The thing I enjoy most about travel-writing gigs is meeting other hacks. Hacks are almost invariably fun, funny, gossipy, irreverent, and they like a drink. They are well read and intelligent, but like to conceal it. They know and understand the lineaments of power as well as politicians, only they think it’s funny. On multi-hack travel gigs you can tell whether there is a drain or a nutcase in the squad during the introductions in the Heathrow departures lounge. In this case we could safely sound the ‘all-clear’. The line-up consisted of a man from the Daily Mail, a woman from the Daily Telegraph, a woman from the Sunday Times and myself.
In his 50 years, the Mail man has so far visited 134 countries, mostly as an independent traveller. Sir Richard Burton is one of his heroes, and to hear the Mail man’s tales, he is without doubt as great a traveller as the Satanic-faced Victorian, and he has similar passions, especially for the Islamic countries, though he lacks Burton’s amazing facility for languages. You can say what you like about the Daily Mail, but if that man is a typical representative of its travel section, it must be a far more enlightened newspaper than many give it credit for. Name a country — any country, hot or cold — and he had been there. He was unpretentious, unassuming and without prejudices.
In her way, the woman from the Telegraph was equally spectacular. The Daily Telegraph is (in my limited experience) a remarkable mixture of toffs and Essex girls and boys, and this woman was a working-class Essex girl. She had been absolutely everywhere, but without losing a shred of her class identity or cool. One morning I was lounging about near the diving-school headquarters. That morning’s boat party was already assembled and she had yet to appear. I heard a German woman say, ‘I consider myself to be a normal, nice person. But lateness of this order is something I cannot tolerate.’ Five minutes later up came Natalie from Colchester with her laid-back, stoner gait, smoking a fag. ‘Alright?’ she said, cheerfully flicking away the stub and totally oblivious to the hostile glares. The Sunday Times travel reporter, too, was a chrome-plated hack in possession of a limitless fund of newspaper and celebrity gossip, which she imparted with an inventive turn of phrase, comic timing and a gift for mimicry. She was also kind-hearted and a bit of a lefty.
And finally there was your Low life correspondent, who established himself early on as a kind of unsurpassable benchmark of naivety and unsophistication. Example one: when selected by the waiter to sample the wine on behalf of the company, I got into a tizzy, picked up my glass of water instead, sampled it carefully and expertly, and sincerely pronounced it ‘superb’. Example two: my daily reports of gains made using my NHS-prescribed erectile dysfunction vacuum pump, which I’d brought on holiday with me as my partner.
We all got on like a high-end resort bungalow on fire. Every breakfast, lunch and dinner was a prolonged affair, until we seemed to spend almost the entire day barefoot at the beachside meal table drinking wine and entertaining each other with stories. In the evenings, we were usually joined by a smiling resort representative. Among others, there was Nadine from Mauritius, Connie from Taiwan, and Takiko from Japan. These were politely attended to at first, then rather overwhelmed, I am sorry to say, by the vinous ebb and flow. Takiko, for example, bowed and giggled and nodded throughout the meal with more goodwill than comprehension, then broke the habit of a lifetime by drinking an entire second glass of wine, after which her bowing and giggling redoubled, while mentally she appeared to retreat into a very sweet and private ecstasy.
Halfway through the week, sadly, Natalie flew back home and was replaced by another travel journalist. And it was as if we’d sold our best striker and replaced her with my nan. She was not only a purveyor of that kind of meaningless purple travel prose that is a foretaste of death, but she actually believed it. If I sound snobby, it is because I am. From then on, that end of the table was for martyrs only. The man from the Mail — perhaps the most sociable man the world has ever known — threw himself on the grenade whenever he could by taking the vacant place at the table opposite her. But even he was cowed into miserable silence by a barrage of almost inconceivable blandness. But who am I to judge? And at least it got us off our backsides to wander among the whispering palms or swim in the azure sea.
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