Travel Writing

This is a loose follow up to a post from a while ago where I explained all about how I got started adventuring.


Michael Palin (Image from Southbankcentre.co.uk)

We begin with Michael Palin. And not for the thing that made him famous, Monty Python. In fact he isn’t my favourite member of Monty Python at all. I actually like Michael Palin for another, completely different reason: His work as an adventurer, explorer and traveller. As a kid I could have spent hours and hours watching the likes of Around the World in Eighty Days, Pole to Pole, Full Circle and Hemingway Adventure. Not only were they insights into fascinating, far away and exotic places but they were well presented by this charming, sometimes funny and charismatic man who had this wonderful way of making it seem like you were on the journey with him, like you were his travelling companion. Somewhere around this house there used to be copies of two of his books, Sahara & Around the World. Now there’s only a copy of Full Circle which I bought last year. The book swallowing black hole appears to have taken the former, unfortunately. Mostly, in those days, I just looked at the pictures and never read their entirety but whenever I dipped into the prose (and they are extremely dippable books) I was captivated. Like the TV programmes it was as though you were there with him. Just by his words he could still whisk you away to another country.

And unlike many of today’s television travellers he went and did his own thing. He didn’t follow any trends. He wasn’t one of a multitude of people exploring Italy. And apart from in Around the World and Hemingway, he wasn’t following some old and often piece of literature. The latter is an unfortunate recent trend which we can lay firmly at the feet of Michael Portillo. Everybody seems to follow a book or a guidebook these days- See Dara O’Brien and Ed Byrne’s recent documentary trip about central America which used a book called Journey South by Sullivan Richardson, or Richard Wilson driving around with some Shell guides or Channel 4’s excessively twee Penelope Keith Hides In Villages (Not actually called that) in which the titular Penelope Keith (known for doing a couple of comedies in the seventies) goes to various villages mentioned in another set of old guidebooks. I suppose, then again, there weren’t so many travel programmes around in the days of my youth. So of course it was easier to be unique, unlike today where every would be wannabe semi-famous/Z-list celebrity person does some kind of travel documentary.

‘He’d show you the Sidney Opera House but then he’d take you down the road and show you some guy who’d built his house out of bits of old cars…’Later on, in my early teens, I discovered Billy Connolly’s early travel shows- His ‘World Tour series’ where he went around the British Isles, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. They were intercut with clips of comedy performances in the places he visited and that was the main reason I watched them but he made the travel bits just as good. He was as different from Michael Palin as it was possible to be, he was more like the weird guy from down the street, the one you’re not supposed to go near under any circumstance. Billy didn’t always go in for the obvious attractions. He’d show you the Sidney Opera House but then he’d take you down the road and show you some guy who’d built his house out of bits of old cars or something like that. He’d go for the weird and the kooky, the slightly strange. He showed that the world is as mad as a box of frogs and utterly brilliant at the same time, presenting that mad as a box of frogs world with a smile on his face and an infectious enjoyment.

For someone who wanted to travel the world and had only ever been as far as a few rubbish French coastal towns, not even the good parts of France, this was like a drug. These travel programmes fuelled my dreams, my imagination, my yearning to travel.

Bygones… Which is not to be confused with Baygones and is a million miles from Beacons… Wherever the hell Beacons is supposed to be. (Image from lotstodo.co.uk)

Life happens… It has a tendency to do that… And over a very long period I ended up as a travel writer. My first and earliest travel bits are long since gone- Those ubiquitous ‘what I did during the school holidays’ essays for a start. There was one that came after a holiday to Devon (one of those rare holidays that wasn’t either Centre Parcs or France!) and I wrote about seeing this really cool museum. I had thought that the name of the place was called ‘Baygones’ and so rather than saying that it was a museum I just said I visted ‘Baygones.’ The teacher and the lady helping out that day tried to convince me that it wasn’t ‘Baygones’ but ‘Beacons.’ Where Beacons is I haven’t the foggiest. The Brecon Beacons perhaps? They were right in that it wasn’t called ‘Baygones’ but I was still closer. It was ‘Bygones,’ a place that is still open and one that looks like it is worth going back to. The thing I remember and remembered most about the museum is a tableaux of a wounded first world war soldier- That one was one of those images that seared itself onto my brain. This, inevitably, led to my younger self (in the essay) declaring that ‘I saw a dead man’ and doing my best to recreate the tableaux in art form. Lord only knows what the teacher thought of it.

