deep into the rocks, and then dropped, storey after storey, to lightless and nearly airless stalactitic dungeons littered with the horned skeletons of beasts which had fallen there and starved to death in past centuries: a dismal den, floored with millennia of goats’ pellets, dank as a tomb.

The second, shorter section of the book is devoted to Leigh Fermor’s contemporary War Reports. Most valuable is his account of another evacuation. In September 1943 Italy surrendered to the Allies, and General Angelo Carta, commander of the 32,000-strong Italian Siena division occupying eastern Crete, was being hunted by the Germans. Through Carta’s counterespionage officer Franco Tavana, who handed over detailed Italian defense plans, Leigh Fermor organized the general’s escape, from a chaotic beachhead, to Egypt.

Even the reports are vivid with incident. On a clandestine visit to Tavana, Leigh Fermor hid under a bed from intruding Germans, “clutching my revolver, and swallowing pounds of fluff and cobwebs.” Crouched in the cellar of an Orthodox abbot, while sheltering from an enemy patrol—“It was a very near thing”—he glimpsed the Germans’ boots two feet above him through the floorboards. Elsewhere he describes how—heavily disguised—he taught a trio of drunken Wehrmacht sergeants to dance the Greek pentozali. It comes as a shock to realize that any Allied operative arrested on the island would be brutally tortured, then shot.

Leigh Fermor’s courage, generosity, and high spirits famously endeared him to the Cretans. He sang, danced, and drank with them. Naturally generous and uncritical, he describes almost every mountaineer as a model of hardiness and bravery: “Originality and inventiveness in conversation and an explosive vitality…. There was something both patrician and bohemian in their attitude to life.” He might have been describing himself. “We could not have lasted a day without the islanders’ passionate support.”

Among the Cretans Leigh Fermor most admired was a slight, high-spirited youth named George Psychoundakis (affectionately code-named the “Changebug”), whom the SOE used as a runner carrying messages over the mountains. This impoverished shepherd, whom Leigh Fermor’s confederate Xan Fielding called “the most naturally wise and instinctively knowledgeable Cretan I ever met,” could cover the harsh terrain at lightning speed, although he dressed in tatters and his disintegrating boots were secured with wire. After the Occupation ended he was mistakenly interned as a deserter and eventually went to work as a charcoal-burner to support his destitute family. It was at these times—in prisons, and in a cave above his work-site—that he labored on the book that became The Cretan Runner. It was translated by Leigh Fermor, who had discovered its author’s whereabouts after the war.

Patrick Leigh Fermor (right) and Yanni Tsangarakis, Hordaki, Crete, May 1943. Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive/National Library of Scotland

Patrick Leigh Fermor (right) and Yanni Tsangarakis, Hordaki, Crete, May 1943. Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive/National Library of Scotland

Uniquely, it is a narrative written from the lowliest rank of the Greek resistance, by a man who was barely educated, and records four years as a dispatch carrier through the precipitous harshness of western Crete. Sometimes he rendezvoused with British arms drops or guided escaping Allied soldiers to the sea, and he evaded capture by swiftness, resourcefulness, and a profound knowledge of the terrain. He wrote:

My tactics on the march were to know few people, in order that few should know me, even if they were “ours” and good patriots. I kept my mouth shut with everybody, even to the point of idiocy, and these two things kept me safe to the end.

His book is an unaffected day-by-day drama, direct and demotic at best, only occasionally swelling into literary grandiloquence when he feels the subject (patriotism, the dead) requires it. Years later this self-taught prodigy translated the Iliad and the Odyssey into his vernacular Cretan, using the meter of the seventeenth-century romance Erotokritos, and was richly rewarded by the Athens Academy.

Leigh Fermor’s translation of this difficult work arose from his love of Cretan culture as well as respect for Psychoundakis. But his personal immersion in the island came at cost. One of his War Reports expands wretchedly on his accidental shooting of a partisan and great friend, Yanni Tsangarakis. Its recounting clouded his face even in old age. And misgivings that his Kreipe operation—brilliant and brave as it was—brought retribution on the island he loved may never have quite left him.

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

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.

Patrick Leigh Fermor – the journey continues

From time to time, the Benaki Museum publishes a supplement to its regular journal, and the 9th Supplement is a masterpiece dedicated to Paddy’s life.

Well bound, and coffee table book sized, there are over twenty new articles exploring a range of topics including Paddy’s intimates and friends, his walks, the Cretan resistance, wider discussions of Greece, Paddy’s writing and of course the house.

The Benaki have assembled a remarkable collection of writers including Hamish Robertson, Cressida Connolly, the Marques de Tamaron, Nick Hunt, John Kitmer, Chris White, Colin Thubron, John Julius Norwich, Adam Sisman, and Roberto Calasso amongst others.

The supplement is available from the Benaki Museum shop for 18 Euros plus worldwide DHL shipping.

Details of the contents are here.

A Walk Through Time

young paddyIn the winter of 1933, an 18-year-old named Patrick Leigh Fermor set out from the Hook of Holland to cross Europe on foot. His goal was Istanbul, which he bookishly insisted on calling Constantinople. He had little more in his rucksack than a volume of Horace and a few blank notebooks. He also had a bad reputation: The masters who expelled him from school — for a flirtation with a local girl — saw only “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness.” He spent the next year charming his way through a doomed prewar landscape of landed aristocrats, feudal peasants and benevolent monks, sleeping alternately in schlosses and hayricks. It was a journey that would become legendary, not so much for the extraordinary things he saw and recorded as for his prose — an utterly unique, hybrid vehicle that combines youthful exuberance with a dense, dauntingly erudite display of verbal artifice. Unlike most authors of travel literature (a rattlebag genre that doesn’t really do him justice) Leigh Fermor does not confine his role to that of camera obscura. He builds dense whorls of wordplay to echo the carvings in an old church door; he slips into baroque historical fantasias, scattering a shrapnel of words like “gabions,” “hydromel,” “eyot” and “swingle­trees” at the unsuspecting reader. In between salvos, there are moments of ferocious humor and quiet, lyrical beauty.

By Robert F. Worth

First published in the New York Times, 7 March 2014

In part, this richness is a measure of the extraordinary gap between the experience and its narration. Leigh Fermor did not begin writing the first book about his journey, “A Time of Gifts,” until the 1970s. In the intervening decades, he had written several other books, becoming a fiercely learned autodidact and adventurer. His exploits during and after World War II — when he helped to kidnap the Nazi commandant in Crete and deliver him to a waiting British submarine — are said to have helped inspire his friend Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels. As a result, the travel narratives are a kind of palimpsest in which his younger and older selves exist in counterpoint. He initially considered naming the first book “Parallax,” to reflect this split perspective.

Few books have been as keenly or lengthily anticipated as the third and final volume of Leigh Fermor’s youthful travels. (A second installment, “Between the Woods and the Water,” was published in 1986.) It never appeared; burdened by writer’s block and frailty, Leigh Fermor was still working on it when he died in 2011 at age 96. But he did leave a manuscript. His biographer, Artemis Cooper, and the British travel writer Colin Thubron chose to tidy it up and publish it as “The Broken Road,” a reference to the abrupt narrative halt before the author reaches Istanbul.

“The Broken Road” narrates Leigh Fermor’s travels in Bulgaria, Romania and Greece, a more tribal and violent world than Northern Europe. It does not always have the gemlike polish of the first two volumes. But it is an unforgettable book, full of strange encounters with a prewar Balkan cast of counts, prostitutes, peasants, priests and castrati. The greatest pleasure of all, as usual, is Leigh Fermor’s own infectious, Rabelaisian hunger for knowledge of almost every kind. His memory seems eidetic; his eyes miss nothing. He seems to carry within himself a whole troupe of sharp-eyed geographers, art historians, ethnologists and multilingual poets. For anyone who has tried to document a journey, reading him is a humbling and thoroughly inspiring experience.

“The Broken Road” is also full of his signature verbal architecture: The Orthodox bishops “in copes as stiff and brilliant as beetles’ wings, and the higher clergy, coiffed with globular gold mitres the size of pumpkins and glistening with gems, leaned on croziers topped with twin coiling snakes.” Or the Virgilian evocation of a passing flock of storks in the Balkan mountains, which goes on for pages: “All at once we were under a high shifting roof of wings, a flotilla that was thickening into an armada, until our ears were full of the sound of rustling and rushing with a flutter now and then when a bird changed position in a slow wingbeat or two, and of the strange massed creaking, as of many delicate hinges, of a myriad slender joints. They benighted the air.”

