To celebrate the release of Chris Stewart's latest travelogue, Last Days of the Bus Club, we revisit the columns he wrote for us when he was still driving over lemons
I'm sure that this subject has been aired before in the pages of Wanderlust, but maybe it'll bear one more repetition. Picture the poor drudge seated at his desk, trying to think of something to write.
As usual, nothing presents itself. He casts around for something to distract him – he looks out of the window at the sun on the mountain; he throws another log in the stove; he spends a creative ten minutes making a chain by hooking paperclips together and then, as a last resort, sets about killing some flies. Still nothing. Outside he can hear the sheep eating the jasmine. He launches himself through the door with an oath and scatters them across the hillside. Then he gives up, calls the dogs and heads off with his stick up the hill.
And then it comes: the erstwhile void is suddenly teeming with material – illuminating ideas, revealing metaphors, dazzling epigrams and provocative constructs. As he proceeds he is overwhelmed by the breadth and originality of his thoughts. A couple of hours later, having sat for a while on the saddle of the hill watching the sunset, he is in his study again, pen in mouth. But it has all vanished, the whole lot – only the faintest of traces remains. It's like the phantasm that hovers on the periphery of your vision – as soon as you try to focus upon it, it disappears.
"Why not grasp technology and take along a Dictaphone, or a simple pen and paper?" you may be wondering.
It doesn't work. Thoughts and ideas are timid creatures that take flight at the mere mention of such weaponry. I have tried these shifts but to no avail. On a recent trip to Morocco I sat on the ferry, notebook in hand, waiting for the events of the journey to occur so I could write them down as they unfolded. Well, you can imagine how reluctant things were to happen to me. I'm describing this phenomenon in the certain knowledge that it is an experience shared by almost everybody.
Wanderlust is a travel magazine and, in order to create a good impression with this, my first column, I'm looking for some way to extol the virtues of travel. This is not easy, as everybody knows that travel has a tendency to be uncomfortable, unpredictable, dangerous and – what's worse – boring. I remember with a shudder a long and tedious night in the bilges of the steamer to Gothenburg – there's a boring travel destination if ever there was one – with a drunken Norwegian brain-surgeon who was labouring under the illusion that I was there to kill him. Or days and nights on the Orient Express, wondering how to deal with the hideous effects of the vodka that the returning Gastarbeiter in my compartment insisted I drink large quantities of... and this sentence still hasn't reached its end... when the lavatory at the end of the carriage, the only source of relief available for us steerage-class passengers, was heaped to the top and running into the corridor with what I had better describe as 'excrement'... and there wasn't even any water to wash your boots. No, you're better off staying at home.
I read yesterday that the tourist industry is worth $700 billion a year, so in spite of the inconveniences somebody is still on the move, and the steamers are still full, and the trains and planes. Why do we do it? Well, I think that travelling, with all the misery that goes with it, is good for you. It fires up your creativity and it makes you think – and that's the point because, in our society, most of us exist from day to day with barely a thought for what is really going on around us – perhaps because the realities that underpin our way of life are so unpalatable that they don't bear thinking about. So anything which makes us stop and reflect can only be for the good. I think it was Bertolt Brecht who said: "To those who do not know that the world is in flames, I have nothing to say."
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