The end of the road

 

© John Murray

 

A while ago I wrote about A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.  These were the first two instalments in a trilogy of books describing a walking journey made across Europe in 1933 and 1934 by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=5008

 

Fermor was only in his late teens at the time.  Subsequently, he’d make a name for himself as a soldier, decorated war hero, author and scholar, although nowadays, six years after his death, I suspect he’s best known for being a possible inspiration for the character of James Bond, who was created by his friend Ian Fleming.  (Fleming was always meticulous about his research and he can’t have been too pleased when, following the publication of the 1963 Bond novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Fermor mischievously pointed out an error to him.  At one point in the book 007 orders a ‘half-bottle’ of Pol Roger champagne.  But, observed Fermor, Pol Roger is never sold in half-bottles.)

 

A Time of Gifts chronicled Fermor’s progress from Rotterdam to the Czechoslovakian / Hungarian border, while Between the Woods and the Water continued his journey through Hungary and Romania.  He published these two books decades later, the first volume appearing in 1977 and the second in 1986.  The Broken Road, an account of the final part of his epic hike, across Bulgaria to his ultimate destination Constantinople, was published posthumously in 2013.  Fermor didn’t live to complete the third book.  The finished item was based on a draft he’d written and was edited by the travel writer Colin Thubron and Fermor’s biographer Artemis Cooper.  They used information from one of his old diaries to fill in any gaps in the text and, presumably, they gave it a final polish too.

 

I read The Broken Road recently.  How does it compare with the previous two books?  And does the fact that it was still a work-in-progress in 2011, when the great man passed away, lessen its impact?

 

The simple and welcome answer is: hardly at all.  There’s one moment where Fermor’s demise leaves things noticeably unfinished, which I’ll come to later.  Otherwise, this is pleasingly on par with the tone and quality of A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.  You may feel at times that a further edit could have tightened Fermor’s prose by trimming some of its floridity – but then you may feel that way with the earlier books too.  A verbose chap, Fermor didn’t subscribe to the Ernest Hemmingway less-is-more approach to writing.  Indeed, his garrulousness is part of the three books’ charm.

 

One way in which The Broken Road differs from predecessors is its darker tone.  Now in the late stages of his journey, Fermor refers to fatigue and jadedness.  He’s also in a place, Bulgaria, where he feels more alien and out-of-his-depth.  Occasionally, he becomes gloomy: “…the falling depression had been hammered home by the unbroken downpour, lashed into a spiteful anti-human fury by the unrelenting north-east wind that felt as though it was blowing without let or hindrance, as it probably was, direct from Siberia…”

 

He’s more aware now of encountering duplicity and hostility and things that make him feel uncomfortable as an outsider.  During inclement weather, cart-drivers refuse to give him lifts unless he pays money that he can’t spare.  One evening at a restaurant-bar he’s disturbed when the patrons explode into frenzied celebration at the news that King Alexander I of Yugoslavia has just been assassinated in Marseilles.  (“They’ve killed the Serbian king!  Today, in France!  And it was a Bulgar that did him in!”)  And there’s a perplexing moment when, for no apparent reason, a Bulgarian youth called Gatcho whom he’s befriended turns on him, screams abuse and threatens him with a knife.

 

Afterwards, a chastened Fermor wonders about “…how much of a nuisance I might have proved to countless people during the last year: had I been a perfect pest all across Central Europe?  A deep subsidiary gloom set in…”

 

From ghostofelberry.wordpress.com

 

Though it can’t have been fun at the time, I actually like seeing Fermor out of his comfort zone here.  This is because in the previous books there were times when I felt he had it too cushy, thanks to his privileged background, his wealthy contacts and the easy manner with which he ingratiates himself with those contacts.  As I wrote previously: “Gradually… Fermor falls in with a succession of aristocrats and moneyed folk.  Each of these gets in touch with relatives or friends further along his walking route and arranges for them to put him up.  So Fermor makes increasingly-frequent stops at big houses, where he dawdles among drawing rooms, libraries, servants, vintage motor cars, lavish family picnics and sumptuous evening balls…  Between the Woods and the Water, in particular, contains so many of these aristos that they start to blur into one another.”

 

In The Broken Road, Fermor even has to endure a common hazard for solitary, long-distance budget travellers – the loony who attaches himself to you.  (As someone who’s done a fair amount of travelling, I’ve had many loonies attach themselves to me.)  Here, it’s a misfit called Ivancho, “threadbare and urban and with a face like a hare’s,” who talks “at such a speed that I could scarcely understand a word – at the same time eager, confidential and ear-splitting, and without the faintest trace of punctuation, accompanied by many gestures and with a fixed smile and those hare’s eyes projecting and rolling, as though loose in their sockets.  It continued for mile after mile until my head began to swim and ache.”

