The kraken’s un-woke

 

© BBC / From the Guardian

 

Are you one of those many British people who feels ‘underserved and unheard by their media’ because your politics are a wee bit to the right?  Are you hostile towards that trendy left-wing phenomenon called ‘wokeness’ and convinced that ‘the direction of news debate in Britain is increasingly woke and out of touch with the majority of its people’?

 

Yes, life must be horrible for you in 2021 Britain.  There’s absolutely nobody in the British media to defend your views because it’s all so hideously lefty and woke.  Well, except for the Daily Express.  And the Daily Mail, of course.  But aside from those two newspapers, there’s nobody…  Oh, and the Sun.  And the Daily Telegraph.  And the Spectator.  And a good chunk of the opinion pages of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times.  But that’s it.

 

Meanwhile, with so many volleys of lefty, woke bullets whizzing around nowadays, there aren’t any right-wing commentators at all who’re bold enough to stick their heads above the parapet.  Apart from Toby Young, bless his baldy little socks.  And that feisty Julie Burchill.  And Jeremy Clarkson, James Delingpole, Darren Grimes, Daniel Hannon, Julia Hartley-Brewer, Katie Hopkins, Quentin Letts, Rod Liddle, Richard Littlejohn, Kelvin Mackenzie, Jan Moir, Tim Montgomerie, Charles Moore, Douglas Murray, Fraser Nelson, Brendan O’Neill, Alison Pearson, Melanie Phillips, Andrew Pierce and Sarah Vine.  And that plucky actor chappie, what’s his name?  Lawrence Fox?  Anyway, there’s only a tiny handful of brave right-wing holdouts against woke-ism.  You can’t even include Piers Morgan among them.  Poor Piers used to be good on Good Morning Britain, but he’s been off the telly since his crusade against Meghan Markle, Woke Evil Personified, made him so angry that his head burst in a geyser of liquified gammon.

 

Thus, there’s hardly any media outlets or media people in Britain to defend your honest, decent, patriotic, right-wing sensibilities against the predations of the horrible, lefty, woke establishment.  That’s an establishment headed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. That’s right, the shamelessly woke Boris ‘tank-topped bumboys’, ‘piccaninnies with watermelon smiles’, ‘Muslim-women-look-like-letterboxes’ Johnson.  An establishment run by a cadre of Marxist provocateurs like Priti Patel, Matt Hancock, Michael Gove and Dominic Raab, who’re forever up to no-good, lefty, woke activities such as imprisoning asylum seekers in pestilent hellholes, protecting statues of mass-murdering slave traders, wallpapering the rooms where they do Zoom calls with Union Jacks, and doing anything up to and including eating live cockroaches and hammering rusty nails into their eyeballs to prove their loyalty to Her Majesty the Queen.

 

Luckily, salvation is now at hand.  Today sees the launch of a new TV channel called GB News, which promises to push a right-wing agenda that all sensible, salt-of-the-earth Britons will agree with and promises to call out this woke nonsense that possesses our lefty British media and government.  Needless to say, just by existing, GB News has gone against the grain of the British establishment, and its creation is thanks to the efforts of several, heroic, anti-establishment figures.  These include financial backers like the anti-establishment American TV company Discovery; and the anti-establishment investment fund Legatum, which is based in that hotbed of punk rock, Dubai; and the anti-establishment hedge-fund boss Sir Paul Marshall, whose son Winston plays the banjo in Mumford & Sons, a band so hardcore anti-establishment it makes Rage Against the Machine look like wimps.

 

And the chair and main presenter of GB News is the most awesomely anti-establishment figure you can imagine: Andrew Neil.  Well, he’s anti-establishment if you look at his CV with one eye closed and the other eye half-open and manage somehow to miss his 11 years as editor of the Sunday Times; his involvement in the founding of Sky TV; his decade as editor-in-chief with the Barclay Brothers’ Press Holdings group, overseeing the Scotsman, the Business and the European; his 15 years as chairman of the publishing company ITP Media Group (also based in Dubai, home of the Sex Pistols and the Clash); and his 17 years with the BBC.  And that villa he owns in the South of France.

