A dark Swiss secret

 

From unsplash.com / © Nadine Marfurt

 

I seem to have spent a lot of time recently living in the past, which is no doubt due to the lack of anything happening in the present.  And that, of course, is because of the ongoing and seemingly never-ending Covid-19 pandemic.  Since August 20th, Sri Lanka, the country I’m currently resident in, has been in its third period of lockdown.  When it was announced, my partner and I had just ended a state of self-imposed lockdown, for one of our friends was diagnosed with Covid-19 at the start of August and we’d had to self-isolate.  So, basically, we’ve seen little apart from the inside of our flat for the past two months.

 

Anyway, the following entry is a little stroll down memory lane that I originally posted on this blog in 2015.  While it looks back (fairly) fondly on an adventure I had in 1983, what revived my memories of the adventure was a disturbing article about Switzerland that I’d just discovered on the BBC news website.

 

For two months in the late spring and early summer of 1983 I worked on a farm in the Swiss municipality of Niederweningen, which is a 35-minute train ride out of Zurich.  I can safely say that in terms of sheer, hard, physical work, I’ve done no job like this before or since.

 

At the time, I was in the middle of taking a year out between the end of high school and the start of college.  As far as I remember, nobody else in my school-year did this.  Those who intended to go to college did so in the autumn of 1982, a few months after they’d left school.  Everybody around me, including my parents, seemed to think I was insane for delaying my entry to college by 16 months and spending the intervening period doing loopy things like working on a farm in rural Switzerland.  Nowadays of course, nearly four decades later, you’re considered insane, and lacking in initiative and employability, if you enter college and you haven’t taken a year out, or a gap-year as it’s known in modern parlance.  (At least, that’s how it was before the Covid-19 pandemic and presumably how it’ll be again after the pandemic.)

 

In 1982 I’d discovered an agency called Vacation Work International, which for a small fee arranged paid working holidays in Switzerland.  Switzerland wasn’t top of my list of places to visit but Vacation Work accepted people from the age of 17 upwards.  I was 17 at the time and other foreign-job agencies I’d tried had turned me down because, due to visa regulations, they could only take on people who were 18 or older.  In October 1982, Vacation Work fitted me up with a month-long job as a grape-picker in a vineyard near Lausanne in French-speaking western Switzerland.  This was a tough (and wet – those Swiss wine-producers had a very rainy grape harvest to deal with in 1982) but tolerable job.  So, after spending some time travelling in central Europe and working with the Community Service Volunteers in the English Midlands, I thought I’d contact Vacation Work again and give something else on their Swiss brochure a go.  This time I plumped for a two-month package where I’d work as a farmhand.

 

One thing this job did immediately was rid me of the assumption that everyone in Switzerland wore a smart suit and earned pots of money working in a bank.  The farming family whom Vacation Work attached me to were not wealthy; certainly not by the standards of any farmer I knew back in the UK (and my Dad is one).

 

Their house was plain but serviceable, but certain things I’d assumed would be a feature of any household in Western Europe, however rich or poor, such as a television set, were absent.  One basic commodity that seemed to be lacking was a decent strip of flypaper because, although the house was reasonably clean, its dining table was always plagued by swarms of big, impudent flies.

 

Their farmstead possessed a tractor, a trailer and one or two other bits of machinery, but nothing like what even a modest British farm would be equipped with.  When the farmer, Hugo, wanted to bale some hay, he had to arrange for the use of a baler that seemed to be shared among a number of farms in the valley.  And there were no machines for spraying or weeding crops.  Those chores had to be done by someone with a heavy tank of weed-killer strapped onto their back or by someone wielding a hoe, monotonously, all day long, up and down the furrows of a field.  Similarly, such devices as front-end or back-end loaders were considered an unaffordable luxury.  For shifting things like dung or loose hay, the shovel and the pitchfork were the order of the day.  During my two months there, such basic tools were rarely out of my hands.

