The Long Road To Travelling

FOR the bulk of my working life, being asked what my job is was pretty simple. If not without the odd hazard.

Journalist hasn’t always been the most popular answer – although, like the vast majority of my colleagues, retrieving messages from my own mobile is a major test, let alone attempting to access anybody else’s.

And the Chinese certainly weren’t impressed by an unwise bout of honesty when applying for a visa (but were easily swayed when told  I had quit to go travelling), while our guide in Xi’an almost fell over himself to advise me not to mention it as we sat in a bar chatting to a group of locals.

The senior one, who insisted on buying all the drinks as he was the eldest, was evidently a party official and our guide was worried about his reaction and the consequences. Think explaining that most of my time was spent writing about rugby or designing sports pages would have got a bit lost in translation. And he was buying…

But from the moment my notice went in ahead of the London to New York overland trip in 2010, answering that question has required a little more explanation and – depending on who is asking or my mood – a variety of answers, ranging from the short to the complex.

The day job - designing pages like this (there were another 65 pics on pages 2-3)
The day job – designing pages like this (there were another 65 pics on pages 2-3)

For much of the intervening time, journalism has again been the main way of making a living. Not sport any longer, but the past couple of years has seen a return home to Gloucester – after more than a decade living and working in south Wales – news subbing for the Gloucestershire Echo and the Gloucester Citizen, my first daily newspaper an infeasibly long 20 years ago.

But mixed in with that for most of the last four years has been working in travel.

And what wasn’t there to love? Working for a small overland travel company – the one which organised that London to New York trip – large chunks of my job involved chatting about travel, answering questions and guiding people from an initial enquiry through the preparations and helping them out until their overland adventure came to an end.

When the company hit problems, a new owner failed to understand the specialised nature of such a firm and what was needed – both financially and logistically – and with the writing on the wall, it became clear that journey was over and a return to journalism was on the cards.

Without wishing to bore anyone with the full story – or to follow the lead of the former owner who responded to the company’s demise with a string of unfounded allegations, rewriting of history and what he liked to call straight talking, but was merely being boorish and rude – the company ended amid acrimony.

One day the full tale will be told, but now is not the time nor place.

But those trips – London to New York without flying and the initial London to Sydney – had got under my skin and that of my former colleague and we just could not let them die.

That is why Epic Overland was born and how, for almost two years, the majority of my spare time was spent in front of a laptop dealing with the new company – and how answering questions about my job became more drawn-out.

It was tough, there’s no denying that, as it has been for many new businesses over the past few years – particularly ones asking people to put lives on hold for three months.

We did it our way and never owed anyone a penny, but in the end changes in our personal circumstances meant a decision had to be made. Epic Overland is not dead – it is on hiatus and who knows what we can make of it at some point in the future – but it needed more resources than we could throw at it to reach a momentum where it would largely take care of itself.

And above all, ironically, working in travel had put travelling on hold.

So, as soon as that hurdle was removed, it became increasingly hard to find a viable reason not to listen to the voice in the back of my head going on about the Oasis Overland Trans-Africa trip.

And so, six months out from departure, the tables have been turned and it is the staff of Oasis who may well end up regretting mentioning “you know where we are if you need anything” in a tweet. 

Don’t think they need to worry too much for now as most of my questions this far out are imponderables which they are unlikely to be unable to answer – the sort which differ for each trip and, more pertinently, each person. Africa and this style (and length) of overland travel is not an exact science.

The first kit - Variant sleeping bag and travel pillow, both on sale
The first kit – Variant III sleeping bag and travel pillow, both on sale

And for all the creating and editing of to-do lists, my plan is to leave the great bulk of my preparations until after a friend’s wedding in South Carolina in August – although couldn’t resist the first bits of new kit while exploring Nomad travel shop in Bristol.

During my time at their end of a phoneline or e-mail from anxious travellers, the questions were generally split into two types.

The first was the details – where were they staying in a certain place, how much time was there in each destination, what was the food like (particularly from one traveller who did not like Chinese food and wanted to know if there were KFCs in Beijing), what facilities were like on the Trans-Siberian Railway and, most wonderfully, a girl who asked if people were voted off the bus like on Coach Trip.

The second were those imponderables that were largely based on concerns and we really had no way of answering – were they fit enough, what made up a standard day (very different in Europe to Mongolia or Australia) and, remarkably often, what were the other people like and would they get on with them.

And they remain the imponderables which, cannot lie, do spring into my head every so often.

But tackling the unknown, embracing it and turning it into an adventure is surely what a trip like this is all about. And the people have as big a part to play as the places we go and the things we see.

