To read, perchance to dream


The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holiday Reading Special - LUKE SLAT­TERY

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

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