The soundtrack to a travel-writing life

Been around the world and I, I ,I…’

had dinner with Lisa Stansfield once, as it turns out, in London. That also being the city where I met Meatloaf, or ‘Meat’ as we were invited to call him in the handshake line. I saw Oasis play in Adelaide, and Blur in Washington DC. In Las Vegas I once had a front-row table for Engelbert Humperdinck, and THAT is a story my friends, I can tell you.  In Tunis I went to a stifling summer outdoor amphitheatre to hear Sting. And in 2001 I found myself at the Eurovision Song Contest final in Copenhagen, about which I remember very little, on account of the Carlsberg – Estonia won, they tell me.

But all of that is by the by – these were just random gigs in random places that don’t have a lot to do with my musical preferences.

Instead, these are the songs and artists that have stayed with me and sound-tracked my travelling life.

Hong Kong & Billy Bragg – Ideology

Once upon a time I lived in Hong Kong, while researching and writing the Rough Guide. I was, to all intents and purposes, just another gweilo – a foreigner, a ‘ghost man’, a ‘foreign devil’ – albeit one with a book contract rather than just a traveller’s backpack. Oh, and I also had a Cantonese mother-in-law and, by extension, a Cantonese wife, though that’s entirely another story.

Home was grandma’s empty four-room village house in the old part of Sheung Shui, which back then was as far as you could go out of central Hong Kong before coming hard up against the Chinese border. You walked through tight narrow alleys with an open gutter to reach the house, and stepped across the threshold through a rusted metal door. The rooms were tiled inside from floor to ceiling, and not in a rustic, Mediterranean, basket-of-lemons kind of way. Have you seen ‘The Shawshank Redemption’? Right. That sort of thing.

The bed was entirely draped in mosquito nets, which also kept out the enormous hairy spiders that occasionally ventured inside; while the bathroom had a wall-mounted boiler with just one tap and one setting – scalding hot. And the kitchen had a floor that at first sight seemed to move when you turned the light on and, at second sight, did move, as the cockroaches scurried for safety before you could hit them with a broom

Dinner was whatever we had bought that day in the market. Fish, eggs and rice mostly – certainly not frogs from the Frog Lady, who had a bucket of live frogs on one side of her stool, a cleaver in her hand and a bucket of twitching half-frogs in another bucket on the other side of her stool. Frog Lady actually did a lot of business, as did Snake Man – same set-up, only with live snakes in one bucket and live skinned snakes in another. On the other hand, we were the only ever customers at Potato Lady, who had clearly bought a duff load of English root vegetables by mistake and couldn’t believe her luck when we turned up.

The cooking was done in two woks over over two gas rings – one wok each and mind your elbows – and musical accompaniment was invariably Billy Bragg’s third album, ‘Talking to the Taxman About Poetry’, which I can safely say was not a musical choice that had been heard before in Sheung Shui.

Lake District & The Wedding Present – I’m From Further North Than You

If you’re from the north of England, and a male of a certain age, you are hardwired to like indie guitar bands, and if you like indie guitar bands than The Wedding Present speak to you as Yoko spake to John.

You are also, being from the north of England, inclined to dwell upon the fact that you are from the north of England. You wear your geographical happenstance as part of your character, and when you meet other people you make a mental note of where they are from, drawing a mental line upon a mental map, from east to west, so as to ascertain easily than you are, in fact, from further north than them. This is very important, though you’re not quite sure why.

Take all the above as read, and put yourself in the Lake District in spring 2005, careering around narrow country lanes, looking for rustic B&Bs and rosy-cheeked farm shops to include in the new edition of the Rough Guide to the Lake District. Radio on, I got the AM, to quote the saintly Jonathan Richman, and over the airwaves came the opening bars and the voice of David Gedge of The Wedding Present, with the best ever song written for those of us of a certain age from the north of England who love indie guitar bands.

