Archive for category BLOG
I arrive in the Camargue after an hour’s drive along jagged French motorways, feeling the place swallow me up in huge gulps because there’s so much space but nothing much to see except a large unbothered sky and flat land stretching forever by an empty road. Boring? Not sure. Dropping the car off at the hotel. Walking into town, a little place called Saintes Maries de la Mer where the beach stretches literally for miles wildly abused by white-topped waves, hardly anyone there. Except on a street corner a gypsy woman tries to sell me charms, hauling at my shoulders, keeping me in the hot sun while I smile stupidly and shrug and make my silly excuses… escaping at last to climb the steps of a rugged stone church to the roof where I sit on the pitched tip and look out over…green, and water, lakes and lagoons and that white sea.
Something about the Camargue seems gripping at this moment, an empty space that isn’t really empty perhaps but you just can’t see it, because there really must be more to a panorama of this size and scope than mere distance. But what? What makes this vastness a place of its own, a region of France that people speak of in a wistful fashion, which is true, they do?
I don’t know but need to now so I get on board a boat and potter up the Petit Rhone talking to crewmen about bullfights, though not as we know them. Here, they tell me (steering into the bank, pausing to let us witness bulls and horses and riders emerge from the rich scrub) here they do not fight bulls but confront them in the arena to pluck cockades from their astonished horns and run, and run, and run and hope. “It’s more important than football,” the young men tell me, steering back into mid-stream, telling me laughing stories of how they run bulls through village streets sometimes, how exciting it is, how much a part of the landscape. Ah, the landscape; a small part of the puzzle slots into place as I clamber back onto land, thinking about dinner and sleep and what the rest of the trip might unlock.
A horse ride next, because the white Camargue horses are wild and famous and vital to the bull fights and therefore another clue, something I’m looking for anyway. So I climb on board and hang on to the leathered saddle as the beast canters into the heart of that water-logged countryside that isn’t empty at all. Past marsh grasses filled with colour and mosquitoes and the shocking yellow of wild irises, skirting green-rimmed paddy-fields shining with water and unseen rice; and chock-full ditches; endless herds of looming bulls grazing in enormous fields; small lanes and views over salt lagoons, my horse trotting hard now as cascading rain soaks my face and my trousers stick to my legs; but I think: this is the way to know things, this is what the place can make you feel like; the size of it, a sense of drenched fatigue and exhilaration. And from this sensation, I find myself thinking that without the horses there’d be no bulls; without the bulls there’d be no young men telling wistful stories on boats. It all seems to fit together somehow: white horses on a green landscape, and black bulls with threatening horns awaiting cockades. And rain and lagoons and lush grass and mosquitoes. I’m aware of the place, just a bit. Later, climbing rare hills to stare over brilliant salt pans stretching wildly along the coast right by the sea; and walking sour mudflats seeing tiny figures wobbling with hazy distance; and standing by enormous waves beating miles of sand; and halting in a lane to smell wildflowers I tell myself that this is exactly what I’d been looking for, the place they talk about wistfully, an empty space that isn’t empty after all and is really rather beautiful.
I want to describe what it’s like coming home to my house after I’ve been away. There’s a reason for doing this just now, and I’ll tell you about that in a minute for what it’s worth, but for the moment it seems important that I simply set it all down, in whatever detail I can remember.
The point is that some things you don’t think about because you do them so often and getting off the train at Lewes station after a trip away comes under that heading. But now I force myself I realise that there’s always a fatigued pleasure in dragging the bag down from the rack, stepping out onto the familiar platform….
It’s a lovely walk home, especially in the dark. Stone-built streets and trees and silences and leaf-mould smells, that’s what comes to mind. No traffic, or hardly any; mostly just the sound of my own footsteps, turning right at the bottom of the first narrow little street down the brick-built steps, then sharp left to walk along the grey-stone wall that fringes the park at the bottom of our road where I’ve taken the kids to play since forever. At the junction, turning right again brings me to the primary school where they learnt to read and write; first the carpark, then the playing field beyond, and in front of me, Keere Street, a cobbled throwback to another age that’s so perfectly preserved you’ll see it on television in films and adverts. Past the grand 16th century house where the registrar marries people every Saturday and I laugh secretly at big men in unaccustomed suits. Left into my road and up the hill beside a fringe of trees, the grassy bank beyond sloping down to the dark field…tennis courts where the teachers park their cars…and somewhere over there, the parish church.
My home is two hundred yards along this road. We have a brick wall ten feet high, and a small gateway with a series of steps – 23 in total – leading up to the white front door which sticks, it always has done, so I have to push hard, the weather-seal squeaking which means I don’t need to tell anyone I’m home though I’ll probably shout anyway, just to make the point: taking my bag into the dining-room, unpacking at once, dirty clothes on the carpet, notes and camera stacked up here and here and here.
