Patrick Leigh Fermor – A Time of Gifts

Patrick Leigh Fermor – A Time of Gifts

Patrick Leigh Fermor is a British author, scholar and soldier, who was born in 1915. After being thrown out of school, he decided
to walk across Europe from Holland to Turkey, and set out in 1933, just as Hitler began his rise to power.

A Time of Gifts is one of two books he wrote during this journey, describing his thoughts and experiences while travelling.

Germany! … I could hardly believe I was there.
For someone born in the second year of World War 1, those three syllables were heavily charged.
Even as I trudged across it, early subconscious notions, when one first confused Germans with
germs and knew that both were bad, still sent up fumes; fumes, moreover, which the ensuing years
had expanded into clouds as dark and baleful as the Ruhr smoke along the horizon and still potent
enough to unloose over the landscape a mood of – what? Something too evasive to be captured and
broken down in a hurry.

I must go back fourteen years, to the first complete event I can remember. I was being led
by Margaret, the daughter of the family who were looking after me [during the war, he stayed
with a family in the country, waiting for a ship to take him to join his family in India],
across the fields in Northamptonshire in the late afternoon of 18 June 1919. It was Peace Day,
and she was twelve, I think, and I was four. In one of the water-meadows, a throng of villagers
had assembled round an enormous bonfire all ready for kindling, and on top of it, ready for
burning, were dummies of the Kaiser and the Crown Prince. The Kaiser wore a real German
spiked-helmet and a cloth mask with huge whiskers; Little Willy was equipped with a cardboard
monocle and a busby made of a hearthrug, and both had real German boots. Everyone lay of the
grass, singing It’s a Long, Long Trail A-winding, The Only Girl in the World, and Keep the Home
Fires Burning; then Good-byee, Don’t Cryee, and K-K-K-Katie. We were waiting till it was dark
enough to light the bonfire. (An irrelevant remembered detail: when it was almost dark, a man
called Thatcher Brown said ‘Half a mo!’ and, putting a ladder against the stack, he climbed up
and pulled off the boots, leaving tufts of straw brusting out below the knees. There were
protestations: ‘Too good to waste,’ he said.) At last someone set fire to the dry furze at the
bottom and up went the flames in a great blaze. Everyone joined hands and danced round it,
singing Mademoiselle from Armentireres and Pack up Your Troubles in Your Old Kitbag. The whole
field was lit up and when the flames reached the two dummies, irregular bolleys of bangs and
cracks broke out; they must have been stuffed with fireworks. Squibs and stars showered into
the night. Everyone clapped and cheered, shouting : ‘There goes Kaiser Bill!’ For the children
there, hoisted on shoulders like me, it was a moment of ecstasy and terror. …

It was a lurid start. A bit later, Margaret took me to watch trucks full of departing German
prisoners go by; then to see The Four Horsement of the Apocalypse, which left a confused
impression of exploding shells, bodies on barbed wire, and a Prussian officers’ orgy in a
chateau. Much later on, old copies of Punch and Queen Mary’s Gift Book and albums of war-time
cartoons abetted the sinister mystique with a new set of stage properties: atrocity stories,
farmhouses on fire, French cathedrals in ruins, Zeppelins and the goose-step; uhlands galloping
through the autumn woods, Death’s Head Hussars, corsetted officers with Iron Crosses and fencing
slashes, monocles and staccato laughs… (How different from our own carefree subalterns in similar
illustrations! Fox-terriers and Fox’s puttees and Anzora hair-cream and Abdullah cigarettes; and
Old Bill lighting his pipe under the star-shells!) The German military figures had a certain
terrifying glamour, but not the civilians. The bristling paterfamilias, his tightly-buttoned wife,
the priggish spectacled children and the odious dachshund reciting the Hymn of Hate among the
sausages and the beer-mugs – nothing relieved the alien strangeness of these visions. Later still
the villairns of books (when they were not Chinese) were always Germans – spymasters of magalomaniac
sceintists bent on world domination. (When dd these visions replace the early nineteenth-century
stereotype of picturesque principalities exclusively populated – except for Prussia – by
philosophers and composters and bandsmen and peasants and students drinking and singing in
harmony? After the Franco-Prussian War, perhaps.) More recently, All Quiet on the Western Front
had appeared; tales of night life in Belin came soon after … There was not much else until the
Nazis came into power.


Hans, who was my host, had been a fellow-student at Cologne University with Karl, the bookkseller. He told me at dinner that he had fixed up a free lift for me next day on a string of barges heading
upstream, all the way to the Black Forest if I wanted. We drank delicious Rhine wine and talked about English literature. The key figures in Germany I gathered, were Shakesepeare, Byron, Poe, Galsworthy,
Wilde, Maugham, Virginia Woolf, Charles Morgan and, very recently, Rosamund Lehmann. What about Priestley, they asked: The Good Companions? – and The Story of San Michele? It was my first venture inside a German
house. The interior was composed of Victorian furniture, bobbled curtains, a stove with green china tiles and many books with characteristic German bindings. Hans’ cheerful
landlady, who was the widow of a don at the University, joined us over tea with brandy in it.

I answered many earnest questions about England: how lucky and enviable I was, they said, to belong to that fortunate
kingdom where all was so just and sensible! The allied occupation of the Rhineland had come to an end less than ten years before, and the British, she said, had left an excellent impression. The life she described
revolved round football, boxing matches, fox-hunts and theatricals. The Tommies got drunk, of course, and boxed each other in the street – she lifted her hands in the posture of squaring-up – but they scarecely
ever set about the locals. As for the colonel who had been billeted on her for years, with his pipe and his fox terriers – what a gentleman! What kindness and tact and humour! ‘Ein Gentleman durch und durch!’
And his soldier servant – an angel! – had married a German girl. This idyllic world of cheery Tommies and Colonel Brambles sounded almost too good to be true and I basked vicariously in their lustre. But the
French, they all agreed, were a different story. There had, it seems, been much friction, bloodshed even, and the ill-feeling still lingered. It sprang mainly from the presence of Senegalese units among the
occupying troops; their inclusion had been interpreted as an act of calculated vengeance.

Click on the links to see the kinds of newspapers and books that Patrick Leigh Fermor would have read before setting out on his journey.

The Queen’s Gift Book

The War Illustrated