Saturday, 30 March 2013

‘A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!’

Two young men setting out on foot, nearly 80 years ago, on almost parallel journeys that would change their lives:

Winter 1933
I was signalling frantically back as the hawsers were cast loose and the gangplank shipped. Then they were gone. The anchor-chain clattered through the ports and the vessel turned into the current with a wail of her siren. How strange it seemed, as I took shelter in the little saloon to be setting off from the heart of London.’

Summer 1935
‘The stooping figure of my mother, waist-deep in the grass and caught there like a piece of sheep's wool, was the last I saw of my country home as I left it to discover the world. She stood old and bent at the top of the bank, silently watching me go, one gnarled red hand raised in farewell and blessing, not questioning why I went. At the bend of the road I looked back again and saw the gold light die behind her; then I turned the corner, passed the village school, and closed that part of my life for ever.’

Recently I’ve been reading the biographies of the two men who wrote these passages. The first was by
Patrick Leigh-Fermor
 Patrick Leigh-Fermor, public school educated rebel, restless, adventurous and reckless, with the clipped accent of a 1930s BBC news reader. The second was Laurie Lee, a boy of much humbler background from rural Gloucestershire – he described himself as a peasant, though he was slightly more than that – with the soft burr of his native valley in his speech. Young men from different worlds but fired by the same romantic vision: to escape the cramping, class-confined dullness of interwar England and see the world. Both went, in Leigh-Fermor’s words, ‘to set out across Europe like a tramp..A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!’

Laurie Lee

Both travelled on foot on what would prove to be life-changing experiences; both would write brilliantly about what they’d seen. Leigh-Fermor walked the length of Europe – from the tip of Holland to Constantinople. The journey took him a year; but he didn’t see the white cliffs of Dover again for three, ‘a whole life time later it seemed then – and, for better or for worse, utterly changed by my travels.’ Along the way he learned multiple languages, stayed with the aristocracy of central Europe, fell in love and lived the days with a thrilling intensity.

Laurie caught a boat to Spain and walked across the heat-stunned landscapes of the central plateau, sleeping out under olive trees, welcomed in to share the food of its peasants who were enchanted by the fair-haired stranger. His passport was his violin. In this Homeric world, he captivated the souls of the people with his music. He made them laugh, dance, cry and temporarily forget their suffering: ‘They lived hard and semi-starved lives, but if I unrolled my blanket…and they saw my violin their faces would soften and crease, there’d be a cry of Musica! Musica!...I’d play paso dobles and even the old ladies would dance a few creaky steps around the patio.’

These were young men’s experiences – Leigh-Fermor was 18, Laurie Lee 21 –journeys of adventure, escape, romance. They both looked at new worlds for the first time, entranced, and noticed everything. They kept note books – and years later they would produce extraordinary artfully-shaped classics of travel writing: Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, Laurie Lee’s As I Walked out One Summer Morning and A Rose for Winter.

Both men had complex, adventurous and – in ways – difficult lives after these first journeys. Laurie Lee returned to Spain to fight in the Civil War; Patrick Leigh-Fermor became immensely famous for his years in the Cretan mountains in the Second World War and the kidnapping of the German general there. They both drank too much, had complicated love lives, wrote too little and perhaps squandered their talents. Laurie Lee is now best known for his childhood account of the village he grew up in – Cider with Rosie (in the US, Edge of Day), but you have the feeling that nothing ever equalled the intense experiences of those early travels. And in a world in which everything can now be seen from Google Earth it’s hard not to envy their journeys without maps.

I was once tempted to send Patrick Leigh-Fermor a copy of my book on the fall of Constantinople, as he knew the Greek world deeply and lived there for most of his life, but never did, and didn’t want to be a ‘fan’. Laurie Lee I never spoke to but knew by sight as he returned to Slad, the village of his childhood, and we live nearby. (My wife once helped him plant a commemorative tree by our village cricket pitch, which he owned: she almost had to stop the sadly decrepit old man falling into the hole dug for the planting. I once watched him shuffling off the train at the local station with a half-drunk bottle of whisky stuffed in his coat pocket.) Both men lie buried in Gloucestershire churchyards.

Today – on a blue, sunny, bone-dry, and unseasonably cold Spring morning – I went on a whim to pay my respects to Laurie in the Slad churchyard looking across the road down which he departed that summer day in 1935 to the valley and the hills beyond. Inside the church there are some quite lovely stained glass windows that depict his travels to Spain, his violin and his words. 

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Plague routes

This week I have found myself staring at photographs in the press of a perfectly round, very deep and ominously black pit. At the bottom a row of human skeletons.

It’s probably a plague pit discovered during the building of a cross-London rail link, going back to the arrival of the Black Death in London in 1348. Paleoepidemiologists – it’s a new job to me – are hoping to extract sufficient  DNA material from bone samples to determine the cause of death.

