In the Ether

23 November 2011

For those of you who own an iPhone or iPod Touch, I've just been signed up with Ether Books, a 'mobile publisher' that provides short stories, essays and other short writing directly to your mobile phone. All you need to do is download the application for free from the Apple App Store.

Ether are doing a great job in reinvigorating interest in short writing, and have been endorsed by writers like Hilary Mantel and Louis de Bernières (who have provided stories for the app). It's a format that's just been launched and is very much in the trial stage, but I think it could be a perfect vehicle for the kind of short, snapshot-like pieces I've written before when I travel.

So, as a side-project to the book I'm writing for Arcadia, I'll be publishing short travelogues from my journey, along the lines of my Brief Encounters from Estonia, Ethiopia and India. Have a look at Ether Books and get that app, you iPeople.

Read and comment

To trace the route of the absent

14 October 2011

I've just finished Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking, which explores the social and cultural roles of walking throughout history -- from the earliest bipedal humans to medieval pilgrims, the bohemian flâneurs of Paris to the great political marches of the 20th century. There's some fascinating things in there (who knew that the Ramblers Association began as a radical anti-landownership movement, a working-class rural Victorian version of Reclaim the Streets?), and I'd like to share a few passages that seem relevant to my own journey:

On roads and writing

[Roads] unfold in time as one travels along them, just as a story does as one reads or listens... Just as writing allows one to read the words of someone who is absent, so roads make it possible to trace the route of the absent. Roads are a record of those who have gone before, and to follow them is to follow people who are no longer there -- not saints and gods anymore, but shepherds, hunters, engineers, emigrants, peasants to market, or just commuters ... To write is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features on a familiar route. To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as guide -- a guide one may not always agree with or trust, but who can at least be counted upon to take one somewhere.

The image of the walker, alone and active and passing through rather than settled in the world, is a powerful vision of what it means to be human, whether it's a hominid traversing grasslands or a Samuel Beckett character shuffling down a rural road.

On urban and rural space

Streets are the space left over between buildings. A house alone is an island surrounded by a sea of open space, and the villages that preceded cities were no more than archipelagos in that same sea. But as more and more buildings arose, they became a continent, the remaining open space no longre like the sea but like rivers, canals, and streams running between the land masses. People no longer moved anyhow in the open sea of rural space but travelled up and down the streets, and just as narrowing a waterway increases flow and speed, so turning open space into the spillways of streets directs and intensifies the flood of walkers.

Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors -- home, car, gym, office, shops -- disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.

In the country one's solitude is geographical -- one is altogether outside society, so solitude has a sensible geographical explanation, and then there is a kind of communion with the nonhuman. In the city, one is alone because the world is made up of strangers, and to be a stranger surrounded by strangers, to walk along silently bearing one's secrets and imagining those of the people one passes, is among the starkest of luxuries.

Read and comment

Talismanic tokens

10 October 2011

Using my funding from the Globetrotters Club, I have begun purchasing essential provisions for the journey. Originally I intended to go to Millets, as this is where Paddy bought his supplies before setting out in 1933, but in the end I found what I needed in Cotswold Outdoor. It's kind of reassuring to know that despite 80 years of advances in technology and materials, and the growth of an entire 'outdoors' hiking industry, the most important things I could buy are still a rucksack and a decent pair of boots. Essentially I've just bought the same stuff Paddy did, but lighter and more waterproof.

So rather than hobnail boots, I bought a pair of Scarpa Terra GTX boots, waterproofed with Goretex. Rather than an 'old Army greatcoat,' a lightweight Berghaus jacket. I'll carry my life in a 35-litre Osprey Atmos rucksack, which has a special kind of elasticated webbing to keep it off my back. Paddy packed 'different layers of jersey, grey flannel shirts' and 'a soft leather windbreaker' -- I have layers of merino wool and a Rab vest insulated with down.

I'm generally not in the least consumer-minded -- my shopping trips generally consist of buying the cheapest things I can, and regretting it within a month -- but the Globetrotters have given me the chance to buy the very best I can. There's a kind of magic to these things. Trying on these super-soft, light-as-a-feather walking garments, the things that will keep me warm and dry as I trek through Central Europe's winter, felt like the bit in the Lord of the Rings where the Hobbits get given magic cloaks and chainmail made of miracle metal, talismanic tokens and charms to see them through dark times.