 

The book isn’t all misery, of course.  Its pages are frequently brightened by moments of rhapsody, moments when the ever-curious Fermor is genuinely delighted by his discoveries.  For example, the whirlwinds of thistledown, sticks and rubbish that appear on the Dobruja steppe: “The plain was still alive with mirages; these four pillars careered across a sunset that the hanging mantle of dust refracted into a vast and tragic drama of orange and amber and blood red and violet…  There are tales of whole wagons being gathered up by these twisting demons, with sheep and buffaloes…”  Or the dream-like experience he has in the final chapter when he spends the night in a firelit cave by the Black Sea that “arched high overhead but did not go very deep into the cliff side” amid a mixed band of Greek fisherman and Bulgar shepherds.  They entertain themselves swigging from bottles of raki, playing music on goatskin bagpipes, gourd drums and Eastern European lutes, and dancing – first a slapstick all-male Turkish belly-dancing number and then some intriguing variations on Greek rebetiko.  The chapter is a tour de force of descriptive writing and provides the book, and the trilogy itself, with a fitting climax.

 

The cave sequence is the climax by default because a few pages later what you’d expect to be the real climax, Fermor’s long-awaited arrival in Constantinople, doesn’t materialise.  Rather, the text terminates in mid-sentence (“…and yet, in another sense, although”) and Fermor’s editors provide an apologetic note explaining that he never recorded the arrival in his draft or in his diary.  They speculate that “(p)erhaps the end of his journey was weighing on him with the traveller’s bewilderment of at last reaching his goal, and the uneasy question of his future.”

 

From Ouranoupoli.com

 

There’s compensation, however.  We get an 80-page epilogue wherein, post-Constantinople and early in 1935, Fermor describes a three-and-a-half-week sojourn on the Greek peninsular of Mount Athos, the ‘Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain’ that’s home to twenty Eastern Orthodox monasteries and that’s off-limits to women.  Indeed, Fermor observes, the peninsula’s off-limits to most things female: “for centuries, no mares, sheep, she-goats, sheep, cats, etc., have lived there, and all the flocks that I saw cropping what grass they could among the rocks, watched by a shepherd boy with a flute, were of rams and billy-goats.”  (Things have now been relaxed, apparently.  According to Wikipedia, “female cats, female insects and female songbirds” are allowed entry to modern-day Mount Athos.)

 

So after A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road, I’ve spent about 800 pages in the company of the young Patrick Leigh Fermor during his trek across 1930s Europe.  Like with any travelling companion on a long and often arduous trip, there’ve been moments when I’ve felt irritated by him – by his poshness, his puppy-dog enthusiasm, his occasionally infuriating know-it-all-ness.  But at the same time, I feel I’ve formed a bond with the guy.  And now that the journey has reached its end, you know what?  I’m going to miss him.

 

Patrick’s progress

 

(c) John Murray

 

It’s hard to know where to start with A Time of Gifts and its sequel Between the Woods and the Water, which chronicle part of a journey that Patrick Leigh Fermor made across Europe, on foot, in the mid-1930s.

 

To simply describe them as travel books would do them a disservice.  Fermor, who was a lad of 18 when he started this epic walk – though later he’d become known as a soldier, decorated war hero, author, scholar, polyglot and all-round Renaissance-Man-of-Action – has a voracious eye for detail that refuses to confine itself to the geographic.  You also get pages of observation and speculation about the history, mythology, art, architecture, languages, costumes, music, etc., of the locales that he visits.   At times, it seems like his teenaged brain is the mental equivalent of a blue whale, cruising along and sucking in and trapping every iota of information that comes its way, just as the baleen plates in a whale’s maw sift up tons of krill.  Depending on your interests, and patience, this can make the books a fascinating and delightfully anecdotal read; or a distractingly long-winded and rambling one.  I have to say there were moments when I found them fascinating, delightful, long-winded and rambling all at the same time.

 

But the best place to start (as Julie Andrews sang in The Sound of Music) is at the beginning.  A Time of Gifts details Fermor’s progress, in 1933 and 1934, from Rotterdam and through the Low Countries; into Germany, where he passes through Cologne, Stuttgart and Munich; into Austria and to Vienna; by way of a detour, up into Czechoslovakia and to Prague and back; and to the western borders of Hungary.  Between the Woods and the Water continues the story from there and by the end of the second book he’s travelled across Hungary and Romania.

