Three men on a stage. One very puckish – I swear he must have little cloven hooves and carry a lyre in his back pocket. That’s Joe Bennett who is chairing today’s session on travel writing (Wish you weren’t here). Next to him sits the enigmatic, ever-smiling and Buddha-like Patrick Holland. And centre right, casually draped all over the furniture we have an astonishingly Christ-like looking Aaron Smith. Scene set. This should be good, so I settle in for the ride.
Ever since P.J.O’Rourke wrote Holidays in Hell, I have been a sucker for travel writing that knocks the stuffing out of all the “Wish You Were Here” pretty postcards, and instead takes you by the scruff in more of a “Postcards from the Edge” kind of a way.
Multi-lingual Patrick Holland has written the meditative Riding the Trains in Japan. He regards himself as a fiction writer but as many other authors have pointed out at this festival, the boundaries between these two great classifications are becoming fudged. He says that though most of his travels might seem like nice little adventures, some – like standing on the roadside in the Gobi desert at minus 35 degrees – are more like the nineth circle of hell.
Aaron Smith’s Shanti Bloody Shanti is more of a rollicking adventure in India with all the smells, the hawking, the chaos and the danger. Smith claims :
I can take most things on the chin, but not before brekkie.
Joe wasn’t going to let that pass unchallenged and came back with:
I don’t remember any mornings in your book at all, let alone brekkies and you never seemed to wash your smalls either!
Patrick just smiled.
Both men travel as unplanned as possible. In fact, Holland ended up riding the trains in Japan because he couldn’t find any accommodation in Kyoto during festival time. Now he’s got a book to show for it. Smith was fleeing his shady Australian past when he first pitched up in India, I think we can safely say he’d not booked ahead for an Ibis room.
The spirituality of the East was one of the topics the two authors found fascinating. Holland took the totally uncompromising stand that absolutely everything in Japan (and Vietnam) is spiritual. Even the dogs bark differently at ghosts than they do at a living man. Smith however, feared that with encroaching industrialisation and improved communications this will slowly be eroded. He himself went to India a confirmed atheist and left it a confused agnostic:
I now realise I know nothing.
There was only time for one question from the floor and the poor man asked what they thought of Lonely Planet guides (he was a huge fan). Joe went for the jugular and said Lonely Planet guides were as bad, nay worse, than travelling on a cruise ship for retired accountants. Aaron said he threw his out of the window of a train in India because a Jamaican Rastafarian had said “you don’ need that mon”.
That’s what travel writers do, the same that storytellers have done throughout time: they bring the story back to the tribe.
I bought both their books. It just didn’t seem right to choose one over the other.