A letter to Clare

Travel Talk

Clare Dudley I first knew Clare Dudley a couple of decades ago, when she worked for a Cambridge-based tour operator, and organised an annual ‘travel fair’ in, of all places, the main grandstand at Newmarket racecourse. It was she who sent me to France on what proved to be the most nerve-wracking trip of my career (which I described in this space a while back). But I forgave her, and we remain good friends. She decided to plough her own furrow, establishing Ponders Travel a little over ten years ago. This letter is, I hope, self-explanatory.

Dear Clare,

I last wrote to you on 9th May, in reply to your email.

At that early stage of the Coronavirus crisis, your main concern was that the party planned to celebrate the 10th anniversary of your travel agency the following month would have to be postponed.  

I can’t believe over a decade has passed since you started out, clearing the kitchen table to make room for your paperwork, your ambitions and your dreams. 

Nonetheless, back in May, there you were, with a staff of ten, an established travel agency, and a much-deserved and growing reputation in your community. Selling ‘dreams in a package’ and inspiring youngsters to follow in your footsteps. (Massive congratulations to young Millie, by the way – manager at just 21, and a credit to your mentoring.)

Back then, none of us had any idea what the summer of 2020 had in store. All we could do was remember how the travel trade had dealt with previous setbacks, and hope it would survive.

In your letter you recalled 9-11, the Icelandic Ash Cloud, the Gulf War. My lifetime of globetrotting has provided me with memories of earlier crises, too.

There was that long period in the 1960s when the UK travel trade was an unregulated free-for-all, with no rules to govern its conduct, no consumer protection, massive industry failures, cut-throat competition, and wall-to-wall insecurity. 

You could virtually guarantee the summertime failure of at least one tour firm, leaving holidaymakers stranded abroad, or in tears at the airport. 

I also have memories of a time when Government rules kept the price of holidays artificially high to protect the scheduled airlines. A time when charter flights were non-existent. 

And the particularly bad time when we were allowed to spend no more than £50 worth of ‘foreign exchange’ a year. I bet I’m not the only one who has an old Passport with the ‘V form’ details in it. 

But, as I told you in May, the travel industry survived all that, and thrived. I was, and am, confident it will survive this crisis, too.

The reason for this letter, of course, is that you have written again to bring me up to date on how you are faring.  

Some 80% of your clients have re-scheduled their holidays, which is tremendous news. You’ve obtained refunds for 70% of those who sought them, and are successfully chasing up the rest. Again, good news.

I’m also tremendously pleased to read that tour companies, hotels, car hire companies, cruise lines, and others, are offering discounts for the ‘Heroes of the Pandemic’ –  health workers, delivery drivers, supermarket staff, and so forth.    

And journalists! I have no idea how we come to be on the list, but thanks, anyway.

As I write, and if news reports are to be believed, work on a vaccine is proceeding with unprecedented speed. There’s a chance of one being available, worldwide, by the end of the year. Certainly in the early weeks of 2021.

The NHS did not collapse under the strain. On the contrary, most of those ‘Nightingale’ hospitals were barely used, and it is surely common sense that they should now be adapted to treat patients with other serious problems – patients whose needs have been neglected, and whose conditions are far more life-threatening than Coronavirus – or Covid-19 as we now call it.

The supermarkets and corner shops managed to keep us supplied with food and other essentials. We learned the etiquette of ‘social distancing’ and when to wear a mask (selling the idea of doing so to ‘protect others rather than yourself’ was a clever touch).

And it is truly heartening to know that retail sales are now above their pre-Covid-19 levels and showing every sign of increasing. 

However, the idiots who bought up all the toilet rolls (remember them?) are still around. They flocked to the seaside during one of the hottest spells on record, sprawling, cheek by jowl, on crowded, blistering beaches.   

Presumably they believed that their miraculous immunity to Covid-19 would keep them safe from skin cancer, too.

I remain optimistic as far as the long-term future is concerned, but am nowadays more concerned about incompetence than anything else.

The incompetence of those who failed to prepare for the pandemic, when they knew there would be a shortage of ventilators and protective equipment, is well documented.   

However, there is currently the incompetence of those who keep changing the rules about travelling abroad, and other aspects of our new normality.

“Order, followed by counter-order, leads to disorder”. That mantra was drummed into me a lifetime ago when I wore a uniform and did as I was told. I remember it vividly, just as I remember the cartoon which hung on the wall behind my desk. It showed a squad of men, marching towards a cliff edge, because their drill sergeant is distracted by a pretty girl.   

One of the men is yelling: “For Gawd’s sake, Sarge, say something – even if it’s only goodbye”.

That’s my feeling right now, as I contemplate the dodging and dithering in Whitehall and Westminster. Echoing that cartoon bubble, I keep thinking to myself: “For Gawd’s sake, Boris, get a grip!”

But it will be a tough job to get a grip on a bloated bureaucracy that too often hires in expensive consultants to tell it what to do, then appoints Quangos to do it and take the blame when it goes wrong. A bureaucracy that spends much of its energy fighting turf wars, and wastes millions of pounds.

But I mustn’t get sidetracked, or this could turn into a serious rant, and I don’t do serious ranting. It’s bad for the blood pressure.

So, thanks again for letting me know you are still serving your community and still finding ways of keeping their travel hopes alive.

And thanks, too, for that quotation from Ibn Battuta.

Though I read about him ages ago, I knew little about the man.   But he was in my pantheon of travel writers, along with Aymeric Picaud, Marco Polo, Thomas Coryate and that wonderful tribe of Victorian and Edwardian ladies who travelled to the farthest corners of the Empire, and wrote about their experiences.

Your mention of him rekindled my curiosity, so I took the trouble to delve into his history. It was well worth the delve.  

Among other things, I discovered Ibn Battuta had the habit of getting married whenever he paused in the course of journeys which took years to complete. As soon as he was ready to set off again, however, he divorced his temporary wife (which, for a Muslim, was a simple process in those days), so he would be free to take another.

According to the records, he was ‘married’ at least ten times. I’m prepared to bet he got spliced more often than that, however. Was he trying to set an example to all of us chaps who travel the world? Probably not. 

But you are absolutely right to quote what he wrote: 

“Travelling leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”

A sentiment that’s as true now as it was in the 14th century. 

With all good wishes,

John x

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John Carter

Long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and BBC holiday programmes

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