Travel writers – born or made?

On the birth certificate of Stan Laurel – long before he ever met Hardy – his father’s occupation was listed as ‘comedian’. Actress and singer Liza Minnelli’s mum? Actress and singer Judy Garland. Author Martin Amis – son of author Kingsley Amis. And so on. My father travelled the world as a teacher and educator, and though I’m British I was born in West Africa. Oh, and I turned out to be a travel writer. What are you going to do?

I grew up used to the idea of ‘abroad’, even living in Huddersfield in northern England (which, I appreciate, is ‘abroad’ to some of you, especially those from the south of England). Dad brought back weird stuff and colourful stamps from faraway places, and he invited home his students who came not from Manchester and Cardiff but Malawi and China. There were ornaments on our mantelpiece from Nigeria and pictures of Ghana on the walls, and I had a proper Australian boomerang that I definitely wasn’t allowed to hurl around the garden for fear of braining the cat (I was trying my best to brain the cat, obviously). As soon as I was old enough (at age 15) I was off around England on my own, and then Europe, and later the world. I’ve always liked being some place that isn’t home.

So you could have me pegged as ‘born to be a travel writer’, and perhaps that’s the case. But ‘born to be a writer’ is probably more accurate – the travel just happens to be the vehicle for my writing, and I offer up my family as an example of what I mean.

I’m a third-generation traveller

I’m a third-generation traveller.

Before me came my dad, the man who cycled to France as a teenager, drove to Barcelona for his honeymoon, fathered a son in West Africa, and worked in 47 different countries, from Sweden to the Solomon Islands. That is the profile of a real traveller.

What dad was not, however – despite his teaching credentials and Masters degree – was a writer, and if we’re looking for evidence we’ll find it in the diary he kept of a trip he and my mother made in 1961 when they travelled overland in Ghana from Takoradi, where they lived in the south, to Paga, the country’s most northern town, on the Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta) border. This was an adventurous 500-mile journey to make, in an Austin A40 loaded with tinned food for 8 days, through an unfamiliar land that remained little developed outside the cities – off-the-beaten-track travel through a young, vibrant, post-colonial country, the first in Africa to gain independence.

His diary entry from 27 December 1961 reads, in full: ‘Takoradi. 5 gallons Shell’.

Admit it, from this intricately woven word picture you can smell the dust on the ochre-red roads, feel the springs through the worn leather of the A40’s seat and sense the trickle of sweat down the back as the lush, green rainforest forms a 100-foot-high canopy above the corrugated highway.

The next day, 28 December 1961, was dad’s 31st birthday, which I think is all the explanation needed for an entry that reads – otherwise bafflingly – ‘Odeon Garage – girls’. Very broadminded of mum, we have to agree, to allow that sort of thing during a break in the journey. However, dad didn’t forget his other duties, since the diary also states, rather daringly given the previous day’s consumption, ‘4 gallons Shell’.

Baffling news from Ghana

Three days later, more baffling news with the diary entry that reads simply ‘Navrongo – naked arrest’. Which one of them it was, we have no way of knowing, but neither parent appears to have been detained for long because dad gets positively garrulous with the entry for 31 December, going on to record ‘chickens for sale’ at Paga.

Come the New Year and things go completely crazy. On 1 January 1962, dad’s diary records ‘Damongo – 3 gallons Mobil’. I know! Not Shell, Mobil! What was the man thinking?

So – a traveller then, but not a writer. And in fact, a chip off the old block, since dad had much in common with his own father, my paternal grandfather, Fred, whose diary I also have.

Fred’s early travelling was just as adventurous, and even more dangerous, as he enlisted in the Royal Marines on 12 May 1916, aged just 17 years and 10 months. He joined his first ship in July 1917, which is when his surviving diary begins, and sailed on to the Middle East and then Asia for a tour of duty that took in Baghdad, Bombay, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Hong Kong and China.

The diary is another Brown family classic, and surely inspired my father in his literary writings. Fred was in the vibrant trading port of Singapore, for example, on Saturday 24 September 1917, where he ‘took in 950 tons coal’. There was more taking in of coal in Hong Kong, and then a bit of to-ing and fro-ing as the diary breathlessly records how he ‘left Hong Kong’, ‘arrived Singapore’, left Singapore and ‘arrived Kong Kong’ again. This continues for the next 9 months – Fred dutifully recording the leaving, arriving, anchoring and picking up coal, as the exotic Far East played out its buccaneering mercantile history in the dying days of the greatest conflict the world had ever seen.

Left at 11am to go pirate-hunting

Until Wednesday 12 June, 1918, when my grandfather ‘left at 11am to go pirate-hunting’.

Wait, what?

We have to fill in the gaps, because Fred’s diary is not what you’d call forthcoming, unless on the subject of coal, but a few days later they are ‘searching junks’ (ie, Chinese sailing ships). They must have found something because on Monday 17 June, 1918, the diary simply records : ‘shot 15 pirates’.

After that bombshell the diary goes back to counting coal for a bit, though there’s the drama of ‘bad weather’ on 7 August, before a final litany of ‘arriving’ at and ‘leaving’ various Chinese and Asian ports. The final entry in the diary – Monday 23 February, 1920 – sees Fred safely home to England, after an extraordinary experience in anyone’s eyes, as a participant and ringside spectator in the sprawling Asian theatre of the First World War.  Fred, true to type, writes from the heart:

‘Arrived Chatham’.

Ken, Fred and Jean – why I’m a writer and a traveller

I don’t tell you any of these things to make fun of Ken and Fred – my dad and the grandfather I never knew – though these diaries make me howl with laughter like a loon, when I consider the spaces between the (very few) words that contain the most extraordinary of adventures and experiences. Bless them both, really, I wouldn’t have them any other way.

Their examples might well have made me the traveller I am – go on, let’s say they definitely did – but where did the ‘writer’ in travel writer come from?

The answer to that lies in one more diary, written by my mother, Jean, in 1961, shortly after her arrival in Ghana – she was 23, had just been on her first ever flight, was terrified of thunderstorms and spiders, and was wearing a long-sleeved cardigan in the tropical heat because she had been warned about the dangers of mosquitoes.

This is what she wrote, a few days later:

A large frog hopped around my feet as I stepped outside the airport. Huge scarlet flowers and spiky banana-like leaves flared above the green of the grass, while bright birds scrambled and sang, turning shade into light for a darting moment. Farther away the ground sloped and I could see palm trees growing thickly and heavily against the pale pewter sky. Standing near the car were several African children gazing at the airfield. They wore brilliant robes wrapped carelessly and gracefully around them, their feet were bare, and their dark, deep eyes glimmered in smooth brown faces. They stared curiously at us in our thick winter clothes, then they smiled and touched their foreheads. We smiled back and then were whirled away from the airport, and our stay in Africa had begun.

My mum wrote that, off the cuff, effortlessly and gracefully, about the first exotic place she ever visited, for no one’s pleasure other than her own. She later had a couple of articles published in her old local paper, the Derby Evening Telegraph, and another piece in The Guardian (receiving the princely sum of twelve guineas), but otherwise all her writing has been in travel journals and diaries that she has put together for friends and family after every trip, spanning almost fifty years.

That’s travelling and writing, and if you want to know if this travel writer was born or made, I’d say the answer lies with Fred, Ken and Jean, two gallons of Shell and a ton of coal.


Want to see how the whole travel-writing thing turned out for me? It’s all in ‘Takoradi to the stars (via Huddersfield)’, available now on Amazon:

Image: El Born by Morgaine, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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