Because I wrote something about the origins of the Black Death in my book about Venice, I found myself thinking back to the winter of 1344, when a large Mongol army was beseiging the Genoese fortress of Kaffa on the Crimean peninsula. The attackers failed to take the fort – its walls were thick and Mongol siege equipment evidently wasn’t up to the job. As they sat outside the walls the Mongols mysteriously started to die. A contemporary chronicler recorded what happened next:

‘Disease seized and struck down the whole Tatar army. Every day unknown thousands perished . . . they died as soon as the symptoms appeared on their bodies, the result of coagulating humours in their groins and armpits followed by putrid fever. All medical advice and help was useless. The Tatars, exhausted, astonished and completely demoralised by the appalling catastrophe and virulent disease, realised that there was no hope of avoiding death . . . and ordered the corpses to be loaded into their catapults and flung into Caffa, so that the enemy might be wiped out by the terrible stench. It appears that huge piles of dead were hurled inside, and the Christians could neither hide, flee nor escape from these corpses, which they tried to dump in the sea, as many as they could. The air soon became completely infected and the water supply was poisoned by rotting corpses.’

When the siege failed, the Genoese (and Venetians) sailed away, carrying the Black Death with them so efficiently that it had ringed the western world within a couple of years, spreading down the maritime trade routes of Europe – ships were the engines of globalization in all its forms:

 Maybe now it’s the plane. This week scientists recorded tremors of a modern pandemic threat: the Sars virus killed a man in London who had taken the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Where humans meet in large numbers the potential for interactions are uncontrollable. The great flu pandemic of 1918 that killed more people than the First World War (perhaps 50 to 100 million) was efficiently spread across Europe by the large troop concentrations in camps in Belgium and Northern France. Let’s hope the epidemiologists don’t let anything lethal escape from the sub-soil of London.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Down to the sea in ships

I spend a fair amount of my writing time thinking about boats. Maritime history features quite prominently in my books and I try to get a clear sense of what it would be like to have been on a particular type of ship – and the life of the men who sailed, explored and fought on them. I’ll visit maritime museums at the drop of a hat to peer at seamen’s chests, charts, compasses, paintings and rusting pieces of iron salvaged from the depths.

The one thing that’s usually missing – when you go back more than a couple of hundred years – is the ships themselves. The sea is an unforgiving medium for wood. There is, to my knowledge, only one authentic galley still in existence – and that’s from the eighteenth century. It’s in the Istanbul naval museum – photographed at rather a curious angle it must be said – but it gives a good idea of the claustrophobia of the galley life.

All that’s often recovered from silt-covered underwater burial sites, are a few unspectacular fragments. Here’s the earliest recovered remains of a warship, which I saw last year.


It’s a Phoenician vessel sunk off Sicily in 241 BC in a decisive battle against the Romans during the contest for control of the Mediterranean. I guess it’s about typical of what can be retrieved. The rest has to be re-imagined. Archaeologists have reconstructed this:

Though the battle was made more vivid by the recovery from the sea bed of bronze plated fighting rams and Phoenician helmets:

Because of the sketchy physical evidence there seems to be lively debate among maritime historians and archaeologists about what many of these ships really looked like – how big they were, their steering devices, fighting equipment and so on. There are occasional fascinating projects to recreate vessels from the past. There was a famous reconstruction of a Greek trireme in the 1980s which settled an academic argument – proving that a three-level arrangement of oars was practical:
The trireme Olympias

And I’ve been interested by a recent recreation of a Bronze Age British boat, hewn out of oak, and caulked with moss and animal fat, to answer questions about seafaring 4000 years ago:
Here’s the launch. It leaked somewhat!

I hugely enjoyed stepping aboard a replica caravel last year in Lisbon harbour. Caravels, with their triangular ‘Latin’ sails were the ships that launched the Portuguese on their voyages of discovery in the fifteenth century:

The Vera Cruz

Good at sailing against the wind and shallow-draughted enough to sail up rivers, they enabled the exploration of the whole of the coast of West Africa and the decoding of the Atlantic wind systems. They paved the way for the final cracking of a route to India by Vasco da Gama in 1498. Stepping aboard, you get an idea of just how small these boats were,  as they ploughed their way through the mountainous ocean seas. The Vera Cruz is only 23 metres, 75 feet long. There’s precious little room for the crew working the enormous sails – the main mast is longer than the ship – in all weathers.

All that’s missing is a sense of the sheer toughness of the sailor’s life: the swamping seas, the terrible calms under the hot sun, the foetid squalour and stink of a vessel during a long voyage, the fleas and the rancid biscuits and the foul drinking water, the scurvy and the accidental drownings. In fact I realise I’m quite happy just to write about it all!