In some respects this book is even more satisfying than its predecessors because it is less guarded; the narrator emerges as an angrier, more troubled and more persuasive character. One of my few quarrels with “A Time of Gifts” is the dogged high-mindedness of Leigh Fermor’s youthful self. Where is the lust? Where is the rage? This man is 18 years old, for God’s sake. He never gives way to the curse-spitting xenophobia that overcomes most travelers (certainly me) at some point in their journeys. He runs into plenty of jams, and meets plenty of pretty young girls; but there is something a little too noble about him, too much of the innocent abroad.

This time things are different, and the young man seems to break free of his older narrator. At one point, lying on the damp earthen floor of a Bulgarian peasant’s hut, he gives way to revulsion at the “noisily hibernating rustics swathed all over this stifling hellhole.” He is overcome by self-hatred and yearns for the comfort and status of his school-bound peers. Elsewhere, he meets a spirited Bulgarian girl named Nadejda and falls in love with her; their romance, though apparently unconsummated, reeks of the adolescent emotional frailty that seemed absent in the earlier books.

One of the most vivid passages in “The Broken Road” takes place in Bucharest, where young Paddy (as all his friends called him) checks into what he takes for a modest hotel, the Savoy-Ritz, giving his bags to a baffled patronne. He returns late that night and discovers that it is not a hotel but a brothel. The laughing madam ushers him into the kitchen, where four attractive young prostitutes are eating a late supper: “I was given a chair and a glass of wine, and the girls on either side cut off bits of chicken breast and offered them on their forks with friendly solicitude.” The women, charmed by his youth and innocence, feed and fuss over him for several days, telling him stories about their clients and themselves, though he remains discreetly silent about whether he got anything for free.

“The Broken Road” ends in midsentence, and the editors have chosen to follow it with excerpts from the diary Leigh Fermor wrote in early 1935, mostly at Mt. Athos in Greece. These are fascinating precisely because they are so ordinary: Suddenly we see how lucky we are that Leigh Fermor chose to wait four decades before starting. Young men have strong legs and eyes, but it is the older narrator, with his multilayered perspective, who knows how to turn memory into art.

History also played a role. “The Broken Road” is strewn with ominous, proleptic hints about the future that only we — and the older narrator — are privy to. In “A Time of Gifts,” the Nazis were a constant presence, crass and often ludicrous, waiting to inherit Europe. In this book, it is both the Soviet boot and the Balkan breakup that lurk throughout, as young Paddy listens to his Bulgarian and Romanian friends spew hatred of one another. But he also evokes a quiet, starlit world where countless eccentricities of folk art and culture bloomed in isolated villages and persisted for centuries, untouched by the glare of television and the Internet. Much of this is gone now. We can be grateful he was there to record it.

THE BROKEN ROAD

From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos

By Patrick Leigh Fermor

Edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper

362 pp. New York Review Books. $30.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: his final journey

Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron on PLF walkColin Thubron introduces an exclusive extract from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘The Broken Road’, the concluding part of his account of his teenage walk across Europe.

By Colin Thubron with Patrick Leigh Fermor

First published in the Telegraph 1 September 2013.

Patrick Leigh Fermor never quite completed the long-awaited third volume of his youthful journey across Europe. He was 18 when he set out to walk from Holland to Turkey in 1933, but the first two magnificent books recording this epic – A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water were published only in 1977 and 1986 respectively. The second ended with the implacable words “To be Concluded”, and for years expectations ran high that a final book would follow, carrying its hero from the Iron Gates, on the Romanian-Bulgarian border, to Constantinople.

But for Paddy (as friends and fans called him) a long ice age set in: a writer’s block that dogged him for the rest of his life. On completion of the second volume he was already in his seventies, and the pressure of expectation, the demands of his highly wrought style and his own perfectionism were overwhelming.

Yet ironically a near-complete draft of the third volume – written in pen on stiff sheets of paper – had been lying for years on a shelf in his study, in three black ring binders, all but forgotten. It had been composed following a request from Holiday magazine in 1962 that he record his whole trek in a 5,000-word essay. Paddy abandoned this essay when it reached the Iron Gates, but then launched into a full-scale retrieval of his trek’s last stretch: a work he eventually gave the stopgap title of A Youthful Journey. Then this, in turn, was abandoned, with the realisation that he must start all over again, and describe his walk from its beginning.

The initial two volumes were written virtually from memory: a prodigious feat of recall coupled with a rich imagination. His first diary of the journey was stolen in a Munich youth hostel in 1934. His later diaries went missing during the Second World War. But a final one, covering the last stretch of his trek, was preserved by his first great love, the Romanian princess Balasha Cantacuzène, who hurled it into her suitcase in the few minutes allowed her by communist officials when she was ejected from her estate in 1949.

Patrick Leigh Fermor at the Rila monastery, Bulgaria, autumn 1934

Patrick Leigh Fermor at the Rila monastery, Bulgaria, autumn 1934

Yet this diary, recovered from Balasha in Romania during a clandestine visit by Paddy in 1965, did nothing to cure his writer’s block.

Perhaps its callow text conflicted with the more mature writing of A Youthful Journey; or perhaps the factual discrepancies in the two versions troubled him. Only in 2008, when already in his nineties, did he seriously begin, painfully and intermittently, to revise the Great Trudge, as he called it. But by now he was suffering from tunnel vision, and his stamina was failing. He died in 2011 at the age of 96, still working on the narrative in a fragile hand.

So it fell to two of his three literary executors, his biographer Artemis Cooper and myself, to prepare the text for publication.

A Youthful Journey was largely written between 1963 and 1964, in prolix bursts of enthusiasm, and its grammar, punctuation and even its style were far from what Paddy considered finished. In our revision we laboured to preserve his inimitable style, while clarifying and refining the text in a process as close as we could get to his exacting practice. There is not a sentence that is not his.

But The Broken Road is our own title. It acknowledges not only that Paddy never, in the end, continued his written journey to Constantinople – it stops 50 miles short of the Turkish frontier – but also that this is not the exuberantly polished volume that he would have most desired. Yet it includes passages perhaps as fine as any he wrote. Its editing was aided by our sense of Paddy’s previous work, of course, by our knowledge of the man himself, and by his few hints and tentative suggestions. And here his journey must rest.

Map accompanying The Broken Road

Map accompanying The Broken Road

Extracts from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘The Broken Road’

“The party went with a bhang”

The lights of Tirnovo were beginning to twinkle in every window, the sun had set, and the prospect of my St Jerome-like hermitage loomed rather bleakly, especially compared to the gleaming interior of the grocer’s: the barrels of anchovies, the hanging flitches, the lamplight refracting a battery of bottles, the dried figs impaled on skewers of bamboo, the kegs and crates and jars and the pyramids of wares from Germany and Austria, the scarlet bacon slicer with its flashing disc of blade, the huge cheeses and the cubistic mounds of halva. It glowed like Aladdin’s cave.

But the shop was empty. A boy of about my own age who had been sitting reading a book on the doorstep got up and followed me in. Where was I from? Whither bound?

Cheerful alacrity and a friendly glance accompanied these questions. We were soon perched on the edge of barrels, clinking slivo glasses and exchanging autobiographies. Gatcho was the grocer’s son, and he was looking after the shop while his father was at some ex-officers’ anniversary celebration, a reunion of old comrades from the Balkan wars.

This particular season, once more, seemed to be crowded with holidays and parties and religious feasts, which kept us up late and beset the mornings with headaches. Gatcho demonstrated a way of finding out if the next day was going to be a feast day, by a method about as reliable as predicting a stranger’s arrival by tea leaves. He found my sheepskin kalpack among the heaped-up chattels on my bed. He pounced on it with glee, crying, “Let’s see whether tomorrow is a prazdnik” – a feast – then lifted it above his head and flung it on the floor, which it struck with a dull thud. His brows knitted with vexation. He repeated it several times. If the hat hit the boards fair and square, he explained, it would give a loud report like the explosion of a paper bag. “There we are,” he said. “All’s well. Prazdnik tomorrow.” And so it was.

In the small hours of one of these celebrations, we found ourselves with half a dozen of the blades of Tirnovo in a hut on the outskirts of the town, smoking hashish. The dried and powdered leaves were packed into the tube of a cigarette paper from which deft fingers had laboriously prodded the tobacco. Lit, and then solemnly passed from hand to hand until the clouds of smoke enveloped us with a sweetish vegetable reek, it brought on a faint dizziness and a gregarious onslaught of helpless laughter.

Bulgaria, it appeared, was one of the richest natural hashish gardens in the world. Cannabis indica thrives in embarrassing abundance. Its cultivation, which is scarcely necessary, and its smoking, my companions explained between puffs, were strictly forbidden: “Mnogo zabraneno. Ha! Ha! Ha!” But the ban seemed about as effective as legislation against cow parsley or nettles. I longed for the opportunity to say “the party went with a bhang!” The lack of opportunity to say so, however, didn’t stop me saying it, and dissolving in transports of hilarity at my own wit.

