At the age of eighteen I threw in my waitressing job at Ye Olde Bakery in Sussex, England and decided to travel until my money ran out. I had served tea and scones to old ladies with cotton-wool hair for months and finally could stand it no more. I took a ferry from Dover to Calais and then caught the fast train to Paris where I spent some time deciding where to go next. In my bag were two books: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water and Laurie Lee’s As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning.
I don’t exactly recall how those books came to me in the first place, whether recommended or chanced upon, but Fermor’s whimsical decision at the age of nineteen to travel by foot to Constantinople struck me as the best idea I had ever heard. Likewise, Lee’s impulse to escape his neighbouring women’s whispers of marriage (he was twenty-one) and the accuracy with which he captured the essence of my home region as he passed through, ‘here were the sea-shanty towns, sprawled like a rubbishy tidemark…’ meant that the two books immediately became talismanic amulets for me; guidebooks with step-by-step instructions for a heroic (or foolhardy) bid for freedom.
My plan was vague. Like Fermor and Lee, I wanted to get away from the small town I had grown up in, to get out and to find, as Fermor put it, ‘A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!’ I wanted to be lost and to taste the loneliness of sleeping on trains. I wanted to flirt with the edges of safety and cross thresholds, borders and edges. I knew I was looking for a hyper-awareness of place and for landscapes to insert myself into and I was interested in exploring the bridge between the dream-spaces of the books I was reading and the real places I was physically moving through.
I aimed to get to Paris and then decide: either follow Laurie Lee southwards, through Spain, to the place where Europe slips into the sea and turns into an altogether different continent, or to with Fermor towards Hungary and Romania. East, through a hallucinatory hyper-real version of Cinderella forests until finally reaching Constantinople by way of the real Istanbul. Constantinople seemed to me a place of magical otherliness. A spell of a name, like Calvino’s Zaira, city of high bastions. It is an imaginary city, an Oxiana, a Xanadu or a Shangri La. It is an unreachable destination and that is its point, I wanted to spend forever trying to reach it, eating cherries and carrying chrysanthemums on the way.
It was raining in Paris, it was spring and the sky was grey. Strangers spoke to me regularly in a way that didn’t happen in England but I held onto the coat-tails of Fermor and Lee’s youth for courage. They wrote themselves into being as they travelled; their on-the-road movements were inextricably connected to the formulation of their writerly selves. The fact that they shaped their youthful stories over thirty years later was lost on me as a reader at that time and I determined to do the same as them. If I could just figure out how.
For me, sex, travel and reading belong together, a trilogy of experience, although it is not sex exactly but rather the tensions of possibility. It is not hard to be seduced by the image of a chair by a balcony with a view of the sea or the sight of a ship pulling out of a harbour. Fermor’s luminous writing is the definition of seduction. Reading Between the Woods and the Water at that age was like being taken by the hand and led into a dense forest full of castles, secrets and Cossacks. Similarly, reading Laurie Lee was like being serenaded by a melancholy violinist with an incorrigible air of good luck beneath infinite skies, or some-such form of wordy caress.
Both guides were inherently male. They possessed their landscapes with swagger. Cruising new towns with confidence, they plucked lovers like pale flowers from behind rocks and dropped them like tissues. For Lee, the women of a ‘nameless village’ in the Spanish Zamoran wheat-plains were toy-like: ‘each girl a crisp, freshly laundered doll, flamboyantly lacy around neck and knees’. Sexual lasciviousness and whores popped up with regularity in both books. In Artemis Cooper’s biography of Fermor there is a typically Fermor-esque anecdote told in a curiously strait-laced manner: swimming naked with his flamboyant (married) Serbian lover, Xenia Csernovits, two peasant girls discover them and begin to tease them, plotting to run off with their clothes. Before long, all three women find themselves ‘frolicking about in the hayrick’ with Paddy, ‘nothing half-hearted, nor interrupted, about the sex they enjoyed that afternoon’.
