Across Europe Alone, On Foot, Aged Eighteen

Patrick Leigh Fermor A Time of Gifts. London: John Murray, 2004 (first published 1977), 284 pp; Between the Woods and the Water. London: John Murray, 2004 (first published 1986), 242 pp.

In December 1933, as a snowy winter settled over Europe, an English teenager – Patrick Leigh Fermor – fresh out of school, set out to walk alone from the Hook of Holland across Europe to Istanbul (or “Constantinople” as he called it). As the crow flies this is well over 2,000 kilometres, but the distance he traversed must eventually have been closer to 3,000 kilometres. Although he seems to have walked most of the way, he didn’t walk all the way. He went by train over some legs of the trip, occasionally took lifts in cars and barges, and even rode part of the way on horseback. His parents sent him £1 a week to sustain him. He slept in barns or in the open or in small hotels, and thanks to miraculously acquired networks of generous acquaintances, he had memorable stays in the homes of local people, even in a few manors and castles. He was precociously intelligent, strong-willed and slightly eccentric with obsessive interests in certain arcane domains of art, architecture, history, literature and language. He was gregarious and made friends easily, but he also enjoyed solitude, a feature of his personality that is at the heart of an earlier book, the grippingly atmospheric A Time to Keep Silence in which he describes stays at quietist monasteries in France.

It took Fermor a little over one year to reach Istanbul. Around half a century later he published a two volume account of the walk that has become a classic of English travel literature. A Time of Gifts (1977) traces his journey from London to the Hungarian border, and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) follows him through Hungary and Romania to the Bulgarian border. A planned third volume that would have covered the last leg of his walk never materialised. He died last year aged 96.

Fermor brings the walking experience of 80 years ago vividly to life. Compare, for example, his walking kit then with the kit of today. He lists the paraphernalia he is carrying as he walks the mountains of Romania. He is wearing “ammunition boots” bought from Millets in the Strand, London. Two thousand kilometres after purchase he reports that his boots are “crunching along on their only slightly blunted hobnails [and] were still good for unlimited miles.”

He takes stock of his clothes…

“The old breeches were soft with much wear and cleaning, and every stitch was intact; only the grey puttees had suffered minor damage, but nothing showed when I had snipped off the ragged edges where snow and rain had frayed them. A grey shirt with the sleeves rolled up completed this marching gear.” (Between the Woods and the Water p.172-173)

He rummages through his “small” rucksack.

“[It] held all I needed, to wit: a pair of dark flannel bags and another light canvas pair; a thin, decent-looking tweed jacket; several shirts; two ties, gym shoes, lots of socks and jerseys, pyjamas, the length of coloured braid Angela had given me; a dozen new handkerchiefs and a sponge bag, a compass, a jack-knife, two candles, matches, a pipe – falling into disuse – tobacco, cigarettes, and – a new accomplishment – paper for rolling them, and a flask filled in turn, as the countries changed, with whiskey, Bols, schnapps, barack, tzuica, slivivitz, arak and tsiporo. In one of the side pockets there was a five-shilling Ingersoll watch that kept perfect time when I remembered to take it out and wind it up.”

“The only awkward item was the soldier’s greatcoat; I hadn’t worn it for months but felt reluctant to get rid of it. (Luckily. It was perfect for sleeping out, and, folded into a tight sausage and tied round the top of the rucksack, scarcely visible.) I still had the Hungarian walking-stick, intricately carved as a mediaeval crosier, the second replacement for the original ninepenny ashplant from the tobacconist’s off Sloane Square. Apart from sketch-book, pencils and disintegrating maps, there was my notebook-journal and my passport. There was Hungarian and Rumanian Self-Taught (little progress in the one, hesitant first steps in the other); I was re-reading Antic Hay; and there was Schlegel & Tieck’s Hamlet, Prinz von Danemark, bought in Cologne; also, given by the same kind hand as the rucksack, and carefully wrapped up, the beautiful little seventeenth century duadecimo Horace from Amsterdam.”

