Hello fellow earth dwellers. I hope you are all happy and smiling your day away 🙂 I wanted to share with you another guest blog written by a fine young chap I met on twitter.
The chap you are about to meet is called Jimmy Horrigan and he is quite the character! Please read his musings, maybe they will inspire you to travel the world and find yourself…
“Many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased.”
-John Steinbeck, taken from “Travels with Charley”
For some time now I’ve been hopping time zones. In the last twelve months I’ve travelled around the UK, crossed the English Channel to explore mainland Europe, traversed Asia and even managed to squeeze in a trip to Australia. Along the way, just for good measure you’ll understand, I’ve thrown in the odd jaunt around the United States. Incredibly I managed to do all this by spending less than £50 in total! ($75 USD – as I type). Beat that, Leon!
If you discount the visits to the library for new loans and trips to local charity shops to stock up on more second-hand books then I can also attest, without hyperbole, that I achieved this feat whilst barely moving a muscle and without scuffing a single rucksack. In return for so little physical exertion on my part I’ve been rewarded with jaw-dropping tours, memorable trips and fabulous treks around our extraordinary planet with some brilliantly colourful characters as my guide. All this happened while I waited for appointments, travelled on buses, took my lunch breaks, relaxed with a glass of wine, listened to my favourite music, and most enjoyable of all – at night when I retired in time to devour a few more pages before switching off the bedside lamp.
So why do I read travelogues so fervently and what makes me want to read more? Why after reading about somebody else’s travels are even the most mundane aspects of my own life subject to overhaul and review? What is it these books are teaching me? More importantly, why do I draw inspiration from these journeys and what is it they inspire me to do? Do I harbour a desire to become the ultimate adventurer – one so secret even I’m not aware of? Am I, unwittingly and rather meticulously, compiling the perfect itinerary and making subconscious plans to travel the globe and see everything there is to see? What am I getting myself ready for? If not for the journey of all journeys then what? If you give me a few minutes to explain I’ll try to do just that.
I started reading travelogues last January. It all came about when, after years of knowing the name but never reading anything by the man, I turned over my first page of a Bill Bryson book. Prior to this my reading was limited almost entirely to my rather salacious obsession for music. Every once in a while I’d read fiction, Kurt Vonnegut a personal favourite, but I was always happiest reading about music, social history or popular culture. Then Bryson jumped off the page changing all that in an instant – and irreversibly so. Falling instantly for the way he paints a palpable picture of his travels and shares the wisdom of his observations through a witty, worldly and idiosyncratic turn of phrase: I was suddenly turned on to a new way of escaping.
Any reading is escapism, of course. But there’s just something unmatchable in the particular release from the quotidian that I get from reading a well-written travelogue that sets it apart from anything else I read. What I get from the author will depend on their focus but be it their motives, the people they meet, the highs and lows of the journey, the places they visit, the transport, the landscape, the history of places along the way; they all offer something different yet paradoxically the same; an unconditional bond between the writer and me. The honesty that stems from their solitude has me gripped from the very start and I’m more immediately involved with the writer than when I wait for a novelist to unravel plots and characterisation. Rather than the abstract proposition of fiction this is somebody doing things I have done, can see myself doing, or wish I had the courage to do.
These are books written by people interested in people and the adventures wouldn’t be possible if other people didn’t get involved, often only momentarily so. Our favourite all-round good guy Leon sets out to travel from place to place in his book but only strangers can make that happen. Each of them is to play a small but vital role in helping him reach his goal. Transport is only his vehicle in the physical sense but it’s the interconnectedness he yearns for which will take him places. For anyone yet to read Leon’s book – you know who you are and you have no good excuse – I won’t spoil it but something else you’ll learn is that the journey, any journey, isn’t just about getting from one place to another.
With the travel books I’ve read the starting point, destination and stop-offs are merely a by-product of the journey itself. Thankfully these accounts are not just about getting from A to B. (I’m reliably informed by library staff and booksellers alike that this is available from all good maps and atlases). No, for me the sense of the discovery goes way beyond geographical vistas and physical landscapes. It’s what happens to the writer as a person and what they learn about themselves and the world around them that appeals most. In most cases the location is almost academic and the lessons I take from the books could be – indeed most definitely are – about anybody, anywhere and everybody, everywhere.
Journeying slowly, enjoying the experience of being neither here nor there (Thanks, Bill!) and taking time to reflect is a recurring theme in these books. In such a time-critical world I’ve relished the words of writers capable of slowing down time to get something more from each moment rather than merely waiting for the next one to arrive. Shortly after reading Carl Honore’s “In Praise of Slow” and days before the first of my back-issues of “The Idler” started to arrive in the post, I found myself reading books perfectly tuned in to the concept of Slow Living. Perhaps I was just in the right state of mind for the ethos and appeal of these books or maybe it’s just the take on the world I’m forming with age but nevertheless I was enamoured with the contemplative charm and narrative of “Three Men in a Float”, “The Wisdom of Donkeys”, “Narrowboat Dreams” and “One Man and a Narrowboat”.