It was basic, that essay. It would be considering I was really young at the time. Years later came my first trip to Spain. It was coastal resort, costa-tourist Spain and not anywhere exciting but it was different enough from my previous holidays. That was my first time going a plane as well, which was probably the most exciting part of the entire holiday. When I got back after two weeks in what was nothing more than a nowhere town I decided to send a friend of mine an email; a really long, detailed email all about my holiday. The response was ‘WTF? I’m not reading all that. Why did you write all that shit?’ Some friend he was! We weren’t friends for very long after that actually, now that I think back. The response knocked me back, I will admit. It must surely, subconsciously, have put me off writing about my travels, made me think that nobody cared. It wasn’t the first time I’d tried to write a long email to someone and been asked why I wrote it all. The first, if you really want to know, was a school pen-pal sort of thing. Mine had been this girl and a couple of days after sending the first introductory email the reply was: ‘Hi. Why did you write all that stuff?’ Together with the later email I was put off writing long winded non fiction for the sake of it, like travel bits for example.

‘It ended in a semi-dramatic fashion when I was nearly assaulted by a couple of hammer and golf club wielding little chavs after wandering too close to a council estate.’The intervening years between then and starting out on this thing of mine were the years when my travels really got going. It was when I started to have adventures. But most of them went undocumented at the time, which is a shame in hindsight. The only one that was documented was soon after starting university. I had a video camera so I took it out and did a little bit of video-exploration with it, looking for a disused railway line. It ended in a semi-dramatic fashion when I was nearly assaulted by a couple of hammer and golf club wielding little chavs after wandering too close to a council estate. Then I discovered, to my horror, that the camera wasn’t compatible with my laptop. The sad part was that I’d even done a little introductory piece where I put on a shirt and tie just for the occasion- It was a proper documentary style thing. I wonder if that shirt still fits me actually… I’ve still got it but haven’t worn it for ages. Maybe I could try the shirt and tie approach for the videos I do these days? Would it look good or would it be another leather jacket disaster? Perhaps I should try it for one week and see how it turns out.

Back to the story at hand though… I couldn’t edit the video, the camera was near useless and although I would try using the thing again and manage to get some footage off it, it was never very good footage because the upload rate was poor. The search for the railway, what would have undoubtedly been my first YouTube video, some five years before I actually started. And had that camera worked properly I’d have undoubtedly used it to document my university adventures. As it didn’t those adventures have only been documented in hindsight, in pieces scratched together from memory.

Either that or they're mushrooms... but i prefer nipples

Nipples?

It was in that first year out, that year before I became a full time writer, that I started this thing of mine and one of the things I really wanted to do with it was begin to document my travels, share my experiences, which is what I’ve been doing ever since. I’m not a naturally funny guy (unlike Palin or Connolly) but humour finds its way in thanks to the craziness of this world. My first trip out was Lancaster and no sooner was I out of the station than I was passing an angry dwarf in a very long Heinz T-shirt. He looked like he was dressed up as ketchup bottle. I bought some unusual ‘nipple sweets’ from a shop (or were they mushrooms?) and then the fire alarm went off as I was waiting for the train back. Nobody on the platform budged an inch and thank god it wasn’t a real fire or we’d have all burned to death.

The more I have written the better I have got. My first piece was a scantily worded double feature on trips to Lancaster and Liverpool but with my next voyage, the Manchester Science Museum, I started to hit my stride but it was really my second Bristol piece, my fourth overall, where I got my groove on. It’s the first that really looks like my work as I would label it today, not that I’m disowning the first three mind. There’s some good stuff in them. It is still a little scant in places mind.

As time went by I started getting more detailed in my travel writing. I started being more observant when I went out and about and that fed through into the writing. I’m a long way from being Michael Palin but he is the sort of men I aim to emulate when I write. I try and inject a bit of humour and I try and take the reader with me, make them my travelling companion. My favourites are undoubtedly Drumbeat, last year’s climb up the mountain of Drum in the Carneddau, and the York trilogy. Those are the adventures which are, I think, the closest I have come (so far) to reaching the lofty heights of my wandering heroes.

To travel and to explore, and to write about it afterwards, that is the thing. There’s nothing like it. Personally, writing about my adventures, I get to relive them all over again and I get to laugh about the parts that were too awful to laugh about at the time (Drumbeat was one of those!). Then I get to share them with other people, people who don’t bitch that what I write too long and pointless. My only regret is that I don’t have the resources for the big stuff yet, though I’m working on it. Three ‘big’ adventures a year with smaller ones in between sounds about right. At the moment I have the smaller ones down but only one ‘big’ one a year at the moment- And I’m not going to get that this year thanks to having to purchase a new computer at the end of last year. But when I do get those big adventures then you can be sure that I’ll be writing every last bit of them down.

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