Fifty years ago last Saturday, in the crowded and sweltering public room of a cheap hotel, with an ancient fan creaking and whirring overhead, I watched the televised moon landing. I was in downtown Tehran. The commentary was in Farsi.
In some ways it was the most alienating experience possible: seeing mankind take its first steps off-planet, the event described in a language of which I understood not one word, while in a city as foreign as any I had ever visited. In other ways, it was thrilling and utterly mind-expanding, the strangeness of it all cracking open a myriad hitherto unknown neural pathways.
I had driven from London to Tehran with three friends, my first summer at university, to visit a mutual Iranian friend. It was one of a number of trips I made at that time. I was very lucky. My mother, an enthusiastic traveller, encouraged me and travel was cheap. In those days it was possible to fund quite long journeys by means of holiday jobs and the odd parental donation.
Between the ages of seventeen and twenty-four I travelled frequently throughout Europe, particularly to Greece which I fell in love with; also to Africa, Turkey and Iran; and finally, following an abortive attempt at adult life in London, to Latin America for a year before I eventually settled down.
Family life then intervened for a few decades, but in the last dozen years I’ve rediscovered the wanderlust. Thanks now to work, I’ve found myself greeting the new day in boutique conference centres in Sweden and Poland, corporate training compounds in Hyderabad and Delhi, a former motorcycle showroom in Auckland, an oceanfront residence in Rhode Island, a motor yacht in Seattle, and converted farmhouses in both France and Spain. The thrill of new places and experiences remains unabated.
The whole point of independent travel is to expose oneself to different cultures, people and ideas, and those earlier journeys unquestionably shaped my adult view of the world. I reflect on that now not only because of the anniversary of the lunar landing, but also because of how I find myself reacting to current political events. My strong instinct is to connect rather than withdraw, while doing so as far as possible on my own terms.
The great John Muir, philosopher, naturalist and father of the US national parks, wrote: ‘I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.’ Travel on a small scale, as he describes it, but the effects are the same whatever the journey: inner connections follow outer as night follows day.
There’s another way to travel and I’m reminded of it now because the Edinburgh International Book Festival launches in a couple of weeks. With reading, the sequence of connection is reversed. Journeys of the mind and imagination lead to a greater understanding of the external world, the world around us. Outer connections follow inner.
I’m on several fascinating journeys now as I prepare for the events I’m involved in. I’m learning about art fraud in the Weimar Republic, and the evacuation of Basque children from civil-war-torn Spain; how to dismantle a personal library of 35,000 books; why the second worst restaurant in France is not the worst; and what a poet makes of the personal testimony of ex-military PTSD sufferers.
They may not take me to the moon, these journeys, but they take me to new and unfamiliar places in my heart and mind. They challenge my assumptions about myself and others. They encourage me to be more tolerant. They do what all the best journeys do – remind me that I’m human.
Events I’m chairing in August at the Edinburgh International Book Festival:
Sun 11, 15.30, Clare Clark and John Simmons
Tue 13, 13.30, Alexander McCall Smith
Wed 14, 17.30, Alberto Manguel
Sat 17, 11.45, Simon Armitage
Tickets from https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on