To read, perchance to dream
THE CULTURAL TOURIST
I TRAVEL a reasonable amount — twice or three times a year, mostly for work. But even when sedentary I am reading about travel, about movement and change. These are not the kind of fantasies that translate easily into an Expedia search, for they are as much about time as place and there is no such thing as a ticket to the past (although a berth on an Indian train might just qualify).
My guides are writers such as Freya Stark, Norman Lewis and the incomparable Patrick (Paddy) Leigh Fermor; and the landscapes they evoke in their writing are places I have seen, though not as they saw them.
When I read of Stark’s Lycian coast, Lewis’s Naples or Leigh Fermor’s central Europe and Greece, I’m transported to worlds that still retain the vestiges of much older ways of life and are all the richer for it.
I suppose the charm is partly nostalgic, but not as a kind of homesickness or pallid longing for an idealised past. Romantic is probably a better word. It captures something of the adventure of time-travel, the lustre of history and the patina of myth.
Leigh Fermor, who was particularly vulnerable to this kind of sentiment, dubbed his romanticised view of history retrospective hankering. And in his travel books he revealed how the poetry of the past deepens the often flat and one-dimensional present.
In Leigh Fermor’s hands, nostalgia is stripped of the melancholy that so often wreaths it to become something sinuous and vital. In Roumeli, his book about travels in northern Greece, he writes of the sounds evoked by his favourite Greek places: ‘‘The Ionian scatters the sound of mandolins towards the sunset. Corfu is the sirocco lifting the doge’s gonfalon, Zante is a guitar, Cephalonia is a curse, Cythera the dip of an oar, Lefkas the splash of a trident. Chalcis is the flurry of the tide, Naxos is the boxwood click of a rosary muffled by a nun’s skirt; Ossa is a giant tread, Pelion is the beat of centaurs’ hoofs through glades of chestnuts . . .’’
The passage is a play on metaphor shot through with a nostalgia that is youthful and full of sap, not old and weary. In some ways, I think there’s not much point in travelling unless you can catch some of these echoes.
And to develop this facility you need first to read. Leigh Fermor’s memoirs are complex; they are not simply accounts of journeys. His accounts of travelling by foot across Europe, for example, were written after the discovery of long-lost diaries and were composed with the benefit of subsequent learning by a man dedicated to his books. The older man, in the process of writing, has inhabited his younger self.
Artemis Cooper, in her recently published biography Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, puts it this way: ‘‘Paddy had found a way of writing that could deploy a lifetime’s reading and experience, while never losing sight of the ebullient, well-meaning and occasionally clumsy 18-year-old self.’’
So even the greatest travel writer of the 20th century — as many, myself included, consider him to be — found it hard to distinguish between his travels and his reading. The result is something special. Read him. Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper (John Murray, $49.99).
Patrick Leigh Fermor at his home in Kardamili, Greece, in 2001