It is raining yet again and so I’ve been whiling away another afternoon reading further chapters of Susan Hill’s book, Howards End is on the Landing. Despite the fact that she claims to neither be a traveller nor to be particularly interested in travel writing Hill has all the recent greats in her collection, Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron and Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Like Hill, I am no traveller. I not only like my own routine, I actually need it for my medical well-being and travelling not only exhausts me it also separates me from the secret of my much needed sleep, my own bed. So, if I want to know anything of foreign parts I am reliant on the work of others, be that though the auspices of the BBC or through writers of the calibre that Hill describes.
I know Chatwin better through his novels than through his travel books. On the Black Hill, for example, is the story of twin brothers who, like me, are not travellers. They are Welsh farmers whose existence revolves round the land on which they were born and through charting their lives Chatwin also manages to evoke the life of the country itself.
Colin Thubron I once had the privilege of hearing speak and have never forgotten that calm and gentle man talking of the hazards of journeying through China at a time when the regime in power still made it difficult for a foreigner to spend even a couple of days there let alone any extended visit. I bought a copy of his book, Behind the Wall, and took it back to share with the children I was teaching who were as fascinated as only children can be by the man who kept a collection of noses in jars. Speculation as to what you might do with a nose collection kept the classroom buzzing for weeks.
But, Leigh Fermor, just the mention of his name brought back a feeling of shame. Hill speaks of his book, A Time to Keep Silence, as:
hardly a travel book at all – or if it is, the travel is inwards, a spiritual journey. Some books are balm to the soul and solace to the weary mind, a cooling stream at the end of long and tiring days and ‘A Time to Keep Silence’ is assuredly one of them.
Some years ago now, a dear friend offered me Leigh Fermor’s books at a period when balm to the soul was much needed and I failed to take him up on his suggestion. I could walk upstairs now and put my hand straight onto the copy he gave me of A Time of Gifts, but I have never so much as opened it. Hill says that Leigh Fermor is the doyen of the travel world and I can neither contest or confirm that view – as yet. Has anyone else read his works? And, if so, what do you think? Should I start with the volume I already have or are there better ways in?
And are there other travel writers to explore? Not, please Bill Bryson, who, to me, always seems to be laughing at someone. But any other writers of the calibre of Chatwin, Thubron and Leigh Fermor would be welcome suggestions.