Charlie Connelly
Interview Words : The World According To ... | 12 July

The World According to Charlie Connelly

Funny man Charlie Connelly tells us why “I am incredibly stupid” in Norwegian is the most useful phrase he knows

Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean which are you?

Which am I? Jungle, I’d say. Tangled roots, shambolic appearance, liable to make weird noises especially at night and riddled with insects. That’s me. If it’s which I prefer, then ocean, definitely. Doesn’t even have to be an ocean: I live by the Irish Sea and never tire of looking at it.

First travel experience?

The first that I remember is a car journey in my parents’ old Cortina from south-east London to a holiday park near Mudeford in Dorset. I was tiny, standing up at the car window pointing at some cows in a field and calling them ‘teddies’. I called every living thing ‘teddies’ back then. My dad worked for an airline so we had some amazing holidays via standby flights during my childhood, but my first definite travel memory is of driving past a field of teddies.

Favourite journey?

Coming out of Charlton station and joining the crowds walking to The Valley, home of Charlton Athletic: all thundering feet, the cries of the programme sellers, the smell of frying onions and the growing stomach-tingle of anticipation. I’ve lived in many different places, even countries, but that five-minute journey is the constant, never-changing anchor of my world.

Top five places worldwide?

Sarajevo: my favourite city. Its blend of cultural influences, the historic, low-roofed, dark-wooden buildings of the old quarter and the ‘Sarajevo roses’ on the ground: the star-shaped gouges left by exploding ordnance during the siege of the early nineties. The local beer and coffee are something else too.

Liechtenstein: the word ‘quirky’ is criminally overused these days, but it could have been devised to sum up this tiny Alpine principality of barely 35,000 souls.

Memphis: music saturates the place: Elvis’s Graceland, Sun Studios, Al Green’s gospel church and the Stax museum and Beale Street, the home of the blues. From the Civil Rights Museum to the ducks in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel, I will never tire of Memphis.

Berlin: history, art, literature, everything. And relatively cheap for a European capital. If I was to move again, it would be to Berlin.

Laugharne: the little Welsh coastal town where Dylan Thomas lived and on which he based Llareggub in Under Milk Wood. Tucked away low down by the sea you’d never know it was there, making it a genuine refuge for artists, writers and proper old-school eccentrics.

Special place to stay?

Delphi Lodge in Connemara. It’s an old fishing lodge by a lake surrounded by mountains in the middle of nowhere. There are no locks on the doors, no televisions, no mobile phone signal and everyone eats together around a huge table. It’s the most peaceful place in the world and infuses you with such a feeling of calm contentment that I came away finding I’d got engaged.

Three items you always pack?

A compass. Even when I’m not hiking and I’m in the middle of a dusty, noisy city my little plastic compass always comes in handy.

A Moleskine notebook and pencil. No other notebook comes close, and pencils never smudge or leak all over your shirt pocket. They never answer back either, but I suppose pens can claim that too.

A P.G. Wodehouse novel. Wherever I go I’d be lost without Wodehouse. The perfect escape even when you’ve already escaped.

Passport stamp you're proudest of?

The Principality of Sealand eight miles off the Essex coast in the North Sea. It’s an old military platform left over from the Second World War that has asserted its independence as a nation since 1967. Hardly anyone is granted permission to visit so that stamp is pretty special. It’s the only country I’ve ever been winched into and the only country I’ve visited that only has one toilet.

Passport stamp most like to have?

I love remote places, the further north the better. Hence I am determined to acquire a Svalbard stamp in my passport one day. In case they don’t stamp passports I shall commission a stamp to take with me just to be sure.

Guilty travel pleasure?

I’m not sure it counts as a pleasure, but I do seem to end up on the premises of a certain global fast food chain in a way that I never do when I’m at home. It could be a hangover from InterRailing as a student, when my friend Paul and I knew they had reliably clean bathrooms to wash in after yet another overnight money-saving rail journey. They weren’t reliably clean by the time we left them, that’s for sure.

Window or aisle?

