Tuesday 11 February 2014

A Time of Gifts

Nobody would call me sporty.  When people ask me "do you play tennis?", I reply "I have played tennis" and squash, soccer, rugger, field hockey, water polo, shot-putt, golf, badminton, boxing. It was part and parcel of my very expensive education. I could wish that Irish radio didn't devote the whole of Saturday and Sunday afternoon to the coverage of, or commentary on, sporting events.  There's more to life than that.  But I recognise sport's value: it gets people off the sofa which will keep them thinner and fitter and less of a burden on the health-care system.  It also provides a forum where a person can achieve a personal best regardless of the result of whatever competition is involved.

My only achievement that didn't involve a sofa or some aspect of deep thought happened in two stages.  In 1989, I walked 700km from Sagres in the bottom left corner of Portugal up the coast to the border with Spain at Caminha. After six weeks of solitary trudge, I came round a bend in the road North of Viana do Castelo and realised that the distinctively mountainy mountain ahead of me was in Spain - I had traversed a country on foot!  Not a lot of people can say that, unless you count the Vatican as a country. Fifteen years later in 2004, I took up where I had left off and walked for another 800km across Spain to France. This trek was my Triumph of the Will although less spectacular than the exploits of Emil Zatopek or Jesse Owen. By the time I pulled into St Jean Pied de Porte in France, a full rucksack (12kg) lighter about the waist, I thought I had discovered something significant about humanity - both my own and the nature of my conspecifics.  So, over two or three intense days in and around Bidarray in the French Basque country, I conjured it all up again and wrote it all down before it faded like last night's dream.  Despite some effort hawking the manuscript around over several months, nobody seemed interested in publishing it. Maybe it needs to mature for 44 years before being exposed to daylight.

44 years is the length of time that elapsed between Patrick Leigh Fermor setting out from the Hoek van Holland and walking to Constantinople and getting the first volume of his account of the journey published as A Time of Gifts in 1977.  Paddy Fermor was born on 11th Feb 1915. In 1933, there were no motorways, the program for building the autobahn system in Germany didn't start until the NSDP came to power that same year. There was far less motorised traffic so it was easier to walk for hundreds of miles without getting whacked into oblivion by some rogue driver.  But don't come away with the idea that a long walk across Europe is nowadays not possible.  Like any other, it starts with one step.  Nevertheless A Time of Gifts and its sequel Between the Woods and Water are wonderful books: a tale of insouciant courage and openness to the possible and a salutary lesson is how little you need to survive. Fermor set off on his long walk East in the middle of Winter wearing a greatcoat and hob-nail boots.  Carrying little more than a spare shirt and a book of poetry, he was 18 years old and ready to walk out into his own life - the records indicate that he was not really cut out for the life his parents imagined for him by paying for a very expensive education remarkably similar to my own - not least because it happened in the same school.  He chose instead a quite absurdly romantic alternative life, walking to Constantinople, loafing around Greece afterwards learning δημοτική γλώσσα demotic Greek and all the folk-songs and history that his capacious memory could accommodate, and living in sin with a Roumanian Countess until the out-break of WWII.  He spent much of the war behind enemy lines working with partisans in Albania and Crete.

When I talk to my more interesting students, I often wonder if they wouldn't be better off in UL the university of life rather than tricking about writing up experiments that aren't science because the answer is already known and trying to recall other men's thoughts come exam time.  Other, possibly equally interesting, students I barely know because they have spend the first 2/3rds of the year mitching off most of their classes. They'd be a lot better off if they had spent the last 20 weeks walking across Europe.  Six days a week, a modest 20km a day, and they could have walked the 2550km from Cherbourg to Istanbul. And therefore I have sailed the seas and come To the holy city of Byzantium. If you like WB Yeats.

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