If you’re a writer, there’s only one way to travel and that’s solo. Travel with a companion and you come complete with an invisible wall around you. Two people chatting in their own language or poring over a map together is exclusive and can deter local people from offering help and maybe even that magical invitation to coffee that opens the door through which every travel writer wants to go, taking you right into someone’s home and heart. And let’s be honest, we all like to see what someone’s loo is like. We peep round a door and great, the bed’s not made yet and it’s three in the afternoon. That tells us a lot. So what do you do? You jot your observations down quickly and unobtrusively in your handy little notebook.
“But don’t you get lonely being on your own?” is the question often asked and the answer is no. On the contrary, it’s a relief to sit down at the end of a busy day that’s been full of new and challenging experiences to finally mull over what’s happened.
It’s at this point that I pull out the very small notebook I always carry in which I jot down observations made throughout the day, often nothing more than a phrase: plastic bucket by the river reminds me of the woman washing her clothes by the Euphrates and the way the setting sun lit up her plastic bucket. Or maybe there was time only for one word: ashtray bringing back the image of the waiter morosely scraping a squashed grape from the floor, using the edge of an ashtray for the job.
The small notebook is the quickie one from where ideas and happenings are taken, expanded and written down into a bigger book, usually a school exercise book bought in whatever country I’m in. Then there’s another small notebook in which I write down books referenced, directions on how to get to the bus station or the no-star hostel, the names and contact details of people I’ve met such as the man in Aleppo who travelled to Ireland regularly to buy reconditioned tractors to sell on, in Syria; the student in the street who quoted Shaw, the librarian in the Alliance Francaise in Damascus who gave me a map to look at – all useful once I get home and start to write the book.
Interviewing that great travel writer, Eric Newby (A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush) I asked him about note taking. “Oh, always,” he said. “Paddling down a river, I write saw cow on one bank saw two cows on other bank. Everything goes in. And I use a pencil. Handy if you drop it in the river as it’ll float.” He’s right about noting everything. Some events are so momentous you know you’ll never forget them. And you don’t. What you do forget, though, are the details – did the man with the gun have a beard? What colour was that plastic washing up bowl that flared up in the sun? How many miles is it exactly from Damascus to Baghdad? Hang on, is that miles or kilometres?
And photographs – do I take any? Yes, sometimes as a striking image that might be used later in a book or for an illustrated talk, other times simply as an aide memoir, to record an inscription over a door, a display of vegetables in the souk, a bus time table. On the other hand, Paul Theroux told me once that he never ever took photographs: “I have to find the words to describe what I see. With a photograph, it’s too easy. I once saw a flock of birds wheeling through the sky in Venice and two years later I was still trying to capture what I’d seen, in words.”
And how long does it take to write a travel book? Maybe two or three years of research, a year travelling, a year at least to write the book, another year until it’s published. But in reality much much longer. Journeys of a Lifetime came about when I collected together all the diaries I’d kept – from my first solo journey to Lesotho to the present – written in school copy books, 21 in all.
And what about research? Discovery favours the prepared, someone said, and I agree. I really do want to know what was happening in 1488 or 1994. I want to know who was al Rumi. Or the 100 names for Allah. On second thoughts, make that 99. Only the camel knows the 100th name which is why every camel has such a superior expression on its face. And when a friend in Damascus tells me he lives in Bilal Street, I’m glad I did a bit of reading: Bilal was Islam’s first muezzin and, because he was Ethiopian, has become something of an idol for Rastafarians. You need to know these little things.
But this, my latest book, My Home is Your Home, was some ten years in the writing partly because it took a long time to get a visa. On the form I was asked to state my job so I wrote writer at which point, the Syrian visa office in London told me, the application had to be sent to Damascus. Writers are a suspicious lot, apparently, and have to be checked out. Standard procedure, the man explained. Send the application to Damascus where it’s put it in a drawer and forgotten.
I could have lied, of course, said I was on holiday or visiting friends, but I’d decided from the start, that I was going to be open and above board. I knew enough about Syria to know that its inhabitants had been stitched up by the European powers during and after WW1. So I chose the honest way and where did it get me? Nowhere. Fast. Eventually, after about five years, a friendly member of the Arab League sorted things out for me. I got my visa and I was away.
Once there, I stayed in a no-star family-run hotel, an excellent place on many counts. It was the cheapest I could find, the family became my friends, I met other people with whom I could spend the odd sociable hour or two and the hotel itself was a lovely old villa lived in, way back, by a member of the Ottoman military.
I stayed there, on and off, for three months, often looking at the signposts that read Baghdad, in seductive lettering. But without an Iraqi visa, I couldn’t cross the border and so I returned home to Dublin where I found, on the kitchen table, an envelope with an Iraqi stamp on it: an invitation to visit. Two months later, I was travelling across the Syrian Desert, toothbrush, camera and notebook in my rucksack, heading for Baghdad, the city of Haroun al Rashid.