Don’t forget your pith helmet

Mary Beard

  • Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece by Patrick Leigh Fermor
    Murray, 248 pp, £8.99, July 2004, ISBN 0 7195 6692 4
  • Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese by Patrick Leigh Fermor
    Murray, 336 pp, £8.99, July 2004, ISBN 0 7195 6691 6
  • Words of Mercury by Patrick Leigh Fermor, edited by Artemis Cooper
    Murray, 274 pp, £7.99, July 2004, ISBN 0 7195 6106 X

‘In the language and manners of every Greek sailor and peasant the classical scholar will constantly recognise phrases and customs familiar to him in the literature of Ancient Hellas.’ So the anxious tourist was reassured in the preface to the 1854 edition of Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Greece. The message was simple: on a Greek boat you will find yourself back with Odysseus (‘the nautical contrivances and tactics of the ancients may be observed in daily use … the Greek seas are still as fickle as ever’); in a country cottage you will find yourself entertained by someone who could pass for Homer’s swineherd Eumaeus. ‘Even the ferocious attacks of vermin, which soon find out an Englishman, are exactly described in the graphic accounts given by Aristophanes of similar sufferings in Greek houses of old.’

Recapturing this world of antiquity was not, of course, without its hazards and difficulties, and the Handbook tried to demonstrate its own indispensability with some very lurid warnings about what could happen to the traveller who ventured to Greece unprepared. Health, indeed survival, was top of the agenda. ‘The abundance of fruit is a temptation to foreigners,’ it warned, ‘but nothing is more pernicious, or more likely to lead to fatal consequences.’ Protection against the Aristophanic vermin could be achieved only by means of a cheap but enormously complicated mosquito net whose daily assembling must have defeated all but the most obsessive and dexterous: ‘I have found that the best mode of entering it is to keep the opening in the middle of the mattress, and, standing in it, draw the bag entrance over my head.’ The problems of travel came a close second. Was it worth taking an English saddle? On balance yes, since they were so much more comfortable, but they did tend to injure the backs of the animals, given ‘the wretched condition’ of Greek horses. English servants, on the other hand, were better left at home, or if not at home, then in Corfu: ‘They are usually but little disposed to adapt themselves to strange customs, have no facility in acquiring foreign languages, and’ – revealing the characteristic blindness of the elite to the habitual discomforts of the working class – ‘are more annoyed by hardships and rough living than their masters.’ It was far more ‘agreeable and advantageous’ to hire a local, so long as no antiquarian knowledge was expected, let alone trusted if offered. For that, (hand)books were the thing.

It is hard to imagine that this advice was followed to the letter, any more than are the alarming prohibitions on sunbathing in the Handbook’s modern equivalents. The role of these guides is as much to construct an image of ideal travel (and with it a frisson of danger allayed) as it is to direct or constrain the traveller’s actions. All the same, however practical their advice was or was meant to be, the successive editions of Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Greece (published with the authority of their publishing house; the authors and editors are indicated by initials only) clearly document the changing attitudes to the country as a destination for British tourists, from the first edition in 1840, just after the Greek War of Independence, into the 20th century. In this period the country was redefined in the British imagination from an arena of dangerous exploration to a plausible destination for the upper-middle-class traveller and tourist. Exactly how far the various editions of the Handbook document ‘real’ changes in Greece itself is harder to say. In part, they certainly do. Successive editions list, for example, an ever increasing number of upmarket hotels (‘at least as good as those in the large towns of Italy’), and this presumably represents a change in the amenities available for travellers as well as in the economic life of Greece. But it is not always so clear. When the 1884 edition notes the presence of a dancing teacher in Athens, is that because such a facility had not existed before? Is it because tourists now had different expectations of what they might get out of Athens? Or is it because the Handbook (which had swelled to two volumes in 1884) was becoming ever keener on the idea of complete and comprehensive information, whether useful or not?

By and large, however, the inclusion of the dancing teacher fits with the increasingly domesticated – or, at least, more manageably foreign – image of Greece that developed as this series went on. Where the first edition of 1840 thundered that ‘a tent is the first requisite’ for travel in Greece, the revised edition of 1854 more moderately held that ‘a tent, though requisite in many parts of Asia, is unnecessary and unusual in Greece.’ By 1884, ‘tents are a useless encumbrance.’ So too, in later volumes, other erstwhile essentials of civilised travel in the wild are dismissed: a canteen, a carpet and the elaborate mosquito net (replaced by 1884 with, at most, a light wire mask). Only occasionally do the recommendations appear to point in the other direction. The earlier editions advised that a good straw hat was sufficient to keep off the sun, but in 1884 the traveller was told that nothing less than a pith-helmet would do (‘indispensable after the end of April’, the 1896 edition added).

