First Class, Business Class, Working Class
‘And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance
You’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.
There are some, down the road between hither and yon,
That can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.‘
– Oh The Places You’ll Go! Dr Seuss
By the early autumn of 2007, I had been working as a part-time researcher at the Sunday Herald in Glasgow for a year. I’d been offered a similar role at The Sun, too, but rather than cajoling other working class people into making bad decisions, I opted to juggle the new job with my old one as a domestic, or cleaner, at a psychiatric hospital. I was there two days a week, the Sunday Herald three.
With both wages, I made around £18,000 a year and, for the first time in my life, I felt financially stable. All of my friends were making more than me, but they had to iron shirts and be at their desks for 9am sharp. Meanwhile, my year had passed in a blur of gigs, festivals and films without me having to spend a penny. Despite the financial disparity, I felt my job was more interesting than most. I still feel that way now.
I was 24 that year and towards the end of the summer, I was offered the chance to go to Israel. I had not long retuned from what felt like a very long weekend in Ibiza and while my nervous system had just about recovered, my precarious finances had not. Another trip abroad was out of the question.
“I’d love to, but I can’t afford it,” I said.
“What are you talking about?” The editor replied.
“Wait, what are you talking about?” I answered.
And so, having little or no money in my purse, I thought I would sign up for what sounded an awful lot like a free holiday. I discussed the opportunity with my mother, who wished me luck and told me simply, devastatingly, to “just say ‘yes’ to everything.” I had no idea quite how dangerous this advice would be, or how obediently I would follow it – or that by doing so, I’d spend the next 13 years as a travel writer.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been very little for me to say yes to – aside from government benefits. As of last Friday, the only money on which I am able to depend is £904.89 per month, given to me as a welfare payment known as Universal Credit. This is despite being owed, at the time of writing, in excess of £9,000 by various titles in various countries. As the bowels of the industry continue to splash onto the floor, some of that money will eventually come to me, but some of it will be lost forever. In any case, with rent alone at £600, I need the government’s assistance.
Since lockdown, several people have assumed that I must feel depressed by my newfound unemployment, especially as I now have no way of sating what they assume is unquenchable wanderlust. They mean no harm, these people, and so I am polite, but the truth is that some part of me has always believed that this fall was inevitable and that I am exactly where I belong, which is to say parked in front of a television or computer, surviving on government handouts.
I have travelled so far, roamed so much of this planet, but despite those magnificent detours, I am back where I began.
Until I started in the media in 2006, my entire life had been shaped by the welfare system. I grew up in a housing scheme, in a block of flats with a dank stairwell that almost always reeked of piss. For a few years I was one of the dinner-ticket kids, those waifs who got lunch by handing over a little paper token in lieu of actual money. Of the children I used to play with on my estate, one became a fully-fledged heroin addict, one went to jail for attempted murder, and another was crushed by alcoholism before he was 30.
Things were hard because my father spent the overwhelming majority of my life exploiting the disability benefits system, rather than holding down a job. A feckless alcoholic, he provided me with a lifelong example of what not to do. When, for my 16th birthday he gave me a council housing application form, I put it in the bin. I very much wanted to get through life without government handouts – and moreover just not to be like him.
Under such circumstances, holidays were understandably unglamorous. For the most part, they relied on the hospitality of my mother’s foreign friends, wonderful people in Germany and Turkey. Most years, though, we waited for The Sun’s annual £9.99 caravan holiday promotion and went to Berwick-upon-Tweed or Scarborough or Blackpool.
Only once did our nuclear family attempt what might be thought of as a normal holiday. Unable to afford the Costa Del Wherever, we instead went to Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, which sounds ominous even now. In the mid-90s, however, it had emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union as a surprise, budget package-holiday destination.
It was the only time my father ever travelled abroad with us. This, as it turned out, was a mercy. Within three days of landing he began drinking, and by the end of the first week, had stolen all of the holiday money so he could continue to hide out in oblivion for the second week.
