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Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor's footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn
Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor's footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn
by Nick Hunt
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.69

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A new travel classic, 3 April 2014
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For a writer to follow the pre-war footsteps of the legendary ‘PLF’ is brave at the best, foolhardy and vainglorious at the worst. Some may see it as a brazen literary stunt, others as a hagiographic pilgrimage in honour of an eccentric English travel writer. To his great credit, Nick Hunt has avoided all such epithets by adopting a ‘compare and contrast’ approach that bridges the 80 year interval with perspicacity and wit, although at times he struggles as he finds himself ‘viewing Paddy’s journey from the far side of a gulf, an alienating change so huge I couldn’t make out its dimensions’. One example is the spectre of the concentration camp at Mauthausen where an ‘unimaginable inhumanity lay between Paddy’s walk and mine’; another ‘the gutted and derelict country houses [home to Paddy on many occasions], the visible symbols of vast social upheavals’. At Sunny Beach on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, he bemoans that ‘the remnants of the past served only to emphasise the crassness of what had replaced it’.
From the beginning, Hunt applies a sensitive dexterity to his selections of PLF’s writings and avoids being swamped by the waves of glistening prose. In this respect, his journey equates to a voyage as he navigates surely and skilfully through the eddies and reefs of 20th century European history, often confronting unpleasant realities such as the increase in autobahns from 70 miles in 1933 to 7,000 miles today and the hideous Wasserkraftwerken barricading the great Danube. How easy to run aground on the colourful charts bequeathed by PLF and to leave the reader shipwrecked in a sea of forensicity.
Thankfully, Walking the Woods and the Water is very much Hunt’s book about his journey – the places he stayed, the people he met, the pain he experienced and the vagaries of the weather he endured. His ability to describe the latter on a daily basis with a freshness and almost Turneresque sense of colour and mood is admirable. At one point he stops in a Bavarian forest when ‘things revealed themselves as they were, not what I expected them to be...the skin of the world would peel away without the slightest warning’. Here lies the essence of masterful travel writing.
As ever, the weather and the seasons dictate the walker’s life and conspire in the winter to censor the landscape as Hunt strides out through Holland and Germany. It becomes a matter of head down and keep going as the rain and snow descend on him which adds rather than detracts from the journey as it exposes just how jolly tough it was; the night spent in the hunting hide by Mauthausen sent shivers through the pages. The arrival of spring in Hungary heralds a new world of dusty tracks, bivouacs in budding woods and a sense of elation as he enters the complex world of Mitteleuropa with its subterranean hatreds and still defining complexes.
In Romania, confronted by the extraordinary rather than by the mundane, Hunt’s emotional stride seems to quicken. It may be that the onset of spring has helped as the vistas lengthen and farmers return to their fields but whatever the reasons, he becomes more alive and his writing more animated. His visit to Calpanas [which I visited in 2006] is beautifully described but it is on his journey across the Retezat Mountain that he really hits top form, conveying the personal drama and physical exertion with a magnetic and embracing inclusivity. I felt truly sodden by the end of the chapter.
Bulgaria proves an exception in that Hunt had not read The Broken Road as he sets off from Vidin; his references to Paddy’s journey are thus made in hindsight. This in no way detracts from his lively and zany account of the last leg of his marathon quest which, at times, strikes a more spontaneous note as he homes in on Istanbul across the Balkans and along the Black Sea shore. The stand-off with the wild boar on his last night in Bulgaria trumps PLF in his cave!
Hunt has given us a travel classic where ‘most of the revelations…came about not through expectation – and certainly not through planning – but through unpredictable encounters, happenstance and good fortune’. Reading it becomes ‘a source of happiness’ as walking became to Hunt. It is his ability to share unreservedly with us the intensity of his experiences, the honesty of his observations and that ‘three pronged convergence of mind, body and imagination’ that deservedly put Walking the Wood and Water into the canon of memorable travel writing.

