August 2017: Listening to Jon Snow talking about how journalists have become far removed from the lives of ordinary people on R4 today makes me ponder my own slightly unusual situation in travel writing. I think that most of my colleagues are firmly entrenched in their own slice of the media, be that writing for heavyweight broadsheets or middle market tabloids. I find myself writing for the top end, and the bottom end, almost simultaneously. So in the last couple of months I’ve done three pieces for the FT and I’ve got a couple of big features coming out in the Sunday Times Travel Magazine; meanwhile I continue to produce the travel spread every week in the Sunday People and increasingly chip into the Sunday Mirror, too. Of course I can understand the temptations of only working for the top end: getting treated like a lord and being courted by lovely PRs is great for the ego, but there is a huge chunk of self-indulgence (and smug self-satisfaction) at work here, which the Scottish presbyterian in me resists. I’ve just turned down six days in the Maldives, for god’s sake, what fool does that? Meanwhile for the downmarket stuff I do there’s practically no PR input at all; small scale resorts and low budget hotels don’t have big PR machines, but I personally think that that end of my work is more of a contribution to society than greasing the wheels of lavish hotel businesses. I’d hope that my weekly top tens in the Sunday People would have the effect of expanding the limited travel horizons of the paper’s readers, by offering slightly more adventurous suggestions of what is possible within their budget range than what they would traditionally consider.
February 2017: It’s been a long time since I wrote anything new on these pages. Mostly because I’ve been busy making money, which is a Merciful Thing. But one of the ways in which I have been earning my daily bread is by doing regular roundups for newspapers. Mostly these are ten-of-the-best type things, and mostly I’ve been to several locations of the ten, which is one of the advantages of being something of a veteran in the travel biz. Of course I’d prefer to write about all ten from personal experience, but that would be a paradise scenario.
However a new trend is being asked to do whole destination pieces on places I haven’t been to, which is unsettling, to say the least. I reckon I can mug up on a place pretty well, but it’ll never be as good as having been there, and there’s always the possibility of some horror-show of a mistake creeping in. I wish I didn’t have to, but the editor specifically wants those destinations in the section (I suspect someone high up in the paper has taken a freebie and not written about it), so needs must. What I do worry about, in particular, is the future of this kind of mugged-up travel writing. It is never going to encapsulate the true feel, the joy, of a place. It will never be enlivened by personal encounters, and instead will just repeat tired old cliches.
But work is work, and I am not in position to turn it down.
August 29th: BA’s airmiles people, Avios, recently commissioned me to write a piece on somewhere in Europe that had particularly inspired me. The result is pasted in below.
My most inspirational place in Europe: Zalanpatak, Romania
They’ve learned how to live with the bears in Zalanpatak. Up on the grazing pastures of the inner Carpathian mountains the shepherds spend their nights in lidded boxes, sticks by their sides, ready to clamber out to defend their flock. Bears are regular visitors after dark, they say, but it rarely ends in confrontation; their baying packs of dogs are usually more than enough to see off any threat.
A couple of miles away, in a forest clearing surrounded by hornbeam and oak, a party of charcoal burners admit to being a bit nervous when they’re out gathering wood. Fortunately the smoke keeps the bears away from their encampment.
Even in the village itself, the locals take precautions. One of the farmers shows me the warning bell he rings when anything large and furry comes shambling down the street, but when I ask whether anyone has ever actually been attacked here, he shakes his head; respect has to be shown, of course, but bears and men have been living happily here, side by side, in all the many years that he can remember.
Zalanpatak (population: 100) is a tiny dot in the giant, crumpled land called Transylvania, a name with such a mythical status that it almost hovers above the map, somewhere between fact and fiction. I first heard of Transylvania, as many people do, through Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But when I was lucky enough to come here, it was another seeming piece of fiction that captivated me: the barely credible sight of people still living the same traditional, sustainable lifestyles of the Middle Ages. And that includes coexisting with bears.
