Tag Archives: william blacker

The gravitational pull of a unique personality

Patrick Leigh Fermor, left, met Heinrich Kreipe, his former captive, at a reunion in Greece in 1972 which included the famous Greek TV show

Patrick Leigh Fermor, left, met Heinrich Kreipe, his former captive, at a reunion in Greece in 1972 which included the famous Greek TV show

We all discovered Paddy by different routes, but if one follows the thread of certain ideas, one can often find it leads to Patrick Leigh Fermor. My own journey started with my interest in Byzantine history; the link with Constantinople and Steven Runciman being my link. It was therefore a great joy to hear from a former colleague with whom I had lost touch some years ago. Chris Wares has discovered Paddy through his interest in the work of Antony Beevor, and after finding this blog he wrote to me explaining his own Paddy journey. He has agreed to me publishing it here. How did you first encounter Paddy? Maybe you can tell us in the comments section.

by Chris Wares

Unlike probably everyone reading this I have yet to actually read any of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books. In fact I’m ashamed to say that a year ago I hadn’t even heard of the man. But over the past twelve months I have found myself being inexorably drawn towards the man and his books. Unknowingly at first and then, after what I can only describe as a sort of literary epiphany, I realised that I was in the gravitational pull of a unique personality, a name that kept turning everywhere I looked. Gradually I came to terms with the realisation that I would be compelled to read his books.

I am sure everyone has their own story on how they became acquainted with PLF but, as I stand on the precipice of opening one of his books for the first time, I thought I would describe how I arrived at this point.

It all began about a year ago when I read Crete: The Battle and the Resistance by Antony Beevor. Beevor is one of my favourite authors and so, while not being especially interested in the war in Crete, I was confident that my investment would be rewarded. Amongst the broad sweep of battle Beevor describes the tale of a British SOE soldier who possessed a larger than life character. A man who captures a German general from under their noses and then marches him across the mountains with half the German army on his tail. It was a scintillating story but the name of the hero didn’t particularly register in my mind.

A few weeks later I read Natural Born Heroes: The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by another of my favourite authors, Christopher McDougall. McDougall’s stories of long distance runners provide great inspiration for those that are needing motivation to get down to the business of training for a marathon. In the book McDougall writes of ancient Greek demigods who had discovered the secrets of endurance running. Switching to the twentieth century, he describes in reverential tones the superhuman endurance of a British soldier called Paddy who possessed the same qualities. It’s the same guy.

OK. So it’s a good tale and worth retelling but surely this was just coincidence. Sure, it’s a great yarn about the Battle of Crete and it also works as a modern day fable about god-like feats of endurance. But this was just one of those things right? The sort of tale anyone writing about Crete includes.

Then several months later I booked a romantic weekend in Brasov, Transylvania, for my wife’s birthday. A rare opportunity for us to get away without the kids and visit somewhere slightly off the beaten track. To get to know the place better I decided to do my homework and read up on Romania. These days, tied down by kids and mortgages, my wanderlust is largely restricted to armchair adventures. Travel books and histories providing an enjoyable way of vicariously travel the world.

I picked up Anthony Eales Blue River, Black Sea, a light and enjoyable read recounting his journey by bicycle and boat from the source of the Danube down to the Black Sea. Eales opens by describing how he decided to emulate the journey some guy called Patrick Leigh Fermor made in the 1930s down the Danube who also happened to kidnap a German general in Crete…. Hang on a minute? Kidnapped a German general in Crete? This can’t be the same bloke can it?

It’s at that point I turn to Google. Who was this guy? A good story can be a matter of circumstance; a combination of events that a person can just be caught up in. But appearing heroic in two separate dramas suggests a character that possesses something special. A man who “drank from a different fountain” as some might say.

I quickly found myself getting up to speed on the basics – SOE, renowned travel writer, author of three books about walking across Europe in the 1930s, the last of which was edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper. This was sounding good. I like Colin Thubron. And Artemis Cooper? That’s a name that rings a bell? Of course! – she co-wrote Paris After the Liberation: 1944 – 1949 with Beevor (which I also just read).

Another Google search and I realise that Beevor and Cooper are married and obviously share an admiration for PLF. And – just to reinforce the impression that everything was in some way joined up and connected to the man – it turns out that Cooper is the daughter of John Julius Norwich whose A History of Venice I read in August. I was beginning to get the feeling that Patrick Leigh Fermor was something special. I was in the orbit of something that deserved further investigation.

My armchair exploration of Romania continued through the Autumn and it soon felt as if all roads led to Patrick Leigh Fermor. The author Nick Thorpe talks about him in The Danube: A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest while travelling along the Danube in the opposite direction to Eales. Nick Hunt follows in his footsteps in Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn. William Blacker quotes him extensively in Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania (which incidentally is one of the loveliest books I have read in a long time) and Dervla Murphy contrasts 1990s Romania with his descriptions of the 1930s in Transylvania and Beyond. Georgina Harding quotes him in In Another Europe: A Journey to Romania. At times it felt as if everyone who had ever visited Romania in the past 40 years had read his books.

With his writing venerated by so many, the signs were clear that I needed to read him for myself. Here was someone who is not only considered one of the best travel writers ever but someone whose books inspired so much else that I read and enjoyed. My curiosity piqued I enthusiastically went on a bookstore spending spree and purchased all three books of the trilogy as well as his biography.

The books have sat patiently on my bedside table for some time now, but the moment of turning that first page is fast approaching. Logically the trilogy should form part of my Romanian literary journey but I have purposely set them aside and held back until the moment is right. The books may be the finalé to my Romanian odyssey but I feel as if they may also be first steps of an entirely new journey.

It’s rare to have such a sense of anticipation ahead of reading a new book. Such a build up runs the risk of the reality failing to live up to the expectation and I am nervous that perhaps I may not find his books as exquisite as I have come to imagine them to be. But on the other hand I am reassured with the knowledge that I am following in the footsteps of many others.

