March 21, 2015

Patrick Leigh Fermor: lost in time and geography

I struck the board and cry'd 'No more;
I will abroad.'
What, shall I ever sigh and pine?
My life and lines are free; free as the road,
Loose as the wind.      
     -- lines from a poem by George Herbert, used as an epigraph to A time of gifts

Patrick Leigh Fermor, circa 1934
Patrick Leigh Fermor in Greece, c 1934

This year marks the centenary of the birth of the British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. It's also the centenary of the birth of the modern passport, meaning that when Paddy (as all his life he was universally known), aged 18 and harbouring literary ambitions, decided to walk across Europe to give himself something to write about, passports were just as young as he was, and applying for one was still something it was hard to take seriously.

From A time of gifts, the first of his trilogy of books about his 'Great Trudge', as he called it:

"Profession? 'Well, what shall we say?' The Passport Official had asked, pointing to the void. My mind remained empty."

Casting about, he hums the song from Al Jolson's latest movie, Hallelujah I'm a bum!, which has been running through his head for days. The Passport Official tells him 'Well, we can't put that!' and suggests he put 'student', not knowing how many schools he'd been expelled from. So 'student' it is, although 'footloose romantic scribbler' would have been more apt.

You'll see Patrick Leigh Fermor referred to as a travel writer, even as the finest travel writer of his time, which is a long time given that he lived to be 96, but it's a categorization which doesn't do him justice. To me he's more like the last in a line of romantic adventurers with a literary bent which comes down from, say, the erudite Victorian explorer Richard Burton, the first European to reach Mecca (in disguise, risking his life), through T.E. Lawrence, that "very inspiring gentleman adventurer", as a fellow army officer described him, whose first trek East, let's not forget, was for archaeological interest in the crusader castles of Syria, and on through the brilliant aesthete Robert Byron, already the author of six books on travel and art history when Paddy was setting out on his first journey, ten years Paddy's senior, the perfect age difference for a bit of hero-worship.

Paddy in fact is thrilled when Mark Ogilvie-Grant lends him a rucksack for his journey which he had carried on his travels around Athos with Robert Byron. "Weathered and faded by Macedonian suns, it was rife with mana," he exults, and he filled it with army surplus clothes, a sleeping bag, a couple of white linen shirts (for occasions), notebooks, a tin of pencils, plus the Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horace. Just so you don't think this is a bit too much, he soon loses both the sleeping bag and one of the books of poetry, and realises he doesn't miss either one.

It took Paddy over a year to walk from Rotterdam to Constantinople, as he always called it, refusing to use the name the Turkish Republic had imposed on the city the Emperor Constantine had founded as the new Rome. In the course of that year he had known the "ecstasy", as he described it, of realising that nobody in the world knew where he was, and that he had to be a writer. And from then on, he made the rest of his life be about that. Though of course there were other loves, too: knowledge, including a particular passion for exotic historical arcana, friendship, good conversation, song, women, drinking and smoking (both of which he did prodigiously), and saying things backwards.

In A time of gifts he declares himself addicted to this practice, which he links back to having gazed out of many windows of restaurants and cafes, deciphering the writing on the glass. He gives the example of 'Ode to a Nightingale', which he used to like to recite backwards on the march, noting the "arcane and unearthly beauty" of the lines, such as

Yawa! Yawa! Rof I lliw ylf ot eeht!

But his favourite is

Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

which becomes

Hguorht suorudrev smoolg dna gnidniw yssom syaw.

You have to agree with him when he says "It seems almost to surpass the original in forest mystery".

He travelled and lived in Greece, gaining such familiarity with the Greek language and culture that when World War II broke out, and he went to London to report for duty, leaving behind the beautiful Rumanian princess he had been living with, the British sent him to Crete as a Special Op. I wouldn't call it a love, but he certainly demonstrated an enormous gift for warriorship, including the fabled action (a movie was later made about it, starring Dirk Bogarde as Paddy) he carried out with a small band of men, dressing in stolen German uniforms and kidnapping the German commander, driving him in his own car through 20 German checkpoints before marching him across the island to a beach where they were picked up by a British launch.

