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.


8 comments on “Broadening The Mind”

  1. Ken Mann says:

    On the subject of Europeans travelling to more countries: The German police hold the record for “car chase that went through the largest number of countries” – there’s a film there. Being real it was of course not a high speed chase, more of a “wait for him to run out of petrol” chase.

  2. David Ronaldson says:

    I enjoy travelling alone, as it encourages me to speak to strangers. However, if you don’t enjoy finding yourself sitting with what we will call a “talkative eccentric” on the bus from Aldwych to King’s Cross, try a train journey from Frankfurt to Copenhagen sitting next to American Christian Evangelist with body odour and verbal diarrhoea…

  3. Jay says:

    Don’t I know it costs a lot of money to die abroad Chris. On 26th May I had the heart aching shock of discovering my father had dropped dead of a heart attack at only 63 within hours of arriving in Dubai for a family holiday with my mother watching helplessly and his sister and brother in law. I had to go out there in the end for a week as there were so many complications, delays, red tape, but the main aspect – money. Dubai isn’t the cheapest place to die suddenly. To cut a long, distressing story short the whole process took two weeks and several thousands of pounds. He was a big fan of your books too Chris and we definitely weren’t leaving him there for cremation.

  4. Ness says:

    Traveling alone gives you the chance to better observe. No one knows what language I speak until I choose to reveal it. I’ve overheard some interesting stuff. Apparently I don’t look like I speak English, French or German. Particularly funny run in with some Americans on a train to Naples. Over an hour of speculation about my life, where I was from, what I was doing etc. A well placed “have a nice day” as I left the train probably ensured that they didn’t. So it turns out that my bum did look big in those jeans. If only I’d had a travelling companion to let me know…

  5. Helen Martin says:

    My Mother wanted to know why I didn’t travel while I had the chance instead of getting married at 22. I told her I knew who I wanted to travel with and which did she think was preferable, traveling unmarried or not traveling til later? It turned out to be very much later indeed but I still think it was the right choice. I need someone to say Wow, look at that! to and while I will use whoever happens to be on the spot I know who I want to be saying it to. (I can get lost, too, and did in York, which people say is impossible because “it’s a walled city for heaven’s sake!” But I met a very nice lady to talk embroidery with and I found my way back.

  6. Martin Tolley says:

    “I met a very nice lady to talk embroidery with and I found my way back.” That HAS to be the first line of a novel…

  7. Helen Martin says:

    If you want it, it’s yours, Martin.

  8. Peter Dixon says:

    True story: A bunch of my over 50’s in-laws decided to have a holiday in Nice and because uncle Stevie had a big car they’d drive there (the Chunnel had recently opened). Within 48 hours of arriving uncle Steve (67) died of a heart attack. So far, so bad. Then they realised that he was the only person who could drive and they had no means of getting back or enough funds to fly all of them back. Total havoc involving a body, phone calls, borrowing on son’s/daughters credit cards, and eventually getting a son to take emergency leave and fly out to bring them back.
    3 years later I was talking to uncle Stevie’s widow who was planning a summer holiday. “Where are you going ” I asked
    “We’re going to Nice – we didn’t get much chance to look around last time”.

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