A few years back, I visited the Indian town of Orchha. It has an amazing fort and temple, beautiful countryside; there are huge tombs where vultures fly at dusk. Despite this, Orchha is overshadowed by the nearby town of Kajuraho, famous for its erotic temple friezes. There were still hotels, restaurants and gift-shops in Orchha it was a much more relaxed place than Khajuarho.
I ate a couple of times in Orchha’s Blue Planet restaurant. It was originally called El Bulli until forced to change by representatives from Ferran Adrià’s restaurant. I learned it was now fending off action from another Blue Planet in Khajuraho
Not that it mattered, because the restaurant was due to be torn down. The local authorities were redeveloping the town, making formal gardens for the temples, aiming to bring in more tourists. And I knew that when I next came to this place next it would be different. This sleepy town would be more intense and more expensive.
I can’t help feel conflicted. I’d like to know this quiet town was waiting for me to return, even though I imagine a lot of people will be pleased to have more tourist money coming in. Besides, I would not have gone to Orchha myself if I hadn’t known there were places to stay.
Time after time, I arrive in a town that the Lonely Planet tells me has been ruined by development. Sometimes I’ve arrived prepared for disappointment and found breath-taking beauty. I don’t mind the presence of the hotels – for some people, my idyllic Orchha will seem very different to their ideal of the place.
The first part of travel is deciding to go. In Christopher Ross’s book Tunnel Visions he talks about his friend Graham, who lived for a time in the Baja desert near California. After returning Graham taught in an inner-city school and tried to inspire the kids to travelling themselves. They protested that they could not afford it even though Graham said he had only had £200 when he arrived in California. “‘They needed more imagination, not money’ said Graham”.
One of the clichés of travelling is the difference between tourists and travellers. It’s common in hostels and traveller cafes to hear people talking loudly about their adventures: who has travelled furthest and had the most authentic encounters. Some people seem to blunder into adventure – they can take a business trip and come back with a story to tell. Other people could spend a week at a music festival on the other side of the world and have nothing happen to them. There are skills to travelling.
Keith Johnstone’s book Impro is a fascinating guide to acting. Johnston talks about the way in which some people respond to scenes by opening them up and others shut it down, failing to take opportunities. For Johnston there are lessons here that can be applied far wider:
“People with dull lives often think that their lives are dull by chance. In reality everyone chooses more or less what kind of events will happen to them by their conscious patterns of blocking and yielding. A student objected to this view by saying, ‘But you don’t choose your life. Sometimes you are at the mercy of people who push you around.’ I said, ‘Do you avoid such people?’ ‘Oh!’ she said, ‘I see what you mean.”
Somewhere amongst my stuff, in a drawer or a box somewhere, is a Keep Brighton Weird badge. They were produced about 5 years ago by Ramsey Holman a local artist originally from Portland Oregon.
I’ve never been to Portland but I imagine it as a more twisted and intense version of Brighton. The show Portlandia desribed the town as ‘where young people go to retire’ which chimes with Brighton’s reputation as a graveyard of ambition. Portland is also described in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fugitives and Refugees and was where Katherine Dunn wrote the classic novel Geek Love.
The slogan Keep Portland Weird was part of a campaign based on an earlier Keep Austin Weird movement. The trademarked slogan both advertises Portland’s reputation for weirdness as well as marking it as something endangered. If we don’t do something, then Portland will become just another place.
I grew up in Sussex and came to Brighton for university as it seemed like the most exciting place. I loved the strangeness of the place and the wonderful cheap shops. Over twenty years the town has changed. The amazing second-hand bookshops have disappeared. Rents have become astronomical. Music venues have disappeared. The weirdness is still here but some people complain that it’s more self-conscious. It seems like everyone I know complains about hipsters, even the ones with beards and sleeve tattoos. But I’d rather have artificial weirdness than no weirdness at all.
One of may favourite things about Brighton is the street art. And if I had to pick a favourite graffiti artist it would be Dean.