These few paragraphs say much (but far from all, of course) about Fermor’s interests and style. He is minutely observant. He is besotted with words. He has a knack for encapsulating what he sees in memorable images. Given that he wrote the two books decades after his walk, his detailed memory of the walk is phenomenal. He did, though, keep journals, most (but not all) of which, survived. He also appears to have retraced his steps over parts of the walk in later years. His copious and very learned commentaries on places, buildings, people and texts must, in part, have been distilled from the maturing of his mind, his reading and his experiences in the four or five decades after the walk itself. And there can be little doubt that much of the text, especially the dialogues, is not a documentary facsimile of what he experienced, but was imaginatively reconstructed decades afterwards.

There is no sarcasm, no rancour, little irony, no English snootiness, no hierarchy of cultures. All is fresh. There is little criticism of the communities and individuals he encounters, one of the few exceptions being a scathing portrait of some young nazis (he walked across Germany less than a year after Hitler had taken power). He takes pleasure in those he meets, from Romany shepherds to aristocrats of the remnant – soon to be erased – Hungarian aristocracy, from Konrad – a dodgy street-wise companion with hilariously bookish English – to Angela, his (married) lover for a blissful few weeks in the eden of Carpathia.

Above all it is the intensity of the experience and the exultant sense of youthful freedom that irradiate the narrative.

“As usual, on lonely stretches, poetry and songs came to the rescue, sometimes starting echoes. I still had plenty of food; there were dozens of streams to drink from, many of them thick with watercress, and as I flung myself face down beside one like a stag at eve, I thought how glad I was, at that particular moment, not to be standing properly at ease on the parade ground at Sandhurst. Oxford would have been better, but this was best.” (Between the Woods and the Water p.192-193)

The inevitable pains of walking are little more than momentary irritations.

“Running about in gym shoes next day, my foot landed on an inch of nail sticking out of a plank in a dismantled woodshed and it went clean through. There was little pain and not much blood but it hurt to walk on, so I lay reading in a deck-chair under a tree, then hobbled about with a stick. It healed in three days, and on the fourth I set off.” (Between the Woods and the Water p.215)

There is poignancy in his depiction of the soon to be devastated natural, and built, landscape with its soon to disappear wildlife and people. It is almost unbearable to learn in these pages what we are rapidly losing, or have already lost, in Europe, indeed across the world. Here, for example, is his unforgettable portrait of an eagle – descriptive writing at its finest:

“Soon after setting off in the morning, I halted on a grassy bluff to tie up a lace when I heard a sound that was half a creak and half a ruffle. Looking over the edge to a similar jut just fifteen yards below, I found myself peering at the hunched shoulders of a very large bird at the point where his tawny feathers met plumage of a paler chestnut hue: they thatched his scalp and the nape of his neck and he was tidying up the feathers on his breast and shoulders with an imperiously curved beak. A short hop shifted the bird farther along the ledge and it was only when, with a creak, he flung out his left wing to its full stretch and began searching his armpit, that I took in his enormous size. He was close enough for every detail to show: the buff plus-four feathers covering three-quarters of his scaly legs, the yellow and black on his talons, the square-ended tail feathers, the yellow strip at the base of his upper beak. Shifting from his armpit to his flight-feathers, he set about preening and sorting as though the night had tousled them. He folded the wing back without haste, then flung out the other in a movement which seemed to put him off balance for a moment, and continued his grooming with the same deliberation.

Careful not to move an eyelash, I must have watched for a full twenty minutes. When both wings were folded , he sat peering masterfully about, shrugging and hunching his shoulders from time to time, half-spreading a wing then folding it back, and once stretching the jaws of his beak wide in a gesture like a yawn, until at length on a sudden impulse, with a creak and a shudder, he opened both wings to their full tremendous span, rocking for a moment as though his balance were in peril; then, with another two or three hops and a slow springing movement of his plus-four legs, he was in the air, all his flight-feathers fanning out separately and lifting at the tips as he moved his wings down, then dipping with the following upward sweep. After a few strokes, both wings came to rest and formed a single line, with all his flight-feathers curling upwards again as he allowed an invisible air-current to carry him out and down and away, correcting his balance with hardly perceptible movements as he sailed out into the great gulf.” (Between the Woods and the Water p.193-194)

Equally he is sensitive to the palpable, but often esoteric and fragile, presence of history. Here is a random example from Heidelberg in western Germany, where a visit to a palace awakens memory of connections with the British monarchy of the present.

