Must Read: Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor

My apologies to anyone who has been peeking in here to see if they have missed anything. You haven’t. I just haven’t posted anything in the last 3 weeks. Life took over, inspiration dried up, and I’ve been reading rather than writing.

My reading has included some of the best I’ve come across for a long time: a casual recommendation by an old friend of an author I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of, and I deeply regret this Bildungslücke which I am eager to fill.

Patrick Leigh Fermor is the name to remember. An enfant terrible, a gifted linguist, lover of literature, extremely intelligent, adventurous – and according to a school report “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness” – he was expelled from schools where his individuality caused upheavals, nevertheless acquiring an admirable education en route. He must also have possessed tremendous charm, something that was far better appreciated in continental Europe than in the stifling atmosphere of the English educational institutions he attended.

In December of 1933, two months before his 19th birthday, and long before the gap year had been invented, he set off on a lone hike from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, taking only essentials in his rucksack, including Horace’s Odes and The Oxford Book of English Verse. His only financial support was the promise of an envelope from his mother containing £4 awaiting him at pre-arranged post offices spaced at monthly intervals. His account of his journey, mostly on foot, is multidimensional, told not only from the perspective of the eager young adventurer, but also with the insights and wisdom of the mature man he later became and who finally wrote down this remarkable story many decades after the events. His all-encompassing curiosity and willingness to share the everyday lives of all he meets on his journey – from respectable burghers and innkeepers to monks, drop-outs and gypsies, from peasants to barons, counts and princes, and  whether sleeping in a hayrick or in a mediaeval castle – make his story one that you don’t want to interrupt. Start reading after a hearty breakfast because you won’t want to stop for lunch, tea or dinner! Unputdownable!

There are historical digressions woven into the narrative that bring century-old events into the present, and of course there is the inevitable bittersweet awareness that the world he experienced in the years between 1933 and 1935, with its unique culture and centuries-old traditions, was doomed, and would never, ever be the same again.

The author, sadder, wiser, older, leaps ahead occasionally with forays into his experiences during the Second World War, with unexpected encounters and links with people and places that figure in his earlier travels.

His gift for story-telling and incomparable command of language, his knack of bringing characters to life with a few strokes, and his fascinating summaries of deep research into whatever caught his interest, make Patrick Leigh Fermor into one of the greatest twentieth-century travel writers. Richard Woodward, a BBC journalist, described him as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene”.

I am wondering how I managed never to have come across him before! These are most definitely my books of the month: A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, available in hardback, paperback and – in my case – downloaded as e-books for Kindle. The end of this journey is told in the book he failed to finish before his death, published as The Broken Road and based on his draft. That treat still lies in store for me, but in the meantime I am reiterating the old saying: Es ist die Reise und nicht das Ziel – the journey, not the destination.

PS: I have just discovered that Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn – A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods & the Water and The Broken Road by Nick Hunt, (Nicholas Brealey Publishing) has been shortlisted for the 2015 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year.

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16 thoughts on “Must Read: Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor

  1. It sounds like a fascinating life by a fascinating fellow. I remember hitch=hiking across Europe down to Greece when I was a teenager with just £ 40.00 in my pocket, living off carrots and milk and sleeping under hedges in the main, so his experiences certainly resonate with me, even if his were of a rather more noteworthy quality

    • To read, and re-read! Having no iPod, he entertained himself by singing and declaiming poetry as he walked along lonely stretches of highway, sometimes scaring the locals if he hadn’t noticed them in time to stop his enactment!

  2. I have A Time of Gifts from the library to read and I havn’t read him either, though I’ve read a little about him, particularly after reading Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie, the book he wrote just before he went walkabout too. I know you’ve read that one!

    You might enjoy this article in the Guardian I read at the time of reading Laurie Lee, which mentions the journey’s of both men:

    In The Footsteps of Laurie Lee by Robert MacFarlane

    • I think you’ll enjoy Leigh Fermor (I am definitely hooked!) and didn’t know anything by Laurie Lee apart from Cider with Rosie (I agree, a delicious book) so that has now also gone on my list. Thank you.

  3. Well, I am just reading Cider with Rosie so this looks like my summer reading is sorted, thankyou! Will be downloading these interesting-sounding books before I leave 😉
    (Wondering how you enjoyed Lark Rise in the end?)

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