The written word is a splendid thing. It sits upon a page, decorating the paper in permanent ink, or it graces the screen, released from the confines of the keyboard, strung into prose by the creative, inquisitive, thoughtful mind.
I have long wished to write, professionally, personally, for payment or for pleasure. Writing is that most cherished of arts. An ability to share ideas and to connect with people far and beyond, in different towns and cities, cultures and countries. To have your thoughts impress, challenge, influence, please, entertain and create an emotional response from your readers.
But for one reason and another, I never had the time or the inclination to dedicate myself to writing. A career spent working 70 hours a week in the railway, the tiredness of the daily commute to London and back, travelling on business to Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow….Holyhead (er, yes. Holyhead. The Isle of Anglesey, North Wales. Next stop Dublin, Ireland. Great place to visit, but my word it is a long way there and back.) Then an extended period abroad, around 6 years of travel and teaching in South East Asia. A period in my life where I taught English, shared our beautiful language and helped others learn and discover its delights, as well as trying to demystify its complexities (still trying….it is a fiendishly complex language). But I taught English. I didn’t write it. However, what long periods spent travelling vast distances by train and bus and boat gives you is time to fill. Which other than looking out on majestic landscapes, passing people you would never meet and remarking on how different their life must be, you often spent a lot of time reading.
I travelled extensively from 1996 to 1998, before settling in Indonesia to teach English. In that 2 year period I travelled from Hong Kong to Athens overland, via China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Greece. I then travelled around India. Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Australia and Singapore.
This was the pre Kindle era. In fact the pre Internet period. Only in the latter part of the century was the internet developing as a key and implicit tool in every aspect of our lives. But back then, 20, 22 years ago, travel was a blissfully disconnected experience. No Instagramming your favourite temple and uploading it to your 3 million followers, no Facebook albums of every meal you ate for the last month. Even a phone call had to be done from an IDD phone booth, none of this Skype or WhatsApp video calling. The future had yet to arrive.
So to travel unencumbered by technology and by instant connection to the world ‘back home’, was incredibly liberating. Time was present and you had to fill it. Not by endless, mindless scrolling through Twitter feeds and Instagram stories. I say unencumbered, but before the iPod or MP3 player, I would be loaded with cheap cassettes bought in markets in Quetta or Xi’an or Antalya. And that brings me to books.
Books were the mainstay of travelling. I devoured as many books as possible. I sought out backpacker second hand book shops, or exchanged them with fellow travellers. I read and read and read. Sure, my backpack was a weighty affair, loaded with 5 or 6 books. Not the Kindle of today with hundreds of titles stored on it. I would have loved to have travelled with a Kindle. But I don’t think I would have seen any of the countries I was travelling through. Books were there to pass the time that was not fulfilled with the pleasures of travel. The joy of discovering a new city, of getting lost in labyrinthine back streets, finding a cafe populated by friendly , welcoming locals with whom you shared no common language (today, just ask google to translate…where is the fun in that?). When night fell on a long train journey, books were there to pass the time. And what a joy they were to have. Travel can be immensely boring. Sorry to disappoint you. But it can. Try travelling for 60 hours from Xian in central China to Urumqi in the far north west of China. 60 hours. One train, through the featureless Gobi desert. You see one impressive set of dunes, you have seen them all. And how many games of ‘Shithead’ can you play in 60 hours? (Actually my great friend and travel partner Simon and I played marathon sessions of shithead – it is a popular card among backpackers. Well it used to be. I expect everyone it too busy on their phones now.)
Every travelogue written or documentary made will inevitably distill the journey to its salient and most interesting parts. The incidents, good and bad, the highlights, the sights, the most memorable and interesting people and conversations. But they rarely emphasize the tedium of long, hot (or cold), seemingly endless, interminable journeys through landscapes that do not scintillate, enrapture, enthrall or amaze. And I am 100% confident that the authors and documentary makers fill these voids with reading.
