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Publication day for Walking the Woods and the Water by Nick Hunt

March 20, 2014
Walking the Woods and the Water

Walking the Woods and the Water

Today marks a very important day for Nick Hunt as it is the publication day of his wonderful first book, Walking the Woods and the Water which describes his 2011-2012 journey walking in Paddy’s footsteps from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul.

Many of you will be familiar with the background and even supported Nick financially by donating to his crowd funding site which I publicised here under the title of “£1 a Week”. Since then we have been able to keep up with Nick following his return as he sought a new publisher and gave some thoughtful and entertaining public lectures.

I am sure Nick will now be in greater demand as this book is a gem. As I wrote a few weeks ago this is no simple homage to Paddy. It is a unique work of one man’s often very painful journey over eight months. The story is inhabited by interesting characters and is at times a very intimate work. We get very close to Nick and his thoughts during that long walk.

As a walker myself, one of the things missing from ATOG and BTWW was any mention of the pains of walking (we get some hint in The Broken Road when a hobnail from his boot puts Paddy in a lot of pain in Bulgaria). Whilst Paddy may have been lucky, it would be very surprising if he had not experienced some discomfort, and even fear, during his journey. Nick brings all this alive with gritty descriptions.

Nick does draw parallels with Paddy’s writing for his aim was to see what had changed during the last 80 turbulent years in Europe. Whilst his conclusion is that much has changed, there is also much that has not, in particular the attitudes and prejudices of the people he encounters.

I hope that there will be many positive reviews which will help Nick to achieve good sales, and it is not my intention to write a review as such. All I can say is that the book is a very enjoyable read; a wonderful read. It offers a major contribution to travel writing and it will inspire many of those that read the book to set out on journeys of their own, especially to Central and Eastern Europe.

If you enjoy reading my blog, and want to make a link with Paddy and his adventures, I ask you to buy a copy of Walking the Woods and the Water today. Unfortunately the book is only available in paperback, but I guarantee that you will enjoy it. If you don’t please contact me or make a comment, and I will surely post your comments here.

And it you doubt me, read what some others have said:

‘Nick Hunt has written a glorious book, rich with insight and wit, about walking his way both across and into contemporary Europe. He set out as an homage to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s legendary tramp across Europe in the early 1930s, but his journey became – of course – an epic adventure in its own right. A book about gifts, modernity, endurance and landscape, it represents a fine addition to the literature of the leg.’Robert Macfarlane, author of The Wild Places and The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

This moving and profoundly honest book sometimes brings a sense of unlimited freedom, sometimes joy, sometimes an extraordinary, dream-like dislocation: always accompanied by a dazzling sharpness of hearing and vision. I see now how that youthful walk informed so much of Paddy s style. Before setting out Hunt was going to write to Paddy. The letter was never written, and by the time he set off, Paddy was dead. How touched and fascinated he would have been to read this book. –Artemis Cooper, author of Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure and co-editor The Broken Road

‘Vivid and hard-won’ Giles Foden inConde Nast Traveller

‘Delightful, balanced and extremely well-written…an impressive and timely effort. A worthy literary tribute to the classic of British travel writing.’ –Vitali Vitaliev, author of Passport to Enclavia

‘A most enjoyable read and a worthy tribute to the originals’ –Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller

‘Walking in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor from Rotterdam to Constantinople, Nick Hunt found that, 78 years later, everything and nothing has changed–Daily Telegraph interview with author

Walking the Woods and the Water is published by Nicholas Brealey (336pp), is available in paperback only and is ready to order from Amazon. Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn

Patrick Fermor, aventurero del siglo XX

March 18, 2014

Spanish an adventureA review of An Adventure in Spanish from La Aventurade la Historia.