 

My abiding memory from those two months is of the daily schedule.  Hugo would usually come knocking at my door at 5.30 in the morning and after a hurried breakfast both of us would be outside, ready for action, at 6.00.  We’d have an hour’s break at lunchtime.  We’d spend the first half that lunch-hour eating and then Hugo would give me a pitying look and suggest, “Jan…”  – neither Hugo nor his family could ever get their tongues around the correct /ǝın/ pronunciation of my name – “…eine halbe Stunde.”  During this free half-hour, I’d usually doze off in my room and wake up 20 or 25 minutes later with a headache and a rotten taste in my mouth that suggested I’d just been chewing a dead frog.

 

At some point in the early evening there’d be another meal, but the work usually continued until 8.00 or 9.00 PM.  During a busy period, like when we were hay-making, we didn’t clock off until after 10.00.  This was the routine six days a week.  Only Sundays were free.  I calculated I must be doing 70 to 80 hours of physical labour each week.  I’d grown up on a farm, and indeed the previous year I’d spent a busy summer working on my uncle’s farm in Ireland.  But I hadn’t done anything on the scale of this.

 

© schweizerdeutsch-lernen.ch

 

That said, I did quite enjoy myself.  I got on well with Hugo and his family were civil to me, although because I was equipped only with the basic German I’d learnt at school and as they spoke the robust – some would say impenetrable – dialect of German known as Schweizerdeutsch, communication was often difficult.  At the end of 1983, I received a nice Christmas card and letter from Hugo and his family, which had been written in English by one of their children who was learning the language as school.  It wasn’t very comprehensible and I wondered if I’d sounded as strange to them when I’d spoken German.

 

The family were also kind enough at the end of my two-month service to present me with a going-away gift: a bottle of illicitly-homemade kirsche.  This bottle of kirsche lasted for the next two years, into 1985.  It was so strong that it could be supped only in minute quantities.  A couple of times I sneakily gave glasses of it to college acquaintances who liked to boast about their drinking prowess and, soon after, enjoyed the spectacle of them falling unconscious.

 

Pleasant too was the scenery at Niederweningen.  It wasn’t mountainous but, half-farmed, half forested, it was gorgeous in a sedate, pastoral way.  And I formed a friendship with another Vacation Work person who’d been assigned to a neighbouring farm, Rebecca Macnaughton.  Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, we’ve kept in touch to this very day.  Actually, no matter how long and how hard I worked, it never seemed to stop me from accompanying my Vacation Work colleague down the road to the local pub for a beer after I’d finally finished for the day.

 

One evening, we tried exploring a different road and happened across a small restaurant that was run, somewhat unexpected, by a well-travelled and very interesting Sri Lankan guy.  In fact, he was the first Sri Lankan I’d ever met and I never imagined that, later in my life, I’d spend seven years living in his home country.  Anyway, he described how, previously, he’d worked in Zurich with some young Swiss heroin addicts.  And suddenly another of my assumptions about Switzerland, about how it was a bastion of order, decency and law-abidingness, had been turned on its head.

 

One other positive thing about the experience was how physically fit I felt afterwards.  Nowadays, with my body wracked by arthritic aches and pains and my waistline fighting a losing battle against a beer-belly, I look at photographs taken of me after I’d arrived home and can hardly believe how athletic I looked then.  Indeed, one of the things I did after that was to spend a fortnight tramping around the Lake District and I seem to remember bounding about those Cumbrian fells like a mountain gazelle.

 

For my Swiss farm-work I was paid a modest wage, but I was never sure if that wage came out of Hugo’s pocket or if it was provided under some Swiss farming subsidy scheme.  From what I could gather, the people provided by Vacation Work International were just one input in a system that saw lots of foreign people working cheaply on those modest-sized, modest-resourced farms.  Hugo told me how one farmhand who’d worked for him previously was an African bloke.  He’d also employed someone, at some point, from the Faroes Islands.  Hugo and the Faroese guy had got along so well that the latter still phoned him for a chat from time to time, from his home in the North Atlantic.