Read and comment

Romantic masochism invested in and infected by a new age

9 October 2011

Last week I met Paddy's great-nephew, James Kenward, at the house of a mutual friend. He told some very wonderful stories about staying in Paddy's house in Greece, and talked a lot about the essential courtesy and gentlemanliness of the man. I wanted to share some of James' thoughts on my upcoming journey (taken from an email to Artemis Cooper, Paddy's friend and biographer -- which is why I am referred to in the third person):

Personally I always find it difficult to understand why someone would seek to follow the line of someone else's arrow ... but the mission statement that emerged through our conversation seemed full of fresh intent and knocked the aforementioned out of me. Perhaps the very course of a great journey holds its own through time's passing like the essence of structure provides timelessness to a heroic tale. The breadth of Europe will not cease to be a story and having such an incredible point of reference in Paddy's writing adds another dimension.  I think that Nick will dig deeply and write well of his journey and my hope and suspicion is that the seed of his inspiration -- his regard for Paddy and his adventuring ways -- will yield entirely new crop that Paddy would admire. Frankly his romantic masochism invested in and infected by a new age interests me -- previously there was snow, and there will still be that -- but imagine the frigging motorways.

Read and comment

May be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths

20 September 2011

I've finally got around to updating my route page, with more detailed maps to show the journey to Istanbul in three stages. It's as accurate as I can get it for now. Some place names have changed since the books were published, especially around Hungary and Romania, but I've given the modern names whenever I could find them. Let me know if you spot things that need updating.

And here is a list of all the cities, towns and villages I'm walking through. If you live along my route and would be kind enough to offer accommodation for a night, in exchange for some traveller's tales -- or know of anyone who does -- please do get in touch.


Read and comment

Every tribute holds a trap

19 September 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.


Read and comment

To walk is to inhabit the world

22 August 2011

I've just returned from Uncivilisation, the Dark Mountain festival. Dark Mountain is extremely hard to define, but it's basically a journal of essays, short stories, poetry and artwork -- as well as a wider social movement -- exploring new myths and new narratives arising from the cultural confusion of environmental and economic collapse. They've published four of my short stories, and I hope to write them a piece of non-fiction during my walk to Istanbul: as an exploration of Europe's changes -- its landscapes, environments, cultures, people -- this project has a definite Dark Mountain feel, especially as Europe seems to be going through various collapses of its own.

Among the many incredible people I met at Uncivilisation was Adam Weymouth, a writer and storyteller who walked from England to Istanbul last year. He followed a very different route from Paddy's, through France, Italy and the Balkans (ie. the sunny bits!), over the course of 8 months. On a wander through the woods he talked about his reasons for the journey, and I'd like to share a few of his words with you here:

Walking into big cities isn't lots of fun. There are all these places that are dehumanised now -- unfit for walking. Places you zip through in a car, and only when you walk you realise they are real places.

During transport we're encouraged to forget about the journey -- we have the idea that good things only start happening when we arrive. But to walk is to inhabit the world. Wayfarers are not unsuccessful occupants, but successful inhabitants.

Before planes and trains, pilgrims had to return from their destination by walking. Constantinople or Rome was the journey's centre point -- your real destination was your front door. 

He also talked about Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist who analysed the structure of myths to identify the basic narratives that underly all cultures. A mythical journey, Campbell says, does not end with the slaying of the beast, the apparent achievement of the quest -- it ends when the hero returns to integrate the knowledge he has gained into everyday life, to 'bestow boons on his fellow man.' In recent times, we have forgotten the importance of the return.

How does this relate to my journey? Will Istanbul be my centre point, before I turn round and walk home?  To be honest, probably not. I am not undertaking a pilgrimage, and if you ever catch me referring to myself as an archetypal hero on a mythical journey, please give me a hefty slap. What I can try my best to do, though -- without sounding too ridiculous -- is to bestow boons on my fellow man through the writing I bring back. Europe is changing, the world is changing, and the stories we tell are important. Paddy's words are my map on this journey... perhaps my words can be a map for something else, who knows?

