Not coffee spoons – measuring out my life in Rough Guides

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

As a jobbing travel writer, there’s plenty that I recognise in those atmospheric lines from T.S. Eliot’s wonderful poem, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.Rough Guide logo

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 qRough Guide to Portugaluit 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 baRough Guide Scandinaviack 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 RG SicilyEnglish 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 reseaRough Guide Jong Kongrching 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 Rough Guide Barcelonawas 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.

Washington DC
The US capital doesn’t have a great reputation – a bit staid and dulRough Guide Washington DCl 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
Rough Guide Lake DistrictBack 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.


10 thoughts on “Not coffee spoons – measuring out my life in Rough Guides

  1. The Sicilian Housewife

    I spent a day walking around Washington DC and loved it. It was a Sunday and everything was closed, which you’d think made for boredom but in fact it was magically serene and picturesque…

    If you could magically choose which place you would write your next Rough Guide about, where would it be?


    1. Jules Brown

      Ooh good question! The ones I would have loved to have written back in the day were Thailand and New Zealand – fantastic countries to visit and travel around. But someone else got in first! Now I have a real hankering to go to the Galapagos, so that would be my choice now.


  2. Pingback: A Rough Start for the Rough Guide to Sicily | The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian Housewife

  3. Pingback: A rough start for the Rough Guide to Sicily | Jules Told Me

  4. Pingback: Reading between the lines – travel guidebooks and how to use them | Jules Told Me

  5. Rebecca

    Talking about out of date guidebooks…I thought you might like to know your 1992 Rough Guide to Barcelona and Catalunya has been on the bookshelf at my parents’ apartment in the far north of the Costa Brava since publication – and is still in regular use. (The prices are a bit out.) I looked you up as I was thinking about buying a second copy to keep at home in the North of England – thank you so much for your hard work some years ago!


    1. Jules Told Me

      That’s so nice of you Rebecca! I’m really touched, and delighted that the trusty old guide has seen so much service. I read an article once about a writer who took a 20-year-old copy of a guidebook back to New York to see what had and hadn’t changed – I’ve always thought that sounded like a fun idea, so I might try it with Barcelona one day! Anyway, thanks for the kind words and support, it’s much appreciated.


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