Viajó a pie por toda Europa, organizó la resistencia cretense en la Segunda Guerra Mundial, secuestró a un general alemán y escribió espléndidas obras relatando sus viajes. Dos libros recuerdan su increíble periplo vital

A los 18 años Paddy Fermor decidió abandonar su renqueante trayectoria estudiantil y atravesar Europa a pie. Salió de Londres, cogió un barco hacia Rotterdam y desde allí caminó hasta Constantinopla. Entre 1933 y 1934 cruzó el viejo continente durmiendo en cobertizos, habitaciones prestadas y tabernas. También se hospedó en castillos y casas señoriales. Su alegría innata, combinada con unos exquisitos modales le abrieron todas las puertas, y su infinita curiosidad atrajo todo tipo de compañías.

Patrick Leigh Fermor Nació en Inglaterra en 1915 y falleció en el mismo lugar en 2011. El margen vital de su dilatada existencia le permitió atravesar medio mundo y escribir brillantes libros de viajes. Recientemente se ha publicado en castellano su biografía (Patrick Leigh Fermor, RBA, 2013), a cargo de Artemis Cooper, y un pequeño texto escrito por su traductora, Dolores Payás (Drinking Time!, Acantilado 2013), que enriquece el relato de su vida con las charlas que mantuvo con él pocos meses antes de su muerte.

Read the full review here.

A new book by Patrick Leigh Fermor- Abducting a General – to be published in October

March 15, 2014
'Billy' Moss and Paddy Leigh Fermor

‘Billy’ Moss and Paddy Leigh Fermor

I have just learned that we can look forward to a new book by Paddy relating the events of the Kreipe kidnap. Based upon his own account called Abducting a General, the book is due to be published by John Murray in October 2014. A pity it misses the precise date of the 70th anniversary, but welcome nonetheless.

We will be blessed with a lot of new material about the abduction and its key players this year. We have already had the new book by Wes Davis, The Ariadne Objective, which contains a lot of new material after painstaking research, and ‘Billy’ Moss’ account of his time in SOE after the exploits on Crete, A War of Shadows, is also due for republication in April.

The John Murray website tells us this:

A daring behind-enemy-lines mission from the author of A Time of Gifts and The Broken Road.

One of the greatest feats in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s remarkable life was the kidnapping of General Kreipe, the German commander in Crete, on 26 April 1944. He and Captain Billy Moss hatched a daring plan to abduct the general, while ensuring that no reprisals were taken against the Cretan population. Dressed as German military police, they stopped and took control of Kreipe’s car, drove through twenty-two German checkpoints, then succeeded in hiding from the German army before finally being picked up on a beach in the south of the island and transported to safety in Egypt on 14 May.

Abducting a General is Leigh Fermor’s own account of the kidnap, published for the first time. Written in his inimitable prose, and introduced by acclaimed SOE historian Professor Roderick Bailey, it is a glorious first-hand account of one of the great adventures of the Second World War. Also included in this book are Leigh Fermor’s intelligence reports, sent from caves deep within Crete yet still retaining his remarkable prose skills, which bring the immediacy of SOE operations vividly alive, as well as the peril which the SOE and Resistance were operating under; and a guide to the journey that Kreipe was taken on from the abandonment of his car to the embarkation site so that the modern visitor can relive this extraordinary event.

The publication date for Abducting a General is set for 9 October.

The Ariadne Objective: The Underground War to Rescue Crete from the Nazis

March 13, 2014

Ariadne-jacket-453x680Recently I returned from a business trip to Cluj, the loveliest city in Romania, to find a parcel on my desk. It was a copy of The Ariadne Objective, a new book by Wes Davis about the resistance and SOE operations in Crete. It is added to my pile of books that I will read throughout the course of the year.Hugh and Gabriella Bullock (‘Billy’ Moss’ daughter) provided information to Wes about Billy and his wife Sophie Tarnowska. Hugh believes that this book makes ‘a different study of the people concerned’.

You can buy the book on Amazon. The Ariadne Objective: The Underground War to Rescue Crete from the Nazis

The blurb says this ….

The incredible true story of the WWII spies, including Patrick Leigh Fermor and John Pendlebury, who fought to save Crete and block Hitler’s march to the East.

