The unreality of travel

Features | 29-04-13

by Rodge Glass

It’s easy to forget it if you do enough travelling, but nearly every aspect of modern travel is either partly or wholly unreal.

If you tried to explain to Charles Dickens, one of the finest 19th Century travel writers, that in the 21st Century it would be possible to climb into a huge metal hunk alongside hundreds of others and float to Bratislava in a couple of hours for £28 return - as long as you didn’t want to take any bags with you that is (thanks Ryanair) – he might well have looked at you like what you were describing was not travel but magic. If he’d been born just a little later, he would have been able to easily access the beauty of the volcanic islands off the coast of Africa for just a couple of hundred pounds. Okay, he’d have to go via Tenerife first, but one further connection away he’d have access to astonishing lava fields that seem more like the surface of the moon than planet earth, all hidden among villages which still remain virtually untouched.

For my own book about the unreality of travel I used Dickens’ Pictures of Italy as a touchstone, homing in on his experiences in Rome, where he witnessed a beheading, describing the cheering crowds and chaos of 1844 with his distinctive eye for detail. In one portrait, he brings the scene vividly to life by sketching the executioner lifting up the head of the beheaded man for all to see. ‘It was dull, cold, livid, wax,’ he wrote. During my writing, I tried to imagine what it must have been like for Dickens to be in that place, in that time, listening to the alien sounds of a language he could not speak, feeling the alien sun on him, smelling the alien smells. Unreal indeed. But then, he was in a rare position of privilege. Surely he would have been amazed at the fact that in 2013 nearly every British family takes a holiday of some kind, most years.

Travel is now possible for everyone but the poorest in British society – despite on-going economic instability, growing poverty and an alarming gap opening up between rich and poor, many feel it is their right - in a culture where the phrase ‘work-life balance’ is most often used to describe the lack of it – to have a couple of weeks off in the sun. Hence the crowds in Tenerife. Though the average running debt of a British family currently stands at approximately £10,000, that hasn’t stopped most families from taking annual holidays of some kind. The rich can take several if they like, even moderately well off people might find work takes them to a dozen destinations in a year, and even in these times where we ask our young people to pay £9000 a year for University tuition fees, the market for travel among the young is huge, and still growing. Approximately 5% of monthly income of the average British family, even at the depths of the economic crash, was still being spent on holidays. These travellers (or tourists) are mostly people who don’t feel they have anything to spare. Travel has become part of the essential in our lives, whatever form that takes. There is now, as there was in the time of Dickens, a hard core who do not have access to these delights, but the reality is that even people who would consider themselves poor choose to get into debt and go on holiday rather than stay at home and save. What has that done to our view of travel, and what it is for?

I asked myself that question many times when writing my book, LoveSexTravelMusik. And, as is often the case with my books, I found it easier to focus on this big question by taking a single small question as my starting point, a way of reminding myself what I was trying to say, and why. In my own travel in the last eight years, mostly enabled by my work (I would never have visited, say, Serbia or Tunisia if I hadn’t been sent there as a writer) I have often looked at the people in front of and behind me on the planes to and from these places and been amazed that they were not looking out of the window. I wanted to shake them and shout: can’t you see we’re flying! Look out there! We’re sitting on top of the sky! But if I’m honest, at times I too have been too jaded, tired, preoccupied, stressed out to notice the magic that Dickens would no doubt have crystallised in a few beautiful phrases. And at times, when I landed at my destination, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. I felt, perhaps, I ought to see the sights. Knowing nobody and not having access to the realities of those places, I sat in city centres, drinking coffee, wondering what travel was supposed to feel like. Which is why Kapka Kassabova’s stark poem ‘I Want to Be a Tourist’, from her book Geography for the Lost, became my starting point for LoveSexTravelMusik. Here it is:

I imagine my life as a city
somewhere in the third world, or the second.
And I want to be a tourist
in the city of my life.

I want to stroll in shorts and baseball hat,
with laminated maps and dangling cameras.
I want to find things for the first time.
Look, they were put there just for me!

I want a room with musty curtains.
I want a view of rubbish dumps and urchins.
I want food poisoning, the dust of traffic
in the mouth, the thrill of others’ misery.

Let me be a tourist in the city of my life.
Give me overpriced coffee in the square,
let me visit briefly the mausoleum of the past
and photograph its mummy

give me the open sewers, the stunted dreams,
the jubilation of ruins, the lepers, the dogs,
give me signs in a funny language I never
have to learn. Then take my money and let me go.

For me, Kapka’s poem sums up that sense that foreign places can be swallowed by their myth, making it hard or even impossible to get at the place itself rather than an abbreviated ‘tour guide’ version of a place. Also, the poem suggests that visitors are not always honest with themselves about what they want from travel. The character in this poem, for me at least, is present in body but not in mind at the beginning of the piece. The character chooses to delude themselves that their experience is unique – Look, they were put there just for me! she says. But in the second half of the poem there is slippage in the tone. It turns darker. Yes, there is still that shallowness of experience, but the character is forced to admit that they are seeking out that shallowness, also the ‘thrill of others misrey’ as a way to avoid difficult questions. It’s one thing to visit the mausoleum of your own past – quite another to stay longer than it takes to photograph the mummy and leave.

When I first read this poem, it sounded like a challenge to me. Was there a better way, I wondered? Could I write about characters who sought to leave behind the overpriced coffee in the square and face the realities of where they visited – and could I imagine characters on both sides of that divide? I believe it’s important for writers to have sympathy with all their characters, to try to understand their reasons and motivations. So I tried to think about not only how Dickens might have experienced the unreality of the places in my book – the Amazon Rainforest, the Road to Montevideo, the bars and clubs of Wan Chai, Hong Kong – but also whether those characters would look out of a plane window when flying, whether they would buy overpriced coffee in the square. Whether it was possible to meaningfully engage with a place when simply visiting it. After all, everyone might want to be a traveller, but nobody wants to be a tourist.

Rodge Glass's debut short story collection, LoveSexTravelMusik, was published by Freight on 22nd May 2013. If you enjoy short stories, you may also like Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain.

Rodge Glass

Rodge Glass is the author of three novels, No Fireworks (Faber, 2005), Hope for Newborns (Faber, 2008) and Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs (Tindal Street, 2012), a literary biography Alasdair Gray: A Secretary s Biography (Bloomsbury, 2008) which won a Somerset Maugham Award in 2009, and the graphic novel (with Dave Turbitt) Dougie's War. Rodge is currently Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing at Edge Hill University. He edited the anthology A Year of Open Doors (Cargo, 2010) andSecond Lives (Cargo, 2012).