Europe by foot

There's an odd link between my earlier read Murder Must Advertiseand the first volume in Patrick Leigh Fermor's romp across pre-war Europe A Time of Gifts. Both have their openings among the bright young things of 1930's London. In the case of Lord Peter Wimsey, they lead to murder and the drugs trade, with Leigh Fermor to an epic trek across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople.

Following his expulsion from a public school, Leigh Fermor is at a bit of a loose end - a vague plan is proposed - he is to join the army, but after mixing with some rather arty members of the bright young things set, he decides to become a writer, and then a traveller. And so, as a young man of just 18, he sets out on a wet morning to traverse Europe.

Both A time of gifts and its sequel Between the Woods and the Water are a complete delight. A third volume should have completed Leigh Fermor's journey. Sadly, I discovered when writing this blog post, that he had died very recently. It is to be hoped that there are sufficient notes left that the third volume can be completed.

Although the journey was undertaken in the 1930s, it wasn't until the 1970s that A time of gifts was published. This reflects in the style of the writing, although the journey has all of a young man's exuberance, there are frequent enthusiastic diversions and digressions on art, history, language, and architecture. The language is wonderful; erudite, funny and often quite flowery - the language in fact of a much older writer. Although this and its companion volume are travel books - they are not truly travel books in the sense that you may usually think of them. In other words, not everything you read is necessarily entirely correct. Sometimes there are probably memory lapses, sometimes Leigh Fermor can't resist telling a good story, but these volumes were never intended as a sort of Baedeker's guide to Europe, what they are is a wonderful recreation of a lost Europe. A Europe where in every village a traveller is treated kindly, where there are still castles with hospitable chatelains, where there is still a magical Grimms' Fairy Tale aura to each step.

It's a book that sweeps you along headlong in a marvellous picaresque adventure into a world that you probably thought never existed, and here, just for a moment, you get a glimpse into the fairy tale. Wonderful writing, wonderful reading.   


Popular Posts