Wednesday, 18 February 2009

An insight into travel writing

People call football a funny old game. An acute observation. Firstly, it’s a game. Secondly, funny things happen. Thirdly, it’s pretty old (the FA's website tells us the beautiful game with the ugly face dates back to 1863*). Travel writing's a funny old game in a different way. It often attempts humour; it dates back to at least Sir Walter Ralegh’s 16th century The Discoverie of Guina, and probably much further. But, it’s not really a game. Well, not in any conventional way.

I told Jan (I doubt that’s her name, but if she reads this and requires a nom de plume, she should feel free to take it; it’s perfect for her) my book plan when boot shopping in a well-known footwear specialists (rhymes with "fillets"). To say she loved the idea wouldn’t do her reaction justice. Her ears first pricked when I asked for "a pair of walking shoes for lots and lots of walking – maybe a thousand miles". Soon she wanted to know why, where, when, how. Hers might just be the most excited response I’ve had so far – though Patrick Moore’s is definitely up there.

My shoe shopping got me thinking. I feel there may be a little separation between me – travel writer extraordinaire – and you. Yes, you. Plodding around the chewing-gummed streets of Harlow, Essex, searching for better shoes and new pens, I uncovered a need to share a secret with you.

You see, I’ve been a travel writer for two and half months. I’ve travelled and written for about six years. But when writing and travelling becomes travel writing, it’s still unclear. Perhaps I’m not a travel writer yet; if I am, I’m a humble travel writer ordinaire…at least until I get published. And I think there’s a good way to demonstrate this.

From the professional travel writers I’ve spoken to (I hate to name drop, or "Bill Bryson" as I like to call it, when I speak to him; or pop an ego pill, like self-effacing Philip Marsden and Charlie Connelly, m’old pals), each has his own way to go from potentially great book to realised bestseller. My two-year journey so far has pinged me from potentially great potential for a potentially great book to convincing others I’m sitting on an explosive idea, full of potential. It’s now taking me to fresh places – some real, some Harlow – in search of all sorts of…shoes, pens and other stuff. So I think it’s about time I revealed the unglamorous side of my dream career.

The gear

To your right you’ll see a pair of specially scooped trainers. So far, these supermarket special offers have carried me through mud, snow, puddles, fields, illegally across a bridge, along a canal, down icy slopes, through museums, in one direction for about 17 miles, around in circles for about 10 miles, and each time safely back home. The laces are like slugs, too fat to loop and tie. The soles are too thin – like tissue paper. Stones shoot through the heels, hills disfigure the toes. I’ve had them two months. Until Sunday they were the best I had.

Here you can see their replacements. Sturdy, thick and Italian (there’s a joke there somewhere). With a moonwalk around Dartmoor and 26-mile power-walkathon soon in Edinburgh, these suede moonboots have big boots to fill.



Ah, a writer’s best friend: a pad and paper, a gym bag and a folder. Computers are great for neat word processing; they’re rubbish for note taking. Scribbles go in the book, the book goes in the bag. Leaflets, flyers, maps, brochures, business cards, tickets, receipts go in the folder. The folder goes in the bag. Why a gym bag? No reason. Why a child’s notepad? Cheaper. Why no computer? If Walter Ralegh can do without then so can I.


I decided to carry my new friend (…) with me in my pocket wherever I moonwalked. At this stage I didn’t know whether I would find any evidence to support Dr Lieber or blow his hypothesis [that the full-moon affects behaviour] into space, but for some reason I felt the now retired psychologist could offer me some sort of written comfort on moonlit traipses in the British outdoors. The book smelled of aged grandmother, which meant every page-turn wafted archaic dust particles up my nose and forced a dozen sneezes. But that didn’t matter; if ever I needed to hear from an ally when people were calling me mean names and mocking my nocturnal rambles, I could pull Dr Lieber from my pocket and read about his lifetime’s devotion to our subject.**

*With its origins in mob football, an often violent game played on holy days in English towns and villages in which an anything-goes philosophy was adopted to get the ball to designated ends, differences early on centred on the amount of handling and hacking involved.

So what they're saying is the sport hasn't changed in 150 years.


**a first glimpse at draft 9 of Moonwalking, Discovering Britain by Full-Moon

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