 

Mind you, the annual presence of foreign farmhands didn’t seem to improve Hugo or his neighbours’ knowledge of the outside world.  I recall one lunchtime having an argument with him and one of his neighbours about where Albania was.  I was the only one who maintained that it was in Europe.  Eventually, one of Hugo’s kids’ school atlases was dug out and consulted and, yes, it transpired that I was correct.

 

From wikipedia.org / © Roland zh

 

I’ve written nostalgically about my days on a Swiss farm, but I have to admit that what rekindled my memories of them and inspired me to write this blog-entry was something altogether darker.  Whilst browsing through the online back-pages of the BBC News website magazine, I happened across an article about a phenomenon that the Swiss authorities had until recently kept quiet about.  The article is called SWITZERLAND’S SHAME – THE CHILDREN USED AS CHEAP FARM LABOUR and is written by Kavita Puri.

 

This describes the old Swiss practice of taking orphaned children, or the children of unmarried parents, or children from poor backgrounds, and using them as ‘contract children’; as ultra-cheap labour, often on farms, where they were vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.  Part of the reason for this was simple economics.  Prior to World War II Switzerland wasn’t a wealthy country and a low-costing workforce for its agricultural sector had to be found somewhere.  However, it was driven too by an unforgiving attitude towards poverty.  As one historian explains: “It was like a kind of punishment.  Being poor was not recognised as a social problem, it was individual failure.”

 

The phenomenon of contract children – which over the decades is believed to have involved hundreds of thousands of Swiss youngsters – began in the 1850s and continued for the next century.  It didn’t peter out until the 1960s and 1970s, when “farming became mechanised” and “the need for child labour vanished.”  Also, “(w)omen got the vote in 1971 and attitudes towards the poor and single mothers moved on.”  Even so, Puri’s article mentions one case of agricultural child labour that occurred as late as 1979, just four years before I arrived there for my 70-to-80 hours of weekly hard labour.  What a sobering thought.

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

Goodbye to all that

 

From unsplash.com / © Andy Newton

 

So adieu, EU.  Boris Johnson has finally achieved an agreement by which the United Kingdom can withdraw from the European Union at the end of 2020.  During the painfully protracted negotiations it looked like Johnson was going to end up with a ruinous no-deal withdrawal, but no doubt he was deliberately prolonging the negotiation process until Christmas.  This was so that (a) when he agreed to a deal on Christmas Eve, he could spin himself as Santa Claus delivering the UK a bumper Christmas present, and (b) members of Britain’s parliament would have hardly any time to scrutinise the 1246 pages of the agreement’s details before voting on its approval on December 30th.  Meanwhile, the more the agreement does receive scrutiny, the clearer it becomes how shit it is, for everything from Britain’s financial services sector to its fishing industry.

 

One thing the agreement closes the door on is Britain’s participation in the Erasmus programme, which had allowed 15,000 British students annually to study in European universities without paying fees.  Johnson has spouted some bollocks about it being replaced by a British-run scheme to be named after the British mathematician and computing genius Alan Turing.  If such a thing ever gets off the ground, I’m sure it’ll be run by some private company headed by a member of Johnson’s ‘chumocracy’, it’ll farm British students out to eye-wateringly expensive universities in the USA and it’ll be affordable only to the offspring of Britain’s privileged, moneyed classes.

 

This reminds me of a lengthy entry I put on this blog in 2017, about the first time I ever left the British-Irish Isles and entered a non-English-speaking country.  I did this thanks to the European Economic Community (EEC), which became later the European Community (EC) and then the EU we know today, and through a small programme that existed five years before Erasmus came into being.  Anyway, it seems timely to post that entry again….

 

In the spring of 1982 I was about to finish high school and I resolved to take a year out before I went to college.  No one else in my school year intended to do this.  Those with plans to go to college were doing so six months later in the autumn.  And everybody around me, especially my parents, seemed to believe I was mad for postponing entry into college by a year-and-a-third so that I could do absurd things like…  Well, what exactly was I going to do?  I had vague dreams of travelling and seeing something of the world, and of funding this travel by doing short jobs here and there, hopefully abroad.  But as the end of high school neared, my year-out plans remained worryingly nebulous.

