Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 07 Feb 2024

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

I have lost count of the number of times I have read A Time of Gifts, the first volume in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travelogue/memoir. First published in 1977, it was followed by a second volume, Between the Woods and the Water, in 1986; a third volume, The Broken Road, was left unfinished when Leigh Fermor died in 2011 and was completed by Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron and published in 2013.

A Time of Gifts is famously an account of Leigh Fermor’s journey on foot from the Hook of Holland overland to Constantinople, made in 1933 when he was eighteen. The strange thing is, I don’t always like the book. Read in the wrong frame of mind I find Leigh Fermor a terrific snob and a garrulous, upper class freeloader. But read in the right frame of mind I find it enchanting – a feast of the most evocative and atmospheric descriptive writing imaginable: a despatch, it now seems, from a time of greater innocence and simplicity, a sort of scholar-vagabond’s account of walking across Europe just as the storm clouds of fascism and war were beginning to gather. Its lyrical, ornate, poetic prose always strikes me as having something in common with Laurie Lee’s, especially his As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Rose for Winter. They share a facility for recall and description that is at times almost hallucinatory in its intensity.

The book opens a few weeks before Christmas. Leigh Fermor has a berth on a Dutch merchant ship sailing back down the Thames to cross to Holland and this is the first leg of his immense journey. There is an almighty deluge and a biting wind. We are plunged straight into his extraordinary descriptive prose:

‘Sheltering under the Curson St arch of Shepherd Market, we found a taxi at last. In Half Moon St all collars were up. A thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly; the Jermyn St shops, distorted by streaming water, had become a submarine arcade; and the clubmen of Pall Mall, with china tea and anchovy toast in mind, were scuttling for sanctuary up the steps of their clubs. Blown askew, the Trafalgar Square fountains twirled like mops…’

And so it continues, an endless procession of images that stay in the mind for ever – a torrent of sensuous prose, medieval history, myth, legend, architectural detail, cultural speculation and impassioned observation, growing only richer and more complex as his surroundings and experiences become stranger, more exotic. 

It may well be that he is best read in relatively small doses. For instance, the leave-taking from London, arrival in Holland, his passage through the low countries and his first sight of Germany – the first three chapters, roughly 70-odd pages – I have read over and over, simply for the pleasure of revisiting the prose, which has always struck me as at its freshest and most accomplished in these opening scenes. But like all feasts, too much can quite quickly become exhausting, so I read him slowly, relishing the familiar and marvelling at the new things I find with each reading, and then I set him aside for a while. I think one of the greatest things about the first two books in this sequence – I have never read the third for fear that it may merely be a ragbag of not-quite-finished jottings that would have been better left unpublished – is how perfectly they lend themselves to this kind of episodic reading.

As someone who doesn’t really read ‘travel books’, I can’t altogether explain the fascination of A Time of Gifts. I think first and most importantly,  it is the wonderful prose; second, it is Leigh Fermor’s enthusiasm and passion; and third, it is the fact that we read it knowing that much of what is being described was within just a very few years reduced to rubble. This should make it unbearably sad but I think we are buoyed along by Patrick Leigh Fermor’s unquenchable curiosity and energy. Also important – but again, I am not entirely sure how – is the fact that what we are reading, despite its apparent contemporaneity, is a memory that has been more than forty years in the making.

There is what looks like a nice and quite recent John Murray paperback edition of A Time of Gifts and most if not all of Leigh Fermor’s earlier books seem to be in print. Sadly, the more recent John Murray edition seems to have replaced the one pictured with the lovely John Craxton cover but you can still find plenty of copies secondhand.


Alun Severn

February 2024