It’s not that I didn’t travel in my childhood; in fact, I travelled more than most, in a chaotic zig-zag up and down the country from council estates, to B&Bs, to caravan parks and back again, sometimes through three or four houses and multiple schools, in a single town, in a few months. Travel was never a holiday for my family – not even a night at Butlin’s. I spent much of my childhood and teens experiencing the dislocation and disorientation of travelling without a choice.
One journey changed all this – the shortest one of all, the one from my house to the library. Wherever we were, I would walk to my local library on a Saturday morning and lie in bed all weekend with books scattered around me. It was through books that I came to understand how rich, how varied, how wide, the world was. When I read, it was as though the walls of our tiny home expanded, the narrow council estate streets parted, the horizon blew apart. Yes, I felt trapped and everyone and everything else in my life told me I was meant for nothing more than a small town, a small job, a small life. But those books – that I accessed for free and which never ran out – they whispered another sort of possible fate.
The book that finally sealed this fate was discovering, at 16, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. At the time I was working as a waitress, having left school at 15, living for drinking and dancing and fucking. I wanted to do something meaningful, but I also wanted to live and, along with books, hedonism was the thing that offered escape. With the Beat movement, I found the perfect heady cocktail; I could live full-throated and still love art, perhaps even make art. I didn’t have to be one or the other.
Besides, Jack was like me, working class, counting his cents carefully, hustling to write and see and live with wild abandon. I vividly remember reading about how little money he had and how he carefully planned to eke it out by eating apple pie and ice cream for his dinners. I remember how I'd never really read the reality of that penny counting I knew so well, of that hunger, literal and creative, and of finding a way to satiate yourself with very little.
After a few years of mental careening, alcoholic derailing, working and saving, I did make it. When I was 18 I took my first plane to go work at a US summer camp. Afterwards, I travelled to New York and ate apple pie and ice cream on the fat couches of a late-night gay cafe in Chelsea. I could only stay for two nights, but vowed to get back somehow. And, age 21, newly in love and full of the belief that life could be magic, I returned to the US on a trip around the world. I finally walked, triumphant and fresh off a Greyhound bus, through the doors of City Lights Bookstore. I sat for a long time and read Ginsberg’s Howl – a living cliché, but it felt perfect.