Like the departing dolphins in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, I’m leaving the planet that has sustained me for decades, with some regret and with great gratitude.
My first ever writing job for travel publishers Rough Guides started on 1 June, 1986, when – for reasons that are still not entirely clear; beer had been involved – I found myself on a ferry to Sweden.
I had a few hundred pounds in travellers’ cheques, which was supposed to last for six weeks in one of Europe’s most expensive countries (spoiler alert: it didn’t), spoke no Swedish, knew nothing about Scandinavian culture, and had never been to Sweden before. There was no internet to look things up in advance, and the wider world was not yet familiar with Sweden via the medium of Wallander, lagom, IKEA, fika or cinnamon buns. Abba were still a bit of a joke – sorry, but it’s true – and everything else about Sweden was a complete mystery.
Tundra? Was that a thing? Reindeer, were they Swedish? Who knew? Not me, that’s for sure.
However, although I had no idea about Sweden’s history, attractions, people, politics, food and wildlife, what I did have was a contract to write the first edition of the ‘Rough Guide to Scandinavia’, for which – clearly – I was the least qualified person in Britain. Fortunately, I also had a dishevelled, cloth-bound copy of Baedeker’s ‘Norway and Sweden’ guide, first published in 1879, that I had found in a secondhand bookshop and which basically formed the entirety of my pre-trip research. It covered exciting developments such as the extension of the new-fangled iron-horse transport system, or ‘railway’ as I think you may know it. Summer – in its entirety – appeared to run from 7 to 14 August, before and after which there seemed to be a distressing amount of snö. The phrasebook was handy though, as long as you wanted to say things like – “We must tie ourselves together with rope to cross this glacier” and “Call the washerwoman, my breeches require laundering”.
Rough Guides never found out I was winging it
Luckily for me, there were no other contemporary guidebooks to Scandinavia at the time, so Rough Guides never found out I was winging it. I came back poorer and thinner, with a notebook full of museum opening times and hotel reviews, and the certain knowledge that this was a life that I wanted. And eventually, I got better at both travelling and writing. Quite good at it really, though I say it myself, which is presumably why Rough Guides kept offering me new places to visit and new guidebooks to write.
In the end, I was able to measure out my life in Rough Guides. Sicily, Hong Kong, Macau, Barcelona, Washington DC, Italy, Spain and Portugal – even, closer to home, the English Lake District. Each new destination marked a time in my life – a period of discovery, an adventure – and each, in turn, became a place to live, to explore, to fall in love with, and to leave.
I learned how to become a travel writer on the job, and the job was the sort that many dream about. For thirty years I travelled the world and wrote numerous editions of numerous guides – over 50 in all. I stayed in hostels and hotels, saw sunrises and sunsets, caught planes and ferries, ate grilled fish on beaches, and drank in spit-and-sawdust bars where wine came from the barrel. I saw Blur play in a tiny club in Washington DC, got robbed on a tram in Lisbon, took the train across the Arctic Circle, learned to speak terrible Italian and watched the Sagrada Família inch ever closer to completion.
As I travelled and wrote, Rough Guides grew from a tiny travel imprint to a major worldwide brand, and I played some part in that growth – even if standing in a foreign bus station, writing down bus timetables, didn’t always seem like the most glamorous profession.
Because, in the end, writing guidebooks is just a job, and the part of the job I came to enjoy most was not the guidebook bit but the writing bit. So eventually my regular destinations – Sicily, Barcelona, Portugal – dropped away, as I changed my travelling and writing habits. I started a blog and a YouTube channel, and visited places because I wanted to, not because bus timetables needed updating. I let old haunts go and found new passions, and I passed on my guides to new writers who I hoped would find the same wonder and excitement in them that I did all those years ago.
If 1 June, 1986, was the first day of my Rough Guide writing life, then 25 September, 2019, was the last – the day I signed over the rights to my final guide. A signature – the two words of my name – were the last words I wrote for a travel publishing company that made the planet less lonely.
I shaped those books, and those books shaped me
For now, there are still hundreds of thousands of guidebook words out there written by me that are no longer mine. I shaped those books, and those books shaped me, but over time other Rough Guide writers will live in, explore, fall in love with and leave Porto and Palermo, Macau and Malmö. They’ll move their words into those guides – paint the walls, rearrange the furniture – and all that will be left of me is a faint echo in a neglected phrase or two. You might feel my presence in a paragraph here and there, but eventually the new owners of Washington DC and Windermere will change the locks and write their own stories.
To be honest, it will be a relief for someone else to have to go to the bus station.
I still travel. I still write. I still write about travel. But I can no longer call myself a guidebook writer, and I’m fine with that.
So long Rough Guides – and thanks for all the trips.
BUY THE BOOK – TAKORADI TO THE STARS (VIA HUDDERSFIELD)
Read about my Rough Guide travelling life in my latest book, ‘Takoradi to the stars (via Huddersfield)’, available as an e-book or in paperback from Amazon.
Image: Dolphinaris 1, Matthew Baya, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0