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Why we travel, and write about it

One of the UK’s most original and best writers died yesterday.

I wasn’t a great fan of AA Gill’s restaurant reviews. Like a classic French menu, they were too rich for me.

Not in cream, butter and offal, but in words and phrases, and to be blunt, cost and location.

I have only eaten out in London a few times, and only once in his home turf of Chelsea – and that was breakfast, so I didn’t rush every Sunday to read his latest culinary offering.

But I adore his travel writing, though I am rather embarrassed to admit that I came to this aspect of his prodigious output rather late. April this year in fact.

We were spending a couple of days on the shores of Lake Malawi with our good friends Thoko and Govati Nyirenda, when I accidently pulled a very battered copy of AA Gill is Away from a bookshelf in our lodge.

I devoured it in an afternoon, while lying on an old plastic sunbed, the gentle waves of the freshwater lake lapping almost at my feet.

AA Gill got Africa.

“It’s like seeing the world with the lid off”, he memorably wrote. A simple phrase, shorn of any pretentions, but one that perfectly evokes the sights, the sounds, the smells, the overwhelming humanity of this great continent.

“This is where we all came from, and you’ve come home”, an old Afrikaaner told him at the end of his first, difficult, day in sub-Saharan Africa.

“The old bastard’s right,” Gill decided later that night.

Another of my favourite travel writers, dubbed “the greatest living one” by Wanderlust magazine, is Paul Theroux.

He too gets Africa.

His travels across the continent by public transport are in turn, mesmerising and depressing, but always, always searingly honest.

His advice to budding (young) travel writers is to be bold, be truthful and to leave everything behind. By that he means don’t use Facebook, don’t blog, and phone home rarely.

Advice I cheerfully ignore.

Theroux carries a small notebook, and every night (or early morning) he writes up a full account of his day, sometimes up to 2,000 words.

And he does his research afterwards. “I want to discover a place,” he says.

But while both men loved to travel, home is where their heart lies.

Both have written travel books about their home country in order to try and understand it better, but only after travelling far from it.

Paul Theroux says that the best travel writing should be “like a letter home”, full of stories and opinions.

And AA Gill said “one travels in order to come home.”

Sitting here in the December sunshine of Greece, watching a ginger cat slowly stalk a mouse and as the village church bells peal even more slowly, my thoughts turn to why we are travelling.

Age is definitely a strong motive.

In the Last Train to Zone Verde, the then 71-year-old Paul Theroux wrote, “I have never been more keenly aware of the sadness in wasted time.”

I don’t want to waste any of the time I have left. I have wasted enough.

Before my body shrivels and dies, I want to immerse myself in the world, to meet people who challenge my preconceptions. Who make me laugh. Who make me think. Who make me feel alive.

Like 81-year-old Vasilis Pantazi, the owner of the farm steading where we are spending December.

Every day he, slowly, works on his land, growing the produce his wife Fatoula, also 81, cooks and that he often shares with us.

He drives his battered red pick-up and shiny blue scooter with the nerve and verve of a teenage boy, and he laughs with his whole soul.

He speaks no English. I speak two words of Greek, but we laughingly argue about politics in very, very bad French. “Pah, socialiste,” he dismisses me with a big grin, then a hug.

I also want to travel to understand my home. Scots have spent the last few years arguing amongst ourselves whether we should remain part of the United Kingdom after 300 years.

But even though we voted in 2014 to stay, the debate still rages. It damages families, friendships, our economy. It is exhausting.

And now, the people of Britain have voted to leave the EU. That decision, made for fearful reasons, is damaging families, friendships, our economy. And the aftermath, Brexit, will exhaust us all.

To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, what would I know about the United Kingdom if I only knew the United Kingdom.

I don’t suppose I will come to any startling conclusions during my journey; I am not going to write a great book about identity and nationalism, but I hope to understand more about my ain folk by spending time with strangers.

Which brings me to the final reason why we are living in a van for a year.

It is the same reason the first human beings left the East Rift Valley and trudged north, to populate the world.

We want to see what is over the next hill.

Travel writing at its best

  • AA Gill. Two masterpieces: AA Gill is Away and AA Gill is Further Away (helping with enquiries). His book about England An Angry Island, gets under the skin of the English. It is also very witty. He died on Saturday, 10th December, aged only 62. The Guardian’s obituary is here.
  • Paul Theroux. Where does one start? I am currently re-reading The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean and can heartily recommend Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown. See his website for the full library of his travel books, and novels.
  • Wanderlust magazine is packed full of great writing on every aspect of travel.

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