Leave thy home, O youth, and seek out alien shores . . . Robert Macfarlane reads Petronius

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One of the first things Leigh Fermor is given in A Time of Gifts is a book: the first volume of the Loeb edition of Horace. His mother (‘she was an enormous reader’) bought it for him as a farewell present, and on its flyleaf she wrote the prose translation of an exquisite short poem by Petronius, which could hardly have been more appropriate as a valediction to her son, or indeed to anyone setting out on a voyage into adulthood:

Leave thy home, O youth, and seek out alien shores . . . Yield not to misfortune: the far-off Danube shall know thee, the cold North-wind and the untroubled kingdom of Canopus and the men who gaze on the new birth of Phoebus or upon his setting

The journey of A Time of Gifts is set going by the gift of a book—and it is a book that has in turn set going many journeys. The edition of A Time of Gifts that Don gave me that day in Cambridge had as its cover a beautiful painting by John Craxton, commissioned specially for the book, and clearly alluding to Petronius’s poem. It shows a young man standing on snowy high ground, puttees on his ankles and a walking stick in his right hand, looking eastwards to where the sun is rising orange over icy mountains, from which runs a mighty river. Black crows fly stark against white trees: there is a sense of huge possibility to the day ahead and to the land beyond.

Extract from The Gifts for Reading, Robert Macfarlane

 


About the contributor

On Sunday 30 April 2017, 34-year-old Londoner Katy MacMillan-Scott will embark on the adventure of a lifetime: a 600-mile journey from Rotterdam to Budapest, following the route of writer Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor. It is the first leg of a literary pilgrimage that will see her travel all the way to Istanbul over the next few years.

Katy decided to undertake the epic journey following the death of her friend Harriet Clarke from bowel cancer at the age of 32 last March. She credits Robert Macfarlane’s essay, The Gifts of Reading – which is centered around A Time of Gifts – and a talk at the Frontline Club for inspiring her to plan a literary adventure in Harriet’s memory, to celebrate her friend’s life and to raise awareness for Bowel Cancer UK’s Never Too Young campaign.

At Slightly Foxed we’ll be mapping Katy’s route and sharing news of her progress from the comfort of our desks during her three-week trip. With thanks to Joan Leigh Fermor for the photograph of Paddy.

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