For last month’s book group we decided to try a genre which was new to us as a group and read some travel writing. Since we had a slightly longer than usual gap between meeting we chose Patrick Leigh Fermor – if we had time to read more than just Time of Gifts there were the follow-up volumes, Between the Woods and the Water and the Broken Road, to keep us busy.
These three books between them cover a journey the author took from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. In his late teens. In the 1930s. On foot. Although, for me, the places he travelled through were interesting it was the timing and the mode of transport which I really wanted to read about. We spend so much of our time these days in boxes – in our homes and cars, in trains, buses and planes – looking at the world through screens or windows: I wanted to hear about someone who actually got out into the world and experienced it first hand. Because the walk itself happened when Fermor was in his late teens (although he didn’t publish the first two volumes until he was into his sixties) I was concerned that it could be a little like reading ‘gap year’ adventures but I needn’t have worried. Although I’m sure there were young people in the 30s who did nothing but lounge around, patronising those older or less British than themselves, but this author seems to be made of sterner stuff. He does, from time to time, meet up with friends and spend time socialising (particularly in Vienna – a city which then and now seems to suit the word ‘glittering’) but most of the time he is on foot, sleeping in barns and hostels and meeting with people of all types.
One of the first things to strike me was that this was not a journey that it would be easy to replicate these days. So many of the quiet roads that Fermor used must now be major autobahns and the fields he strode across would now be much more closely guarded private land. It would also, hopefully, be hard to replicate the fact that he was walking during the rise of Fascism in Germany and through countries with whom we would soon be at war. Because the book is written many years later, after a distinguished military career, it would have been easy to paint a grim picture of the Europe of those times. What we get, however, is a balanced view – some of the Germans he meets are Nazis but most of them are not; he meets shopkeepers, farmers, minor nobility and bright young things as well as soldiers and Jews.
I only managed to finish the first volume of this before the Book Group met (like Bex, my to-read pile seems to getting bigger, not smaller, as the days go by) but I think I will want to read to the end at some point. Which was, I think, the response of the rest of the group. We enjoyed it but now we are looking forward to something different….