A great writer’s legacy demands constant renewal. Books left on a shelf, whether they are Tolstoyan or trash, gather dust. They look dog-eared, old-fashioned and uninviting. A critic’s task, sometimes, is merely to pull them out, to wipe them down and to insist on their continued relevance.
Patrick Leigh Fermor died ten years ago. He was 96. That he was blessed with such a long life is but one example of his magnificent good fortune. For decades, one learns from Artemis Cooper’s biography, he smoked between eighty and a hundred cigarettes a day. In the man’s own words, this means that “end to end they would have formed a single monster cigarette, stretching all the way from Victoria Station to Brighton.”
But to some extent a man makes his own luck. With enough audacity, enthusiasm and openness, one can barge through doors that others might have thought were locked. So it was in 1933, when Leigh Fermor, aged eighteen, set out across Europe, with the aim of roaming from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople.
He had a lot of luck. His Englishness was no doubt an asset as he tangled with thieves, diplomats, and soldiers, and he seems to have an extraordinary knack for running into generous locals with extra food and beds. Still, without such energy and curiosity, he would never have had the chance to be fortunate.
The young Paddy Leigh Fermor could be flighty and irresponsible. He was kicked out of an extraordinary succession of schools. When conflict erupted in 1939, though, he answered the call with courage and stout-heartedness. A polyglot, thanks to his travels, he was sent into occupied Crete to work with the resistance. His subversive efforts there epitomised the ideal English blend of bravery and humour. As Cooper writes:
Xan and Paddy also began a chalk-scrawling campaign, enlisting young Cretans to help. “WIR WOLLEN NACH HAUS!” (we want to go home) and “WO IST UNSERE LUFTWAFFE?” (where is our air force?) and “SCHEISSE HITLER” (shit Hitler) were the most common scrawls, but Paddy also took advantage of the rumours that Communism was spreading through the sullen German ranks. Some slogans read “HEIL STALIN!” or “HEIL MOSKAU!” accompanied by a defiant hammer and sickle. The success of his graffiti could be judged by the arrest of German soldiers, and searches of their billets and incoming parcels.
Such mischief was nothing, though, compared to the kidnapping of the German general Heinrich Kreipe. Leigh Fermor and his fellow Briton Bill Stanley Moss stopped General Kreipe’s car, held a gun to his head and drove him through twenty-two German roadblocks before he finally ditched his captors.
Such a varied, madcap youth provided much of the material on which Leigh Fermor would base his career as one of England’s finest modern travel writers. Who compares? Robert Byron, perhaps, whom Leigh Fermor admired but who died, unfortunately, at the age of 35 with the potential for many books still inside him. Or Norman Douglas, some would say—though his wretched and prolific abuse of his children torpedoed his posthumous reputation. Then there was Bruce Chatwin, a younger writer with whom Leigh Fermor shared a mutual admiration. Chatwin rivalled him as a stylist, if with more sparing, clipped prose than the elder man’s long, luscious sentences. While Chatwin clumsily elevated his nomadic preferences to the status of a quasi-religious virtue, though, Leigh Fermor was curious without being ideological. His observations served no purposes except themselves—and were often the more powerful for it.
In his first account of his epic walk, A Time of Gifts, for example, he sees the sadness underneath the threatening bravado of a band of Nazi men:
Thumps accentuated the rhythm; the sound would have resembled a rugger club after a match if the singing had been less good. Later on, the volume dwindled and the thumping died away as the singing became softer and harmonies and descants began to weave more complex patterns. Germany has a rich anthology of regional songs, and these, I think, were dreamy celebrations of the forests and plains of Westphalia, long sighs of homesickness musically transposed.
Elsewhere, in a single observation, Leigh Fermor captures the essentially hysterical nature of Nazism better than any philosophical analyst. Watching people salute one another in the street, he writes:
People meeting … would become performing seals for a second. This exchange, soon to become very familiar, seemed extremely odd for the first few days, as though the place were full of slightly sinister boy scouts.
For all that he could sense the violence straining under the surface of German society, though, Leigh Fermor loved Germany. He loved Europe, and not with lofty detachment, but with enraptured interest. One of the qualities that endeared him to his ever generous hosts was his eagerness to learn about them, their backgrounds and their lives. “In Paddy’s company,” writes Cooper, “Everyone felt livelier, funnier and more entertaining.” That applied to rural farmers and to glamorous countesses. This is an attractive feature in a traveller, the ability to enrich the lives of his hosts as well as himself, rather than relating to them with the haughty condescension more befitting a tour guide in a zoo. But it is also an attractive feature in a writer. As he was so interested, he draws us in as well.
“A kind of spell haunts wooden slopes like these,” Leigh Fermor writes of the Carpathian Forests in Between the Woods and the Water. “A kind of spell” was what he was best at exploring—the rich, transcendent qualities of history, nature and human interaction that are so hard to reduce to words—from the magic of birdsong to the beauty of women.
Leigh Fermor was not blind to the poverty and vice underneath the rural charm and aristocratic culture he encountered, and he wielded his descriptive powers just as intelligently and illuminatingly in that direction. Accosted by a young gypsy, he gives him a coin and is then confronted by so many eager kids that he “scattered my small change like danegeld and retreated.” Passing through a red-light district, he writes, “This staircase of a hundred harlots was trodden hollow by decades of hobnails, and the lights, slanting across the night like a phosphorescent diagonal in a honeycomb, ended in the dark.” (And Leigh Fermor was no naïf—he was himself once described by the novelist Somerset Maugham as a “middle-class gigolo for upper-class women.”)