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The Angel and the Fool to Anti-Pioneer

“Used to be the one of the rotten ones, And I liked you for that
Now you’re all gone, got your make-up on, And you’re not coming back”
Anthem For A Seventeen Year Old Girl – Broken Social Scene

THERE is, as you walk to the northern side of the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara, a big sign pointing the way to Canada. Just in case you have trouble spotting the world’s second largest country.

Just in case you missed it
Just in case you missed it

Musically, it has often been a bit more difficult to spot Canada, dwarfed as they are by their neighbours across the 49th parallel.

There have always been the flag bearers – Neil Young springs to mind, while Arcade Fire have carried the flag with distinction in previous years – but they have had a lot to make up for (“The Canadian government has apologised for Bryan Adams on several occasions” runs the joke from the South Park movie. Oh Canada indeed).

And the less said about Celine Dion the better. Have never watched Titanic for fear of exposure to that bloody song.

But as befits such a large, varied and wonderful country, it has produced some, well, varied and wonderful music which, after the American takeover of the previous section of my iPod, annexed the closing stages of this prolonged leg with four of the final eight tracks.

Leading the way were the pretty much unclassifiable Godspeed You! Black Emperor, whose Antennas to Heaven weighs in just two seconds shy of 19 minutes, by some distance the longest track so far (just checked and it is the 16th longest in all with 11 of the top 20 coming from the Montreal oufit).

Inadequately described as ‘post-rock’ on their Wikipedia outfit, they are not a band you are likely to sit down to for a relaxing listen and, followed as they were by fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen (Anthem), it was a drive to work strangely out of sync with the glorious spring morning outside. An interesting one nevertheless.

This section ended with Anti-Pioneer by Feist, another Canadian, but tucked in between was the song which brought us in to this entry – Anthem For A Seventeen Year Old Girl by Broken Social Scene.

Hailing from Toronto, they labour under the moniker “musical collective” with an endlessly changing cast of characters (Feist among them at certain points), which normally suggests self-indulgent experimentalism that musicians aren’t willing to take a risk on under their own names.

But, while hard to pin down to any signature sound, Broken Social Scene have somehow managed to maintain enough coherence to make them a more than viable proposition, producing several top songs – none better than the hypnotic Anthem…

Sung from the perspective of an older woman to her 17-year-old self, it is simple, repetitive and keeps you waiting for it to launch full into something bigger. The fact it never does makes it all the better and by the time you realise it is just not going to happen, the relentless repetition has wriggled into your head and established it as a thing of beauty.

It is rare for me to remember a first hearing of a song – something other writers and bloggers seem able to recall at will – but Anthem… first popped up on the first aborted attempt to travel through my iPod.

More specifically, it came halfway through a walk to the pub to watch football and had to be instantly replayed, both to check what it was and because it had hooked into my brain.

Away from Canada – and there was also, old joke warning, Answering Bell from Ryan Adams, which is close but infinitely better – this leg has been dominated by Angels, Animals, Anthems and Another thing.

We came in with the angels, starting with The Angel and The Fool by Broken Bells and rattling through, among others, three versions of Echo and the Bunnymen’s Angels and Devils and Angels of Deception by The The, from Matt Johnson’s largely overlooked classic album Infected.

Amid the animals, we had Animal Nitrate by the weirdly overrated Suede (quite like this track, which was on Radcliffe and Maconie earlier, but don’t get the awe with which they are widely held) and a first outing from the far too overlooked Cadbury Sisters with Animals.

Stumbled across the three sisters (yes, they are siblings and, yes, they are part of the chocolate family) supporting Turin Brakes last year and was instantly smitten. Have seen them twice more since and it is great to see their close harmonies, perfect vocals blended to a sort of English Americana finally getting some airplay, although nowhere near what they deserve.

We’ve mentioned a few of the anthems, while starring role among the Another.. songs was Another Travelin’ Song by Bright Eyes.

Conor Oberst is one of those artists who has largely passed me by, but the more he crops up on my radar the more he impresses (even if he does seem to possess a Ryan Adamseseque need to release everything he does without that much quality control) and back-to-back versions of that track saw it being sung much of the day in the office.

Along the way, we have passed 350 (Another Invented Disease by Manic Street Preachers – another band which perplexes me as much as anything else) and Anonymous Club, a first entry for my current musical obsession away from this blog, Courtney Barnett.

But we’ve got a long way to go, so we’ll come back to both of them.

 

 

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America to Angel

Hey Chel you know it’s kinda funny, Texas always seems so big
But you know you’re in the largest state in the Union
When you’re anchored down in Anchorage
Anchorage – Michelle Shocked

MICHELLE Shocked’s retelling of a letter received from a friend at the heart of ‘the largest state of the union’ is one of those lovely musical rediscoveries which pops up from time to time.