I have digressed a touch. My travels were enriching and enlightening. But without an array of reading material, it would have felt far more uninspiring, much more of a hardship. And travel should wherever possible, be something that gives pleasure and experience to remember and share. There are a few hardy souls who deliberately set out to experience travel in the raw. I met someone who was travelling overland from the UK to India and had £1,000 for everything. Every meal, every bus ticket, every hotel. He was dishevelled, looked like he had been dragged through a hedge backwards and looked as if he hadn’t eaten a decent meal for weeks. Indeed, you can travel very cheaply and £1,000 can get you a hell of a long way in places like Turkey and Iran and Pakistan. But I asked if he was enjoying his trip – sans comfort. Oh yes, it’s great! It takes all sorts. I experienced discomfort on many occasions. I endured long, uncomfortable journeys on overcrowded, overheating trains. I endured, but ejoyed the retelling later. A little discomfort is inevitable and should be embraced from time to time. But not every single day, every single trip, every single meal, or rough, flea-bitten hostel. Yet he loved the discomfort, the rawness of the experience, the up close and personal, being one with the people he met, from the poorest villager and farmer to the middle class civil servant on a train. He was devoid of possessions, carried only a few clothes in a beaten up rucksack. But he read. He carried books and they helped carry him on his journey.
Since returning to the UK in 2002 my life has been one of immense challenge and difficulties. Our children were born 16 weeks prematurely. We had triplets, one of whom, Jewel, passed away after 17 days. Our other daughters Milla and Louisa were in hospital for 6 months. Milla had severe cerebral palsy and passed away in December 2016 aged 10. Louisa is doing really well and is now 12. She has sight problems caused by her premature birth; partially sighted in her right eye and blind in her left.
The stress and exhaustion of caring for our daughters put pay to any aspirations I had to write. It also severely limited my reading opportunities. Our evenings were constantly devoted to caring for Louisa and Milla, our days spent working and trying to function through a fug of tiredness. The moment I picked up a book to read, my eyes would glaze over and my eyelids became immediately heavy. I would be asleep in seconds.
But today I am able to give more time to writing. I am two thirds of my way through completing a novel. I have written an extensive range of poetry which can be seen on my other website or on instagram (@ajfrobisherpoetry) . Later this year two of my poems will be published in an anthology of poetry.
Writing is cathartic, an escape, a release and a way of expressing myself. I value the opportunity I have to write. But without the hundreds of books I have read, I would not be sitting writing this blog, my poetry or my novel. I have met people who proudly proclaim, ‘Books, nah, I have never read a book’. As if that is some sort of badge of honour, a decoration of the illiterati, something to trumpet and smile about. So much time is invested into our education, a free education at that. To have been given that chance to learn to read and then throw it away dismissively smacks of extreme arrogance and laziness. To read is to discover. My daughter Louisa has struggled to read. Her level of sight impairment is so pronounced that it has been detrimental to a ‘normal’ education. However, after years of patient dedicated assistance at her special need primary and secondary schools, last year at the age of 11, she made a huge step and began to recognise words. Then sentences, and eventually able to read paragraphs. It was incredible to witness and something we feared may not happen.
To read is to discover, no matter that it has taken years to reach this point. She is now discovering and able to do so herself. Not idly dismissing books as something uninteresting and unimportant.
So now I pride myself on being able to write, but also to have access to so many amazing authors and writers. To be able to consider opinions and ideas and to formulate my own in response, or separate to them. To be able to read a book and allow it to influence my thought process or not. To help me consider the words I choose to write and the purpose of them. The importance of what I wish to say. The relevance to those who may choose to read them.
I now take pleasure from dipping into poetry books and savouring the sentences and poems crafted so intricately. To read and learn of Japanese philosophy, to understand the ideas of silence and mindfulness, to consider and challenge my own problems with anxiety, to escape into fiction.
To read is to discover, but to read is also to write. And long may it continue to be.
As Morrissey once said,
“There’s more to life than books you know, but not much more.”