So, here I am, safely returned from that big, bad city in the south, the summons being completely irrefusable. Before leaving I had finished one book, started another and had one more packed for the journey. On leaving Zanzibar I pondered where to go next, thought about Liberia and ended up in Siberia. With two on the go I am currently in both Berlin and Dominica.
From Moscow to Siberia I was guided along the Vladimirka Road, The Road of Bones as Jeremy Poolman has it. He was on a mission, reuniting a fragment of a Buddhist robe that had belonged to a recently deceased friend, with a grand-father said friend had lost in the Gulags. He met some interesting characters along the way, with an uncanny knack of sitting beside someone on a plane or a train who happened to speak English, invited him home, and had a connection to the route. It was good stuff, even if the citizens of Omsk today still fear the van taking the removed to the frozen wastes further east. In the remnants of a camp outside Tomsk he found the right spot for his offering, after hearing a blind orphan play a symphony on an imaginary piano. There is hope and by now the lad will have a piano on which to exercise his talent.
The first chapter of Robert Byron’s Europe in the Looking-Glass had me enthralled. Three Eton toffs in a motor, heading for Athens. This was Byron’s first book, now republished by Hesperus almost 80 years after the original. Byron went on to legendary status, tragically cut all too short by a wartime torpedo. His Road to Oxiana was a ‘sacred text’ to Chatwin and an inspiration to many. I want to see the embryo from which that was crafted. There will be more later.
Almost the entirety of my baggage for my day out, was a notebook and pen, along with The Traveller’s Tree, from the mighty pen of the recently deceased Patrick Leigh Fermor (another Hellespont swimmer). This is another work recently republished, in 2005, from an original of 1950, which was decades before his famous walk through Europe was bound up. There is hope that the unfinished final volume of that trilogy may yet make an appearance. Back to The Traveller’s Tree. I came across this responding to a forum topic for one of the travel magazines. He had been in the Caribbean, in the days before the cruise ships. My old man may be interested, for he is like a flea to the light bulb of the West Indies, forgetting at the time of the booking the exhaustion of the last journey home. He might find some islands much different to those he views from his sunbed.
And on the train yesterday, after a mere three pages, following a couple of pre-dawn chapters from Byron, I was feeling unworthy. For I was on my way to rub shoulders with the great and the good of travel writing, and yet these two masters, in just a few words, teach me lessons on every page. I realised though, that a fair number of the members of the British Guild of Travel Writers would also prostrate themselves, for these are craftsmen indeed.
I will spare you the journey, as I spared myself the nausea of Virgin’s tilting trains by opting for the East Coast line. And on the return I was spared the axe-murderer from Shoreditch, the upper bunk remaining empty though every footfall in the corridor had me nervous. As I sit here now I realise that it does not do for an old asthmatic to leave an inhaler on the train.
But I waffle on, putting off the moment. I had thought of introducing some music at this stage, perhaps the ringtone version of Fanfare for the Common Man, just hum it instead, for there is some trumpet blowing to be done. Photographs have been taken and releases sent to the press. With nods and winks a-plenty I knew I was not just there for the canapes. For the last three years the Guild have hosted a competition for new writers and my little piece had been selected as a finalist this time round.
I am always cynical, some of you may have noticed, and this applies as much to the written work as anything else. Travel writing is hugely important to me even though my opportunities for travel are limited in both time and scope. In competitions, and indeed in the competition for column inches in magazines and journals, my usual destinations may seem dull in comparison to trips up the jungle, with machete-hacked tracks through snake-filled undergrowth; or in the frozen wastes with shamans and nomads. But here I stood nonetheless.
My fellow hopefuls had indeed been to the exotic, Carole to Cartagena, and Nick, an absent Botswana safari guide, to Eritrea. I had been to a tiny island off sodden and midge-infested Scotland. But I was utterly thrilled to be there; more so when called to the stage to collect third prize. Im indebted to the sponsors for without them there would be no competition. But the real prize is in being there, the recognition, and I can hear the applause and see the flash bulbs yet. Most haven’t read it, but some of the comments from those in the know, were beyond kind. The ego is massaged, well and truly.
I was sorry though not to meet up with Jon Lorie, for my presence last night was a feather in his cap. He it was who told me that wherever I was in the world was abroad to everyone else; and he it was who has exercised so much patience and passed on so many rich gems of the weird and wonderful world of travel writing and publishing, and his love for the genre. Jon, if there was one word on everyone’s lips last night it was Festival, much in demand. Make it happen, please.
And so I better let you read this nugget from our sacred isle that took me to London. Only one dear friend has, and she not a character that may have featured in it, who I guess needs to see it too. For her prayers were Answered Prayers, as well as mine.