“A soul in hell”

The following days were raining off and on the whole time, soaking the lowlands and an ever-thickening crop of villages. I stuck to the main road, watching occasional cars pass, and, more temptingly, buses, with PYCCE plastered across the front – Russe, the Bulgarian name for [the city of] Rustchuk. On one of these drizzly stretches, I fell in with a fellow wayfarer heading north like me, a young barber from Pazardjik called Ivancho, threadbare and urban and with a face like a hare’s. Where was I from? Anglitchanin? Tchudesno! – “Wonderful!” This revelation was followed by a burst of talk that needed no answer. It was uttered at such speed that I could scarcely understand a word – at the same time eager, confidential and ear­piercing, and without the faintest trace of punctuation, accompanied by many gestures and with a fixed smile and those hare’s eyes projecting and rolling, as though loose in their sockets.

It continued for mile after mile till my head began to swim and ache. I tried to detach myself and draw on inner resources, merely muttering Da or Nè when a pause occurred. But these were not always the right answers and my companion would begin again, catching me by the elbow and prodding me with his forefinger with redoubled urgency and a crablike veer of his fast and tripping gait that always edged me across the road and nearly into the field, till I darted round the other side and into the middle again, only to be seized once more and harangued off the road on the other side with the same smiling urgency and with eyes peering mesmerically so that it seemed impossible to deflect them. Sometimes he was walking backwards in front, almost dancing along the road in reverse, the unstaunchable flow gushing unbroken from his smiling and gabbling lips. Once I turned round in a circle and he danced briskly round in a wider circle still talking faster and faster.

I tried to counter-attack by resolutely bawling Stormy Weather, but it was too slow. He dived in between the bars, so I shifted to The Lincolnshire Poacher, Lillibulero, On a Friday Morn When we Set Sail, and Maurice Chevalier’s Valentine, over and over again. My head was splitting and I sighed for the tomb and the silence of eternity. People had often teased me for gasbag tendencies, especially when a bit drunk. If only they could see this retribution!

There was only one hope. Ivancho belonged to some kind of pan-Bulgarian barbers’ guild – he had showed me a dog-eared card with a snapshot glued to it – and in two nearby villages that we had passed before I realised how it worked, he had entered a barber’s shop, displayed his card and emerged with a handful of leva. In the next village we came to, I took discreetly to my heels and ran full tilt along the road. Looking back, I saw him emerge, catch sight of my diminishing figure, and set off in pursuit. But I had a good start and the distance widened. I pounded on like a stag with a lightening heart and finally, when the road stretched bare behind me, slowed down, free at last. But a few minutes later a northward-bound car slowed down and Ivancho, with a forefinger wagging in playful admonition, leapt from the running-board.

There was nothing for it. All the evening, and all through dinner, the torment continued till at last I lurched to bed, but not to sleep for any time. Fortunately, though, owing to lack of room, different roofs were sheltering us. After a few nightmare-ridden hours, I got up in the dark, paid, and slipped out before breakfast, and away. But I had not gone a furlong before a waiting shadow detached itself from a tree. A cheerful voice, refreshed by sleep, wished me good morning, and a friendly hand fluttered to my shoulder. Day broke slowly.

Stunned and battered, I saw my chance early in the afternoon. We were sheltering from the rain, drinking Russian tea an inch deep in sugar in the kretchma of a large village. A battered bus was drawn up outside, and the driver-­conductor was drinking with some cronies at another table. I left the table with the excuse of the lavatory, and, outside, made a pleading gesture towards the conductor through the glass top of a door. He joined me, and I haltingly explained my case. He had heard and seen the social amenities rattling about my table; perhaps he could tell from my eyes that he was talking to a soul in hell.

Back in the main room I made the treacherous suggestion to Ivancho that we should take the bus to Rustchuk and get out of the rain: I would pay for the journey. Would he please buy the tickets, I said, handing over the money, as my Bulgarian was so bad? He assented eagerly and volubly. There was a hitch at the bus door: he insisted I should get in first. We struggled and the driver shouted impatiently. I managed to shove him in and the driver pulled the lever that slammed the door, and moved off. I could see Ivancho gesticulating and shouting but all in vain. He shot me a harrowing glance from his hare-eyes, I waved, and the rain swallowed them up. In a few minutes, I took a side-path through a field of damp sunflowers. Taking no chances, I followed a wide loop far from the dangers of the main road. The guilt implanted by Ivancho’s reproachful glance almost managed to mar the ensuing feelings of relief and liberation, but not quite. Not even the bitter wind from the east, as steady as an express train, could do that.

The Broken Road book cover

The Broken Road book cover

The book is available to pre-order from Amazon, just click here The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos

Artemis Cooper on Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘Broken Road’ at King’s Place Festival

Artemis will be discussing The Broken Road at the King’s Place Festival in London’s King’s Cross on 15 September 2013.

The blurb fails to mention that Colin Thubron jointly edited Paddy’s manuscript with Artemis.

Booking detals can be found here.

The book is available to pre-order from Amazon, just click here The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos

Preview copy of The Broken Road

The Broken Road book cover

The Broken Road book cover

Not only did I have a lovely meal last night with friends, and awoke to a beautiful English summer’s morning, but my preview copy of The Broken Road was delivered this morning. It looks as beautiful as you would expect and I was pleased to see that Colin Thubron is given “lead billing” as editor; Colin has sometimes been overlooked but this is very much a joint project with Artemis Cooper.

I am looking forward to reading it in my lunch break today!!

The book is available to pre-order from Amazon, just click here The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos

The Broken Road – book cover artwork

The Broken Road book cover

The Broken Road book cover

A message from Artemis Cooper who is preparing Vol Three – The Broken Road – with Colin Thubron.

Here is the art work for ‘The Broken Road’, the final volume of Paddy’s great walk which comes out on 12 September… it is by Ed Kluz, a great choice of artist by John Murray. Ed is very much in the English pastoral and Romantic tradition, like John Craxton who did all the covers for Paddy’s books. I know Paddy would have LOVED it.

Available to pre-order from Amazon The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos

A Pilgrimage Through Paddy’s London

Rake’s progress: Leigh Fermor set out from his rooms in Shepherd Market for Constantinople in 1933

And we’re off. This is the Patrick Leigh Fermor Tribute Walk, a bit of a Magical Mayfair Mystery Tour or even, as I prefer, a Paddy Pilgrimage: a literary procession in honour of the late warrior-writer through the London he knew during the course of an enviably long and dazzlingly adventurous life.

By Justin Marozzi.

First published in Standpoint Magazine, December 2012.

We have gathered at Heywood Hill, the venerable Curzon Street bookshop where Paddy, as he was always known to friends and fans, had an account for decades. The pilgrims are a caravan of travel writers and publishers, friends, acolytes, devotees and disciples, for such is the admiration—shading into unadulterated hero worship in some quarters—for a man considered one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century. Our group includes the travel writers Colin Thubron, Sara Wheeler, Anthony Sattin, Jason Elliot and Robert Macfarlane, the writers and historians Jason Goodwin and Fergus Fleming, publishers Roland Philipps and Barnaby Rogerson (in a tangerine linen suit), Mark Amory of the Spectator, an exuberant throng expertly marshalled by Paddy’s biographer Artemis Cooper.

It is not surprising that a man who wrote like an angel, fought like a knight and had beautiful women swooning at his feet for most of his adult life should attract such a following and such affection. Few men can claim to have walked across a continent, fallen in love with a princess, kidnapped a German general, joined a Greek cavalry charge and written a string of masterpieces.

“Patrick Leigh Fermor, the man, could have sprung from the pages of Cervantes or Homer, and we revere him at Heywood Hill for his courage, style and beautiful manners,” says Nicky Dunne, chairman of the bookshop, who dreamt up this expedition.

Paddy lived above the shop briefly in 1947 with Joan, his future wife. In 1965, horrified to have discovered how Communism had destroyed so many of his friends in the Europe he had walked across in 1933-34—”disaster overtook them all”—he set up an account at Heywood Hill for the great love of his youth, the Byzantine princess and artist Balasha Cantacuzene. “He couldn’t do much but he could make sure that at least she was never without good books,” says Cooper.