Read and comment

Thank you all!

18 August 2011

Thank you, dank u wel, dankeschön, ďakujem, köszönöm, mulţumesc, благодаря and teşekkür ederim to everyone who supported this project on We Did This. Forty five people in seven different countries have funded me a grand total of £1,730 towards my walk to Istanbul. My feet will walk true, my eyes will be keen, I will be a bipedal writing machine. You're all marvellous. Read and comment

Waving at cars

11 August 2011

I've just been talking to Matt Gross, the ex New York Times Frugal Traveller, who walked a section of Paddy's route -- from Vienna to Budapest -- last year. Matt Gross is a man who specialises in getting lost in foreign countries, and one of the things we discussed was the potential, mind-aching dreariness of trudging alongside major highways (numerous people have warned me that this is something I'll have to face, especially in Slovakia and Hungary). Two fine pieces of advice stand out:

Wave at each oncoming car. The proportion of people who wave back will tell you a lot about where you are.


Keep track of trash along the roads. See if the things people throw out of their cars differ from country to country.

Matt's Getting Lost column is well worth following. (If you can follow the lost.)

Read and comment

The magic underneath the surface

8 August 2011

I've now reached (surpassed!) my We Did This funding target, and am up to an amazing £1,660.Thank you so much, everyone who's supported me, and I look forward to thanking you more eloquently in the form of postcards, books and CDs, which will be lovingly prepared and sent from the long walk across Europe.

Over the past three weeks, support has come from all over the world. It does seem as if this project has struck a chord with a lot of people, and I've had requests to document many aspects of Europe's changes. I'd just like to quote one person (someone I've never met) who funded me:

It wasn't Patrick Leigh Fermor's writing as such that sparked my interest in your project, but more my connection to Europe, having spent a lot of time travelling throughout Europe the last few years.  I am an artist myself, and was wandering around the internet looking at funding sources, then came across your project.  I loved the idea of uncovering 'wild' Europe.  I had always sensed that in the land, as I'd been travelling, and was thrilled at the idea of someone investigating and documenting that -- the magic underneath the surface.

I will be doing my best to scratch at the surface to find the magic. Thank you so much, once more, everyone who's helping me do this.

Read and comment

The lost art of postcard writing

4 August 2011

An article was published today on 'the lost art of postcard writing.' As funding is still coming in, I haven't yet counted up the total number of postcards I'll be sending (each complete with a short short story) as rewards for funders on my walk through Europe, but it must be into the hundeds by now. It looks like I'll be doing to bring this dying art back from the brink.

Read and comment

An endless succession of corn fields

1 August 2011

I've been thinking a lot about the landscape and terrain. The Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum is an excellent place to get advice, so I posted something about my journey on the thread for each of the countries I'll visit. I received some thoughtful and detailed responses, and even some kind offers of accommodation, along with many replies along the lines of 'why the hell don't you do this in summer?' and 'why don't you follow a more picturesque route?'

Of course, walking across Europe back then was probably simpler and safer, not as much traffic and slower at that. Also, then you didn't have artificial barriers of limited access highways where it is illegal to walk...

This is one of the least interesting regions of Slovakia to walk through, it's pancake flat with few sights to see apart from the Danube river itself. In the middle of winter it will be especially bleak...

You are basically going to spend all your time in Hungary walking through the boring agricultural landscape of the Great Hungarian Plain, most of the time along major roads, and unless you're very lucky, in miserable weather...

Wet, wind, foggy, snow even. All of those can be expected in December. The days will be short, and even shorter when the weather is dark and gloomy...

The puszta landscapes can indeed be deadly boring. Cycling from Romania to Budapest, with strong headwind and an endless succession of corn fields and nondescript villages, we just gave up after two days and hopped on a train. But all this is necessary if you're following PLF!

All of which serves to remind me that the route will not necessarily be pretty. (I have a dull recurrent nightmare of finding myself trudging down dual carriageways for hundreds of miles with nothing green in sight.) But my aim is to document the journey as it is, the changes to Europe's landscapes and cultures, not to stroll from one pretty village to another. Ugliness (or lack of beauty) must be mapped as well.

Read and comment


Subscribe to News