As we become steadily accustomed to life in the Age of Celebrity, it’s become a truth that, as Mark Mason put it in the Speccie last month, ‘meeting your heroes is almost always a bad idea’. Reading the letters page in the London Review of Books, it seems that this advice extends to visiting any place associated with your heroes. Last summer Max Long, an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, arrived at Patrick Leigh Fermor’s old house at Kardamyli in Greece, hoping to pay homage to one of his heroes. His visit, he reports, was unideal:
‘To the hairy, shirtless, sandalled old man who occupied Paddy’s studio as though he owned the place, and who refused entry on a sweaty August morning to a travelling student, despite his pleadings (and tears): you ruined a young man’s pilgrimage.’
It’s hard not to sympathise, particularly given the hospitality with which Fermor was himself received on his travels. But this kind of disenchantment isn’t exclusive to unsceptical youth. Jeremy Clarke laments the speed at which authors’ auras disperse:
‘Nothing lingers. When they’re gone, they’re gone. Even with a commemorative plaque on the wall, one is left only with a sense of vertigo at how easily all vestiges of even the recent past are obliterated and we move on.’
Both Long and Clarke are part of a rich tradition of disappointed pilgrims which began in the late 19th century, the joint result of improved transport networks and the growth of a mass audience for literature. In those days it was possible to be rebuffed by the great men themselves, as were the rather impatient tourists that called on Thomas Hardy in 1903:
‘[…] I have given mortal offence to some by not seeing them in the morning at any hour. I send down a message that they must come after 4 o’ clock, & they seem to go off in dudgeon.’
After any famous writer goes their own long journey, the difficulties of preserving their home for would-be pilgrims become more fraught: whether a literary shrine is tended or neglected, there will always be enthusiasts claiming that their idol has not been treated appropriately. As Simon Goldhill observes in Scott’s Buttocks, Freud’s Couch, Brontë’s Grave, Charlotte Brontë would have been horrified had she seen her stockings on public display at Haworth Parsonage, but in the 21st century they’re a precious link – however creepy – to a great talent now gone.
What options remain, then, for the would-be literary pilgrim? Continue to travel hopefully, sifting the let-downs for a trace of longed-for genius loci? Or stay at home, cherishing places in the imagination? Nick Hunt’s book, Walking the Woods and the Water, provides a possible answer. His journey across Europe in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor shares the landscapes through which his hero moved (not to mention the physical strains incidental to thousand-mile walks), while also conscious of the changes that have reshaped the continent in the intervening 80 years. However fervently we revere our literary pin-ups, we must remain conscious, and as far as possible accepting, of the things that stand between us and them: be they an accumulation of years, a glass vitrine, or hirsute jobsworths in shorts.
Philip Sidney is a writer and academic, specialising in travel, literature and travel literature