In reality Transylvania is, of course, an upland region of Romania. It is a bucolic land made up of a mosaic of farmsteads and sleepy villages, wreathed in mountains and forest. A place of haymaking with scythes, of fruit-gathering, cheese-making and mushroom-hunting, and of homebrewed plum brandy strong enough to blow your socks off.
It is also a mosaic of people, with Romanians, ethnic Hungarians and even the remnants of Saxon (ie medieval German) communities living here, speaking their own languages. Whatever their origin, their livelihoods are the same: a smattering of livestock, a small orchard, enough vegetables to last the winter, and barely any need for money.
While the rest of Europe is struggling with more concrete and more speed, Transylvania is still moving at horse and cart pace, cloaked in a meditative serenity. It is not a place for spas or boutique hotels, but the inner peace is deafening. For me just coming here, and witnessing man and nature living in harmonious balance, is a spa for the soul.
Of course it can’t go on like this forever; it would be selfish of me to hope for that. Even this far corner of eastern Europe is being affected by change. But when Transylvania finally gets fast-forwarded into the future, I trust that there will still be some space left for the bears.
May 9th: Time for some musings on the state of the industry. Or on my little corner of it, anyway. Prompted by a growing discrepancy between what I am offered, and what I can actually deliver. This year I have had an unprecedented selection of invitations; this month I could be going to Ethiopia, Italy, Germany, France and Dubai, but none of these trips had a strong enough storyline to interest an editor and therefore justify the time. Meanwhile, on the home front, the press dos continue, but are increasingly poorly attended, judging by the last-minute calls I get encouraging me to come. At a national tourist board event a fortnight ago, I reckon the journos were outnumbered by the marketing people. The reality is that the pages simply aren’t out there any more for the likes of me to fill, and those pages that are, either don’t pay, or want lists, or are as rare as gold-dust. So we’re fading into the background, us old hands. And bloggers, who were meant to be taking our places, have yet to prove themselves as sustainable alternatives – at least that’s what I assume, because I don’t see them in the invite lists or at the events. Despite all this, I still get treated like a VIP, even though I feel increasingly like a fraud. Clearly, the print stuff I still do must be extremely valuable to someone.
March 3rd: A brief intermission in London between longhaul trips. Just back from Thailand, and off next to Bhutan for cycling and Burma for trekking. It’s good, what I do, but being away so much like this wouldn’t have been fair on the family when the kids were younger. Anyway, a thought from Thailand. I took a vomit rocket of a tour boat out from Khao Lak to the Similan Islands, 70km offshore, for a day trip. The islands are a marine park, famous for snorkeling and diving, and only allow visitors access to a couple of landing places, which means those places are completely bombed with people. And the vast majority of those people are there, it seems, for the sake of Facebook. Solo and group selfies and any number of poses on the white sand beaches were the order of the day. Nobody seemed to notice the flying foxes in the palm trees, or the strange-shaped coconuts. And when the selfies were done, the pics were loaded and tagged on iphones and tablets, so it was heads down and log on in the shade. Nobody seemed to notice that it was a beautiful day, and there was snorkeling to be done. What a waste. It cost me £40 to get there and back and to have lunch; I reckon they should double or treble that price to reduce the numbers and make sure that it is only the people who really want to be there, who make the effort .
January 6th: Another year creaks into action, and I’m ashamed to say I have made no new resolutions. Not that everything is tickety-boo, but basically because I know what I need to do to keep things moving along, and giving up alcohol definitely won’t help! The professional life of a freelance these days is so dependent on the overall state of the media industry and the particular section of the industry one works in, it is hard to exert any personal control. I gather that people writing in subscription websites about international banking, for example, are doing fine, as are those writing in trade magazines about the urban tram business. Alas, neither are me. Meanwhile, in the old world of trying to make a living out of writing, in print or online, the outlook is still bleak. I can see respected names turning up in the Huffington Post, where I know they are writing for free, just for the exposure. It is hard to believe, after all the upheaval in the media biz, that there are some people out there in professions – probably the majority of professions – who are still doing what they always did, and for whom very little in their work environment has changed. Most of me feels very envious, although a part of me might wonder whether they’re not actually rather bored and fed up. At least the media revolution has got us all on our toes. No nodding off at the back!