In the bleakest years of WWII, when it appeared that nothing could slow the German army, Hitler set his sights on the Mediterranean island of Crete, the ideal staging ground for German domination of the Middle East. But German command had not counted on the eccentric band of British intelligence officers who would stand in their way, conducting audacious sabotage operations in the very shadow of the Nazi occupation force.

The Ariadne Objective tells the remarkable story of the secret war on Crete from the perspective of these amateur soldiers – scholars, archaeologists, writers – who found themselves serving as spies in Crete because, as one of them put it, they had made “the obsolete choice of Greek at school”: John Pendlebury, a swashbuckling archaeologist with a glass eye and a swordstick, who had been legendary archeologist Arthur Evans’s assistant at Knossos before the war; Patrick Leigh Fermor, a Byronic figure and future travel-writing luminary who, as a teenager in the early 1930s, walked across Europe, a continent already beginning to feel the effects of Hitler’s rise to power; Xan Fielding, a writer who would later produce the English translations of books like Bridge on the River Kwai and Planet of the Apes; and Sandy Rendel, a future Times of London reporter, who prided himself on a disguise that left him looking more ragged and fierce than the Cretan mountaineers he fought alongside.

Infiltrated into occupied Crete, these British gentleman spies teamed with Cretan partisans to carry out a cunning plan to disrupt Nazi maneuvers, culminating in a daring, high-risk plot to abduct the island’s German commander. In this thrilling untold story of World War II, Wes Davis offers a brilliant portrait of a group of legends in the making, against the backdrop of one of the war’s most exotic locales.

Bringing Bond to book

March 8, 2014

bondWe continue our series of articles looking at the work of Ian Fleming who was a friend of Paddy. Fleming was influenced by Paddy’s exploits and he used the Traveller’s Tree in particular as a source for Live and Let Die.

By Matthew Woodcock

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 14 December 2013

There is one last James Bond book from the late 1950s that remains unpublished. We will not find the typescript lurking in the archives, nor hidden amongst the papers held by Ian Fleming’s estate, for this book is not about James Bond but written by Bond himself. It is from Fleming’s 1959 novel Goldfinger that we learn that 007 spends his hours on night duty at the Secret Service compiling a manual on unarmed combat called Stay Alive!, containing the best that had been written on the subject by his peers in intelligence agencies around the world. Bond is more industrious in the field than at the typewriter and no more is heard about this great unfinished work once his thoughts drift back to his previous assignment and time spent enjoying the company of the ill-fated Jill Masterson.

It should come as no surprise that Fleming’s hero has writerly pretensions. Yet again, Bond and his creator have interests or characteristics in common, along with their shared dash of Scottish ancestry and background in naval intelligence, and a similar penchant for custom-made Morlands cigarettes. During his twenties, Fleming read widely in French and German literature — Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain was a particular favourite — and he subscribed to all the avant garde literary magazines of the day. He experimented briefly with poetry, collected first editions for a while, and launched the Book Collector magazine. Ultimately, through his friend and later editor, the poet and novelist William Plomer, he entered the literary world of postwar London, met T.S. Eliot and befriended Edith Sitwell. But to what extent did these kind of literary and bibliographic interests shape or influence Fleming’s work when he began writing the Bond books?

Bond too is, of course, a man of books. Fleming took the name of his hero from the spine of a trusted ornithological guide to the West Indies. And the seemingly effortless, spontaneous genesis of the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, published in 1953, drew as much upon the author’s reading of Dornford Yates, John Buchan and ‘Sapper’ (creator of Bulldog Drummond) as it did on his wartime experiences.