And now to turn that first page and follow path that is well trodden; one which all of those who are reading this will have already travelled….

A Paddy centenary event in Verona – Omaggio a Patrick Leigh Fermor

Luigi Licci, who runs the bookshop La Libreria Gulliver in Verona, Italy, has contacted me to say that he will be running an event on 8 May to celebrate Paddy’s centenary and the publication in 4 June of Italian translation of The Broken Road, under the title La Strada Interrotta, published by Adelphi.

All are welcome at the event to be held at Villa Ca’ Vendri, Via Vendri 39, Quinto di Valpantena, Verona kicking-off at 8.45 pm. There will be talks by Paddy’s friend William Blacker, author of The Enchanted Way, and Matteo Nucci, a well known Italian author specialized on Greece who is also a regular contributor to the major Italian daily La Repubblica. The evening will finish with some excellent Italian food and wine.

Further details can be found on the La Libreria Gulliver website or telephone 045 8007234. If you are able to attend I hope that you have a wonderful time and only wish I could be there.

Transylvania Diary

Bran Castle — but don’t mention Dracula

A gentle and humorous review of the very first Transylvanian Book Festival.

By Thomas W. Hodgkinson

First published in The Spectator 21 September 2013

Ehe-Gefängnis. The word, strictly speaking (which is how one should always speak), means ‘marriage prison’, and refers to an austere cell maintained in some of the magnificent fortified Saxon churches of central Transylvania. When a local couple decided to divorce, they were first locked in this narrow room for several weeks. There was only one bed: single. There was one chair, one plate, one knife, one fork, one cup. The result was that within a few days, the couple would realise they didn’t actually need a divorce after all — not because they wanted to escape the hell of enforced proximity, but because they had fallen in love again.

I’m here in the pastoral heart of Romania, attending the first ever Transylvanian Book Festival: a three-day extravaganza of talks, tours and readings, featuring bitter poets, wry novelists and rueful academics, and all of them what you might call professionally interesting. This sets the conversational bar pretty high over lunch, I can tell you. For one thing, since arriving in Romania, I’ve learnt that you should never, under any circumstances, mention Dracula. I mention him once, but I think I get away with it. Then up steps Professor Roy Foster, warily, wearily perhaps, to speak of the unspeakable. And of course he turns it around, delivering a vampirically mesmerising talk, showing how Bram Stoker’s masterpiece is ultimately all about Ireland. And transgressive sex.

Along with war, one of the great narrative themes (laying aside, for a moment, transgressive sex) has always been the return from war, and returning home generally. The Odyssey and other stories about the Greeks returning from Troy, collectively known as nostoi, set the tone. Our word ‘nostalgia’, referring to a painful desire to return, can extend to the pain felt when you get home and find it isn’t what it used to be. Nostalgia is also a theme of this festival. The villages where we’re staying — Richis, Biertan, Copsa Mare — were built by Saxons in alien Romania in the 12th century, and sustained until 1990. Lured by the promise of a better life, many modern Saxons then moved to Germany. They called it ‘going home’, though often their new lives were in concrete blocks, while their derelict farms fell apart. Now, with the help of the Mihai Eminescu Trust, and in co-operation with the Saxons who remain, these old buildings are being restored. I had an idea of writing a spoof travel book, detailing my ten years spent living among the people of Chiswick. Or possibly even ‘amongst’ them, which always sounds like a more profound level of integration. But what I’ve seen here is curing me of the conceit.

A night on the tiles with William Blacker. His book Along The Enchanted Way, about his years living ‘amongst’ the people of northern Romania, also describes his passionate relationship with a gypsy beauty named Marishka. After midnight, we enter a bar in Richis, which is packed with gypsies, including brooding boys and a girl with what I can only call a bluge (my invented word for a cleavage that defies gravity). The place falls silent as we come in. Should I lose the straw hat? William has a discreet word with the barman, who slips on a CD of gypsy music, and soon the dance floor is all movement: clicking fingers and smacked thighs. I tap my foot dexterously to one side. Wine, then beer: oh dear. Beer, then tzuika (the local brandy): eureka!

My fiancée and I have the occasional argument, shall we say. Anya, who languishes in London while I whoop it up in Richis, is Russian, and her deadpan manner can be disconcerting. I asked her recently what kind of man she found attractive. ‘Clowns,’ she replied. While I’m here, lawyers push the sale of our flat in Chiswick, which is the size of an Ehe-Gefängnis. We’re after something bigger, within striking distance of central London. Hold your sides, if they hurt from laughing.

But I mustn’t complain about property prices, with so much of interest going on around me. Artemis Cooper speaking about Paddy Leigh Fermor; Jessica Douglas- Home on the Mihai Eminescu Trust, which she runs; young Nick Hunt reading from his forthcoming book about following in Leigh Fermor’s footsteps; and all presided over by the seraphic Lucy Abel Smith, mistress of ceremonies. This has been, quite simply, the best and most inspiring literary festival I’ve ever attended. But more even than the readings, what has made it special has been the beauty of the countryside, the warmth of the locals, and — dare I say it? — the incredible cheapness of Romanian beer, which in a bar sets you back about 50p a bottle. All of which has persuaded me I’ve no choice really but to move to Romania. Now I just have to tell Anya.

Transylvanian Book Festival final programme and bookings

Richis banner
The programme for the very first Transylvanian book festival has been finalised. The event will run in the old Saxon villages of Richis, Biertan and Copsa Mare in the beautiful Carpathian mountains of Romania from 5-9 September. The festival programme includes lunches and dinner and some great excursions. How Paddy would have enjoyed the talk and the company!

There is still time to book your place by visiting http://www.transylvanianbookfestival.co.uk/ or contacting the organiser, Lucy Abel-Smith direct on +44 1285 750 358/888 or email: lucy[at]realityandbeyond.co.uk

The line-up is varied with a range of talks, discussions and music.

