“Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, and a horizon that’s always changing.”
“The Wind in the Willows”
Your journey may be to Ilford or it may be to India, but once you are moving, once you are on the road, all problems fall away: the report you have to finish, the fridge door that won’t shut properly, the presentation you have to prepare, the best place to keep the door key, the tax return, the leaking tap, and the next dental appointment. All these things dissolve and fall away once you shut the front door and start the car. Your bag holds all you have, you are self-contained, you are on the road, and the road never ends.
That’s not quite right, about the road never ending, I mean. There was a strange idea Harvey had had in childhood. He had longed to find a road that started off normally and then, after an hour or so, just stopped. It would just finish, just stop and come to nothing. A strange wish. Of course, roads do stop, but they end officially. They are labelled ‘No through road’ and they give you due warning. Harvey had never found the road that led him on unsuspecting, that had speed limits and road signs and roadside hoardings, and then just petered out.
Harvey left England with Jake in a large, white Ford van on a rainy morning in October. They planned to drive from Manchester to Madras.
Jake was a carpenter from County Clare in the west of Ireland. He was cheerful and big with long, curly hair and a massive beard. He was working on a building site in Manchester and had met Harvey in a pub in Rusholme. They both had plans for doing the journey overland to India. So many people in their early twenties had that plan at that time. It was the moment for young people to pack up and go east. There was even a bus which left London and then stopped in Delhi. While its companions finished their humble journey in Lewisham, New Cross or Greenwich, and turned round and came back again, as normal buses are taught to do, this bus just carried on till it reached Delhi. Those were the days! It couldn’t be done today. There are too many countries at war. Harvey and Jake bought a second hand van and a tent. They packed the van with food and started out. The first objective was the south coast of England. Then they took the hovercraft across the channel to France. From now on there would be no more sea until India. But they had crossed the channel. Overseas, that was it. Flying was an inacceptable short cut. Flying was not doing the job properly. Overseas. That was what travel meant for people from Britain and from Ireland. You had to go over the sea to get started, and so over the sea they went.
In France, on the long straight roads lined with trees, little by little, Harvey and Jake contracted that underestimated virus, the travel bug. The guidebooks to overland travel don’t mention it. They deal with malaria, yellow fever and typhoid, and they list all the corresponding vaccinations and precautions, but they do not mention the most virulent disease of all, the unrelenting need to be on the move. Harvey and Jake soon found that they had this bug in a fairly extreme form. Little by little it took control. The further they went, the stronger the hold it had. ‘Vires acquirit eundo.’ It gains strength as it goes just like Virgil’s rumour. It is a gentle addiction to start with, as all addictions are, while the tentacles are feeling their way before taking hold like limpets, but then it asserts itself: this need to be on the road, this need to be moving on, this feeling of being uncommitted to anything, just taking in the sight of the trees and the people and the towns going by.
Harvey and Jake established a routine. Up in the morning early, then make a hot breakfast. This was always fried eggs. ‘The flaming eggs are sticking to the flaming pan!’ These were the words which greeted Harvey almost every morning as he woke in the tent, and Jake was making breakfast on the little camping stove outside. Jake’s frustration with the sticking frying pan lent a homeliness to the endless road over Asia. It helped to reduce the huge size and loneliness of the plains of Iran and Afghanistan to something manageable.
They woke early when the day was still cool, and the routine was always the same: have breakfast, pack up the tent, load up the van, put the tent on the roof, tie it down, put the stove in the back of the van, check the site, find the frying pan, now there’s nothing left, good, whose turn is it to drive? Then, on the move again, from A to B, and from B to C with Asia passing by outside the window, 200 miles or so every day, each day travelling towards the east (Wordsworth? Probably), always moving on. “The great affair is to move.” (Stevenson? Definitely) Tedium cannot catch you when you’re moving. The goal was to arrive; the evening of each day saw each day’s target achieved. They pitched the tent and then they cooked a meal. Eggs and potatoes. It was always eggs and potatoes! How many eggs did they eat between London and Australia? They never had meat. And then they slept. In the morning a new goal emerged for the next day. There was always another hill. Travelling, moving, going east: that was what mattered. They left tracks which had criss-crossed the Arab world, and now they are driving over the long, lonely expanse of Asia. Later they would wander up and down India, and then, after selling the van, they would sail over the Indian Ocean past the Andaman Islands (‘The Sign of Four’? Yes). As they went along, Harvey felt separate from all the scenes they passed through. The people just the other side of the windows of the van were in a different world. A quarter of an inch of glass made all the difference! Those people stayed, Harvey and Jake moved. Their world was their house, their shop, their street. Harvey carried his own context with him like a snail carried its shell. Children going to school, old women buying their daily bread, men loading a lorry or a camel: he was irrelevant to them. He was living with no involvement in life. He was not even involved in his own life. Career objectives, in fact all objectives except finally reaching Australia, were deferred. For Harvey and Jake the open road was a suspension, an interlude. So, in this way, for over a year, they lived and travelled, travelled and lived, and finally, near the end of December, weary and fit, thin and brown, having sold the van in Nepal, they reached Singapore. There they embarked on ‘The Eastern Princess’ bound for Freemantle, Australia, but more of that voyage and of Australia later.