Our unruly, traffic-blocking gaggle spills out onto Curzon Street to the astonishment of passers-by—30 men and women sporting bright blue earpieces is a curious sight—and ducks into Shepherd Market to our next stop, 28 Market Street: four square windows above the “PLUS NEWS” newsagent. Having been kicked out of almost every school he had attended, Paddy washed up here as a restless 18-year-old with literary longings and a diminutive allowance. His long-suffering landlady, assaulted by endless revelry, was Miss Beatrice Stewart, an artist’s model who had sat for Sargent and Augustus John and was later immortalised in bronze as the Angel of Peace in Adrian Jones’s Quadriga of War on the Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner. “I can never pass the top of Constitution Hill without thinking of her and gazing up at the winged and wreath-bearing goddess sailing across the sky,” Paddy wrote in a typical flight of fancy.

“This is where the great walk began,” Cooper explains. “He’s lurching between high spirits and utter despair, filled with self-loathing, going to endless parties, ‘drowning hangovers like kittens’. His father wants him to get a job but Paddy thinks a career is life imprisonment. He’s uninstitutionalisable. All he wants to do is write.”

Hightailing it out of this Rake’s Progress, Paddy walked from the Hook of Holland through Nazi Germany to Constantinople. It took him over a year from 1933-34, much of it spent “in a coma of happiness” recounted decades later in the spellbinding prose of A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). Our little saunter is less than a mile in more than an hour. Yet what we may lack in schloss-hopping mileage and accumulated time, we make up for in rowdiness and delight. This could be a lesser-known ecclesiastical ritual of the Eastern Church, the Adoration of the Paddy. And we all know it will end, as it should, with wine.

We head towards Berkeley Square on roads slick with rain. “Paddy was my earliest model of a travel writer: brave, curious, cultivated and a marvellously gifted stylist,” says Thubron, president of the Royal Society of Literature. “It’s strange to be walking commemoratively through a world that’s not usually associated with him—not the Greece or Eastern Europe which all his readers know, but the London—still pouring rain—from which he set out 80 years ago.”

Friends and admirers of Patrick Leigh Fermor outside Heywood Hill, his favourite bookshop, in London’s Shepherd Market

Friends of Patrick Leigh Fermor outside Heywood Hill, his favourite bookshop, in London’s Shepherd Market

Here we are a stone’s throw from The Running Horse pub on Davies Street, from where Paddy briefly and rather successfully sold silk stockings as an impecunious teenager. Invited to share his tips with his fellow salesmen one evening, he popped a stocking onto his hand and described its properties as though it were a condom. He was fired on the spot. “That was the last sales job he ever had,” says Cooper. One night in the summer of 1940, when the London skyline was thick with smoke and flames, Paddy entered Berkeley Square from Piccadilly. “The blaze of an explosion had revealed two sides of that sentimental quadrangle in a disordered wreckage of wood and stone,” he wrote. “Only one thing remained standing. Perched three stories high on a tottering pinnacle of rubble was a white marble privy, glowing shyly in this unaccustomed radiance.”

We beetle along to Lansdowne Row, where Cooper describes a literary catastrophe on neighbouring Stratton Street, once home to the Baroness d’Erlanger, a rich and eccentric artist: “I think she had a bit of a crush on him.” Everyone did. In 1937 or 1938, Paddy left two trunks here full of papers connected with his trans-Europe tramp—every letter, diary and early draft. The Baroness moved home, put Paddy’s trunks into storage at the Harrods Depository, only for Harrods to sell them off years later because Paddy had forgotten to pay the storage charge. He had lost everything. There is a collective writerly wince. “Paddy said the pain used to ache ‘like an old wound in wet weather’, but I think it was the best thing that ever happened to him,” says Cooper. “It sort of set him free, allowing him to remember with advantage.”

To 50 Albemarle Street, former HQ for John Murray publishers, a powerhouse of British writers from Byron, Darwin and Disraeli to Walter Scott, Conan Doyle and Paddy. “Jock Murray was the best publisher and editor Paddy could have hoped for,” says Cooper. “In the days before agents he was also Paddy’s banker, therapist, PR consultant, book-finder and poste restante.”

Picking up the pace now like horses heading home—drinks at the Travellers Club await—we stride magnificently down Jermyn Street. One imagines Paddy, sartorially something of a peacock, thoroughly at home here.

“Oh God, absolutely!” Cooper says, laughing. “Hats from Lock, shoes from Lobb, Savile Row suits. He loved all these shops. Paddy adored clothes. In all his books the costumes of men and women are described in extraordinary detail. I’ve walked along Jermyn Street with him, striding along with his cane with that lovely flick upwards before putting it down. If you didn’t know, you’d think he’d never left the Home Counties.”

Into the final furlong and past the Cavendish Hotel, an unlovely blend of underground car-park and drive-through fast-food forecourt. “Here he met the tail end of the Bright Young Things, a decade after all those parties that had scandalised society.” Alistair Graham, Jennifer Fry, Eddie Gathorne-Hardy, Mark Ogilvie-Grant . . . and Elizabeth Pelly, to whom Paddy lost his virginity.

“They’re a revelation to him. Godlike and irresistible. Suddenly he feels he’s met kindred spirits.” He didn’t meet Evelyn Waugh at the Cavendish because Waugh was banned. Mrs Rosa Lewis, the owner, did not find her portrayal as Mrs Crump in Vile Bodies amusing. “If I get my ‘ands on that Mr Woo-agh,” she told Paddy, “I’ll cut ‘is winkle orff!”

Through St James’s Square and we’re almost trotting into Pall Mall, from where it is a hop, skip and jump up the 11 steps into the Travellers Club, whose bar Paddy did more than most to prop up—together with those of White’s, Pratt’s, the Beefsteak and the Special Forces Club—during 66 years as a member. In 1950, the Club Secretary reported to the House Committee that the nomadically careless Paddy owed “over £100 for storage, if by-law 6 were to be strictly enforced”.

There is an inescapable whiff of glamour and adventure at the launch party. A light sprinkling of aristocracy, a smattering of bohemian scruff, the sparkle of beautiful women, sumptuously suited grandees, suggestions of espionage, the straight-backed swagger of military top brass.

Paddy was a prodigious drinker. He once wrote of retsina: “One of its secrets is drinking it with unstinted abundance. It seems to have an alliance with the air in the promotion of well-being. Many people think that it bestows the gift of bodily health as well; a belief I accept at once without further scrutiny.”

The evening dissolves into high spirits, laughter and torrents of wine. The hommage is complete.

Related articles:

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘magical’ tour

Marathon man – Justin Marozzi interviews Paddy and drinks quite a lot of retsina.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: the story was the thing

The Royal Geographical Society was full to overflowing last week to hear Colin Thubron in conversation with Artemis Cooper, the accomplished biographer of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Memory, as we all know, can be an unreliable witness.  As Cooper explained, Paddy, who died at the age of 96 last year, was a story teller: a complex man who struggled with depression, who loved life, who loved people, but who at his heart was intensely private.  It amused me when I first arrived in Greece that everyone we met seemed to have a ‘Paddy’ story: rather like Princess Diana he was one of those charismatic icons that everyone wanted to own: a living legend. It was appropriate that he chose the wild Mani at Kardymili for his home, for it is a land of heroes and myths.

By Lauren O’Hara.

Published in The Cyprus Mail 3 November, 2012

It was brave of Cooper to tackle the question of the elaboration of truth, the ability of PLF like any good raconteur to give edited highlights: to cut and paste to make the tale more engaging: the spirit rather than the letter of historical accuracy.

She took head on too, the reasons for his mixed reception in Crete, the place where he won a DSO for the daring capture of General Kreipe. The place where he was parachuted in by British intelligence to live in the wilds, as a shepherd, to organise the Cretan resistance: the place where he was immortalised on celluloid, forever, by the dashing casting of Dirk Bogarde.

But there was a dark side: the accidental killing by Paddy, mishandling a loaded gun, of his comrade in arms in the Cretan resistance, Yanni Tsangarakis. It resulted in a long blood feud, after the war, leaving Paddy with a death vendetta on his head.  Yanni’s family finally forgave him, but you cannot help but wonder if Paddy ever forgave himself. Cooper also tackled the terrible reprisals that happened as the Germans withdrew from Crete killing many of the men in the villages, and astutely blaming not Paddy but that policy, still used in wars today,  which sees Special Operations’ forces  sabotage and create havoc and then leave. For as we see in the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan it is always, however grateful for the intervention, those left behind that count the cost in lives and revenge.

A year ago we were at a party at Paddy’s house to celebrate his life and legacy which left the house as a permanent memorial to the Benaki Foundation: a ‘study centre’ – to be used for writers, scholars and historians. Inevitably, given the limitations of money, for the house comes with no endowment, plans will take time to unfold. Meanwhile, those lucky enough to go will find it full of the spirit of the man: to be loved even more, perhaps, once this biography humanises the hero, for like the Greek gods that squabble and feast in the high mountains behind the house, flawed heroes are far more fun.