My wife will come down to say hi how did it go and sit on the sofa while I offer bits of stories, glancing at the desk in the corner to see if there’s mail, half-wondering if anything bad has happened while I’ve been away, aware of the smell of the house, the old Victorian waft of bricks and paint and plaster and maybe cooking. It isn’t much, none of this is much. Except right at this moment – chucking dirty pants in the utility room to be washed later, grabbing a sandwich, slumping on a chair, catching up on what’s happened in the family, the house, the street, the town, right now it’s the end of the trip. This precise moment, filled with familiarity and architectural routine, marks the final tick of the clock, a conclusion to whatever experience I’ve just had however it’s been, whatever I’ve done. This is the time when I close the door on having been somewhere else and the thing is, I’ve been in this same house for 25 years and my time here has more or less paralleled my life as a travel writer so really it’s the only place I’ve ever come back to; and next week we’re moving to another house seven miles away and it occurs to me that no journey I ever make in future will be quite the same, because I won’t be coming back here – and here underlines and completes elsewhere. Elsewhere in future will not involve this re-arrival and familiarity unconsciously reviewed so I just wanted to mark the moment, and note the way that other places are altered by what we know best because it seems right to do that just now. It’s not the end of the world, changing houses; but it’s something like it. A new way of looking at the old one anyway.
Some day soon I’m going to hire a hall somewhere inexpensive, lay on coffee and biscuits and invite a lucky bunch of travel PRs to come and sit on comfortable chairs and learn how to do their own job. It should take about two hours, I reckon, at the end of which they will have discovered how to write press releases.
Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that travel PRs really ought to know about that kind of jobby already, given that it’s what they get paid for. And I do take your point. The only trouble with this conclusion, however, is that there’s absolutely no bloody evidence to back it up. Do I sound mad? Read on.
Sitting here at my desk I read thirty to forty press releases a day on travel subjects ranging from the announcement of new wedding packages in Honolulu to price cut news on hairy-arsed adventure treks in Chile. I say “read”. I’m lying. I scan. I hope. I pray. And sometimes – just sometimes – if I’m good and careful and above all patient I’ll manage to spot a fact or point lurking somewhere in the middle of a sea of words waving its arms like a drowning child, usually sinking under a weight of adjectives and largely invisible to all but the trained and increasingly ratty eye.
PRs like to tease. To play. Not for them the tedium of clarity or facts left unadorned by time-stealing whimsy. They want to announce a new hotel opening in Antigua? Let’s get the ball rolling with a few well-chosen paragraphs describing how hot it is in the Caribbean at this time of year. News of an airline price cut? Prepare to be told how families look forward to their annual holidays each summer, and how personal budgets are becoming increasingly important to….zzzzzz slump. You want facts? Gedouttahere! A new self-catering deal in the Lake District? Wordsworth. Daffodils. Hills. Dales. Bollocks.
Sorry, I try not to swear in these columns but some issues defy courtesy, and the waste of my time as this conduit of information is increasingly clogged by mis-judgement, inefficiency and literary pretension has grown beyond decency, to the point where I’m starting to delete before I have the faintest idea what the subject matter might be. And if, by the way, you’re not in the business yourself but have read this far in the hope of finding something that impacts on you personally, keep in mind the fact that the cost of all these wasted words ultimately adds to the price of your holiday.
With this in mind, and with all humility, I offer here the main points I plan to offer those PRs who will – I’m sure – flock to my planned talk on how to write press releases, which I shall amusingly title: “How to begin to come to terms with certain facts that lean towards a major sense of what you do for a living inasmuch as it relates to the joys and pleasures and coffee-smelling delights of waking up to the world of press releases, it being quite cold in Britain at this time of year.”
Now, where was I?
Oh yes. Main points of how to write press releases. In order of importance.
1. Have something new to say. What’s to lose? Give it a go!
2. Start off with exactly that bit, the new thingie. Right at the top. Just where you start reading.
3. Then go on to the next bit; really quite quickly.
4. Remember the golden rule: life is short. Don’t make it seem crueller longer
5. Also remember the other golden rule: only your mum laughs at your jokes, and she’s lying because she loves you very much.
6. When you get to the end, just stop writing. Right where you are. That’s it, you’re done. Keep that planned final flourish to yourself and think about it on the bus on the way home, and smile secretly for what the world has lost because it’ll never ever know.
7. Now, this is the important bit. When you’ve put that final full stop, before you catch your bus go right back to the beginning and see how many words you can take out without ruining the fact that you had something new to say. (Remember that new thing you were going to tell people about? The point of the press release?)
8. Repeat number 7.
9. Repeat number 8.
10. Send the release and be sure that the god of all journalists will smile upon you for the rest of your life. Or I will anyway. Whoever the hell I am, telling you how to do your own job….
I’ll tell you at the start that we didn’t catch anything worth a damn, and nothing exciting happened so it’s hardly a story at all really. But…if you want to understand what the lonely and far-flung Swedish Weather Islands are like this small story about a failed fishing-trip will tell you most of what matters.
The background is important because contrast frames every experience when you’re travelling, which means you may need to know that I flew from queue-drenched Gatwick to Gothenburg-Landvetter Airport on a Thursday night, arriving so late I felt unsettled just getting off the plane. You know how the dark can do that to you in foreign places? It does me, anyway. Then the same disorientating screw was tightened a bit more by the fact that there was no cheery taxi driver waiting for me out in the arrivals hall and there should have been but Something Had Gone Wrong. A glitch! It’s stupid, I known, even stupider to admit it, but I’m always worried about getting from an airport to wherever I’m going and when there’s supposed to be a man with a sign and he isn’t there….Oh God…
Phone calls. A review of the airline time-table. A realisation that my flight had, in fact, clunked down onto the runway some 30 minutes early…. I blushed. Hung on for ten minutes and here was the man with the sign… Phew.
