A few years ago I had a book published. It is called “Gullible’s Travels” and is a collection of essays based on my globetrotting experiences. All the stories are true, though many are unbelievable.
It has no claim to literary merit, but was intended to be the sort of book you buy on impulse at the airport to while away a couple of hours on a plane.
It was a strategic error, therefore, to use a publisher whose titles are banned from all W.H. Smith’s bookshops, as Smith’s have a monopoly at airports.
Nothing daunted, I am working on a second collection, which I have called “Getting Away With It”. Our present predicament means I have time to devote to this project. Like most writers – and all journalists – I’ll do anything to avoid work, even work that comes with a deadline. Now I have no excuses.
But, being a cunning sort of chap, I thought I would kill two birds with one stone by giving you a preview of this magnum opus – or, rather, parva opus. Thus, the burden of “Now and Then” is eased slightly, though I am keen to keep up an increased output in these uncertain times.
For one thing, it takes my mind off the terrible symptoms I experience on waking each morning.
Is it the same with you? The conviction that the medical roof has fallen in, so to speak? That the cough is terminal, the aches and pains are symptoms of imminent demise? That the Grim Reaper is poised at the foot of the bed, if only you dared to look in that direction?
Fortunately, once I get upright, gravity takes over and the iota of commonsense stored in the top of my brain drops into place. Though I may wobble about like a constipated walrus for five minutes or so, I know that a cup of tea and a couple of McVitie’s Digestives will banish all the symptoms. Which they do.
But enough of that. Let me explain, as I do in the preface to my book, how “Getting Away With It” came to be my chosen title.
When you are paid a sizeable salary, plus expenses, to visit the world’s most tempting holiday locations, merely in order to broadcast your opinion and advice about them in print, and on radio and television, it is not surprising that those not similarly employed look upon you with envy.
And when, as was my fate, you appear in people’s sitting rooms in the dreariest weeks of winter, smiling and suntanned, beside a luxury hotel’s swimming pool, or brandishing an exotic cocktail as you comment on the beauty of some palm-fringed beach, that envy is multiplied.
It is quite useless, of course, to explain that working trips are not holidays, and that you must put in very long hours to keep your employers happy. That travel articles don’t write themselves, that travel films have to be edited and commentaries constructed cunningly to provide a smooth blend of words and pictures.
Indeed, the harder you work at it, the easier it appears – one of the many contradictions that the trade of travel writing throws up.
So, after wasting your breath trying to explain and justify your existence, to demonstrate that the workload is as great, if not greater, than any other career demands, you decide not to bother, and just go along with the fiction.
Go along with the “Life’s just one long holiday for you, mate” comments, the “Why don’t you get a proper job?” taunts. Keep calm and carry on, as the wartime slogan advised.
As long as you work hard and are at the top of your game, you can afford to play along with the fiction.
Which brings me to the title of this tome, and the reason I chose it.
For many years, when employed on Thames Television’s “Wish You Were Here…?”, I frequently had a pleasant chap named Paul Fabricius as my director on location. He worked hard, and was as keen as the rest of the crew to make a good job of whatever assignment came our way.
But, at the end of those strenuous trips, he performed a little ritual which summed up his – and our – attitude to the public’s perception of us and our work ethic.
On the final evening, with the wrap called and the gear stowed away for the journey home the following day, we would gather for dinner and Paul would propose his special toast: “Here’s to getting away with it again.”
We responded with a cheer and drained our glasses, knowing that damned hard work had enabled us to “get away with it”.
The joke, we knew, was on those who thought otherwise.
So, now you know why I chose that title for my next collection. I am now setting down those stories, and feel I have got some first class material to work with. Whether I can do it justice is still to be decided.
Most of the essays will run to 2,000-2,500 words. But I am also including shorter pieces as a sort of literary amuse-bouche to clear the mental palate before the next, larger, portion.
Here’s one of them:
Back in the days of the Cold War, my travels took me fairly frequently to Eastern Europe, whose governments were keen to promote their tourism industries, as they were the source of desperately needed hard currency.