Related article:

‘A Tonic and a Treat’ – Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Celebration

‘A Tonic and a Treat’ – Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Celebration

Last Wednesday over seven hundred people packed out the main lecture hall of the Royal Geographic Society to hear Colin Thubron question Artemis Cooper about Paddy’s life in a joint event with the Royal Society of Literature, of which Colin is President. The event, sponsored by Art Tours, was entertaining, if perhaps a little shorter than one would have liked.

By Tom Sawford.

Artemis revealed how difficult it was to get Paddy to talk about his life, his experience and friends until on one visit to Kardamyli after Joan’s death she found every horizontal surface of his study, including the floor, covered with groaning piles of books, magazines, journals and personal correspondence (and I daresay some unpaid bills!). She offered to help him create some order and in doing so she started to ask questions: ‘I didn’t know that you had met so-and-so’ at which point Paddy, always happy to be distracted from his Herculean struggle with Vol Three, would brighten and start to expound on this outing, that visit or other glittering adventure. It was in this way that Artemis was able to make notes and get behind what she describes as the ‘waterfall’ of banter when asked directly to talk about his life.

It appears also that Paddy was perhaps always happy to receive visitors and recount old stories as he suffered both from bouts of personal depression and writer’s block.  Colin Thubron described the time that he and Paddy went for a long swim at Kardamyli and when well away from the house and others he talked to Colin about his struggles with this block, and his inability to understand this and his state of mind. Artemis said that Paddy was not ‘an intellectual’ and did not think too deeply. He was a ‘polymath’, less inclined to ask why, but rather dazzled, entertained, and fascinated by outward appearances and the sheer joy of being.

The other great excuse for not working was his correspondence with the three great correspondents of his life: Debo Devonshire, Annie Fleming and Diana Cooper. They were an ‘entertainment’ which Paddy approached with great enthusiasm and which ‘took up a lot of his time’ enabling him to divert his energies from his other writing.

We were also given a glimpse of The Broken Road (Vol Three) which is being edited jointly by Artemis and Colin. As the biography tells us it will be based almost entirely on the work that Paddy wrote in the early sixties for a US magazine ‘A Youthful Journey’ which was meant to be no more than 5,000 words. Once Paddy had reached the Romanian-Bulgarian border in this retelling he was suddenly gripped by a passion to write down this story in great detail, the result being over 50,000 words about the leg from Romania to Istanbul, although Colin said that the account does not include his time in the City.

Colin told us that this is difficult work, and they are being most careful not to add their own words. There is much work to be done but as I was told last week by Roland Phillips from John Murray, the publication date remains September 2013, not far short of the 70th anniversary of the start of Paddy’s youthful journey.

During the question and answer session a variety of subjects were raised from the condition of the house at Kardamylli – things are moving forward – to whether or not the Horace ode recitation actually did happen – yes it did but it may not have been on Mount Ida.

When it came to the last question a rather large man, wrapped in colourful braces stood up and shouted out that this was not a question but a statement, a Traveller’s Tribute. I think I could hear the whole audience groan quietly in apprehension, but all turned out well. Holding up a copy of the biography he boomed ‘This book is nothing short of a tonic and a treat! It kept me sane today during a long and boring train journey from Scotland!!’ Cue laughter and applause.

The event was sponsored by Art Tours who are arranging a tour of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani in the spring of 2013. Places are limited and already about half are taken so if you wish to go on this tour, which will include Artemis Cooper as a guide and key speaker, please make contact with Edward Gates at Art Tours as quickly as you can edward[at]arttoursltd.com

In addition Art Tours have 15 signed copies of the biography Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure to give away in a competition. To have a chance of winning, please send your Name, Postal Address, email address, and telephone number to Edward. Winners will be contacted in early November.

If you would like to know more about the Mani tour please download this pdf or contact Edward Gates at Art Tours Ltd on +44 (0)207 449 9707 or by email edward[at]arttoursltd.com

 

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘magical’ tour

Friends of Patrick Leigh Fermor outside Heywood Hill, his favourite bookshop, in London’s Shepherd Market

To celebrate the publication of Artemis Cooper’s biography of travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, Today presenter James Naughtie joined a party led by Artemis Cooper to walk past some of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s London haunts. As you may see from the photograph, the participants included Colin Thubron, Cherie Lunghi, Justin Marozzi, Robert Macfarlane, and Gabriella Bullock who is “Billy” Moss’ daughter.

Starting at Paddy’s favourite bookshop (and temporary post-war residence) Heywood Hill, we first braved the traffic in Curzon Street to cross into Shepherd Market where curious drinkers at The Grapes watched as we gazed in awe at 28 Shepherd Market, the place from where Paddy set out on his walk on 8 December 1933. It may have been bombed in the war as the building is a replacement with the enticing Plus News newsagent on the ground floor.

We weaved our way in the dusk to Berkeley Square which Paddy passed through one night during the blitz and later noted ‘only one thing remained standing, three storeys high, stood a white marble privvy’. The journey to Stratton Street was quick and this is where Paddy left two trunks containing most of his documents from the walk which were eventually deposited by the keeper into Harrod’s Depository; Paddy could not pay the large accumulated storage fee and when he did return the trunks and their contents had been sold and dispersed. Artemis observed that perhaps it was a good thing as he had to rely upon his mind and was perhaps ‘set free’.

50 Albemarle Street, the entrance to publisher John Murray

Our touristic snake trailed into Albemarle Street and we passed John Murray’s at number 50, crossed Piccadilly to the entrance of The Ritz where Paddy often stayed, but once had great difficulty entering when in training at the Guards’ Depot as he was dressed in the uniform of a private soldier, the Ritz being for officers only.

Paddy went to riotous and notorious parties at The Cavendish hotel in Duke Street, St James’ with many of the “bright young things” which did not include Evelyn Waugh as he had offended the owner, Mrs Lewis who said of him ‘When I see that Mr Waugh I’m going to cut his winkle orf’. Mrs Lewis indulged Paddy and others of somewhat straightened means and let them build up virtually unlimited credit. She knew that they would be unable to pay, but it was small beer to some of her more wealthy clients who did not check their bills too closely and ended up paying for Paddy’s extravagancies.

Throughout the walk we were accompanied by James Naughtie from Radio 4’s Today programme. He recorded the package below and left early as you would expect from someone who has to get up at about 3.30 am when presenting the programme. Naughtie grabbed some time with Nick Hunt who walked Paddy’s route from Hook of Holland to Constantinople just this year. He promised to make Nick a star. Let’s hope so.

Nick Hunt being interviewed by James Naughtie

This tour through Paddy’s Mayfair was a pre-cursor to the official launch of Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure at Paddy’s old club, The Travellers. Artemis got a very well deserved round of applause for the biography, and she spent most of the evening busy signing books; dozens must have been sold. Ian Hislop made a sartorially unkempt appearance near the end (how did he get in without a tie?), and I think I saw Bank of England Governor, Sir Mervyn King pop in and do his bit for the consumer economy.

Artemis and Colin Thubron in the lobby of the Travellers Club with bust of Paddy


Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure will also be the BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week from 19th November onwards.

You can buy Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure here.

Don’t forget to visit Artemis Cooper’s Facebook page for further information.

A celebration of Patrick Leigh Fermor by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper

There are many events planned to celebrate the publication of Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper, but perhaps the one I am most looking forward to is this one held on 24 October 2012.

Artemis Cooper talks to Colin Thubron about their mutual friend at the Royal Geographic Society. This is a joint event with the Royal Society of Literature. There are membership discounts and RLS members should book through the Royal Society of Literature at http://www.rslit.org

Booking details for the Royal Geographic Society can be found here.

The event is sponsored by Art Tours Ltd who specialise in bespoke cultural travel for private clients. They also organise trips for museum patron groups, academic bodies and specialist clubs and societies. Art Tours’ aim is to bring painting, sculpture and architecture to life, using experts of the highest quality, while ensuring that their clients experience seamless luxury travel. The focus is on visits to private collections and behind the scenes access to public museums and historic sites. Visit the Art Tours website here http://www.arttoursltd.com/

Don’t forget you can purchase your copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper here.

Related article:

Media coverage and updated events for Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper

Immrama Lismore 2012 – The Legacy and Influence of Patrick Leigh Fermor on Travel Writing

It may not be quite time for a summer holiday, but next week a trip to Lismore, in Co Waterford, will at least enable visitors to travel the world vicariously. From Thursday until tomorrow week, Immrama, the annual festival of travel writing, will be celebrating its 10th birthday with a mix of talks, panel discussions, workshops, walks, children’s events and the launch of an anthology of essays by travel writers who have participated in the first decade of the festival.

