Thursday, October 04, 2007
  Lonely No Longer

For those of us growing up in post-war Britain, there are a number of distinct eras. There was food rationing which meant that few ate meat, and I remain a vegetarian to this day. The end of rationing was seemingly celebrated with the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953. My parents bought their first television for this event, we were given the day off school and neighbours came to watch.

But we still ate spam and powdered egg, often with mashed potato made from granules and, a special treat, powdered milk. And TV viewing was also rationed in our house. (Come to think of it, I still ration my viewing.)

In July 1957, just as I was starting an extremely miserable seven year stint at a semi-independent grammar school, the Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, informed we Brits that we'd "never had it so good". For my parents' generation, maybe, because they'd "fought the war for the likes of us". Incidentally, their parents thought they had fought "the war to end all wars". They were wrong.

I'd always felt an urge to challenge certain complacent acceptances but as a teenager I lacked the ability, or courage, to argue with war heroes. Mass entertainment on the Radio and TV had hitherto been of the "are you sitting comfortably?" variety, or oddly surrealist. But then came the Sixties and in 1962 Ned Sherrin, who has died this week, created TW3 - That Was The Week That Was - in which sex, politics, royalty and religion were all targeted.

He wanted an unstructured, uncontrolled programme, almost deliberately offensive, "necessarily an irritant to some", as Sherrin wrote in his original memo to BBC bosses, "and if we are going to make people scratch, the object of the programme would be to give them something worth scratching".

This mindset ushered in the era of Harold Wilson and the Sixties and a time of social revolution, including student demonstrations which unfortunately (?) passed me by. However, the Swinging Sixties, of Michael Caine, David Bailey, Twiggy and Mary Quant, the Beatles and loads of 'working class heroes' who didn't talk proper like, were more interesting to me. It was another era of hedonism marked by a fashion sense which was supposedly individual but was rather uniform. The 'chicks' had short permed hair and the guys wore suits.

Then the quaint mantra of 'tune in, turn on and drop out' became more fun, largely through the use of pleasantly hallucinogenic drugs enhanced by 'mind-blowing' visual and musical forms. Everyone who could afford it, and many who couldn't, grew their hair long and opted out of the rat race of career, pension, and a planned future. Life was too exciting, with opportunities galore, if only one knew where to look. Often that was within.

I became a teacher because I'd hated school so much as a student, so my life up until then had been somewhat institutionalised - school, teacher training college, school. During my lengthy breaks from the classroom, I'd thoroughly enjoyed exploring Ireland where I'd experienced much hospitality and good humoured hostility as the most recent 'Troubles' erupted.

Aranmore Island 1968

But in 1970, I decided it was time for me to explore the much wider world.

they tried to persuade me not to cross
the curious hills, finally shrugging
called me foolish, stubborn.
that's how it is, I said, I'm going
where my pig is headed
(fr. my travel diary March 1971)

I spent a few months tidying up my affairs, withdrawing my contributions to a pension fund and doing some minimal research. There were few travel guides in those days, not for those of us wanting to follow the dope trails through Turkey, Iran into Nepal and Afghanistan, or those wanting to work on an Israeli kibbutz.

What I did find were a few duplicated sheets of travel hints handed out at BIT Information Services in Ladbroke Grove, West London. They weren't much use to me in the end as I went wherever, including a wonderful Celtic music festival in Malataverne in France. I finally ended up in Ibiza, setting for the film More, with music by Pink Floyd. It was then the hideout of Clifford Irving whilst researching his hoax 'autobiography' of Howard Hughes and bedding Nina van Pallandt, once part of twee duo and parents' favourite, Nina and Frederik. Also there at that time was Howard Marks, purveyor of very pure hallucinogenics and host of one of the most memorable parties I've ever been to.

However, those few duplicated sheets of travel notes were of value to some folk, in particular Tony and Maureen Wheeler, travelling overland to Australia. They have since managed to parlay them into a massive enterprise. In 1972, they set up Lonely Planet which now publishes around 500 titles including specialist activity guides and phrase books, has a website which receives 4.3 million visitors a month, a travel video site, lonelyplanet.tv, which enables travellers to upload their own videos and also produces and develops factual programming for international broadcasters through its Lonely Planet Television operations.

(Just over 20 years ago I backpacked around the world and found their book on India useful. Thereafter I made a point of getting to places they, or their crew, hadn't been to. It seemed to be much more interesting that way.)

And now BBC Worldwide has bought them up aiming to build on the group's franchise around the world with the extension of the travel guides across multimedia platforms.

It's a lonely planet no longer. Explorers can have their hands held every inch of every mile.

But me? I've still got my pig.


1:30 pm
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