I’ve played this a million times since. Heck, it’s going to be played at my funeral. But something about that first time stuck. Whenever I do I hear this, I’m back in the quiet lanes around Cartmel, flashing past stalls selling homemade damson jam, barrelling through the woods on the way to Windermere and parking up by a glistening lake, with the spring sun warming the stones on the shore.

Cornwall & Neil Young – Sleeps With Angels

In an attempt to find myself – no actually, lose myself – after a life-changing episode I took a nine-hour bus ride to Cornwall one late summer and started walking the South West Coast Path.

I really should have checked first. Turns out it’s 630 miles long.

And those 630 miles don’t breeze along gentle paths and mild slopes; they buck like broncos up cliffs and down coves, crossing rocky shores and climbing sheer steps. They grab your feet by the throat, if such a thing is possible, and let you know that you are in for one hell of a walk.

The state I was, that suited me fine. And what suited me even more were my two daily travelling companions, namely a Sony Walkman and Neil Young’s ‘Sleeps With Angels’. He mourned the loss of Kurt Cobain – who had quoted Neil Young in his suicide note – and I mourned a lost love and – with every painful mile – relinquished an old life and contemplated a new one.

We tramped the Cornish coastal path together, Neil and I, and while the surf pounded on the rocks and the kittiwakes soared, I found lyrics from different stories that seemed to help:

Through the years
He’s changed somehow
He’s different now
He’s different now

New Zealand & Bic Runga – Sway

For two points, name the official Sixth Best New Zealand Song of All Time that featured in ‘American Pie’, sung by a Kiwi of Maori-Chinese-Malay heritage.

Anyone? Anyone?

You’ll know the song, though you might not know the singer, Bic Runga. I heard her perform it one night in a Wellington concert hall, playing with two other New Zealand legends, Tim Finn and Dave Dobbyn. Come on, you know Tim Finn, Split Enz and Crowded House with his brother Neil? Dave Dobbyn, I’ll let you off, though don’t tell a Kiwi you’ve never heard of him.

Anyway, back to Bic. Blown away. What a voice. And just a lovely song.

After that, we encountered it everywhere we went in New Zealand – seeping softly from campervan radios, gently bubbling under conversations in Wellington coffee bars and echoing sweetly though hostel dorms.

Utah & The Clash – I Fought the Law

American road trips back in the day were a whole lot harder when it came to sounds. Rental cars had a radio and a tape deck. The radio played local MOR and college stations. The tape deck was useless if you had no tapes, and who flew with tapes from the UK?

We picked the car up at Denver airport. The plan was to drive to Las Vegas via Utah and Arizona’s national parks and the Grand Canyon, which is 1,000 miles. That’s a long way without music, and after 50 miles it was clear that local radio wasn’t going to cut it.

The first service station had a carousel full of cassettes. It also had an automatic car wash, which we tried first because we thought it would be a fun American thing to do. But because we were British and a bit crap at driving, we misjudged the drive-on-washy-bit, panicked halfway through when the car started rocking alarmingly, and sped out before it was done, fully suds-ed and trailing bubbles down the street.

There was no going back for the cassettes.

Between Denver and Utah, it’s basically desert, so the next service station was a looooong drive away. The cassette selection had diminished noticeably and consisted of the collected works of Kenny Rogers, Reba McEntire, Emmylou Harris and George Strait. These, to be clear, were not terrible choices – I yield to no one in my admiration of ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town’ – but a thousand miles of lyin’, cheatin’ husbands and failing crops in the field was not what we were looking for.

Hold on a second. What could this be? Hidden away at the back, behind ’75 Bluegrass Classics’, was a single and inexplicable copy of The Clash compilation, ‘The Story of The Clash’, $2.99. Keep the change sir, you are very welcome.

Which is why, for one glorious month, Zion and Arches national parks, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon echoed with three-minute bursts of brilliant beauty from England’s finest rockers, including their incomparable take on an American classic.

So, your turn? What are your travel sounds?

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