In My Life

I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.

Travel is a purely imaginative experience. Ask the long distance lorry driver for his thoughts on Nottingham or Leeds or Bristol, and he will talk only of the vagaries of the M1’s restricted speed limits and the almost deliberately obtuse layout of Gravelly Hill Interchange. But his sense of place is unreal, and only given any sentience in the markings on a tachograph disc or the shallow grave of a hitchhiker on a sheltered, anonymous verge off the M5. He has visited all these places without being there. The annual holiday is the same, following the herd down to Greece and Spain to add another layer of Cuprinol. A change is as good as a rest. And a rest is as good as a change. It is perhaps a British phenomenon that we want wherever we go to be like home. Only hotter. Heat and epidermal searing UV light are the only real necessities of the British Tourist. With perhaps Strongbow/Tetley’s/Guinness/Carling/HP sauce/Heinz Ketchup/The Sun newspaper/Coronation Street/free health care as secondary considerations. The businessman/woman who shuttles between LaGuardia, Logan, Hartsfield-Jackson and O’Hare to attend one meeting/conference/expo after another, will be able to tell you little about New York, Boston, Atlanta or Chicago. Especially as the world becomes more homogenized with Starbucks, Subway, McDonald’s, McCetera, McCetera, McCetera… painting our urban travel experiences in the same bland shade of taupe the whole world over. So many people travel without really going anywhere.

And yet the idea of travel is inherently exciting. Maps, for instance, I find fascinating. Whether it be the fantastical cartography of Gerdus Mercarator or Google’s latest interactive privacy-busting street level view of the world. I love to explore this semi-three dimensional representation of the landscape, with its contours and shading, the symbols and unfamiliar places names. But again, perhaps this has more to do with the romantic notions in my mind than the actuality of the places I might pass through or by on my sojourn; where though there may be a Tesco Express or a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a Costa Coffee or a Toby Carvery, there certainly be no dragons. We travel with our minds. Literally and figuratively. In the 1990s in particular I would lose myself in the pages of Weinreb and Hibbert’s The London Encyclopaedia and the Readers Digest’s Treaures of Britain & Treasures of Ireland. I mingled in the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese with Dr Johnson and Goldsmith (stooping not to conquer, but to hide under the table) and lived again the fireworks at Vauxhall Gardens with Beau Brummel. I learned of the Alfred Jewel in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the water gardens at Studley Royal. And I did this, mostly, without leaving the confines of the house. But when I did physically move then I found that the places I visited were more alive to me thanks to the historical figures and events that accompanied me there. Because historical places can be problematic. Bosworth Field is essentially that – a field. Bunker Hill – (as the name implies) a hill. The Little Big Horn – erm, apparently not a horn. But you get the idea. It’s easy to get a sense of ticking cultural boxes. St Paul’s cathedral – check. Stonehenge – check. Edinburgh Castle – check. What’s next, Muriel? Unless you can convert the experience into something that has a presence in the imagination.

But even with my experiences enriched by what I already know about a place before I ever get the chance to arrive, I find my actual physical presence in these places somehow frustrating. No matter how blue the sky and the sea, how white the beach, how glorious the sunset/sunrise, the experience is somehow deflating. Somehow in some way I always feel that I should be making more of the moment. And so beyond my own knowledge of what has already happened there – this is the bedroom that Winston Churchill was born in… this is the spot where Nelson was standing when he was shot on the deck of The Victory – the need to record my own presence in a particular landscape becomes overwhelming. To capture a moment which, even as I live it, is already slipping away from me. On some level it’s a human response to our own vulnerability. It is why we keep a diary, snap a shaky video on our phones, or hoard a receipt from a particular restaurant on a particular night that we shared with a particular person that we wish we could live over and over again. And as we get older this sense of trying to cling to the slippery instant becomes increasingly acute. The Japanese have a word for this compulsion – Shunkan. This is a cultural act which sees Japanese tourists taking photographs of everything. They believe that by recording we claim our place in the timeline of human existence. Facebook and the camera phone have collided to bring this once peculiarly Eastern phenomena to Western culture, because thanks to the internet, we all now have an autobiography of kinds. According to the UN more photographs have been snapped in the past ten years than in the previous hundred and eighty since the first blurry Daguerréotype was exposed to the light in 1837. The over-rated New York art charlatan, Andy Warhol’s Nostradamus-esque extrapolation that we would all be famous for fifteen minutes has come true. Even if that fame often comes posthumously as the media rake through our social networking sites in the wake of a violent death.

But this unexpected fame aside, the internet has the capability to be the greatest tool for travel since the wheel was invented. It allows us to move not only through space but time. It is a library where, largely thanks to Google, everything is easily accessible. We can go to places and meet people from all times. You just have to let your brain take the strain.