I once flew to Brussels dressed as Captain Haddock. Now this probably sounds like the beginning of a long and complicated joke, but it's not, it's just the sad truth.
About 10 years ago, a group of us decided to visit the much-underrated Belgian capital to combine a weekend of eating and drinking with something of a pilgrimage to the spiritual home of Tintin, my favourite cartoon Belgian man/boy reporter/explorer. The night before our departure, we were all in The Cow, a fabulous west-London pub, and someone (sadly I forget who) suggested that we all dress as our favourite Tintin characters for the trip. I know this sounds a tad nerdy, but we were all a bit worse for wear and, no, before you ask, I don't like Star Trek.
The following morning, when I got to Heathrow, I realised that I had been the only one to take this drunken suggestion seriously. So, much to the amusement of my "friends", I spent the next two days wandering the streets of Brussels dressed as a bearded, alcoholic seadog.
Curiously, this didn't seem to cause much bemusement to the locals. Maybe they were used to idiot tourists turning up in Tintin costumes. After all, more than 250 million copies of the globetrotting adventures have been sold worldwide, so it's not like I was on my own – though I have to admit that I didn't spot any others. No, the lack of local surprise might have more to do with the particular character of Belgians themselves.
Despite being the butt of unfair humour in countries such as France, and being constantly plagued with the interminable "Name five famous Belgians?" conundrum in the UK (it's easy, by the way – Justine Hénin, Hergé, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jacques Brel and Audrey Hepburn. OK, some people haven't heard of Jacques Brel and don't know that Audrey Hepburn was born in Brussels. How about Jacky Ickx? You know, the Belgian racing driver? No? What about Plastic Bertrand? Oh, let it go... idiots), Belgians are a very underrated people. They possess a certain dark, surreal sense of humour that appears everywhere, from the gloriously warped artistic world of Magritte to the anarchic tomfoolery of Noël Godin, the legendary " flaneur" who custard-pies the famous while singing anarchist drinking songs.
Sadly, the museum that we'd actually come to visit wasn't much cop. It was a shabby building that did have an impressively huge model of the Tintin moon rocket in the foyer, but the rest of the place was just bits of the books stuck on walls, and it was all a great disappointment. On the plus side, we drank ourselves silly and had a fabulous time. But I digress...
Why has Tintin captured the imagination of children and adults all over the world? For an adult, the appeal seems simple – our hero is a seemingly permanent adolescent who lives the good life in a huge country house with a cantankerous, dipsomaniac old sailor, a small, white talking dog and a slightly louche butler. Careerwise, Tintin is a world-famous reporter with what seems to be an unlimited expense account and nothing so pedestrian as a deadline or a nagging editor to bring him down. I've actually attempted to live this kind of life myself, but The Independent won't let me get away with it... too much.
To most adults, therefore, Tintin is living the "never grow up" dream, the sort of life bereft of responsibilities, financial worries and basic drudgery to which we all aspired before reality set in.
As a kid, however, I'm pretty sure that this wasn't the appeal – I just loved reading about Tintin's globetrotting. I travelled the world through his pages, taking in every gloriously exotic detail, every curious foreign trait. A vast part of my passion for travelling and exploration comes from having devoured so many of these extraordinary foreign adventures. At the age of seven, I used to have a huge map of the world up on my bedroom wall in Beirut, and I would put pins into every recognisable destination that Tintin had visited. I would tell anyone who cared to listen that one day, I too would visit these places.
I think that some of my friends might have thought me a tad peculiar, but then again, this was Beirut, Lebanon, in the middle of the civil war, so everyone had an escape dream – mine was just quite specific. And I actually haven't done too badly in realising my childhood dream. Granted, I haven't searched for treasure in a submarine disguised as a shark, nor have I been to the Moon – yet – but otherwise, I've been to most of the same places as Tintin and have found them just as extraordinary, if not quite as exciting, as they seemed on the page so many years ago.
On my travels, I've lost count of the times that I've been in some far-flung destination, suddenly had this weird feeling of déjà vu, and realised that I was experiencing a Tintin flashback. There was Prague in the early 1990s – I was a diplomat there for a while and kept seeing striking similarities in both the architecture and the politics between Czechoslovakia and Syldavia, the East European setting for King Ottokar's Sceptre. I even came across the tomb of a King Ottokar in the capital's cathedral.
When travelling in China, I found myself in a small town two hours south of Beijing, in a Hergé street scene straight out of the pages of The Blue Lotus. One of the little shops on the street was even selling a wooden statue of Snowy, Tintin's dog. The shopkeeper had no idea who Snowy or Tintin were, it was just a weird coincidence. Obviously, I bought it, and the statue now sits in my loo as a reminder of the weird connections that travel so often throws up.