The clubland stalwarts were formative influences on Fleming, but they are — at best — literature spelt with a very small ‘l’. Bond himself has bookish impulses: the book-lined sitting-room glimpsed briefly in Moonraker is a valuable resource, used in preparations for forthcoming missions, furnishing him in this instance with a volume on card-sharping by John Scarne. Researching details of voodoo rites in Live and Let Die, Bond consults The Traveller’s Tree by Fleming’s friend Patrick Leigh Fermor. Appropriately enough, 007 also likes a good thriller and purchases the latest Raymond Chandler at the close of Goldfinger, and in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service displays a ready familiarity with the Nero Wolfe series, written by the equally well-read Rex Stout. It turns out that M too knows of Wolfe. En route to Istanbul in From Russia with Love, Bond enjoys a literary busman’s holiday by reading Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios.

One might pause to consider just how do spies respond to fictional rehearsals of their trade? Did 007 snort in derision at Ambler’s accidental hero — himself a crime writer — or nod in recognition at his frustrations and disillusionment? Would he compare the quality of Ambler’s villains with those that he himself routinely faced in the field? Fleming’s villains themselves also appreciate a good book. At the start of From Russia with Love we discover that SMERSH’s chief executioner, Red Grant, likes to unwind by reading P.G. Wodehouse, and no one in the organisation would dare question such a choice.

Literary references and analogies frequently run through Bond’s mind: an allusion to Paradise Lost appears in the short story ‘Risico’, where he is disguised, naturally, as a writer; a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson strikes him in Diamonds are Forever, when he realises that he is sharing a ship with two of the Spangled Mob’s henchmen; he even attempts composing a haiku in You Only Live Twice.

None of the above, read in context, would have found a receptive audience with the likes of Eliot and Sitwell, or indeed among the literary pals of Fleming’s wife Ann. Fleming’s at times uneasy proximity to such circles never influenced the Bond books’ plot or structure, nor determined his initial choice of genre, but it did shape the author’s conception of the ‘literary’ and his recognition of how appreciation of ‘fine’ writing and the ‘right’ kind of books might be used for rhetorical effect, to engender the desired impression of his central character. The literary references in the Bond books are comparable to the furnishing of technical details about cars, dining, drinks, gambling and the like that the author employs to ground his fantastic plots in a recognisable reality — what Kingsley Amis identified as ‘the Fleming effect’. They help to build up Bond’s characterisation in deft, if brief, brushstrokes.

It could be suggested that the spy thriller itself — certainly after Somerset Maugham’s 1928 Ashenden — became the perfect genre with which to explore so many of the anxieties about identity and its representation to which the modernist greats gave expression. Like Eliot’s Prufrock, Bond and his peers are for-ever preparing ‘a face to meet the faces’ that they meet, always working with that lurking uncertainty as to whether they are the hero or the anti-hero of their own life’s narrative. Joseph Conrad had earlier delved into similar territory in his thriller The Secret Agent.

Had Fleming lived to tell of 007’s eventual retirement from the Secret Service we would undoubtedly have witnessed Bond swap his Walther for a pen and become a writer, thus following the career path of previous agents turned authors, W. Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, John le Carré, Stella Rimington and, of course, Fleming himself. He might even have completed Stay Alive!

Related article:

Paddy’s eye for detail: Ian Fleming, Bondage, James Bond and Pol Roger

The Long Journey of Patrick Leigh Fermor

March 4, 2014

fermor.broken road.jacket.inddA very nice and well balanced review from across The Pond. Slate magazine has provided some good quality material for this blog in the past. I don’t have the time myself to get stuck into it, but for some of you it may be worth signing up for their newsletters. I still don’t get that cover they chose for the US edition.

By Jenny Hendrix

First published in The Slate Book Review 3 March 2014.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of travel literature’s most colorful, beguiling pedestrians, famously decided to walk across Europe when he was 18. Why not? He’d failed out of every school he’d gone to, after all, had given up on joining the army, and was living a somewhat-too-dissipated life in London among the aging remnant of the Bright Young Things. So, in the winter of 1933, equipped with a rucksack, walking stick, military greatcoat, puttees, and the Oxford Book of English Verse, he hopped on a boat to Rotterdam, Netherlands, pointing his hobnailed boots in the direction of what he’d always call Constantinople (not Istanbul), where he’d arrive in just over a year.