“Three Men in a Float” by Dan Kiernan and Ian Vince tells the story of how they, together with their friend Prasanth Visweswaran, made their way from Lowestoft to Land’s End – the most easterly and westerly points of England – in a 1958 milk float. Travelling at never more than 15 miles per hour and relying on kind strangers to help charge the float’s battery every 8 hours, their adventure spoke to me loud and clear: people need people and some things just take time. As eccentric as the challenge might sound, the connection with other people was as important to the adventure as the pace of the journey itself. The authors had plenty of time to reflect and bicker (ah, good old human nature) but the “speed” of the journey meant they got to explore the kind of detail anyone taking the same route by rail or motorway would simply miss. Each chapter depicts perfectly what we can gain from our companions, our surroundings and our own resolve when we choose to go slowly, reverse the hectic schedule of everyday life and just enjoy the ride. John Ruskin, the prominent Victorian social thinker, would have rained praise on the chaps for their approach. Rather prophetically and over 100 years ahead of their trip he mused, “Modern travelling is not travelling at all; it is merely being sent to a place, and very little different from becoming a parcel”.
Andy Merrifield‘s “The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquillity in a Chaotic World” tells a different story but at a similar, steady plod. Accompanied by a donkey and walking around the Auvergne region of France, Andy looks at donkeys through philosophy, culture, film and literature to bond with his companion and to better understand the order of things. The loyal and gentle Gribouille, Andy’s furry companion, provides a way for Andy to examine his own existence and his place in the world around him. It’s unclear how long they walked for but in the spirit of the journey, it took as long as it needed to take and they went home when it was time to go home. The pace they walk at, the people and customs they encounter, and the conversations they share together (yes, he talks to his donkey!) help him conclude that inspiration and true meaning is waiting for us all wherever we’re willing to look for it.
In “Narrowboat Dreams: A Journey North by England’s Waterways” and “One Man and a Narrowboat: Slowing Down Time on England’s Waterways” the author, Steve Haywood, writes passionately of his love (and sometimes – hate) affair with the English canal network. The first of these introduced me to something enthusiasts call “the fastest way to slow down” and was the perfect bedfellow for tales of slow milk floats and leisurely donkey walks. (How often have you ever found yourself reading that sentence?) As Steve navigates the canals he gives a brilliantly erudite and entertaining account of the history and heritage attached to the once arterial routes of the country’s industrial past. He even finds time to throw in some recipe ideas and recommend good pubs selling real ale into the bargain which from where I’m sitting makes him the perfect guide for any journey.
His approach to making a journey is something we should all try from time to time – escape the hysteria of city life for a more sedate way of going about things. The slow cruising of his tales gives me time to think in much the same way as his time on the canal gives him “opportunity to cogitate a bit too. About myself. About England”. He admits his trips may well lack a grand purpose or design but for me they show how things without purpose don’t necessarily lack meaning. He puts it better himself towards the end of “One man and a Narrowboat” as he writes, “And if nothing else, I’d had the chance of cooking and eating some decent food, and drinking some good beer. And having a laugh from time to time. Can you expect any more from any journey? Even life itself?”
Tony Hawks – the rather brilliant British comedian and writer not to be confused with any skateboarders that may leap, ollie or fakie to mind – made his way around Ireland in order to win a bet. Simply getting about Ireland may sound easy enough but he did it with a fridge and without his own transport. Pete McCarthy’s journey around the same Emerald Isle in “McCarthy’s Bar” however was one of personal reflection, and a search for personal identity and heritage. He needed to make a link with others in order to reconnect with his own memories, his past and effectively, to find his roots. Both McCarthy and Hawks had to rely on other people and their success or failure rested on the shoulders of strangers. Their motives couldn’t have been more different but this dependency on others was pivotal to both of them on their journeys.
So where else have I been to on my travels? Well thanks to Bill Bryson, John O’Brien and John Steinbeck I’ve got to know the United States. Bill and I walked a good part of the Appalachian Trail together in “A Walk in the Woods” which opened my eyes to a mostly consumer-free side to the U.S. that I’d only previously seen represented in documentaries like Dave Gorman’s “America Unchained”. John O’Brien’s “At Home in the Heart of Appalachia” was the heartfelt memoir of a man attempting to reconnect with his troubled past. He took me to a small pocket of the trail, to a small town in West Virginia that Bill and I had passed through only weeks before, giving me an insight into the history, politics and industry that created the identity which he hoped to rediscover. Bryson, on the other hand, offered me a customarily light hearted account of a physically demanding trek and made me belly laugh until it hurt. Two very different journeys set in the same landscape later and I too started to develop an affinity with the Trail.
