Elsewhere on here, I went about recalling a trip to France from my schooldays and found out just how much had faded. Life’s events have a habit of doing that to do as I have found over the past few years. Stress at work, worries about family and bereavement are all enough displace what went before and anything else that may have been going on at the time. It is just as well that I have an archive of photos for stirring my memories and some recent reading reminded me of this and how important it can be to look after those reminders.
Reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s accounts of his youthful excursion from Britain to Istanbul (or Constantinople as he called it) over the last few months amazed me with the powers of recall until the I came to last of the trilogy. This received posthumous publication following editing by Artemis Cooper (I too know what it is like to posthumous editing since I have website where my father’s writings on history are to be found and there is more to add to what already is there) and feels incomplete compared with what went before. In fact, it appears that Leigh Fermor often struggled with it only to have to stop due to the lack of inspiration. Those fruitless efforts must have led to the pained passages about the loss of diaries before the rediscovery of one got the whole narrative flowing again until it stops right in the middle of a sentence. Excerpts from contemporary diary entries bring matters to a close at Mount Athos in Greece with scarcely much said about the planned destination for his journey. It is not for nothing that the book got the name The Broken Road and, though initially disappointed by the lack of complete closure, I now reckon that the incomplete feel has more to say to me. That is not to say that the urge to do some editing of my did not seize me from time to time and I might have been tempted to get around what was blocking Leigh Fermor by adding in more of the times he spent in Romania and Greece afterwards with references to the last stages of the journey that took him to those places in the first place. It may not have finished things like a more conventional narrative but I could see something like that fitting together better.
The earlier books are more polished with the loss of a diary In Germany doing little to break up the narrative of A Time of Gifts, the first part of the journey that shadows the Rhine and the Danube before it stops on the Hungarian border. The same could be said of Between the Woods and the Water, which took up the story until the Iron Gates, and a rediscovery of a diary helped to to drive along nicely the writing of that. Hair-raising escapades litter the whole story and I suppose that meeting memorable characters helped ensure the survival of memories as much as retrieving a previously lost diary. Those escapades hint at a gregarious and inexperienced youth who charmed his way across Europe with his good company ensuring kindness along the way, a counterpoint to my own more cautious self. The observations of the cultures encountered along the way were as insightful as the descriptions of the histories that were learned from many a private library. As I was reading, I was being introduced both to a lost world and a part of Europe of which I scarcely knew very much at all.
It is twentieth century history that is to blame for that with the rise of communism creating an Iron Curtain across Europe that only fell in 1989 to make the 1990’s a largely hopeful time in which to be living. Leigh Fermor was encountering the upheavals of history too on his journey. The aftermath of World War I was being felt from Austria eastwards. The Nazis too were on the ascendant at the time and Leigh Fermor after all passed through a Germany not long under Hitler’s rule with news of the assassination of Austria’s prime minister emerging later. Amazingly, these worrying developments did little to intrude on the good moments of the journey and became a contrast to what World War II was to do later on. The war and its aftermath took its toll on Leigh Fermor’s situation since he lost access to diaries that he left in Romania while he returned to Britain to play his part. At times in his tale, he wonders what happened to the friends that he made on his crossing of Europe after the rise of communism and they already had lost much because of land reform before that.
Nevertheless, his being on foot for much of the journey caught my attention since that is my favoured means of exploration aside from cycling. The latter was never of a mode of travel for Leigh Fermor while episodes of travel in motor cars and on trains litter the narrative as well as on horseback across the plains of Hungary but it is those stretches where he is walking alone where the most acute observations were made. Rivers were followed and mountains encountered, much like my own wanderings, albeit in countries that I never have visited like the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Czech, Slovakia Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Even with my new-found taste for going beyond the shores of Britain and Ireland, some of these may continue to be surveyed from afar while others like Germany and Austria are on my wish list.