Eighty years later, we finally have the complete account of that trip. But it was a long road getting there—a kind of parallel journey. In 1962, Holiday magazine asked Fermor to write an article on “The Pleasures of Walking,” which he took as a chance to revisit the “Great Trudge” of his youth. He managed to cover the first two-thirds of the trip in a mere 70 pages, but the conclusion ballooned into a book of its own. Fermor wanted to call it Parallax, to underline the dual vantage of adolescence and middle age. His long-suffering publisher suggested A Youthful Journey instead. As it happened, it became neither as, busy building a house in the Peloponnese, Fermor abandoned the project altogether. By the time he took it up again, 10 or so years later on, he’d decided to start from the beginning again and write not one book but three. A Time of Gifts, which covers his walk from Holland to the middle Danube, was published in 1977. Between the Woods and the Water followed nine years later, taking him as far as the Iron Gates separating the Balkan and Carpathian mountains and ending with the words “TO BE CONCLUDED.” With the posthumous publication of The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, it kind of is.

The Broken Road is something of a stand-in for the long, long awaited third volume that Fermor planned to write. Assembled by his biographer Artemis Cooper and British writer Colin Thubron, it’s basically the manuscript of A Youthful Journey polished up a bit, though Cooper and Thubron claim that “scarcely a phrase” in it is theirs. Why Fermor couldn’t complete the trilogy himself is unclear. He was, by all accounts, a slow writer, working and reworking each sentence so diligently that a friend, according to Cooper, once accused him of “Penelope-izing”—unraveling the day’s work every night like Odysseus’s wife. But by the time he died, in 2011 at the age of 96—a real feat for someone who, by his own accounting, smoked 80 cigarettes a day for most of his life—“Volume III” had been in the works for more than half a century. Perhaps in his later years, as Cooper suggests in her biography Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, the author may have felt that “the whole subject was beginning to feel stale, barren, written out, and he feared he no longer had the strength to bring it back to life.”

Fermor’s torment may also have been a case of writerly perfectionism gone awry, as The Broken Road will seem, by most standards, plenty alive. Fermor’s deeply layered narrative, as before, intersperses fetishistically beautiful descriptions with historical tidbits, personal asides, and fanciful imaginings. He remains endlessly fascinated by local costume, folklore, genealogy, songs, and the doings of monks and muezzins, bouncing happily from peasant village to aristocratic schloss, from student digs on the Black Sea to Romanian country villa. He meets a girl (“half captured Circassian princess, half Byronic heroine”), stomps grapes, smokes hash, witnesses a celebratory riot in a Bulgarian café when it’s announced that someone’s murdered the Yugoslavian king, downs countless glasses of raki and slivo, investigates the Hasidim, theorizes on the breeding of mermaids, and sings German songs backwards to entertain a Bulgarian maid. Arriving in Bucharest, he accidentally checks into a brothel, thinking it’s a hotel, to the great entertainment of all, then charms his way into Romanian high society—opera, heaps of caviar, an excess of brandy—and passes out on the floor of an artist’s flat. He reads The Brothers Karamazov and Don Juan, and somehow always manages to find a bed for the night, usually a free one.

Still, this is a different Europe than that of the first two books—one toward which Fermor seems more ambivalent than the Mitteleuropean splendor he’s passed. Out of the old Holy Roman Empire and the familiar shadow of Western Christendom, he’d entered the strange oriental world of the Balkans—a region so recently free of the Ottoman yoke that it remained steeped in both Turkish culture and oppression’s palpable effects. There are fewer castles and a great many more huts. There’s more racial hatred too—Jewish/Romanian, Romanian/Bulgarian, Bulgarian/everyone but Russians—a legacy of the region’s violent past. Of course, Fermor’s zestful catalogue of certain Balkan cruelties—like the blinding, by Basil the Bulgar-Slayer, of a thousand-man army, leaving one of every hundred soldiers an eye “so that the rest might grope their way home to the czar” —reveal that, for a 19-year-old at least, bloodthirstiness was part of the region’s romance.

