The last of the wartime travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor, may have departed the scene, but the genre he graced is still thriving
The longest walk has finally come to an end. After the most dashing life of literary wanderings, in which he crossed a continent on foot, fell in love and ran away with a beautiful princess, galloped into battle in a Greek cavalry charge, secluded himself silently with Trappist monks, kidnapped a German general, became one of this country’s greatest war heroes, swam the Hellespont and built a sun-filled house in the Peloponnese where he wrote what may yet prove to be one of the finest trilogies in modern literature, Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ultimate journey was the return home to die in Worcestershire at the age of 96, an Englishman to the last.
The death of Leigh Fermor — friends and fans called him Paddy — removes the last link to that generation of travel writers who fought with such distinction in the Second World War. The prospect of that elusive final volume, which would see our footsore traveller and philhellene complete his serendipitous, marathon-walking tour from the Hook of Holland to reach the city he insisted on calling Constantinople, sometimes Byzantium, never Istanbul, is little short of exhilarating. All his fans who cherish the densely beautiful prose of A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) will be thrilled to hear the news from his biographer Artemis Cooper that an early draft “will be published in due course”. The posthumous gift cannot come soon enough.
The celebration of a life so well lived is likely to bring a renewed flash of interest in travel writing, a genre that has, almost from its very outset, been revered and reviled in equal measure. We may not know what sort of reception greeted the “publication” on clay tablets of the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest forerunner of travel writing, if not of literature itself, but we are certainly familiar with the mauling received by the Ancient Greek Herodotus, the first great travel writer and historian, an exuberant pioneer of anthropology, geography, exploration, investigative journalism, tabloid hackery and foreign reportage in the 5th century BC. Within little more than a century, Cicero’s “Father of History” had become Plutarch’s “Father of Lies”, a classical harbinger of the suspicion which has bedevilled the first-person travelogue ever since. From Herodotus to Leigh Fermor via Marco Polo, John Mandeville and Bruce Chatwin, the hostile image of travel writer as self-indulgent fantasist and fibber has never been shaken off entirely.
In May, the doyen of American travel writers. Paul Theroux dropped in at the Hay Festival to promote his latest work, The Tao of Travel, an engaging distillation of travellers’ wisdom and a vade mecum worth popping into the Globetrotter suitcase this summer. The blaze of publicity surrounding Paul Theroux’s handshake that ended a 15-year feud with V.S. Naipaul, another writer who has excelled in the genre, suggests that contrary to many predictions, travel writing is in robust health. From one generation to the next it shrugs off with insouciance the obituaries that are written for it periodically by writers as diverse and removed from each other as Joseph Conrad and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Indeed the temptation must be to conclude that travel writing, like the poor, will always be with us.
In Britain, which has a proud heritage in this field, the ranks of great travel writers have been sadly thinned in recent years. The monumental Sir Wilfred Thesiger, author of Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs, last of the latter-day Victorian explorers, died in 2003. The same year saw the passing of the magnificent, under-appreciated Norman Lewis, whose Naples ’44 is one of the classic literary accounts to emerge from the Second World War.
In 2006, they were followed by Eric Newby, best remembered for his brave and hilarious A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, a book that closes with the 20th century’s equivalent of the Stanley-Livingstone encounter. Newby and companion bump into Thesiger halfway up a mountain in Afghanistan, the formidable explorer trailing retainers and pack-animals bearing chests marked for the British Museum, bemoaning the declining standards of Savile Row and gleefully recounting his amputations of gangrenous fingers and removal of diseased eyes. They strike camp for the night. “The ground was like iron with sharp rocks sticking up out of it. We started to blow up our air-beds. ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies,’ said Thesiger.”
Profoundly different in their styles and interests, these three writers were bound nevertheless by the shared generational experience of war and their direct participation in it. Thesiger fought behind enemy lines in North Africa with the SAS, Newby was one of the earliest recruits to the Special Boat Section, as the SBS was then known, and Lewis was an intelligence officer in Naples.
Then there was Paddy. The last of his era was also surely the most admirable and admired of all, a Byronic incarnation of what Greeks call leventeia, defined in one of his most life-enhancing books as a “universal zest for life, the love of living dangerously and a readiness for anything”. His housemaster at King’s School, Canterbury detected “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness”. Leigh Fermor was the leading literary light among that band of travel writers who fought in the war and were coloured by it, whose lives and writings bear, to some degree at least, the imprint of that vast, world-changing hurricane. The justly celebrated Jan Morris, who caught the closing years of the war as an intelligence officer in Italy and Palestine, is already at a generational remove.