Forty minutes later I was walking into Gothenburg’s newest and chic-est hotel, the Post Clarion, 500 rooms, none of which you could get into because the computer had crashed, so every guest had to be accompanied to their room by a member of staff with a master-key, which meant that once inside, that was pretty much it. The tv didn’t work, either. And I hadn’t eaten a proper meal. Went to bed but didn’t sleep.
Next day I walked to the Central Station and picked up a hire car, and this is going to sound even more pathetic but another point of worry for me – the bold travel-writer – is actually navigating to places. No, don’t laugh! I get lost, you see. I always do. And what goes through my head at these times is not a conscious proposal of calm (which would be useful) but the exact reverse: a sense of impending tragedy, a detailed knowledge of everything that could possibly go wrong if I miss this connection, fail to meet this contact, never get to where I’m supposed to be so the whole cranky edifice of the trip wobbles to humiliating extinction…
You think I’m joking? Nope. This is me, travelling. Just so in Gothenburg, though as it turned out I needn’t have worried. The road signs were perfect.
Then came the two-hour drive north to the harbour village of Fjällbacka which is famous (if that’s the word for such a tiny blob of wood and stone) for connections with Ingrid Bergman, who used to spend her summers on an island just offshore. It didn’t feel famous, driving in. It felt empty and silent and wintery. I’d been told to park by a shop called Tang, and wondered whether it would be obvious (more nerves) but it was – hooray! – so I dumped the car, grabbed some lunch in a cafe called Gron, where the ladies were so kind and cheery I loved them; and eventually I wandered down to the harbour, wondering whether I’d be able to find the boat I’d been told to look out for. The one that would take me out to the Weather Islands. Remember the Weather Islands? That’s what this piece is about.
In fact, I found the boat easily enough because it was the only one in the harbour and I joined half a dozen middle-aged Swedes who clumped on board and next thing we were whizzing out to sea…thirty minutes at speed…and here they were at long last. Those islands, otherwise known as Väderörnas, growing out of the sea like entirely lost worlds, barely being anything at all.
There are, they say, 365 of these bits of rock in the archipelago, some hardly larger than a tennis court, others maybe a kilometre long, including the one we landed on, a craggy, yellowy blob of weathered, storm-cut and wind-fissured stone that holds the only permanent habitation, an 11-room wooden hotel with shared bathrooms. And here, me and my Swedish companions made our home. I took a quick walk, had a sauna, a hot-tub, a winter sea plunge (bloody cold) desperate to get to the heart of the place, to accumulate experiences so that I’d have something to write about. What next, eh? What now?
The hotel owner, a brooding Gothenburg fireman called Mikael, asked me if I wanted to go out on the boat and check the lobster-pots. Which, dear reader, finally brings me back to the subject of that pointless fishing-trip.
The important thing, you see, is that getting to this point had been a bother to me. Late flight, dark arrival, missing taxi, keyless room, hire car angst, ferry-hunt… these small and inconsequential issues, which in various form provide the frame for almost every trip I ever make, had created the usual tonal hum of alarm. I was rattled, dwelling in my own immediate past, on me. And then Mikael gunned the motor, a couple of his mates jumped on board, and we sailed off to the lobster pots. And….
The sea heaved in a high wind, the waves were slatey-blue topped with white, the spume hitting nearby islands whipping into a frigid blue sky. When we turned one way it was like riding a horse, me clutching the side-rail bending my knees with each dip, laughing madly. Turning the other way the spray lashed my face and soaked my collar, the air unbelievably clean so that I was overwhelmed by something I didn’t bother putting a name to.
Motoring now to empty spots on the rearing sea, sometimes by walls of rock, sometimes further out, pot after pot hauled by hand onto the soaking deck revealing little enough. A few startled crabs, lonely starfish, some kind of spiny monster the men handled with care…all thrown back with a laugh, none of it worth an ounce of fuel or energy. On to the next pot, boat heaving, motor rumbling while I clutched the side and smiled for no reason. One after the other the pots came up, maybe an hour going by. Sometimes I started counting islands but never got very far because the sea, rock and sky seemed to blur into movement, and sometimes I could hear gulls shrieking, sometimes it was quiet except for the thud of the diesel engine, and sometimes a deckhand came over to chat in brilliant English, and eventually I realised I was thinking about nothing else except this: standing at the rail in a wild sea waiting for the next line to be hauled in, feeling the water on my face, wondering whether there’d be a lobster next time, and there never was but it didn’t matter; and back at the tiny harbour everything seemed unnaturally still and the ground felt too solid and I thought it would be nice to go for another walk.
So that’s what I did, leaving the boat and boatmen and harbour and hotel behind, stumbling off into the wind, clambering over rocks and looking out at all those surrounding waves, thinking only about the things I was seeing, the wind on me, and the fact that I couldn’t stop crying because of the cold, but in some places – in a small cove, behind a large rock, down on a tiny leeward beach, it was so quiet and still it was like rediscovering something I’d completely forgotten about on the way here.
Why is it always the stupid little things I remember best when I come back from a trip? No, seriously, I mean it. Why do I remember the camel’s breath rather than the pyramids; the small Parisian grave rather than the Eiffel tower? Maybe it’s memory’s attempt to normalise and make less daunting an overwhelming world; or, on the other hand, perhaps I’m simply small-minded.