by Val ffrench Blake
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 15.90

4.0 out of 5 stars Getting it right, 3 Dec 2013
This review is from: Mainstay (Hardcover)
In a life that spanned 98 years, Val ffrench Blake's journey was quintessentially English and bucolic. Early on in this entertaining autobiography, he tells us that he `had a good memory, valuable in absorbing and retaining facts...' As a result, he has left us with an extraordinarily detailed social history of England, a rural reference book in parallel to Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time.
Four years old when his father was killed in action in the First World War, the young ffrench Blake was a gifted boy, winning a Scholarship to Eton, and a competent musician and artist. After passing out of Sandhurst, he joined his regiment, the 17th/21st Lancers, in India. With his broad range of interests, it was not surprising that army life in India began to pall despite its sporting attractions which he chronicles with affection.
By any yardstick, ffrench Blake had a `good war', recovering from life threatening wounds received in Tunisia to command his regiment with distinction in Italy at the young age of 31. His recollections of the war years reveal a man who cared deeply about his men and had a strong aversion to any needless waste of life. Clearly he found it difficult to tolerate fools, the more so when they were senior officers. His last job in the army suited him ideally. As one of the college chief instructors at Sandhurst, he was part of the post-war team that rewrote the 18 months Military Syllabus, placing emphasis on the study of war and art of leadership rather than basic training. He was good at thinking `out of the box'.
After leaving the army at the relatively young age of 38, ffrench Blake led a life of infinite variety, at one time a dairy farmer in Cornwall, at another an art dealer and picture restorer. He used his gifts and talents to the full, modestly writing that `I have greatly enjoyed all my contacts and ventures with the Arts...and with the amateur's approach to most of them: The amateur practices until he can do it right, the professional until he cannot do it wrong'. Although by his own admission lacking the creative muse, ffrench Blake certainly seemed to have `got it right' with his immaculate reproductions of Breughel's Return of the Herd and The Haymakers. He was a first class picture restorer.
His favourite pastimes - horses, dogs, shooting, fishing, music and painting - all receive a chapter of their own in the second half of the book. It would have been easier for the reader if they had been interwoven with the narrative throughout as the author tends to repeat himself. Mind you, most of us tend to do that long before we get to 96! Mainstay is a wonderful vignette of England through the eyes of an observant and perspicacious countryman for that is what ffrench Blake was at heart. With a generous sprinkling of army and county names, there is much fun to be had in accompanying the author on this 20th century English Odyssey.

In the Dolphin's Wake
In the Dolphin's Wake
by Harry Bucknall
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.78

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A glorious zany guide to Greek island hopping, 4 Jan 2012
This review is from: In the Dolphin's Wake (Paperback)
Bucknall has brilliantly and flamboyantly completed the journey which most Greek travellers yearn to do, namely to island hop without rushing and in so doing to savour the stories, sights and sounds of each of these unique isles which make up the maritime gems of the Greek archipelagic crown. Rich in history, both ancient and modern, these outposts of Hellenism still retain their quirky individuality which Bucknall has an unerring sense of divining. Even in places layered with a thick veneer of tourism, he uncovers real island life through conversing with ex-pat bar owners, Eastern European hotel workers, aristocratic Greeks or local fishermen among others. It is this ability to talk affably to all that marks Bucknall out as an observer and raconteur of distinction. Throughout the book, readers are unfailingly entertained, lightly informed and gently educated, the end result being an urge to follow in Bucknall's footsteps. In the Dolphin's Wake deserves prime of place on the reading list of everyone heading for Greece, bedside, inflight or beach.

Messines 1917 (Campaign)
Messines 1917 (Campaign)
by Alexander Turner
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A battle deservedly won, 29 Nov 2011
In this last volume of his magisterial trilogy of 1917 [Vimy Ridge and Cambrai preceeded it] Turner explains with his customary clarity the origins and execution of this famous battle. A comprehensive overview of the opposing armies, their orders of battle, commanders and plans leads to a most helpful introduction on mine warfare on the Western front, a subject many readers will be unfamiliar with. Turner then turns his attention to the planning of and preparation for the battle and gives credit to the extraordinary staff work which went into the massive logistical effort to move guns and ammunition into place without detection. Likewise, he gives Plummer and his staff credit for utilizing the air assets available to them whether ballon based observers reporting on counter-bombardment batteries or fighter aircraft preventing enemy observation flights. These men were certainly no 'donkeys'; on the contrary, they had come up to speed with the rapidly evolving technologies and in many cases were on top of them.
H hour is vividly described and the assault is easily followed through succinct descriptions of the various phases and excellent maps. In his conclusion, Turner resists the temptation to turn to hindsight and evaluates the outcome of the battle strictly within the political and military parameters of the day. If Plummer erred on the side of caution, it was because he had a limited objective which he successfully realised in the capture of the ridge. The idea that somehow the attack ended in failure since there was no exploitation of surprise and no breakthrough into the German rear is not entertained by Turner, correctly in my view.
This is an eloquent and easily understood account of Messines Ridge and I hope that a copy finds its way in the knapsack of all the school teachers who shepherd their classes through Flanders each summer.
How the mines were kept secret from the Germans until H hour remains a mystery. Surely Lady Luck had a great deal to do with it.

