A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

London and Istanbul, Google maps tells me, are nearly 2,000 miles apart; and to walk from one to the other, it would take an insanely ambitious person something like 23 days and five hours of hard plodding. Now, why would someone do that, in the dead of winter, with little or no money, especially — shudder — 80 years ago, when there was no such thing as the GPS? It was with that thought that I opened Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time Of Gifts”. But the recklessly enthusiastic 19-year-old lad who sets off on that grand journey (his reason? He wanted to ‘abandon London and England and set out across Europe like a tramp’, to experience ‘a new life! Freedom! Something to write about!’) convinced me that it wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Setting sail from a sodden London (where a ‘thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats’) he sets foot on a snowy mainland Europe in Holland. His spirits soar as he’s greeted by the ‘wonderful flat geometry of canals and polders and willows’, graceful skaters in the iced-up canals, and a ‘thousand wonders waiting’. And it’s these wondrously descriptive nuggets from the 1930’s — of baroque palaces and dizzyingly tall belfries, Hitler’s tentacles spreading swiftly across Europe, and an old-way of life that would soon be lost forever — that makes this such a compelling read.

It works because…

It’s a magical book, effortlessly combining the infectious enthusiasm of the young, with the tempered wisdom of the old. The author was barely out of his teens, freshly expelled from school, when he traipses all over Europe; but he sits down to write the book several decades later, piecing together snatches of images like ‘reconstructing a brontosaurus from half an eye socket and a basketful of bones’. And while the prose — oh the delicious prose! — is the elder’s voice, you feel a rush of affection for the inexperienced, awe-struck, penniless young man, who gets by, thanks to random acts of kindness. Although part-memoir, part-travelogue, it’s places, particularly Vienna and Prague, that leave a lasting impression. And it is this Europe, filled with ‘moulting eiderdowns of cloud’, where stained-glass church windows ‘died like fires going out’ that you’re transported to, much like the author himself was, while reading Wodehouse’s “Leave it to Psmith”. (‘And soon I wasn’t really in a German schloss at all, but in a corner seat of a first-class carriage on the 3:45 from Paddington to Market Blandings, bound for a different castle.’) And that, exactly, is what this book can do for you — take you places.

And this one stays with you…

Of Prague, he says: ‘Picked out by the embankment lights and the rushing head-lamp of the traffic, the river was a curving band of darkness crossed by the many-beaded necklaces of the bridges. Directly below, between clusters of baroque lamp-brackets, the grouped statues dimly postured along the balustrades of the Charles Bridge. The lights grew scarcer as they climbed the citadel and dispersed round the steep dark wastes where the rooks had assembled for the night in the invading woods. It was a last glimpse of Prague which has had to last me from that evening to this.’

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