November 28th: I feel I need to get something off my chest about Twitter, and my fellow travel writers who make the most of the medium. Apologies for anyone outside the business, because this is just going to see small-minded and incestuous. But I think some things just need to be said.
Most of my colleagues in the freelance lark approach Twitter with caution, and only say stuff when they’ve got something to say, whether it be wittily, or witheringly. But there are a loud-voiced few who use the medium to keep us abreast of every small triumph in their lives, and mostly that seems to be revelling in freebies: upgrades to business/first class, privileged access to lounges, drooling over scrummy lunches, crowing about being by a pool in the Maldives when everyone else is working, that kind of thing. Besides being rather sickening to read, this braying about privilege to all and sundry is very bad for the image of the industry. It suggests to any operator that all they need to do in order to get enthusiastic ‘editorial’ is throw the journo some nice sweeties. And I put ‘editorial’ in inverted commas here, because, frankly, a lot of this coverage is just advertising, but done by journalists. I can see why operators like it, because it promotes their brand without a fee (or I assume without a fee – maybe some of these guys are actually being paid to tweet, in which case they can no longer claim to be journalists). Sorry, but this is debasing what we are trying to do; the profile of today’s journo is already besmirched enough without more mud being slung at it by our own side.
There, now I’ve said it, and I’m going to get on with my work.
November 1st: Sometimes some stories seem to have a following wind. I have just been in Goerlitz, a sleeping beauty of a town in the far corner of eastern Germany, where it bumps up against Poland and the Czech Republic. I had excellent guides, fabulous autumnal weather, and a great storyline, because with 4,000 Gothic and Renaissance buildings, Goerlitz has become the go-to location for film directors. The likes of Inglourious Basterds and the Reader were filmed here, and there are two big films upcoming – the Book Thief and Grand Hotel Budapest – that will showcase the place even more. The tourist office got me a room in the hotel where the stars had stayed, and arranged me lunch and dinner in charismatic restaurants. I was only there a day and a half, but it was a perfect travel-writerly assignment; the story virtually wrote itself.
So what if I had been a punter? What if I didn’t speak German, and I’d been there on a weekend of rain? There’s not a lot else to do in Goerlitz than admire the architecture.
Fortunately, this place is such a discovery that it would work for anyone who appreciates the artistry of man. But because it went so smoothly as an assignment, it made me think of places where it hadn’t gone so smoothly, and I’d had to dig deep to produce something remotely presentable. We travel writers have a responsibility not to be seduced by being treated like VIPs, and getting pressurised into over-egging a place by editors on publications that require oodles of adjectives and perpetual blue skies. There has to be an element of reality to the dreams we sell.
October 1st: Long gap without writing anything here…lots of notable stuff, although most of it will have to go unrecorded. White Stag Sunday is currently with my agent, who is not sure whether or not to start circulating it to publishers, which isn’t particularly reassuring. I’ve just pulled out of a trip to Nepal for the FT because the airline (Jet Airways) was asking for a guarantee of 150 words in the main story. Sorry, but it simply wouldn’t gel with a story about Nepalese cuisine. I knew the newspaper wouldn’t be happy with the idea.
Just back from an interesting trip to Japan, also for the FT, which must still be one of the most inaccessible tourist destinations on the planet. Language is a big problem, but the whole psychology and the minefield of invisible etiquette is something else…my bowing muscles and smiling muscles are well exercised. Key moments? The creme caramel with chicken liver buried in it; the automatic toilet with the testicle-tickling jet; clearing spider’s webs from under the rafters whenever I stood up in the ryokan Gajoen; having my own onsen; nearly eating an oshiburi (hot towel); the swing on the hill in the villa resort; discovering that the big orange plastic-wrapped truncheon in a supermarket was a pickled radish; the school brass band playing Deep Purple on the station platform; ‘mouse voice’ salesgirls; the cake with the ‘brand new puffy taste,’ etc etc. Deadly-poisonous Fugu fish was a big culinary disappointment, as was my own ability at sitting cross-legged on tatami matting for any period of time. And it is high time the Japanese got a bit more daring with colour; cars are all either black or white or something in-between, and the interiors of the bullet trains are uncompromisingly beige. The same could be said for the vast majority of their clothes.
