|Norman Lewis. Chronicler of loss.
So we moved from London to Leamington Spa, a prettyish Victorian town in the Midlands conjoined with Warwick and its famous castle. We bought a small run-down terraced house in the cheap part of town with the aim of doing it up. Leamington Spa was the place to come to on holiday in Victorian times, long before the advent of foreign holidays, and people brought their diseases with them too in the hope that the spa waters would cure them. For some, it was a one-way ticket, and a few churches sprung up to offer burial space – like the one our house was next to. Some research at the local library allowed me to uncover the original plans for the church and our house, which would have been built to house the priests.
But that was almost 150 years before, now, the place where we lived was a population centre for Sikhs, and every day we could see their turbans bobbing along above the hedge outside our front window. Michelle enrolled at the local college and studied the art of furniture repair and upholstery, something that we figured would stand us in good stead in the future, despite the encroachment of Ikea and its ilk.
It was about 10 miles to where I worked in Coventry and more often than not I cycled there on my mountain bike. It was more dangerous than cycling in London, where there was safety in numbers, and it was a lonely experience being the only cyclist in the 1000 or so workforce.
On the occasions when I did drive to work, such as when I was doing night shifts, I did so in my faithful lime green Volkswagen Kombi camper van. Parked in the corporate car park amongst the anodyne rows of grey company cars my rusty van with moss growing on it looked somewhat anomalous and my boss warned me that I’d never get a promotion driving such a vehicle.
But I didn’t care about promotions. Despite my new role as an energy trader I was, to all intents and purposes, a hippie. I had the standard issue long hair, spent the long night shifts listening to Jimi Hendrix and the Doors, sometimes at full blast (the giant shopping mallesque office made a particularly good auditorium, albeit an empty one in the middle of the night) and took every opportunity to scoot off in the van at weekends to Glastonbury, Wales, Cornwall, or anywhere else that took our fancy.
My job, for the first time ever, was engaging. I was part of a six man team managing the company’s gas balancing portfolio and pipeline. We had a number of power stations which we could manipulate via our screens, buying and selling gas on the spot market in such a way as to maximize profits. We could turn off hundreds of large customers at the press of a button, if we wanted, inject or draw off gas from huge salt caverns beneath the North Sea and play games with a long private pipeline running beneath the fields of Lincolnshire. It was basically like a large computer strategy game that required quick thinking and nerves of steel, but which you could never lose.
Plenty could go wrong though, and sometimes it did. Winter was the time everyone dreaded because the entire gas and electricity system were more sensitive to changes, meaning when things went wrong they went really wrong. Sudden unexpected fluctuations in the air temperature were the biggest headache, but it was also at these times when the most money could be made.
One evening, when everyone else was at the Christmas party, an Arctic front suddenly moved down over Britain, sending the spot price of gas sky high. I turned off every large customer on the books, from hospitals in Scotland to car plants in Birmingham, and sold the excess gas for a huge margin. All hell broke loose and the very next day an inquiry was launched into what had happened. At the end of it all, a few weeks later, I got to work and found a bottle of champagne on my desk and a note from the CEO thanking me for my efforts.
It was fun being a capitalist cog-in-the-machine stormtrooper but not exactly in line with my peace-loving inner hippie, and I counted down the days and weeks until my three year tenure would be up. I dreaded the 12 hour long night shifts, but then equally dreaded the weekday day shifts, where I would have to look business-like and sit in on meetings involving pie charts and buzzwords. But whatever the downsides they were more than compensated for by the two considerable upsides. My pay was way beyond anything I ever expected to earn, and tended to be padded out by plenty of overtime. Night work was paid at double, night work at a weekend quadruple, and working Christmas or New Year’s Day was something like 10 times the going rate.
The other considerable upside was the fact that we could arrange our own shifts as a team. Naturally, we did so to get as much time off as possible, meaning that I ended up with around 20 weeks’ holiday a year, as long as I didn’t mind working 12 hours every day for a month at a time. I filled all this time with all sorts of diversions, travelling to Italy (where half of my wife’s family are from), snowboarding in France, backpacking in Costa Rica and numerous other side trips. Being a corporate drone has its perks – or at least it did back then.