  • Michael Jacobs.  Memories of Transylvania and other writers.
  • Jessica Douglas Home Once Upon Another Time. The threatened destruction of Transylvanian villages.
  • Tony Scotland A Journey through Eastern Europe before Christmas 1989
  • Nick Hunt Walking the Woods and the Water
  • Michael Jacobs will be in conversation with Beatrice Rezzori Monti della Corte and William Blacker.
  • Professor Roy Foster “Transylvania Is Not England”: Bram Stoker and the location of Dracula
  • Hans Schaas and Sara Dootz in conversation with Caroline Fernolend and Andrea Rost about life in the Saxon Villages before the early 1990s.
  • William Blacker Along the Enchanted Way.
  • An evening of the poetry of Stephen Watts and Claudiu Komartin.
  • The Medias Choir singing some music from the Siebenbürgen and from Georg Meyndt, (1852-1903) from Richis.
  • A recital of music by Enescu and Bartók by Carina Raducanu,  Eugen Dumitrescu with violinist Ioana Voicu.
  • Countess Salnikoff will talk about her grandfather, Miklós Bánffy whose trilogy the Writing on the Wall must rank amongst the greatest works of 20th century literature. In conversation with publisher of Arcadia Books, Gary Pulsifer.
  • Jaap Scholten reads from Comrade Baron, and then in conversation with some of those with first hand experience of the early fifties in Communist Romania.
  • Artemis Cooper will talk about the subject of her recent biography, Paddy Leigh Fermor, whose writings of pre-war Transylvania, in Between the Woods and the Water influenced many of this festival’s authors.

Travel along the enchanted way with William Blacker

GHF TourJoin William Blacker, author of Along the Enchanted Way, and Global Heritage Fund (GHF) for a visit to the villages of Saxon Transylvania. Scattered along the valleys and hills of the southern range of the Carpathian Mountains in Romania,the villages represent a unique and diverse landscape of Romanian, Saxon, and Gypsy cultural heritage.

The nearly 100 villages and their patterns of settlement, which date from the 12th century, are among the last vestiges of European mediaeval planning and culture. This vast cultural landscape exhibits an uncommon equilibrium between villages, fields, meadows, forests, and mountains. Now under threat, GHF, William Blacker and the Romanian heritage organization Monumentum, are working to save this vanishing landscape.

This tour running from 9th-12th September follows on from the Transylvanian Book Festival, 5th – 9th of September. See the Festival website for further details.

The GHF flyer here has some more information about this and 2013 tours to Turkey and Cambodia as well.

For further information please contact:

Brian Curran

Global Heritage Fund

9th Floor 1 Knightsbridge Green

London SW1X 7QA

bcurran[at]globalheritagefund.org

t +44 (0) 787-648-1847

http://www.globalheritagefund.org

Transylvanian Book Festival – so much better than Hay; are you joining us?

Lit fest authors

Arrangements for the Transylvanian Book Festival are proceeding apace. This will be a truly wonderful event and I want to encourage as many of you as possible to come along during 5-9 September. Look at it as a holiday in itself, spending five days in the most beautiful setting, a region lost to time, that reflects the history, culture, and architecture of one of the last untouched Medieval landscapes in Europe. A chance to talk to the authors and like-minded folk in a calm and relaxed atmosphere.

The line-up of authors is growing all the time. More details can be found on the website here.

The following have confirmed:

  • Artemis Cooper: An Adventure, the biography of Paddy Leigh Fermor
  • Professor Roy Foster: Bram Stoker, Ireland and Dracula
  • Jessica Douglas Home: Once Upon Another Time
  • William Blacker: Along the Enchanted Way
  • Michael Jacobs: Robber of Memories but will talk on Starkie or von Rezzori
  • Caroline Juler: Author of the Blue Guide to Romania
  • Jaap Scholten: Comrade Baron
  • Nick Hunt: After the Woods and the Water
  • Andrea Rost: on the biography of Hans Schaas
  • Sarah Dootz: Her autobiography
  • Countess Elizabeth Jelen Salnikoff: talking about her grandfather Miklos Banffy
  • Others to follow

You can make a reservation and book online here.

Unlike other book festivals this will be a relatively small and intimate affair. The authors will be living in the same villages and mixing with all those attending in a relaxed atmosphere. All food is included and we can expect some magnificent meals and picnics under the warm Transylvanian sun, with just the sounds of horse drawn carts, cows going to and from the fields, geese and ducks filing along the dusty roads, and our own animated conversation in English, Romanian, German and Hungarian as we reflect on the day’s events.

In addition there will be excursions included into the woods and countryside surrounding Richis so we can all get close to the land which is one of Prince Charles’ favourite spots. There is a lot included for the money which does not happen at other similar festivals.

If you want to know more please get in touch with me. I am happy to advise on travel options, flights into the country, car hire, and possible extensions to your visit so that you can visit some of Romania’s other wonders, many of which are just 1-2 hours away from Richis. There are already plans for extensions to turn your visit into a longer stay if you wish.

Romania is a very safe country for travellers with a good infrastructure. If you hear things from others that put you off, like the state of the roads, or are deterred by its very mysteriousness, please be assured that none of this is remotely true, nor should it be a barrier to you having a great time.

Don’t forget to visit our Facebook page. I am looking forward to seeing as many of you there as possible. Perhaps this medley of images may tempt you to come along by making your booking here 🙂 Some of these you may have seen before; many others are new. I promise!

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Help Build a Kiln in Transylvania

Malancrav, near Sighisoara, Romania

Malancrav, near Sighisoara, Romania

Global Heritage Fund UK and the Anglo-Romanian Trust for Traditional Architecture (chaired by William Blacker) have begun a project to protect and restore the cultural landscape of the Saxon villages of Transylvania.  The beautiful buildings are in desperate need of repair using only the traditional materials from the new kiln, and local people are in need of jobs. To address this, Global Heritage Fund is raising money to build a traditional brick and tile making kiln. Run by a Romanian expert, this kiln will directly employ locals and provide much-needed materials for the on-going work of restoration and conservation of the early vernacular buildings.

