Tag Archives: Robert Macfarlane

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Robert Macfarlane on The Old Ways

Old WaysThe author of The Old Ways discusses some of the problems for any walker-writer such as how to spring surprises along the way, and how not to give your reader blisters.

by Robert Macfarlane

First published in the Guardian Book Club, 1 August 2014

“All I know is that at the very early stage of a book’s development”, wrote Vladimir Nabokov, “I get this urge to gather bits of straw and fluff, and eat pebbles.” Like Nabokov, I’m a pebble-eater and a straw-gatherer: my books begin as gleaned images, fragment-phrases and half-thoughts, scribbled on to file-cards or jotted in journals.

Tracking back to the earliest entries for what became The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, from 2006, I find hundreds of these “pebbles”. Some are barely recognisable (“Dew ponds, ash frails, thin trails”), and others plain weird (“sunset as spillage; junk light of dusk”). Huh? Some mark the start of paths that never got followed: “Go see the bronze dragons in the Forbidden City; take Schiller along.” Why? Others now seem like fingerposts pointing in the right direction: “Dreamtracks and trespass; rites of way and rights of way.” “Each path to be told as a story, each story a path, leave cairns in the language as you go.”

That last line is pretty much The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot in miniature, though it would take another five years and 1,000 miles on foot for it to grow into a book. In that time I followed many different paths: Neolithic tracks on the chalk of southern England, pilgrim trails to a holy mountain in the winter Himalayas, a branch-line of the Camino in Spain, a tidal path into a mirror-world off the Essex coast and routes through the disputed territories of the occupied West Bank.

Because paths are places of encounter and company, I met scores of other walkers as I went: botanists, activists, archaeologists, poets, mapmakers – and everyday folk out with their dogs, taking a break. One early reviewer noted: “Macfarlane doesn’t seem to meet any dickheads.” Well I did meet them, several of them – but I didn’t find them interesting enough to write about. I had plenty to say as it was: songlines and pilgrimage, ghosts and memory, trespass and access, birdsong and light, the shimmer of detail … The book became an exploration of how paths run through people as well as places, and how landscape shapes – scapes – us both in the moment and in memory.

Walking is a repetitive activity. You put one damn foot after the other – and that’s what makes the walk. It’s often tiring and it’s sometimes boring. This poses a primary problem for any walker-writer: how to spring surprise along the way, how not to give your reader blisters. I wanted style to solve that problem. So I set out to devise a form that enacted its subject: to make a patterned book of path-crossings, full of echoes and back-glances, doubles and shadows. A book of many ways, then, through which readers might pick different routes. I also tried to leave those cairns as I went: guiding alignments of image, word and incident that only became visible at certain places along the journey.

I became obsessed with prose rhythm (Nabokov’s influence again). At one point I wanted to write each chapter with a different base-rhythm, a poetic foot (iamb, trochee, dactyl) that would tap its tempo through it. That ambition defeated me in the end (surely for the good) though I continued to scribble scansion marks above my sentences, revising some of them dozens of times to get the rhythms right on the ear. One chapter describes sailing old open boats along the sea-roads around the Outer Hebrides. Rhythm was crucial here to represent the sea’s own measures: the rolling whale-back swells that lofted us towards Sula Sgeir, 40 miles out into the north Atlantic; and the unforgettable experience of being in mid-Minch at the turn of tide: billions of tonnes of water pausing, trembling, unsure of their obligations – before starting the long slop back north.

“It’s hard to create a path on your own”, I note early on, and The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot accompanies other writers and artists as it goes, both dead (Edward Thomas, Nan Shepherd, Patrick Leigh Fermor) and alive (Ian Stephen, Raja Shehadeh, Steve Dilworth). The best contemporary non-fiction seems to me as formally intricate and experimental as any fiction, and among the books I kept close to hand while writing were the essays of John Jeremiah Sullivan, Rebecca Solnit and David Foster Wallace, the reportage of Katherine Boo, John McPhee and William T Vollmann, and the travelogues of Barry Lopez, William Dalrymple and Iain Sinclair. When energy was ebbing, I turned to the dark glitter of John Banville, or the baroque visions of Cormac McCarthy.

The book has lived some strange afterlives since it was published two years ago, and its paths have led me in unexpected directions and to fresh collaborations. One of the best things about being a writer is hearing from readers: a reminder that the artefact over which you privately labour for years goes into the world and – if you’re lucky – finds its way into the imaginations of others. Not all of these communications are kindly. “Robert Macfarlane, you are a charisma-free zone,” declared someone recently. But then a day or two later someone else got generously in touch: “Your writing gives me an erection of the heart!” I guess you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Buy the book: The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

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.