View from Vitalia: Of sharks, statues, soccer and the art of getting lost

Despite life’s general unpredictability, certain events and happenings can occasionally be foreseen without technological aids

‘Wonderfully predictable’ – so goes the official logo of Trainline – “the UK’s leading independent train ticket retailer” (according to its own website). Remembering the ongoing new-timetable-triggered train commuters’ nightmare, which my wife has to confront twice a day, that motto starts sounding somewhat dubious, not to say mockingly dubious. I can predict, for instance, that, having endured today’s inevitable commuter train delays and overcrowding (she will probably have to sit on the floor again!), my wife will come home late and with tears in her eyes. Predictable? Sadly, yes... But not all that  “wonderful”.

In the meantime, life itself remains thoroughly – even “wonderfully” unpredictable – thanks to God, new technologies, weather and Croatia’s football team! Below are some examples.

In one of my recent View from Vitalia blog posts, I lamented having all but lost my precious old hack’s ability to attract trouble, the example being my visit last year to South Korea which – contrary to the fears of many of my friends and colleagues – did not precipitate the start of World War III, but was actually followed very closely by a sudden sharp improvement in the North-South relations. So pleased were my South Korean hosts with the aftermath of my trip that they now want to dispatch me there again in autumn, hoping probably that a quick and painless reunification will ensue. Well, with all due respect, I would advise my Korean friends to hold their horses, i.e. to play their expectations down a bit for one simple reason: my trouble-making capacity may have come back. Here are two fresh proofs from one and the same literary source.

In my recently published sci-fi comedy thriller ‘Out of the Blu’, one of the main characters gets (rather plausibly) stung by a jellyfish while swimming in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Majorca. Ten days after the book’s publication, I myself was splashing carelessly in the same Mediterranean Sea (not off Majorca, but Kefalonia) and became the first and only swimmer – out of many hundreds around – to be stung by an endemic and rare, as I was assured by a friendly local pharmacist, specimen of a jellyfish, or, as they call it in Spanish (and in Russian), “medusa”. Later in the book, the same character gets attacked and bitten by a great white shark, also while in Majorca... Now, that latest episode was entirely a figment of my writer’s imagination, for white or any other sharks are as rare off Majorcan coast as snowstorms are in the Sahara desert.

In front of me is the 30 June 2018 issue of the Daily Mail newspaper. “Jaws lurks off Majorca” screams the punchy (or, in this case, ‘bitey’) headline at the top of page 3 – the spot where some other British tabloids traditionally carried pics of very lightly dressed (even by Majorca beach standards) girls. There’s no trace of a pretty or any other girl (or boy) on the page I am looking at, unless of course she had already ended up inside the belly of the huge shark, with its toothy gullet wide-open, whose head shot takes pride of place. “A great white; they can leap several feet from the water,” the caption asserts reassuringly. “A great white shark has been spotted off Majorca by a team of biologists,” goes on the article, having warned “British tourists” that they might be  “joined” (on a beach) by a “fearsome predator”. Since neither German, nor French or any other tourists but British are mentioned in the piece, one can assume that the paper doesn’t think they are even worthy of being warned.

As you see, life again has been overtaken by literature.

Not all has been dark and scary in the Vitalia domain though. A couple of weeks ago, I was extremely pleased to be appointed – again, rather unexpectedly for myself, i.e. unpredictably – Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of Great Britain (FRGS). Yes, that very RGS which at different times had Captain Scott, Shackleton, Livingstone and, from what I was told, Joseph Conrad too in its ranks... Oops, nearly forgot the legendary Professor Challenger from Conan Doyle’s  ‘The Lost World’.

 In any case, I gratefully accepted the Fellowship of course, but kept wondering why exactly I had been given such an honour. My travel books, columns and lots of radio and TV travelogues might have played a role. But when I found out that the Society’s incumbent President was none other than writer, broadcaster and accomplished traveller Nicholas Crane, I thought I got the answer.

The truth is that once – in 1998 or 1999, both Nicholas and I were taking part in the Way with Words literary festival in Dartington. That was where we actually first met one summer afternoon, and since our respective appearances were not due until the next day, decided to go for a walk in the outskirts of that small Devon village. What happened then defies belief, but I can assure you it is true.

In my travel-writing lectures and seminars, I have always told the students that the best quality of a travel writer is lack of the sense of direction and the ability to get lost, because it is only then – when you get seriously stranded – that you open up your eyes and start noticing and registering in your memory every little detail of the surrounding landscape. As for myself, I had (and still have) that quality (no sense of direction) in abundance, and even back then, in 1999 (or 1998), had experienced multiple incidents of being totally lost in such seemingly small and straightforward locations as Liechtenstein (one of Europe’s smallest states, where – without realising it – I ended up in neighbouring Austria during a short walk in the woods), Sark (a tiny Channel island with a population of 1000 and no mountains or cars), and on an even smaller Great Barrier Reef island, the name of which I cannot recall now, but do remember how scared I was by not being able to find my cabin after a late supper in the island resort’s  canteen. I had to scream for help at the top of my lungs to wake up a resort staff member (they go to bed early in Queensland) who angrily escorted me to the cabin, which, incidentally, was no more than 50 metres away.