A crowd-funding site has been established to raise $20,000, of which they have raised almost $5,000,  and I support the attempt. If you would like to know more, and to donate, please visit the crowdfunding page here.

The First Transylvanian Book Festival: 5th – 9th September 2013

The UNESCO World Heritage fortified church in Viscri

The UNESCO World Heritage fortified church in Viscri

If you enjoy literary festivals, want the opportunity to meet authors like William Blacker, and discover the romanticism and beauty of the Saxon lands of Transylvania whilst discussing the work of Patrick Leigh Fermor, then the place to be in September next year is the very first Transylvanian book festival which will be held during the period 5-9 september 2013.

Planning is well advanced. The event is being arranged by Lucy Abel-Smith who is an expert on Romania and has a house in the area. Her sister-in-law Caroline Knox is  assisting and has run the successful Boswell Literary Festival in Ayrshire for many years.

This will be your chance to join an exciting venture at its very beginning, in what I can assure you is one of the most beautiful places, full of history, romance and mystery right in the heart of Transylvania.

The list of authors who have agreed to speak is growing and includes William Blacker, whose acclaimed Along the Enchanted Way, has seen him hailed as heir to Patrick Leigh Fermor; Jessica Douglas-Home, author of Once Upon Another Time, will talk about the past under Ceausescu and her present work as chair of the Mihai Eminescu Trust, of which the Prince of Wales is Patron. Professor Roy Foster Oxford University and Historian expert on Bram Stoker and his influence on Literature; Michael Jacobs author of Robber of Memories.; and Artemis Cooper have been approached. Other talks will include writers from Romania’s strong literary tradition and will include those from the Romanian, Saxon and Hungarian communities whose work is internationally recognised.

Other talks will focus on the gypsies, the wolves, the wonderful wild flowers, life in the Saxon villages, Count Banffy’s epic ‘They Were Counted’ and inevitably the late Paddy Leigh Fermor. There will be organised walks, the opportunity for horse and cart rides in the beech woods, and the chance to take in some of Transylvania’s wonderful fortified churches

Accommodation will be in three villages in the heart of Saxon Transylvania: Copsa Mare, Richis and Biertan. All have fine churches and picturesque village houses that run as B&Bs. Minibuses will be on hand to transfer guests to picnics, visits and dinners. The costs are currently being finalised. Flights are not included but there are easy connections from Cluj, Turgu-Mures or slightly further afield, Bucharest. There will be a daily rate of entrance fees to the readings and picnics.

Please contact me – tsawford[at]btinternet.com – if you are interested in attending or would like to be on the circulation for more information. The organisers are also looking for sponsors either in cash or kind so please indicate if you or your company can help; all sponsors will be fully acknowledged in the programme and on promotional material, websites and in PR, and given complimentary tickets to events.

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In the forest above Viscri

Why the lowly shepherd is the one who gets to hear the angels

Remembering honourable lives helps us understand the birth we celebrate on Christmas Day.

by Charles Moore

First published in The Telegraph 24 December 2011.

Tomorrow we celebrate the most important birth in human history, so forgive me for writing about a funeral and a memorial service.

Both occurred in this Christmas season. The memorial service, in St James’s, Piccadilly, was for Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor. Paddy, as all his friends knew him, was a man of unique distinction and unique charm. He won the DSO in the Second World War for his part in the celebrated kidnap (filmed with Dirk Bogarde in Ill Met by Moonlight) of the German General Kreipe in occupied Crete. He became famous as a writer. His best-known books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, describe his slow walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, begun in December 1933 (he spent Christmas that year in Bingen, in newly Nazi Germany) and not completed until January 1, 1935. His prose, at once romantic and scholarly, ornate and exact, could have no successful imitators, but it has tens of thousands of fans.

In his life as well as his writing, Leigh Fermor was, though he would have disliked the phrase, a role model – brave, handsome, witty, multi-lingual, widely and deeply read, a gifted singer, reciter and drinking companion, a traveller in exotic places, a man who gave delight. When he died, aged 96, this newspaper’s obituary described him as “one of the few genuine Renaissance figures produced by Britain in the 20th century”.

The funeral, the week after Paddy’s service, was for Tony Woodall. Tony was a woodman and neighbour of ours in Sussex. Unusually for a rural family in the South East, the Woodalls are Catholics (I am told there was an Irish grandmother in the case). Every Sunday at our Catholic church, Tony would pull a surplice over his open-neck shirt and frayed working trousers and serve, his huge hands carefully placing the chalice and the patten on the altar. He would ring the little altar bells with a shake as strong as that of a dog with a rabbit. At the intercessions, where people are invited to propose further prayers, it was most commonly Tony who did so. He tended to ask us to pray for people who might not be automatically popular, such as Myra Hindley. His compassion was radical, and universal. He never stopped working. He dropped dead outdoors a couple of weeks ago, aged 79.

Tony Woodall was not known beyond his small corner of rural England, but, like Paddy, he commanded people’s love. The church where he served fits only 120 people, but 200 came to the funeral and many had to stand outside. It fell to me to help flank the hearse as it arrived, trying (and failing) to hold up a candle without it blowing out. I had to pick my way to my place through wild-haired countrymen wielding chainsaws. As Tony’s wicker coffin was lifted up and carried into the church, the saws, by way of tribute, roared into synchronised action.

Both men’s services did justice to the person commemorated. In the case of Paddy Leigh Fermor, there were readings in four languages. Robin Lane Fox read Horace’s Ode 1.9. These were the lines which Paddy heard his prisoner General Kreipe reciting to himself as they watched the cold dawn break over Mount Ida in May 1944 (“See how resplendent in deep snow Soracte stands…”): Paddy knew the Latin words and completed the recitation, forming a bond between enemies. William Blacker chanted a Romanian ballad. Then John Julius Norwich and his daughter Artemis Cooper led us in one of Paddy’s specialities – his own translations of English songs into comically unsuitable foreign tongues. “Do ye ken John Peel, with his coat so grey?” became “Conosce Gian’ Peel, con sua giacca tanta griggia?”