Visually, Dean’s work was unexciting. He was a tagger who wrote his name in large black and white capitals. The beauty in his work was in the places where he put them. Some were obvious, drawn on railway bridges, or most notably, on Anston House. Others were harder to find.
(Anston House is famous as the most ugly building in Sussex and has been derelict for years now. For a while it was decorated with colourful portraits but even they did little to cheer it up. Following a murder, it has been surrounded by high fences. When I was a boy, my Dad worked there and I remembered visiting his office, seeing the computers in the basement. I remember rows of hanging magnetic tape and piles of punchcards)
Dean sometimes hid his tag. I remember one in a derelict building on the Steine. Another was described to me by a friend as a ‘Winter Dean’. It was on a brick wall on railway land near New England Road, hidden by trees and the only time you could see it was after the leaves had fallen.
I don’t know who Dean was. Some long deleted message board had a thread where someone saying that tag was a memorial to a graffiti artist who died fleeing the police. Another forum said that “he had great reach but a poor tag”. Seeing the name around the town made me happy and it became a game, with people swapping new ones they’d noticed. Dean was even mentioned in an edition of the Cheeky Guide. There are still a few Deans around the town but before long they will all be gone.
Travelling to London as a commuter, I always looked up for the view across the Ouse Valley viaduct. And one day I spotted it, painted on a feeding trough. Someone had come out here, in the middle of nowhere, to paint their mark where train-travellers could see it. The care and thought amused me, brightened up a part of that journey.
Doing my MA meant reading a lot of literature that I would not otherwise have encountered. As well as studying the Situationists and seeing how they related to other theorists, or learning about Georges Perec and Oulippo, I also encountered many poems and stories I would not have found on my own. One of these was Wallace Steven’s Anecdote of the Jar.
English literature courses spend a lot of time discussing how one should interpret a poem, and the discipline offers a range of different filters: Marxism, feminism, queer theory, psychoanalysis, &c. Some of the textbooks in particular treated literature as a patient who might respond to different treatments. I encountered other students who chafed at this, saying poetry shouldn’t be a puzzle, something to be solved and simplified. The best poetry is that which is unstable, that doesn’t quite surrender to interpretation.
Wallace Steven’s Anecdote of the Jar, first published in 1919, sounds simple, beginning “I placed a jar in Tennessee”, telling how “It made the slovenly wilderness surround that hill.” Wikipedia refers to the way in which different interpretations can approach it: “from a poststructuralist perspective the poem is concerned with temporal and linguistic disjunction… a feminist perspective reveals a poem concerned with male dominance over a traditionally feminized landscape”. We could talk about the act of creation, about contamination or even colonialism. Some people have drawn links between this poem and Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn.
The Steven’s poem is one of the pieces of literature from the course that I remember most fondly. The professor who introduced it took a broadly post-structualist approach, while never compromising the basic act described in the poem. A poet placing an object in a landscape then looking at how that has transformed the environment.
In May 2014, the Guardian published an article GTA V to Skyrim: the 10 most beautiful walks in gaming. The writer claimed that modern games are “exotic and atmospheric, and expansive enough to explore at leisure” and the photographs accompanying the article were certainly evocative; particularly when I remember the excitement greeting the landscape of Midwinter when it came out in 1989.
The idea of walking in computer games turns up in other places – the game Myst was built around little more than exploration. And, in October 2014, a man completed a sponsored walk in GTA V, crossing the map in 6 hours to raise money to buy his mother a diabetic medical alert dog. My first response to this sort of news is revulsion. How can people spend so much time on something that is not real? I’ve mostly avoided computer games since I was a teenager, not wanted to get sucked in and miss out on ‘real life’. But maybe I’m in some way prejudiced.
I went to a party at the Lady Castle just before Christmas. As I was leaving, a man cornered me and said he had something to tell me that would interest me. I didn’t remember meeting him before, but didn’t say so, and he told me how he’d got an Oculus Rift. I’d seen one of these demoed at the Catalyst Club and was impressed, although not enough to buy a development kit. The man at the party told me the device would change everything. For him, the biggest market would be people who lived in bedsits, confined in miserable rooms, people who wanted something more.
