Coronavirus has made actual travel very difficult, but it has also provided the opportunity to catch up with some travel writing. I’ve spent some time reading books by, and about, Gerald Brenan and Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Brenan and Leigh Fermor were both fascinating characters with various things in common even though they were quite dissimilar in other ways. They were contemporaries, had numerous friends and acquaintances in common, and they met each other in the 1970s. Gerald Brenan lived from 1894 to 1987, and Patrick Leigh Fermor from 1915 to 2011, meaning that they both enjoyed long lives (Brenan – 92, Leigh Fermor – 96). They were both adventurers, writers, and linguists and they enjoyed travel, each spending many years in their adopted countries (Spain (Brenan), Greece (Leigh Fermor)).
‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor was a reckless adventurer who had a knack of getting on extremely well with just about everyone he met. This kept him in good stead when he decided in 1933, at the age of 18, to walk from London to Istanbul. Although quite prepared for discomfort and sleeping by the roadside or in barns, he was often passed from one landed gentry of the old European aristocracy to another, and thereby experienced a unique and sometimes lavish lifestyle that disappeared during and soon after World War II. He fought against the German occupiers in Crete, and led the group that abducted the German commander Heinrich Kreipe which resulted in various reprisals against the local population. The abduction was portrayed, not very accurately, in the movie Ill Met by Moonlight starring Dirk Bogarde in the role of Leigh Fermor. In later years he travelled quite a lot and wrote numerous books and articles, most of which were extremely well received. I enjoyed reading Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper, and have put the Peloponnese on my travel wish list and Mani: Travels in the South Peloponnese on my future reading list.
In advance of a trip to Spain which was cancelled due to Coronavirus, I read and was impressed by South from Granada, by Gerald Brenan. Brenan’s initial attempted walk was even more impressive than that of Leigh Fermor. In 1912, at the age of 18 (as with Leigh Fermor) he set off with a friend to walk to China. They got as far as Bosnia, which was not bad going. He then served in the First World War, and shortly afterward took off for Spain, settling on his own in a house in Yegen, a small village in the Alpujarras. His main reason for going to Andalusia was that surviving there was cheap. His experiences are detailed in South from Granada. The boy can’t half write, and I fully recommend South from Granada. Village life in the Alpujarras as described by Brenan has completely disappeared, but I dearly hope to visit this area some time in the not too distant future. Immediately after reading South from Granada I started The Interior Castle: A Life of Gerald Brenan, by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy. Click on that link and you will find out more about Brenan’s weird (in anyone’s terms) sexuality. Gathorne-Hardy’s book goes into some detail about the life of Gerald Brenan. Brenan had great energy, often going for very long walks, and like Leigh Fermor he was not afraid of discomfort. At the same time, he frequently suffered strange bouts of ‘flu and his love life was very complex. Let’s put it this way, he enjoyed the company of younger women, sometimes much younger women. Here’s a brief biography, here’s an article in The Guardian about him, and here is a readable article by Pat Hartman about him. Brenan was much of a hippie, years before the hippies existed. He has become much heralded in his adopted country of Spain, and the home, Churriana, where he lived for thirty years near Málaga, is now the Casa Gerald Brenan cultural centre.
A Life of One’s Own: Childhood and Youth by Gerald Brenan, is on my future reading list.
Other books I’ve ended up with, and will read in the near future, which are in one way or another connected to Brenan or Leigh Fermor, include: The Villa Ariadne, by Dilys Powell, Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania, by William Blacker, Cyril Connolly: A Life, by Jeremy Lewis, and The Book of Disquiet, by Fernando Pessoa. I haven’t yet gone through Gathorne-Hardy’s select bibliography, so this list will probably grow.
Bruce Chatwin spent some time with Paddy Leigh Fermor, who immediately liked him, and he also visited Gerald Brenan, who wasn’t so impressed by the energetic writer.