Lately, you see, I’ve been doing a lot of domestic travel, places such as Saffron Walden in Essex, Marlborough in Wiltshire, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, and more. Loved them all. Every single town was graced by lovely streets, good museums, and huge character. But now I’m back and milling over remaining images in my head, what stands out in every case is the English equivalent of the camel’s breath.
Take King’s Lynn. In this wonderful medieval town they opened up a fishing museum for me to see and told me stories of when the Queen visited. I also spent time looking over two exquisite guild halls; drank tea in a shop run by an interesting Lithuanian and spent an afternoon walking round 5,000 year old timbers that once formed the basis of an extraordinary seahenge unearthed – if that’s the right term – from nearby shifting coastal sands. It was quite some visit. But what stands out, now I’m home and pondering the whole experience, is a silly little walk I did by myself one night.
All that happened was that I was feeling restless so left my hotel and walked alongside the Great Ouse River in the cold dark, a mile or two to the nearest bridge then a mile or so down the other side where the grass was rougher. Then I came back again and that was it. Nothing really happened. I met nobody. Had no adventures. Yet that momentary loneliness beside a dark smudge of water with the town lights milking up the near horizon is what I recall most clearly and with most affection now that the trip’s done.
Same thing in Marlborough. If you don’t know this town it’s where Kate Middleton when to hoity-toity college as a girl, and the high street certainly offers a keen sense of colourful, localised grandeur. There’s also a wonderful 17th century house right in the middle of the shops where you can find some of the most gorgeous ancient wallpaintings in Britain. A few miles outside you can enjoy the antique glories of Avebury with its majestic stone circles and sense of old England lost in space. There’s a church that still bears the marks of the Civil War canon-balls, too; which is more interesting than you might think. However, my best memory from this visit is the brief moment one afternoon when I drove a mile outside Marlborough to Savernake Forest and strolled the tree-lined avenues for an hour. Again, nothing out of the ordinary happened. A man on horseback did stop and chat for a bit but it was hardly earth-shattering stuff. “I can ride four hours without crossing a road,” he told me. Then he rode on. And I put away the memory to keep (it seems) forever.
Saffron Walden? That was a weird one. You’ve got Audley End just outside town, a vast country pile that makes Downton Abbey look like social housing. There’s a great museum in Saffron, too, and an unbelievably lovely restaurant where I had a fine sausage lunch by a blazing log fire. But the best memory is the morning I got the key to the town maze (you apply in person out of season) and wandered the high, lost hedges for thirty minutes in pittering rain, knowing that no-one else in the entire world could disturb my peace in there…because I had the only key. At the maze centre I stood on a viewing platform looking out over a sea of wet green leaves and hugged the moment to myself. Again, forever.
So what should we make of all this? Do small memories normalise a complex world or expose a skewed sense of proportion? Or do they, just possibly, indicate that what’s really important, at the heart of every trip and all experiences, might be a sense of isolated separation that somehow, just for a moment, makes location itself a more realistic place and therefore a more intense experience?
Or am I just being silly? God knows.
We set off for the top of Mount Teide at three in the afternoon, slamming car doors, shouldering backpacks, stepping onto a broad gravel track making jokes about quick strolls and soon-be-there. It was hot and we hadn’t had lunch but that didn’t matter because suffering for your pleasure is the whole point of some travel. Call it pain-tripping, maybe, Tenerife’s wild interior spreading out below us like a bleak desert as the track rose and rose, Mike and I hurrying along….
This was, by the way, my best trip of 2012 which is why I’m writing about it now – because looking back on the year you always end up asking which journey was the most memorable, the worst and so on. And then you find yourself asking why……
Lunch was a pork pie eaten in the shade of a gigantic rock with smallish sips from the meagre stock of water we’d brought along – three litres each, to last until this time tomorrow. This, plus more food and one or two bits of clothing for the sub-zero temperatures that would come with nightfall made for a modest load on our backs; maybe fifteen pounds. It didn’t seem to matter much anyway, and as soon as we’d finished the pies we picked up our gear and set off again. The landscape was dry and vast and sandy and rocky and orange and yellow and black ….marvellous really. Tenerife is a lush island, a place for beach life and sun cream. But head away from the coast and this is what you find: a bleakly gorgeous national park that looks and feels like Arizona, with Mount Teide, rearing to 3,700 metres, dead centre. Wonderful.
I’d been promising myself this walk for a couple of years, ever since a press trip had taken me to within an hour of the top by cable-car. The views were wonderful, of course – the island unfolding like some kind of postcard home. But acquiring such scenes by cable-car was too easy somehow. And then a guide told me about this trail that led up from the road below, and how there was a little lay-by for the car and – best of all – a mountain refuge half-way up where you can stay the night. And I was hooked. I really wanted to make that journey and now I was actually doing it, one foot after the other, the day beginning to fade at last, just as the broad path narrowed to a sliver, and then turned very steep indeed, also slippery with shale, and hard on the legs, knees, lungs… up and up.