It earned a place in my collection and regular rotation back in the days of tapes and Walkmen, only to vanish as, briefly, vinyl and then the shimmering new invention of CDs took over.

AnchorageBut Anchorage resurfaced to provide the most obvious of titles for a post on my London to New York blog four years ago and wormed its way onto a number of playlists which have helped it into the top 20 of the most played tracks in my iTunes collection (currently ensconced at number 17 which, must admit, came as a bit of a surprise).

And boy did she – or, to be more accurate, her letter-writing friend – get it right. Alaska is big. Over the course of a little more than two weeks, we clocked up mile after mile (more than a thousand at one point without hitting a single traffic light) into the heart of the 50th state and a brief detour over the border into Canada and it is huge. And stunningly beautiful.

Chilkoot Lake, Haines, Alaska
Chilkoot Lake, Haines, Alaska

Locals will proudly tell you that you can cut Alaska in half and it would still be the two biggest states (“Pissing off Texans for 50 years” was a popular slogan as they celebrated half a century as part of the union) and such were the natural wonders on display around every corner, you can (almost) forgive them for giving the world Sarah Palin.

Anchorage itself is functional. Surrounded by some magnificent countryside (but that’s pretty much a given up in that part of the world), the state’s largest city is designed to withstand the harsh winters and supply those working all around it.

It also contains one of the most remarkable bars, Chilkoot Charlies. Not too much to look at from outside or even when you first go in, it unravels itself as you head through the various different parts as the night wears on – as it seems to do endlessly under the midnight sun.

There was lots of people, there was a band playing for hours on end, there was a bloke selling pizzas in the middle of the bar at 2am and there was a bloke from Philadelphia in the beer garden who was distinctly hostile until we got into a prolonged, passionate debate about baseball. Beyond that, it was all a bit hazy.

But it left an impression, as did much of Alaska and large chunks of America as a whole – which is where this section of the iPod journey came in.

Three very different songs simply titled America kicked things off – by Howler, Laura Veirs and Simon and Garfunkel’s finest moment, which is saying something, and provider of another blog post title on that trip from sea to shining sea.

To say nothing of America Snoring by Grant Lee Buffalo (lead singer Grant-Lee Phillips used to pop up as the town troubadour in The Gilmore Girls, fact fans), American English by Idlewild, American Idiot by Green Day, American Music by The Blasters and two versions of American Slang by The Gaslight Anthem (although apparently with the same vocal delivery on the acoustic version as on the fully plugged original).

That’s all somehow apt as travelling in America and music go hand in hand. There’s something about the wide open spaces which has infused so much of the sound produced there and a string of road trips to – to date – 39 of the 50 States have always involved plenty of live music.

And any road trip has to have a soundtrack to help eat up mile after mile.

Americana has become the hip phrase for some of that music – “Country music for people who like The Smiths” according to Billy Bragg – and it is a style that is increasing across my collection, none more so than that produced by Ryan Adams, who popped up again with Amy, one of the centrepieces from his classic break-up debut album Heartbreaker.

Throw in …And Carrot Rope by Pavement and this chunk of songs was dominated by our friends over the pond.

To go with all this Americanisation, this side of the Atlantic responded in this group of tracks with three versions of the quintessentially English Anarchy in the UK from the Sex Pistols.

And it rounded off in Bristol with Massive Attack’s Angel, but only after two tracks from Boston, Massachusetts with the same title from Belly and the Drop Nineteens, gazing through their fringes at their shoes in a run through of the early Madonna track.

Along the way, we have gone past the 300 mark – all 30 seconds of And You Will Know Them… by …Trail of Dead – reached 11,000 to go and got halfway through the As.

And we thought Alaska was big.

 

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All Together Now to Amen

WHILE this blog was making the journey from one of The Beatles’ perkier (and more forgettable) little numbers to Leonard Cohen being less than perky, the music media has been dominated by two topics.

One, the reassuringly well received Record Store Day, has been worth marking. The other, the saturation coverage of Britpop’s 20th anniversary, was less deserving of such attention.

Record stores have proved landmarks for the way my life has progressed and both their and my fortunes have ebbed and flowed.

Growing up, the compact, bijou HMV was the place to head in Gloucester (Our Price on The Cross was a good place to meet outside, but carried early signs of the soulless, sanitised, sleek – and struggling – hangars which chain record stores became) and perhaps explains why music somehow still fits better with a darkened room.