The really extraordinary thing is that Hergé, Tintin's creator, had never actually travelled abroad when he was writing the books. He was an obsessive hoarder of photographs, newspaper clippings and drawings, and he used them to make every detail of the books completely authentic. Every car, uniform or building depicted in the stories were painstakingly researched, and this helped to bring hyperreality to the adventures. Is it possibly this detached view of the world that allowed him to make absolutely everywhere seem so desirable and attractive to me? If he had actually macheted his way through insect-ridden swamps or seen African poverty in its rawest form, then maybe the books would have been more politically correct but somehow less magical.
Tintin in the Congo has recently come under a lot of flak for its depiction of the Africans as dim-witted colonial subjects, and for Tintin's wholesale slaughter of almost every animal he encounters. I happen to agree with the criticism. I understand why it would have been written as it was at the time. But I've started to read Tintin to my six-year-old daughter Parker, and I can't quite square why someone so obviously good and "nice" behaves so oddly in the Belgian Congo. She's a little too young for lessons on the excesses of European colonial rule, so we've just avoided this one so far.
On the plus side, she has become fascinated, as I was, by all the countries that Tintin visits, and currently wants to go to Nepal to find the Yeti (one of the adventures that I haven't done yet, so I'm up for it, we just have to ask Mum).
Tintin's travels have always seemed to me to be in the same vein as early James Bond, in that each story unfolds in some exotic global environment as yet unsullied by mass tourism. As with Bond, I've often tried to think of places that Hergé didn't cover. Bond covered most of the British Empire, although I think that we have yet to see an adventure in either Australia or New Zealand. Hergé also ignored Australia and New Zealand (apart from commencing an ill-fated flight from Sydney in Flight 714), but manages to cover most of the rest of the world. If you ever see Tintin sitting next to you on a plane, get off immediately. It's very rare that he ever steps on to one without something exciting happening to him. I guess airport security was a little less taxing in his day.
In the French-speaking world, it's a badge of honour to have had Tintin visit your country. When I was in Vietnam earlier this year, I was intrigued to see posters everywhere for Tintin in Vietnam, complete with Hergé-like cover art. My heart missed a beat. Was this some long-forgotten masterpiece, a bootleg script? I searched everywhere for the book, but soon realised that it didn't actually exist. It was a sort of mass national conspiracy aimed at dealing with the fact that Tintin had never actually visited this former French-speaking colony.
Thousands of these fake covers hung in shops all over the country. I was so disappointed. Once I'd travelled through the place, I could see a particularly good adventure being set there. Similarly, a French-speaking Canadian adventure would have been very exciting, with Tintin being chased by greedy lumberjacks, hanging with the Mounties, with Snowy, his dog, being attacked by grizzly bears before ending up with them all going over Niagara Falls in a barrel – cracking stuff. Hergé definitely missed a trick there.
Of course, for Tintin, travelling comes easy. This is because, in most cases, he has the most highly coveted tool of travel – not the BA gold card but the letter of introduction. Wherever he arrives, he tends to make a beeline for the local prince or maharajah, where, once said letter is handed over, he is put up in fine style for the rest of his stay. I've often longed for just such aletter when I've been holed up in sweaty hostels in the arse-end of nowhere.
I might have to put my thinking cap on and see if I can forge some sort of generic one – maybe from Prince Charles saying that I'm his best mate and an esteemed travel writer, so could whoever reads this put me up for free in the royal suite (if Prince Andrew, the Duke of Golf, is not already using it). It's worth a shot. Actually, maybe one from Liz Hurley would be worth more nowadays? As she's my neighbour, I might pop round and see what she can do. She's a "friend of Elton", and he has a garish house in every country in the world, so I could just stay with him.
It's a shame that there aren't really many female roles in the story, or Liz could bag herself a part in Rufus Norris's new stage production at the Playhouse, in the West End. Or even the film that Steven Spielberg is about to make, Tintin – The Movie.
But it brings me out in cold sweats thinking about "The Movie". I started to think about who might be cast. And I got very depressed. It's a toss-up between Tobey Maguire or a heavily Botoxed Brad Pitt as Tintin. Captain Haddock, an almost Falstaffian role that most actors would die for, would have to be played by George Clooney or maybe Tom Hanks. The creepy butler would be the English walk-on, probably Ricky Gervais, as this seems to be the law nowadays... Oh God, the whole thing doesn't bear thinking about.