War may not have defined Leigh Fermor or his writing entirely (it brought to an end the first of his two great loves, a dreamlike romance with the Romanian princess Balasha Cantacuzene), but his quintessentially dashing, devil-may-care war record certainly underpins much of the affection with which his devoted fans view him today. In some instances, such as that of “The Greatest Living Englishman” blog that was published in his honour, it is a devotion that blossoms into outright adulation.
Meeting Paddy at his home in the Greek fishing village of Kardamyli in 2006, it was very difficult not to succumb entirely to hero-worship. My first sight of this unforgivably handsome man was sitting in what he called his hayati, a sun-bleached, south-facing winter chamber off what Betjeman called “one of the rooms in the world”, strewn with atlases, dictionaries, lexicons, icons, sculptures, lamps, flokkati goat-hair rugs, Turkish kilims and creased armchairs. He was clasping a Loeb edition of Herodotus. At 91, lunch remained unthinkable before two large vodka and tonics. Cigarettes were thoroughly approved of and an unstinting stream of retsina flowed alongside our conversation for hours. The polymath and oenophile was unstoppable. As the post-prandial ouzo shot to my head like a tracer-bullet, I had to pinch myself to remember that this debonair specimen of the literary man of action was the nonagenarian version of the 18-year-old adventure-seeking “tramp and pilgrim” who in 1933 had set out on his life-changing journey across Europe after a high-spirited farewell with friends in London: “A thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly; the Jermyn Street shops, distorted by streaming water, had become a submarine arcade.”
If the prose-poetry of his books is riveting, at times sublime, very occasionally purple, the narrative of his war record is scarcely less vivid. Its crowning moment came at 9.30pm on April 26, 1944, when he stepped out on to a road in the heart of the rough Cretan countryside, intercepted a German staff car and kidnapped General Heinrich Kreipe with a team of Cretan resistance fighters and a fellow British officer in the Special Operations Executive (SOE). From a literary perspective, the glory of this episode had to wait until A Time of Gifts, the first instalment of his epic walk — a version was written in 1969 for the Imperial War Museum. In it Leigh Fermor described the terrifying, 18-day manhunt by German forces sweeping the island. At dawn one morning, surveying the crest of Mount Ida, the general started murmuring his way through a Horace ode. Recognising it as one of the few he knew by heart, the Englishman picked up where the German left off, reeling off the five remaining stanzas in perfect Latin.
“The General’s blue eyes swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine — and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: ‘Ach so, Herr Major!’ It was very strange. ‘Ja, Herr General.’ As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”
Mani and Roumeli, which describe Leigh Fermor’s wanderings in southern and northern Greece respectively, were hailed by the FT as “two of the best travel books of the century” and contain numerous references to the courage, loyalty, humour and generosity of the Cretans among whom he fought. Artemis Cooper writes in Words of Mercury of the “unbreakable bond” war had forged between the Cretans and the SOE crowd. Typically, Leigh Fermor was not slow to acknowledge it.
In a touching tribute to the Cretan resistance, he translated the wartime memoirs of George Psychoundakis, his shepherd-guerrilla comrade-in-arms, and saw them into print. How many soldiers would have had the literary sensibility-or modesty-to recognise the value of an account told by a local resistance fighter, rather than a self-aggrandising story by yet another officer dropped behind enemy lines? In his introduction to The Cretan Runner, written in 1954, Leigh Fermor likened it to the Rualla Bedouin penning an Arab version of Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom (the contrast with the self-promoting Lawrence, a very fine writer on the desert, is instructive). “For the roles were reversed, and the British officers and their signallers and NCOs, not the stage-mountaineers of most Resistance writing, were the foreign oddities; and it seemed to me that they were far better and more soberly appraised than their equivalents in English war books.”
Barnaby Rogerson, author and co-owner of Eland, a specialist publisher of travel literature classics, says war seared an indelible sense of place for this select group of writers. “I think the war gave the best of these travel writers a very intense relationship with one region, where their literary souls got mingled with a place apart, also a sense of writing for the dead others. This is obviously true of Paddy, who could sing, dance and drink as well as any Greek shepherd. I never could work out whether he was a reincarnation of Byron or Pan — probably both. Then there’s Norman Lewis with Naples and Sicily. Thesiger similarly bonded with Ethiopia in a totally passionate way as a boy and later as an adult soldier — and of course his best books are set in southern Arabia and Iraq.”