In their stolen Wehrmacht uniforms (Paddy on  right)

The book which was my introduction to Patrick Leigh Fermor is Mani, in which he describes his travels through the most remote area of the southern Peloponnese, recommended by a friend who shared my passion for Greece, and travelling in Greece. Reading the book I could see that everyone voyaging south through the Peloponnese gets the same geography lesson, in which a hand is held up for a map, perhaps a residue of the days when Greek sailors -- I learned in Mani -- navigated with their fingers. I still remember the modern-day Lacedaemonian who gave us ours, on our first trip. "The Peloponnese is a hand with three fingers extending into the Mediterranean. The Mani is the middle one. The wild one." Mountainous, arid, its fierce inhabitants noted for their historical trades of pirates (by sea) and robbers (by land).

But the Mani turned out to be also a place of boundless hospitality and suggestiveness and I can easily understand why Patrick Leigh Fermor came to love it so much he built himself a home there, with nine-foot high bookshelves, in the little town of Kardamyli. Bruce Chatwin, who if life were fair would have been the one to carry on the line of literary adventurers, spent many months there, thinking and walking, while grappling with the writing of Songlines, and requested that after his death his ashes be taken there.

Here's a passage from Mani which is quintessential Patrick Leigh Fermor:

"The air in Greece is not merely a negative void between solids; the sea itself, the houses and rocks and trees, on which it presses like a jelly mould, are embedded in it; it is alive and positive and volatile and one is as aware of its contact as if it could have pierced hearts scrawled on it with diamond rings or be grasped in handfuls, tapped for electricity, bottled, used for blasting, set fire to, sliced into sparkling cubes and rhomboids with a pair of shears, be timed with a stop watch, strung with pearls, plucked like a lute string or tolled like a bell, swum in, be set with rungs and climbed like a rope ladder or have saints assumed through it in flaming chariots; as though it could be harangued into faction, or eavesdropped, pounded down with pestle and mortar for cocaine, drunk from a ballet shoe, or spun, woven and worn on solemn feasts; or cut into discs for lenses, minted for currency or blown, with infinite care, into globes. On top of this, all the nautical wind-talk and scrutiny of the elements fills it with innumerable unseen coilings and influences and cross currents and comings and goings. It is no wonder that the Greek word for wind -- anemos -- should have produced the Latin word anima, for soul; that pneuma and spiritus should mean spirit and breath and wind in both languages. Perhaps it is not strange that the age-old Greek war-cry -- the equivalent of St. George!, Montjoy--Saint Denys!, and Santiago! -- should be the single word Aera! which means both wind and air."

Patrick Leigh Fermor's books

The traveller's tree: a journey through the Caribbean Islands (1950)
A time to keep silence  (1953)
Mani: travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958)
Roumeli: travels in Northern Greece (1966)
Words of mercury: tales from a lifetime of travel (2003)

The trilogy recounting the 'Great Trudge' was written after his other travel books, nearly half a century after that voyage of a lifetime. A time of gifts (1977) covers the walk from Holland to Bratislava via Nazi Germany and Austria,

Its sequel Between the woods and the water (1986) takes him from there to Hungary and Romania

Third in the trilogy, The broken road : from the Iron Gates to Mount Athos (2013) was still in manuscript at his death, and was edited for publication by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper. He'd been working on it for 20 years and just couldn't bring himself to finish it. No one thinks it was his age -- this is a man who swam the Hellespont at age 69. Perhaps he simply didn't want the voyage to end, to say good-bye to “the feeling of being lost in time and geography with months and years hazily sparkling ahead in a prospect of inconjecturable magic...”

Paddy in Ithaka, 1946




-- Karen

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 21:00
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