The gospel was from Luke 12: “…take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on. The life is more than meat, and the body more than raiment.”

At Tony’s funeral, the gospel was Matthew’s account of the Beatitudes, the list of those who are blest for their meekness or mercy, poverty of spirit or purity of heart. Of them Jesus says: “Ye are the salt of the earth.”

Tony’s son John spoke to us. He remembered the night of the Great Storm of 1987, when he was 10 years old. At two in the morning, Tony came into his bedroom, grasping a chainsaw. “I’m going out,” he told him, “to saw up these trees that are falling and blocking the way. If the roof blows off, come and get me.” A tree fell on his arms that night, but he kept on sawing.

John recalled his father’s goodness, which included caring for his permanently sick wife. “Crikey,” he said, “if only more people were like Dad, I reckon the world would be a hell of a better place. Pardon my language.”

We more than pardoned it, of course. “Thank you for coming,” he said, “You are all honourable men and women.” Whether we were or we weren’t, we felt a renewed confidence that the old-fashioned word had meaning: it was shown in the life of the dead man.

The Romanian ballad recited at Paddy’s memorial service is called the Mioritza. It concerns a shepherd about to be murdered by rivals. He instructs his ewe-lamb, who has the gift of speech, to tell others no word of his death. She must tell them only that “I married tonight a king’s daughter”: “At my wedding, tell/ how a star fell,/ that the sun and the moon were holding our crown,/ how the guests at the feast/were maples and firs”.

At Tony’s funeral, when John had spoken, he moved from the lectern. Just as he was about to rejoin the congregation, he stopped by his father’s coffin. “That evening,” he said, “I stood at the spot where Dad had died. The moon was up, and I saw a firework. But then I realised it wasn’t a firework, because there was no noise. It was a meteorite. I thought: ‘That was Dad.’ ” He went back to his place.

Paddy Leigh Fermor wrote that he loved the Romanian ballad because “its magic lies in its linking together of directness and the tragic sense, its capture of the isolated feeling that surrounds shepherds and the forlorn exaltation that haunts their steep grazings and forests”.

After a life well lived, we can all look back on it with that directness, especially when we attend services such as these. As if from those “steep grazings”, we can see the life laid out, shining plain. We may forget that, for the people who lived it, it often did not seem plain at all. As we sang at Tony’s funeral: “Through many dangers, toils and snares,/ I have already come.” The achievement of something grandly simple is an endlessly complicated process, a lifelong work of trial and error.

Anyway, as I said at the beginning, tomorrow marks a birth, not a death. Another Telegraph obituary, this one of the 7th Earl of Yarborough, related how, at his village carol service, he read the lesson about the shepherds deserting their flocks to see the baby in Bethlehem. “I’d just like to say,” he told the startled congregation, “that if these men had been my shepherds, I’d have sacked them.” One must be glad that the earl was not present 2,000 years ago. The shepherds were the best people to receive the message of the angel. With their linking of “directness and the tragic sense”, they understood what the strange birth would mean.

The Carpathian Snail

Patrick Leigh Fermor...British soldier and travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, 25th April 1966.

Paddy Leigh Fermor (obituary) was a man of many dimensions. He had an unquenchable curiosity about people and culture; when he met remote groups, be they Saxons in Transylvania, Vlachs in northern Greece or gypsies in Hungary, he would not just learn their language and song but remember it for the rest of his life. At Paddy’s last birthday party in London, William Blacker quoted two lines of a Romanian ballad in a speech about him; at the age of 96 Paddy sang the song in its entirety. There seemed no occasion at which he could not enliven the party by an adroit performance, or reminisce in half a dozen European languages.

by Patrick Reade.

First published in The Independent, 14 June 2011

For me it always involved a meal: the conversation would come to a point when there would an extraordinary outpouring of remembered verse or prose. He sang “Do you ken John Peel” in Italian once over tea in Dumbleton to entertain us – the verses were far more numerous than I had realised. And Peter Quennell told me many years ago of how Paddy pulled out of his memory an entire landscape of Cretan folk songs as they walked in the Abruzzi. He was known in Greece for his spontaneous ability to respond instantly to another table’s rhyming couplets – mandinathes, a feature of traditional party entertainment in which tables would compete for wit and content in the couplets.

His ear for language never failed him and he was interested in etymology, linguistics and semantics till the very end, correcting my own misattribution of medical terminology from Latin to Greek and then reciting in Ancient Greek the moment in Homer’s Iliad when Troy fell to the Greeks. He loved laughter, too, and in the Dean’s Close at Canterbury I heard him performing an entertaining parody of a John Betjeman poem in the garden where Thomas à Beckett’s assassins escaped. He had just been awarded an honorary degree by Kent University in the Cathedral and we were having tea with Jock Murray, his publisher.

He was the most generous person in spirit and in kind – he must have entertained thousands in his home in the Mani in southern Greece over many years – the names tumble out of the Dictionary of British Biography: academics, politicians and myriad writers, journalists and scholars, all ate at his table. He and his wife Joan were also extremely generous where they saw need and gave with an open hand.

Until last year he swam daily from his house, and swam across the Hellespont at the age of 70 – an astonishing feat, dodging the great liners from the Black Sea and coping with the current and the cold water and the Russian submarines beneath the surface.

On 1 June this year, 10 days before his death, he gave a small lunch party in the cool, stone-arched loggia of his home in Messenia and in the course of conversation we discussed our favourite 16th century pieces of poetry; he declaimed Sir Thomas Wyatt’s entire poem “They flee from me that sometime did me seek”.