 

Anyway, setting the sarcasm aside for a moment… I was aware of Neil’s malign influence in the British media from an early age.  At school at the start of the 1980s, I did a Scottish Higher course in Modern Studies and I remember being advised by the teacher, Sandy Bowick, to read a ‘quality Sunday newspaper like the Observer or the Sunday Times’ every weekend to keep abreast of what was happening politically in the world.  Accordingly, I got into the habit of reading the Sunday Times, which was still under the stewardship of the much-respected Harold Evans.  But tragically, the gimlet-eyed Rupert Murdoch acquired the Sunday Times in 1981 and by 1983 had installed Andrew Neil as its editor.  Neil wasted no time in transforming this once laudable newspaper into the snide, shrill, right-wing shout-sheet that it remains to this day.

 

The Sunday Times wasn’t the only example of a newspaper being subjected to Andrew Neil’s reverse-Midas touch, i.e., instantly turning to shit in his hands.  Hired by the Barclay Brothers in the mid-1990s, newspapers he supervised like the European and the Business suffered declining sales and eventually folded.  Worst of all, he became editor-in-chief of Edinburgh’s one-time quality daily, the Scotsman.  It’s hard to believe today but the Scotsman was a newspaper that once was widely read, made its points intelligently and carried some influence – as much as any newspaper published 400 miles from London could.  Among other things, up until the 1990s, the Scotsman was a keen supporter, in its cautious and genteel way, of constitutional change in Scotland to allow the country more say in running its affairs.

 

In the late 1990s, after spending most of the decade in Japan, I found myself living in Edinburgh and I assumed I’d get into the habit of reading the Scotsman again.  I bought a few issues and gave up.  It’d suddenly acquired an unpleasantly right-wing editorial tone.  It was scathing about the idea that Scotland should get any degree of home-rule from London, even though the Scottish population had just voted for the creation of a devolved Scottish parliament in a referendum in 1997.  Hold on, I thought.  Hadn’t the Scotsman, the old Scotsman, been in favour of Scottish devolution?  Then one night I saw Neil’s visage on a Scottish current affairs programme, where he was introduced as ‘editor-in-chief at the Scotsman’.  Horribly, it all fell into place for me.  Oh no, he’s back, I despaired. Returned to wreck yet another, once perfectly-good newspaper.

 

I suspect Neil’s tenure at the Scotsman alienated the Scottish demographic that it needed to survive as a healthy business concern.  I knew plenty of folk in Edinburgh who were around my age and, like me, were centre or left politically and interested in current affairs.  They weren’t young enough to be into new-fangled digital media and would have happily bought a traditional, physical newspaper if they thought it was worth reading. But whenever its name came up in conversation, such people would shrug and say dismissively, “The Scotsman?  Never read it now.”

 

Although Neil had nothing to do with the Scotsman after it was acquired by the London-based Johnston Press in 2005, the newspaper remained on the right, where he’d dragged it, and never recovered from the dose of journalistic syphilis it’d contracted from him during his regime.  By 2018, it was in the hands of JPIMedia and had a daily circulation figure – the one currently quoted on its Wikipedia page – of under 16,400 copies.  It’d had to lay off staff-members, reduce its numbers of pages and supplements, and flit from its old headquarters on Holyrood Road to a new one on Queensferry Road that was less than half the size and a third of the rent.  The last time I looked at it, much of what it printed was either shallow and vacuous, or hysterical, kneejerk, Daily Mail / Daily Express-style crap.

 

You’d think that with his antipathy to all things mild-mannered, lily-livered, pussyfooting and, well, woke, Andrew Neil would have given the BBC a body-swerve.  And yet during the past two decades he’s done very nicely out of the venerable corporation.  Most prominently, he hosted the BBC’s This Week programme (2003-2019), in which Michael Portillo, Diane Abbott and him would sit in a studio and discuss the week’s current affairs whilst indulging in a gruesome three-way mutual-admiration / flirtation fest.  Indeed, at the time, I thought it was the most fascinatingly dreadful thing on British television.  Not only did Neil and co. believe they were offering cutting insights into the nation’s politics, but they also seemed to think they were coolFunny, even.  And nothing is worse than people who think they’re funny, but aren’t funny, trying to be funny.