Through all these changes and redefinitions, one thing remains more or less constant: the idea that modern Greece and the modern Greeks preserved something of the spirit and customs of the ancient world. It had been a cliché of many earlier travellers’ accounts of Greece in the 18th and early 19th centuries that – impressive though the archaeological remains were – the inhabitants were a pale and disappointing shadow of their ancient ancestors. If they had gone to the country expecting to meet ‘the descendants of Miltiades and Cimon’, travellers found instead brigands, cheats and hucksters; and the women, as Valérie de Gasparin was sadly forced to acknowledge, bore precious little resemblance to the Venus de Milo. Partly in reaction to this, the guides of the later 19th century taught their readers to look elsewhere for the inheritance of antiquity. If you scratched the surface of day-to-day peasant life, if you listened harder to the language that was spoken, all kinds of resonances with the classical world would strike you. Sailors used the techniques described in Homer and farmers the methods recommended by Hesiod; and with enough imagination the superstitions that flourished in the Greek countryside could be traced back to pagan ideas and practice.

These questions of continuity obviously intersect with the academic war over Greek ethnicity that has been waged on and off, sometimes viciously, for two hundred years or so. Is the modern population of Greece the direct descendant of the ancient? Or is it a Slavic newcomer, as J.P. Fallmerayer in the 19th century or Romilly Jenkins in the 20th notoriously had it? The level to which this controversy has occasionally descended can be seen from a marginal comment scrawled by a racist reader in a copy of the first (1966) edition of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece held by the Cambridge University Library. Where Leigh Fermor refers to the modern Greek language as being the ‘undisputed heir of ancient Greek’, the anonymous scribbler has added: ‘Nonsense. It is the barbarous pidgin of the Albano-Slavs who defile the land of their occupation with the deformity of their “dago” bodies and the squalor of their politics.’ But ideas of continuity also raise more general, and no less important, issues about how we perceive similarities between modern practice and its ancient predecessors, how travellers and tourists project primitivism and historical continuity onto the countries they visit, and how tourist destinations and their populations anywhere in the world invest in and encourage those projections (think, for example, of the Beefeater or Anne Hathaway’s cottage) as well as exploiting them for their own ends. What we are dealing with, in other words, is one aspect of the power struggle – or at least the complex negotiation – between visitor and visited.

This is clear enough in what now seems the quaintly old-fashioned advice given to travellers of a century or so ago. We find it harder to see how it works in contemporary tourism and the writing associated with it, from the cheapest guidebooks to travel literature of higher pretensions. Here, the legendary Greek hospitality – with its roots that supposedly go back to the Homeric world – provides a revealing and complicated case.

‘The Greeks’ reputation for hospitality is not a myth,’ the recent Lonely Planet guide trumpets, before going on to detail (in an account that closely echoes the earlier Blue Guide) ‘hospitable’ practices. You are likely to be ‘invited into a stranger’s home for coffee, a meal or even to spend the night’; it will be bad manners to refuse what is offered, or to attempt to pay for it, or to refuse to answer the personal questions that are put to you. Indeed, through the websites of Greek holiday bloggers, vignettes of just such occasions are sprinkled: photos of the old man (with his donkey), who took the whole family off to his house and plied them with endless coffee, delicious local hooch and loads of fruit for the kids. It is easy to forget that the Greeks are not, and could not possibly be, on any objective calibration, more hospitable than any other people in the world. Rather, we have chosen to interpret their version of social interaction as hospitality in its purest form.

We have done so, partly, to allow ourselves to behave when in Greece in ways we would not at home (isn’t going into a stranger’s house for the night precisely what we warn our children not to do?); and, partly, to enable the process of domestication that I referred to earlier. It takes only a moment to see the alternative narratives that could be constructed out of these ‘hospitable’ encounters: the ‘delicious local hooch’ is ‘undrinkable spirit’; the fruit is bitter and unripe; and the temple ruins you really wanted to visit are a good hour away down a dirt track that it is now too late to travel; still less are you likely to make it safely back to where you are staying by nightfall. Under the slogan of ‘hospitality’ we translate potentially alarming cultural difference into a primitive (indeed Homeric) virtue that we can admire and, at the same time, faintly patronise. Successive editions of the Handbook, on the other hand, took a suspicious view of such invitations and firmly warned the reader against accepting free beds in Greek villages even when pressingly offered – largely on the (equally Homeric) principle that there is no such thing as a free gift.

How all this appears from the point of view of the old man with the donkey is harder, for me at least, to guess. You don’t need to look very hard at Greek tourist brochures and posters to see that, in what is now an inextricable circle of supply and demand, the country’s tourist industry sells itself in terms of the folksy primitivism implied by these stories of Homeric hospitality. It is a paradox we have come to take for granted that a leading European nation chooses to project on its postcards images of wrinkled, toothless peasants or – in a more Wild West version of primitivism – road signs splattered with bullet holes. By and large, however, British observers remain blind to the ways that these stereotypes are part of a more intricate game of power between tourist and ‘native’. When, in the late 19th century, the classicist Jane Harrison’s request to be taken to the temple of Bassae was refused by her young guide on the grounds that evil spirits resided there, she was both annoyed and overjoyed: annoyed that she would have to find another way of reaching the temple; overjoyed that she had found evidence of primitive religious beliefs. It never seems to have struck her that the boy might have been buying her off with exactly the kind of excuse he knew she would love to hear. Nor does it usually strike us that when we are being waylaid with the undrinkable spirit and unripe fruit, we are actually being hoist with the petard of our own fixation with primitive hospitality; the joke, in other words, is on us.