 

Incidentally, nowadays, it seems you’re considered mad if you don’t take a year out, or a gap year as it’s called in modern parlance, between school and college.  Indeed, employers expect it to see it on graduates’ CVs as an indicator of boldness and initiative.  I was just 38 years ahead of my time but didn’t know it.

 

Eventually, I went and tormented my school’s careers advisor for ideas and she suggested a programme I could try for part of my year out.  The EEC was funding young people in its member countries to visit other EEC countries and conduct short projects about some aspect of life in them.  The thinking was that this would give young people a better understanding of their EEC neighbours and thus create better, more empathetic EEC citizens.  All you had to do was complete and send off an application form, which if accepted got you a grant of about £250.  Then you made your own travel and accommodation arrangements, headed for the EEC country of your choice, did your research, wrote a report and submitted it a few months later.

 

I decided to go to France, because apart from the Republic of Ireland it was the closest EEC country to the UK and hence the cheapest one to get to.  Also, I’d studied French for six years at school and shouldn’t have too many communication problems.  Or so I thought.

 

© histoiredeçinema.canalblog.com

 

For my French base, I decided to use the town of Soissons, about 100 kilometres northeast of Paris.  This was because my high school in Scotland ran a student-exchange programme with a school in Soissons, some of my teachers kept in touch with the teachers there, and I’d heard that the Soissons school had rooms on its campus that could be temporarily rented out.  So I asked the head of the French Department at my school if he could drop one of his Soissons counterparts a line and arrange something on my behalf.

 

I was dubious if anything would actually come of this.  But to my surprise, in May 1982, I received a letter from a Soissons teacher called Monsieur Masson confirming that he’d booked me a room for me for three weeks the following month.

 

And what would my project be about?  I didn’t know what career I wanted to follow, but if people asked me I usually told them I intended to be a journalist, because I read a lot of newspapers and liked writing.  It was this journalistic predilection that made me propose going to France, doing research into French newspapers and investigating how they covered the big stories that were affecting Britain at the time.  How different would the French perspective on such stories be from the British one?

 

© Le Figaro

© Le Monde

 

Actually, about half-a-year after I’d typed up and sent off the report, I was in Waverley Station in Edinburgh one day when I saw, at a newsstand, a whole rack of newspapers on sale from other countries, including France.  Among them were most of the newspapers I’d consulted for my project, like Le Monde and Le Figaro.  I realised then that such newspapers were sold in Scotland in places like Waverley Station because lots of foreigners passed through them.  And, guiltily, I realised that I could have stayed in Scotland and done the exact same project by buying those French newspapers in Edinburgh.  Thankfully, the EEC never cottoned onto this and never demanded their £250 back.  (With the Internet, of course, you could do the whole project today without ever leaving your house.)

 

I set off for France at the start of June.  I was 16 at the time, unused to travelling, ignorant of foreign cultures and generally utterly naïve.  The experience that followed was so intense that I really only remember certain moments of it where my impressions were either strongly positive or negative.  Here, I’ll describe the bad stuff first and then relate the good stuff.

 

I didn’t enjoy the journey.  I’d booked seats on the night-train from Edinburgh to London.  As well as being my first time in continental Europe, this was also my first time on a train and my first time to travel to London.  Then I was scheduled to use a coach service that ran from Bedford Square in central London to the Gare du Nord in Paris, with the cross-channel part of the trip being made by hovercraft.  Needless to say, this was my first time in a hovercraft too.

 

When I got off the train at six o’clock in the morning at King’s Cross Station in London, I immediately decided that the station, and by extension London itself, was bloody horrible.  I know that today’s King’s Cross Station has been done up and is a site of pilgrimage for young foreign tourists who worship the Harry Potter books and want to see Platform 9½ there, where Harry, Hermione and Ron would board the Hogwarts Express.  But back then the station was shabby, dank and disreputable.  It was populated by vagrants, most of whom were pissed even though it was only six a.m. and most of whom, disconcertingly, seemed to be Scottish.