Thesiger was always more warrior than writer. It is only thanks to the persistent pressure of publishing friends, decades after his dramas in the desert, that we have his granite prose. He had seen wartime service under Orde Wingate in Abyssinia, served with SOE in Syria and then the newly-formed SAS in North Africa. In My Life and Travels, he wrote of his “passionate involvement with the Abyssinian cause”. Letters to his mother in 1943 describe how “bitter and discontented” he was not to have played a part at El Alamein. War was “exciting and exhilarating”.
During a lunch with Thesiger in the incongruous setting of his retirement home in the wastelands of Surrey suburbia, his misanthropic growl suddenly lightened into an animated purr as he spoke of his role in the Allied campaign in North Africa, having persuaded David Stirling, founder of the SAS, to take him on. “I said to him, ‘I hear you’re going to make a raid behind enemy lines. I speak Arabic and I know the desert. Three days later we were 150 miles or so behind lines. I came upon a tent packed full with people. Luckily there was no one on guard. I just raked it with machine gun fire a couple of times. It felt rather like murder.” The glacial blue eyes glowed.
The experience of war also formed a critical part of Lewis’s literary hinterland. He wrote in Naples ’44 of a decisive encounter that “changed my outlook”, shattering his “comforting belief that human beings eventually come to terms with pain and sorrow”. On November 1, 1943, contemplating a menu offering either disguised dogfish or horsemeat, he watched a group of blind orphan girls enter the restaurant scavenging for food. Each child was sobbing. “I knew that, condemned to everlasting darkness, hunger and loss, they would weep on incessantly,” he wrote. “They would never recover from their pain and I would never recover from the memory of it.” His horror of the war, combined with its alluring and unrepeatable intensity, propelled him into a lifetime of far-flung reporting from dangerous parts. It led also to his championing of the rights of indigenous peoples in “Genocide”, a seismically shocking Sunday Times article that resulted in the foundation of Survival International, the movement for tribal peoples, in 1969.
War likewise left its mark on Newby’s writings. It also brought him love. He fought gallantly with the SBS and was awarded the Military Cross for his courage during numerous sabotage missions along enemy coasts. Love and War in the Apennines, another Newby classic, tells the story of his time on the run after one dramatic and abortive SBS expedition, when he was smuggled out of a prison camp and later rescued by a young woman, Wanda, his future wife.
The travel writer Tim Mackintosh-Smith, who has spent most of the past decade writing an on-the-road trilogy in the footsteps and footnotes of his hero Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century Muslim traveller, says the war may have fostered a certain detachment among these writers. “War is death to, among other things, enthusiasms,” he says. “If you’ve been through it, nothing matters quite as much anymore. For someone writing travel, I think this may give a sort of lordly detachment to one’s observations, which isn’t a bad thing. I’m not sure that post-war generations can quite achieve this.” For John Gimlette, author of At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, war may have been an influence that “discouraged introspection and informality”. Today’s writers, he argues, have become less detached in their work, “using more humour and self-deprecation to place themselves amongst their subjects”.
The Second World War was only part of these writers’ stories. Theroux, who lists Leigh Fermor, Redmond O’Hanlon, Dervla Murphy, Colin Thubron, Lewis, Thesiger and Chatwin among those travel writers he most admires, believes there was another more important literary influence. “It wasn’t just the war, it was also the colonial world that defined them. They were writing with an imperial confidence.” We are talking in the bowels of the Royal Geographical Society, Britain’s Mecca for explorers and travel writers, and for a moment he could be speaking of Sir Richard Burton, another soldier-scholar, who made the haj to Mecca in disguise in the 1850s. “The end of the war also brought an end to this colonial mentality. Somehow the sense of superiority was dented during the course of the war. The bloom was off the rose. Brits could no longer travel as lords and sahibs and colonial masters.”
As the metaphorical baton passes from Leigh Fermor to Thubron, a master of lyrical prose, we lose a literary connection to that all-defining conflict of the 20th century and the more heroic age it encapsulated. The memory of it lives on, recorded in the words of historians, poets, journalists, soldiers, generals, biographers and travel writers alike. It was precisely in order to ensure that the “great and marvellous” deeds of another, much more ancient conflict were not “forgotten in time” or “without their glory” that Herodotus wrote his landmark Histories of the Persian Wars, 2,500 years ago. It is surely profoundly important that the world’s first history book, a fizzing masterpiece of storytelling, relied so heavily on experiential travel. Thucydides needed to get out more.
Scanning the horizon, there appears to be little reason to fret for the future of travel writing. A genre that seeks to understand a constantly changing world, with recourse to history, geography, politics, economics, biography, anthropology, philosophy, psychology and reportage, among other disciplines, is in little danger of losing its relevance. If you want to know what life was like in late 1930s former Yugoslavia, it is hard to beat Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a meta-travel book (1,100 pages) of astonishing compass and vitality. For Iraq in the 1920s, who better than Freya Stark and Gertrude Bell to paint a many-layered portrait? The best travel writing opens up parts of the world that other disciplines can struggle to reach — and explain to a wider audience.