For many he will be remembered for his correspondence as much as for his books – because by any reckoning he was a fabulous letter writer and responded to almost all who communicated with him until last year. From my first remembered encounter with him in 1961 when he pressed 12 shillings into my hand, until 50 years later, when he raised his wine glass to absent friends over lunch on the anniversary of Joan’s death, I can say that no other person I have encountered has shown such an embrace of laughter, learning, language and life as this towering genius of word and action. The great memorial will be his writing and a great excitement is that the third part of his trilogy about crossing Europe is due soon – I have seen it, and many have waited years for this crafted reminiscence so long in gestation, about which Paddy in self-mockery called himself “The Carpathian Snail”.

My favourite travel book, by the world’s greatest travel writers

Paul Theroux, William Dalrymple, Kari Herbert, Colin Thubron and many more writers tell us about the travel book that most influenced their own life and work. Others that one could say are slightly less well-known, and very pleased to be placed into the pantheon of “world’s greatest travel writers” – Mr Jasper Winn 🙂 – are included.

I was very pleased to see two of Eric Newby’s books chosen; no surprises that they were A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush and my absolute favourite, Love and War in the Apennines.

William Blacker chose all of Paddy’s books, including Between the Woods and the Water. Yesterday he sent me an email pointing out some deficiencies in the way the Guardian had edited his submission – Now, what did he really expact from the Grauniad? – , including the quotation from Kim at the end. William’s original submission can now be revealed in all its full and original glory …

It was not just the books of Patrick Leigh Fermor – notably Between the Woods and the Water about Rumania – which inspired me, but also the man. He was the quintessential free spirit. He didn’t bother with university, but at the age of 18 set off into the blue, on foot, across Europe , simply hoping for the best. His journey lasted five years. On the way he picked up a bewildering multitude of European languages, which led on to extraordinary wartime adventures, and then to a series of breath-taking books, which are peerless, and among the great masterpieces of twentieth century literature. The resounding success he made of his special brand of non-conformity should fill all would-be wanderers and fellow free spirits with hope. Read about his life, read his books, and if you are not similarly inspired and exhilarated by Leigh Fermor’s example then, as Kim said, ‘Run home to your mother’s lap, and be safe’.

William emphasises, for those who might miss it, “that I wrote, very deliberately, ‘great masterpieces of twentieth century literature’ and not  ‘great masterpieces of twentieth century TRAVEL literature’ !”

The list of choices can be found in this article in the Guardian.

Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story

It is all too easy get overly romantic about Romania, which is said to have come second only to Greece in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s affections. Whilst I can agree wholeheartedly with William Blacker when he describes the Romanian people as some of the most charming and civilised he has ever met, his story of his many years living in Transylvania is likely to polarise opinion about the necessity and pace of development in the Romanian countryside, but it is unlikely to disappoint as a tremendous read. 

By Tom Sawford

What can be more evocative to us than hearing the word Transylvania, and stories about a land that is still populated by wolves and bears that live in huge beech forests? Where many of the farmers still practice a form of agriculture that has changed little since the Middle Ages? A land where true Gypsies live chaotic lives dominated by music, dancing and the many local variants of clear sprit distilled from plums or pears? This is a frontier land where the kings of Hungary gave land to German Saxons in return for their promise to defend Hungary, and indeed Christendom, from the Tartars and the Ottomans, where even now the churches in the high Carpathian villages of Transylvania are also fortresses and places of refuge from deadly warbands and villains.

It was this world that William Blacker stumbled into in 1989 just at the time of the Romanian revolution, which, of all those dramatic events in that cold dark winter, was the bloodiest, ending with the summary execution of Ceausescu and his wife by firing squad after a quick trial. No drawn out Hague justice here.

After his first two relatively short visits Blacker made a decision in 1993 to move to Romania for an extended period and lived there pretty continuously until the late 2000’s. In that time he lived with a proud and hardworking peasant couple called Mihai and Maria in the fertile valleys of the Maramureş, a land that is 80% forest and is in the north of Transylvania near the border with Ukraine. It seems he was like the son they never had.

Willam Blacker demonstrates his scything skills

It was there that William bought his first scythe and learned to cut grass to make hay, stopping frequently during long working days to sharpen the scythe with a whetstone. Maria would carry lunch out to the fields and he enjoyed the opportunity of leisurely talk as they ate in the shade of a tree or a hayrick whilst they drank the local fiery spirit called horinca. A short nap always seemed to follow lunch and then it was back to work until sunset.

This pattern to his daily life in the Maramureş was only interrupted by the onset of the bitter cold, and the snow and ice of winter, which was a time when little work could be done, and was dominated by evening visits to neighbours, the downing of innumerable tots of horinca, and engaging somewhat self-consciously and half-heartedly in the formal courting processes of the countryside.

Natalia

In the end Blacker did not find a wife in the Maramureş but further south in the Saxon lands of Transylvania. He had walked through those vast and dark forests many years before and met a young Gypsy girl called Marishka. Some years later he returned to the village and encountered Marishka again, now a young woman, and her beautiful but flirtatious sister Natalia. Blacker fell in love with, or at least was under the spell of, Natalia and eventually they lived together for a brief but chaotic period. But it was the brave , uncompromising, and superstitious  Marishka that he later ‘married’. She bore him a son called Constantin who still runs with the Gypsy children chasing chickens and cuddling lambs in the village of Halma where he has a home.

This book cannot be described as a biography. Indeed, its subtitle ‘A Romanian Story  states clearly what Blacker is trying to achieve: to tell a tale. This he does convincingly with great charm and simplicity. However, we learn little about William’s other activities beyond farming and his somewhat turbulent love-life during his time in Romania.