 

My opinion of King’s Cross Station didn’t improve three weeks later when, during the journey home, I traipsed through one of its entrance doors and a pair of skinheads promptly ordered me to shut the door behind me.  Tired and not thinking properly, I assumed they were employed by the station and did as they said.  I turned around and spent a minute trying to get the door to shut, until I realised it was an automatic one and wouldn’t shut until I stepped off its pressure sensor or moved out of the way of its motion sensor.  Then those skinheads guffawed and ran off.

 

The Gare du Nord in Paris, from which I planned to get a train to Soissons, was less grungy.  But it was here that I made a shocking and embarrassing discovery.  I couldn’t speak French.  At least I couldn’t speak real-world French, as opposed to classroom French.  With hindsight, all I had to say to the lady in the ticket booth was “Soissons s’il vous plait.  Aller simple.”  But I tried to word my request as a sentence – “I’d like to buy a…” – and it came out as gibberish.  Then I didn’t understand what the lady asked me in reply.  Finally, after a nightmarish minute of miscommunication whose memory still haunts me to this day, and while a queue of impatient Parisian rush-hour travellers lengthened behind me, she managed to identify the name ‘Soissons’ amid my gibberish and gave me the necessary ticket.

 

From unsplash.com / © Moiz K. Malik

 

It was nearly dark when I arrived in Soissons.  By the time I got to the lycée Monsieur Masson had long since gone home and I had to deal with a bemused caretaker.  He found me a room where I could spend the night, although it hadn’t been inhabited for a long time and was full of cardboard boxes, dust and stale-smelling air.  I lay on the bed wondering if this grim place would be my abode for the next three weeks.  (It wouldn’t, of course.  When the administrative staff came in the next morning, they saw to it that I was put in a different room, a clean one that even had a balcony and a view.)

 

Despite it being June, I was wearing a big bulky coat with loads of pockets, handy for carrying things in.  My grandmother had been visiting my family in Scotland when I set off and she’d given me a giant bar of Dairy Milk chocolate to eat on the journey.  I hadn’t had dinner that evening but at least in my fusty room I could snack on that.  I stuck my hand into a pocket to retrieve the bar and discovered it’d dissolved, messily, thanks to the intense body heat I’d exuded all day inside that unseasonably heavy coat.  Then I noticed some big brown smears on the back of my coat.  How had the molten chocolate leaked out there?  Then I noticed the odour coming off those smears and realised they were dogshit.  At some point, I’d accidentally set my rucksack down on some pavement-poo.  When I’d hoisted the rucksack onto my back again, I’d transferred the poo to my coat.

 

But thinking about it now, I see how most of the bad moments related to getting to Soissons.  When I was in Soissons, however, the good moments began to happen.

 

Firstly, it soon dawned on me how kind and helpful people were, even if my communication skills were so woeful that I must have appeared as a gurning, inarticulate man-child.  Particularly hospitable was my contact in the teaching staff, Monsieur Masson, who with his stylish clothes and immaculately trimmed beard reminded me of the French actor Michael Lonsdale when he’d played Hugo Drax in the 1980 Bond movie Moonraker.   As well as checking up on me regularly to ensure I was okay, he and his family invited me to have dinner and stay at their charming Soissons home the night before I returned to Scotland.  Happily, there was enough of my £250 left for me to buy him a bottle of Scotch whisky as a thank-you gift.  To my surprise, he immediately drank a measure of it out of a glass stuffed with ice cubes.  What, I thought, you can drink whisky with ice cubes?  Nobody I knew in Scotland did this.  They just drank it neat or with tepid tap-water.  And kept drinking it.  Until they fell over.

 

Then there was the pleasure of discovering a place very different from what I was used to.  I’d wander through residential areas of modern blocks of flats that were colourfully painted and had flowers growing out of pots and window-boxes.  Where I came from, blocks of flats were associated with failed 1960s planning, urban deprivation and vandalism.  Most of the shops were no larger than those in my home town but they looked unfeasibly smart and chic.  As part of my arrangement with the lycée, I got breakfast and an evening meal there every day and I also discovered the French dining experience.  Breakfast wasn’t about stuffing yourself with Weetabix and fried egg and bacon.  It was a simple but delicious ritual of dunking pieces of fresh baguette into a bowlful of coffee.  Dinner didn’t come with everything piled willy-nilly on one plate but as a series of little courses – hors d’oeuvres, soup, fish, a main course, some salad, desert.  Bewildering but somehow very civilised.

