Fiction is yet to create a hero as magnificent as Patrick Leigh Fermor. He was an extraordinary man, with a talent for writing which matched his talent for living.
When he was eighteen, PLF fell in love with a greengrocer’s daughter and, having been caught holding her hand, was expelled from King’s School in Canterbury. With no particular desire to set off for university and having decided that a life in the military during peace-time was not for him, he decided to walk from Rotterdam to Istanbul in a bid to find adventure and cultivate his talents as an author. He permitted himself an emergency fund of four pounds a month but otherwise resolved to live by his wits alone, and, one cold November day and with the encouragement of his remarkably supportive mother, set off for Europe “through a secret door.” By the end of “A Time of Gifts” he has reached Hungary. It is a remarkable account of Europe in the years before the second world war.
My copy of the book is dense with annotations and under-linings; every new sentence offers up something to savour. He has a unique, lyrical style, keenly curious mind and love of detail which gives his account a sense of absolute veracity – but also a clarity which is almost other-worldly.
It was pitch dark out of doors and with the extinction of each flame the interior shadows came closer. It heightened the chiaroscuro of these rough country faces and stressed the rapt gleam in innumerable eyes; and the church, as it grew hotter, was filled by the smell of melting wax and sheepskin and curds and sweat and massed breath.
The language alone makes this a book to treasure; and then on top of that, of course, is the fascinating subject-matter and the sheer courage it took for such a young man to undertake a journey of this magnitude.
I wonder if it would be possible now, for a wandering student to experience the kind of generosity of spirit which carried PLF across the first leg of his journey? From time to time and when he was in a particularly rural area, he slept on beds of hay, hidden in barns; more often than not, however, he was welcomed into people’s homes, pressed with food and books and clothes, and invited into fascinating, alcohol-fuelled conversations by roaring fires. I like to think that an enterprising young spirit would still find kindness like this, but I fear that this was indeed the end of an era – a time of gifts which ended with the Second World War. There is an entirely unsentimental sense of this imminent loss of something precious throughout the book. Through his growing interest in history, PLF places his journey within the context of ancient, long-dead Empires, the Thirty Years’ War, and noble families who have long-since vanished into the shadows of history. As he encounters more and more brown-shirts in Germany, however, and as pictures of Hitler begin to adorn the walls of every bar, there is a feeling of escalating doom – a sense that there is something coming unlike anything which had touched Europe before. The account is written in retrospect and many years after PLF’s remarkable turn as the head of Cretan resistance during the war, which means that these wonderfully generous encounters with the German and Austrian families are coloured with a knowing sadness.
On the first day of the battle of Crete, the memory of these Vienna weeks leapt back to my mind…No chance now, like Cardigan and Radziwell recognizing each other from London ballrooms, of exchanging brief and ceremonious greetings through the smoke of the Russian guns. Again and again in those whistling and echoing ravines, where a new and unknown smell was beginning to usurp the scents of spring, my thoughts flew back to the winter of 1934 and the tunes and jokes and guessing games, the candlelight and the scent of burning pine-cones when nothing was flying through the air more solid than snowflakes.
What an unspeakably difficult thing – to have spent the years leading up to war living with, and depending on the kindness of, the families he would then have to fight. As I say this is all conveyed without self-pity or sentimentality, but it underpins the exquisite language of the account with a dark sense of what was to come.
As with “A Time to Keep Silence”, though, PLF also has a keen sense of the ridiculous, and fills his account with wonderfully strange human details. When talking about the famous Alchemist John Dee, for example, he recounts how the wizard was stripped of his Fellowship at Cambridge for arranging a public demonstration of the device by which Trygaeus travelled to Olympus in “The Peace” by Aristophanes; “As this vehicle was a giant dung-beetle from Mount Edna which the protagonist refuelled with his own droppings on the long ascent, the exhibition may well have caused a stir. I would have liked to have seen it.” He is also not in the least afraid to send himself up – and when rereading his youthful diaries seizes upon the fact that as an eighteen year old he had obviously enjoyed the pensive image of smoking a pipe. “I always seem to be “puffing away thoughtfully” or “enjoying a quiet pipe”, in these pages.”
With the innocence of youth, he passes through these countries with a deep fascination for people, history, and idiosyncrasy. It is an infectiously vital tale and I am, once again, very grateful to Susan Hill for introducing me to a man who has swiftly become one of my favourite authors. Forget James Bond; one need look no further to find the quintessential English hero.