Fermor’s wanderings, through moveable, mutable geographies invariably involved taking up with the Hungarian or Romanian beauties he called Vengerka, or ‘Hungarian girl’ the translation of which label, he explained, had ‘an earthy and professional sense’. Women met en route led him beyond the real into a fantastical (and fun) place of otherness. A world beyond adulthood, I supposed, dreamlike or onwards towards death. Wandering alone on winding tracks he would reach dark forests, where “there lives an old woodman, with a single beautiful daughter’, it was that sort of region…’ I already knew that Fermor’s taste lay in a specific direction:
my aesthetic notions, entirely formed by Andrew Lang’s Coloured Fairy Books, had settled years before on the long-necked, wide-eyed pre-Raphaelite girls in Henry Ford’s illustrations, interchangeably kings’ daughters, ice-maidens, goose-girls and water spirits, and my latest wanderings had led me, at the end of a green and sweet-smelling cave set dimly with flowers and multicoloured fruit and vegetation – a greengrocer’s shop, that is, which she tended for her father – to the vision of just such a being.
I read with fascination, peering into a world where delicately sampled women were very much of the landscape, blended into the stories of the architecture and the fabric of the paths. How, I wondered, might I fit myself within those parameters? Possibly Fermor’s conflation of the princess of a fairytale with real women was infectious because, although to some extent I could not help but feel that both he and Lee were writing ostensibly for male readers about place and women, I still very much wanted to be there. By ‘there’ I meant reading them, but also existing for them, inside their journey. I suppose I meant inspiring them. It was a struggle to locate myself, the clumsy dichotomy of muse versus artist. Was I comrade-writer-spectator-partaker? Or how might I relate to that single, beautiful daughter? One thing I did know was that I was as keen as Fermor and Lee to gain access to her faraway wonderlands.
Fermor was an unreconstructed orientalist in keeping with his time. He was also archetypically English (it is difficult to find a more striking image of the English man abroad than of Paddy Leigh Fermor puffing away, ‘half-pasha and half-caterpillar in many a Bulgarian khan’). In the same vein, Lee quickly threw off his scents of hedgerows and cider and his nostalgia for a long-gone England with stark echoes of Empire. They were tramping to a territory past the confines of nationality and I was attracted to that endeavour. Reading Fermor in particular, I was hunting for a journey through an architecture that could transcend English (or Western European) familiar zones. Trotting behind an English male travel writer whose view was shaped by doors the shape of keyholes, I could see exotic carpets, castles, the edge of civilisation and beautiful exotic women but I was left nowhere.
Still, I was in love with both authors about as much as I was in love with myself so that whenever I encountered real men myself – and when you travel alone at the age of eighteen there is no avoiding conversations with strange men – I must have given off a distracted glow, or possibly I was protected by a charm because they mostly offered to protect and help me rather than anything more corrupting. As a survival technique I evolved a curious mode of travel: to make myself as ethereal and as not-of-the-flesh as possible. To become a passive reflection in a window. At that age I was reading to see myself in chapters, I was looking at views from cafe windows at my own reflection.
Travel, for women (along with life, writing and existence in general) is a navigation of safety, desire and freedom. Cesare Pavese wrote that ‘travelling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.’ Being off-balance was exactly what I craved. In Paris I made friends without effort and spent six days in a hotel room in SaintGermain-des-Prés with a handsome Australian trainee-lawyer and for a short time forgot about my own flow towards Constantinople. Time disappears when one is busy reading Simone de Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay in a fog of literary pretention that can be achieved only in one’s late teens in a hotel room in Paris on the Rue St. Jacques with a man popping in and out with wine and fresh baguettes. At some point, though, I began restless walking of the city each morning and often found myself gravitating towards the Gare du Nord or the Gare de l’Est where I stood for too long watching the departure boards flick through limitless destinations.
Station architecture is a contrast of permanence and transience, a restless zone full of gaps and ghosts. I was born in a station town in the middle of England with nothing to the place apart from people passing through, people changing trains and the untenable claim that Paul Simon wrote ‘Homeward Bound’ on Platform Two. To sit on a platform is to be stationary in time and space as if nothing is happening. It is to be trapped in a nowhere place whilst going somewhere. The magic of the hotel room on Rue St Jacques was fading and I realised that staying still was causing familiar feelings of panic. Was I to be a writer, like Lee? Or one of Fermor’s ‘familiar affecting friendship’ with hotel maids or working girls? Which side of the glass was I on? Could I be on both?
I decided to take the long-way round to a Constantinople that even then I knew did not have much to do with a real city. I wanted to escape the clamours of the lawyer who was becoming clingy, sensing my withdrawal and I chose to go South. I took a night-train to Madrid without telling him I was leaving, without leaving a note or saying goodbye and I left him some cherries in a ripped brown paper bag on the small table in our hotel room.