People of the Storm God: Travels in Macedonia
People of the Storm God: Travels in Macedonia
by Will Myer
Edition: Paperback
Price: 12.25

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Macedonian medley, 31 May 2005
Will Myer died at the early age of 34, just as he was getting into his stride as a travel writer, historian and Islamic expert. After journeying with him across the Balkans in People of the Storm God, through the convoluted political landscape of Macedonia, my sense of loss is real and acute for his was a rare talent.
Here possibly was the long-awaited heir to Patrick Leigh Fermor; they both have the gift of crafting history, religion, art and politics into a seamless informative, witty and vivid human narrative. And their great charm is to wear their erudition lightly.
This book is all the more remarkable in that the text is comprised of Myer's notes, unedited and unembellished by him. His widow, Shaoni, has sympathetically compiled them in their original form, allowing us to enjoy their freshness and vitality.
Myer has that wonderful knack of rarely letting the reader out of his sight. From the beginning, not only are his powers of observation dazzling but his descriptions of the world around him enchanting - at the little church at Rozen, he finds "delicate wooden galleries encircle a small basilica which is tied down by a spider's web of grapevines"; in the village of Melnik "around me the mountains raised their peaks against a sky which seemed to be made of the thinnest glass".
Helped by a good grasp of Russian and German, his ability to engage with the whole spectrum of Macedonian opinion - Bulgarians, Turks, Albanians, Macedonians, Greeks, and even itinerant Australians - is impressive in its sensitivity and depth. He is one of those travel writers who gets the best out of people by not prompting them. Old ladies, priests, drunks, train conductors, musicians, all use him to give voice to their concerns and to tell their own stories, nothing contrived, nothing artificial here. Occasionally, when he senses the conversation closing in on him, he nimbly changes the subject but that's as far as he seeks to control.
For me, one of the best passages is his encounter with the Dervishes in Skopje. From his initial interview with the Sheik, reminiscent of a contestant tackling his special subject on Master Mind, to when he finally emerges from the zikr, this is English travel writing at its very best, on par with Robert Byron. He gets us to laugh, chant, hallucinate, then collapse from exhaustion, only to pull us to our feet and drag us off to celebrate Orthodox Easter at the cathedral, all within the space of a few hours.
I share his disappointment at not finding the Bektashi tekke. This extraordinary Islamic sect, he tells us, has the habit of wearing bells around their ankles to warn insects of their approach. But this is of scant importance, for after extensive and at times passionate interviews with every form of Macedonian religious denomination and countless intriguing visits to mosques, churches, chapels and monasteries, we have been both well educated and splendidly entertained.
There was a serious quest to Myer's travels, to establish the political and cultural parameters of Macedonia in 1996 and 1997, post-Dayton Agreement. This is after all the Balkans where nothing is what it appears to be. Sadly we are not privy to his conclusions as the book remained unfinished but I feel he would be heartened to know that despite his sometimes gloomy prognostications, Macedonia has so far avoided war.
It is entirely fitting that Signal Books have published People of the Storm God under the heading of "Classic Travel Writing". Myer wrote in the genre of Leigh Fermor, Byron, West and Durham, indeed he excelled at it. He didn't copy or imitate, he simply embraced their tradition and has left us all richer through the opportunity to share his heaven-sent perspicacity and glorious flair for dialogue and descriptive writing.

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