Although we are all locked down in our homes, our apartments, our lofts and rooms, travel books are a way to free ourselves without getting stopped by the police! Here are three of my all time top traveller/writers whose lives inspire me as well as their writing.
Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011)
Not many travel writers can claim that Dirk Bogarde played them in the film of their own life. Paddy could. On 8th December 1933, aged 18, he left home to walk the length of Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (Istanbul) taking only a few items of clothing, a copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horace’s Odes.
This journey he would later record in two books, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). Both of which I loved. Joyful and exuberant every page of the writing seems to bounce with possibility, with hope . These are truly books to get lost in. Yet they are set in times and in places which – even as Paddy walked – were already vanishing as war clouds gathered. A third volume in this trilogy The Broken Road, was authored by Artemis Cooper after Leigh Fermor’s death using his handwritten notes. Many decades had elapsed between the young Patrick’s journey and this last book, which to me didn’t have quite the same feel about it as the earlier works.
Once described by a BBC journalist as a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene, Patrick Leigh Fermor was a not only a linguist, traveller and gifted author, he was a decorated soldier who took a prominent part in the Battle for Crete during the second world war.
When I reviewed Crete: the Battle and the Resistance by Anthony Beevor I said:
One of the great romantic heroes of the resistance in Crete was Patrick Leigh Fermor, an aristocratic young Englishman, who enlisted in the army at the start of WW2 and – being a fluent Greek speaker – was sent to Crete as part of the newly formed Special Operations Executive to train and organise rebels. Beevor recounts how Leigh Fermor was also sent to Cairo to be in charge of weapons training at the SOE base there, despite having experienced only one type of gun. He later took part in the kidnap of a German General on Crete, the story of which is recounted on Leigh-Fermor’s own books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water as well as in Stanley Moss’ ‘Ill Met by Moonlight’ which became a film with Dirk Bogarde as Leigh-Fermor.
Paddy Leigh Fermor’s received a Distinguished Service Order and was Knighted in 2004.
Less than a year after 18 year old Paddy Leigh-Fermor set out to walk the length of Europe, another young man (aged 19) left his home in the village of Slad in Gloucestershire early on a June morning and waved goodbye to his mother as she stood “waist deep in the grass and caught there like a piece of sheep’s wool.”
Taking no volume of Horace’s odes – at least none that is recorded – but “a rolled up tent, a violin in a blanket, a change of clothes, a tin of treacle, biscuits and some cheeses” he started a journey mostly on foot, that would end in Spain at the time of the Civil War.
He was of course Laurie Lee (1914-1997) who would later become famous for his memoir Cider with Rosie – beloved prop of many an exam syllabus – and As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning. This is the second in a trilogy of books which describes how he walked to London from his home in Gloucestershire, sleeping rough in fields, journeying on through Wiltshire from Salisbury to Southampton where he plied his trade as fiddler to earn himself some cash. Thence along the coast to Gosport, Chichester, Worthing and finally North to London.
Lee obtains work on a building site in Putney pushing wheelbarrows. He remembers the buildings – a block of flats – as being ugly:
“we raised three unbeautiful blocks of flats – squat, complacent, with mean leaded windows, bogus balconies and imitation baronials.”
When the building of the flats draws to a close Laurie knows he will soon be out of a job but it doesn’t worry him. He is young, free and the world is full of possibility.
He buys himself a ticket on a ship bound for Spain. A poet as well as prose writer, Lee’s books are full of poetry.
“I’d known nothing till then but the smoother surfaces of England, and Vigo struck me like an apparition. It seemed to rise from the sea like some rust-corroded wreck, as old and bleached as the rocks around it.”
The third book in the trilogy “A Moment of War” is an account of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War.
Dervla Murphy (1931)
Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle. Dervla Murphy. The beautiful cover of the original book published by John Murray in 1965.
Travelling is many things to many people but it is rarely – at least if you do it properly – easy or comfortable. Especially not if you are a woman alone and travel long distances by bike.
People travel to change their outlook, their mindset, their lives, their relationships, their careers, their writing, as well as their location. People travel for work, for history, for information, for vision, for education: they travel to lose themselves or to find themselves. But I do not think it unfair to say that travel is harder for a woman alone, than for a man alone. I think this is true even today. It was certainly true in 1960.
Paddy Leigh-Fermor and Laurie Lee both sometimes had prickly relationships with their families – who does not – but their lives were never subsumed by caring duties. They exploited the education and sense of adventure that culturally they had absorbed as their birthright and they did it brilliantly well. Neither would ever find themselves having to write what cyclist, traveller and author Dervla Murphy (born 1931) wrote in her autobiography Wheels within Wheels : The Making of a Traveller (Eland, 2010):
“For more than sixteen years every day had been lived in the shadow of my mother’s need. Even on holidays my movements had had to be exactly regulated so that I would unfailingly arrive home on a certain date.”
Not an ideal resume for an inveterate traveller in the making. Yet in her thirtieth year, as her caring responsibilities come to an end after her mother’s death, Murphy admits to a sense of freedom without guilt,
… feeling currents of an appreciation of liberty running through my body…
She visits friends in County Wicklow and sets in motion her plans to visit India. By bike! taking with her only her bicycle Roz (named after Rozinante, Don Quixote’s steed).
“Having for the past twenty years intended to make this journey, it did not strike me as in any way an odd idea. I thought then as I still do that if someone enjoys cycling and wishes to go to India, the obvious thing is to cycle there. Soon, however, I realised that most people were regarding me as either a lunatic or an embryonic heroine…”
The latter I think. Definitely the latter. As well as writing books on her experiences in India, Dervla went on to write The Waiting Land about volunteering with refugees in Nepal, and of her further adventures in Ethopia, Cuba, Gaza, Israel and Palestine. She has also written A Place Apart about Northern Ireland in the 1970s. All Dervla’s books are available from Eland.
Do you have any writers who particularly inspire you in this difficult Spring? I am looking for suggestions for my next reads so please leave me a comment below.