There was a 60-second Playstation advert on this theme from 1999, Double Life. A series of regular people take turns in narrating to the camera. “You may not think it, to look at me,but I have commanded armies and conquered worlds… I have no regrets. For though I’ve led a double life, at least I can say: I’ve lived.”
Is it right to privilege real life over imaginary worlds – particularly when the work of Guy Debord and even Iain Sinclair both question how authentic the systems of the modern world are? Eve Online has an exchange rate with our world; gold farming has produced mundane jobs within multi-player environments; people take tourist photos of Elder Scrolls. If we are questioning what’s real about the real world, should we also be questioning what’s unreal about the unreal world?
According to G.K. Chesterton, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered.”
Back in 2010, I made my first trip to India, wandering around the North for ten weeks. My Dad came to join me for the couple of weeks in the middle and we went to Varanasi, a city we found it difficult to get the measure of.
From Varanasi we planned to travel around 700 kilometres to Darjeeling. Dad had booked the tickets via Patna in Bihar. The state had a bad reputation and the advice to travellers was to avoid it. We had two hours there between trains there before taking an overnight trip to New Jalpaguri where we could rest overnight and I could buy some new clothes – all of mine were dirty. We could then get the toy train into the mountains.
The plans fell apart as soon as we reached Varanasi station to find out there were massive delays. The helpful tourist ticket office found us an alternative route by sleeper class, staying overnight in Patna. We waited hours in Varanasi, our train occasionally given a new platform then delayed again. It was several hours before boarded our train.
We arrived in Patna about 3am. The station was full of people sleeping in preparation for early trains. We wanted to find somewhere to stay until early afternoon, when we had our connection towards Darjeeling. I was sick and we were tired. We found a taxi and tried several hotels where the night-staff wouldn’t even rouse to see what we wanted. The only hotel we did find wanted £80 for the night which seemed a little steep. We stood on the street corner, dawn breaking, wondering what to do next, a small pack of cycle-rickshaw drivers waiting for us to make our decision.
I was nervous and more lost than I’ve ever been. But we made it to Darjeeling safely and, looking back, standing with my Dad on an early morning street corner is one of my favourite moments. The adventure happened at the limit of our plans, as they began to fall apart.
In Delhi, a few weeks later, I was watching the BBC world news in a hotel room. One of the reports was about six hour delays on the channel tunnel, interviews with furious tourists. And I wondered what made the difference between an adventure and an inconvenience. Surely problems back home could be resolved in the same way as the mysteries of train tables, currency exchange and cheap accommodations.
“In Kathmandu there is a stupa by the name of Swayambhunath, which demonstrates one of the difficulties inherent in writing about this part of the world; it all turns into Rudyard fucking Kipling given half a chance. The promise is given that any pilgrim who dares ascend the temple’s three-hundred and sixty-five stairs WITHOUT ONCE STOPPING TO REST is guaranteed enlightenment in this life.” – Grant Morrison, ‘It was the 90’s’
The weird metaphysics of Grant Morrison’s Invisibles was inspired by a vision he had in Nepal. Morrison visited Kathmandu after seeing the Swayambhunath temple on a BBC documentary and hearing the climb to the top could confer enlightenment. The climb itself turned out to be an anti-climax: “by step fifty or so… we realise we’ve overtrained for the event”.
The evening following the climb, standing on the top of the Hotel Vajra, looking back towards the temple, Morrison was contacted by entities from higher dimensions. He was taken on a tour of the universe and ultimate secrets were revealed, the same mysteries later communicated in the Invisibles, how …our physical bodies are all facets of the same fractal froth of thinking mercury. It doesn’t matter if it is true or not, but it’s a good story, a fun piece of background.
Years later, Autumn 2013, I was in Kathmandu myself, on a trip to celebrate a friend’s 40th birthday; and while I was there I made my own trip to Swayambhunath. Interestingly, the Lonely Planet guide made no mention of enlightenment, even as it describes how the eastern stairway was constructed by King Pratap Malla in the 17th century and warns about the monkeys. Searching for the legend of enlightenment at Swayambhunath turns up only references to Morrison. But the story makes it worth climbing.