 

For example, I can think of few things more ludicrous than the sight of Neil and Portillo prancing around in the style of the video for Peter Kay’s chart-topping Is This the Way to Amarillo, as they did during the title sequence of one episode in 2005.  At least in 2018, when they got Bobby Gillespie from the impeccable post-punk, alternative-rock band Primal Scream onto This Week to talk about Brexit – yes, this is indeed a strange sentence I find myself writing – Gillespie summed up the viewers’ feelings at the episode’s end.  By this point, Neil, Michael Portillo and Caroline Flint (drafted in as a replacement for Diane Abbott) had jumped up and starting cavorting around the studio in the manner of the briefly popular, crap Internet dance craze the Skibidi Challenge.  Not only did Gillespie refuse to take part in this cringe-inducing farrago, but he sported the stony countenance of a man who’d just discovered a giant dog turd on the end of his shoes.  (Mind you, having Michael Portillo dad-dancing beyond the ends of your shoes wouldn’t be much better.)

 

 ©BBC / From clashmusic.com

 

I’ve written scornfully about Andrew Neil and GB News and the guff they’ve tried to peddle about being some courageous, anti-establishment bulwark against a supposed tidal wave of woke-ness.  It’s complete disingenuous garbage.  However, I have no doubt that they’ll find an audience.  One thing about right-wingers is their unswayable belief that they’re the victims, even when a mountain-range of evidence proves they’re actually the victors.  Britain has been in thrall to right-wing doctrines since the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher proclaimed there was ‘no such thing as society’, till today, when those in power claim to belong to the Conservative Party but are basically Nigel Farage’s reactionary, xenophobic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in all but name.  For a few years in the middle, Tony Blair might have constituted a blip, but he was hardly a left-wing blip.  Yet in the paranoid minds of right-wing Britons in 2021, the nonsensical belief that everything they hold dear is threatened by Marxists and social justice warriors is probably more intense than ever.

 

He might be an utter chancer, but there’ll always be plenty of deluded souls willing to lap up Andrew Neil’s brand of bullshit.

The end of the road

 

© John Murray

 

And to conclude my short series of posts and reposts about the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, here’s something I wrote in 2017 after reading his posthumously published book The Broken Road (2013).

 

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 during 1933 and 1934 by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

 

Fermor was only in his late teens at the time.  Later, he’d make a name for himself as a soldier, decorated war hero, author and scholar though nowadays, several 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.  A man always meticulous about his research, Fleming 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 afterwards, 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, 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 would have tightened Fermor’s prose by trimming some of its floridity – but then you probably felt 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 as an outsider make him feel uncomfortable.  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…”

 

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 are times when I felt he had it too easy, 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 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 lighted 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: “Perhaps 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 become irritated at him, at 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 fellow.  And now that the journey has reached its end, you know what?  I’m going to miss him.

 

© The National Library of Scotland

The woods, the water, the gifts and the gab

 

© John Murray

 

Following my blogpost about the biography of the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, I thought it would be timely to repost what I’d written in 2015 about Fermor’s books A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986).

 

It’s hard to know where to start with A Time of Gifts and its sequel Between the Woods and the Water, which chronicle the first 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, and who’d later become known as a soldier, decorated war hero, author, scholar and polyglot, has a voracious eye for detail that refuses to confine itself to mere geography.  You also get pages of observation and speculation about the history, mythology, art, architecture, languages, costumes and music of the locales that he visits.  At times, it seems like his teenaged brain is the mental equivalent of a blue whale, cruising along, 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.

 

And they’re verbose.  Regarding writing, Fermor certainly doesn’t believe in the Ernest Hemingway ‘less is more’ approach.

 

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.

 

Perusing these books in 2015, you’re aware of what would happen to Europe a few years after he’d walked through it.  You sense that many of the communities, cultures and places described would soon be transformed – disfigured at best, erased at worst.  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 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, you’re not, as you may initially think, hearing the thoughts of a super-intelligent boy genius.  Many of those thoughts belong to the old Fermor, but they’re expressed in the excitable voice of the youth.

