A Time of Gifts, the first volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travelogue about a journey that he made across Europe during his late adolescence, is remarkable for the tolerance that the writer, aged 62 at the time of publication, has for his younger self. Taken on foot between the years 1934-1937, the journey coincides with the brewing of tensions in Europe that would lead to horrific destruction and define an era. Yet, rather than coerce his experiences into a historical narrative, he readily admits that his mind, well-stocked with Greek and Latin verse, arcane mediaeval history and amateur linguistics, was blissfully unencumbered by any knowledge of politics. Conversations in Bavarian inns, despite their proximity to the ‘fountain-head’ of National Socialism, tend rather towards mocking the clipped speech of their Prussian countrymen than any discussion of national resurgence.
While he is self-mocking about the feebleness of these attitudes, he does not reject them either.
Due to his rarefied upbringing, initially cloistered within public-schools and then carousing amongst the bohemian party-goers of 1930s London, his consciousness is an amalgam of the imperial romanticism of an Indian hussar ‘playing out the last chukkah of the Great Game’, and the glib sophistication of the Bright Young Things. While he is self-mocking about the feebleness of these attitudes, he does not reject them either. To a certain extent, he lived both these fantasies out during the rest of his life.
There is no trace of political ideology here – what matters is the common educational experience of the public-school educated boy soldier and the old-school Prussian Wehrmacht general.
The former reached its apotheosis during World War Two, when he was posted to Crete in order to lead a mission to kidnap the German general on the island. He was chosen for this position as a ‘licenced ruffian’ on account of his classical education, the army realising ‘that the Ancient tongue, however imperfectly mastered, was a short-cut to the Modern.’ Dodging through mountain caves with his gang of Greek partisans and the captive general, one moment in particular brings out his allegiance to a cultural tradition that supplanted any concern for the sordid business of politics. Jubilant at being able to recognise a few lines of Horatian verse that the general murmurs out, Leigh Fermor finishes off the remaining five stanzas for him. There is no trace of political ideology here – what matters is the common educational experience of the public-school educated boy soldier and the old-school Prussian Wehrmacht general. Reunited for a Greek television programme in 1972, the general lauded the ‘brave and risky act’ of his former captors, albeit which ‘did not help the partisans at all.’
Throughout his life, he maintained the sybaritic lifestyle of one of the Bright Young Things, amusing his friends at the club with his polyglot talents and reportedly smoking 80-100 cigarettes a day – all while living into his nineties.
If this upper-class detachment from reality rankles slightly, you are not alone. While Leigh Fermor does like to slum it among hay bales during his journey, he also moves from Schloss to Schloss, entertained by members of the soon-to-be-scattered Mitteleuropean aristocracy with whom his family has connections. Throughout his life, he maintained the sybaritic lifestyle of one of the Bright Young Things, amusing his friends at the club with his polyglot talents and reportedly smoking 80-100 cigarettes a day – all while living into his nineties. Politics, though, never held much interest for him. In the words of Neil Ascherson, he was a shining exemplar of ‘that venerable motto which didn’t survive Mrs Thatcher’s Tory spring-clean. I can’t stand politics, that’s why I’m a Conservative.’
Nonetheless, this tinge of complacency is redeemed in spades by the self-effacing curiosity he had towards the world and other minds. While in Crete, he became notorious amongst his army comrades for stopping ‘every old peasant lady or charcoal burner to ask for their opinion and biography.’ A Time of Gifts is so entrancing in part because of the richness of the portraits he paints of his interlocutors along the way, including Konrad, a Frisian whom he meets in Vienna, and whose English is marked by the archaic turns of the Shakespeare plays from which he learnt it. I imagine it would be difficult to forget being asked in English, ‘I hope your slumbers were peaceful and mated with quiet dreams?’, but in any case Leigh Fermor was a careful diary-keeper. This fascination for others is his strength as a travel writer, and puts his ideological ambivalence into context. He avoids macro generalisations in favour of the anecdotal and personal – ‘the uncomfortable, the haphazard, the comic, [where] one learns what things were really like.’
Theories about the world spawn and are snuffed out like sparks from a nomad’s campfire.
If he can be accused of nostalgia, it is not of the sentimental kind that mourns the passing of a more perfect era. Rather it is for youth – its impulsivity, curiosity, and above all malleability. Plans unfold ‘with the speed and completeness of a Japanese paper flower in a tumbler.’ Theories about the world spawn and are snuffed out like sparks from a nomad’s campfire. Languages and verse are picked up (by him) like pebbles from the ground. As one gets older much of this is lost – ‘the wax hardens and the stylus scrapes in vain.’
The title, A Time of Gifts, comes from “Twelfth Night”, a poem written by Louis MacNeice shortly after the end of World War Two. Appropriately, it laments the loss of the pre-War innocence through the metaphors of snow fading and a boy growing up, but undercuts this sentiment with the knowing futility of the lines:
If time would only remain furled
In white, and thaw were not for certain
And snow would but stay put, stay put!
MacNeice was the antithesis of a romantic poet, refusing to accept any ideological view of the world that could encapsulate all its truths within a single globular principle. Rather, as he writes in “Snow”, all is “collateral and incompatible… // World is crazier and more of it than we think, / Incorrigibly plural.” The critic Vesna Goldsworthy points to Leigh Fermor as one of the inventors of a fabled ‘Ruritania’, a romanticised pre-industrial Arcadia where he buries the corpses of the old ‘feudal world, the Europe of peasants and princes.’ Yet while he does hold some schoolboy affection for this mythology, he is far from possessing any of the certainty of a real romantic, the kind who would harken back to a fabled Wessex of cricket matches and Morris-dancing, or who would trumpet the heroic destiny of the German volk. Rather, the fullness and multiplicity of his travel accounts point to him being closer to MacNeice’s ideal than any such facile backward-looking nostalgia.
Leigh Fermor is aware of the faults and biases of youth, its tendencies towards flights of fancy and grand theorising. Yet he is tolerant towards all its half-baked theories and fantasies because of its marvellous receptivity to new experiences, the incorrigible plurality without which the gifts would be fewer and further between.