Tom Hodgkinson: Why modern travel fills me with horror


Tom Hodgkinson
Thursday 12 July 2012 19:14

Travelling fills me with dread. When a trip is looming – and loom they do these days, because I'm often invited to speak on the benefits of doing nothing at festivals and conferences abroad – I fret. I even panic, sometimes for days before the journey. I stomp around the house grumpily. I worry about clothing. Why did I say yes? Why can't I just stay at home? Where's my passport?

When the day comes, I remember how much I loathe flying. I seethe at the humiliation of airport security checks. I come over all Prince Charles and fume at Richard Rogers and his ugly, sterile architecture. It's the horrific white blandness of airports that gets me. The way they are completely free of any personality, surprise, or interest of any sort. They are supremely boring places. If there is a delay, I will sink into a mild depression, unable to decide whether to drink beer at the fake pub or coffee at the fake coffee house. I feel lonely.

A few years ago, having been overcome, briefly, by an attack of middle-class ecological responsibility, I tried to avoid flying altogether. I was commissioned to write about Vienna by a magazine, and with great piety announced that I'd like to take the train instead of the plane, as I was opposed to plane travel. That was just as bad: this way I had a sleepless night in a couchette rather than a short plane flight.

In general, once I've arrived at my destination, my bad mood evaporates and I have a great time for a couple of days. Yet, when Robert Louis Stevenson asserted that, "To travel hopefully is better than to arrive," he clearly had never been stranded for three hours in the hope-free environment of Stansted.

This year I have been seeking advice on how to deal with my hatred of travel. And it seems that what we are talking about here is a question of mental attitude. My brother is a seasoned traveller. For his job, he flies all over the place to interview pop groups. "I enjoy the process," he says. "It's nice to be alone and to do nothing in airports."

And a friend in Australia actually treasures his long flights back to Blighty twice a year. "It's the one time I can get away from the phone and email," he says. "No one bothers me. I just sleep and read and watch films. No responsibility."

One friend whose advice I really treasure is Dan Kieran, former deputy editor of The Idler, and author of The Idle Traveller. His fear of flying led to an exploration of what we might call slow travel. Rather than the frenzied, stress-making A-to-B utilitarian approach which has caused me so much pain, Dan takes boats and trains. He walks. He takes his time. Criticising the empty box-ticking that characterises tourism, he prefers to linger, ramble, loaf and loiter.

One very simple tip is to choose your reading matter with great care. Take a good book, of course, but take a book that has some relevance to the place you are travelling through. So when travelling to Paris, Dan might read The Day of the Jackal. On the train in Eastern Europe, he'll nod off over a John le Carré. On a train in the Czech Republic bound for Prague, Dan will peruse John Keane's biography of Vaclav Havel, and learn, for example, that Hitler planned to destroy the Czech language.

And in Austria, he leafed through the 1926 essay "To Travel or 'Be Travelled'" by the Viennese-born author Stefan Zweig, and was delighted to find the following choice epithet, where Zweig writes nostalgically of his early years before what he calls "the new speed" of the modern age had arrived. "Speed was not only thought to be unrefined, but indeed was considered unnecessary."

This is not to say that idle travel is always easy: after reading Jay Griffiths' brilliant book about indigenous people, Wild, Dan reflects that the pain travel can bring is part of the package: "We're supposed to suffer." So idle travel can be seen in the spirit of pilgrimage. It has a spiritual purpose, it can help us to know ourselves better.

At the end of the journey comes rest, and I would still hymn the pleasures of arrival. There is no sweeter moment than to have reached your destination and to sit down with a cold beer and nothing but a long nap to look forward to.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'

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