 

© John Murray

 

There’s another point, one that might trouble readers who open a book about a real-life journey made by a real-life traveller expecting the events in it to be, well, real.  Fermor subsequently lost many of the notes he’d written during the trip and in the 1970s and 1980s had to reconstruct a lot using his memory, which admittedly was a formidable one.  And as a report in the BBC news magazine in 2012 suggested, certain episodes may have been embroidered.  One bone of contention was 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 these embellishments 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…  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.”  When he does this, the results are engrossing.  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 yet another of Fermor’s 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, especially, contains so many aristos that they start to blur into one another.

 

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 from 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, for back then hitchhiking was still a relatively safe and acceptable form of transport.  This meant that while Fermor got to see some of the greatest natural and historical sights of Europe, I got to see a lot of entry-ramps leading down into 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 of Fermor and his new-found chums in aristocratic central Europe.  While I never slept in a barn or a cave-entrance like Fermor did occasionally, 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 Teutonic strictness.

 

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 instilled in me a 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.  But this wasn’t an issue for Fermor who, as a member of Britain’s ruling class, seemed to have both self-confidence and shamelessness in his genes.

 

Still, I’m aware of how this old Hungarian-Romanian aristocracy was shortly to be obliterated, courtesy of Hitler and Stalin.  I can understand why Fermor, writing these books decades later, wanted to commemorate these people and the hospitality they showed him.

 

Anyway, although the books induced some occasional crankiness in me, I generally liked them a lot. Despite Fermor’s 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 – through my memories of what I was like at a similar age – and 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.”

 

Yes, there are moments when 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.

 

© The Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive

Patrick’s progress

 

© John Murray

 

I’ve just finished reading a biography of one of the 20th century’s greatest travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor.  The biography, Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, was penned by Artemis Cooper, who’d known him since her childhood, and was published in 2012, a year after his death.

 

My problem with biographies is that invariably the subjects are, or were, famous and successful.  Although I find the story of their fortunes interesting while they’re on the way up, and having to overcome hardships and obstacles, those stories become less compelling when the subjects have achieved success and settled onto a plateau of comfort, wealth and well-being.  With Fermor, at least, that secure but less interesting plateau is delayed because his success didn’t really come until when he was middle-aged.  And the first 200 pages of this biography, more than half of it, are devoted to Fermor’s youth.  Happily, these pages contain the two most dramatic events of his life: the epic trek he embarked on in 1933, at the age of 18, from the Dutch coast to Istanbul; and, while a Special Operations Executive officer during World War II, his heading of a mission in 1944 to kidnap Major General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of German forces on Nazi-occupied Crete.

 

Furthermore, the number of books Fermor had published in his lifetime barely reached double figures.  He also continued to travel.  This means that the latter part of Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, while more sedate, is still interesting because it isn’t just about the boring business of writing.

 

Cooper is clearly a fan.  She admits to once having a ‘schoolgirl crush’ on Fermor and writes early on: “Radiating a joyful enthusiasm, he was one of those people who made you feel more alive the moment he came into the room, and eager to join in whatever he was planning to do…”

 

However, she quickly acknowledges one of the controversies about Fermor, that he wasn’t adverse to embroidering reality with fantasy in his supposedly factual writing.  Sometimes, this was unintentional because he was trying to remember events from decades earlier, but sometimes it happened because, well, the fantasy made for a better yarn.  Indeed, Cooper introduces the issue with examples from the early years of Fermor’s life when he was being looked after by a family called the Martins in Northamptonshire, while his real family were in India. The setting was not as bucolic as Fermor liked to recall: “Mr Martin, whom he was later to remember as a farmer, in fact worked at the Ordnance Depot as an engineer and served in the local fire brigade.”

 

Also, Weedon Bec, the Martins’ village in Northamptonshire, provided Fermor with a startlingly gruesome anecdote that he recounted in his book, A Time of Gifts (1977).  At a community bonfire celebrating the end of World War I, “…one of the boys had been dancing around with a firework in his mouth.  It had slipped down his throat, and he had died ‘spitting stars’.” However, Cooper notes: “There is no reference to this tragedy in the Northamptonshire Chronicle, nor is it mentioned in the Weedon Deanery Parish Magazine which described the celebrations in considerable detail.”

