Patrick Leigh Fermor: his final journey
By Colin Thubron with Patrick Leigh Fermor
First published in the Telegraph 1 September 2013.
Patrick Leigh Fermor never quite completed the long-awaited third volume of his youthful journey across Europe. He was 18 when he set out to walk from Holland to Turkey in 1933, but the first two magnificent books recording this epic – A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water were published only in 1977 and 1986 respectively. The second ended with the implacable words “To be Concluded”, and for years expectations ran high that a final book would follow, carrying its hero from the Iron Gates, on the Romanian-Bulgarian border, to Constantinople.
But for Paddy (as friends and fans called him) a long ice age set in: a writer’s block that dogged him for the rest of his life. On completion of the second volume he was already in his seventies, and the pressure of expectation, the demands of his highly wrought style and his own perfectionism were overwhelming.
Yet ironically a near-complete draft of the third volume – written in pen on stiff sheets of paper – had been lying for years on a shelf in his study, in three black ring binders, all but forgotten. It had been composed following a request from Holiday magazine in 1962 that he record his whole trek in a 5,000-word essay. Paddy abandoned this essay when it reached the Iron Gates, but then launched into a full-scale retrieval of his trek’s last stretch: a work he eventually gave the stopgap title of A Youthful Journey. Then this, in turn, was abandoned, with the realisation that he must start all over again, and describe his walk from its beginning.
The initial two volumes were written virtually from memory: a prodigious feat of recall coupled with a rich imagination. His first diary of the journey was stolen in a Munich youth hostel in 1934. His later diaries went missing during the Second World War. But a final one, covering the last stretch of his trek, was preserved by his first great love, the Romanian princess Balasha Cantacuzène, who hurled it into her suitcase in the few minutes allowed her by communist officials when she was ejected from her estate in 1949.
Yet this diary, recovered from Balasha in Romania during a clandestine visit by Paddy in 1965, did nothing to cure his writer’s block.
Perhaps its callow text conflicted with the more mature writing of A Youthful Journey; or perhaps the factual discrepancies in the two versions troubled him. Only in 2008, when already in his nineties, did he seriously begin, painfully and intermittently, to revise the Great Trudge, as he called it. But by now he was suffering from tunnel vision, and his stamina was failing. He died in 2011 at the age of 96, still working on the narrative in a fragile hand.
So it fell to two of his three literary executors, his biographer Artemis Cooper and myself, to prepare the text for publication.
A Youthful Journey was largely written between 1963 and 1964, in prolix bursts of enthusiasm, and its grammar, punctuation and even its style were far from what Paddy considered finished. In our revision we laboured to preserve his inimitable style, while clarifying and refining the text in a process as close as we could get to his exacting practice. There is not a sentence that is not his.
But The Broken Road is our own title. It acknowledges not only that Paddy never, in the end, continued his written journey to Constantinople – it stops 50 miles short of the Turkish frontier – but also that this is not the exuberantly polished volume that he would have most desired. Yet it includes passages perhaps as fine as any he wrote. Its editing was aided by our sense of Paddy’s previous work, of course, by our knowledge of the man himself, and by his few hints and tentative suggestions. And here his journey must rest.
Extracts from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘The Broken Road’
“The party went with a bhang”
The lights of Tirnovo were beginning to twinkle in every window, the sun had set, and the prospect of my St Jerome-like hermitage loomed rather bleakly, especially compared to the gleaming interior of the grocer’s: the barrels of anchovies, the hanging flitches, the lamplight refracting a battery of bottles, the dried figs impaled on skewers of bamboo, the kegs and crates and jars and the pyramids of wares from Germany and Austria, the scarlet bacon slicer with its flashing disc of blade, the huge cheeses and the cubistic mounds of halva. It glowed like Aladdin’s cave.
But the shop was empty. A boy of about my own age who had been sitting reading a book on the doorstep got up and followed me in. Where was I from? Whither bound?
Cheerful alacrity and a friendly glance accompanied these questions. We were soon perched on the edge of barrels, clinking slivo glasses and exchanging autobiographies. Gatcho was the grocer’s son, and he was looking after the shop while his father was at some ex-officers’ anniversary celebration, a reunion of old comrades from the Balkan wars.
This particular season, once more, seemed to be crowded with holidays and parties and religious feasts, which kept us up late and beset the mornings with headaches. Gatcho demonstrated a way of finding out if the next day was going to be a feast day, by a method about as reliable as predicting a stranger’s arrival by tea leaves. He found my sheepskin kalpack among the heaped-up chattels on my bed. He pounced on it with glee, crying, “Let’s see whether tomorrow is a prazdnik” – a feast – then lifted it above his head and flung it on the floor, which it struck with a dull thud. His brows knitted with vexation. He repeated it several times. If the hat hit the boards fair and square, he explained, it would give a loud report like the explosion of a paper bag. “There we are,” he said. “All’s well. Prazdnik tomorrow.” And so it was.
In the small hours of one of these celebrations, we found ourselves with half a dozen of the blades of Tirnovo in a hut on the outskirts of the town, smoking hashish. The dried and powdered leaves were packed into the tube of a cigarette paper from which deft fingers had laboriously prodded the tobacco. Lit, and then solemnly passed from hand to hand until the clouds of smoke enveloped us with a sweetish vegetable reek, it brought on a faint dizziness and a gregarious onslaught of helpless laughter.
