Ian McMillan: Why you don’t need to wander far to be a travel writer

Ian McMillan

Ian McMillan

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Years ago there was a man who came regularly to one of my poetry workshops who always liked to read what he called his “Travel Sequences”; he had a big folder marked Selected Poems (selected by him, presumably), and each week he’d open it with a flourish, clear his throat theatrically and intone: “This is a travel sequence about my recent sojourns in foreign climes.” Now I realise that this was the mid-1980s but even in those days people didn’t use words like “sojourn” or phrases like “foreign climes” much in our corner of Yorkshire. It felt like the kind of language that belonged in print, not in shared air.

He’d drone through the poems and we’d nod sagely until one week a bloke called Frank said: “So, what tha’r saying is that tha went on thi holidays and came back and wrote some poems about it.” There was a moment of appalled silence and, as Frankie Howerd once said, a muffled titter ran round the room. The sequence man went bright red but gamely carried on coming, week after week, with missives from his sojourns.

We were on holiday and anybody who saw me would know I was a middle-aged Yorkshireman because I was wearing shorts and my legs were pale and I was wearing what I still insist on calling pumps and I was wearing socks under the pumps.

I thought about him the other week as I strolled down the banks of the River Po with my good lady wife. We were on holiday and anybody who saw me would know I was a middle-aged Yorkshireman because I was wearing shorts and my legs were pale and I was wearing what I still insist on calling pumps and I was wearing socks under the pumps. Longish socks. We paused mid stroll to eat ice-cream and I got my notebook out and scribbled a few words down about the taste of the ice-cream and the Po’s timeless magnificence because, like Sojourn Sequence Man, I fancied myself as a travel writer.

I’ve done a little bit of travel writing in my freelance time, putting together articles about places like Korea and Lucerne and the other Barnsley, the one in Gloucestershire, and I know that there’s a real literary skill involved in making a place come alive for the reader at the same time as you let them know about the prices of the rooms and if you should tip or not and whether the boat rides are available on Sundays, and it was a skill I found hard to acquire. As I wrote the pieces I pretended that I was writing in the tradition of the travel writers I loved most, writers like Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux and Dervla Murphy, but in the end I knew that I wasn’t really writing literature, I was making a version of those “what I did on my holidays” pieces we had to write at school after the long summer break.

One very useful travel writing trick I learned, though, is to refer at the end of the piece to something you’d written earlier on. It makes the article seem more reflective, so…

Missive. That’s a word you don’t often hear, either, round these parts. My good lady wife’s sent me a missive from foreign climes. It’s a Travel Sequence you know. Don’t be so po-faced about it.

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