When you read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s magical walking memoirs, you can’t help but wonder what it would be like to attempt that journey now – would people still be as kind? Would there be any sense of wilderness left in Europe? Would it even be possible to follow in his footsteps, or has urbanisation wiped PLF’s route from the modern map? Happily, I was directed to Nick Hunt’s memoir, Walking the Woods and the Water by someone who was kind enough to comment on my review of A Time of Gifts. In 2011, Hunt attempted to answer those questions by retracing Paddy’s route – as far as it was possible to do so, given that his journey pre-dated publication of The Broken Road – and this is his account of that modern journey.
At first, I struggled. I didn’t want so much brutal reality. The romantic in me wanted to hear that little has changed; that from the very beginning the journey was like travelling back in time, somehow, to Paddy’s prelapsarian Europe. Having just finished reading This Changes Everything, I was especially primed to despair at the way in which Europe has altered over the course of the last century – and Nick Hunt, quite rightly, doesn’t try to sugar-coat the fact that so much is different now.
“The glimpse I had of Rotterdam was almost as brief as Paddy’s own – he walked on at once, pausing only for eggs and schnapps – but the continuity between our two cities was absolutely severed. The Rotterdam of the Middle Ages has been blasted into the realms of fairytales, and the new reality of McDonald’s and Lush, Starbucks and Vodafone, had rushed in to fill the vacuum. The destruction seemed less an act of war than apocalyptic town planning, a Europe-wide sweep of medieval clutter to clear the way for the consumer age.”
It was heart-breaking reading – genuinely quite painful – and the prospect of seeing the utter dismantling of centuries of history through Nick Hunt’s eyes was almost too much to contemplate. Of all the things that might have brought Naomi Klein’s words home, this was it. And yet – the thing that pulled me through that first wave of unhappiness was the fact that it obviously made NH wretched too, and I quickly learned to trust him because of the way he articulates that disappointment: “From Rotterdam, Paddy had plunged into winter countryside, a landscape like a Brueghel painting, children skeetering down canals on fantastical ice-yachts. The reality was so distant it almost physically hurt. Now browns and greys seeped in from all sides and nothing shone or sparkled.”
That sense of loss never disappears – sitting next to Paddy’s this memoir makes it starkly apparent how much has disappeared through the course of a world war, various communist regimes, and an explosion in consumerism. What makes this such a special book, though, is that it is so much more than a lament. Yes, Paddy’s rural tracks have been covered by motorways, and yes, swathes of concrete have suffocated many of the bucolic fields he marched through with his putteed legs, but there is still a great deal of magic to be found, if you are willing to look beyond Starbucks and Lush. As NH says towards the end of the book, the further East he walked the kinder people became – and his narration of that generosity becomes all the sweeter because it is somehow unexpected now. Just like Paddy, Nick finds himself enveloped by groups of people in every country who ply him with alcohol and tell him stories about their homeland, and he is frequently offered food or shelter by complete strangers.
It would be trite to say that the one thing that evidently hasn’t changed is the kindness people are willing to show to a wandering pilgrim – but I think what NH does show is that he encountered both a comforting continuity, and also something entirely new. There is a sense that the world Paddy encountered is lying dormant in people’s stories, and in the landscape – to quote the beautiful phrase NH uses: “In certain lights, history could be glimpsed as a shadow under the skin; I saw it now, under the brightness of his smile.” As a result, you feel as though the intangible charm Paddy found in his version of Europe still exists. That is not all, though – it is not simply a kind of latent past NH finds, but also the promise of a change he cannot quite put his finger on. Paddy wrote the first two books in his travelogue after the second world war, knowing that the world he was walking through was about to plunge into war and thereby change forever. The Europe NH finds has been scarred by that, without question – at one point he even describes the houses and gardens in Romania as being in convalescence – but whereas Paddy was lovingly describing something he knew would soon be lost, NH finds a Europe-wide feeling that something is about to shift. In Holland, he spends an evening in the local Occupy camp, talking about alternatives in capitalism; in Romania, he finds a peasant culture so intact and self-sufficient that young couples are travelling there from Western Europe to find a simpler way of life; and in Germany, he meets a broken-toothed drunk “babbling about the freedom of Germanic tribes against imperial oppression.” As NH says, “This mythologised affinity with suppressed ancient cultures spoke of a similar yearning for a long-lost age of greater freedoms, unbounded by rules, that bubbled under Europe’s surface like a buried river.” Perhaps it is just an antidote to the creep of homogenisation, this feeling that ripples of history could unsettle consumerism and lead to the emergence of something both very old and very new – but (in the context of Naomi Klein’s call to arms in particular), I hope it is more than that. In any case, there is a magic in the not knowing, which NH very much makes his own.
Ultimately this is a much grittier exploration – NH stays in post-communist mental hospitals, talks about how much he smells, and is occasionally chased by feral dogs – and whilst it has been inspired by PLF, it has the stamp of an entirely independent personality. Nick Hunt is a very talented writer, and achieves the very difficult thing of adding something to PLF’s body of work rather than trying to assimilate it into this own. It did not quite have the alchemy of Paddy’s vision, but having ground my teeth at the first mention of Starbucks, I can say that I was both relieved and hopeful by the end of the book. If you want to know whether PLF’s journey could be attempted in the modern age, this is the fascinating response – there are still wild boars, bears and dangerous mountains, and the traumas of the past eighty years have not changed the rhythms of rural communities too dramatically. What a young wanderer might find in eighty years’ time, however, is anyone’s guess – that is the mystery, “such stuff as dreams are made on.”