We do know that he was concerned about the state of the buildings in the old Saxon villages following what can only be described as a mass migration of the Saxon people when Germany offered them citizenship in 1990. After 800 years of caring for their homes, village halls and churches, many wanted to seek what they thought may be a better life for themselves in the Fatherland. The twentieth century had not been kind to them as in turn they were forced to fight for the Germans, were taken away as forced labour by the Russians, and then continued to suffer under the Communist regime. The plaster on the walls of their homes crumbled; the roofs of their fortress churches leaked; and many Gypsy families occupied these buildings but in general failed to maintain them.

In Between the Woods and the Water, Patrick Leigh Fermor describes this Saxon village architecture as ‘… made to last and adorned here and there with a discreet and rather daring frill of baroque.’ The churches as ‘ sturdy … squat … with a tough defensive look’. In 1996 William Blacker published a pamphlet to highlight the plight of this unique heritage. This led eventually to the creation of a charity focused on the preservation and renovation of Saxon buildings. The pamphlet attracted the attention of HRH Prince Charles who is now Patron of the Mihai Eminescu Trust which  supports the maintenance of this heritage.

Viscri church

Prince Charles has since purchased two properties which have been renovated, which when not being used by the Prince on his annual visits to Transylvania, are available for rent as holiday homes. Whilst Blacker makes some mention of his campaign, and tells us about one or two specific projects that he undertook in the village of Halma, he could have mentioned more about his work in this field.  Clearly Blacker was leading a double life at the time; living and working amongst the country people, but also writing regularly to friends in England about this issue and most probably traveling backwards and forwards. However, he fails to tell us about this in any detail, and perhaps gives a slightly false impression of the Romanian focused continuity of his life at that time.  It was and remains an important part of his life and the story.

Prince Charles’s guesthouse in Zalánpatak, Transylvania

What Blacker does not shy away from is some aspects of the darker side of life in Romania. Whilst his time in the village of Breb in the Maramureş was perhaps the most idyllic, village life was frequently punctuated by tragedy. Death was not far away, whether by lightning strike, freezing to death in the long winter or drowning; tragedies that were often attributed by the deeply religious but also superstitious local people to magic and curses.

The rapid change in the lives of these villagers as economic development advanced is viewed negatively by Blacker. In his opinion they exchanged the hard work and seasonal cycles of their simple but ‘happy’ lives on the land for the unceasing demands and bondage of paid employment, and new forms of tragedy as tarmacked roads brought their own forms of death to the village.

Is it quite as simple as that? He fails to mention the crude outside toilets, the domestic abuse which is common in Romania, and the inability of the people to access medical facilities quickly in an emergency. He mentions a visit to a local vet where he obtains some penicillin for Mihai citing that the absence of a doctor, but the availability of a vet, demonstrated the priorities of the local people. Was that really the case?

His descriptions of the outright racism, exploitation, crude violence and corruption of the ex-communist police towards the Gypsies dominates the last period of his life in Halma (a name he has created to preserve the anonymity of his Transylvanian village). This is not unlike Miklos Bánffy’s descriptions of how some educated Romanian magistrates, tax collectors, and estate managers exploited the Romanian peasantry in his Transylvanian Trilogy. In the end Blacker is forced to make a stand resorting to the courts and a new generation of Romanian lawyers who fought for better rights and equality for peasants and Gypsies.

A Romanian Story  is a love story: of Blacker’s own loves, his love of Romania, and, with the exception of the corrupt, its people. It is full of romance and beautifully woven images of a way of life that is quite unknown to us in the West: one that has enormous attractions for us as many seek a simpler way of life. However, he also describes a country that is undergoing huge and increasingly rapid change.

Blacker is convinced this is to the detriment of the people of the Romanian countryside. My own limited experience makes me unsure. What I do know is that even those of my friends who are highly educated, and have what we might describe as good if still lowly paid jobs by Western standards, look upon their own country with enormous disdain and frustration as they experience widespread corruption, and poor standards in the delivery of public services. My answer to them is always that it is their generation that must remain in Romania and work for change. This may not come as rapidly as they would like, but they may be able to gift a better country to the next generation.

William Blacker has lived, loved and worked for change in Romania. ‘Along the Enchanted Way is a hugely enjoyable book that I highly recommend. In that I am in good company; Paddy described it as ‘a book close to my heart’. He was very supportive of William’s work which helps us to understand some of the many attractions of Romania and the challenges that remain. Read the book but remain aware that this is one man’s view, and that of someone who was able to make the choice to leave in the end.

For all that has changed the fact is that many of the agricultural practices that Blacker describes are still utilised; bears, wolves and lynx still roam in the vast forests; and the people are indeed charming, cultured and civilised. Perhaps we can all help Romania by visiting the country to marvel at its beautiful countryside, the unique flora and fauna, the mix of Baroque and Saxon architecture in Transylvania, and the famous painted monasteries? By supporting these rural communities we may enable enough people to remain in the countryside in improved circumstances to help preserve what remains of one truly unique part of Europe’s cultural heritage.

Related articles:

Paddy Reviews – Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story

Prince Charles in Transylvania

Travel writing: Lost art in search of a lost world

Few authors have been able to equal Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ability to dissolve into the places described in his books.

Editorial, first published in The Guardian 18 June 2011

“I hate the French cookery, and abominate garlick,” Tobias Smollett told his readers 245 years ago, with a snooty disregard for foreigners that runs through too much travel writing today. Describing distant places fairly, curiously and entertainingly has never been easy. Few authors, in any century, have been able to equal Patrick Leigh Fermor’s liquid ability to dissolve into the places described in his books, so that he seemed to be less reporting on than living in them. His death this month, at 96, with the third of his great trilogy of prewar European exploration still unpublished, is a moment to ask what travel writing can still achieve.

Leigh Fermor was lucky, in that he walked through an archaic and aristocratic eastern Europe soon to be obliterated by the second world war. His two greatest books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, take readers into a time and place that can never exist again, and that, as much as his pitch-perfect writing, is why they are among those few books worth reading many times.