What’s more, I studied. Perhaps it was because I knew that when the three years were up I would be leaving, I had to consider what I would do next. I studied ecology at the nearby university some evenings, and when I finished that I studied creative writing and Spanish. I started an online correspondence course with the London School of Journalism, but failed abysmally with my tutor saying that I needed to try and be interested in things I was not interested in, or at least pretend to be. Nevertheless, I was still attracted by the idea of being a journalist because it seemed like it was a job that offered variety and freedom from office-bound drudgery. I decided to put it on hold for the time being.
Instead I diverted energy into doing conservation work. I would go away at weekends, sometimes once a month, working voluntarily for the BTCV. I enjoyed the work, as well as the feeling that I was doing something positive to counteract the negative karma my job necessitated. Once, I spent a week working on the beautiful Scottish Hebridean island of Islay and had such a profound feeling of satisfaction that I wondered whether I should study ecology and do it full time. As ever though, inquiries always led to the same conclusion: if you want to do something that's restorative for the world you'll have to do it off your own back because there's no money in it. But then it's not about money.
We decided to get married. I proposed at the top of the Eiffel Tower, as one does, and a year later we were married in an old church in Copenhagen. Neither of us wanted a big wedding, so only a few people were invited. For the reception we borrowed a marquee from the local Boy Scouts, chairs and tables from the local council and the food was prepared by the owner of Copenhagen’s best Italian restaurant, who just happened to be a good friend of Michelle’s father. The wedding cost us next to nothing – we even got second hand rings from two divorcees. Why do people spend so much money on weddings?
Afterwards we flew to Istanbul and spent a month backpacking around Turkey, hitching a ride on an old wooden gullet boat up the beautiful coast. It was an adventure, but when it was over I had to return to work at the glass and steel shopping mall office in the dull business park on the outskirts of Coventry.
And I read. I read and read and read. I discovered Norman Lewis, who remains to this day the author I look up to the most. I devoured his travel memoirs and his dry wit and his clear concern for the way the world was being ruined in the name of progress. Here was an unassuming and quiet man who, in his own way, seemed to have lived about eight lives. Among the list of his accomplishments were; writing one of the best WWII memoirs ever penned based on his experience as an intelligence officer in the British army (Naples ‘44), writing the most penetrating account of the Italian Mafia (The Honoured Society), reporting on the genocide of tribal peoples in Latin America (thus starting Survival International), lived as a simple fisherman in Spain (the subsequent book Voices of the Old Sea is a true classic), working as a spy, speaking about eight languages, being wildly popular in the USSR for his political thrillers, being a successful businessman (marketing Leica cameras), a racing car driver, the last person to see Ernest Hemingway alive, coiner of the term ‘climate change’, part role model for James Bond and, as Graham Greene put it ‘One of the best writers of the 20th century,’ - and also someone hardly anyone has heard of - a semi-invisible man.
Still, whenever I am feeling a bit down, I can pull out one of Norman Lewis’s books and let the prose just take me away. My role model? Maybe.
Aside from Norman Lewis I read plenty of other travel writers, including Eric Newby, whom I had the fortune to meet at a book festival before he died. I told him I was planning to go around the world and write an online diary of my exploits using a small computer connected to a mobile phone - something that only a handful of people were doing at the time. I told him I was going to call it ‘A Merry Dance’ after the title of his own book ‘A Merry Dance Around the World’. He said he thought it was a good idea, and so, in 2000, with my time done, I quit my job (shock, horror – I was on the verge of a promotion to team leader), sold our house for twice what we bought it for (these were bubble days) and got on a train in Leamington Spa bound for India.
We were away for about 16 months, travelling through Europe, Turkey (again), India, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, the US, Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. I wrote about it all on my little Psion PDA computer, although I was relieved of it after getting robbed in Peru. The two stand-out experiences during this time were travelling through Laos and working as a wildlife volunteer in the jungle in Guatemala.
