My Life In Travel: David Mitchell, novelist

'Places don't seduce you, but moments do'

Interview,Ben Ross
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:25

First holiday memory?

The Yorkshire Dales. We used to go every year to the same boarding house near Sedbergh. The best memory is that it rained a lot, but even though it rained, we would go out and get drenched and then come back to the boarding house in the evening and say: "Well, it didn't keep us in, did it?"

Best holiday?

Cycling for a few days up the Shimantogawa Valley in Shikoku, Japan. Postwar modernity has never uglified that valley; there are very few places in Japan where that is true.

Favourite place in the British Isles?

West Cork in the Irish Republic, where I've lived for about eight years. Because of the beaches, landscape, people and pace of life.

What have you learnt from your travels?

Don't take ink pens on to planes, because they will bleed; always use a propelling pencil. There are many layers of profundity lurking beneath that apparently flippant answer.

Ideal travelling companion?

Any tolerant, curious and considerate person will do. The thing that allows me to really enjoy travel is curiosity, so really I'm after a curiosity-stoker.

Beach bum, culture vulture or adrenalin junkie?

None of the above: future memory collector. The things you treasure are just moments that for some reason embed themselves in your memory. You pay thousands of pounds, and days and weeks of your life for a holiday – and what do you get in return which actually lasts? Not a lot. What you do get are memories, and so now when I'm travelling anywhere, that's what I look out for; I try to identify and store memories.

Greatest travel luxury?

Pyjamas made of Egyptian cotton, and poetry. These are useless and crucial.

Holiday reading?

The best holiday reading is three or four books which are the best pieces of writing to be steeped in the place you are visiting. So when in Sicily, read The Leopard [by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa], when in Iceland read Halldór Laxness – incidentally, a really good novelist.

Where has seduced you?

Places don't seduce you, but moments do. So you might go to Mongolia and be sick, tired and bored the whole time – but just for five seconds you're on a horse by a loud river and you feel intensely alive.

So: being on a horse by a loud river in Mongolia. Standing on the city walls of Cartagena in Colombia watching the ships. Or hiking over Skye, watching a storm coming closer and closer and knowing that within a quarter of an hour you are going to be drenched. You know that feeling you sometimes get, when you're more aware of the big machine of life than you normally are? It can happen to you more often when you're travelling because you're out of your ordinary context.

Better to travel or arrive?

The instant you arrive you might stay still, but you're still travelling. Your journey is still catching up with you. Then sometimes, before it's even caught up with you, you're off somewhere else. Or you might walk down to the end of the street and have more of a journey than you've had flying back from Perth in Australia. So I would quibble at the difference.

Worst travel experience?

It's my own fault, but in Lucknow in India I smoked a cigarette just to impress a girl – I was a teenager – and, dear reader, by midnight I had vomited out my intestinal tract. I've never heard the phrase "the siege of Lucknow" without thinking about that. It's the only time I ever tried to smoke. Sometimes bodily malfunctions can be your best friend.

Worst holiday?

Even the awful ones become special, even if only by virtue of their awfulness. The awfulness can be rinsed out of them by time. It's also true that all good holidays have wobbly moments. I've got a good friend who talks about the "Venice wobble", when young lovers go to Venice, and either their relationship wobbles, or it is actually killed by Venice. You arrive in an otherworldly thing that looks like it's been designed by Renaissance games designers, but it's actually real. This brings about the psychological/travel phenomenon of the Venice wobble, and they either split up or have a big bust-up. Any other place in Italy is fine, but be very sure about your travelling companion when you go to Venice.

Worst hotel?

A hotel in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii. Cockroaches under all the furniture in the hotel room, and peacocks weeing on the breakfast buffet. I wish I'd made it up, but alas I haven't.

Best hotel?

This was a $1-a-night place in Leh, in Ladakh, in the north of India. I visited as the same know-nothing 18-year-old who smoked a cigarette to impress a girl, but outside it had a tree full of songbirds and you were woken up by the smell of fresh bread.

Favourite walk/swim/ride/drive?

The Ghan train that goes from Adelaide to Alice Springs. You start off in a kind of antipodean Cheltenham and end up travelling through Mars.

Best meal abroad?

The world's best food is about £5 plus a well-earned appetite wherever you are. In Ireland it's a jacket potato, in Japan it's an Okononomiyaki [a savoury pancake], and in India it's freshly fried vegetable samosas dipped in yoghurt. And it always costs the local equivalent of a fiver.

First thing you do when you arrive somewhere new?

Step out of the Tardis, ladies and gentlemen. Go and explore a little; get lost and then get unlost.

Dream trip?

I'd like to cycle around the coastline of Iceland in the summer.

Favourite city?

Amsterdam, because it's picturesque, improbable and sane.

Where next?

Eleven North American cities in 14 nights, as a rather strange travelling salesman for my book. It's time to pack my vitamins.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell is published on Thursday (Sceptre, £18.99)

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