The ascent is as easy as I’ve heard, although I get stopped a short distance from the top to pay an entry fee. I am a little distance ahead of my friend and pay for both of us. I don’t manage the climb in a single go but he does. I wonder if this toll house on the way to enlightenment might have some deeper meaning but it’s all a silly story, although it has been enough to bring me to a beautiful temple 4,500 miles from home.
In the 1960’s, if you wanted to meet another traveller on the hippie trail it took a little work. If you knew where they were going to be, then you could send a message poste-restante; you could communicate via a third party back home; or you could leave a message on one of the trail’s noticeboards on the trail, such as the one in Istanbul’s Pudding Shop.
Reading the accounts of the Beats in their globe-trotting days, it’s striking how convoluted some of the arrangements were. The modern world’s communications are so much faster – cheap telephones, mobiles and email have made everything more connected. You can be sitting in a cafe in Nepal and an SMS will arrive asking if you’re coming down the pub that afternoon. At home, the way people arrange to meet have changed too. The complicated arrangements of my teenage years are so far back it’s hard to recall how much work went into them, how difficult it was to work around train delays.
Another change surrounds being lost. I’m not sure where I first encountered the idea – probably Warren Ellis – that there is a generation of people growing up who will never experience being lost. Now our phones can tell us where we are and, even when the battery fails, passers-by have their own phones, making their directions reliable. I can remember being overwhelmed by London, when the only option to find a place was sneaking into a newsagents and flicking through an A-Z; now, the Internet and my phone collaborate to lead me through streets I’ve never seen. Their maps update instantly, telling me what the traffic is like at the very moment. I can now phone ahead to an appointment to say that I’m delayed.
I wouldn’t ever want to give up this technology, the benefits far outweighing the losses. But there is a certain type of being lost that I love. All but my most recent trip to India were made without a phone. Nobody knew where I was and I couldn’t send messages if I was stranded. I would pass beautiful landscapes and have no idea where they were, stop at tiny stations whose names were written only in the Hindi script that I’ve only recently learned to read. At moments like that I felt free.
In Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost she quotes Walter Benjamin: “Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling.” We will soon need to teach ourselves new techniques for getting lost.
In their book ‘The Rebel Sell’, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter brutally attack the idea of a counter-culture, questioning ideas such as repressive tolerance and consciousness raising. They claim that that democratic action produces change, not rebellion for the sake of it. Capitalism involves a form of competitive consumption, with the goods and services distinguishing consumers from each other. It’s not about the number of things we have, it’s about how much better they are than what other people have. There is an arms race as we try to outdo those around us. The counter-culture has become a means by which capitalism extends and re-invigorates itself.
Their chapter on travel is fascinating, beginning with a sharp dig at Alanis Morisette’s lyric “Thank you, India”. They show how the counter-culture has long been fascinated by other cultures, seeing them as purer and freer, outside of the ‘oppression’ of the west. One example of this is Ginsberg’s quest for self-discovery in India and his awkward encounters with local people.
(The Sikh journalist Khushwant Singh encountered a group of hippies in the 1960s who said they had come to India because they were fed up with Western materialism. Singh apparently told them that Indians were fed up with poverty and would welcome some more materialism)
Many travellers are hunting for authenticity, aiming to escape the alienation of daily life to reach something real: travel far enough, beyond the reach of the Lonely Planet, and you can escape the pains of the modern world. Other travellers limit this, shattering this authenticity. “When it comes to exotic travel, hell is other Westerners”. This leads to the idea of the film and novel The Beach, where travellers end up fleeing urban Thailand for a ‘paradise’ without even any locals, where they can be free and independent.
In much of their book, Potter and Heath offer no solutions, but they are more optimistic about travel. There is a way to see the world without being trapped by inauthentic traveller environments; a way to be welcomed by the locals. “In the end, it may be that the only ‘authentic’ form of travel is business travel. Everyone else is just a tourist.”