Fermor takes obvious delight in language, picking up words as one might souvenirs: In Romania, for instance, “the best word I had ever heard for irretrievable gloom: zbucium, pronounced zboochoum, a desperate spondee of utter dejection, those Moldowallachian blues.” The Broken Road positively drips with exotic names, ethnic designations, and obscure vocabularies. A dog is “passant, sejant then couchant,” and beekeepers go about “their Georgic business…mobled in muslin, calm-browed comb-setters and swarm-handlers of the scattered thorps.” Thorps! Fermor’s linguistic revelry also results in descriptive passages that verge on the purple, with images layered one over the other in a positive conflagration of sense: “Cauliflowers sailing overhead, towing their shadows twisted and bent by the ravines, like ships’ anchors, across the whale-shaped undulations, or hovering in the high mountain passes as lightly as ostrich feathers, or sliding along the horizons in pampas plumes. The setting sun turned each of these into the tail of a giant retriever.” The passage, in case there’s any doubt, describes clouds.

Actually though, hard as it is to believe, A Broken Road is a great deal less “written” than the previous two books—it was essentially a draft, unspangled with the oodles of adjectives that customarily embellish Fermor’s Byzantine prose. A representative description of a building from Volume I, by comparison, displays his gifts at full polish: “From the massed upward thrust of its buttresses to the stickle-back ridge of its high-pitched roof it was spiked with a forest of perpendiculars. Up the corner of the transepts, stairs in fretted polygonal cylinders spiralled and counter-spiralled, and flying buttresses enmeshed the whole fabric in a radiating web of slants.” This sort of thing might seem a bit steroidal to some, but the verbal fireworks go a long way toward recapturing the rapturous enthusiasm with which the young Fermor seems to have shone. “I was unboreable, like an unsinkable battleship,” the author reflects in The Broken Road. “My mouth was as unexactingly agape as the seal’s to the flung bloater. … I might, judging by my response to phenomena for most of these thousands of miles, have been a serious drug addict.” The tumultuous rush of his prose mimics the drug-like thrill that reality had for him then, and this—getting the reader as high on his words as he was on life—was what Fermor saw as his greatest challenge, 30 years on. The Broken Road tends more toward introspection than euphoria at times, frankly discussing the periodic bouts of depression that were euphoria’s flip side and Fermor’s doubt in his memories. “Were the domes tiled or were they sheeted in steel or lead –or both, as I boldly set down a moment ago? Or is it the intervening years that have tiled and leaded and metalled them so arbitrarily?”

Often the older writer admits to recalling little or nothing about a particular time, and often he confesses to being “almost irresistibly tempted to slip in one or two balloons from a later date.” One such “balloon” intrudes during Fermor’s walk south along the Black Sea coast from Varna, Bulgaria. The unknown coastline had proved rockier and less passable than anticipated, the night was dark, and both he and his flashlight had just fallen into a pool, the latter irretrievably. Bleeding from his forehead, Fermor found himself, as he writes, “sliding, crawling on all fours, climbing up ledges draped with popping and slippery ribbons of bladderwrack,” and close to despair. Rounding a cliff, he stumbles at last into a cave, where he finds a group of shepherds and fisherman cozied up for the night with a campfire and a bunch of goats. What follows is one of the most exhilarating set pieces to be found in travel writing anywhere: Having been fed, dried, and liquored up, Fermor joins his hosts in a night of ribald fun, in which a fisherman performs a rebtiko, an ancient dance that’s like a history of the Balkans writ small: “All the artifice, the passion for complexity, the hair-splitting, the sophistication, the dejection, the sudden renaissances, the flaunting challenge, the resignation, the feeling of the enemy closing in, the abandonment by all who should have been friends, the ineluctability of the approaching doom and the determination to perish, when the time came, with style,” Fermor writes, is sublimated in movement, offering “consolation and an anodyne in individual calamity.” It’s a thrilling insight in a linguistic whirl of a scene.

