The case for travelling abroad

31 July 2021

9:00 AM

31 July 2021

9:00 AM

I’m off. In the week when you may read this, my partner and I will be winging our way to the European mainland, exploring, visiting friends, and immersing ourselves in new places, among new people who speak languages other than our own.

Even as I write this, I can anticipate a sour response from some who read it. Over the past year I’ve learned that any mention of travelling abroad draws from certain quarters three types of disgruntlement. Three, in fact, of the Seven Deadly Sins.

The first is Envy. ‘Oh, bully for you!’, ‘It’s all right for some’, etc.

This I disregard. Between youth and old age I’ve made the journey from sleeping in the kitchen in order to accommodate an extra lodger to keep up my mortgage payments, to (now) being able to treat cash dispensers as what as a child I thought banks were for: a place to get money when you want some. Never in my journey from little to plenty have I ever been troubled by jealousy towards people who could afford things I couldn’t. To those who cannot afford the things I can, I recommend the same attitude.

The second is Anger. ‘How dare you create CO2/risk bringing back the virus from abroad!’ Given that in common with most who travel abroad I observe all the precautions laid down by foreign governments and our own, I’m no more troubled by this than anyone who lives in Stockton should be troubled by criticism that (when permitted) they have visited Stockport. As for the climate change people — fair enough. I’ll go by train when I can. Or bicycle. Or walk. But I’ll go.

Finally Pride. ‘Isn’t England good enough for you? Doesn’t our own country boast all we could want in life? What landscapes and experiences can the rest of the world offer that surpass our own?’ It is to that response — ‘What’s the point or purpose of going abroad?’ — that this column turns.

With advancing years comes the pleasure of discovering that other people have already said what one wants to say, and more eloquently. And a privilege of writing for the Spectator is being indulged to quote such voices at length. Theresa May was not the first to describe internationalists as ‘citizens of nowhere’. The political thinker David Goodhart drew a similar distinction when, in The Road to Somewhere: the Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, he contrasted Somewhere people with Anywhere people.

But it is Mary Ann Evans — George Eliot — who, with what I dare call a woman’s touch, finds truth in both sides of this argument and expresses a larger truth, embracing both:

A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amid the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be in-wrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbours, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood. At five years old, mortals are not prepared to be citizens of the world, to be stimulated by abstract nouns, to soar above preference into impartiality; and that prejudice in favour of milk with which we blindly begin, is a type of the way body and soul must get nourished at least for a time. The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one’s own homestead. (Daniel Deronda)

In other (but less moving) words: before we can properly look out, we must know and feel where we are looking from. My own little plot of ground, my own sweet habit of the blood, is central Africa. But I travel incessantly, believing the new and different to be always both supplement and guide to the old and familiar. My book Fracture, whose paperback is out this month, explores the idea that in a person’s development, disjunctions — breaks, conflicts — nourish originality of mind and spirit, and may germinate genius.

Writing this column, I asked the thoughts of the friend who has made the cleanest break and biggest jump from Somewhere to so-called Anywhere. In his twenties and on a whim, John Steele, by preference a musician and brought up rooted in his home town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire (‘Oakbourne’ in another of Eliot’s novels, Adam Bede), made the leap to Japan. There he taught small Japanese children for a year, speaking at first no other language but English.

He says this: ‘Moving to Japan was like taking a trip outside of my own brain. I stepped beyond the walls within which I’d lived my whole life — not physically but mentally. Sometimes this meant I looked at Japanese people and saw flaws in how they lived and thought, but more often it highlighted flaws in how I lived and thought.

‘I experienced so many new things. New ways of interacting with people: how important were correct gestures and words to show respect. New sights: I never realised that the UK barely has what could be called mountains…

‘Change must be to the brain something like repotting a plant, limited by living in its little pot, moving into a bigger space, with new nutrients, where it can grow.’

Or, as Eliot would see it, not uprooting, but widening out: always, though, from where you began.

John’s experience has been mine, arriving aged 19 in ‘Anywhere’ England from ‘Somewhere’ Rhodesia. I learned, as he has, that there’s no such thing as Anywhere. Everywhere is somebody else’s Somewhere. Imbued with Eliot’s sweet habit of the blood, we can only ever travel from somewhere to somewhere else. Whenever we can, we should: but always (Mrs May and Mr Goodhart are right about this) ‘well-rooted in some spot of a native land’.

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