Laos was an eye-opener. It was here, in combination with reading the indomitable Irish traveller Dervla Murphy’s One Foot in Laos that I realized that global development was simply a nice way of stealing a country’s resources and enslaving its peoples. The scales fell from my eyes (I have written about it here). As we were leaving Laos we narrowly escaped being blown up by a bomb on the Friendship Bridge; something I was shocked about I reported it to the BBC, although they didn’t mention the fact I told them I had seen two people killed.
The second, in Guatemala, was when we spent three months working as volunteers in the tropical forests of the Yucatan Peninsula, tending animals which had been confiscated by smugglers bound for the international trade in endangered species. Every day we mucked out the spider monkey cages, made masses of fruity mush for the injured animals and birds and (the men) did back breaking work moving rocks and trees trunk to build a new visitor centre.
There were hundreds of parrots there and many of them had a virus which caused mucus to run from their eyes and their feathers to fall out. I made a lot of parrot friends there, although many of them died and it was my sorrowful duty to get up each morning, pick up my dead avian buddies from the floor and burn them in a metal dustbin well away from the living quarters. I’m probably one of the few people who knows how much newspaper and accelerant is needed to properly incinerate a parrot – not exactly a skill to put on my CV.
It could take many months and a lot of effort and money to rehabilitate an animal but, when they were released, the local villagers tended to shoot and eat them almost immediately. To try and curb the animosity we played them at football each Sunday, usually letting them win. After each gruelling match I would take the centre’s tame coatimundi, Pitz, for a walk in the forest and watch him sniff out some tasty grubs buried in rotting fallen trees. At other times we would go and camp out at the Mayan ruins, such as the nearby Tikal, listening to the frankly scary howler monkeys in the trees at night.
On the same trip, this time in Peru, I hiked out into the Andean foothills alone for three days (Michelle was with her brother seeing some of the tourist sites) with just my tent and a bit of food. This was an incredible experience and I have never felt so alone or insignificant or, indeed, sacred. At night, when the temperatures dropped to minus 25C, the stars were so incredibly bright that I had the unnerving experience that the universe was watching me. It’s hard to explain now, from the comfort of my warm kitchen, but the feeling was a very powerful one – as if some higher intelligence was staring down at me and urging me to take the next step on a journey I wasn’t ready to go on. Joe Simpson described the same feeling in his climbing accident book Touching the Void – and I can at least see how David Icke starting believing in Space Lizards after a similar experience in Peru.
Later, we went to Bolivia, but ended up trapped there as people rose up in a nationwide strike, meaning the roads were barricaded and foreigners like us could not come and go. We were stuck in a town that was running out of food, but eventually managed to escape at dawn one day across Lake Titicaca in a rowing boat (rowed by a local man we had paid a fistful of dollars), chased by some Panama hatted strikers with an ancient rifle, and were rescued mid-lake by the heavily-armed Peruvian Navy in a speed boat. It was a close call, but I’d love to one day return to Bolivia, although that doesn’t seem likely.
After our travels in Latin America we flew back from LA to Thailand and spent a week living in a hut on an island. We knew that when we got back to Europe we would be moving to Denmark and try our luck there. What I was going to do there I had no idea, but we had the feeling that our footloose days were coming to an end. What awaited us – a mortgage, stability, kids? All of these things and more, it turned out.
We went to Bangkok and I used the last of our money on a ticket home. The cheapest ticket was with Turkmenistan Airlines, and we had a stopover in Ashgabat. When we eventually arrived back in the UK we took the train to my father’s house and stayed the night. It was the first night in a decent bed in almost a year and a half and I slept like a log. When I got up the next day, jetlagged, I made myself a cup of tea and turned on the news. I hadn’t watched TV all the time I had been away and wondered if I had missed something. As the box flickered to life I saw, live, as an aeroplane flew into a sky scraper in New York, causing a massive fireball.
‘Holy shit,’ I said, almost dropping my cup of tea.