June 20th: I’ve had my first offer of writing a piece for a paper where the operator pays the fee, not the paper. Not sure whether to agree to it, yet. But this may be the way things are going. I’m certainly noticing a difference in the sort of thing that gets covered, principally because now that many newspapers don’t pay, there has to be a PR machine behind each story taking on the burden of the organising and funding. And usually it is just the top end travel experiences, or the big corporates, which can afford a PR machine, so the small-to-middling stuff, the sort of thing that ordinary mortals do on their holidays, doesn’t get covered. The other factor changing the content is the increased use of staff writers to do the features, based on taking the travel as a perk. What that means is that they tend to go for the five-star Maldives stuff when it is offered, and ignore the cycling around Lincolnshire. I have had a few story requests in recent weeks which show that travel editors realise that they are not serving the cross-section of their readers with a constant diet of top-end jollies. Good on them!
June 8th: In Austria, cassock chasing, staying in monasteries. One of them is particularly honest, admitting that there are such things as monk groupies – women of a certain age who get fixated on monks and are forever hanging around – and that the monastery in question used to house a boys school. Unfortunately, it was one of those boys schools where kiddy-fiddling went on.
June 4th: In Budapest, doing stories about good value city, and visiting my friend Mark and his new baby. A dad for the first time at 57! And, as a dad, I was slightly disturbed by being given a guide for a Ruin-pub crawl (Ruin-pubs are trendy alternative drinking places set up in unused buildings) who turned out to be a young woman not much older than my daughter. A one-to-one pub crawl with a man she’d never met? I’d never let my daughter get in such a situation. She didn’t hold back in the drink, either. I guess Budapest is a much safer place. But even so.
May 14th: Just back from France, the first visit of the year. And Oof, the place has got much more expensive. Actually, it is the exchange rate that’s at fault. Eating out is suddenly not a given; it used to be that you could get a Menu du Jour for around a tenner; I did see one at €12, but it wasn’t the sort of place I’d choose to eat. In the end we had a reasonable meal in a family-run place where the locals were eating, no pretentions. Main courses were around €12, starters for €7, and a glass of house white €3. At current rates that translates as mains for a tenner, starters a fiver, you can get that in London. Bill for two came to €47, or £40. And that was one of the cheapest establishments. Nevertheless, it seems the British are back in force this year; the campsite we stayed in – Les Alicourts in the Sologne – said that the British had vanished over the last few years, with the Dutch taking their place. For this year, it’s vice versa.
April 29th: Sometimes you can’t second guess this business. For some weeks I’ve been plugging very topical, un-refuseable features to one of the newspapers. The editor kept….refusing them. Then one of the very ideas I suggested appears in a DPS in another esteemed Sunday rag, done by someone else. And all of a sudden the first newspaper takes a whole bunch of articles from my second drawer. For a couple of days you think you’re on a roll, and everything is getting better, especially when a third paper has your piece as its cover story. So, thinking of striking while the iron is hot, you submit that same paper a couple of new ideas the very next week. Only one reply, a polite ‘please leave us alone’.
April 14th: I’ve just come to the end of two weeks of my ‘other’ job – running rowing courses. For Tideway Scullers School, and then for Twickenham Rowing Club. It is not something most of my colleagues in the freelance business know I do, but then I suspect that most freelances these days have to have a second string to their bow. Or else some kind of private income. Alas, I don’t have the latter, so I run rowing courses during the holidays, both for adults and juniors. It fits well with the travel writing side of things, as facility trips overseas are far harder to organise during peak holiday periods. And, bizarrely, for the second course I found myself coaching the daughter of one of the travel editors I used to work for, who herself had found a new career. Small world.
