Patrick Leigh Fermor waved goodbye to his friends on the Greenwich pier as he sailed for Holland. It was December 1933 and the start of a planned journey in which would take him through Holland, the early months of Nazi Germany, Austria, Hungary, into Romania and Transylvania, Bulgaria, Greece to his ultimate destination of Constantinople.
The following June Laurie Lee left his home in the Cotswolds with much less of a plan than Fermor. Lee’s wandering took him along the south coast of England to London where he paused to work for a year. Then, still without much of a plan, he set sail for Spain in which he would wander from the Atlantic port of Vigo making his way to Madrid then on to the Mediterranean coast.
It would not have been unusual in the 1930s England for young men, Fermor was just short of 19, Lee was 20, to set out from home in search of opportunity or an alternative to the downtrodden times. The Great Slump did not provide much in the way of employment, there was not much reason to stay close to home, these two men were amongst a scattered exodus who wandered simply as there was not much else to do during these times.
Lee tells of the small army of wanderers he encountered on his way to London, some seasoned veterans who knew all the tricks and means of surviving without a permanent abode as well as those thrust into this mode of life by the economic conditions of the 1930s. When they left home there was no pleading, no entreaties to stay, while Lee’s mother seemed resigned to her boy setting out into the world without a plan or a job, Fermor’s mom gleefully assisted her son in setting out a plan to cross Europe.
I’m tempted to refer to Fermor and Lee as the last of the great idle wanderers. When the two started out there was little in the way of a plan, Fermor had a few stops in mind with Istanbul as his end goal, Lee had only a starting point to work with, when his London job came to an end he booked passage to the Spanish port city of Vigo. Lee gives the impression that he stumbled to the London port and randomly selected a departure to a foreign land, I expect there was more thought put into his this decision than declared.
Their modes of travel were simple and cheap. Fermor made himself a vow, not always kept, that he would accept no transport by car. He walked, plied a river barge carrying cement, he took a lift on a horse drawn snow sledge and in Bulgaria joined a caravan of donkeys and mules. Lee managed most of his wandering on foot.
Both men would settle down for the night in a field, a mountain forest or in ruined barns, whatever they came upon after a day of wandering. Homes of peasants would often be opened and for Lee it cost only a performance with his violin. The ins of small towns in Spain provided a spot in a courtyard, bedded next to the family amongst chickens, occasionally with horses and cattle, food from a common pot, at night no electricity. From the fire shadows ‘of man and beast flickered huge like ancestral ghosts, which since the days of the caves have haunted the corners of fantasy, but which the electric light has killed.’ In Malaga Lee found a courtyard which he shared with perhaps a dozen families providing him with a small community during his stay. Fermor found that in Germany and Austria he could often find a spot in the local police station or an Inn, food provided, all of it ‘on the parish.’
But not all was depravity and simplicity. In Toledo Lee was able to bed in the home of he South African poet Roy Campbell. Fermor too found accommodation with those he encountered, but in Hungary managed complete sumptuousness in the castles of archdukes.
Lee left England with a few shillings in his pocket and a violin in his pack. In public streets he would play for a few coins and would on occasion entertain a family providing a rare break in their routine in exchange for a bed and shelter. Fermor managed to earn some pocket change in Vienna drawing portraits, but this did not finance his journey. Both men would head to the post office at the major cities looking for the few pounds that would accompany news from home. They lived frugally on this money and the goodwill of those they encountered.
Lee travelled lightly, in addition to his few shillings and his violin, he declared his blanket and a spare shirt, only a few words in Spanish and no return ticket. Fermor’s inventory was more extensive and included several shirts, shoes, pajamas and dress clothes.
Is this mode of travel from a bygone era? There are those who can ‘rough it’ but the modern world seems to have deprived us of the means to travel with such simplicity. Our itinerary is fixed, our arrival and departure is planned in advance and although we may avoid the luxury suites and sleep in base establishments, it is all very orderly, extra cash but a password away. There are those who meander about and are often dismissed as the homeless or vagabonds, nomads. There are accounts on Reddit and Facebook often by those who are tourists to this experience, others who are have been thrust into this life. Of the later some have embraced this, some struggle for survival. Is there somewhere, in all these experiences, a classic work of idle wandering still to come?
Fermor and Lee hit the road because what the hell else were they going to do, jobs were scarce and mindfully deadening. There was a crisis that forced these two men, with thousands of others, from their community, from their sense of rootedness. The road would provide them with a new community.
The crisis of the 1930s forced these two men but there was worse to come. The crisis of war was but a few years away and yet the signs of the great carnage of Europe confronted the men on their journey. Lee made few mention of these threats. In Sevilla he chummed with an English sailor who warned there would be blood. It was on the Mediterranean coast that he found the two sides had drawn their lines, sides and intentions declared. Guns showed up, there were bombings, Priests were assaulted and the church set afire. The town was mistakenly shelled by a Republican naval ship. Lee himself meddled in the Republican cause, but was extricated by a British naval ship just prior to the complete onset of war, a war to which he would return as a member of the International Brigades in their feeble and bungled effort to fend off the Fascists of Franco.
Fermor encountered the signs of war as soon as he entered Germany, swastikas in the streets and SA men in the pubs. Of the Brownshirts they ‘should have been out in the forest, dancing around Odin and Thor.’ The son of one of his hosts, Fitz, would be killed in Norway in 1940. He wrote of Rotterdam ‘the beautiful city was to be bombed to fragments a few years later. I would have lingered, had I known.’ In Austria he witnessed the Nazis and Communists vying for control. He was to note the Jews and Gypsies that were encountered, Rabbis on trains, Gypsies of a Caravan village and panning for gold and the Jewish woodcutters of Transylvania. For these people ‘terrible omens were gathering, though how terrible none of us knew.’
I’ve let the opportunity to wander, as did Fermor and Lee, pass me by. I’ve had my chances but it is only in retrospect that I see how I’ve missed them. These opportunities are of course not closed to me, I could hit the road to see the world at eye level but I am old and I am fat and I’m disinclined to renounce the comforts that come to the prepared tourist. It has been more than eight centuries since Ibn Jubayr encouraged others to seize ‘the chance of freedom from the cares of the world before family and children ensnare you, before the day comes when you gnash your teeth in regret of the time that is gone.’ Ensarement and the ‘gnashing’ of teeth are perhaps strong terms due to the vagaries of translation but his point is clear. I’ve made choices, family and my need to remain part of their futures bound me to this responsibility, I could step out of this but I’m not willing to do so. With some small gaps I have been gainfully misemployed for my entire adult life. I’ve been immune from the worst of the downside of globalization and of the recent covid pandemic so my hand will not be forced. I will not be providing the next classic on idle wandering, if it is to come it will be from one now wandering the roads of our globalized pandemic world.