Every tribute holds a trap

September 19, 2011

Since I decided to do this journey, and set a date for my departure (9th of December, if you’re not keeping up), I’ve discovered that, inevitably, others have touched this idea before me. This should have come as no surprise — I’m sure many people who read Paddy’s work fantasise about doing the same — but I’ll admit it still gave me that slight sinking feeling. First I discovered that Benedict Allen made a BBC documentary following the route in 2008 (although he didn’t walk the whole way), culminating in a meeting with Paddy in his house in Greece. Then I found out about Matt Gross, the New York Times Frugal Traveller, who walked the stretch between Vienna and Budapest in 2010. Now I’ve had my attention drawn to Blue River, Black Sea by the travel writer Andrew Eames, published in 2009, in which he travels the length of the Danube by bicycle, boat, and, for some reason, a green plastic bathtub. Although Eames doesn’t set out to follow all of Paddy’s route (and his travels finish in Romania, not Turkey), he does take Paddy as his inspiration and retraces much of his journey, including riding a horse across the Great Hungarian Plain and tracking down the surviving remnants of Middle European aristocracy.

I must admit that I haven’t yet seen the BBC documentary (although Benedict has sent me a copy), or read Blue River, Black Sea. I will, at some point soon, because they are obviously important and have a bearing on what I’m doing. But I think it’s equally important to not get too hung-up on the fact that other writers and travellers have trodden the same, or similar, ground. The fact that others have had this idea, or variations on this idea, does not invalidate my own journey, or make it less interesting or exciting. (Unless my writing, and the story it tells, turns out to be less interesting and exciting… and if I believe that this is happening, if I realise one day that my writing and walking has morphed into a passionless trudge, I’ll be on the first bus home, that’s for sure.)

I’m not setting out to write a history or biography. Nor even, perhaps, a travel book, in the strictest sense. History and politics fascinate me, but what I’m really seeking out here are the shadows of the half-forgotten Europe — ‘myths, lost voices, history and hearsay’ — that Paddy captured like no-one else, exploring the changes to landscape, culture, attitudes and feeling. Although others have done sections of the route, for TV or travel literature, no-one (as far as I know) has walked it in its entirety, from Rotterdam to Istanbul, as I intend to do. This is important, because what I’m interested in above all is the experience of walking. I don’t intend this to be a tribute tour, a step by step reenactment of a voyage, but a new journey along an old road. The route I follow is Paddy’s route — and his words are my travel guide — but the journey I make can only be my own.

The title of this post comes from this review of Eames’ book by Dimiter Kenarov of The Nation. I’ll stress again that I haven’t read the book yet, but the review makes some interesting points about what I guess could be called the ‘creative limitations of re-creation.’ It carries a warning about the dangers of harking on about the past, and reminds me that, although the ghosts of an older Europe are in my mind, my journey takes place in the modern day, and the modern day is as vivid and thrilling (if not, perhaps, as picturesque) as anything we may half-glimpse through the beguiling mists of history.

Finally, it contains the observation:

The main strength of Leigh Fermor’s work is its freewheeling, uncharted nature, taking life as it comes.

To which I can only say ‘Yes!’ And note that down as a piece of advice more important than any research.


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