Having said that, I would still insist that I do have a sense of direction, for if I lacked one completely, I would sometimes find the right way by mistake. That never happens. I ALWAYS take the wrong way – which means that I do have a sense of direction, but an entirely topsy-turvy one.

At least that last Great Barrier Reef island adventure happened during the Australian winter: it was hot and humid, but already pitch dark – and my afternoon walk through Devon countryside with Nicholas Crane was at the height of summer, and the sun was still shining brightly. Do I need to tell you that we soon got hopelessly, irretrievably lost – within ten minutes of the Festival’s venue? Nicholas, who had already walked through the mountains of Europe, wrote a book about that hike and was destined to walk all along Britain’s coast in the future, was somewhat embarrassed, but I put him at ease by sharing my recipe for being a real travel writer (which he of course already was) – and my own adventures.

I don’t remember how we eventually found the way back to Dartington. I think a local resident, whom we asked for directions – I have always been a staunch opponent of asking for directions but we had no choice then, or so we thought – might have saved us. In short, it was very late when we finally arrived back. My talk was the first one of the following morning, but Nicholas heroically turned up at it, despite the apparent lack of sleep. He very supportive throughout and even laughed every now and then (I was introducing my book ‘Borders Up!’).

It goes without saying that I then attended his talk too. Before parting company and returning home, however, we reached an oral agreement to keep our previous night’s adventure confidential not to undermine our reputations in the eyes (and ears) of those individuals, vulture-like book reviewers in particular, who may not be aware of my self-invented dictum to the effect that getting lost is essential for a travel writer.

I do believe that nearly twenty years’ gap is enough time to breach that agreement of ours and am sure Nicholas won’t be angry with me, his accidental fellow traveller in Devon who has just been appointed Fellow of the Society of  geographers and intrepid travellers, of which he is now President.

Who could have possibly predicted that?..

You may think that life’s sheer unpredictability – both “wonderful” and not very – has been demonstrated by the ongoing Football World Cup. Indeed, few could foresee that the young England team would progress so well in the tournament. Until yesterday’s encounter with Croatia, of course. There was a good deal of boisterous and rather worrying (to me at least) hoo-ha in the country during the run-up to the game. Some British media outlets’ bravado was such that one could be forgiven for believing that not only had England already won the 2018 World Cup, but that it had also been winning it continuously every four years since 1966 (I will never forget watching that historic World Cup while on holidays in Tallinn, with my granddad, on a tiny black-and-white TV screen).

That unadulterated boldness reached its crescendo on the eve of the game. It was at that point that I knew for sure – believe it or not – that England was going to lose to Croatia.

No Cassandra, I came to this conclusion when, on the day before the game, I came across the following headlines in many English newspapers, including the ‘serious’ ones and not just the ‘wild’ tabloids: “England fans want to erect a Gareth Southgate statue in his hometown of Crawley  and the council is listening” (to sum them all up in one).

That ‘Southgate statue’ issue was also wildly mooted on national radio and TV, with the consensus being “yes, the charismatic coach of the would-be World Cup winners deserves a monument to himself!” All my life I have been wary of statues and monuments to ‘great leaders’. One of the reasons was probably growing up under the shadow of the huge statue of Lenin, with his outstretched right hand pointing to the bright future, or as some local wits assured (prior to being arrested that is) – to the nearest vodka shop. We were supposed to adore Lenin (or rather his statue) on the days of finishing school, graduation, wedding anniversaries, first dates and so on. We had to and we did. The only alternative was to join the “local wits” (see above) in their uncomfortable KGB prison cells.

Everybody knows where all those countless monuments to Lenin, Stalin, Gorky, Sverdlov, Mayakovsky and the lot are now – all gone: destroyed, or tucked away in some deserted and hard-to-access museums.

Seriously thinking and publicly talking about erecting a statue to a football coach, even one as charming as Southgate appears to be, could not fail to immediately, even if unnoticeably in the beginning, corrupt not just the coach himself, but his young players too and lead to a severe collective case of the illusion of  grandeur – the condition that inevitably marks the end of endeavour, (read achievement), for what’s left to achieve when you are already the best and the greatest? And although there was no talk (as yet) of erecting monuments to each separate England player, including the goalkeeper, in their native towns and villages, they were all loudly lauded as “heroes” and “wonder boys, who write history”.

Compare this to the insulting language of a TV commentator in the immediate aftermath of the Croatia game talking, among other things, about (I quote) “the clumsy and flat-footed England defence”. Crowd mentality can be cruel.

And this is, to my mind, one of the big problems of British football: the moment young players and coaches reach some minimal prominence, they start being bombarded with praise, fame and money (remember David Beckham?) and promptly forget first how to score penalties and then how to kick the ball. After which the wrath of the crowd falls upon their poor rich heads...

I hope that while still in Moscow, Gareth Southgate will be wise enough to learn that Russia itself is a good example of what happens to hastily engineered statues: they inevitably – and very predictably – end up on the proverbial scrap heap of history.

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