 

Similar question marks appear during Fermor’s accounts of his journey to Istanbul in his teens, which are recorded in A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water (1986) and the posthumously published (and edited by Cooper and Colin Thubron) The Broken Road (2013).  I’d known that the material about him crossing the Great Hungarian Plain on horseback in Between the Woods and the Water was suspect – the horse was a fanciful addition to events.  However, I wasn’t aware that a memorable scene in The Broken Road was questionable too. According to Fermor in 2003: “Slogging on south, I lost my way after dark, fell into the sea, and waded soaked into a glimmering cave full of shepherds and fishermen – Bulgars and Greeks – for a strange night of dancing and song.  It was like a flickering firelit scene out of Salvator Rosa.”  Cooper suggests that this incident was really a conflation of two incidents, one of which happened at a later time on Mount Athos.  As for the period described in The Broken Road, Cooper states: “At no point in his original account did he walk down this stretch of coast alone, nor did he lose his footing and find himself floundering among freezing rock-pools after dark.”

 

Unambiguous, though, is the bravery and audacity shown by Fermor and his comrades in wartime Crete.  It reflects well on Fermor that he valued the role played by the island’s tenacious resistance fighters in the operation to abduct General Kreipe from under the nose of the German forces he commanded.  Indeed, their high-ranking captive was astonished when he found out what was going on.  “For Kreipe,” writes Cooper, “being on the other side of the occupation was an eye-opener.  He had no idea that the Cretans and the British were working so closely together.”

 

© The Rank Organisation

 

Accordingly, Fermor wasn’t pleased at how the operation was portrayed on celluloid, in the 1957 Michael Powell / Emeric Pressburger movie IllMet by Moonlight, in which he was played by Dirk Bogarde.  Writing to another of the operation’s British participants, Billy Moss, Fermor said of the film: “You and I are perfectly OK, we emerge as charming, intrepid chaps.  It’s really the Cretans I’m worried about…”  The film’s depiction of the Cretans upset him because it relegated them “to the role of picturesque and slightly absurd foreigners constantly in a state of agitation, coolly managed by these two unruffled and underacting sahibs.”

 

Thereafter, with Fermor finding his vocation – a slow, gradual progress, because he was anything but a disciplined writer – the book inevitably becomes less eventful. However, there are still some intriguing moments.  A trip to the Caribbean brings him into the orbit of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, ensconced in his Goldeneye Estate in Jamaica.  I’ve heard speculation that the dashing war-hero Fermor inspired the character of Bond, but at this point Fleming was already “bashing away at a thriller”, the first Bond novel Casino Royale (1953), so Fermor couldn’t have been the original inspiration.  However, Fermor’s writings about voodoo, something he became immersed in whilst on the island of Haiti, informed Fleming’s depiction of it in the second Bond novel, Live and Let Die (1954).

 

Then we get an account of Fermor’s involvement with the 1958 John Huston movie The Roots of Heaven, for which he was commissioned to rewrite Romain Gary’s original screenplay and had to attend several weeks of filming in Chad, Cameroon and the Central African Republic.  The film, about “a maverick loner, Morel, who is determined to stop the slaughter of elephants by big game hunters and ivory poachers,” brought Fermor into contact with Trevor Howard, who “drank nothing but whisky from morning till night,” and Errol Flynn, of whom he wrote in a letter, “Errol and I have become great buddies…  He is a tremendous shit, but a very funny one…”  In a predictable instance of Hollywood hypocrisy, Cooper notes: “Despite the fact that The Roots of Heaven was a plea to save the elephants, John Huston was very keen to shoot one…  The back of his Land Rover was an arsenal of shotguns, rifles and ammunition, and it was obvious that he lived not for the film, but to slope off into the bush with a gun.”