They had plenty to show us travel hacks, though they instinctively believed we were “Capitalist Running Dogs”, or whatever the phrase of the moment happened to be. When countries are ruled the way theirs were, the concept of a free press is the first to go by the board, so to put it mildly, they were suspicious of us.
Or, not to put it mildly, they were paranoid. To be fair, the feeling was mutual. And, to be even fairer, they did have some grounds for concern.
Some of us London-based travel hacks had, very unofficially, been invited to engage in casual conversations with “friends of friends”, who worked for the British Government. One could never quite pin down which bit of the Government, and one was discouraged from asking.
Simply, and extremely pleasantly, these chaps were suggesting that, when we were on our “little trips” to the other side of the Iron Curtain, we should keep our eyes and ears open for anything that might be of interest to them. Not details of new hotels or tourist developments and suchlike, or descriptions of beach resorts and other destinations. All that stuff would be in our articles. They were interested in the stuff that wouldn’t be.
So we went on our “little trips”, and we kept our eyes and ears open, but I doubt if the information we gleaned was of any value. Still, it added a little spice to our travelling lives.
Assignments took me frequently to Bulgaria. It was a destination I approached with some caution, as fellow journalists had, on previous visits, tangled with the authorities and come off worse.
I was urged by those “friends of friends” to be cautious and do nothing which might upset my hosts. I followed their advice – in spades.
On one occasion, I flew into Sofia on a Balkan Airways charter flight. Nothing out of the ordinary occurred until the plane landed and came to a standstill a little short of the airport building.
Then an announcement was made to the effect that we should hand over our passports to the flight attendants who would pass through the cabin to collect them.
This was unusual, and caused a little concern among the passengers. It caused me a lot of concern, as I was aware of my dodgy status in the eyes of my hosts.
As the passports were being collected, a set of steps was wheeled up to the aircraft door. As soon as it opened, the passports were handed over and taken away by a uniformed official.
Then we waited. About ten minutes later two rifle-toting soldiers appeared at the front of the aircraft. One of them was holding a passport.
Then an announcement was made asking that passenger Carter (pronounced “Kair-Tair”) should make himself known to the cabin crew.
I raised my hand. One of the soldiers came down the aisle towards me, indicating that I should leave my seat and go with him. He was not smiling. Nor was his chum. Nor was I.
I left the plane, with every passenger watching my departure in silence.
Down the steps we went. Then the soldiers fell in on either side of me and marched me towards one of the airport buildings. We did not go inside but swerved to the left and made our way to the back of the building. Out of sight of the aircraft, I noted with some concern.
There, in a long line, were the suitcases from the aircraft’s hold. A man in a black suit with a trilby hat jammed firmly on his head, indicated that I should identify mine.
I did so, stepping forward to pick it up. The man in the hat gestured me back and ordered one of the soldiers to bring the bag, as we all walked into the building. There, a pair of grim-faced Customs officials waited. Could it be that I had arrived in Bulgaria on National No-Smiling Day?
All sorts of other thoughts raced through my mind. Had they planted something in my suitcase that would enable them to lock me up for a couple of years? Was I, with or without suitcase, going to be taken for a ride to some secluded spot where the body would never be found?
Was I, perhaps, going to be arrested in order to be exchanged for some Bulgarian spy who’d been nabbed by our lot and was languishing in Wandsworth or Wormwood Scrubs? Or Holloway, if he happened to be a she?
As I was pondering my next move (angry defiance, or grovelling apology?), one of the Customs chaps stepped forward. His right hand came out from behind his back. He was holding a large lump of chalk. He brought it down on my case, scrawled a symbol on it, then stepped back.
The man in the trilby beamed with delight. As did the Customs chaps. And the soldiers.
“Welcome to Bulgaria, Mr. Kair-Tair”, said Mr. Trilby, shaking my hand vigorously.
I had just been given a V.I.P. welcome – Bulgarian style.