Freedom felt splendid as I meandered through Lee’s Spanish deserts. This was the nineties, before Easyjet, Kindle and speedy travel. Along with Fermor and Lee the only other book I carried in my rucksack was a huge, thickly bound European rail timetable. After Madrid my plans grew vague again and so I simply drifted downwards, towards the sea.
Panicked into an endless restlessness, I shunted into parallel never-worlds: stations and hotel rooms, chapters and endings. I shunned dreaded youth hostels with all their awfulness. I stayed on train station benches when I missed connections and spent nights in cheap rooms above brothels in unsavoury ports listening to the drug running boats coming from Morocco. Somehow, as if the two books were charms, I moved around in a protected bubble. A Spanish truck driver gave me a lift – feeding me apples without the slightest hint of molestation – when all the Spanish train drivers went on strike. Later in my life travel became perilous. Too many hotel rooms, airport lounges and empty bathrooms left me disjointed and confused and the blank chlorine-blue water of five-star hotel swimming pools seemed an alarming invitation to die, but during this magical spring time was stretched and contracted and knew no edges.
My train rolled through station after station. I revelled in Lee’s tremendous descriptions of colour, of his visit to El Greco’s house, ‘still preserved in its sloping garden; a beautiful, shaggy, intimate little villa, full of dead flowers and idiot guides. Inside were the paintings: colours I’d never seen before, weeping purples, lime greens, bitter.’ I was stunned by the beauty and exoticism of the city of Cadiz. I thought it a jewel of a town, described by Lee as, ‘ incandescence, a scribble of white on a sheet of blue glass, lying curved on the bay like a scimitar and sparkling with African light.’ Yet, as I read on, I saw a reflection of what I myself was experiencing:
In fact it was a shut-in city, a kind of Levantine ghetto almost entirely surrounded by sea – a heap of squat cubist hovels enclosed by medieval ramparts and joined to the mainland by a dirty thread of sand.
The strangers I met were still gracious, but faces began to change, became slightly more hostile. The point of travel is to run. The compulsion is escape, but as Lee edged towards a ‘bitter South’, where poverty and squalor became impossible to ignore, where he met the homeless ‘who lay down at night among rats and excrement and were washed out to sea twice a year by the floods’ he lost his ‘romantic haze’ about Spain and was confronted with ‘a rotting hulk on the edge of a disease-ridden tropic sea’. He was confronted, too, with the edge of Europe and that reality made him – and me – uncomfortable, even if I couldn’t admit that to myself.
The walled cities felt closed rather than magical. To follow was escape, but the rooms I was reading about were leading to entrapment, and what I first thought Constantinople — Suzanne Joinson of as freedom – the long-lines of a bridge arching over a river, a balcony terrace, the contours of a courtyard space – were paths leading me back into interior cities. The insularity of travel was returning me to my own beginnings which is exactly where I did not want to be. I had to fight off memories of home and family ghosts invaded my sleep.
I hired a room in a pension for a number of nights. Sitting on the edge of the narrow bed in the small room felt like being locked in a photograph, as if I were pinned psychically into one segment of time forever. I wished I had gone the other way, Eastwards, to Fermors fairytale land, but turning back to his books I saw that he too was entering his own psychic nightmare and struggling not to get lost, or with the possibility of not being lost:
As the crow flies between Rotterdam and Constantinople, I was a little less than half-way. But no crow would have flown in the enormous loop that I had followed, and when I plotted the route and set it out with dividers, the total came to a great deal more than half; not that this meant much: the rest of the journey was sure to take an equally torturous course.
Again and again I found myself reading of trapped women:
To starboard the dungeon-island of Babakai, where a pasha had chained up a runaway wife and starved her to death, was still drowned in shadow. Then the sun broke through spikes and brushwood high above, and caught the masonry of the Serbian castle of Golubac – a prison too, this time of an unnamed Roman empress – where battlemented walls looped a chain of broken cylinders and polygons up to the crest of a headland; and here, with the lift and the steepening tilt of the precipices, the twilight was renewed.
The place I came to at the end of that particular journey, not quite Constantinople but an Ottoman-styled somewhere, was the Corral del Carbon in Granada, a conflation of an Almunecarian funduq or Fermor’s ‘balconied houses gathered about the mosque and small workshops for Turkish Delight and cigarettes, and all round these crumbled remains of a massive fortress. Vine-trellises or an occasional awning shaded the cobbled lanes’. I camped here for as long as I could remain still, which chimed exactly with the point at which I was fiscally forced to travel home, and I did so by hitching a lift the whole way back with two friendly Scottish fiddle players in their unreliable VW van.