That afternoon we made it to 3,200 metres, but the moment I reached 3,000 metres something weird happened. I started to heave and pant in a way I’d never experienced before. A few years ago I went up Kilimanjaro (5,895 metres) and have never stopped bragging about the fact that five in my group collapsed with altitude sickness but I didn’t. See? I was invincible. I was Especially Fit. Except…
Well, here on easy-peasy Mount Teide I was somehow not doing so well, which was a bit of a surprise. It was getting quite hard to get enough air into my lungs, and looking back down the steeply-zigzagging path I could see way, way below us, a couple of young women who seemed to be catching up. Christ. Mike and I don’t like being overtaken so we put on a bit of a spurt, which wasn’t very pleasant either to be honest, but luckily an hour before nightfall we arrived at the isolated mountain refuge where we’d booked a room for the night, so the couple below us didn’t overtake us after all. Phew. I slumped on the ground, chest heaving.
When it came to making dinner (more pies) I didn’t feel like it much, to be honest. And then we went to our dormitory and all through the night I lay there staring into the darkness, my heart racing, thump, thump, thump… not a wink that night, didn’t sleep a wink. It was horrid, getting up at 4 a.m. next morning…. pulling on my clothes, realising that the act of actually putting on my shirt made me breathless. Blimey. Didn’t expect this, did I?
Even so, it was exciting, slipping out of the refuge in the frozen darkness way before dawn, leaving all other climbers sleeping in their beds, Mike and I talking in whispers as we found the path by the light of head torches. It felt adventurous. I almost wanted to sing out loud, which is something I do when I feel great about something… and I might actually have done it, except the path got even steeper and I realised within a few paces that I could only walk a tiny bit before I had to stop and gasp for breath. Each time I did this, Mike waited patiently, also breathing heavily but not desperately, eager to get on and reach the top by dawn, which was our plan. Summiting with the rise of the sun! Did it get much better than that? Could it be more memorable?
The next hour or two rather took the zest out of my enthusiasm. I found that I could continue with this bloody walk only by counting out twenty paces at a time. Get to twenty and I had to sit on the ground for a couple of minutes until my breathing eased from wild gasps to mild heaves; then up I’d get and on we’d go, another twenty paces, another slump. And so on. And so on. And so on. It was unpleasant. It was maybe worse than that, actually. And I was cold. The landscape was mad and black and ragged. It was like climbing on the moon, but higher, much higher. Burnt rock and jagged skylines rimmed by bright stars. Far below us lights in massed patches marked the civilised coast, but mostly it was just dark rock and sky. Twenty paces. Heave and gasp.
Reaching the empty, ghostly cable-car station after a couple of hours was an indescribable relief, the big dark building emerging from the night to reassure me that we were actually getting somewhere, because this is where I’d stood once before when deciding that next time I’d walk up. Now here I was, pausing again, knowing that there was less than an hour of walking to go and it looked like we’d make it by dawn after all, despite all these pauses. Funnily enough, something improved for me around this time and I found that twenty paces at a time became fifty and then a hundred. It was still hard but not like before, now I could more or less keep going though I felt tired and miserable and the smell of sulphur from the still-active volcano wasn’t nice and I wanted to stop, was desperate (I really meant to use that word) to get to the top.
Then suddenly there was nowhere left to climb to. There was just a narrow, jagged edge to the world with maybe a dozen other dark shapes of muffled walkers hunched against the blistering cold, staring at the eastern horizon as though waiting for a sign; which, of course, we were. A thin band of orange lighting a dark mass of cloud. A splintering of darkness, sense of growing sunshine. Dawn. I lay against a rock, too tired to care about the jagged edges sticking into my legs, noting the moment with a sense of tick-box disinterest. No triumph or joy, no we’ve-done-it moment. It was over; something stacked up in the heart for later maybe. Meanwhile it was cold and the sulphur was stinky. The walk back down the mountain would take maybe five hours and perhaps the car had been broken into and I wasn’t sure I’d have enough water…
Ordinary stuff. Nothing particularly fine. My chest hurt. I was fed up.
We got back to the car a few hours later. Stayed the night on the coast. Drank a lot. Flew home next day to tell our wives what men we’d been…
As it happens, I had continuing problems with my breathing for a few weeks after that and ended up seeing a specialist who told me I’d probably suffered pulmonary oedema up the mountain and probably should have stopped the ascent “because people can die like that”. That also made me feel like a bit of a big man for while: me, boldly going on up the hill, eh? Big man. Rather embarrassing to write it down now, but it seems right to do so, not least because it’s worth bearing in mind that pride can be a foolish prop when you’re walking at height. What’s more important, perhaps, is the way the cogs of memory completed their twists and turns during those following weeks and I realised eventually how much I’d “enjoyed” – relished, in retrospect, which is perhaps the same thing – that climb up Teide. I nursed and nursed the idea of how hard it had been, and how unpleasant, until eventually the idea grew into some kind of new truth: that the view from the top of Teide at dawn, me feeling like shit, will always be coloured by a sense of joy, even though it wasn’t like that at the time. Because I earned the moment, paid for it with bits of hard-won and entirely temporary self-respect so I ended up loving Tenerife, feeling overwhelmed by its possibilities, its surprising grandeur. A vision improved through a blur of scar tissue. As I say, I call it pain-tripping and it wasn’t without its lessons but I’d not have missed the journey, and I hold the memory more clearly and with more joy than any other in 2012. Sometimes I still feel like I’m up there again. Sometimes I don’t feel I ever came down. A lovely, horrible trip.
This is a true story that has nothing to do with travel except it concerns the past which is, of course, another country; and it’s about a man who lost a brother one day and doesn’t know what to do about it now that the issue has suddenly become really quite urgent again. We’ll call the man Richard, which isn’t his real name, but Richard finds it hard to be open about sensitive subjects; indeed, he prefers to consider all his most personal issues in third-party terms so it would be wrong to break with that preference in this column.