It also, apparently, never happened. As Cooper reports, the scene is more or less a conflation of a night Fermor spent in a fisherman’s hut on the Black Sea and an evening lost along the coast of Mount Athos, in Greece, some weeks later. It’s reputedly not the only incidence of this sort of thing: According to Cooper, a vaunted trip on horseback across Hungary seems not to have happened either. Fermor told her he feared “the reader might be getting bored of me just plodding along” and so put himself on a horse. Such fictional accents, Cooper gently suggests, were part of Fermor’s “making a novel of his life”: He didn’t invent, per se, but created “new memories” shaded by imagination. A more convincing explanation is that by the time Fermor sat down to write about the walk, not only was it 30 years in the past, but he had lost all of his journals from the time—the first stolen, the rest left unclaimed in storage after the war—and had just memories, real or not, for reference.

The distance between living and writing is responsible too for the shadow European history cast over Fermor as he sat down to write his Trudge books. Fermor was in Germany in December 1933: Hitler was in power, and the rise of nationalism was apparent in the streets, where heil-ing stormtroopers would “become performing seals for a second … as though the place were full of slightly sinister boy scouts.” In Vienna, in February 1934, he arrived in the middle of the riots between the country’s anti-communist militia and Social Democrats, the beginning of a political shift that would culminate in the Anschluss some years on. But the young Fermor, having little interest in politics, didn’t notice at all. “I wasn’t a political observer,” he yells at a Bulgarian friend who’s rebuked him for wanting to visit the hated Romania. “Races, language, what people were like, that was what I was after: churches, songs, books, what they wore and ate and looked like, what the hell!” If the young Fermor, busy with parties, drinking, smoking, sex (only delicately implied of course—he’s British), failed to foresee the consequences of Nazism’s rise, the older one certainly does. “I am maddened,” he wrote in 1963, “by not having seen, written, looked, heard.”

And so despite the author’s obvious attempts to preserve, somewhat, the innocence of his youthful self, the books are haunted by the knowledge of what was about to transpire—the fact that, as Fermor writes in The Broken Road, “Nearly all the people in this book, as it turned out, were attached to trails of powder which were already invisibly burning, to explode during the next decade and a half, in unhappy endings.” His accounts of the colorful ways of gypsies and Jews in particular can’t help but have a foreboding, even elegiac tang, no matter how they are written, and the same is true, in The Broken Road, of the landscape itself. Returning to Bulgaria and Rumania in 1990, Cooper reports, Fermor was “utterly crushed,” refusing even to talk about what he had seen: not just poverty and hunger, but picturesque villages replaced by concrete farm-workers blocks, Bulgaria’s Turkish culture completely gone, hulking Soviet towers rising from what had once been pristine wilderness.

It is no surprise then that Fermor, toward the end of his life, despaired of recapturing the innocent joy with which he’d crossed this vanished landscape and eventually gave up trying. A Youthful Journey ends quite abruptly—in midsentence, in fact—a few days before the journey reached its ultimate goal. For whatever reason, Fermor failed to take many notes at all in Constantinople. The few he did make are included here, to represent, I guess, the “broken road” of the title: “Slept till six o’clock in the evening, then, waking up, thought it was only the dawn, having overslept twelve hours, so turned over and slept again till Jan 2nd morning,” he writes of the day he arrived. Eleven days later, he was in Greece, where The Broken Road concludes, with a coda of sorts to the official account: Fermor’s perambulation through the Orthodox monasteries of Mount Athos. (As a side note, this monastic peninsula, unlike most of the places Fermor visited, seems largely unchanged. It remains, among other things, forbidden to females of all species, with the notable exception of cats.)

