Talking Travel Writing at The British Museum

The British Museum

I flew over to London last weekend for a packed 3 days of events.

It was good to be back in one of the world’s truly great cities. My last visit was in 2016.

I’ve often wondered if I could live in London. It’s such a fascinating city, with so much history packed into every single block and alley. I’m most attracted by the overwhelming opportunity to attend literary events, to make connections in the world of publishing, and to meet other like minded readers at the city’s excellent used bookshops. And of course there’s the historic pubs and English ales.

Can I live in the Enlightenment Room…? Please…?

But London’s cost of living is extremely high. The currency exchange rates are punishing. And the quality of life in such a packed place makes day to day living far less comfortable than Berlin. Yes, Berlin lacks opportunity and events in the world of English language publishing, but we have so much else, and London is less than an hour and a half away.

We hit the ground running on Friday morning, dropping our bags at a hotel in west end Shepherd’s Bush, before grabbing a quick fortifying pint and making tracks for the British Museum.

A copy of Mani — my favourite among Paddy’s books — signed by the author for his wife Joan

I wanted to see an exhibit called Charmed Lives in Greece. It was about the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, and his connection with the painters Nikos Ghika and John Craxton.

Paddy Leigh Fermor made his mark on travel literature when he decided, at the age of 18, to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. His life had hit a bit of a dead end, and he didn’t know what else to do. But travel has a way of opening new horizons.

His timing couldn’t have been more interesting. It was the early 1930’s, Hitler had already come to power in Germany, and Paddy was trudging through a vanishing world.

He would sleep under a haystack one night in a field, and the next he’d be put up at the chateau of some aristocrat. A chance meeting with a German early in his trip and a letter of introduction saw him handed from noble house to noble house, where he would feast like royalty, be given access to vast libraries, pick up new languages, and talk to people whose way of life was about to be shattered by the Second World War.

Paddy didn’t begin to write up these experiences for another 30 years. But the three books he produced about his trip — A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and the unfinished final instalment The Broken Road — became classics of the genre.

John Craxton painted the covers for all Paddy’s books…

The Second World War and his years with the Greek resistance in Crete interrupted Paddy’s travels, but he would be drawn to Greece like a magnet again and again, writing two more books about the country, Mani and Roumeli, and eventually building a wonderful home at Kardamyli, where he lived out the rest of his years.

An insatiably curious autodidact, Leigh Fermor’s writing style is richly layered with description, building up words the way a painter layers a canvas with oils. He was wonderful at relating ancient to modern worlds.

I’ve read all of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books, as well as the excellent biography by Artemis Cooper, but I knew less of the other two men in this exhibit.

Mesmerized by John Craxton’s paintings of Greece…

Nikos Ghika came up often in Paddy’s life, lending him a house on the island of Hydra where he could write in peace, and they became lifelong friends. So, too, the painter John Craxton, who would go on to paint the covers for all of Paddy’s books. The paintings on exhibit were wonderful and full of life, and I hope to explore them more.

The worlds of these men intersected with other legendary figures who were also either from or drawn to Greece:  Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller, George Seferis, and George Katsimbalis.

But it was the life of the writer that interested me most.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s typewriter and other personal items…

After a thorough exploration of this excellent small exhibit, we still had an hour and a half to spend, and we couldn’t have been in a better place for those with time.

I can look at these Assyrian bas-reliefs for hours…

I’d been to the British Museum before, but it was Tomoko’s first visit, so we made our pilgrimage to the Rosetta Stone, and to the incredible bas reliefs from Assyria, before exploring sections of the collection devoted to Sahara prehistory, and to those arid regions where we had travelled on expedition.

Great seats for the talk — one of the highlights of the weekend

The highlight of the evening, and one of the great highlights of the entire weekend, was a talk by Michael Palin and Sara Wheeler on What Makes Great Travel Writing.

We couldn’t take any photos of the event, but I scribbled madly as the two writers took turns reading passages from their favourite works of travel literature, and discussing what makes great writing about place.

Travel literature is the topic of my next Adrift on the Continent column in Outpost magazine. I’m drafting it right now, so you’ll have to wait until it hits the newsstands to find out what they said.

But don’t worry. I have more exciting events to report, with photos for the browsers and links for the curious.

It’s amazing how much can be packed into three short London days.

The Great Court of London’s British Museum…
Photos ©Tomoko Goto 2018
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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

1 Comment

  • I’ve always been a lover of travel writing. Wrote my own and published on amazon: “My travels in Narcolandia”, Very amateur production that I never quite finished, but i wanted to see my work in print even in bad form. My son’s cover art was great but a lot of mistakes beyond the cover.
    some of my favorite travel books: “Mountain high” Goran Krup’s adventure riding a bike from Stockholm to Kathmandu, then climbing Mt. Everest solo, and then riding home. “Worldwalk” can’t remember the author’s name but he was just a guy who walked around the world, took him 4 years. “Adventure Capitalist” Jim Rodgers 100,000 miles traveling in a specially built Mercedes looking for investment opps on all continents.

    Lool forward to reading your new piece your working on.


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