With only a few emergency Bulgarian lev in reserve, towards the end of the trip my mother was cooking us pasta with Cup-a-Soups acting as an ersatz carbonara sauce. My brother and I didn’t care – we spent the days on the beach, wrestling in the surf, our hair growing blonder in the sun.
When it came time to get back on the plane, my father was still drunk and somehow dreadfully ill, too. By the time we landed, he had to be removed, grey and trembling, in a wheelchair. He spent the next six months or so in a hospital, having contrived to inhale some of his own vomit. Ultimately he would have the majority of his right lung removed and for remaining 25 years of his life, even though he could have worked, he lived on benefits and never gave up smoking.
I tell you this not by way of assassinating my father on the page, nor to try and engender sympathy, but in order to illustrate that my brother and I were not children who grew up being taken to Centre Parcs or Disneyland – not even the Parisian one. Aside from the heroic martyrdom of my mother, we had no advantages growing up and, if anything, the very idea of travel could have metastasised into something repugnant. Instead, things went another way.
Let me tell you more about that trip to Israel. Eilat – the destination for my first ever press trip and subsequent travel story – sits on the shores of the Red Sea, like a poker player at the head of a particularly tense table. From its heavily guarded beach, Jordan lies to the East and Egypt to the west. On clear days, which are rare, the unloving neighbour that is Saudi Arabia is also visible.
None of this really mattered to me in 2007, because along with three other writers, I was there to cover an interpretative dance festival out in the desert. I knew nothing about dance and very little about Middle Eastern politics. I also didn’t know that this type of weird tour is known as a group press trip. The idea is to generate a mass of coverage by simultaneously hosting several titles represented by several chancers who give the accompanying PR agent a particular type of stare until they go to the bar on the group’s behalf.
I was the youngest and the least experienced on that trip, as well as the only writer not from London. I don’t recall being nervous, mostly because I couldn’t believe that I was travelling for free. Things were at their most surreal during the dance festival, especially on the final night when, owing to some quirk in local licensing, we were instructed over the PA system to drink the bars dry.
When we finally got back to Eilat, everyone decided to go to bed, but I was 24 and thought I knew better. Was I sure I wanted to go out alone? Asked the PR. Damnit, I had to say yes to everything – she should have just ordered me to bed. I awoke the next morning face-down on my hotel room floor, my untouched bed tantalisingly out of reach.
Despite that inauspicious start, a few months later, the Sunday Herald sent me to Stavanger in southern Norway, which was a European Capital of Culture in 2008. One evening our group was taken to a fine-dining restaurant called Hall Toll. It was the first time I’d ever had a tasting menu or a wine pairing. We ate cod slow-cooked in milk, and veal cheeks, and leek served four different ways, and each time the wine seemed perfect. With every mouthful, my world grew larger. I have always been a glutton, but this felt like I was being introduced to a new type of greed.
I remember one other thing: a city official sat next to me and was very keen to discuss the latest trends in viticulture, another subject about which I knew nothing, outside what I’d learned from the movie Sideways. The last bottle of wine I’d bought was Buckfast, but I’d recently proof-read an article praising Hungarian vineyards. I mentioned them and off he went, mistaking my mimicry for real knowledge. That was the moment I began to understand the limitless potential of effective bullshitting, too.
Things spiralled from there. Within a few months I’d moved to Dubai to become a full-time travel writer on an in-flight magazine. The work itself had little value, but I was sent on assignment everywhere from Chicago to Melbourne, from Cape Town to Kathmandu. I briefly accumulated some savings, fell in love, then spent the lot travelling around the world with her to every continent on Earth. She taught me photography and we experienced things we didn’t know were possible. We finished that trip after 18 long months, landed back in the UK and argued about money for a couple of years before going back to Dubai, the only place we knew for certain we’d find it. That led to all seven continents again. Trip after trip, flight after flight, tens of thousands of words and, increasingly, photographs.
There were complications along the way. The relationship ended, for one thing, and I picked up type one diabetes at the age of 30, for another. I used both as motivators to live an even bigger life.
