Vicarious travel books and lockdown “can’t”s | Jack Marshall's column

Lockdown has been a drawn-out period of “can’t”s.
British Airways plane (photo credit Tolga Akmen via Getty Images)British Airways plane (photo credit Tolga Akmen via Getty Images)
British Airways plane (photo credit Tolga Akmen via Getty Images)

First you can’t leave the house. Then you can, but you can’t get closer than 2m from people in the shops. Where, by the way, you can’t buy toilet roll or fusilli because of panic-buyers. You can’t believe the size of the numbers reported on the news and you can’t help but feel the government has handled things poorly.

Travel was, innately, a big “can’t”. Obviously. Airplanes are famed for being madcap sardine cans full of peanuts, germs, and body odour at the best of times, let alone now, when the sheer thought of merely catching another passenger’s gaze from your recently-sanitised seat would be enough to make you reach for the Dettol and crucifix.

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But people like travelling. Be it to good, old-fashioned rainy English beaches for a miserable yet spirit-hardening August day or to Rio for a jaunt in the Copacabana sun and a blurry dalliance with the sights and sounds of Carnival; to the Peak District for a slice of Bakewell Tart on the banks of some trickling river in a hidden gorge or to a sizzling roadside street-vendor for some fried crickets in Southeast Asia. To each their own. Point is, travel is innately cool.

So, during lockdown, the only way to scratch that travel itch has been vicariously through travel writing. As a long-term Bill Bryson fan, this was a familiar genre, but given many people have reported a frustrating inability to concentrate on things such as fiction (sorry Tolstoy, War and Peace will have to wait for a slightly less existential pandemic), the endless potential and lightly bouncy nature of travel books has served as a welcome replacement.

Reading of Anne Mustoe’s spirit and strength in ‘A Bike Ride: 12,000 Miles Around the World’ was stunning. She did the trip on her own. Through places as massive and as culturally kaleidoscopic as France, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Thailand, and the US. In the ‘80s. What an incredible woman.

Next up was an homage to Texas by the Lone Star State-native Lawrence Wright called ‘God Save Texas’. Texas is a fascinating place full of contradictions: is it inherently Mexican or American, Republican or Democratic, cool and bohemian or ruthlessly capitalist? The answer is ‘yes’. Moving east to the Appalachian Trail, Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods’ was next, and I’ve never wanted to trade in my job for a pair of hiking boots and bear mace more.

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There’s an escapism in travel writing which is warm and cosy at the best of times, but during a house arrest-imposing pandemic, it’s a form of meditation. And while nothing - NOTHING - could replicate my now-cancelled trip to Tenby in West Wales, maybe reading about somewhere else will do.