 

© Darryl F. Zanuck Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

We also hear about Fermor participating in 1972 in a Greek TV programme reuniting the surviving members of the 1944 Kreipe operation.  The last participant to come onstage, “to gasps of surprise and a round of applause from the audience,” was the focus of the whole operation, General Kreipe himself.  When Fermor asked him in German if he held any grudges about what’d happened, the general gamely replied, “If I had any bad feelings…  I wouldn’t be here, would I?”

 

And we get some short but melancholic accounts of him revisiting eastern Europe during, and just after, Communism.  During these visits he tried, often fruitlessly, to track down people and places he’d known during his wanderings through the region in the 1930s.  He found one, formerly aristocratic acquaintance in an old folks’ home in Budapest, physically broken and wits wandering.  This sad exchange ensues: “‘My old friend Patrick Leigh Fermor lives in Greece.’ – ‘Yes, Elemér, it’s me, it’s Paddy!’ – ‘No, no, you are much too young…  But if you go to Greece tell him I’m here, I hope he remembers me.’

 

Fermor belonged to an era when travelling (for pleasure) and, indeed, writing were largely seen as activities for the upper classes.  Thus, certain of his traits can be annoying, traits emblematic of being raised in that privileged stratum of English society: his boundless self-confidence, his shamelessness at making use of the contacts he’s accrued, the fact that he has all those contacts in the first place.  This struck me especially when I read Between the Woods and the Water, which sees him stay with a succession of posh eastern European aristocrats and enjoy lavish hospitality that, at times, he seems to think is his entitlement.

 

Cooper is at least aware of these potential criticisms. Regarding what happens in Between the Woods, she points out: “For his hosts, there was nothing unusual in having guests stay for days or even weeks at a time.” Also: “The greatest blessing that a guest can bring is the right kind of curiosity, and it bubbled out of Paddy like a natural spring…”, which must have been gratifying for his hosts, who by then probably felt like “a useless fragment of a broken empire.”  It’s worth mentioning too that Fermor never received a university education which, if it had happened, would presumably have put him among the elite in Oxford or Cambridge Universities and set the seal on him as an establishment figure.  Perhaps the fact that the system never fully processed him, and didn’t condition him entirely about what an English gentleman was and wasn’t meant to do, explains why he retained the ‘common touch’ throughout his life.  He seemed as much at home blethering with a Macedonian shepherd as he was with a Romanian Count.

 

If Fermor appears blessed with more than his fair share of luck, it’s probably more to do with Joan Raynor, who became his long-term companion and finally his wife.  The daughter of someone who was, successively, a Conservative MP, a First Lord of the Admiralty and a Viscount, she received a private income that enabled Fermor to continue with his travel writing even when he wasn’t reaping great financial rewards from it.  She was also  broadminded about their relationship, which at times could be described as an ‘open’ one, allowing Fermor to indulge in a few dalliances on the side.

 

Eventually, the Fermors built a handsome villa for themselves in a rustic part of Greece.  As I approached the biography’s last chapters, I wondered how they’d reacted to the country’s growing tourist industry in the late 20th century.  Wouldn’t they have been disgruntled at how travellers of a different pedigree from them, folk from less well-off backgrounds intent on getting a week’s break in the sun rather than on experiencing the glories of Greek culture and history, were swamping the beauty spots of their adopted home?  But the changes caused by mass-tourism seemed not to impinge on their idyll.  Neither did they object to their Greek neighbours making some money out of it.  In fact, the building of a hotel nearby seems to have come as a relief to them.  Their villa was frequently crowded with guests and now they could farm some of them out to the new establishment.

 

It must have been tempting to portray Fermor simply as an unstoppable force of nature / Renaissance man-of-action.  To her credit, Cooper admits that while he had many admirers, he didn’t charm everyone.  Turning up in Athens in 1935, he soon got an invitation from the son of the British ambassador to stay at the embassy.  But the ambassador himself proved “quite immune, if not allergic, to Paddy’s high spirits and exotic conversation”, growled at him, “You seem bloody pleased with yourself, don’t you?” and soon gave him his marching orders.  Nor was a post-war stint at the British Council in Athens a great success.  As one colleague observed, “There was a very insensitive side to Paddy…  He was very bumptious, a bit of a know-all, and his enthusiasm and noisiness could be rather wearing.”

