Broadening The Mind
It costs a lot of money to bring a body back from overseas.
When my best friend died in France, we had to decide whether to ship him back or have him cremated on the spot. We opted for the latter option. Some of him was sprinkled from the back of a boat in Monte Carlo, some of him came home to a cemetery in the English countryside and some of him remained in a duffle bag under the stairs in London, and in a friend’s handbag. As a man who was known far and wide, he would have appreciated the irony of being in so many different places at once, even after his death.
I love travel, but I’m not a loner. I don’t understand people who travel alone – how do they share their experiences? So I end up waiting for my partner or friends to become free, so they can travel with me. Plus I’m a liability, the tourist most likely to board the wrong train/plane/boat in any given situation, the one who infallibly turns left instead of right, the one most likely to be caught up in the local insurgents’ riot, so it’s good to travel with somebody sensible.
I have a history of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was in Mumbai during the bombings and in Sri Lanka during the floods. But if you followed the Foreign Office guidelines about overseas travel, you’d never go anywhere. Part of the thrill is not knowing what will happen next. Despite the lies which are spread (and believed) by Fox News, for the majority of us Londoners it’s a surprisingly consistent and safe city. I worry that this nice warm safety net will dull my senses and make me a boring writer, so I travel whenever circumstances allow.
I’ve never felt very safe in America, although I’m talking about the coast cities, and aware that visitors stick out like sore thumbs – I’d like to travel to the parts that Europeans rarely visit. There is a wonderful German word, unheimlich, meaning ‘uncanny’, which has deeper connotations because it suggests the unease that is caused by being away from home, literally un-home-like. The Jewish word shpilkes catches how I feel in USA cities – to be on shpilkes is to be jittery, walking on needles, unsettled. I’ve been stopped by police there for being a pedestrian, for being in the wrong place, and worse – for no reason at all.
In his book ‘Prisoners of Geography’ Tim Marshall says that if an estate agent was showing you countries instead of houses, he’d show you America first because it’s big but not too big, easy to navigate and doesn’t have noisy neighbours. Africa has virtually no navigable rivers (which means no navy) and contains 56 countries, some of which have nine borders, ie. nine threats to national safety, plus divisions lines within them arbitrarily placed there by invaders.
Europeans travel to more countries than most because the distances are smaller. I can get to Paris more quickly than I can get to Manchester because I live beside the Eurostar terminal, and being able to switch into a less familiar society so easily refreshes the senses. The result of travelling is that I wrote short stories set in Poland, America, France, Russia, the Middle East, India and Thailand. I never write about any place I haven’t been because I like to get the details right, and tend to concentrate on the atmosphere more than the minutiae of exotic locales.
My parents never travelled much. I count myself lucky that I’m part of the generation that’s able to move about through a happy confluence of later-life savings and budget travel, but I’m still appalled at how little of the world I’ve really seen. We are creatures of habit and tend to stay in our tribes, so we’ll pick hotels in destinations where friends have been before us, because it reduces anxiety. But a little anxiety can be a good thing, and whether you stay home or go travelling, bad situations are never very far away in the imaginative mind.
The interviewer Lynn Barber said about JG Ballard, ‘he doesn’t care where he is because he lives inside his mind.’ Sometimes, that’s not quite enough.
NB That photo at the top? It’s Pamukkale, in Western Turkey.