Richard’s mother died when he was twelve and his father remarried a year later, that’s the start of it. A bit of a shock, followed by a surprise of a different kind when Richard’s new stepmother announced soon afterwards that she was pregnant. How did Richard feel about that? He wasn’t sure. He’d pretty much got used to being the youngest in the family, he reckoned. Now that wouldn’t be the case any more…
Well luckily, as things turned out, that didn’t matter because one day Richard’s stepmum checked into a private nursing home in Tunbridge Wells and a few days later “the kids” as they were collectively known – Richard and his older brother and sister – were ferried in to pay a visit. And somewhere along the line they realised that their new brother wasn’t coming home with them because starting a new family with your dad in his forties is pretty difficult so he was going to be adopted. Did they understand? Well, yes, Richard supposed so…
Here was the ward, anyway, nice and bright and airy; here was his stepmother looking a bit washed-out but otherwise fine; and someone said “Would you like to see the baby?” Next thing, Richard was standing in front of a glass screen on the other side of which a nurse was holding up a child for him to look at. The baby had a red mark on its face. Someone said that didn’t matter, it was to do with the birth process and Richard said oh, and nothing much else. He didn’t know what else to think, even. What did strike him, though, what really stood out – what fixed the moment, always – was the nurse’s expression, which was smiley and almost proud as if sharing with him a sense of new brotherhood that he must surely by now be feeling. Didn’t she know? Hadn’t anybody told her? All his life, all the years of his life after that, Richard would be unable to get that nurse’s smile out of his head because it seemed really so silly, it seemed…that overworked but entirely accurate word: inappropriate. And also something else that took years to figure out. Him standing in that corridor in front of a window; a nurse smiling encouragingly; a baby with its eyes closed not knowing what the fuck was going to happen next. It seemed sad.
They called the boy Adam apparently, but there wasn’t much else to know about him because Adam was adopted quickly and never came home at all. His father’s solicitor handled it. Went to some local family. Anyway, it was all okay so everyone got on with their lives and Adam was never spoken of again because it seemed rude, and then Richard’s father died and that was that.
Decades passed. Richard grew up, got a job in journalism. Married; had kids of his own. Sometimes he wondered about the half-brother he’d seen that day behind the glass screen. Sometimes when he was feeling a bit low he wondered whether the poor bastard had had a good life. Also whether it was right; whether it was wrong, what had happened. He kept thinking of that child in rather pathetic terms. “Little mite”. Poor bastard. Was it a good thing, giving away a little boy, not speaking about him again, not knowing whether he thrived or had had a miserable life? Richard had different answers to these questions but mostly they amounted to the same thing: he had enough problems maintaining relationships within his own family – with anybody really, he found it all quite tricky; just as well he didn’t have to worry about some unknown half-brother too. Wasn’t it?
Well these are modern times and nowadays no story – no matter how small and unimportant – needs to end with a question mark. There’s the internet. Search organisations. So one day very recently Richard’s sister came to him and said she’d made inquiries and it seemed that the little lost brother was alive and it was entirely likely that he could be contacted. How did Richard feel about that? Would he like to meet the red-faced little bastard he saw through a sheet of glass almost exactly a lifetime ago?
Richard is not entirely sure and it seems that in his quietest moments he senses somewhat clumsily that his own evasive response to the question is composed partly of brutal disregard, partly tender concern, partly anger, partly unexplored regret, partly something that’s hard to put a name to but has something to do with the unreliability of human emotions. Is there a word for that? A rediscovery raising hopes that might not, in the long term, be sustained?
If the past really is a foreign country Richard, who’s a friend of mine, has visited enough times to know that he gets lost there, and presumably that’s why he’s happy to share his story now – because he’s spent a lifetime not talking about Adam and it really hasn’t helped. He can’t get that image out of his head: the nurse, the glass, the poor bastard baby not knowing what was coming next. What to do about it though, that’s the question. Perhaps you have an answer. Go ahead and post it if so; I’m sure Richard would like to see.
In any case, next time I’ll write about real travel again. This has just been a diversion. The things that happen right under your own nose; all those little worlds.
Breaking in to the famous German prison camp known as Colditz Castle was a strangely useful experience and not one, I think, I’ll ever forget. I did it a couple of weeks ago on a trip through Poland and Germany re-tracing the steps of The Great Escapers…. those extraordinary, ultimately doomed, British and allied prisoners of war who tunnelled hopelessly out of Stalag Luft III in March 1943 in a mass, mad, dash for freedom. The numbers alone tell a tragic tale of what happened next. Seventy-six men cleared the tunnel and ran off into a vast, dark Polish forest (frightening to walk through even now). Seventy-three were recaptured, mostly within days. Fifty were then shot out of hand on Hitler’s orders. Just three made it home. Not a particularly jolly or happy event, I’m sure you’ll agree, though in the 1960s they made a gung-ho film about it – The Great Escape – in which Steve McQueen was a hero.
After exploring the ghostly remains of Stalag Luft III, which still exist in very basic form just outside the small Polish town of Zagan, and after walking through the forest, visiting the nearby escape-museum and driving the lanes those escapers must have taken in their hopeless attempt at freedom, I ended up back across the border in Germany. Two of the recaptured men who survived the escape and subsequent slaughter were sent on to Colditz Castle, which had a reputation at the time as the place inveterate escapers should end up because it was almost impossible to escape from. Was that true exactly?