Few of today’s writers have this advantage. They must describe a world in which it is easier to communicate, and travel, than ever before. No teenager setting off from Tower Bridge now would find themselves amid ballgowns, hunting parties and lonely mountaintop shepherds. Facebook and text messaging have brought Bucharest and Birmingham closer. Describing difference has been made harder.

Leigh Fermor was one of the last of the great travel writers whose experience spanned the previous century. A varied assortment, mostly men, wrote books that still stand as classics today: among them Eric Newby, Norman Lewis and Wilfred Thesiger. Jan Morris, still writing, deserves to be among them. Two decades ago, a fresh crop of authors revived the art but then fell victim to their own celebrity, Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux included.

Where does travel writing stand now? There are fewer famous authors and fewer sales. Some of the best books involve almost no travel at all: Roger Deakin’s account of wild swimming in Britain, Waterlog, or Neil Ansell’s lovely Deep Country, about the birds and landscape of mid-Wales. William Dalrymple remains an explorer in the classical sense: in From the Holy Mountain he shows Byzantium is not quite destroyed. William Blacker’s Along the Enchanted Way, about eight years living in rural Romania, is the closest modern writing has come to Leigh-Fermor, and not only because the Gypsy and Saxon life he shares is almost gone.

Always, the attraction is the slow pace. There is no need for hurry, no requirement for horror, just immersion in a place and time that is different, even when it is not far from our own.

Paddy Reviews “Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story “

Paddy reviews  William Blacker’s book about his eight years living in rural Romania and is so inspired he let’s himself go “sends (my) thoughts winging back to earlier Moldavian scenes – to ghostly hospodars with their nearly mythical princesses in tall branched crowns, trooping around the walls of fortress-monasteries in frescoed processions.”

First published in the Sunday Telegraph 30 August 2009

Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story

By William Blacker

‘Transylvania, the Banat of Temesvar, the Tatra mountains, Bukovina, Moravia, Bohemia, Wallachia, Moldavia, Bessarabia, the Carpathian range, the Maramures …’ these were the place-names in East Europe where William Blacker, a young, civilised and erudite traveller, hoped to settle and take root. The last of the names (pronounced Maramooresh) is a precipitous and ravishing Romanian region, where Blacker made his life-determining plunge into Europe, immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The moment it fell, he headed for Dresden and then Prague, then further east still; he was in search of an older and wilder Europe. Soon he was hobnobbing with the descendants of Saxon families, brought there eight centuries earlier by Bela of Hungary to guard his eastern frontier from the Tartars, a transplanting which had changed everything. Seven western medieval cities had sprung up, monasteries and churches had followed, and the whole apparatus of the Middle Ages had come into being in the Carpathians.

An elderly Saxon couple took Blacker under their wing on sight, so did many others. The story teems with odd characters. One of them is an engaging, dissolute descendant of a Hungarian family who is the father of two fascinatingly beautiful girls, with a Romanian gipsy mother, with both of whom in succession William fell in love. Apart from their spirits and fine looks, these girls brought with them the whole geist of the gipsy world – its dialects, its manifold skills, its amazing singing and dancing and magic and, of course, as a tribe, its challenging knack of being forever at odds with the civic authorities. The wandering of their ancestors had brought the gipsies all the way from north-west India, through Persia and Egypt and the Levant, and scattered them over the West.

It was not just the Saxons and the gipsies that fascinated the new arrival. The Romanian influence proved equally strong. With the Magyar language to the west and Slavonic to the north and the south, and the Black Sea to the east, the Romanians speak the only Latin language in Eastern Europe, and they are proud of this linguistic heirloom. In AD 103 Trajan led his legions over his great Danube bridge, defeated King Decebalus and added the Dacian kingdom to the Roman Empire and the bas-relief of his victory was sent spiralling above his Forum in Rome and stands there still.

Romania is an extraordinary country. I remember it with great clarity, when I was 19, trudging from Holland to the Bosporus, those unending beech forests where the brooks fell from ledge to ledge, gathered in pools, or tumbled in waterfalls, where one could sleep in clearings among hollowed tree-trunks or ‘swing wells’ and scores of lambs, and be woken up by an old shepherd blowing down a bronze horn three yards long, a half-muffled and half- echo sound, like the trumpets of Tibetan shepherds. It was a world of icicles, birds calling, hayricks and scythes.

Perhaps to balance the complexities of his two love affairs, Blacker threw himself into raising funds for the upkeep and repair of the ancient buildings he had settled among. Like his friends, he was outfitted in rough white homespun and the padded and cross- gartered cowhide moccasins – opinci – which the upland shepherds wear all year.

William, who grew up on the South Downs and the north country and Ireland, brings all the skills of his unfettered upbringing to bear on Romania – horse-breaking, tree felling, haymaking and rick building – which, with a passion for the classics and literature and history, seem to have been a perfect run-in to this strange chapter of his life.

The rigours of snow covered the whole of his first winter. It was a time of rugging up soon after the early sunset and diving straight under the blankets and into The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina by lamplight; in a later season the day would end with rowdy evenings at the Krcma – drinking tavern – of amazing dancing and song. I wonder if some of the evenings revolved, as in my young days, around a klaka of a hundred crones in a barn, all with spindles and distaffs and an endless gift for storytelling? One had to look out for the prints of wolves and bears on the way home.

This is a wild and captivating story, ending in great thanks to his neighbours in Maramures and Sighisoara – we are spared Vlad the Impaler – and also to his parents, who gave him such free reign in childhood. William Blacker has written a book close to this reviewer’s heart, and sends thoughts winging back to earlier Moldavian scenes – to ghostly hospodars with their nearly mythical princesses in tall branched crowns, trooping around the walls of fortress-monasteries in frescoed processions. With a change of pace these are followed by the author and his swarm of friends in a cantering troop of near-Lippizaners through the autumn beech woods. Nowadays it looks as though he might branch out much further south – down, down into Italy where, historically speaking, his nearest apposite neighbour might be Lars Porsenna of Clusium.