March 22nd: The Hotel Nature Park Resort at Chundikulam, the birdlife sanctuary on the Jaffna peninsular in northern Sri Lanka, has a lot of young men on the staff; in fact far too many of them to be realistically viable. The key to this surfeit is the regimental tracksuits that most of them are wearing, because this hotel, along with several others up and down the island (and particularly in the war-affected north), is run by the army.
The reasoning behind this new venture is both to provide short-term visitor accommodation in a former war zone whilst the local economy rebuilds, and to give the army lads something to do – a new set of skills – now that there’s no longer a war. And they do provide a good service; the location is good, the rooms are good value for what they are, and of course the security is second to none. For Sinhalese tourists, nervous about being in Tamil territory, it is like a safety blanket.
But whether the army should be getting involved in such things as hotel-keeping is another matter, of course. There’s all sorts of mutterings about their ulterior motive. They are doing a land-grab of key locations, say critics. They’re taking away revenue from Tamil-run enterprises, say others. They’re keeping numbers up in the region surreptitiously, say still more.
Whatever the motive, the the navy obviously think it’s a good idea, too. They’ve just opened a hotel not far away, at Fort Hammenhiel, a Portuguese-built 350-year-old fortress that sits at the entrance to the Jaffna lagoon.
Next thing, there’ll be an Army and Navy stores.
March 5th: Am I alone in getting an obscure but fundamental satisfaction out of spending every last bean of converted currency, just before stepping into the plane home? To do otherwise, and be forced to change money back, is to admit defeat. There’s a kind of traveller’s artistry to it, even if it means completely changing my behaviour and expenditure in the final couple of days.
The trip I’ve just done to Sri Lanka’s war-torn north, for the Telegraph, is a case in point. I had been travelling in comparative comfort, but a day and a half before my flight back, preparing to head to within striking distance of the airport, I peered into my wallet, and made my plans partly based on what remained.
That entailed deciding to avoid expensive Colombo altogether. Reaching Kandy, I had enough rupees left to negotiate a taxi (7,000 Rps/£37) to take me down the three hour journey direct to Negombo, near the airport, but now I only had 4,500 Rps/£27 left for an overnight stay, for food and for the last bit of transport to the airport. That meant searching around for accommodation, and I tried four places before finding the cheapest, sweatiest little room for 2,000 Rps/£10.50. Establishing the tuk tuk rate to the airport (700 Rps/£4) left me with a balance of 1,800 Rps/£9.50. So that was spent on a rice and curry dinner and a cold beer (600 Rps/£3) and then on breakfast (400 Rps/£2) the following morning. In the airport, the remainder went on a coffee and a bag of cashew nuts. Approaching the plane I had just 40 Rps/20p left, and that went in a tip to the surprised toilet attendant, just before boarding. As I walked away, I felt like punching the air and declaring ‘result!’
As I said, it’s an obscure kind of satisfaction. And it may be only me.
January 23rd: Sick on a trip. It’s a bugger when it happens. Frankly, I don’t know how I’ve managed to sidestep all the winter bugs for this long, but one of them finally tapped me on the shoulder – and then kneed me in the gut – yesterday morning, out in Marseille, where I’m doing a piece for the STTM. I have a pretty packed schedule, and I knew that I had to do what I can, so I’ve been doing a lot of groaning, sitting down and looking green, but mercifully no throwing up in public. I’ve had to bow out of a very fine dinner tonight, but that’s no great loss editorially. And I’m sure one or two of the people I’ve met in the last 36 hours must have thought that I was rather surly and uncommunicative, when all I was trying to do was not open my mouth. The biggest loss was a bouillabaisse-cooking lesson this morning, which I would have really enjoyed. But I couldn’t set foot in a prime Marseillaise kitchen carrying a bug, and risk infecting staff and customers, it wouldn’t have been fair. I’ll have to come back another time, says the head chef, but I won’t. There are too many places still to be seen in the world to be bothering with repeat performances.
