Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells
But rather than Prufrock’s mournful regret of lost opportunities, I seized the day with the first publishing company that showed an interest in me.
In this I depart from Prufrock – I measure out my life, not in coffee spoons, but in Rough Guides. Here’s how it happened, with some travel tips along the way.
Spain and Portugal
When I quit my office job, back in 1985, to travel around Europe, I had no plans, other than to see some of the world. I certainly didn’t intend to be a travel writer. But I bought my first ever guidebooks – shiny copies of a brand new series I’ve never heard of, the Rough Guides to Portugal and Spain – and soon found them indispensable. Sending in updates for these books got me my first writing gig – and I’ve been travelling around Portugal and Spain ever since, as a contributing writer and editor for both guidebooks. Travel tip – be a fan, an enthusiast, a reader, you never know where it might lead.
My first job as a professional travel writer was as co-author of the Rough Guide to Scandinavia (with music and travel journo Mick Sinclair). It was a new company back then, hiring enthusiastic writers with an urge to travel the world. I’d never written a book before, and never been to Scandinavia, but that didn’t seem to worry anyone at Rough Guides. So I packed a rucksack, took the ferry from Harwich to Gothenburg – and started my career. Three months later, I was back from Sweden and Norway with a host of memories, a ton of notes and a book to write. Travel tip – never eat a fermented herring.
The second book I wrote for Rough Guides is still my favourite. I upped sticks from an English winter and went to live by the sea in Taormina for six months, soaking up Mediterranean colours, sounds, smells and sights that have stayed with me a lifetime. I bashed out the manuscript on a bulky Amstrad word-processor, which travelled overland by train, London to Sicily – and made it back again, all in one piece. Travel tip – you’ll know when you’ve found your favourite place ever, trust me.
Hong Kong and Macau
Southeast Asia was up next as Rough Guides began to spread its wings beyond Europe. Another six months’ total immersion saw me living in a traditional Hakka village while researching the guide. A side trip to China gave me my first experience of that extraordinary country. The buses and ferries all stopped running for a few days while I was in Guilin – only later, back in Hong Kong, did we discover that we’d been sightseeing while the Tiananmen Square massacre and crackdown was in full sway in Beijing. The Hong Kong guide is now in the safe hands of my colleague, friend and China expert, David Leffman. Travel tip – whatever preparations you make for first-time Southeast Asia, you won’t be prepared enough.
Everyone got books out on Barcelona in time for the 1992 Olympics – but I like to think mine was one of the best. I’ve been coming back to this vibrant Mediterranean city ever since, and have seen it change from dog-house rough port to designer destination. The guide was a real success too – a Rough Guide best-seller – and Barcelona has a place in my heart. If I could live in one European city, this would be it. Travel tip – only shop in markets where you can have champagne and grilled razor clams for breakfast.
The US capital doesn’t have a great reputation – a bit staid and dull when set aside New York or San Francisco, for example. But I loved my time in DC, researching my fifth Rough Guide, overdosing on world-class museums and galleries and hanging out in hip coffee shops. From a rented studio on the edge of Georgetown I headed off every morning for another date with American history and culture – and even saw Britpop sensations Blur play live in a sweaty downtown club one night. Travel tip – 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW is where the President lives; don’t go to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NE by mistake. #justsaying
England and the Lake District
Back on home turf, I covered the north of England for Rough Guides for many years . I also get to satisfy my urge to climb mountains, kayak lakes, scramble gorges and generally get wet and muddy by writing a guide to that most dramatic of landscapes, the English Lake District. Can’t see I’ll ever be able to give that up. Travel tip – take waterproofs. Yes in August.
I realise that I’m lucky. Really I do. I got – still get – to travel the world, reporting and interpreting for others. And mostly, someone else has paid me to do that.
I carped the hell out of that diem, back in the day when a man in a pub said “How do you like the idea of going to Scandinavia?”
Final tip for aspiring travel writers – say yes, always.