With my vast experience of travel, I have always fancied I would make a great travel writer. I’ve been kidnapped in Ecuador, was on the wrong side of a machete in Laos, barefoot in a temple with 20,000 rats in India and slept in a landfill by the Dead Sea in Israel, to name but a few. Whenever a Bill-Brysonesque moment overcame me, I wrote about it – there was “Wardrobe Malfunction at the Great Barrier Reef”, “A Hairy Massage in Budapest” and “On the Experience of an Inexperienced Hill-Climber” which was shortlisted at Listowel Writers Week. Once I got married and had kids, however, it appeared that my Lawrence of Arabia days were behind me. I shelved the notebooks and got on with peeling spuds.
Opportunity knocked a few weeks back when, by some miracle of ducks and stars lining up, I was going to Bath, England for two nights during this year’s Jane Austen festival. As a huge Jane Austen fan, this trip was on my bucket list. The famous author had lived in Bath for a number of years and two of her books, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, were set there.
I was travelling solo, which almost delighted me more than it should have, when I realised that I might finally get the opportunity to become the cultured and classy travel-writer I’d always dreamed of becoming. Surely, the good people of Ireland would enjoy reading about Bath – its hotels, amenities and tourist sites. As the curator of a Jane Austen festival in Limerick and author of a humorous Austenesque novel, who better than I, therefore, to capture this spectacular Unesco centre of heritage with its Roman-built baths and Georgian crescents – the setting for many period dramas, only 40 minutes from Bristol Airport, and relay it back to the appreciative Irish masses?
Who indeed! What I had not factored in and what scuttled all my plans was that I was not a typical traveller and when it came to Jane Austen and Bath, I was not, and could not be, one bit objective. How could I take notes re the indigestible pizza I ate (that is possibly with me yet) when I was busy retracing Austen’s steps down streets that are unchanged since her time there? How could I list things to do and see when I was busy hugging trees that looked like they may be 200 years old and, therefore, she saw them too? How could I possibly write about museums when I was busy standing on Union Street imagining Captain Wentworth’s encounter with Anne Elliott and hearing his words “I am half agony, half hope” hanging in the air between them? How could I describe the landscape when I was preoccupied with rubbing and stroking the doors and walls of houses where she had lived (which are now a dentist surgery and student accommodation)?
I can only imagine a Harry Potter fan would feel the same if they found themselves wandering down Diagon Alley or entering Hogwarts. It was a personal, sensory and emotional experience that I had not expected and it was not unwelcome. Discovering that I was an Austen nut shocked me at first but having spent €3.5 billion on self-help books over the years, I understood the value of self-awareness. In that regard, at least I knew I was a nut, totally loop-the-loop and that writing a serious, factual and informative article was impossible. I was aware that when it came to Jane Austen and me, rationality had left the Georgian building and something else, much better, had entered – fun, escapism and limitless visions of walled gardens, witty dialogue and silly reverends.