 

While Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure is certainly no warts-and-all exposé, it doesn’t get entirely swept away by the awe-inspiring, larger-than-life aura that Fermor projected.  You’re left with the impression of someone who, yes, was remarkable but who, like all of us, sported a few imperfections too.  Which actually makes you like him more as a result.

 

Taken by Joan Leigh Fermor

Here we no-go again

 

 

Sri Lanka is currently in the middle of another Covid-19-inspired lockdown. This is a 24/7 lockdown with nobody but police, health-workers, delivery staff and other essential service workers allowed to move around outside, so it’s a curfew basically.

 

This curfew was imposed by stealth. Originally, it was meant to last from the night of May 13th to the morning of May 17th, keeping people off the streets for a weekend.  Afterwards, for the rest of the month, people whose National Identity Card numbers (passport numbers if you were a foreigner) ended in an odd digit would be allowed out on odd-numbered days and those whose numbers ended in an even digit would be allowed out on even-numbered days.

 

However, another weekend lockdown was imposed from May 20th until May 25th and we were warned that a further one was planned from the 25th to 28th, which would keep people indoors during the Vesak Festival on May 26th.  Then it was announced that this lockdown would be extended until June 7th, with a couple of days along the way designated as ones when people could nip out to buy provisions. And then it transpired that those days when lockdown would be lifted wouldn’t actually happen, leaving the population with a 12-day stretch of home confinement until June 7th.

 

Who knows?  It wouldn’t surprise me if this lockdown gets extended again beyond the 7th36 people died of Covid-19 yesterday, a fairly typical daily number during the past few weeks, so the emergency remains.

 

Generally, since the Covid-19 epidemic began, my partner and I felt quite fortunate to be in Sri Lanka because, overall, the island seemed to have done a reasonable job of dealing with it.  After a strict initial lockdown last year, from March to May, the virus seemed to be contained. For months afterwards, while the virus wreaked havoc in supposedly more developed countries like the UK and USA, the Sri Lankan death toll remained static with fatalities only in the teens.

 

This changed in early October 2020 with the appearance of a major cluster at the Brandix garment factory in Minuwangoda, 35 kilometres north-east of Colombo.  By now, clearly, Covid-19 had got onto the island and wasn’t going away.  Still, however, the situation seemed manageable.  The island’s tropical climate helped.  People could go out and gather in relatively safe outdoor spaces – for instance, restaurant terraces and gardens – at times of year when in other regions of the world they’d be forced into hazardous, crowded, badly-ventilated, virus-friendly spaces indoors by cold weather.

 

Unfortunately, on Sunday, April 18th, at the end of a holiday week celebrating the Buddhist and Tamil New Year in Sri Lanka, we realised things were going to take a serious turn for the worse.  We went for dinner and a few drinks in a hotel bar we frequented. During our previous visits, the bar had been no more than 25 percent full, so that there was plenty of space for social distancing, and the punters were careful to wear masks whenever they left their tables.  This Sunday night, however, the bar was mobbed, social distancing was non-existent and faces were unmasked as folk wandered from group to group.  We lasted about two minutes there.  Then, feeling extremely uncomfortable, we retreated to a sparsely populated restaurant in the same hotel.  I suppose most of the clientele in the bar had just returned from their New Year holidays and were enjoying a final boozy night out before they went back to work.

 

In fact, the New Year festivities had been allowed to take place without any restrictions. People visited families and friends across the island and, the wealthier ones at least, crowded into the beach and mountain resorts as they would in any ordinary year.  This had predictable consequences.  As one journalist recalled, “cases began to rise rapidly, overwhelming the state’s mandatory quarantine care facilities.  Soon, the intensive care units of a delicate hospital system were at full capacity.  By May, hospitals were inundated.”

 

As I mentioned, May 25th was the last day when people could go outside, although strings had been attached to this ruling. Firstly, only one person per household was allowed to be out at any one time.  Secondly, ‘vehicular’ movements were not permitted and you had to walk.  This would presumably ensure that people visited only their local shops and strayed no more than a mile or two from home, thereby lessening risks of infection.  I ventured out in the late morning, to get some money out of an ATM and then hopefully buy a few supplies in a non-mobbed supermarket.