Not totally. If you corral together the best Houdinis you’re bound to suffer break-outs and that’s what happened at Colditz, which nowadays is a museum, a youth hostel and, incongruously, a music academy. There were a total of 187 known attempts at escape during World War II of which 32 were successful. The French did best, with 13 quaintly-named “home runs”; then came the British, with eleven, the Dutch, seven, and the Polish, one. The truly extraordinary figure, though, is the number of foiled escape-attempts made by the British in particular: 109, against just 46 by all the other nationalities put together. We really, really wanted to get home.
I was moved by Colditz, as I was by my entire journey across the landscape that proved so hellish for so many poor escapees. Here in the rather lovely castle you can still see the escape tunnels they dug, the holes in the ceilings they used to pass secretly from one room to another. If you’re nice to the guide you can even see the vast attic where they famously constructed a glider which they hoped would take them to freedom (it never flew).
What particularly strikes you, walking through all this evidence of human ingenuity, is that some people just never give up. At least in Colditz they were safe, fed, couldn’t be killed by bombs or bullets; and if the war went well enough, they knew they would eventually see their loved ones again. But for many – maybe a third of prisoners – that wasn’t enough. They couldn’t sit still. Had to do something…. make an effort….
One of the most amazing British success stories was that of Pat Reid, who later famously wrote about his Colditz experiences, and as my day in this magnificent slammer drew to an end I found myself following the castle trail he took in making his escape. The last touch, for him, was a small stone cellar with a tiny slit of an airshaft barely a few inches high, through which this determined man scraped painfully to freedom. Standing in the dark, looking up at the fading sunlight gleaming through that impossibly narrow opening I was overwhelmed by the sense of desperation that must have propelled Reid at this point, knowing that even if he made it through that shaft he still faced countless miles of danger before reaching any hope of freedom.
Teased by this thought, anxious to see the other side of the shaft I hurried out of the main doors and skirted the vast walls until I came to the spot where I knew it must emerge. It turned out that this part of the castle grounds is not open to the public – it’s fenced off behind a high, padlocked iron gate. But no-one was looking so I went over the top…climbed a bank, and indeed, found the tiny outlet where Reid must have emerged, blinking, into the sunlight all those years ago. I took a picture. Tried to imagine how he must have felt, stumbling away from these stone walls facing hundreds of miles of peril and hardship and possible death. How any of those escapers must have felt, the silly fools. I couldn’t do it, of course. How could I? That was then, this was now. Things move on and touching history is only possible when you’re not really looking and least expect it…
So in the end I just turned around and went back down the hill and clambered back over the gate, realising as I did so that it was a really good joke, breaking in to Colditz like that; I’d tell my wife about it, probably use it in the feature I planned to write. Then I got in the car and drove to Berlin. Dumped the car at the airport. Flew to Gatwick. Hopped a train south and was home within five hours of getting out of jail. It was all terribly easy. In fact, that’s exactly what I told myself as I walked in my own front door: it was all terribly easy, wasn’t it?
(This company is currently arranging tours of the Great Escape routes, available from July 2013)
I went for a run in a tiny Sussex village yesterday and saw a driver on his knees in smart clothes, fiddling hopelessly with a flat front tyre. He called out in a German accent as I went past, “Can you help?” And what happened next raises a point that anyone who uses hire cars should think about quite carefully. Maybe it also says something about the state of Britain today, though I’m not quite so sure about that. Maybe it’s just me being sentimental.
Anyway, the stranded man said he was on his way to Gatwick Airport (40 minutes drive away) for an 8 pm flight and it was now 5.45 pm and his front near-side tyre was bust and he couldn’t get the wheel off. Come here, I said, let me…
Oh. I couldn’t do it either. The wheel nuts were weirdly too big for the tool that came with the car. Bugger. What to do?
Time ticked. Somewhere on a runway, a plane gunned its motors, the German’s face was taut with worry and I sympathised because I realised he could be me, this village could be in Germany and I could be standing here on some godforsaken road not knowing how to get home….
A door opened, a local woman craning to see what was going on so in my sweaty running kit I jogged over to explain and ask for help and she was very nice about it but said, “My husband’s out and has all the tools in his car.” What to bloody DO?
The German was now phoning the hire car company but couldn’t understand their response so gave me his phone and the man on the line said: “We can be there in 90 minutes…” Too late!
Now the woman had an idea. “There’s a man who mends cars down the lane round the back,” she said. So I ran round and there indeed was a man in a shed mending a BMW and I said, “There’s a foreign bloke who can’t change his wheel and he’s desperate.”
The mechanic just shrugged. Then started gathering tools.
“Go and tell him I’m on my way,” he said.
“There’s probably no fee,” I told him. I don’t know why I said that, it’s just a sour quirk of mine I suppose, fear of money or disappointment, not sure. But anyway, the mechanic just shrugged again, said it didn’t matter.
Back at the car I found the lady in the house had taken the German a cup of tea which seemed really British. “A mechanic’s coming!” I said, feeling stupidly proud.
