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.

I couldn’t afford to buy a book, but it didn’t matter. By then, I understood I had already changed my fate. This much I knew: if I had conjured this real life from the pages of a novel, if I had somehow, miraculously, made it from Great Yarmouth to San Francisco, then I could do anything I set my mind to.

I walked away from City Lights Bookstore with that improbable, seemingly impossible, dream replaced by another. I decided I would become a writer. That I would write books that would allow others to see themselves in their pages too.

And so, I did. From that moment, travel and writing became intrinsically linked. I wrote two books in Hanoi and travelled the length of Russia to research another. I lived and wrote in Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Lisbon, Sarajevo, Berlin and now write this from my home in Prague.

Opening On the Road became the opening of all those possibilities for the future I craved, full of experiences and art and joyful, creative graft. All thanks to that first journey – to the library.

Illustration by Michelle Pereira.

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