I always prefer a window seat to an aisle seat, which is fine on planes but tricky in cinemas. I love those last few minutes of a flight to somewhere new when you can look out of the window and see traffic moving on the roads, villages, factories, houses, people: the snatches of familiar everyday life in an unfamiliar place – that’s when I start to get really excited.

Who is your ideal travelling companion?

If I’m working I much prefer travelling alone; that way I’m answerable only to the book I’m writing and am less likely to miss anything serendipitous – a snatch of overheard conversation, say, that I’d have missed if talking to a companion. It also gives me the freedom to change plans on a whim and the freedom to go back to the hotel room at 7pm if I like and spend the evening sprawled on the bed wearing just my pants, watching the news in a language I don’t understand while eating crisps from a family-sized bag balanced on my chest.

Best meal on the road? Worst?

I had lunch at a tiny Arabic restaurant on the outskirts of Nazareth once and it was the best meal I’ve ever had. It was a simple place, half a dozen plain wooden tables, whitewashed walls and a television blaring in the corner, but dish after dish arrived and each was more delicious than the last. It was so good that when I got home and discovered they’d charged my card twice I didn’t even mind.

I also somehow ended up at a meal as part of a wedding at five o’clock in the morning in Tashkent, eating enormous bowls of rice and shredded meat and drinking delicious tea in a vast room full of men at long tables while an Uzbek folk band played at ear-splitting volume; a meal called ‘plov’ that was utterly amazing. It was only later that I found out the meat had been horse.

I eat most things so have never had a really rotten meal, but the catfish at BB King’s diner on Beale Street in Memphis was very disappointing.

Most surprising place? Most disappointing?

It’ll sound like a cop-out but I travel with as few preconceptions as possible, so everywhere surprises me and nowhere really disappoints.

When I wrote my book Our Man In Hibernia I spent months tracing the ancestor of mine who’d left Ireland in the early 1840s. I finally found the remote townland in east Cork where he’d lived and went to visit hoping to find, well, I’m not sure what, but something positive and grounding anyway.

It was a filthy day when I arrived but even allowing for that I felt a real sadness and emptiness about the place, like I shouldn’t have gone back there, that he had left for a reason and it wasn’t a good one. That was pretty disappointing, but still taught me a great deal about rose-tinted spectacles.

Where do you NOT want to go?

I can’t really think of anywhere. I believe that wherever you go, however initially unappealing it might be, you’ll always find something to make it worthwhile: a bit of history, a person with an amazing story to tell, whatever. Having said that, I’m not a fan of hot weather – I get sunburnt watching travel programmes on the television – so dropping me in the middle of the Sahara might not exactly fill me with vim and vigour.

Who/what inspired you to travel? Any travel heroes?

I fell into travel by accident really: it just happened that the books I was writing involved lots of travel. As the world’s most nervous and incapable traveller, I still can’t believe I get called a travel writer.

My ultimate travel hero is Patrick Leigh Fermor. His recent death affected me greatly when I heard – it shouldn’t have as a) I’d never met him and b) he was what can only be described as ninety-six, but, corny as it sounds, it felt like I’d lost a friend. That’s the power of his writing. His journeys always had a context and his presence in the narrative was always central but never overbearing, like all the best travel writing. And his was the best travel writing.

What do you listen to on the road? Any song take you back to a particular time or place?

I rarely take my iPod on the road any more. I prefer not to cocoon myself when I’m away somewhere for fear I might miss something. I took it with me on the travels for my Elvis book though: listening to the old blues greats like Son House and Peetie Wheatshaw while travelling through Mississippi was quite something.

I stopped taking it with me after I’d done some filming in Germany for the BBC. I was interviewing a man telling a harrowing story of his treatment by the Stasi while at the same time the last song I’d just been playing in the van echoed around my head. It was Kyle’s Mom’s A Bitch from the South Park film.

What do you read?

Aside from my Wodehouse fixation I’ll try to read something pertinent to where I’m going, whether history or fiction. I’d never have read the wonderful Finnish national epic The Kalevala had I not been heading to Finland to meet a university professor who performs Elvis songs translated into Latin, for example.

