The BBC ought to provide trigger warnings for some of its lockdown scheduling. First up was Michael Palin's Travels of a Lifetime
, four hour-long programmes in which the loveable Python revisited his TV travels and fans reflected 'on his achievement'.
They were all compellingly depressing. Compelling because Palin is a gifted broadcaster, depressing because it made me realise how much I miss globetrotting. Remarkably, Palin didn't seriously start travelling until he was a few years older than I am now, though he is arguably more than made up for lost time.
On Sunday night, Simon Reeve joined Palin in filling an hour in the weekend schedule by revisiting his own travels in another four-parter called Incredible Journeys
. Again, I enjoyed the self-indulgence of this travel porn, but it left me wondering when I might enjoy the real thing. The answer, obviously, is not any time soon.
As I recounted during lockdown 1.0, last year was a bonfire of hotel reservations, bargain flights and long-anticipated train journeys. In the last few weeks, I've been refunded deposits for trips to Afghanistan and Eritrea. The travel company responsible quixotically maintained until the last minute that they could still go ahead as planned. I didn't let myself believe this for a minute.
Even had I arranged the visas by post and boarded the necessary flights, the anticipation of something going horribly wrong – which has never left me despite two decades of extensive travel – would have been too much. No longer just the prospect of cancelled flights and difficult passport control, but airport Covid tests and drastically reduced itineraries to boot. Much of the joy and spontaneity I associate with travel would be gone.
I'm a member of a Facebook group called 'Every Passport Stamp', for 'serious travelers chasing every country in the world' (it's US-based, thus the single 'l' in traveller). This used to be me – I'd reached 150 (20 more than Simon Reeve!) and judging from this group there's still a hardened band of country baggers doing their thing. Part of me admires their tenacity, another part doubts they're having a very good time.
Facebook also reminded me of my travels exactly four years ago, which began with a memorable inauguration in Washington DC. After writing up my impressions of Trump's 'American carnage' peroration for a couple of newspapers (I was still a journalist then), I flew to San Francisco for a night, onto Hawaii for a weekend, then New Zealand and Australia for a couple of weeks, East Timor and finally home via Singapore.
This was audacious enough at the time but would be impossible now. Travelling used to anchor my year, even once I'd quit freelance journalism, tactical use was made of bank holidays and flexi-time, which meant I could always escape for a couple of weeks over Christmas and New Year. Christmas 2019 was spent scaling an active volcano in the DRC, the memory of which cast a pall over Christmas 2020.
Now unutilised bank holidays pain me. I'm currently accruing annual leave in the hope I'll be able to do something – anything – in the middle of this year, but daily that aspiration if pulverised. I make no comment on the (UK) government's toughening of border and on-arrival restrictions, but it just drives home the obvious reality that even in the midst of a vaccination programme, travelling won't be getting 'back to normal' any time soon, whatever 'normal' might mean.
Interviewed by Michael Portillo (another traveller) on Times Radio, Simon Reeve articulated my fears: even once vaccinated, it seems unlikely we'll be able to head anywhere off the beaten (i.e. Western) track any time soon. Spring will give way to summer, summer to autumn and, before I know it, it'll be January 2022 and I'll still be hoping to get away 'at some point' in the course of that year.
I miss both the travelling itself and the planning. A planner by nature – some might say too much so – I used to love the discipline of plotting out a trip of whatever length, finding a cheap flight, an interesting Airbnb and then mapping out sights – architectural/ cultural/ gastronomic – I wanted to take in while in situ.
Earlier this week, I tried some speculative planning involving a return trip to Detroit (a city I find compelling), Toronto and then various Amtraks and Greyhounds through the towns and cities of upstate New York – Rochester, Syracuse, Ithaca – en route to see friends who recently relocated from Brooklyn to a farm near Poughkeepsie. I didn't get very far, and when I saw that President Biden had stipulated a negative test result as a condition of entry for UK nationals, I watched some television instead.
I long to explore obscure museums, check out unusual subway stations, zone out on long train journeys, tour an overseas parliament, photograph some crumbling Art Deco relic or hop between islands, cities or countries. It's very nice to go travelling, to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, to Paris, London and Rome, but not so nice to never leave home.
David Torrance is
an author and contemporary historian