“That afternoon, with Fritz and a friend, I climbed through the woods to look at the ruins of the palace that overhangs the town: an enormous complex of dark red stone which turns pink, russet or purple with the vagaries of light and the hour. The basic mass is mediaeval, but the Renaissance bursts out again and again in gateways and courtyards and galleries and expands in the delicate sixteenth-century carving. Troops of statues posture in their scalloped recesses. Siege and explosion had partly wrecked it when the French ravaged the region. When? In the Thirty Years War; one might have guessed… But who had built it? Didn’t I know? Die Kurfursten van der Pfalz! The Electors Palatine… We were in the old capital of the Palatinate…

Distant bells, ringing from faraway English class-rooms, were trying to convey a forgotten message; but it was no good. “Guess what this gate is called!” Fritz said, slapping a red column. “The Elizabeth, or English Gate! Named after the English princess.” Of course! I was there at last! The Winter Queen! Elizabeth, the high-spirited daughter of James I, Electress Palatine and, for a year, Queen of Bohemia! She arrived as a bride of seventeen and for five years of her reign, Heidelberg, my companions said, had never seen anything like the masques and the revels and the balls. But soon, when the Palatinate and Bohemia were both lost and her brother’s head was cut off and the Commonwealth had reduced her to exile and poverty, she was celebrated as the Queen of Hearts by a galaxy of champions. Her great-niece, Queen Anne, ended the reigning line of the Stuarts and Elizabeth’s grandson, George I, ascended the throne where her descendant still sits.” (A Time of Gifts p.58-59)

This dense erudition appears almost on every page of the two books. Fermor’s esoteric scholarly impulses (today they might be called “nerdish” but eighty years ago they summoned up real respect) are imbued with reverence that fetishises the objects of his obsessive interest. Even his “little edition of Horace” mentioned above, gets the treatment. “It was bound in stiff, grass-green leather,” he says, “the text had long s’s, mezzotint vignettes of Tibur, Lucretilis and the Bandusian spring, a scarlet silk marker, the giver’s bookplate and a skeleton leaf from his Estonian woods.”

In fact his ultra-precise use of language can be a problem for the vocab-challenged reader (e.g. me). On almost every page I was brought to a halt by words I didn’t know. This was a real obstacle to enjoyment of the two books. Part way through Between the Woods and the Water I became so exasperated with my stop-start progress that I made a list of the words that I only understood after looking them up in my Macquarie Dictionary (and some of them weren’t in this pretty fat dictionary). Between pages 188 and 238 (50 pages) for example, I puzzled over the following (see how many you recognise): tines, boles, curvetting, semibreves, ashlars, dejection-cones, ruffle (describing a sound), buff (describing feathers), beetle (for felling trees?), billhook, deal (as in “cut into deal planks”), elf-locks, corvees, rebarbative, rubrics, distaff, shieling, adumbration, osier, greaved, undercroft, askim, cumbered, agaves, kursaals, sabretaches, viridian drugget, rubicund, sybaritic, snotties, volutes, hay-wains, tabards, gyre, empyrean, baldric.

For all this, Fermor’s memoir is compellingly readable. Above all it is the author’s exuberant embrace of life that is memorable. It would be much too glib to say it is a “hymn to lost youth” but the title of the first volume A Time of Gifts is lifted from Louis MacNeice’s poem “Twelfth Night” with its melancholy, solemnly tolling evocation of the sense of loss that follows the years of youth:

For now the time of gifts is gone,

O boys that grow, O snows that melt,

O bathos that the years must fill…

As I read I was increasingly invaded by a kind of despair. What Fermor embodied – his courage, his exuberance, his sense of adventure, his strong sense of personal independence, his initiative, his trust in people and trust in life itself… today they all seem to be increasingly under attack by disciples of the security industry and the “safety” ethic.. In particular, the notion that young people – teenagers – cannot be trusted to be left alone that I feel seems to be on the increase. This makes it more difficult for starry-eyed teenagers to do what Fermor did. Back in the 1930s the imperial ethos still ruled in Britain, at least it ruled the middle class and the petty aristocracy that Fermor’s family came from. It was common – in fact normal and expected – for young men to “go to the colonies” and go alone. For the middle and upper classes of Europe the imperial age was an interregnum of freedom between centuries of feudal and church dominated authoritarianism and the rise of fascism and communism. In the second half of the twentieth century, after the fall of fascism and communism, there was a widepread reaction against excessive regimentation and surveillance of young people. “Flower power”, sexual liberation, rebellious rock music, The Peace Corps, women’s emancipation… all these and much more flourished, and still do. But today there can be no doubt that the freedoms of teenagers are being wound back, slowly, steathily, but very steadily, mostly in the name of economic rationalism and security.