Two minutes later the man duly arrived, immediately spotting the fact that the “wheel nuts” were only mock-ups, stuck on top of the real deal for cosmetic purposes. Once these covers were prised away the proper-sized nuts were revealed. He then pointed out the fact that one of these nuts was security protected and required a separate tool. Did the German know where it was? Of course not. The mechanic silently opened the glove compartment and found a little box…which contained the tool. Then he took the wheel off.
I said “Good luck!” to the German, and – rather embarrassingly – “You’re a good man!” to the mechanic (who just shrugged). And I went on with my run and I’m writing this now because it occurred to me later that asking hire companies “How do I mend a puncture?” is a very good idea when picking up a car you know nothing about – I’ll certainly do it in future, so actually I got something out of that little scene at the roadside. But also, and perhaps more importantly, I feel quite good about the way that German caught his flight. We Brits still modestly slag ourselves off with guilty, post-Colonial enthusiasm whenever we get the chance, and fair-do’s, we deserve it I suppose. But someone gave that German a cup of tea, and someone fixed his wheel, and a passing jogger did his bit. And that wasn’t bad, was it? A little Sussex village? A stranger passing through? Or, as I say, maybe it’s just me being sentimental.
I was sitting in Tenerife South airport the other day after walking up a volcano when I was lucky enough to witness the birth of an idea that could change the face of travel as we know it.
The background is that a friend and I had just slogged to the top of Mount Teide in the centre of that lovely island – an overnight haul up to 3,718 metres that had left us crippled partly by fatigue but also by a sense of newness and satisfaction and all those other strange feelings that emerge when you do something quite hard but really quite special. I’d recommend the Teide slog, in fact. It’s hard but glorious and enormously fulfilling. But…
It’s also quite tiring so by the time we got back to the airport next day, early for our flight home, friend Mike and I were happy just to slump land-side for a while before trudging through the security barriers and lining-up at the gate.
We found chairs and half-lay there as Tenerife South went about its usual business – crowds dealt with by astoundingly efficient systems, both ways, frowns dissolving in a sense of contained arrangement as well-oiled machinery sent incomers to every island nook and cranny and outgoers funnelled down queues and lines and gateways……
And after a while, we noticed that a normally unconsidered but really quite important part of airport life was taking place right under our noses. All those homegoers, or very nearly all, were pausing before the check-in desks to dig inside their pockets and pull out a partly-full bottle of water – which they then threw away.
Obviously I’ve seen this before, all over the world, it’s the law, you can’t take water airside for very good security reasons. But this time something underlined the enormity of this casual discard, and it was the fact that after half an hour or so an airport cleaner arrived and tried to lift one of the plastic sacks which had taken merely an average share of all those half-used bottles. And she couldn’t lift it. She heaved and strained but in the end the bag was so heavy it split and the poor old cleaner had to fish out another sack and wrap up the mess then slide all that lovely H2O onto her cart which she then wheeled off down the airport and off to the drains.
Which is when it struck us that exactly this same scene was being enacted in countless airports all over the world, every minute of every day. Which is madness, isn’t it? In an age of drought and unreliable weather, this huge and shameful waste of a substance that’s fundamental to life, just thrown away, encouraged by international accord. It’s worse than waste, it’s poisonously symbolic, impacting on broader attitudes to water control: so much processed, cleaned and expensive water, going down the drain, and nothing we can do about it. All those watching children. All those unconsidered acts of ignored disgrace.
I won’t dwell on the allied issue – that the very same people who had to throw away their water were going to have to spend money on the other side of the barrier buying yet more water at a high cost, and in an environment that, surely, cries out for free drinking fountains. Put that to one side and stick with the waste. What to do about it?
We puzzled over that for quite a while, Mike and I, but nothing seemed to make economic or hygienic sense, until….
Just as it was time for us to head for the gates Mike stood up, burrowed in his backpack for his own water-bottle and walked determinedly up the concourse and out of sight. When he returned, three minutes later, he was smiling broadly. And when he told me what he’d done I knew then and there that he’d come up with an idea that really could change the face of travel – in a small, but infinitely satisfying fashion. Can you guess what it was?
Mike had simply walked outside the sliding airport doors, crossed the road to the public carpark to a neatly-trimmed flower-bed full of plants that brighten the arrival of thousands of passengers every day at Tenerife South. He then selected one particular flower that took his fancy – yellow and small and struggling – and emptied his water all over it. Then he came back and told me what he’d done and I went out and did the same thing.
Someone will tell you that this disturbed the watering regime at Tenerife South. I will tell you that gardeners are more observant and flexible than you think. Someone will tell you that you could end up swamping some plants, trees, shrubs, bushes and potted-flowers if thousands of people did the same thing, time after time, all over the world. I will respond that it’s perfectly obvious when soil is already too wet. Someone will tell you that it’s a waste of time helping airport greenery when it’s easier and more convenient to dump the bottle in a bag and leave it to the authorities to deal with. I will tell you that it is only by a demonstration of individual responsibility that wider issues are ever settled properly.
We flew back to London in less than four hours, Mike and I. On the plane they gave us free wine. We talked about climbing Mount Teide and how cold it had been, and how wonderful the view from the top, how uplifting, how satisfying. But inside I was remembering the way we’d helped ease the burden of an airport cleaner; I was celebrating the mark we’d left on the airport flower-bed; I was re-living the unexpected rain we’d brought to a sunny island. We’d changed the face of travel. It was wetter.
Tenerife and Mount Teide information: http://www.webtenerife.co.uk/