Patrick Leigh Fermor is dead. Another great writer I now will never meet.
He was 96, a grand age, but he will forever be remembered for an exploit from his youth. An exploit which, when he wrote about it in old age, he recounted with incredible youthful enthusiasm.
I first encountered Leigh Fermor, as it were, before I knew who it was. I was a child, I watched the Dirk Bogarde film, Ill Met By Moonlight, about British soldiers on Crete during the Second World War who kidnapped a German General. More recently, on re-watching the film, I have realised it is actually rather flat and dull. Lovely scenery and Dirk Bogarde at his most beautiful, but the actual events have to have been more tense and exciting than they come across in the film. But at the time I loved it. Years later, after I had discovered Leigh Fermor’s writing, when I learned that Bogarde had been playing Leigh Fermor in that film, it was as much of a shock as learning that the pompous, comical Larry in Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals was actually the novelist Laurence Durrell.
But the kidnapping of General Kreipe - which illustrates Leigh Fermor’s daredevil attitude, his fluency in German which allowed the kidnappers to spirit their captive away through a long series of German roadblocks, and his learning (there’s the famous incident when Kreipe began to recite, in Latin, an ode by Horace which Leigh Fermor then finished, establishing a bond between the two men) – still seems like something of a sideshow in Leigh Fermor’s life. Because what really marks him out is a walk he took when he was 19 as an alternative to university. In 1933, he set out to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (he consistently used the old name for the city, even then there was something slightly old fashioned in his worship of the past).
In this exploit (which took him nearly two years) he was inspired by George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris, but let’s not kid ourselves that he was actually experiencing the hardships of the down and out in that bitter decade. Leigh Fermor came from a privileged family, and he set out armed with a fistful of introductions to the wealthy and the aristocratic throughout Europe. He as often slept in palaces as in barns, probably more so. He fell in love a princess, he attended weekend parties at vast estates, he took part in polo matches, at one point (in that part of the story that still has not appeared) he took part in a cavalry battle. He was young and golden, privileged, well off, and he had ‘hero’ written all over him. It is the sort of escapade one should instinctively despise, and yet …
He kept extensive journals throughout the walk and always intended to write a book about it, but it was over 40 years later that the first volume, A Time of Gifts, finally appeared. It is one of the most beautiful books I think I have ever read. It is richly detailed, characters are vividly described, there is a joy about it that is infectious. You cannot read the book without loving the man and envying the adventure.
I read it first not long after it first came out. At the time I was a member of a science fiction book club run by the publisher David and Charles, and every so often they would offer books from their other book clubs at sale prices. One such was A Time of Gifts; I hadn’t heard of Leigh Fermor, but it looked interesting. So I bought it, and read it almost at a sitting. This was Germany in the mid-30s, so he would be watching swaggering Nazis in a Bavarian Inn one day and meeting up with a member of some Ruritanian aristocracy the next, and each encounter would be described with the same vigour, the same immediacy. Everything was new, everything was exciting, it was a moment when the world was changing but hadn’t quite realised it yet. And he captured all of that with an ease that blew my mind.
After reading that book I talked myself into a gig reviewing travel books for the British Council’s British Book News. I did so because of A Time of Gifts, and A Time of Gifts was then, and remains today, my model against which any other travel book must be measured. After a few years I gave up reviewing travel books because I recognised how few came close to measuring up. When I met Maureen, one of the first books I insisted she should read was A Time of Gifts (in return, she pressed A Fine and Private Place by Peter Beagle upon me, we are both immeasurably richer for the exchange).
And yet, A Time of Gifts was not complete. It took Leigh Fermor on a meandering route across Germany and Austria and into Hungary … and then stopped. We had to wait nearly a decade, until 1986, before the second volume, Between the Woods and the Water, appeared. Needless to say I snapped it up the first instant I saw it. It took us on through the Balkans, across Bulgaria to the shores of the Bosphorus, and ended tantalisingly with the words: ‘To be concluded’.
There were other books, of course. His first book, The Traveller’s Tree appeared in 1950, there was a novel, two books on Mani and Roumeli in Greece (where he lived), a slim volume on the time he lodged in a French Abbey, and an even slimmer volume on a trip to the Andes. They are good books, of course they are good, he was a wonderful writer who wore his learning lightly and had a talent for description that few can match. But they weren’t the conclusion of his walk. The two volumes had a special zest that is hard to define but absolutely distinctive. But that third volume seemed ever and tantalisingly out of reach. In interviews he would say he was working on it, but in a quarter of a century nothing appeared. Now, on his death, we hear that he left a draft. Perhaps, finally, we are about to read the conclusion of that great adventure. If it is only half as good as its two predecessors it will be well worth the wait.