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In 18 months of on-again off-again shutdowns, the hope of foreign travel has been remote. I didn’t much mind, until now, when suddenly apparently what I really want is to get on a plane and go somewhere far, far away.
Why? Is it the quietly wearing effect of a year and a half without the option? Or is it the possibility hinted at and then seemingly denied by the ever-more-complex traffic light system? Or maybe it’s what’s by my bedside? If it’s the latter, I have a chicken/egg problem. What came first: the inspirational travelogues or the inspiration to travel?
A well-thumbed copy of Fitzroy Maclean’s 1949 classic memoir Eastern Approaches sits guiltily beside me as I write. Maclean’s life allegedly inspired Ian Fleming to write James Bond. It’s done the trick for me, too. A swashbuckler, diplomat and soldier, the book covers his golden eight-year period from 1937 to 1945.
The young Maclean had a ringside seat at Stalin’s show trials in Thirties Moscow and explored Central Asia in his spare time. He visited the great cities of the Silk Road, the “blue domes and minarets” of Samarkand, and Bukhara with its mosques and bazaars. There he rested “under the apricot trees in the clear warm sunlight of Central Asia”. In contrast, I read this on a stuffy, cramped Northern line somewhere under Kings Cross.
His adventures only got wilder. The Second World War breaks out and Maclean joins the army. He falls in with the newly formed SAS and yomps across sand seas in the Libyan desert on daring raids 800 miles behind enemy lines. Then he parachutes into Bosnia in the pitch dark after Winston Churchill picked him out by name to be a “daring ambassador-leader” to future Yugoslav president Tito.
After finishing Eastern Approaches, I couldn’t stop. Travels With Herodotus by Polish writer and journalist Ryszard KapuÅciÅski was next. Within a few pages we were off to India, then China. Get me out of here, I thought as read on the number 46 bus, inching through traffic in Kentish Town.
It’s the hope that gets you. Vaccines, falling cases here, even the traffic light system, mean that travel may be about to get easier again. Except it also might not. We’re in the middle of a crisis the shape and extent of which we can only dimly perceive. Who knows where it will go next and which countries will close their borders. So I might just have to park my dreams of jumping out of an aeroplane in the dark. Instead, as Vivien Godfrey, the boss of travel bookshop Stanfords, once put it to me, I may have to settle for “armchair travelling”. Well, it could be worse.