Sticking with Bill, which it’s only fair to do as he’s responsible for starting my obsession with travel books and the words you’re reading, we’ve been all over together. We looked for the heart of small-town America in “The Lost Continent”, re-traced his youthful wanderings around mainland Europe in “Neither Here nor There”, discovered Australia together in “Down Under” and more familiarly, for me at least, ambled around the British Isles as he said his farewells to the country he’d made his home in “Notes From a Small Island”. The journeys were a blend of the exotic and the sublime; we’ve walked some of the quaintest, picture-postcard English countryside, experienced some of the most beautiful cities in Europe and for contrast we tackled the scale and inhospitable heat of the Australian outback. These were pleasures of polarised extremes.
For miles covered, nothing I’ve read comes close to Peter Moore’s “Wrong Way Home”. Peter’s challenge was simple – to return home to Sydney, from London, without setting foot on a plane. Rather than the hippy image synonymous with the overland trail of the 60s and 70s, Peter just sees himself as an ordinary bloke doing something to quench his own thirst for travel, culture and as a challenge to himself. As he advises aspiring travel writers via his website, “It doesn’t always have to be an emotional journey”, and there’s definitely more fun than philosophy or personal discovery to his trip. However, finding that connection with others along the way still plays a massive part in how things go and for me the inspiration Peter’s story generates goes way beyond travel – the idea that ordinary people can do extraordinary things is something we can all apply to anything we want to do.
It’s hard to know how to bring this ramble to a natural end as I could talk about more inspiring tales than you could probably take in one sitting. I suppose the fact I’ve had to omit Stuart Maconie’s search for the apocryphal Middle England in “Adventures on High Teas” and his quest to find the true heart of Northern England in “Pies and Prejudice”, Robbie Coltrane (Harry Potter fans will know him better as Rubeus Hagrid) and his journey around the back-roads of Britain in a vintage Jaguar, and the other crazy bets taken by Tony Hawks in “Playing the Moldovans at Tennis” and “One Hit Wonderland”, is something I’ll just have to learn to live with. (Or write about some other time). A fitting end would probably be to mention another major influence on the theme of this piece – the source of the quote right at the beginning.
Being a dog owner myself, John Steinbeck’s idea of taking-off around America with only his dog for companionship, instantly hit the sweet spot for me. Charley is effectively Steinbeck’s Gribouille in “Travels with Charley: In Search of America” and they are perfect company for each other on the road. In the book Steinbeck wants to rediscover the country and its people, the source of inspiration throughout his career, after years spent living abroad. He’s looking for something he feels he’s lost touch with which he concedes may no longer exist; he’s changed and so have the times, so it stands to reason that the people have too. The honesty and introspection in the book is matched by intricate and colourful language throughout and although the journey may not bear the fruit he hoped for, his understanding of what we have to gain from any journey sits perfectly with why these books inspire me.
The idea that a trip “continues long after movement in time and space have ceased” is something I think about regularly. The stories told in these books may come to an end but the lessons they offer go way beyond the final words and can relate to many different aspects of our lives. Everything we do is effectively a journey and we’re always on our way to do something, to get to somewhere, or to be somebody. Sometimes we have a fridge with us, a donkey, a dog, our memories, little money, sore feet, or a thirst for adventure – but whichever it is – we’ll meet people along the way and need to be ready to connect and to enjoy the ride.
So where to next? “In Siberia” with Colin Thubron is tempting me as I write this but beyond that, who knows? I have another book by my favourite narrowboat man waiting on the bowing shelves so it may be time to take a gentle course through still waters. I could always seek out more European flavours and move to France for Michael Wright’s “C’est La Folie”, push myself and go high-brow to explore China with Paul Theroux’s “Riding the Iron Rooster”, or take my first trip through another continent and accompany him overland from Cairo to Cape Town in “Dark Star Safari”. But I’m in a playful mood so I’m more likely to look at the journey of a multi-pack of gentleman’s briefs via Joe Bennett’s “Where Underpants come from: From Checkout to Cotton Field – Travels through the New China” or Tim Moore’s 500 mile trek around Spain with a reluctant donkey in “Spanish Steps”. As Kurt Vonnegut once put it – better than I could ever hope to – “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God”.
I’ve created an “Inspirational Shelf” on Goodreads so if you want to find out more just click here.
If you’d like to read about one of my other passions you’ll find heaps of music reviews here.
You can follow my day to day ramblings on Twitter – I’m @jimmyhorrigan . Please come say hello 🙂