There have already been a couple of cartoon Tintin movies made and they were pretty awful. Losing the artwork and turning them into real-life will utterly neuter the adventures. There's a certain Continental weirdness to the whole thing that Hollywood can't possibly get right – can they? I bet they do the usual, showing off what they can do with CGI, and get the same actor to double up as the incompetent detectives Thomson and Thompson – probably Robin (Manchild) Williams, and they'll have to give Tintin a girlfriend, maybe Lindsay Lohan, or even worse, Kate Winslet. Aaarrrggghhh!
Maybe, if the movie is a turkey, that'll be a good thing? I know that with such a huge number of books sold, he's hardly "cult", but I don't want Tintin to be reprocessed and packaged for a generation of kids too thick to read for themselves. Movies should make up their own stories and heroes, and leave mine alone.
I treasure my Tintin collection. I have them all in French. That's how I first read them, and each cover is as evocative and precious to me as my favourite LP covers. I have given the full English set to each of my god-children on their first birthdays – it's a no-brainer, and one that they'll come to appreciate more and more as they grow up.
I actually can't write much more. This is all stressing me out too much just thinking about it. I'm going to try to forget about the film and keep reading the books to Parker. I was reading one to her the other day and my three-year-old son Jackson, who'd refused the offer of a story, got so engrossed in the story that he crawled along the bedroom floor very quietly and peered over the bed to get a glimpse at the world I was reading about. I saw the same look in his eyes that I'd once had, so many years ago – he was hooked.
Tintin is giving my kids the same thing that he gave me - excitement, a sense of wonder at all the amazing places in the world, and a burning desire to get out there and see them all. We went to Corsica a couple of weeks ago for a family holiday. When we landed, the first question Parker asked me was, "Has Tintin been here, Dad?". I told her that, to my knowledge, no he hadn't. Her little eyes shone with excitement and she marched towards the terminal building shouting, "Come on, Dad, let's find an adventure!"
Captain Haddock would have been proud of her.
Tintin opens at The Playhouse, Northumberland Avenue, London WC2 on 6 December. Telephone 0870 060 6631. A version of this article appears in the November issue of High Life, the British Airways magazine.
Round the world and beyond: The adventures of Tintin
Shedding a tear
Hergé's fearless reporter was rarely prone to emotional outbursts, but in Tintin in Tibet, his 12th outing, we see him cry for only the second time. Translated into English in 1962 (but not into Tibetan until 1994), the book was the only one not to feature a villain, it recounts Tintin's desperate search for his friend Chang, a young Chinese boy whose plane came down in the Himalayas. The story reflected the turmoil raging in Hergé's own life at the time – his nightmares, which he described as being "all-white", are mirrored in the snowy landscapes.
Tracking drug traders
The Blue Lotus (1936), regarded by many critics as Hergé's first masterpiece, sees Tintin and Chang embark on a dangerous mission to snare a gang of drug traders in China. Never afraid to tackle the politics of the day, Hergé introduces Tintin to a Chinese brotherhood fighting against the British-led opium trade. Content to improvise the plots and locations of his earliest books, in The Blue Lotus, Hergé was encouraged to undertake proper research by Zhang Chongren, a Chinese correspondent keen to break down stereotypes of his country.
Escaping a grisly end
In one of Hergé's most action-packed offerings, Tintin faces a series of perilous predicaments, not least the occasion in which he narrowly avoids being eaten by crocodiles. While undeniably thrilling, the foray into Central Africa is one of his most controversial works. Now published with a foreword explaining its historical context, Tintin in the Congo (1930) has faced repeated calls for it to be banned. Earlier this year, the Commission for Racial Equality said it contained "words of hideous racial prejudice, where the 'savage natives' look like monkeys and talk like imbeciles".
A brush with Al Capone
After narrowly escaping a grisly end in the Congo, Tintin lands in prohibition-era Chicago, where Capone's crew of bootlegging gangsters offer him a decidedly frosty reception and Tintin must use all his cunning to survive. Later on in Tintin in America, published in 1931, he encounters a tribe of Native Americans, but rather than perpetuate misconceptions (as was the accusation in the Congo) Hergé offers a well-documented depiction of their plight. Capone's appearance was the only time a real person appeared in a Tintin book.
Walking on the moon
In Tintin's 17th outing, Explorers on the Moon (1954), the globetrotting reporter and his crew don bright orange spacesuits (including a dog-shaped one for Snowy). But they soon face peril when they lose contact with Earth. Beating Armstrong and Co to their giant leap by 15 years, and Gagarin's landmark orbit by five, Tintin and his friends embarked on their lunar mission inside a fantastic red-and-white checked rocket built by Tintin's friend, Professor Calculus, whom Hergé modelled on the real-life explorer Auguste Piccard, the pioneering submariner.