As I reach a certain age, I seem to have accumulated quite a list of books that have "changed my life." But the place of William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain is secure. I was pleased to read an interview he conducted with his own inspiration, now 93-year old Patrick Leigh Fermor. Years ago, I read Fermor's first travelogue, A Time for Gifts. For travel writing enthusiasts, this interview is as good as it gets. An excerpt, below:
One of the books he chanced across was The Station, Robert Byron’s newly published book about his travels through the monasteries of Mount Athos. A subsequent meeting with Byron in a ‘blurred and saxophone-haunted nightclub’ made Leigh Fermor, aged 18, ache to follow in the author’s footsteps and visit ’serpent-haunted dragon-green Byzantium’. He had also read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. With nothing to keep him in Britain he set off, having first borrowed a knapsack that had accompanied Byron to Athos, aiming to walk to that living fragment of Byzantium while living as cheaply as Orwell: ‘I loved the idea of roughing it.’
On the wet afternoon of December 9, 1933, the year that Hitler came to power, as ‘a thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats’, Leigh Fermor left London, boarding a Dutch steamer at Irongate Wharf. His rucksack contained pencils, drawing pads, notebooks, The Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horace. He would not lay eyes on Britain again until January 1937, when he returned ‘for better or for worse, utterly changed by my travels’.
‘I thought I’d keep a diary and turn it into a book, which of course is what I did,’ he said. ‘Except I am still writing that book more than 70 years later.’ It was not just that the journey gave Leigh Fermor the subject for his lifework, it ‘broadened my mind, taught me history, literature and languages. It opened everything up: the world, civilisation and Europe. It also gave me a capacity for solitude and a sense of purpose. It taught me to read and to look at things. It was a great education. I didn’t go to university, I went travelling instead.’