I have given this blog the title of the first volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his walk to Constantinople in the 1930s (which is this month’s reading for my book group) but in a slightly ironic sense. The phrase comes from a poem by Louis MacNeice:
For now the time of gifts is gone –
O boys that grow, O snows that melt
O bathos that the years must fill –
Here is dull earth to build upon
and was chosen by the author because it refers to a time of life when crazy things like walking to Constantinople seem possible. His journey was a sort of 20th century version of the Grand Tour, or alternatively a sort of early version of the gap year. When one is 18 or 19, with no ties and without a care in the world, but anxious to see more of it, is clearly a good time to go travelling. And nowadays it is almost “the done thing”, and a whole network of backpackers’ hostels and other services has sprung up around this phenomenon.
Of course, it has to be said that Leigh Fermor, despite his unusual childhood, had the right sort of class background to be able to take advantage of contacts, call in favours, and not worry too much about running out of money because there would always be money (from his tutor, apparently) waiting for him at the next town. He certainly chose a good time to go, although he couldn’t have known that at the time. In Between the Woods and the Water, the second volume, he says, looking back on it (the books were apparently not written until he was in his 60s):
“The next decade swept away this remote, country-dwelling world, and this
brings home to me how lucky I was to catch these long glimpses of it, even
to share in it for a while”
But even now, in this comparatively classless age, how many people actually do such a thing? I know I didn’t – well, OK, I had a sort of “gap year” which was ten months long, and about four months into that period I did actually take off on the road, hitch-hiking – but I never got any further than Yeovil, which is a bit pathetic compared with the likes of Constantinople. Maybe I was not typical – I lacked the temperament for going off into the unknown, and always worried about where I would be staying the night, something that doesn’t seem to have bothered Patrick that much.
In fact, I got really fed up, when younger, with people saying that one’s youth, and particularly one’s schooldays, are the best time of one’s life. Not for me they weren’t! I hated school; and even in my “gap year”, dreams of taking part in an archaeological dig, or picking fruit in the Vale of Evesham, came to nothing; I ended up working in an ice cream factory in Gloucester. Then I heard that my best friend had had a nervous breakdown, so I went home.
But there is more than one time of gifts. Under the old traditional career structure, one had one’s time of wandering around the world, then got down to serious study and a serious job, which was expected to last until retirement age; then one would retire, which meant suddenly giving up all the work and then slowly, quietly falling to pieces. But redundancy – the curse of our age – has its silver lining: the second career. And second careers can go on and on. Because this time around, you don’t have a desperate need for a paid job because your mortgage is paid off and your children have grown up. You can work part-time. You don’t need to give up all the structure in your life at a stroke – something which often proves very damaging for people who have followed a conventional career path to retirement.
So, for instance, at present my life is filled with variety. In the past week or two I have: done some oral history interviews; repaired the rendering on my front wall; helped a colleague to referee a philosophy paper; cycled around the nature reserves of East Surrey; planned a lecture; installed new lights in my hall; and prepared for a work experience week at UCL.
So for me, the time of gifts is now. I might even go to Constantinople (or rather, Istanbul) one day. By train.