Following the unfollowable
October 18, 2012
Last night I was at the book launch for Artemis Cooper’s amazing biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, An Adventure. I was honoured to be interviewed, alongside Colin Thubron and Robert MacFarlane, for the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 — you can hear it here.
It was wonderful to gather with people who knew and loved him well. Artemis told me she keeps the postcard I sent her from Heidelberg’s Roten Ochsen Inn inside her first-edition copy of A Time of Gifts. That means a lot.
The evening made me think a lot about what I’m setting out to do with my own writing. As reviews like this make clear, Paddy was a towering figure both in literature and in life, and his presence over my work could perhaps be seen as daunting. But last night really helped bring home what my book is about, and what it’s not.
For a start, it’s not biographical. I’m not writing about Paddy, or even writing about his writing, but about his journey and all the wonder, mystery, wildness and adventure that it opened up for me.
It’s not about history, as such. Obviously history underlay every step I took on the road — history was in every hill I climbed, and every face I saw. Of course I’m writing with awareness of immense historical change, and much of my journey involved searching through history’s rubble, both in reality and in imagination. But a book can be saturated in history without being a ‘book about history.’ I’m less concerned with ‘history’ than with ‘stories,’ and especially with the border — far more porous than we know — between history and myth.
Colin Thubron spoke last night of how Paddy is ‘a marvellous example of somebody who can’t be followed.’ This is in my mind as I write — following the unfollowable. I did follow Paddy’s path, but where it leads me will be somewhere else entirely. I followed his route, but the journey is my own. I have to let my story tell itself — and afterwards, when it’s told, I can let Paddy’s presence back in to illuminate what it needs to.
Now I’m six rough chapters into my book, and have retraced my own journey as far as Budapest. I’m loving every minute of it.
Expect updates soon on publishing news. Until then, I strongly recommend you buy a copy of Artemis’ book. It’s a journey in itself.