Bulgaria, it appeared, was one of the richest natural hashish gardens in the world. Cannabis indica thrives in embarrassing abundance. Its cultivation, which is scarcely necessary, and its smoking, my companions explained between puffs, were strictly forbidden: “Mnogo zabraneno. Ha! Ha! Ha!” But the ban seemed about as effective as legislation against cow parsley or nettles. I longed for the opportunity to say “the party went with a bhang!” The lack of opportunity to say so, however, didn’t stop me saying it, and dissolving in transports of hilarity at my own wit.
“A soul in hell”
The following days were raining off and on the whole time, soaking the lowlands and an ever-thickening crop of villages. I stuck to the main road, watching occasional cars pass, and, more temptingly, buses, with PYCCE plastered across the front – Russe, the Bulgarian name for [the city of] Rustchuk. On one of these drizzly stretches, I fell in with a fellow wayfarer heading north like me, a young barber from Pazardjik called Ivancho, threadbare and urban and with a face like a hare’s. Where was I from? Anglitchanin? Tchudesno! – “Wonderful!” This revelation was followed by a burst of talk that needed no answer. It was uttered at such speed that I could scarcely understand a word – at the same time eager, confidential and earpiercing, 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 till my head began to swim and ache. I tried to detach myself and draw on inner resources, merely muttering Da or Nè when a pause occurred. But these were not always the right answers and my companion would begin again, catching me by the elbow and prodding me with his forefinger with redoubled urgency and a crablike veer of his fast and tripping gait that always edged me across the road and nearly into the field, till I darted round the other side and into the middle again, only to be seized once more and harangued off the road on the other side with the same smiling urgency and with eyes peering mesmerically so that it seemed impossible to deflect them. Sometimes he was walking backwards in front, almost dancing along the road in reverse, the unstaunchable flow gushing unbroken from his smiling and gabbling lips. Once I turned round in a circle and he danced briskly round in a wider circle still talking faster and faster.
I tried to counter-attack by resolutely bawling Stormy Weather, but it was too slow. He dived in between the bars, so I shifted to The Lincolnshire Poacher, Lillibulero, On a Friday Morn When we Set Sail, and Maurice Chevalier’s Valentine, over and over again. My head was splitting and I sighed for the tomb and the silence of eternity. People had often teased me for gasbag tendencies, especially when a bit drunk. If only they could see this retribution!
There was only one hope. Ivancho belonged to some kind of pan-Bulgarian barbers’ guild – he had showed me a dog-eared card with a snapshot glued to it – and in two nearby villages that we had passed before I realised how it worked, he had entered a barber’s shop, displayed his card and emerged with a handful of leva. In the next village we came to, I took discreetly to my heels and ran full tilt along the road. Looking back, I saw him emerge, catch sight of my diminishing figure, and set off in pursuit. But I had a good start and the distance widened. I pounded on like a stag with a lightening heart and finally, when the road stretched bare behind me, slowed down, free at last. But a few minutes later a northward-bound car slowed down and Ivancho, with a forefinger wagging in playful admonition, leapt from the running-board.
There was nothing for it. All the evening, and all through dinner, the torment continued till at last I lurched to bed, but not to sleep for any time. Fortunately, though, owing to lack of room, different roofs were sheltering us. After a few nightmare-ridden hours, I got up in the dark, paid, and slipped out before breakfast, and away. But I had not gone a furlong before a waiting shadow detached itself from a tree. A cheerful voice, refreshed by sleep, wished me good morning, and a friendly hand fluttered to my shoulder. Day broke slowly.
Stunned and battered, I saw my chance early in the afternoon. We were sheltering from the rain, drinking Russian tea an inch deep in sugar in the kretchma of a large village. A battered bus was drawn up outside, and the driver-conductor was drinking with some cronies at another table. I left the table with the excuse of the lavatory, and, outside, made a pleading gesture towards the conductor through the glass top of a door. He joined me, and I haltingly explained my case. He had heard and seen the social amenities rattling about my table; perhaps he could tell from my eyes that he was talking to a soul in hell.
Back in the main room I made the treacherous suggestion to Ivancho that we should take the bus to Rustchuk and get out of the rain: I would pay for the journey. Would he please buy the tickets, I said, handing over the money, as my Bulgarian was so bad? He assented eagerly and volubly. There was a hitch at the bus door: he insisted I should get in first. We struggled and the driver shouted impatiently. I managed to shove him in and the driver pulled the lever that slammed the door, and moved off. I could see Ivancho gesticulating and shouting but all in vain. He shot me a harrowing glance from his hare-eyes, I waved, and the rain swallowed them up. In a few minutes, I took a side-path through a field of damp sunflowers. Taking no chances, I followed a wide loop far from the dangers of the main road. The guilt implanted by Ivancho’s reproachful glance almost managed to mar the ensuing feelings of relief and liberation, but not quite. Not even the bitter wind from the east, as steady as an express train, could do that.The book is available to pre-order from Amazon, just click here The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos