Tag Archives: Max Long

Why you should never meet your heroes

Would you have been disappointed if you had met Paddy?

By Philip Sidney

First published in The Spectator 14 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The house is not always empty …

It appears that some lucky people have been allowed to stay in the house at Kalamitsi. Who are they and did they pay? From a lovely new blog by Max Long.

Eventually I did find a room, and wallowed in the privilege of having a bed, a balcony overlooking the mountains, a table to write on. On my first night I had considered, in utter disappointment and desperation, going to Paddy Leigh Fermor’s house just a few kilometers south from the main village, to find some comfort by camping there. As I was to find out two days later, it was a very good thing I didn’t.

A few years ago, a Guardian journalist came to Kardamyli with similar intentions. He swum to Paddy’s house from the harbour, and I decided that it would be a nice idea to do the same. Following the footsteps of a footstep-follower.

I am not a confident swimmer, and have barely swum out a few tentative strokes in all the beaches I’ve been to so far, so it was quite a mental struggle for me to embark on what was to be a half hour swim along the rocks to the little pebble beach with a flight of stone steps leading up to the house. When I got there, there was a couple on the beach, but they spoke little English and could not confirm that this was Paddy’s house, so I walked up the steps anyhow, and soon the pebble mosaics on the floor, the large house of stone and painted grey-blue French windows, the seating area looking over the bay, confirmed that I was indeed at the right place.

However, it was with utter horror that I saw the freshly trimmed garden plants and trees, the recently used hosepipe… the open windows, the sound of plates watering the mouths of lunchers… the exposed breasts sunning themselves in the corner. I scuttled away, undetected but nevertheless thoroughly embarrassed. I later made for the front door. I could hear voices, evidence of clear use. I felt for a moment I might have traveled back in time to a former splendor of the wonderful house. All the reports by journalists and bloggers online had been of a desolate, abandoned home. I inquired at the front door. Yes, this was his house. No, I couldn’t visit. I walked away, burning with disappointment, but also with curiosity. The house is now in the hands of the Benaki museum, and my understanding is that it will be converted into a writer’s retreat or museum of its own. Who were these people who had the privilege to enjoy the place in the meantime?

(I visited the house again on my last morning and it was only after a lot of pleading that a disgruntled, shirtless, hairy and sandalled old gentleman allowed me a brief – less than two minute – look at the place. None of the moments of contemplation I had hoped for. The insistence with which he refused to allow me to access the house, and the simplicity of my request, made me think he could only be an extraordinarily cruel man. Sitting in Paddy’s study surrounded by books, he refused to give me either his name or any inkling of the Benaki’s future plans. I left, once again, in a rage.)

Full article here.

Another correspondent in an email to me this week coroborates the fact that people seem to be staying at or using the house …

I too was in Kardamyli in August.  I too walked around the outside of the house and up the steps from the beach.  I didn’t want to trespass, but when I realised there were people living there I decided to knock at the gate and ask them what was happening to the house.  Two twenty -something year old Greek girls in bikinis were there, and obviously staying there.  They wouldn’t let us visit.  I’ve no idea who they were.  My first reaction was that Paddy and Joan would surely be upset that their wishes are clearly not being respected.  On the other hand, perhaps it is good that someone is there because there are clearly a lot of Paddy pilgrims, and sooner or later there will be someone with less honorouble intentions, who enters the house and takes something away with them.
I can only assume they were local girls and that his old housekeeper or someone local must have an eye on who is there.  The place is obviously in need of urgent attention.
Mark