Among the guest speakers will be Colin Thubron, who will talk about his experiences in China; Tony Wheeler, a founder of the Lonely Planet guidebook series; and Mary Russell, who has travelled extensively in Syria and hopes to provide some insights into the crisis there.

The main event on Friday, at 8pm in the Courthouse Theatre, will be a panel discussion on the legacy and influence of the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, with a line-up consisting of Thubron, Wheeler, Jan Morris and Artemis Cooper, who is writing a biography of Leigh Fermor.

Click here for the programme.

Colin Thubron recommends reading A Time of Gifts for 2012

A Time of Gifts, 1977

In the December edition of The Browser, Paddy’s good friend Colin Thubron talks about why A Time of Gifts remains one of this favourite travel books…

This is the first volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s journey in 1933-34 from the Hook of Holland, as he called it, to what he insisted on calling Constantinople [Istanbul]. It was to be in three volumes. This one takes him beyond Vienna. The second volume, Between the Woods and the Water, takes him through Hungary to the Balkans. The third volume was going to get him across Romania to Istanbul, but he never wrote it.

Like many people, I love the idea of this young 19-year-old gypsy going off on foot on his own, with just a pound a week, footloose and fancy free, full of delight at the world and fascination at where he’s going. That’s one of the lovely things about the book. It’s beautifully written, very rich prose. It’s model was Norman Douglas – rich in language, vocabulary, scholarship. It’s rather an acquired taste, and may seem old-fashioned to a younger generation.

I love the delight in everything, with all its byways in history or folklore, and the people he meets are so marvellously and generously described. He had such a big heart, a generous spirit. You feel he must have been a delightful companion for anyone to meet on the road. Some people find it a little bit showy-offy, because of all of the stuff he quotes as having by heart – but he did, it’s perfectly true. He had an excellent memory, and into his old age he was a great raconteur.

I know that you knew him quite well. Will you tell us about his character? He died not long ago of course.

Yes, he died [last June]. Well, he was what you would expect. In some ways, he was rather an innocent. He wasn’t an intellectual, but he loved facts and data and history and architecture. He also loved show, and a good story. He was a delightful companion, very funny, and he was a bit original. He would sometimes say something rather fanciful, he had a marvellous imagination. But there was this innocence about him.

It’s as if he was in a time warp, and in rejoining his youth in these two books he was rejoining somebody he still was, in a sense, his sensibility was so young. He hadn’t changed in many ways, he hadn’t been disillusioned. They are very “illusioned” books, if you like. It’s a very wonderful idea to go back to who he was, because he could so easily enter into the spirit of that liberated delight in the world which he kept with him always. He was very frail when he died, but he still kept that with him.

How does travel change a person? It’s a platitude that a physical journey is also an inner journey, but some platitudes are true.

I don’t know really. It’s supposed to broaden the mind. If I look at the travel writers I know and have known, there’s a certain breadth of knowledge. One would hope there’s a breadth of understanding or of sympathy too. Of course, it makes you a sort of amateur. You’re a free agent, you’re the oddball. One can understand why dictators find travellers a threat – you’re not beholden to anyone and you’re doing what you want, which is a marvellous privilege. But what it does to you character-wise, I don’t know.

The title A Time of Gifts comes from a line of poetry by Louis MacNeice …

“For now the time of gifts is gone / O boys that grow, O snows that melt.”

That certainly hints at growth of character.

Yes it does. This was his great extended epiphany, to be suddenly going out travelling. That was the time of gifts for him, when the world opened to him. He was obviously ready for it. He was always on the wrong side of authority in England, and he was expelled from school. He got into a rather posh artist society in London and he was enormously entertaining and fun, and very handsome as a young man. But he hadn’t travelled anywhere. So suddenly to loose yourself on the world was surely his time of gifts.

I love Leigh Fermor’s motto. Solvitur ambulando.

It is solved by walking

The troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear

Paddy in Greece photographed by Joan

Don’t you feel like me that with the passing of Paddy as one of the last of his generation we have clearly entered a new age dominated by uncertainty; a lack of confidence in the values we once held as unquestionably true? These beliefs that bound us (in the West?) together for the latter part of the twentieth century are now unravelling at an ever-increasing pace. As we enter the End Game of the economic crisis, and as the decade of The Forever War rumbles on like the noise of a busy road in the middle distance – there only when we take the trouble to notice – we suffer a dearth of leadership and heroes of substance. Paddy and those of his generation had no such crisis of confidence; they served without question. They sacrificed themselves for the things they believed in, and they provided the leadership, entrepreneurship, creativity, and wisdom that helped rebuild Europe after almost half a century of ethnic and social strife, and destructive war. Maybe they also share some blame for the way things turned out, but who will step up now?

In this considered profile, which prompted my rambling reflection, Paddy’s good friend Colin Thubron assesses his contribution, not as a warrior, but as a writer, and I think for the first time, reveals the torment of Paddy’s troubling writer’s block towards the end of his life.

by Colin Thubron

First published in the New York Review of Books, Volume 58, Number 14

When Patrick Leigh Fermor died in June at the age of ninety-six, it seemed as if an era had come to an end. He was the last of a generation of warrior–travel writers that included the Arabian explorer Wilfred Thesiger, the controversial mystic Laurens van der Post, and the indefatigable Norman Lewis of Naples ‘44. Among these, Leigh Fermor shines with the élan and the effortlessly cultured glow of an apparent golden age. A war hero of polymathic exuberance, brilliant linguistic skills, and an elephantine memory, he was sometimes fancifully compared to Lord Byron or Sir Philip Sydney.

Two pairs of books came to exemplify his achievement. The first pair—Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966)—celebrated the Greece that held his abiding fascination and where he lived for forty-five years on a once-wild promontory in the Peloponnese. In Mani, especially, he described this backwater region as a world whose way of life had survived in a fierce and enchanted time warp.

The land he depicted is barely recognizable now—tourism, he observed, destroys the object it loves—but it was less the Greece of classical antiquity that beguiled him than the spirit and folk culture of the hinterland: the earthy, demotic Romiosyne that he once contrasted with the Hellenic ideal in a playful balance sheet of the country’s character.

In these, and in later books, the style was the man: robustly imaginative, cultivated without pedantry, unstoppably digressive, forgivably swanky, and filled with infectious learning. The impression—overflowing into elaborate footnotes and flights of learned fantasy—is one of omnivorous delight in the quirks and byways of history, art, language, genealogy, myth, song, superstition, costume, heraldry, and everything else that struck his fancy.

His literary models were Norman Douglas and Robert Byron, but his writing was more vivid than the one, more kindly than the other. Despite the richness of his prose (occasionally slipping into purple) he forged an illusion of intimacy with his readers, as if they were sharing his mind in the moment of writing. But in fact his manuscripts were worked, reworked, and reworked again with such painstaking perfectionism that his publisher (the benign Jock Murray) often had to reset his galley proofs wholesale. The apparently natural flow of words was in reality a densely worked choreography, which came at cost.

Fifteen years ago, swimming in the Ionian Sea beneath his home, where nobody could overhear us, Paddy (as friends and fans called him) suddenly confessed to me the writer’s block that would plague the rest of his life. The expectations of a now-avid public, and his own obsessive perfectionism, were taking their toll, and he could not overleap this cruel impediment.

I remember him strong into old age. He swam every morning, with a sturdy breaststroke far out to sea, the tattoo of a twin-tailed mermaid glistening on his shoulder. He still kept up a striding march in the Taygetus foothills, where he and his wife Joan had designed their own house above the ocean. It was a place of “mad splendor,” he wrote. Its sitting-room library—bookshelves banked nine feet high—opened onto a vista of cypresses and the Messenian Gulf, and was flagged with the greenish stone of Mount Pelion. In the afternoon Paddy would disappear into his study to confront—or escape—the demons of his failed writing, and would emerge to the liberation of ouzo or whiskey, generally to report some arcane piece of research—that the Huns wore stitched field-mouse skins, perhaps—or to share a passage of Ovid. We dined in the monastic half-cloister he had built beside his home, and once we visited the tiny, red-tiled Byzantine chapel where—five years before—he had buried the ashes of Bruce Chatwin.

The conflict between a natural gregariousness and the solitude of writing never quite resolved for him. In a short, intriguing study named A Time to Keep Silence (1953) he recorded his sojourn in three great French monasteries. He described this retreat not as a religious exercise, but as a need for a haven for writing, and the nature of its cleansing—”the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear”—remains suspended like a question mark in the oeuvre of a man to whom self-revelation seemed indulgence.