The text of this part comes from Fermor’s so-called Green Diary, the sole survivor of the heap of near-talismanic journals he carted about on his walk. This one he left in Romania with his first great love, the Princess Balasha Cantacuzène, who, despite years under fascism and behind the Iron Curtain, took care of it, returning it to Fermor during a secret visit in 1965. It’s a useful document, if only for the purpose of comparing the unfiltered prose of Fermor’s teenage years with the polished, many-fretted sentences that he’d produce later on. The episode of walking along the cliffs and falling into the sea, recast so brilliantly some 150-pages back as a microcosm of Balkan life, appears here just another night really, drinking with some woodsmen in a hut. One gets the feeling that Fermor would have objected to the diary’s inclusion, but in a way it’s a perfectly appropriate end. Here, lonely, tired, and somewhat fed up with the “unilluminated literalness” of Balkan life, the boy first encounters a country that he would come to love above all. Two years later, after a charmed period of rest in Romania and Greece, he’d join the intelligence services and serve in Crete as a liaison to the native partisans, eventually masterminding a hussar-ish plan to kidnap the Nazi general in charge of the occupying forces and transporting him, by mule, over the mountains, and then to Cairo by boat. He would write two books on Greece and settle permanently there in 1964 with his wife Joan, in a small fishing village in the Peloponnese. There, as a mature perfectionist fighting a losing battle against his exuberantly prolix younger self, he’d try to write what would eventually become The Broken Road. In some ways, though, the 20-year-old Paddy we leave at Mount Athos would end up outliving him.

Loving it! Walking the Woods and the Water by Nick Hunt

February 5, 2014

woodsI have been lucky enough to receive a copy of Nick Hunt’s soon to be published book which follows Paddy’s journey all the way to Constantinople. Coming out under the title Walking the Woods and the Water, it will be published on 20 March.

There will be time to offer a more in-depth review but I have to tell you that I am absolutely loving it and have done from the introduction which is a lot shorter than Paddy’s; no letter to Xan, not even to me!

The basic premise of Nick’s walk was to see if the prediction by Paddy’s Polymath had come true. What had happened over the last 70 years? Has it all changed since Paddy’s day? What remains? As Nick calls it the Persenbeug Prediction is this:

‘Everything is going to vanish! They talk of building power-dams across the Danube and I tremble whenever I think of it! They’ll make the wildest river in Europe as tame as a municipal waterworks. All those fish from the east, they would never come back. Never, never, never!’

I am not going to spoil anything but what I can say is that Nick offers us a very entertaining narrative of his journey; a very personal account which exposes a lot more about Nick’s character than Paddy ever really let us into. It is not an homage to Paddy. It is in no way just a simple update of Paddy’s experiences. It is a fresh and very modern account of a momentous journey, one that will stand in its own right.

We do get to understand a lot about what has changed, but also there is much that remains. It is a story of fascinating characters, interspersed with lovely vignettes, and insights into our wonderfully diverse continent. A sign in a bar, in a town, on the way to Budapest informed us that the town has been variously colonised by “Scythians, Celts, Romans, Avars, Magyars, Turks, Serbs and Artists”; that’s what it is all about!

There was one particular story about his experience at the former kastely of Baron Pips von Schey – Kovecses-Strkovec – in what is now Slovakia that brought tears to my eyes. Indeed, as I detect with Paddy, after Nick crosses the border into Slovakia, the east, everything changes. He is more animated. There is much more to discover. It is all different, and Nick writes about it beautifully.

I am now with Nick as he is about to start his journey into the Retezat mountains in Romania, a hazardous journey which will lead Nick to Baile Herculane, the Roman spa town close to the Danube. As he prepares to step out he tells us:

‘It was like taking a breath before plunging underwater. I was deliriously alone.’

Nick will be accompanied by Artemis Cooper at the official launch of his book which will be on Thursday 3rd April, at the London Review Bookshop in Bloomsbury. You can find out more here.

The book is available in paperback only and is ready for pre-order from Amazon. Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn

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