The surly blokes behind the counter (always blokes) seemed to be the height of cool and a Saturday job amid the narrow aisles (both of them) and enticing record racks was the dream – certainly more than wearing brown flares and weighing fruit and veg at Sainsbury’s.

As the years rolled by, Badlands in Cheltenham became my lunchtime refuge from work and my first lunch hour after moving to Cardiff saw the start of a regular trip to the wonderful old Spillers shop. Those trips had to be rationed due to a complete inability to go in there without spending money.

Spillers, in new premises, remains among the first places to go on trips back to Cardiff but, sadly, trips to record stores are far more infrequent as digital has taken over (but their regular e-mails are always welcome in my inbox).

While Record Store Day brings back good memories, Britpop stirs less welcome memories.

It had its moments – Elastica’s All-Nighter was the 95th and, thanks to that hyphen, last of the songs beginning with All – but, as with so many ‘movements’, large chunks of it were pretty rubbish.

BBC Two had to resort to big guns Pulp, Oasis and Blur twice each to fill their Britpop at the Beeb, while not even sure the members of Powder would have remembered their contribution.

And was it ever more than just a handy marketing ploy?

Pulp were veterans of more than a decade plugging away without much success, while can you really drop the likes of Echobelly and the oft-overlooked Auteurs into any shared pigeonhole, other than being British? Not sure The Auteurs (sadly their album New Wave was left in the cassette player of a courtesy car) can even be classified as pop.

Nor can large chunks of Radiohead, often dropped in to the mix purely by dint of The Bends appearing around the same time, really be compared to Sleeper, The Longpigs (one of the better ones) or any number of long (and best) forgotten acts?

As for the big rivals which took the scene into the headlines, even Oasis and Blur didn’t have too much to lump them together into the bracket which holds them in permanent proximity.

Blur have had their moments, reinvented themselves often enough to remain interesting and will pop up from time to time throughout this journey, but the popularity of Oasis has always remained a mystery.

Well, not always. The swagger of Definitely Maybe did briefly put them well up in my affections. But, sadly, that initial swagger has morphed into the laddish pub singalong boorishness which has trademarked so much of their career. And have you ever bothered to look at some of their lyrics?

Somehow, that didn’t stop me agreeing to go to see them at the Millennium Stadium the week before Christmas. The Foo Fighters made the whole experience worthwhile, but Oasis did little to change my mind – although my presence was not as mystifying as the fact somebody thought a stadium gig in Cardiff, in December, was a good idea. It was too cold to hold a pint and several pizzas were bought, not to eat but to warm our hands.

Still, better than Ocean Colour Scene. Or Toploader. Soundtrack to Dante’s third circle of hell. Or an edition of The Naked Chef.

If Britpop is thin on the ground, there is plenty of guitars of the jingly jangly variety from the 1980s, which is where The Weather Prophets pop up in this list with Almost Prayed.

There’s been a few doubles in this section and a couple of bits of potential sacrilege – prefer Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ version of All Tomorrow’s Parties to the Velvet Underground’s original and, most definitely, would opt for Echo and the Bunnymen’s All You Need Is Love to four (yes, four) from The Beatles. That was a tough drive to work.

Which is the best version of the Woody Guthrie-scripted All You Fascists Bound To Lose is tougher. Billy Bragg with Wilco or Billy Bragg with The Blokes?

From the seemingly endless list of All songs and even more endless run of Beatles, we have now careered past 250 (Almost Love – Nada Surf) and are just a few tracks away from dipping below the 11,000 to go mark.

That is until a batch of new releases are added to the list tomorrow. D’oh.

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Boston Strong

“This is our f–king city! And nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”
David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox

IT is not, in the words of David Ortiz ahead of the Red Sox’s first match at Fenway Park following the bombing at the end of the marathon a year ago today, my f–cking city.

But Boston has, over the past few years, become something of an adopted second home on the other side of the Atlantic.

It was the first port of call on a maiden trip to the US – mainly because my travelling companion hailed from near Boston, Lincolnshire and was keen to see the city which carries its name – and one which instantly won our hearts.

It is a city comfortable with its place in society and history (a lengthy one by American standards) and is unusual among major US cities in that it is best explored on foot, with plenty of places to stop and break the journey with a swift – or not so swift – drink.

And, of course, it has the Red Sox, who are responsible for far too many late nights following their contrasting fortunes from afar.

We will explore Boston and my love affair with the Red Sox in future posts, but to mark this sobering anniversary, here’s an article written for the Gloucester Citizen the day after the bombing.

The shock of that evening remains, but it is matched by the delight and even pride at discovering how the city has recovered on my last visit just a few months later.

And the Red Sox winning the world series didn’t hurt.

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