The second pair of books, which established Paddy’s primacy among travel writers, must be among the most extraordinary ever written. In 1933, as a youth of eighteen, he left England for a journey that would take a year and a half. As “a thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly,” he set out to walk to Constantinople (as he nostalgically called Istanbul). Walking stick in hand, a copy of Horace’s Odes in his rucksack, he pursued a meandering course up the Rhine and down the Danube, across the Great Hungarian Plain, into Romania and through the Balkans to Turkey.

It was almost forty-five years before he published the first part of this journey, and another nine years before the second. A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) represent prodigious feats of memory. They record the rite of passage of a precocious, exuberant young man as he encounters the peoples and languages of a Middle Europe now littered with obsolete names: Bohemia, Transylvania, Wallachia. His story must have become the dream journey of every enterprising and footloose adolescent.

Inevitably the accuracy of Paddy’s memory was questioned, and he was frank about occasional imaginative license and conflation. (His first diary was stolen in Munich, a solitary last one recovered years later in Romania.) Certainly his recall was extraordinary. I remember the first time we met (by chance), when he quoted verbatim from my first book passages that I had myself forgotten. A year before his death we chanted verses from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám together in an antiphonal competition (which he won).

His urge to describe his epic journey more than forty years after its end was a deeply natural one. He was revisiting his youthful persona with the judgment and knowledge of maturity; yet in a sense he had remained unchanged. Despite his sophisticated learning, he retained an almost boyish innocence, as if the troubles of the modern age had bypassed him. In the Peloponnese, where he settled to live in the 1960s, he had remained in thrall to a more ancient, rooted culture than that of the urban West.

The final volume of his proposed trilogy—carrying its author through the Balkans and down the Black Sea coast to Turkey—became his tormenting and elusive project for the next quarter- century, and was never completed. Some near-finished version, however, survives him, and will eventually be published.

With his youthful trek done, Leigh Fermor’s career took off into near fable. Caught up in Greek unrest, he joined in a triumphal royalist cavalry charge against wilting Venizelist rebels. In Athens he fell in love with the artist Princess Balasha Cantacuzene, twelve years older than him, and lived with her in Moldavia for over two years, before World War II recalled him to London.

As a fluent Greek speaker he was recruited by the Intelligence Corps, and sent as a liaison officer with the Greek army first to Albania and finally to Crete, where he survived the brutal German invasion. For almost two years, while an officer in the Special Operations Executive, he lived disguised as a shepherd in the Cretan mountains, organizing the gathering of intelligence.

Then, in 1944, occurred the exploit that—more than any other—was to burnish him into legend. He and his fellow SOE officer Stanley Moss dreamed up a scheme of harebrained bravado. Dressed in stolen German uniforms, with a party of Cretan guerrillas, they ambushed the car of General Heinrich Kreipe, the German commander of occupied Crete, kidnapped him, and concealed him under the back seat. Moss took the wheel, Paddy donned the general’s cap, and together they drove through twenty-two checkpoints to emerge on the far side of Herakleion and march Kreipe for three weeks over the mountains, to be picked up by motor launch and taken to Egypt.

It was during this hazardous Cretan march, as the dawn broke over Mount Ida, mythical birthplace of Zeus, that the abducted general began to murmur a verse of Horace: Vides ut alta stet nive candidum/Soracte….1 It was an ode that Paddy knew by heart, and he completed the six stanzas to their end. “The general’s blue eyes had swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine,” Paddy later wrote,

—and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.

This precocious kidnapping was later reimagined in a lackluster movie named Ill Met by Moonlight (1957) with Dirk Bogarde playing Paddy. But there were other exploits too. Paddy had already engineered the defection of the Italian General Angelico Carta from Crete; and he was due to undertake a near-suicidal mission to Colditz when the war ended.

His upbeat account of these events was tempered by regret. He had planned that the abduction of Kreipe be bloodless, but his accompanying Cretan partisans slit the chauffeur’s throat, and rumors of grim German reprisals for the abduction have never quite died down. Above all, Paddy’s accidental shooting of one of his fellow guerrillas may have stained his memory of the whole period.

On June 16 Leigh Fermor was buried back in the English countryside, attended by an Intelligence Corps guard of honor, to lie beside his wife Joan, his dear comrade since 1946. This was, in a sense, fitting. For in certain ways he was exemplary of a wartime Englishness now almost gone, whose more dashing qualities merged seamlessly into the hardy stylishness of Greek leventéa.

To those who knew him, his books are hauntingly redolent of his sensibility. His conversation was irrepressibly warm and inventive far into old age, moving from arcane anecdotes to fanciful wordplay or bursting into polyglot song (sometimes singing the lyrics backward). His friends ranged from Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire—last of the six legendary Mitford sisters (his correspondence with her was published in 20082)—to early acquaintance with a raffish interwar bohemia and his own great predecessor, the travel writer and aesthete Robert Byron, whose borrowed rucksack he bore across Central Europe as a youth.

Almost the last time I met Paddy, he had returned home after an operation for suspected cancer, and I feared he would be depleted, his old zest gone. He was growing deaf, and he suffered from tunnel vision (which he called Simplonitis). For a while, sitting over lunch, he seemed subdued. Then something struck him. He perked up, and said: “You know, there is an apple lying on a table in the hall. It’s been there all weekend. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if it cocked a snook at Newton, and simply took off into the air!”

This was typical of his boyish resilience. In the field of travel he evoked both the youthful wanderer who discovers another world and the avid scholar who melds with it. His prose was too rich and elaborate to be a safe influence on others (although a few have tried); but he brought to the genre not only the distinction of his densely brilliant books, but his innate dignity, ebullient mind, and capacious heart.

  1. 1″See Mount Soracte white with snow….”
  2. 2The correspondence, In Tearing Haste , edited by Charlotte Mosley, was published in the US by New York Review Books (2010), which has also republished the other books by Patrick Leigh Fermor mentioned in this article, as well as The Traveller’s Tree .

Patrick Leigh Fermor remembered by Colin Thubron

When I was asked to select a passage from his work that encapsulated the spirit of Paddy Leigh Fermor, who died last Friday, a crowd of images leapt to mind, from his encounter with the grotesque burghers of Munich in A Time of Gifts to the eerie vespers of A Time to Keep Silence, to the gongs of Byzantium and the gambolling of dolphins in Mani.

By Colin Thubron

First published in The Spectator, 18 June 2011

Almost any page of his work glitters with the ebullience and precision of his style, and its almost choreographic way with sentences. And his writing was the ideal instrument for his omnivorous love of things: his encyclopaedic delight in history, genealogy, heraldry, costume, the quirks and byways of folklore and language.

This was a man who seemed to embody panache. From boyhood he was a renegade. The housemaster at his public school, from which he was predictably sacked, called him ‘a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness’. In his youth he walked across Europe in the first year of Hitler’s coming to power, and during the war lived for over two years in the Cretan mountains disguised as a shepherd before famously abducting the German military commander of Crete. Later, during the Greek civil war he joined a royalist cavalry charge, and at the age of 70, in emulation of Lord Byron, he swam the Hellespont — with his wife in a boat behind him — sitting on her hands (he wrote) in order not to wring them.

I believe he was erudite rather than intellectual — he embraced and celebrated experience more than he analysed it, and his descriptions even of obscure history and customs were lit up by a playful vitality. He wrote, of course, at a time when the world seemed less accessible than now and when to plunge into the Taygetus mountains of the southern Peloponnese, for instance, was a more remote experience than an Andean trek today. In this he seems the product of an earlier age, as he does in his wide learning, his immersion in his chosen subject, and his eschewing of the psychological.

Always there was this zestful inventiveness and cultivated pleasure in fantasy — not whimsical fantasy, but rather the product of a full-blooded imagination. Almost the last time I saw him, he had returned from hospital after an operation for suspected cancer. I was worried that I’d find him depleted and his old flare gone. At first he was indeed a little subdued, eating lunch. Then suddenly he perked up and said: ‘You know, there is an apple lying on a table in the hall. It’s been there all weekend… Wouldn’t it be marvellous if it cocked a snook at Newton, and simply took off into the air!’

Then I knew he was himself again.

He had few disciples. It was hard to emulate such writing, and rather dangerous. He was a master of that rich and sculptured style: but I think nobody else was. What he gave to travel writing was less a specific following than his unique personal stature: as near as we are likely to come to a Renaissance man. He bestowed on the genre his innate dignity, his literary brilliance, his polymathic mind, and his generous heart.

A Prince of the Road by Colin Thubron

This is a major essay about Paddy by his good friend Colin Thubron. Perhaps worth printing and reading at your leisure.

Use the Print Friendly facility. Print Friendly and PDF

by Colin Thubron

First published in the New York Review of Books, January 17 2008.