Somehow we now find ourselves in an age when many (most?) parents are reluctant to let their children walk alone to the local school. A few years back a New York mother triggered a furore when she permitted her nine-year old son to ride home alone – alone!! – on the city subway (see–year-old-take-subway-home-alone/#.T4j5ZFG_G88. ) The mother was subjected to abuse and the gobbledigook of “experts”. Given that New York is today one of the safest cities in the U.S. few were able to produce coherent objections to the mother’s decision. The best that many could do was burble the word “inappropriate” (what a slithery, empty, weazel-word that is).

In 2009 Australian teenager Jessica Watson set off, with her parents’ blessing, to sail alone around the world. She was farewelled with cries of outrage. The Australian Childhood Foundation questioned whether a 16 year old girl would have the ability to fully understand the risks that such a venture would involve. The Australian Family Association said it is normally people of 50 or 60 who have the sort of maturity needed to deal with long-distance journeys and isolation.

Dutch teenager Laura Dekker got much the same treatment. She also wanted to sail alone around the world and her father supported her. But when the Dutch child welfare authorities got wind of it they objected and ruled that she was too young to be aware of the dangers. A court order placed her in shared parental custody with the Council for Child Care who stopped her departure. The court whined that an isolated two year voyage on the high seas would damage her development. A legal struggle ensued that eventually saw the decision reversed, and at the age of 15 Laura Dekker was permitted to set sail. She, like Jessica Watson and eighteen-year old British teenager Michael Perham, successfully completed the circumnavigation. No harm came to any of them, in fact it was the making of them.

At the entrance to a walking track near Kiama south of Wollongong in New South Wales, a big sign warns walkers (teenagers are explicitly mentioned) that they risk serious injury or death. One of the many mortal dangers they face, apparently, is the danger of getting skittled by a train. You might also get gored by cattle or trampled by horses.

… and here is the fearsomely dangerous track with the big warning sign on the right. The track is pretty much like this all the way down the six kilometres of its length, though in one or two places it does come within ten metres of a steep incline into the sea, and elsewhere it threatens the lives of walkers by approaching to a point about 50 metres from a railway line. But as you can see, there is not a single enraged cow or homicidal horse in sight.

Paradoxically, as our immediate social environment becomes safer there seems to be more and more concern about the fragility of personal safety. “Stay safe” has become a common expression at leave-taking. New Year’s wishes now regularly include an exhortation to “stay safe” in the coming year. The real safety threats we face – population growth, destruction of the environment, climate change, pollution, increasing social divisions, the disappearance of cheap energy etc. – are pushed aside by a fixation on a pastiche of quite rare threats with vaguely human faces: kidnappers, Muslim terrorists, perverts, drive-by gunmen, boat people, drug lords, enraged tail-gaters, teenagers in hoodies etc. etc.

It would be tempting to see conspiracies here, or fulminate in moral terms against timidity, excessive surveillance and obsession with risk aversion. But I prefer to see the phenomenon in more morally neutral, deterministic terms. Economic rationalism and rampant managerialism – two of the most powerful forces at work in our society – impress their values into every nook and cranny of our lives and minds in a creeping, incremental process that we tend not to notice. They rationalise personal surveillance in the name of efficiency, security, ever higher living standards, and even personal freedom. New technology makes close surveillance widely possible and unobtrusive. The mindset of the risk avoidance and risk management industries likewise comes to infuse everything we do. To maximise efficiency, productivity and profit outcomes, threats must be identified (if they can’t be identified they must be conjured up) and risks minimised. Children and teenagers have to be educated into this imperative, this “normality”. If children or teenagers want to wander off on their own in an unregulated way they now find it more difficult to do (far from impossible, of course) than it was in the days of Fermor’s youth.

If he had been young today Patrick Leigh Fermor might have been a teenager in a hoodie. By all accounts he was far from quiet and obedient at school, although in retrospect the misdemeanours that got him kicked out of schools seem very trivial. His account of his long-distance walk does us the service of telling us what we are losing. It is not just youth or a now-distant way of life, but the freedom to be young, to take risks, to be alone, and to be left alone.