One thing I have noticed is that travellers and travel writers in particular are not very good at coming home (or making a home) even though they spend their lives searching for one, or trying or pretending to want one. Each journey is a betrayal to someone, just as each written word is a betrayal. To come home is to be whole, to not be a risk to yourself or people who love you, to be central, to have all the lines drawn neatly, to not fall off a cliff or stay under the skin of the swimming pool water, to not pour yourself out intimacy after intimacy into golden cups to be handed out, to hold your children very close and not be gone in the night, to sleep for a very long time. But it is difficult to remain still.
It is of no surprise to me that Patrick Leigh Fermor struggled to finish what he called ‘The Great Trudge’ and reach his supposed destination of Constantinople, nor that when he finally reached the city his diary entries were underwhelmed and exhausted sketches. This is no reflection on Istanbul the city, but on the mythical otherworld cities of our imagination and what happens if we ever reach them. He must have known that getting to them is a kind of death.
• • •
It is November and I am in Istanbul. I have been invited to talk at a Literature Festival on the theme of Women’s Voyages in Fiction. My modern hotel room is opposite a more opulent, oriental hotel where Agatha Christie apparently wrote, The Orient Express. It is cold outside, the sky as grey here as the Paris sky twenty years ago. I have walked and walked the city which endlessly opens like a fan. It is unreachable, unreadable and fascinating. There are many cats.
I have only just clarified to myself the difference between the words ‘journey’ and ‘voyage’. Journey, the act of travelling from one place or another, derives from journee, meaning a day’s work or travel and right up to the 18th Century its primary sense was still ‘the travel of a day.’ The meaning inherently links to the concept of work. The word voyage is quite different; it links back to viaticum, which means provisions for a long journey, ‘especially a long journey by water to a distant place.’ A huge difference, it seems to me.
I’ve just finished Fermor’s final part of the trilogy, published after his death and I no longer look for myself in the spaces of his narrative, nor do I despair at the picking up and dropping off of women along the way. The essence of loneliness begins to permeate his long journey and I now understand that the loneliness of station platforms, of the places where buildings once were but have now been destroyed or of hotel rooms in mega-cities at four in the morning is a loneliness not of psychosis, nor an entrapment, but a temporary gift of time that can only be melancholy but is no less sweet for that.
Travelling is the same as writing: it is saying out loud – on trains or in hotel rooms – things we would not say to someone close. It’s the glory of setting out at eighteen with no particular plan, it’s the art and curation and cultivation of that particular journey and all its rawness, and the understanding of how all along the trip was a simple map to home, which is a place where you will always be restless. It took me a long time to work out that home isn’t a trap and the safety of a train on the move is an illusory thing. On my hotel bed is a book that I bought at an English language bookshop I found near the Sultanahmet tram stop. The book is called ‘Hayalet Yapilar – Ghost Builings’. Published in English and Turkish, it is an imaginary exploration of abandoned or vanished buildings of the city. There are photographs of Antiochos Palace, and the military barracks on Taksim Square. Earlier today, I walked from my hotel to Taksim Square, to have a look at Gezi Park, to watch the small sprinkle of protestors. Then I wandered back to prepare myself for talking to a room full of strangers in a large room at the top of a regenerated factory. Somewhere along the way of both my own journeys and voyages, the vast seas covered and the determination to make writing my work, I have found a way of reading Fermor and Lee with joy. Not passively, or distractedly, but on my own terms.
To travel is to find one’s story, to escape one’s story or to gain a perspective on the story busily being lived and concocted. If our own story becomes a map, it usually leads us to love or away from love – and often we lose that love, or we lose the map. Sometimes the story folds in, disintegrates, collapses, and then we are lost and undone. How we get back from there depends on how we choose to pick up the story again. Along the way motifs come into sharp relief: castles, bridges, khans, courtyard gardens and hotel rooms. Stations, flowers along railway embankments, night-markets, trunks. They tattoo into the mind and add layers to our own interiror guidebooks which we can keep in our memories or write down as we like. Stored away as significant and private, they are like specials shells found on beaches and kept in pockets for as long as they care to remain there, both precious and eminently losable.