 

 

When I emerged onto Galle Road, Colombo’s main thoroughfare, it was devoid of traffic and disconcertingly silent and still for a minute. Then a set of traffic lights behind me must have changed from red to green because I was passed by a small fleet of cars, tuk-tuks and motorcycles heading north towards the city centre.  But after they’d gone by, silence prevailed for another minute.  That was how things continued while I trekked along Galle Road to the ATM.  Every so often there’d be brief spurts of traffic that the lights had accumulated and then released.

 

 

Only shops selling food or medicines were allowed to open today.  Thus, there was activity around the little grocery / general-purpose shops that cluster near the entrance to Kathiresan Pillayar Temple on the eastern side of Galle Road in Colombo’s Bambalapitiya district.  One shop-sign there I hadn’t noticed before was the luridly coloured one for the ‘Irissh’ Super – which sounds like it’s owned by an Irishman who slurs a bit when he’s had too much to drink.  Further along, small queues of about half-a-dozen people waited to get inside the street’s pharmacies, like UniChemist, and mini-supermarkets, like Sathosa.

 

 

Having got cash from the ATM, I thought I would try the branch of Keells Supermarket on Marine Drive, which runs along the coast parallel to Galle Road.  I have to say that by this time I was starting to suspect that not everyone was following the rules.  As those knots of traffic passed me, I would notice the occasional middle-aged couple riding together on a motorbike, which made me wonder how strictly the police were enforcing the rule about only one member of each household being allowed out.  Though perhaps what I was seeing on those motorbikes were two mature, but still horny, members of different households taking advantage of the situation to pursue an illicit love affair.  Meanwhile, while I approached Keells, I noticed a suspicious number of cars pulling into its forecourt – this on a day when you weren’t supposed to travel by car.  Still, the tuk-tuk drivers seemed to be toeing the line.  The whole time I was outside, not one slowed and stopped and asked if I needed to go anywhere.

 

After seeing the small queues outside the minor supermarkets on Galle Road, I expected to have to wait for a time outside Keells, but I got in immediately.  It was busy, but not too busy.  The shelves and trays in the produce section had mostly been scoured clean, but there were reasonable stocks of everything else.

 

 

I carried my shopping home along Marine Drive, which was busier with traffic than Galle Road.  The police stations of Colombo’s coastal districts, south of the city centre at least, are positioned along Galle Road and the drivers were probably using Marine Drive instead because they figured there was less chance of them being stopped and checked. However, Marine Drive’s pavements were practically deserted and the shops along its seafront were almost all shut.  My local off-licence, the Walt and Row Association Wine Store, was shuttered – it was only food and medicine on sale today, strictly no booze.  Similarly silent was the Westeern Hotel, the passageway leading to Harry’s Bar at the back of the premises sealed by doors with rusty metal bars. Actually, the nation’s pubs had been ordered to stop doing business as early as May 3rd.

 

 

It proved a melancholy walk and I couldn’t help but feel melancholy about the situation overall.  Not just in Sri Lanka, where the authorities had taken their eye off the ball and a lot of people had acted selfishly and / or foolishly in April, resulting in this current crisis.  In countries like India, Brazil and the USA – where ridiculous things have happened, like Republican politicians getting vaccinated on the quiet so as not to upset the brainlessly delusional anti-vaxxers who make up a large part of their support – arrogance, complacency and both wilful and genuine stupidity have resulted in massive Covid-19 spikes and huge but avoidable death-tolls.  In Britain, despite a successful vaccination programme so far, there looks likely to be a third wave of infections while Boris Johnson’s hapless government dithers on whether or not to end Covid-19 restrictions later this month.

 

The sad thing is that the Covid-19 pandemic, serious though it is, doesn’t constitute the end of the world.  However, manmade climate change is making itself felt in our lives now and threatens to transform the planet in ways that could be catastrophic to our civilisation later this century.  If people generally, and politicians in particular, can’t get their act together to deal with Covid-19 in 2021, what hope is there for the decades ahead when we’ll really need to get our act together?