Sometimes you get to a book by a circuitous route. I had heard about Patrick Leigh Fermor when I was reading lots of travel writing in the 1990s but didn’t read his books then. Recently I began reading more about the two World Wars and came across The Ariadne Objective, by Wes Davis, the story of a British undercover operation in Crete during World War II when a handful of amateur British spies kidnapped a German general. One of those swashbuckling figures was Leigh Fermor; I was intrigued so I picked up a copy of his first memoir, A Time of Gifts, about his travels across Europe in the mid-1930s. I was not disappointed.
Leigh Fermor was only 18 when he hit the road with a knapsack, determined to hike from Rotterdam to Constantinople, using his wits and a few introductions to get by. His parents were willing to send him four pounds a month for expenses. He had been expelled from yet one more school for his free-spirited inability to conform to expectations; it was time for him to make his own way. His father was in India, his mother and sister in England. He tried, briefly, to support himself by writing, but it was no go. Europe beckoned. He bought a ticket on a steamer sailing from the Tower Bridge to the Hook of Holland. On a rainy day in late 1933, several friends saw him off.
The delight of this memoir–the first of two volumes–is in Leigh Fermor’s brilliant, evocative writing and the adventures he had. Ready for whatever came his way, willing to talk to people of all types and stations in life, curious about everything, he made friends wherever he went and put up with all the privations of a life on the road with minimal cash. Of course, 1933 was when it all began to go sour in Europe, so we get some insight into the political situation as well.
The writing is extraordinary: here are a few sentences from his description of traveling through London in cab on the rainy day he left:
“A thousand glittering umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly; the Jermyn Street shops, distorted by streaming water, had become a submarine arcade; and the clubmen of Pall Mall, with china tea and anchovy toast in mind, were scuttling for sanctuary up the steps of their clubs. Blown askew, the Trafalgar Square fountains twirled like mops…”
The book is filled with wonderful, vivid descriptions like this, as Leigh Fermor travels across Holland, into Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. In the process of discovering these countries, he learns about himself and I like to think that he made peace with his wild childhood and saw his way clear into the adult world. Here’s another wonderful passage about how the natural world helped him achieve that, as he settles himself under a tree for a night’s sleep in the open air:
” The fidgeting of moorhens and coots and of voles and water-rats doing the breast-stroke through the stems grew less frequent and every half-minute or so two bitterns–one quite near, the other perhaps a mile away–sounded across the vague amphibian world: loneliest of muffled cries, plainly to be heard above the shrill rise and fall of millions of frogs. This endless population, stretching upstream and down for leagues, made the night seem restlessly alive and expectant. I lay deep in one of those protracted moments of rapture which scatter this journey like asterisks. A little more, I felt, and I would have gone up like a rocket.”
There’s a new biography out: Patrick Leigh Fermor, An Adventure by Artemis Cooper and while I’m interested in reading it eventually, I’m more interested in reading Leigh Fermor’s own writings right now. The next volume of his memoirs, Between the Woods and the Water, takes him to Constantinople and I’m hoping to go along with him.