January 8th: This week, a complete change of scene. I’m doing my annual stint of coaching rowing at Pembroke College, Cambridge. It’s a good exercise (as well as being generally good exercise) in programme-setting, in team psychology, in motivation, in authoritarianism, in succint explanation, etc etc. I don’t always get my words right, I fear, but these are intelligent and motivated guys, so they give me the benefit of the doubt. It makes a change from staring at a cold computer, and the weather has been astonishingly kind, considering the state of the rest of the country these past few weeks. The worst part of it is being back in a room in college, thirty years on. I feel like a fresher with no friends.
December 12th: Some good news this week. I’ve just realised that my website, www.germanyiswunderbar.com, has achieved significant Google status. It now appears on the first page when you do obvious searches such as “Germany holidays” or “Germany travel”, and it is up there with the German National Tourism Board. After just a couple of years of operation, I reckon that’s quite an achievement, and it has been done simply by having good content. I’ve not hired SEO boffins (although plenty have offered their services) and I’ve not spent hours and hours scouring the web for people who might offer links. We’re there because we deserve to be, and we offer good quality and up-to-date editorial.
December 6th: A week on a boat in the Canaries. Surprisingly windy, the Canaries. And not all that warm. At least, not all that warm when you’re on a sailing boat in the surprisingly windy bits of the Canaries. I must confess to a big sickie on the first long passage (Tenerife to La Palma), but I wasn’t the only one; one of the crew was feeling worse than me, I reckon. Lots of feeding the fish! Fortunately, one of the fish returned the compliment, to the tune of a tuna, a whopper, caught on a handline and hauled aboard with some difficulty. Tuna steaks all round.
November 20th: To India, for a very short trip, partly to write a piece about Pondicherry and the forthcoming film the Life of Pi. And what a pleasure to be in a place where there’s such strong growth momentum. There’s a feeling that anything is possible in India. The levels of hassle and sense of oppressive humanity seem low where I was, in Tamil Nadu, and although many people are obviously prospering, they’re not as inclined to flash their cash as in other cities. Mind you, Chennai (aka Madras) isn’t a particularly compelling place. Just mile upon mile of tangles of streets and traffic. At least there’s a metro under construction, which will hopefully make travel a bit easier, but it takes a very special degree of nerve to embark on those city streets behind the wheel of a car.
October 19th: I’ve just been down in a certain piece of countryside, researching a feature in advance of a certain movie release about the landscapes that supposedly inspired a certain author….. Well, as far as I can tell, that certain author never went near the place, and yet at least one attraction says he was ‘a regular visitor’. When I asked, they said they had no evidence. So what to do? I don’t really want to be a party-pooper, and accuse them of misleading advertising. But if I write the piece, as agreed with the newspaper, I’m effectively condoning what is probably an untruth. If I follow my conscience and don’t write it, then I forego the revenue from the trip and the article. I suspect some careful choice of weasel words is the answer, but I won’t feel particularly good about it.
September 25th: And suddenly it’s all gone cold. Not just the weather, the work. It’s one of the features of life as a freelance – and it may just be to do with my disorganisation as much as anything else – that I can have great galloping periods of work that roll on and on, but then suddenly end in a brick wall, or more likely an abyss. I have been busy for most of the year, so I can’t complain, and this is probably more to do with being busy, and therefore not planning or pitching, than any change in the marketplace (which is still difficult, but no worse than usual). So this week is a head-scratching, ball-itching ideas session, coupled with a chance to catch up with my accounts and sort out a leaky roof and a computer that needs defragging. I’ve got a couple of pieces of work booked in for next month, but I need to try to populate the weeks between now and Christmas and into the New Year.