Consider the turmoil in the Middle East. While the breathless media rush to report the next dictator to catch Arab flu, leaving post-revolutionary countries like Egypt largely unreported in their wake, the field is left open for writers with more time and literary space on their hands to make sense of an irreducibly complicated society and situation. Digital communications, mass travel and the supposed shrinking of the world offer only the deadly delusion of a homogenised “global village”. News articles, foreign policy reports and jargon-filled government briefings on “failed states”, “post-conflict environments” and “stabilisation operations” pay only lip service to real-life complexities. What would Paddy have made of the Foreign Official who spoke to me the other day about “ground-truthing” in Benghazi? We should always beware of what Mauriac called “la tendance fatale à simplifier les autres“. Travel writing celebrates the world as it is, with nuance, shading and uncertainty.
William Dalrymple, who sped to fame in the late 1980s, after Theroux, Chatwin, Thubron, O’Hanlon and Jonathan Raban had blazed a renaissance trail of travel writing a decade earlier, points to the proliferation of fine writers of the genre far beyond these shores. It is parochial in the extreme to see this as a British or Western format. Among those with Indian roots alone Dalrymple lists Shiva and Vidia Naipaul, Pico Iyer, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Pankaj Mishra and the novelist Rana Dasgupta, now working on a study of Delhi. Dalrymple says it will inevitably be a completely new take from his own City of Djinns, published in 1993, before Delhi and India had cast loose and surged forward at breakneck speed. “Each generation sees the world very differently,” he says.
Earlier this year, Kamal Abdel-Malek, Professor of Arabic Literature at the American University of Dubai, published America in an Arab Mirror, an anthology of Arab travel writing in the US during the past century that is at once unexpectedly illuminating and disquieting. OxTravels, a new anthology of writing co-edited by Rogerson, reveals a multicultural cast of 36 authors including Aminatta Forna, Oliver Bullough, Sonia Faleiro, Peter Godwin and Rory Stewart. “We could easily have added another three dozen, in a separate collection tomorrow, who would all be in the front rank,” says Rogerson. The compulsively readable Dutchman Cees Nooteboom would surely be among them. Ongoing translation of hitherto inaccessible foreign writers such as the fabulously curious, effervescent 17th-century Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi, author of the ten-volume Seyahatname or Book of Travels, only confirms the universality of the genre.
For a final verdict from the man Jan Morris called a “transcendentally gifted writer”, I travel to West London, where the two tribes of Holland Park and Shepherd’s Bush collide. Thubron is the first travel writer president of the Royal Society of Literature, a tribute both to his virtuoso skills and, if this is not wishful thinking, the enduring significance of the genre. His latest book, To a Mountain in Tibet, was published earlier this year to a symphonic swoon from the critics. It thrust the reader into an enchanted world of sky-dancers and demons, landscapes of fearful majesty and “charged sanctity” that clung to Thubron’s plangent prose. At the Tibetan border “the ebbing waves of the Himalaya hang the sky with spires while ahead the land smoothes into an ancient silence”. Nearing the lung-shredding, wind-haunted summit of his holy pilgrimage, “the mountain valley closes unsoftened around our strange heterogeneous trickle of beasts and humans drawn up like iron filings to the pass.”
Beyond the cool, book-lined sitting room, French windows open on to the blinding clatter of summer: shades of MacNeice’s sunlight on the garden. At 72, Thubron sounds a confident note. Travel writing’s long history of successful adaptation over many generations stands it in good stead, he says. “The genre is very flexible. It will always meld itself to what is there and available, which is abroad, and whether it’s more familiar or less familiar, it’s still going to need a voice to tell us about it. I do think the world has to be reinterpreted constantly, the impetus to explain it is just a human impulse. I don’t think any other genre has that opportunity.”
From Babylon to Ancient Greece, through the Middle Ages and into modern times, history suggests this: that for as long as the world continues to change and human nature remains the same, this curious international tribe will continue to go out and travel and write and tell stories that people want to read, fuelled by what Baudelaire called “la haine du domicile et la passion du voyage“. As Robert Louis Stevenson put it, “The great affair is to move.”
Paddy, of course, put it differently. One of his favourite sayings, which expressed his own creed as well as our preternatural need to travel, harks back to St Augustine. He personified it with élan: solvitur ambulando — it is solved by walking.