 

© PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Universal

© Kennedy Miller Productions / Warner Bros

 

It was also strange seeing cultural items you were familiar with through a French prism.  I spent ages in Soissons’ bookshops, wanting to find out which of my favourite novels had been translated into French and what their French titles were.  I went to the cinema one evening to watch Costa Gavras’ newly released political thriller Missing, starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek and set in Chile after the Pinochet coup of 1973.  It was dubbed into French, but by this time my French-comprehension powers had improved and I understood about half of it.  What puzzled me was why the French had decided to give Costa Gavras’ deadly-serious movie a Woody Woodpecker cartoon as its supporting feature.  Also, they showed the trailer for Mad Max II, with the consequence that even today when I watch that Mel Gibson post-apocalyptic action-classic, I hear a solemn French voice intoning, “Mad MaxDeux!”

 

I was unhappy with the report that I finally submitted.  It seemed crude and slipshod and not remotely how I’d envisioned it being.  But its topic was certainly a good one to be focused on during a sojourn in a foreign country.  Studying how the French press depicted Britain was an eye-opener.  As Robert Burns wrote wisely in his poem To a Louse, “To see oursel’s as ithers see us / It wad frae mony a blunder free us…

 

One story I covered in the French newspapers was Pope John-Paul II’s visit to Britain, which was happening while I was in France.  It was the first time a reigning pope had ever been on British soil and the visit had sparked protests by such predictable figures as the Reverend Ian Paisley and his Glaswegian Mini-Me, Pastor Jack Glass.  Although John-Paul II was a socially conservative pope and France seemed a very liberal Catholic country, French commentators were surprised and upset that anyone in Britain could object to his presence.  Not very scientifically (or geographically, since the protestors were Northern Irish or Scottish), one writer in Le Figaro explained it thus: “In the north of England, they still believe in ghosts.”

 

© thepapalvisit.org.uk

From historyimages.blogspot.com

 

However, the biggest British news-item during my three weeks in Soissons was a war.  Britain was fighting Argentina over possession of the Falklands Islands.  Coming from Britain, where the Falklands War had sent most of the newspapers into a bellicose, jingoistic frenzy, the detachment and scepticism on display in the French press were discombobulating.  Many French commentators, even in Le Figaro, which was supposed to be conservative, seemed to echo the famous remark by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges that the conflict was like “two bald men fighting over a comb.”  Meanwhile, a gruesome cartoon in the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné that depicted a naked Margaret Thatcher making love to a missile and wailing, “C’est bon!  C’est bon!” has been etched on my memory ever since.

 

Thus, it was a project about newspapers that first induced me to leave Britain and start exploring the rest of Europe.  And during the rest of my year out, I would build on that Soissons trip.  By the time I got to college in the autumn of 1983, I’d been in Switzerland, Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria, Belgium and Holland too.

 

Ironically, newspapers were now been instrumental in building barriers between Britain and the rest of Europe.  The British newspapers owned by a cadre of right-wing magnates, like Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere and the two Barclay Brothers, did much to create the hysterical, xenophobic atmosphere that led to a small majority of the British public voting for Brexit in 2016.

 

I find it sad to think that the EU, in its old EEC incarnation, gave me my first opportunity to travel; and travel, as they say, helps to broaden the mind.  In modern Britain, where many minds could do with broadening, such opportunities have been considerably reduced.  75% of British voters in the 18-to-24 age group voted to stay in the EU, but young Britons will now find it harder to study in Europe, work in Europe and even travel in Europe.  The Brexit vote, largely the responsibility of an older and more reactionary electorate, has put a damper on such aspirations.

 

Back in 1982, I didn’t know how lucky I was.

 

From unsplash.com / © Adam Wilson