Tthese sudden, chilly moments between work periods are also good for creativity. Without work droughts, for example, I wouldn’t have come up with germanyiswunderbar. Nor with White Stag Sunday, my novel, which has just been read by my literary agent, who thinks there’s something missing, but can’t quite put his finger on what it is. There’s more work to be done there, for sure.
August 29th: My second attempt of the year to go to Austria to do high-level hut-to-hut walking in the Alps. First time, in June, I was told there was still too much snow. This time the first day and a half were OK, then the snow came and we had to descend to the valleys. And then it rained, and rained, and I was holed up in a hotel feeling frustrated. Still, got a glimpse of what this hut-hiking is all about, and I’d like to do more. A bit off-putting the way that the huts are largely German-run and German-dominated. I was hoping for a bit more international camaraderie amongst the mountain tops. One incident: up in Hanauer Hutte, in the middle of the night, a huge thump and screaming from next door….a lady hiker had fallen out of the top bunk whilst asleep, and hit her back on the corner of the bottom bunk as she fell. The helicopter came out and took her to hospital. A bit ignominious, to go high-level hiking and then get injured falling out of bed, but I hope she’s OK.
August 20th: A week of family holiday in Crete. The ladies in the family wanted to get their bikinis out. I spent a lot of the time indoors, working on the last leavings of my novel, which I think is about ready to go, although I will be forever tinkering. We made the decision to book direct, combining an easyjet flight with a momandpop hotel we found on the Internet, because at least that makes sure that all the money goes to someone in Crete, rather than an international tour op. I think it was the right decision, and Crete (Chania is lovely) seems to be doing OK, from the people we spoke to. It is the uprooted, family-less people in the cities who are struggling.
July/August: Running two summer Alec Hodges rowing courses at Tideway Scullers. Every travel writer needs a second job these days, and this is mine. Hard work, tho, it takes me a couple of days to recover from each.
July 2nd: Sick on a trip. OK, it was just a man-cold, but I get some heavy ones, and this one was very achey and heady and throaty, so I’d prefer to call it flu. It doesn’t seem fair to a destination to try to judge it when one is feeling so rotten, but I think the article (mud-flat walking in the Wadden Sea) for the Indy will be OK. I felt a bit sorry for some of the people I met, though. They must have thought me particularly morose and uncommunicative, and I probably left them with a virus, too. But what to do? It’s not really possible to pull out of everything and return home; you just have to trudge on and wait for the rough patch to pass. I spent a bit more time than I would normally have done in my hotel room, but I think that’s forgiveable.
June 6th: Just cycled from London to the Camarthenshire coastline in an epic three days. Quite apart from the rain (every time we stopped, it stopped, every time we started, it started) I have to say that the British countryside is looking delicious. I’ve done a similar journey often, along the motorways, unaware that the landscape to the right and the left was good enough to eat. The only disappointing bit was the rich bit, around Sunningdale, Ascot, Epsom etc, where electric gates and security men were a blot on the landscape, and where the limousines of their owners blasted down the roads paying no need to cyclists. I had an attack of nancy-boy’s knee when the hills started, but it was nothing that drugs and ale couldn’t cure.
May 2nd: In a bid to keep expenses down, I’ve just made an overnight coach journey from London to Glasgow. It was agony. Very hot, crowded, crying baby, drunk lads, loads of migrant workers, racist abuse being hurled about, lakes of spilt coffee around my ankles. But it only cost £20. David Cameron needs to travel like this occasionally. As do those people who send me emails asking ‘how can I become a travel writer’, imagining it is all Champagne and roses. I couldn’t fault National Express or the drivers, though. It just is a pretty unpleasant way of spending a sleepless night. Splashed out on a train journey back. Phew.
April 13th: The things you have to do to make a living….in amongst books, magazines, newspaper articles, my Germany website (www.germanyiswunderbar.com) and speaking on travel writing courses, I am also a rowing coach at Tideway Scullers School in Chiswick. And every year I run the Alec Hodges Courses, which in the recent past have even produced some GB athletes. This week’s course had no outstanding talent, although we had participants from all over the country. The first day was a nightmare, really bad weather and rough conditions on the tideway, and one of the guys decided he’d had enough, and headed for home. The rest of the week was very calm, good water conditions, and everyone progressed well, even the guy who fell in eight times in the course of one outing, and was thus awarded the coveted title of ‘underwater sculler of the week’.