To suggest that Patrick Leigh Fermor is the greatest travel writer alive is to omit a great deal. In Britain and Greece he is a near legend, celebrated not only for his books but for his wartime exploits as a guerrilla leader in occupied Crete, where his abduction of a German general has passed into folklore. He is, perhaps, the last of a breed of writer-travelers whose reputation has an aura of genuine action and courage.

The qualities suited to the travel writer’s trade have always been contradictory. The mental (and physical) robustness necessary for ambitious travel often excludes the sensitivity to record it, and vice versa. So there are travelers who write, and writers who travel—and they rarely converge in the same person.

In Leigh Fermor, they do. The richness of his prose, his polymathic exuberance, and his cultural allusiveness render him less immediately accessible than some of his contemporaries, such as Peter Fleming or Norman Lewis. But his six travel books—one for each decade of his adult life—have secured him a readership drawn to a voice that is omnivorous in its tastes and curiosity, learned without condescension, cultivated but never effete, curiously innocent, occasionally swanky, infectiously joyous. If he is less known in the United States than he is in Britain, it is because Leigh Fermor is deeply European.

His reputation rests, above all, on two pairs of books—about his youthful walk across pre-war Europe, published in 1977 and 1986—and about Greece, published in 1958 and 1966. But then there is A Time to Keep Silence. In the oeuvre of a traveler whose books are full of worldly curiosity, this short reflection on the monastic life sits like a troubled question mark. First published in Britain in 1953, it now appears in the US for the first time. In less than a hundred pages it records the author’s stay in the ancient French monasteries of St. Wandrille, Solesmes, and La Grande Trappe, with a brief excursion to the deserted Byzantine chapels of Cappadocian Turkey.

Yet there are readers for whom A Time to Keep Silence is Leigh Fermor’s finest—if most uncharacteristically elusive—book. In her introduction, the religious historian (and ex-nun) Karen Armstrong writes:

The monks’ monotonous way of life has been deliberately designed to protect them from the distractions of, and the lust for, novelty: they do the same things day after day; they dress alike and shun individuality and personal style. They keep almost perpetual silence….

Nothing could be more antipathetic to everything that Leigh Fermor’s books project and embrace. His persona as a writer brims with “individuality and personal style.” So, of course, does his prose. He is famously gregarious, and a dazzling raconteur. For a traveler so tough, his books are rich in pleasures: in leisure, in wine, in company. History and landscape bring a visceral exhilaration.

In 1952, aged thirty-seven, Leigh Fermor arrived at the Benedictine abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontenelle, near Rouen, in quest not of religious retreat but of somewhere cheap and quiet in which to write his first book, on the Caribbean. The regimen of the monastery—the bloodless gloom of Vespers, the sepulchral mealtime recitations while the monks ate in silence—filled him at first with revulsion:

As I sat at Vespers watching them, now cowled, now uncovered, according to the progress of the liturgy, they appeared preternaturally pale, some of them nearly green. The bone-structure of their faces lay nearly always close beneath the surface. But, though a deep hollow often accentuated the shadow under the cheekbone, their faces were virtually without a wrinkle, and it was this creaseless haggardness that made their faces so distinct from any others. How different, I thought, from the fierce, whiskered, brigand-faces of the Greek monks of Athos or the Meteora, whose eyes smoulder and flash and twinkle under brows that are always tied up in knots of rage or laughter or concentration or suddenly relaxed into bland, Olympian benevolence.

There is no doubt about where Leigh Fermor’s sympathies lay. As for writing, he retired to his cell on the first day in the quiet, and picked up his pen:

But an hour passed, and nothing happened. It began to rain over the woods outside, and a mood of depression and of unspeakable loneliness suddenly felled me like a hammer-stroke.

For three or four days, little changed. He was prey to insomnia and a flat depression. Then he started to sleep. He slept until a few meals and church services a day were his only lucid moments. Then the pattern changed again. His lassitude dwindled away and was succeeded by a “limpid freshness.” He now slept only five hours in twenty-four. It was as if a profound tiredness, rooted in the outside world with its demands on nervous libido and instant response, had overswept him, then receded in this quietude to release a flood of unimpeded energy. “Even the major causes of guilt and anxiety had slid away.”

From the monastery’s library—a magnificent repository of the sacred and secular—he was able to borrow even those heretical books placed on the index or locked in the depository (named the Enfer) as destructive of monastic calm. And as he grew to know them, the monks became, to his charitable and indulgent mind, almost uniformly attractive.

Moving on, he was delayed only two weeks by the abbey of Solesmes, guardian of early Church music, before he reached the great Cistercian monastery of La Grande Trappe in southern Normandy. Among this grimly disciplined and silent order, the cycle that Leigh Fermor had experienced in St. Wandrille—the same tension between tenderness and revulsion—repeated itself more gently. Here the Benedictine dedication to the efficacy of prayer was reinforced by a notion of ferocious penance:

A Trappist monk rises at one or two in the morning according to the season. Seven hours of his day are spent in church, singing the offices, kneeling or standing in silent meditation, often in the dark…. There are no cells. All, from the Abbot downwards, sleep in cubicles in a dormitory on palliasses of straw stretched out on bare planks. Heating does not exist…. A special deaf and dumb language for cases of necessity has been evolved and codified, and the entire lifetime of a lay-brother, who does not participate in the singing of the offices, may pass without the uttering of a word beyond the confessional or his spiritual consultations with the Abbot. A monk on the point of death is removed from his infirmary bed and laid across a bed of straw which is scattered over a cross of ashes. There, after the last ghostly comforts in the presence of the assembled monks, he expires. His body is exposed for a while in the church. No coffin is used at his burial; his face is covered by his hood, and he is lowered into his grave with his habit folded about him.

A Time to Keep Silence evolved, sometimes word for word, from the letters written to Leigh Fermor’s future wife from these brief sojourns in monastic cells. They are touched by the unease of the doubter or atheist (he is never specific) who has intruded into the midst of pious conviction, and by his subsequent gratitude for the monks’ discretion which allowed him to escape any awkward challenge.

But for all the revolution in his feelings—and his brief excursions into the nature of prayer or temptation—it is less the inner journey than Leigh Fermor’s descriptions of monastic life that linger in the memory. He is a master of externals. The somber glamour of ritual and the drama of architecture rise naturally to his pen. In Roumeli, his book on northern Greece, he celebrates the pinnacle monasteries of Meteora with a gusto more immediate to him than the arcane inner lives of the sober monks of Normandy. His brief chapter on the rock chapels of Cappadocia, with which A Time to Keep Silence ends, relaxes into descriptive ease as it portrays a hermit city redolent of the dawn of monastic Christendom, whose human inhabitants have long gone.

Leigh Fermor’s sumptuous and sometimes complicated style has won him many admirers, barely one successful imitator, and a handful of disgruntled critics. When he writes that the quietude of St. Wandrille and his limited contact with the monks “compelled me again and again to seek my parallels in painting,” it sounds less like a limitation than a joyful release. The memory of Old Masters is never far away. In the muted light by which they worship, the monks evoke the canvases of Zurbarán and El Greco. The towering pinnacles of Solesmes remind him of the Rhenish castles of Gustave Doré and Victor Hugo. The wintry landscapes around La Trappe blend with those of Breughel and Bosch.

Sound itself turns visual. Leigh Fermor, in an act of nostalgic remembrance, conjures the ruined English abbeys lifting up their broken arches and emptied rose-windows “as though some tremendous Gregorian chant had been interrupted hundreds of years ago to hang there petrified at its climax ever since”; and the complex chanting of the conventual High Mass elicits an image of the Gregorian notation—with its comet tails and arabesques—printed in the monks’ missals.

These stylistic flourishes would be woeful in lesser hands. But with Leigh Fermor they rarely fail. His early models include Alexander William Kinglake and Norman Douglas, but most potent perhaps was the influence of his precocious near-contemporary, Robert Byron, who died at sea in 1941, and who in The Road to Oxiana, an account of travel in Persia and Afghanistan, interleaved humorous vignettes with some of the most precise and beautiful architectural descriptions in the language. Continue reading

36 Hours only! – Colin Thubron talks about Paddy on BBC Radio 3 Night Waves

At last a (somewhat) decent discussion about Paddy from the BBC. The travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor died last Friday and his death has been followed by an outpouring of respect and admiration from fellow writers. Colin Thubron talks to Philip Dodd about the man and his writing.

Available to listen on iPlayer only until 10:47PM Mon, 20 Jun 2011.

The discussion starts at 38 Minutes and 10 seconds into the programme. Just click on the picture and then slide the cursor to that point to play. It will buffer very quickly.