Header overlay

Off All the Standard Maps

The only time I have been to Greece as it appears on the modern map was when I was barely out of short trousers. I went with that indispensable aid to travel, an aunt, and with the idea that I knew quite a lot about the place. My aorists and iota subscripts, however, were useless; that crucial moment for quoting Simonides on the dead Spartans never turned up. Even the sights were an anticlimax – bones of buildings, hordes of charabancs; the glory that was.

Sex had not yet reared its head, so I didn’t have that distraction. But I remember two other excitements. One was retsina, in unsuitable quantities, the other an experience in Athens when I wandered off alone. There was a demonstration; something, I imagine, to do with collapsing Colonels. It sucked me in and swept me along – bewildered at first, trying to catch hold of something familiar, then encouraged by smiles and guiding hands – until I fell in step, into the rhythm, and ended up chanting with the best of them. When the procession dispersed, having gone nowhere in particular, I was lost, thrilled and intoxicated.

Roumeli had the same effect when I first read it a dozen or so years later; it still does, reading it again another couple of decades on. One is drawn in and immediately disorientated. Who is the outlandish figure in a hairy kilt and hobnailed Ali Baba boots who takes us into the first chapter? A Sarakatsán nomad, apparently . . . The appendix on these people gleefully offers sixteen conflicting derivations for the name. Casting around for the familiar, I plumped for ‘Saracen’, for many features of Sarakatsán life rang bells: the poetry about Turkkilling, for example; the public exposition of bloodied nuptial bed linen; the censing of mothers after birth with nasty-smelling smoke. There were more, and all may be found in the bottom corner of Arabia where I live. But what about the wearing of clothes back to front as a sign of mourning? I had come across that, too – in an account of fourteenth-century Luristan. It was all a long way from the Parthenon.

In fact it is, as Patrick Leigh Fermor admits, off all the standard maps. So too is Leigh Fermor. In 1933, aged 18, he set out to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (a journey which remains in a sense unfinished, for the third volume of his account of it has yet to appear). During the Second World War he took part in covert operations in Albania and in Crete, where he planned and carried out his celebrated abduction of the German General Kreipe. He has written on places and subjects as various as the Caribbean and monastic life in Normandy. But Greece is his passion, and for nearly forty years he has lived there on the Mani, the middle prong of the Peloponnese.

Mani, his brilliant wanderings on that peninsula, deliberately involved the reader in ‘the luxury of long digression’. Digressions presuppose progression; in RoumeliMani’s successor, which rambles Greece north of the Gulf of Corinth – there is none. The book visits the hills of Thrace, the monasteries of the Meteora, the cafés of Athens, the scene of Byron’s death at Missolonghi and the parched ravines of Aetolia. But these visits form no greater journey. They are disconnected probings into unknown corners, an odd-and-end odyssey, and the result is a collection of essays, a mézé of red herrings. There is a ‘main theme’, we are told in the Introduction; but that theme, Leigh Fermor confesses, is ‘a private theory of my own’. The theory – ‘The Helleno-Romaic Dilemma’ – suggests, at some length, that the Greek psyche is a zone of perpetual conflict between the glory that had been Athens and the sorrow that was Byzantium (we can probably now add a third antagonist, the bore that is Europe). All late-night, third-bottle stuff, and hardly the normal matter of A-to-B travel books. But the delight of it all is that, via these disjointed jaunts around the mainland interspersed with mini-cruises in the glittering archipelago of Leigh Fermor’s mind, we get to know a lot about Greece.

The mind, like the land, never fails to surprise – with ideas, and with anecdotes. The one about getting thrashed at billiards by Byron’s ancient great-granddaughter and the subsequent hunt for the poet’s slippers has been deservedly anthologized. But there are more private memories as well, wartime scenes sharpened by danger, polished by moonlight, tempered by time. He recalls an earlier battle too ‘(which I had watched from an empty stork’s nest in the top of an elm)’. I envy him those nonchalant brackets and, even more, that surreal vantage-point. It is also one he adopts when writing, some mental equivalent of the stork’s nest that enables him to see things through to their illogical conclusion: ‘It was a wonder, I thought, as we rocked along under that burning-glass of a sky, that the curling tobacco leaves didn’t catch fire and smoke themselves there and then.’

The Greeks certainly had a word for Patrick Leigh Fermor: idiosyncratic. (Although there is, as it happens, a precedent for the tobacco conceit. The fifteenth-century Persian traveller Abd al-Razzaq noted that, as a result of the intense heat in Oman, the chase became a matter of perfect ease, ‘for the desert was filled with roasted gazelles’.)

If idiosyncrasy cannot by definition be imitated, it can certainly inspire. It was another traveller, Freya Stark – whose publisher was also John Murray – who lured me to Arabia over twenty years ago, but it was Patrick Leigh Fermor who led me to write about it. He will keep me writing, and always envious. The works of Freya and the other great twentieth-century travel writers may capture genius loci; in Roumeli and its companions there is something more, unconnected with place – genius libri.

The one thing I envy Leigh Fermor more than any other is his sounds: the sound of names (‘names to make the hair stand on end’; Learish names – where is the Akhond of Swat beside Polycarp of Trikke and Stagoi?); the rhythm of lists; above all, non-verbal sound. In his final chapter, ‘Sounds of the Greek World’, all three come gloriously together in an aural gazetteer of the land he knows inside out and loves to distraction. It goes not from A to B but from A to Ω, dissolving along the way into poetry. It is impossible not to fall into the rhythm and emerge intoxicated.

It is also hard, now, not to wonder what remains of Roumeli: whether the Meteorite monks still cling to their rock pinnacles and the Kravarites of Aetolia remember the old beggars’ jargon; whether the Sarakatsáns, who led us into this unexpected landscape, still live between their summer and winter pastures. Transhumant, tented nomads in the EC? Perhaps only ghosts are left, and this book.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 2 © Tim Mackintosh-Smith 2004

About the contributor

Tim Mackintosh-Smith fled the Classics for the Arab world following an overdose of Virgil at Oxford. Shortly afterwards he moved to the Yemeni capital San’a, where he is currently writing about fourteenth-century India.

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.