Yet the Europe that he loved was disappearing even while he was writing about it. The deflation of elites and the economic suffering of commoners had enabled the rise of the Nazis and the Soviets. Leigh Fermor detested Nazism, but, unlike many of his English peers, he was never attracted to the communists either. He had spent too much time in Eastern Europe, where, as he writes, “Russia began only a few fields away, the other side of a river; and there, as all her neighbours knew, great wrong was being done and terrible danger lay.” Besides, he was taken with the unique richness and diversity of the places he visited—and totalitarian systems, like bulldozers, chewed up all such lands.
Yet liberal modernity, too, eroded local heritage—more slowly and gently, to be sure, but with as much relentlessness. It would take an imbecile to lament this erosion in toto: famine, ethnic strife and a miserable lack of public sewage systems are aspects of history that no one pines for. But corporatisation and Americanisation have had flattening and deadening effects on Europe. It is an irony of recent years that many of the people who hymned Europe most passionately in the aftermath of the EU referendum now cleave to a glossy, bourgeois cosmopolitanism that prescribes spreading more or less the same values, culture and services anywhere and everywhere. Europe is not just wonderful because it is Europe, but also because it is England, France, Poland, Croatia, Norway et cetera. (And this of course applies to all the other continents as well.)
Leigh Fermor was an insatiably curious man, but was also stricken with that characteristically English quality that Bruce Chatwin called “distractedness.” He roamed from place to place, and, when his roaming had ceased, was liable to be afflicted with “that sense of anticlimax … that the end of a journey brings.” Well, such roaming suits some people—not least people with enough daring and courage to kidnap a German general. But I still wonder about our modern relationship with travel, which has taken what was once the sole preserve of rich or enterprising adventurers and brought it to us all—if not in reality, then in aspiration.
I believe we excessively associate the local with the dull, unimaginative and small-minded, and the foreign with the exciting, romantic and profound. As an immigrant, I say this without moralism. Leigh Fermor makes this observation too, when he reflects on his idealistic, oikophobic English cultural milieu:
In this breezy, post-Stracheyan climate, it was cheerfully and explicitly held that all English life, thought and art were irredeemably provincial and a crashing bore and the sack from school, to my surprise, was hailed as a highly creditable feat; failure to join the Army was better still: “The Army! I should hope not indeed. The very idea!”
This attitude is not just a function of ideas. It is a function of technology. Give a person a plot of land, surrounded by hills, and he might think it is the most beautiful plot of land in the world. Flatten the hills, giving him a clear, uninterrupted view of countless other plots of land, stretching off into the distance, and he is liable to suspect that other people’s plots of land are better, sunnier, more fertile and more beautiful than his. That, in simplistic terms, is what technology has done for us. We are far more exposed to knowledge of the world beyond us, and it brings our latent anxieties about death, destiny and cosmic insignificance to the surface.
Far more people want to be the traveller than the travelled to. But this makes no more sense than a world in which everyone wants to be a writer, and no one wants to read. Everywhere is local for someone, and the exotic is only the unfamiliar. That is not to deny that travel has value, of a thousand kinds, and that somebody’s end cannot suit them better than their beginning. But we must cherish our roots as well. Any fool can find something exciting and curious in the vast scope of the world. It takes more imagination to continually find the exciting and curious features of one’s home.
So, I commend to you the works of Patrick Leigh Fermor—a man whose books remind us of the deep value of place, even if we should be mindful of those who are close to us as well as those who are distant from us. We should, I think, approach the world, not as a kind of rolling buffet, from which to grab a taste of every dish that passes by, but as a place with treasures that demand our time and contemplation, and that, if we are fortunate, yield more to us in return for our patience. As Leigh Fermor says, in A Time of Gifts, when a friend in a car offers to drive him through Austria as he prepares to walk, “Horsepower corrupts.”
This is a splendid essay. The several paragraphs beginning “I believe” and ending “one’s home” are a particularly probing and illuminating piece of writing. I respect the humility with which you make your argument while also acknowledging that you don’t make it from a vantage point of moralistic judgement. All this in the midst of a tribute to a great writer and master stylist. I’d have added Jan Morris to your list of outstanding British travel writers. But (outside Britain) – have you read Nicolas Bouvier? The Way of the World is the finest piece of travel writing I know – a richly atmospheric, funny and at times harrowing account of a lengthy trip through (primarily) Yugoslavia, Iran and Afghanistan (all of which have changed beyond all recognition since the 1950s), but also a marvellous essay in the philosophy of travel. Could this passage be bettered? “That day, I thought… Read more »
I’ve only read PLF’s book about time spent in a monastery – (“ A time of silence” or something similar) very interesting, given his dissolute proclivities – showed a try’s writer, because he could observe and out himself into other’s shoes.
Great piece Ben. Only heard about Fermor last year.
Leigh Fermor’s ‘Between the Woods and the Water’ was my introduction to him shortly after it was published in the late 80s/early 90s. It remains in my top 3 books I’ve ever read and I consider his prose to be amongst the finest of the 20th century. His writing is like marmite though as he provokes strong reactions for and against it (Bit like Conrad who I also enjoy). Great to see an article on him that captures him and his style well. Was the 3rd volume of the trilogy on his Holland to Constantinople walk ever published? In case you don’t know there are videos on Youtube of him being interviewed on Greek television with the German General and Fermor is doing all the translating from Greek into German for the interviewer! Also, BBC had a travel writer series 15 or so years’ ago and one episode covers Fermor… Read more »