‘Between the idea and the reality,
between the motion and the act,
Falls the shadow.’
‘To the traveller, walking uphill and downhill are both parts of the path.’
There is freedom in travel. To go where you like, when you wish, for how long and with whom—chartering a route born of whim and woe, as unpredictable as the weather above you. To take in the new and the familiar, the comfortable and the unexpected with equal modes of pleasure and caution, confronting life with a mind unhindered by routine and the drudgery of human duties.
A landscape refreshed from the mind’s clutter, welcoming a clearer perspective of what is, rather than what we expect it to be. To see the world with its quirks and oddities as a child would; in simpler terms, in colour, without the black and white that muddies the pool, casually taken in without book or teacher, exam or schedule but through the natural act of experience. The journey, as we know, reveals more insight than the destination, going forward not only in distance but in foresight as well.
At this point, one’s self makes a half-turn, looking back not at the wardrobe and a grandfather clock that gave up chiming on its fourth move, but at a trail of memories from boyhood to the present. Plucked out and hung up like garments from a mountain of laundry, some vintage, others modern, all connected by the wearer. For here I make a brief recollection, a bio of sorts, fashioned by decisions and mistakes, by laws and by fate, another journey that’s inadvertently and clumsily brought me to this moment.
Childhood came with freedom and wide-open spaces, a colossal playground where every tree, stream, and field offered an immeasurable platform for adventure. Unleashing an acceptable madness that juvenile imagination puts into practice, unconscious of adult’s fixation with rules and maturity. Growing up on a small farm in the English countryside where pockets of wilderness grew tall amongst seas of wheat unrolled the most spectacular course of explorations. Sailing through high grasses on a cardboard and bedsheet galleon fit for Columbus, climbing tall sycamores under the dogged determination of Hillary, and building hay-bale tombs worthy of Carter. Swallows and Amazons and The Famous Five gave new purpose, and when Indy hit the screens, a piece of rope and a grubby smirk brought the New World into the real world.
Then came school, preparing the transcendence towards adulthood. Institutional learning slowly taming the wild motions of the innocent years, only repelled by playtime and long Summer evenings. As home lay in the middle of nowhere, three miles from school, down thinner and thinner roads squeezed in by brambles and hedgerows, our family qualified for the free bus. Even then, come rain or shine, we still walked the mile to the pick-up point, on the corner of a triangular green overlooked by post-war houses. A twenty-minute pre-school field trip where dad quizzed us on the types of trees and the birds singing on their lower branches, and when he was busy working, mum would point out the wildflowers while we recalled the spelling of complicated words. I’ve never forgotten my confusion over pneumonia and psychology, with their rebellious pronunciation, thinking that words were just like playtime in their disregard for rules.
Before the final year of primary school, the house sold, and the farmland changed to a terraced garden in a quiet village ten miles north. Broad Oak instigated the first step of leaving rural life for suburbia, regarding nature like an elderly relative; nearby but not really close. I searched for some time, wandering through bungalow estates, up steep lanes where over-fed cats peered out from net curtains, past the village hall and ploughed fields behind, but couldn’t locate any Oak, certainly one broad and presumed that names, like words, could betray their worth.
One went through the school years, both primary and secondary, rather like a little boat, open and vulnerable, buffeted between impressionable forces and lengthy spells of tedium. Despite an entire Navy of teachers trying to keep you on course, much of the time, you struggled to find structure, something to fix upon and drop anchor. Then at sixteen, armed with a bundle of certificates but hardly qualified for navigation, you were pushed back out to sea. A few lucky ones knew their course, but many tumbled out lacking a sense of direction. Thankfully, swept along on an undercurrent of chocolate and cream, I had already found my refuge, shaped by knife and hand in the outdated recesses of home economics. A chef’s life at thirteen painted a masterpiece but had hardly joined the dots.
At seventeen, valiant in a white jacket and a hat that looked like over-proved dough, I still hadn’t joined the dots. None of the thirty students had, despite weekend shifts in small-town pubs and seaside hotels whose clientele looked out to sea with equal unawareness. College eased you in, an awkward glove gradually finding ease of movement. A chain of practicals and principles mapped out by former chefs, whose experiences placed idealism over realism.
College afforded you an afternoon to make an apple pie; the industry would give an hour and expect five in the oven. The college restaurants offered a three choice menu cooked up by an entire class; the industry would quadruple the choices and half the staff. My driving instructor said to me after one stressful lesson ‘that you don’t start learning until you’ve passed your test.’ They were wise words, and all of us did pass; the twelve students left.
The idea of travel was as far away as the stars and just as indistinguishable, but like the deepening stage of twilight, the first faint flickers caught the eye. In London, distracted by thought and time, you needed to look up than fixating on the way ahead. The capital, eighteen miles wide and sliced in two by the Thames, overwhelmed by its incredible strangeness, surrounded by endless formations, in sync and at odds, towering and beautiful in so many shades of grey, where its people dashed past, driven by anxiety and money.
I descended a set of oily steps into a tight passageway, passed through a heavy door into an underground world of kitchens, serveries, stock-rooms, offices and staff rooms, linked by a warren of corridors tainted with filtered coffee and cheap perfume. I had arrived to fulfil my first employment at Brown’s Hotel, a five -star establishment for the well-to-do seeking English gentrification. A live-in job with accommodation tucked away on the top floor and a managerial hierarchy to rival a palace. I’ll be rising before the sun to push through sixteen-hour days, taking everything on board while proving my worth. It’s all part of the process, from skimming stocks to chopping shallots, from roasting bones to boning lamb.
Pushing open that heavy door led to a twenty-year affair with London. Leaving bewildered and tired from its high demands and frenetic pace only to come back, like a boxer, ready for another bout. A tidal pull, awed by her history, wealth, command and most of all, her multiculturalism. The world had dropped in with all its splendid baggage, instigating a desire to leave again, to travel purposeless across foreign lands. Her character, wound by dualities and split personalities, made her refined but wild, contemporarily ancient, dolled up in a fur coat that ran dirty along the hem. London, partnered by faraway journeys made by my elder brother, enticed a second life, of one on the road.
The path as a chef still went on its way, albeit slower and prolonged. I didn’t feel the need to reach the top so early on. Once you’re at the summit, there is no other route but down and time on the road shifted perspectives. Naturally, marrying the two soon developed, leading to work in Connecticut and coastal restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne. However, by the end of the second journey of circling India and her neighbours, I decided to challenge myself to move across the planet from East to West in ten journeys. Each one, a slight overlap to the last, unfolding across three decades.
Then Covid-19 erupted and changed the world entirely. At that point, halfway through the ninth journey in Cameroon, I followed UK advice and returned home on an emergency flight, set up by the German consulate. I remember the surreal scene of reaching London’s Victoria station during a lockdown, usually a hive of commuters and tourists to find it empty. All the shops closed, no queues and crowds underneath the information boards, and no circumventing poorly guided baggage. However, silence formed the strongest impression, passing along the concourse with that low hum purring on your eardrums.
Writing, well, that’s never been a craft I’ve explored until now. Sure, I kept a journal during my travels to record my thoughts and observations, noting down the essential sections of the trip, but never to share. Until lockdown changed the way ahead, switching freedom for time instead. Time to study and develop the potential that writing, travel writing in particular, could provide. It’s a learning curve, perhaps a mid-life career shift as well, but rest assured, it’s another journey in the making and one with no set destination. It’s about time!