It’s probably my imagination, but local literature always seems to be more gripping when you’re in the place from where it came. It’s like when you stick away a really good bottle of local wine somewhere while watching the sun set – when you order the same wine at home it just tastes ordinary.

Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity? Anyone who made you lose it?

The most inspiring person I’ve met was, believe it or not, at an Elvis festival in Porthcawl, south Wales. Her name was Anita, she was in her seventies and had had an incredibly hard life. Despite fate having dealt her some pretty severe personal blows over the years she had spent her life doing amazing, selfless things for other people in her community and had the warmest and most exuberant personality of anyone I’ve met.

When she wasn't in a wheelchair, she was on crutches and yet she had the absolute time of her life at that festival. She was up dancing on her crutches  – the lot. I must admit, I hadn’t expected much from a weekend in south Wales watching an endless chain of Elvis impersonators of varying competence, but seeing the sheer energy, boundless delight and undiluted happiness in Anita’s face was a wonderful feeling. A truly exceptional human being.

On the other side of the coin, the driving instructor who deliberately knocked me over with her car just outside Peterborough when I was walking from York to Hastings for my book of great journeys from history, well, my faith in human nature was tested that day, that’s for sure. As was my aim with a stone immediately afterwards, but it wasn’t true enough alas.

What's the most impressive / useful phrase you know in a foreign language?

A Norwegian friend of mine taught me the phrase jeg er kjempe dumm once, getting me absolutely word perfect as I earnestly repeated it back to her before collapsing laughing and confessing that it means, “I am incredibly stupid”. You wouldn’t believe how useful that phrase has been over the years, and not just in Norway.

What is your worst habit as a traveller?

I’m quite a shy person by nature, and I often wonder whether timidity has caused me to miss out on good stuff when I’m on my own in strange places. Then again, I think hanging around observing on the edge of things usually produces better writing than plonking yourself right in the middle and taking over.

I’ve met so many travel bores who insist on being the centre of attention, hell bent on regaling you with all their travel stories: the worst kind of people you can meet on the road. Despite this, I still regard my shyness as a bad habit.

Snowbound in a tent in Antarctica, how would you entertain your companions?

By playing blues songs on the ukulele. My Tommy Cooper impression is pretty decent too, and there is, after all, nothing like a captive audience.

When and where in your travels have you been happiest?

I think it was when I’d reached the end of my journeys for my first travel-based book. I was in Tromso in the far north of Norway, it was 1am, I’d had a few beers and being summer above the Arctic Circle the sun was still out. I was sitting on the edge of the harbour eating a bag of prawns bought straight from a trawler and tossing the heads into the water where seagulls would swoop down and carry them off towards the mountains.

It was quiet, the only noise coming from the gulls and boats bumping against the quay. I’d been travelling all over Europe and this was the end of the line. I knew I was going to write a book of which I could be proud and it was a tremendous feeling.

What smell most says 'travel' to you?

Damp clothing. Definitely damp clothing. And jet fuel, although if your clothing’s damp with jet fuel there’s probably a really interesting but very dangerous story behind it.

Given a choice, which era would you travel in?

I wish I’d travelled more in eastern Europe just after the raising of the Iron Curtain, when the continent was trying to find itself again in a whole new context. The old Grand Tour of Europe would have been something too, especially before the arrival of the railways. I think I can see myself crossing the Alps in a carriage, leaning out of the window and exhorting the porters to greater effort.

If you could combine three cities to make your perfect metropolis, what would they be?

The laid back atmosphere – and pubs – of Dublin (where I live), the seafront location of Tel Aviv and the people of Helsinki, as I’ve never met a Finn I didn’t like and a city full of them sounds good to me.

 

Our Man in HiberniaCharlie Connelly is a bestselling travel writer, award-winning broadcaster and the author of seven previous books including: Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round The Shipping Forecast which was a Radio 4 Book of the Week. His latest book, Our Man in Hibernia, is available on Amazon now.

 

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