This review of the third part of Travellers’ century by the always entertaining TV critic Nancy Banks-Smith deftly sketches the charismatic character and life of Patrick Leigh Fermor (although it isn’t true that he wrote A time of gifts and Between the woods and the water entirely from memory fifty years after the journey across Europe that the books recount). But she omits any mention of the key moment for anyone who has read both books, kept back by presenter Benedict Allen until last – the moment when he braves asking the 93 year old author how he is getting on with the final part of the trilogy. It was heart-sinking but not entirely surprising to hear him reply that it was about half-done; at which rate – given that the second part was published in 1986 – he will have to retain both his breath and his marbles until he is 115.
It was time to admit what PLF admirers have no doubt long since guessed – that his publisher will offer us an unfinished draft only after he is gone, assuming he hasn’t left Larkinesque instructions to burn everything. Unless, that is, the complete draft that he professed in the programme to have slashed remains extant and salvageable. His severe estimation of his own work suggests that this version wouldn’t be far-off the previous parts in terms of crystalline lucidity. Hope springs eternal – and in its ongoing absence, there are always Mani and Roumeli, his books about Greece, strangely overlooked by Benedict Allen.
Hurrah! Alistair’s back in action here in a nostalgic, fictional vein and here, where he’s set me a task. As this might to some extent help to unmask the shadowy figure variously known as A jumped-up pantry boy and A wild, slim alien, I accept the challenge. I’ve to set down ‘8 things people don’t know about you’.
1. I dislike, nay abhor, lists in both journalistic and canonical senses and yet I am an obsessive list-maker. The list of the lists I make would be a long one.
2. At the age of twelve I was diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter syndrome – dodgy knees, essentially – and was excused from school sports for three years. Bang went my chances of playing for Ipswich Town. Yes, I am a frustrated would-be professional footballer as well as frustrated would-be pop star. Osgood-Schlatter – sounds like a fantasy Chelsea strike force.
I also had a ranula and came very close to being presented as a case study to medical students.
3. My hypochondria is in remission.
4. I was offered the editorship of the jazz section of Venue, Bristol’s listings magazine, one week before I was due to leave the city for good. I left and the saxophone has never loomed quite as large in my life since.
5. The first group I saw live was the Boomtown Rats at the Ipswich Gaumont. I recently bought their Best of for £3 to hear again songs which were staples of my pre-teen listening. They certainly had energy, and Geldof wrote taut, catchy tunes employing relatively intricate arrangements and day-glo lyrical imagery. My retrospective opinion of them artistically is that they are holed beneath the waterline by Bob’s histrionic vocal braying – rodent by name and asinine by nature. The CD has an extensive sleeve note by novelist Joseph O’Connor, brother of Sinead, which articulates nicely how a brash gobshite can become number one in a young boy’s heart.
6. I was one of the hundred or so people injured during the poll tax riots around Trafalgar Square in 1990. Reflexively I headed a brick which had bounced off the side of a police van, still dreaming of playing for Ipswich. The doctor who treated me at University College Hospital had a flat top and wore a bright yellow tie. It hurt my eyes almost as much as the brick hurt my head.
7. The book I would most like to read has not yet been published; there may not yet even be a complete draft. It is the long-awaited third segment of the journey that Patrick Leigh Fermor made across Europe in the 1930s, written from the perspective of age, looking back on a fearless and carefree period of his life with a longing well-disguised by the freshness of the recollection. A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) contain some of the best prose ever written.
‘Memory encircles [Prague] with a wreath, a smoke-ring and the paper lattice of a valentine. I might have been shot out of a gun through all three of them and landed on one of its ancient squares fluttering with the scissor-work and the vapour and the foliage that would have followed me in the slipstream.’
But beware, for when reading PLF you are often set adrift on a doldrum-esque sea of digression. One chapter can maroon you for days. Yet in others you are zipped along with a zephyr behind you.
8. I am both young and old enough to have an ‘O’ level in Computer science. My generation is the one which straddles the jump from manual, predominantly sequential ways of writing to the non-linear facility that word processors offer or promote. Leaving aside form, style, or the knight’s move around an oversize chessboard which determined the chapter sequence in Georges Perec’s Life a user’s manual, we have had to learn about the effect of the physical process on writing twice. I have moved from pasting pieces of typewritten text onto master artwork to copying text from word editors into WYSIWYG blog generators. I am participating in the current, moving into the future, but my brain was hot-wired in the past. There must already be plenty of younger writers who have never written anything substantial longhand. I wonder if, sick at some point of the keyboard, they will pick up a pen to see how it feels, to see what happens.
I believe I’m supposed to tag five or eight people with the task of continuing this meme but as a diffident novice, I don’t feel I know any other blogger well enough to presume this of them. So this branch of a chain dies with me. Not for the first time.