Last of the wartime generation of travel writers: Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor earlier this year
The longest walk has finally come to an end. After the most dashing life of literary wanderings, in which he crossed a continent on foot, fell in love and ran away with a beautiful princess, galloped into battle in a Greek cavalry charge, secluded himself silently with Trappist monks, kidnapped a German general, became one of this country's greatest war heroes, swam the Hellespont and built a sun-filled house in the Peloponnese where he wrote what may yet prove to be one of the finest trilogies in modern literature, Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor's ultimate journey was the return home to die in Worcestershire at the age of 96, an Englishman to the last.
The death of Leigh Fermor — friends and fans called him Paddy — removes the last link to that generation of travel writers who fought with such distinction in the Second World War. The prospect of that elusive final volume, which would see our footsore traveller and philhellene complete his serendipitous, marathon-walking tour from the Hook of Holland to reach the city he insisted on calling Constantinople, sometimes Byzantium, never Istanbul, is little short of exhilarating. All his fans who cherish the densely beautiful prose of A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) will be thrilled to hear the news from his biographer Artemis Cooper that an early draft "will be published in due course". The posthumous gift cannot come soon enough.
The celebration of a life so well lived is likely to bring a renewed flash of interest in travel writing, a genre that has, almost from its very outset, been revered and reviled in equal measure. We may not know what sort of reception greeted the "publication" on clay tablets of the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest forerunner of travel writing, if not of literature itself, but we are certainly familiar with the mauling received by the Ancient Greek Herodotus, the first great travel writer and historian, an exuberant pioneer of anthropology, geography, exploration, investigative journalism, tabloid hackery and foreign reportage in the 5th century BC. Within little more than a century, Cicero's "Father of History" had become Plutarch's "Father of Lies", a classical harbinger of the suspicion which has bedevilled the first-person travelogue ever since. From Herodotus to Leigh Fermor via Marco Polo, John Mandeville and Bruce Chatwin, the hostile image of travel writer as self-indulgent fantasist and fibber has never been shaken off entirely.
In May, the doyen of American travel writers. Paul Theroux dropped in at the Hay Festival to promote his latest work, The Tao of Travel, an engaging distillation of travellers' wisdom and a vade mecum worth popping into the Globetrotter suitcase this summer. The blaze of publicity surrounding Paul Theroux's handshake that ended a 15-year feud with V.S. Naipaul, another writer who has excelled in the genre, suggests that contrary to many predictions, travel writing is in robust health. From one generation to the next it shrugs off with insouciance the obituaries that are written for it periodically by writers as diverse and removed from each other as Joseph Conrad and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Indeed the temptation must be to conclude that travel writing, like the poor, will always be with us.
In Britain, which has a proud heritage in this field, the ranks of great travel writers have been sadly thinned in recent years. The monumental Sir Wilfred Thesiger, author of Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs, last of the latter-day Victorian explorers, died in 2003. The same year saw the passing of the magnificent, under-appreciated Norman Lewis, whose Naples '44 is one of the classic literary accounts to emerge from the Second World War.