March 26th: Am I about to get a ticket? A German one? Three days with a hire car, trying to keep to an itinerary, has meant that I have been scurrying from place to place and not paying enough attention to the accursed speed limits around here. I’ve got so used to the British attitude, sailing blithely through 30 or 40mph zones without slowing down, that it is all too easy to do the same when abroad. And that’s a big mistake in Germany. I’ve found it frustrating to sit behind punctilious drivers, who’ve slowed almost to walking pace whenever a bungalow appeared on the horizon, but they’ve probably done me a favour. However there have been times when there’s been no-one ahead to keep me in check, so I should probably be expecting a letter. I wonder if I can put it on expenses?
March 2nd: Four days in Switzerland, with as much cheese as I could eat, and the snow melting fast around me. Lots of conversations with hoteliers, saying how tough their task is these days with the minimum wage, which is 3,500 CHF (£2,500). That sounds like a very healthy wage, and when I said that it was more than I earned (which it pretty much is these days) they didn’t quite know how to react. There was I, a VIP guest as far as they were concerned, confessing to earning less than their kitchen assistants! But that’s the travel writer’s lot: lead the life of Riley, but without any of Riley’s cash!
Jan 29th: Lanzarote has really moved on since I was last there. Lots of good stuff. It seems like it has done really well, too, from the misfortunes of other winter sun places, such as Tunisia and Egypt. Some of the places I went to were fairly empty, but January can’t be their busiest month – and the one I went to that was full was definitely not worth the money, but had a very effective PR machine in the UK. Needless to say, I won’t be writing about it, although the PR will be breathing down my neck, no doubt. There are other places I went to, people I spoke to, that I won’t be writing about either. Always an awkward one, because I know they’ll be asking me to send them a copy of the final article. In the end, though, you need to visit a wide spread of places, and then distil. Newspapers serve their readers, not the PR biz.
Jan 21st: Did you know that olive oil brine gives off an aroma not dissimilar to pee? I know this because I have just been deeply embarrassed on a Tunisian train. I’d bought some olives in a plastic tub in a Tunis supermarket, and put them in my backpack. Standing in the lobby part of the crowded train back to Hammamet, by the doors and next to the toilet, I realised that a pool of liquid was forming around my feet. Others did, too, so we all moved away from the toilet wall. Unfortunately, the liquid followed me. Suddenly feeling the base of the backpack and realising the source, I had a rummage and produced the offending pot. Demonstrably. So that everyone could see. Great relief all round. No matter that my camera was soaked – honour was restored!
Jan 12: So I’ve just been to a spa in France. Not my natural habitat, I’m afraid, but then I’m a bloke. Back in the old days, I used to worry about getting an erection whilst on the massage table. There was an occasion, a couple of decades ago, when I was treated to a two-person massage from two girls in their swimsuits, and had to spend the duration thinking of the most cringe-making episodes in my life. So it wasn’t exactly restful. These days I’m past the age of embarrassing myself in the trouser department, but I do wonder what it’s all about, and how spa-fetishism has become so big. What was once all about health, is now really about narcissism, and it is ludicrously expensive. I can see why hoteliers are keen, because it gets the punters to spend shedloads of cash whilst remaining on the premises. But why are the punters so taken in by such high-falutin mumbo jumbo? One of the treatments that I just had was apparently both ‘precious and celestial’, although it wasn’t clear in which ways exactly. Spas don’t make spa-bunnies look better, and most of the time they don’t make them any healthier, either. So I suppose the key thing is that they make customers feel better about themselves, and having someone paste you with product and then carefully wipe it off kinda makes you feel loved. Paid love. That’s what it is.