 

A third book, The Broken Road, was published after Fermor’s death in 2011.  I haven’t read it yet but I assume it completes the journey and sees him arrive at his ultimate destination, Constantinople, in 1935.

 

Obviously, perusing these books in 2015 and knowing what would happen to Europe a few years after he’d walked through it, you’re aware that many of the communities, cultures and places he describes will soon be changed, drastically – disfigured at best, erased at worst.  And viewing the books from this sombre perspective, you can’t begrudge Fermor his obsession with detail.  You want him to get everything recorded, before it’s too late.

 

Events in 1930s Germany send subtle but menacing ripples through the books.  In one Rhineland town in A Time of Gifts, he accepts a youth’s offer of a night’s sleep on a camp-bed in an attic.  He discovers the attic to be “a shrine of Hitleriana.  The walls were covered with flags, photographs, posters, slogans and emblems.”  The youth tells him: “You should have seen it last year!  You would have laughed. Then it was all red flags, stars, hammers and sickles, pictures of Lenin and Stalin and Workers of the World, Unite…!  Then suddenly, when Hitler came into power, I understood it was all nonsense and lies.  I realised Adolf was the man for me.  All of a sudden!”

 

Later, in Between the Woods and the Water, Fermor encounters a group of Orthodox Jews in the Carpathian Mountains and, while he chats to them, the issue of Nazi Germany crops up: “They came into the conversation and – it seems utterly incredible now – we talked of Hitler and the Nazis as though they merely represented a dire phase of history, a sort of transitory aberration or a nightmare that might suddenly vanish, like a cloud evaporating or a bad dream.”

 

Meanwhile, it’s worth considering these books from another perspective.  Although Fermor did the travelling in the 1930s, he didn’t do the writing until decades later.  He finally got A Time of Gifts published in 1977 and Between the Woods and the Water in 1986.  Thus, while the books’ narrator views the world through the eyes of a teenager, a second pair of eyes are at work here, those of a man in his 60s and 70s with immeasurably greater knowledge and experience.  While Fermor waxes loquaciously about the forces shaping German art, or the Kingdom of Bohemia’s connection with Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, or the elephant that Harun al-Rashid gave to Emperor Charlemagne, or the remnants of Turkish culture found on Ada Kaleh Island – or indeed, while he lectures his readers on the historical comings and goings of a dozen different tribes in central Europe – you’re not, as you may initially believe, hearing the thoughts of a superhumanly-intelligent boy genius.  Many of those thoughts belong to the old Fermor.  But they’re expressed in the excitable voice of the youth.

 

And there’s a further point – one that might trouble readers who open a book about a real-life journey made by a real-life traveller expecting it to be, well, real.  Fermor subsequently lost many of the notes he’d written during the trip and, in the 1970s and 1980s, he had to reconstruct a lot using his (admittedly-formidable) memory.  And as was suggested by a report in the BBC news magazine in 2012 (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20448146), certain events may have been embroidered.

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

One bone of contention has been Fermor’s account in Between the Woods and the Water of how he crossed the Great Hungarian Plain.  The book says he did it on horseback.  Some 27 pages are spent in the company of a horse called Malek, “a fine chestnut with a flowing mane and tail, one white sock, a blaze and more than a touch of Arab to his brow”.  This aroused the suspicions of Fermor’s editor and biographer Artemis Cooper because, in an earlier draft of the book she’d seen, the beast hadn’t existed.  Fermor admitted to her, “Ah yes, well, I thought everyone would get tired of me trudging along, so I put myself on a horse for a bit – you won’t let on, will you?”

 

Actually, what bothers me more than possible distortions of the truth is Fermor’s reliance on well-to-do contacts for accommodation and sustenance, which increases the further he travels.  His original manifesto was to “set out across Europe like a tramp – or, as I characteristically phrased it to myself, like a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar, a broken knight…  I would travel on foot, sleep in hayricks in summer, shelter in barns when it was raining or snowing and only consort with peasants and tramps.”  And when he does this, the results are rich and engrossing.  For example, he dallies with Rhineland bargemen, Hungarian gypsies and Transylvanian shepherds.  He encounters a Franciscan monk called Brother Peter, with whom he communicates in Latin and passes the time playing games of skittles; and a down-at-heels eccentric called Konrad who, in Vienna, encourages him to make money by going around the city’s wealthier homes and offering to draw sketches of the inhabitants.  (Sketching, apparently, was another of Fermor’s multitudinous talents.)