At first sight, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s celebrated accounts of his wanderings in Greece before and after the Second World War play up to all the assumptions and myths of 20th-century romantic Hellenism. Roumeli and Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, include admiring tales of the thuggish banditry in the Mani (the middle prong of the Southern Peloponnese). These laddish tales rub shoulders with intricate and outdated disquisitions on arcane parts of Byzantine history and culture, as well as the predictable insistence on the continuity of Greek customs and ideas since the age of Homer. In one especially enthusiastic set piece about his entertainment in the Deep Mani, he writes:

Many things in Greece have remained unchanged since the time of the Odyssey and perhaps the most striking of these is the hospitality shown to strangers … No better description exists of a stranger’s sojourn at a Greek herdsman’s fold than that of Odysseus when he stepped disguised into the hut of the swineherd Eumaeus in Ithaca. There is still the same unquestioning acceptance, the attention to a stranger’s needs before even finding out his name: the daughter of the house pouring water over his hands and offering him a clean towel, the table laid first and then brought in, the solicitous plying of wine and food.

All of which should be enough to provoke a cynic to cast almost any form of social exchange in Homeric terms. (‘At the average British dinner party, the visitors come offering gifts, the most precious of these – i.e. the most expensive bottles – are stored away for use at another time. Meanwhile the daughter of the house offers to the guests small pieces of food, often olives, before retiring to her own chamber.’) Significant similarities, after all, are made not found.

Leigh Fermor is still well known for his leading part in the 1944 kidnap of General Kreipe, the German commander on Crete (and among classicists, at least, for his recital of Horace’s Soracte ode along with his captive when they woke the next morning in a cave in the Cretan hills – the upmarket equivalent of singing ‘Silent Night’ across the trenches). Whatever the consequences of the kidnap for the Cretan civilian population or for the progress of the war, the story has a blokeish tone which tinges some of his travel-writing, too. Leigh Fermor was accompanied on many of his journeys after the war by his partner, and later wife, Joan; but she very rarely gets a look in, and when she does it’s usually in a decidedly passive role (much as Murray’s Handbook advises only a very subsidiary part in Greek travel for ‘ladies’). This absence is exacerbated in the recent reprints, which have retained John Craxton’s characteristic cover designs, but omitted the arresting black and white photographs taken by Joan that were included in the first editions.

Despite all this, Mani and Roumeli remain extraordinarily engaging books. This is partly thanks to Leigh Fermor’s ability to turn an insight into a telling phrase (‘There are towns in transition which have lost touch with the difference between nice and nasty’ is a quip that could be applied to a thousand places between Shrewsbury and Heraklion); and partly thanks to his capacity to weave a compelling story out of sometimes unpromising material. One of the best tales of all is the hilarious digression in Roumeli on the attempted recovery of a pair of Byron’s slippers from a man in Missolonghi, on behalf of Byron’s very odd great-granddaughter Lady Wentworth. Along with other excerpts from his books and pieces of journalism (including his own account of the Kreipe affair), this story is collected in Words of Mercury, which provides a good taster of what Leigh Fermor’s writing has to offer.

That is more than just a good eye for an aphorism or a story, more than a gift for elegant belles lettres. When you see through all the nonsense about Hellenic continuity, there is, underneath, a much more nuanced account of the ambivalences of modern Greece, its people and its myths (its own myths about itself and us, as much as our myths about it). For example, a telling postscript to the story of Byron’s slippers, not included in the excerpt in Words of Mercury, recounts in less than a page the story of the posthumous career of Rupert Brooke on the island of Skyros, with its different sort of primitivism. Brooke had never set foot on Skyros; he was merely buried there. But this did not prevent ‘O Broukis’ being conscripted into the island’s cultural history and landscape. ‘He used,’ as one shepherd put it, ‘to wander about the woods in silence, the very picture of an old-fashioned English gentleman … Tall, dignified, flowing hair, burning eyes and a long white beard.’

Predictably enough, Leigh Fermor is disdainful of modern mass tourism in Greece. After conjuring up a picture in Roumeli of the modern Athenian taverna (‘Docile flocks converge on them, herded by button-eyed guides … all Manchester, all Lyons, all Cologne and half the Middle-West at heel’), he looks to the future: ‘In dark moments I see bay after lonely bay and island after island as they are today and as they may become … The shore is enlivened with fifty jukeboxes and a thousand transistor wirelesses. Each house is now an artistic bar, a boutique or a curio shop; new hotels tower and concrete villas multiply.’ What he failed to predict was that he might become an object of tourism himself. The Lonely Planet guide directs its readers to the village in the Mani where, it emphasises, Leigh Fermor (now ninety) still lives for part of the year – and to the taverna run by his former housekeeper. A far cry – or perhaps not – from the Victorian Handbook guiding its readers on the search for the hut of Eumaeus and the ships of Odysseus.