I’ve read that poverty can defined as having an inability to choose, but for several years I have been able to beam into almost any lifestyle that’s taken my fancy. I have learned Sri Lankan martial arts and met astronauts. In the same week, I have walked through Arctic snow and Amazonian rain. I have swum with sharks, locked eyes with polar bears, witnessed the march of emperor penguins. I competed in bobsleigh – and even won a medal. I was awarded a certificate of gratitude from the Japanese government, only the fourth foreigner to receive it at the time (Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber were two of my predictable contemporaries). I have travelled extensively enough to have opinions on olive oils and know that I dislike Paris and LA. I have eaten entire constellations of Michelin-starred food, meals much better than those I was served during lunch receptions with royals, or dinners followed by cigar-smoking with ambassadors. None of them could have guessed that my first job was on a market stall at 15, that I’d been expelled from school, or that at 18 I was fired from McDonalds for theft and quickly handed over to the police.
As time tumbled past, I turned out to be uncommonly suited to being a travel writer and photographer. I don’t mean I’m great as either, but I am competent in both and, just as crucially, I work well on the road: I don’t get any kind of motion sickness; I write most prolifically on planes; I tolerate jetlag well; I average food poisoning less than once a year, which is respectable considering I’m normally travelling for seven or eight months of each one.
Along the way, I have missed births, funerals and weddings. I was travelling when my father died and pretended to be when they cremated him. I couldn’t tell you the names of half my friends’ children. The price of doing this job is high, never mind having to spend around half of any income to facilitate it. I have never owned a house, nor a car, and these things have never felt further away than they do right now.
Still, one hundred and ten countries in total, all seven continents at least four times each. Stories for days. I have now spent more time in Antarctica than I have in Spain. I’ve seen all of the New Seven Wonders of the World (Petra is the best). If you were to have paid for the things I’ve done, the experiences I’ve had, I’d guess you’d be facing a bill for over £2 million.
Aside from the New York Times*, there isn’t a title I’ve wanted to write for that hasn’t eventually paid for my words – paid me to travel the world. That will forever blow my mind. By most measures, I have reached the top of my trade, frequently nominated for awards**, and able to simply look at a map, choose where I want to go, then send emails until the tickets arrive. How can it be, that someone with my background could have what many people regard as a dream job? Perhaps it’s the same reason the average Brazilian footballer is better than the average British one – because it feels like there’s no other option.
All freelancing is insecure, but even before the pandemic full-time travel writing was life on an especially serrated knife-edge. With no spouse, second job or trust fund, the only effective way I’ve found to make a living is by becoming an object of near perpetual motion. This now seems gratuitous and ugly – by taking so many flights I have undoubtedly damaged this planet. Worse, I have encouraged others to do the same. Becoming vegetarian a few months ago probably doesn’t cover a carbon bill for an average of 70 flights for each of the last three years.
If the coronavirus has achieved anything beyond ruination and death, it’s the stripping away of bullshit. I certainly feel my own has been exposed by it. I pretended to be something else – someone else – so hard for so long that I have reconstructed my own accent. Now, alone in a flat I can’t afford, waiting for another £904.89 to arrive, on the rare occasions I hear it my voice seems like an especially ridiculous and unwanted souvenir.
The fullness of this full stop is hard to bear, so to pass time I look at my work from the last 13 years. On the bad days, I see nothing but marketing copy advertising holidays I could never afford. A couple of hours can pass wondering why I didn’t choose to do something more worthwhile with my life. Afraid of the words, I turn to the photographs, a shambolic archive of over 100,000 shots, but they can leave me wondering if any of them ever really belonged to me, if I was even there. During happier moments, I tell myself that storytelling is at the core of what it is to be human and that travel has always been a catalyst for the best tales. Hopefully that’s true – it would go some way to topping up my Universal Credit payment.
I wish it wasn’t dependent on that money, that I’d pushed things meaningfully in another direction. For a while, I foolishly thought I had willed things to change, that I had run far enough for long enough, but instead of being on a path to somewhere new, it seems I have been on a very circuitous loop all along.
*Since this piece was written the New York Times has published some of my work.
**Uh, you should keep feeling sorry for me, but I was also voted Travel Writer of the Year.