 

Gradually, though, Fermor falls in with a succession of aristocrats and moneyed folk.  Each of these gets in touch with relatives or friends further along his walking route and arranges for them to put him up.  So Fermor makes increasingly-frequent stops at big houses, where he dawdles among drawing rooms, libraries, servants, vintage motor cars, lavish family picnics and sumptuous evening balls.  He hangs out with people with names like Baron Rheinhard von Liphart-Ratshoff, Count Graf Joseph, Baron Pips, Captain Tibor of the Horse-Gunners, Countess Ilona Meran, Count Lajos, Count Józsi and Count Jenӧ.  There’s a fellow called Tibor living in a house with a “Palladian façade” and another called Istvàn living in “a mixture of manor house, monastery and farmstead”.  Between the Woods and the Water, in particular, contains so many of these aristos that they start to blur into one another.  (Admittedly, you’re aware of how this old Hungarian-Romanian aristocracy was shortly to be obliterated, courtesy of Hitler and Stalin, and you sense Fermor’s desire to commemorate all these people who’d shown him hospitality.)

 

At this point I should declare an interest.  When I was 17, I made my own trip across mainland Europe.  I started off near Lausanne in Switzerland, where I’d earned money with a grape-picking job, and travelled to Bern, Interlaken, Lucerne and Zurich; then into Liechtenstein and through the western end of Austria; into Germany, to Munich, Stuttgart, Heidelberg and Bonn; and finally into the Low Countries and to Brussels and Rotterdam.  I didn’t walk, but hitchhiked – back then, hitchhiking was still a relatively safe and acceptable form of transport.  This meant that while Fermor got to see some of the most glorious historical and natural sights of 1930s Europe, I got to see a lot of entry-ramps leading down to a lot of Autobahns.  For much of the way, my travelling companion was a guy from Stevenage who claimed to be both a football hooligan and a drummer in a punk-rock band.  So our conversations were slightly less highbrow than those enjoyed by Fermor while he enthused about the details of local history and culture with his new-found chums in aristocratic central Europe.

 

I never slept in a barn or a cave-entrance like Fermor did occasionally, but I didn’t enjoy the hospitality of the continent’s landed gentry either.  My evenings were spent in a succession of Swiss and German youth hostels, which in those days were run with a Teutonic strictness – I remember the wardens in the Lausanne and Grindelwald hostels being particularly bossy, bad-tempered old farts.

 

Indeed, I suspect that if I’d set foot on the estates belonging to Baron Rheinhard von Liphart-Ratshoff, Count Graf Joseph, etc., they’d have taken one look at me, grabbed a gun and sprayed me with buckshot.  Not that I’d have wanted their hospitality.  I’d been raised by typical Northern-Irish-Protestant parents who’d taught me a near-religious devotion to the principles of independence and self-reliance.  The worst thing a Northern Irish Prod could do was accept charity or favours from somebody else.  Hitching a lift with someone for a few miles along the road was bad enough.  Turning up on a stranger’s doorstep and expecting to be housed and fed was diabolical.  Whereas this was not an issue for Fermor who, as one of Britain’s ruling class, seemed to have both self-confidence and shamelessness imprinted in his genes.

 

And yet…  I like these two books a lot.  Despite his rich-and-powerful friends and his many brainy digressions, there’s much in the character of their 18-year-old narrator that I can identify with – at least, through my memories of what I was like at a similar age.  There are passages that are wonderfully evocative in a youthful, wide-eyed, open-to-everything way.  For example, Fermor’s description of an Easter Sunday parade shortly after he’s entered Hungary: “Woken by the bells and the music, the storks in the town were floating and crossing overhead and looking down on our little string of lights as it turned uphill into the basilica again.  The intensity of the moment, the singing and candle flames and incense, the feeling of spring, the circling birds, the smell of fields, the bells, the chorus from the rushes, thin shadows and the unreality of the moon over the woods and the silver flood – all these things hallowed the night with a spell of great beneficence and power.”

 

Or a description of a glade he encounters while wandering in the forested uplands of the Carpathians: “there lay… a space like an enormous room: a long, enclosed clearing where beech trees sprang up like gigantic pillars flinging out vaults of tangled and interlocking boughs.  Grey in shadow, their smooth trunks were flecked with silver where the sunbeams spilt their way through an infinity of leaves and scattered blurred discs of light over the bark and the muscular spread of the roots; they shed a sparser and still more grudging confetti on the unencumbered floor.”

 

I suppose there are moments when Patrick Leigh Fermor, writing this in his 60s and 70s, seems in danger of succumbing to purple prose, to poetic overkill, to whimsy.  But with those sentences ringing out in the voice of his exuberant 18 or 19-year-old self, he gets away with it – rather magically.

 

From www.slate.com