“Wales was every bit as foreign to my eyes as navigating an archipelago or dropping into a dinghy to visit a frigatebird”
After the West End run of my last play Daytona, there was a one-week break before taking it on tour. My co-star Harry Shearer, the actor and Simpsons voice artist, flew straight to New Orleans and Los Angeles, where he boogie-boarded and shot hoops. My other co-star (and author of Daytona) Oliver Cotton, sped to Biarritz to watch crashing waves and eat bouillabaisse. Me? I drove to North Wales with my partner, Guido, in a Volvo, with a rain hat.
Guido is a traveller in the full sense of the word. When he retired, he donned a backpack and “did” India in six weeks, clutching a Lonely Planet and queuing for street food with every gap year kid in England. The only places he hasn’t visited are Papua New Guinea, Krakow, the Dominican Republic and Belize. His best travel experience was on an ice-breaker in the Antarctic, and he still has ebullient reunions with the friends he made on a Siberian expedition ten years ago. Prior to leaving he makes lists, packs frugally and remembers insurance and sickness bands. Me? I pack the material equivalent of a shire horse and am fond of Majorca.
I get depressed at Terminal Five. Let me amend that: I get depressed when the dog sees my suitcase. When I had a cat she would get in there and stay until eventually I had to lay my clothes on top of her. I make and then lose a list, which, when I find it, I ignore. I assemble my clothes in the pathetically middle-class belief that, like a Thirties belle on the Grand Tour, I must wear a different outfit each evening — with matching bag and shoes. Then when I feel the weight of the case, I panic and chuck out all the jackets and jumpers on my way to the front door, shiver at night for the next two weeks and come home with new jumpers and jackets to chuck out next time round.
My elder brother Geoffrey is a professor of tourism and aviation, who’s been on a plane three times a week for 50 years. His card reads Geoffrey Lipman, Professor of Disruptive Architecture. Permanently jetlagged, he falls asleep mid-sentence, thinks all chairs convert to beds and all women point at exit doors. There is no spot on the globe that hasn’t stamped its logo on his passport. A split week in Melbourne and Peru holds no fear for him. Although we fought like Tasmanian Devils as children, we now adore each other and even took a memorable holiday together, travelling on the glass-topped train across Canada’s Rocky Mountains. He was on the board of the travel group and I was writing a piece on the experience. Within days we were known as the Battling Lipmans. Eagles swooped and salmon swam upstream while we ignored the majestic views and argued politics, ecology and which of us our parents loved most.
A cruise suits me better, so long as there’s no organised jollity. I like the lectures. I like sitting on the upper deck in a cardigan, reading Howard Jacobson and rustling up an acrylic painting before a gargantuan lunch. I once took a cruise purporting to be the first to go down (up?) the rivers of the Amazon rainforest. Nobody had told the townships we were coming so there were no tenders and we failed to disembark or see a single indigenous animal. It was a pity because we thought the tin-roofed houses built on stilts into the river and peppered with satellite dishes were anthropologically interesting.
I don’t have an explorer’s gene in my body. Why must I arrive two hours early to remove my shoes, jacket and belt, and queue up to place freezer-bagged toothpaste, watch, phone, belt and iPad in a plastic tray? Why must I buy Shane Warne eau de toilette from a catalogue and sit with knees in my eyes for ten hours eating microwaved tortellini? I could do all that in Ikea.
I loved my hols in North Wales and relished wandering about the towers of Conwy Castle, wondering how they got the arrows to fire through the slits into chain mail. Through bouncing rain, I bought six phials of sleep tincture on Llandudno pier. We explored Snowdonia National Park by steam train and ate Welsh cakes, secretly wishing they were scones, in a place beginning with several L’s. It was every bit as foreign to my eyes as navigating an archipelago or dropping into a dinghy to visit a frigatebird.
Guido did get me on a cruise to the Galápagos Islands last year and I’m not ungrateful. Until you’ve seen a moving hill of iguanas or the mating dance of the blue-footed booby you can’t honestly say you’ve travelled. (Off the boat, on the panga, off the panga, view the tortoises, take the photo, on the panga, off the panga, on the boat, get in your tightly-regimented group, queue up for your dinner, peer at your photos, wonder why they’re all grey.)
Truly though, I preferred my recent tour to Norwich, marvelling at the number of churches on every street and spending a week’s salary in a gloomily-lit clothes store that specialised in Croatian haute couture. And Brighton Pavilion — the table immaculately laid for 50 guests beneath glittering chandeliers, the vaulted kitchen held up by iron palm trees. Real cod and chips at Bardsley’s fish restaurant in the Max Miller room, surrounded by his blue, hand-printed suit in a glass case, and printed innuendos. A history lesson, a shot of nostalgia and a culinary feast in one swell group.
The next week it was Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. Two hours of artistic bliss in Jim Ede’s open house, sharing the foresight and quiet taste of a curator who chose to share his home and his taste long after he had passed on. A wall of Alfred Wallis, a whole body of work by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and the peace of sitting in Ede’s own Fifties armchair. I went in felled from an eight-show week and came out skipping with exhilaration to bore the pants off anyone who’d half listen.
And finally, the joy of a Sunday jazz and poetry recital in the white iron-and-glass conservatory at Blenheim Palace with the chance of a preview of Ai Weiwei’s iconoclastic exhibition — Churchill’s bed and a pair of carved wooden handcuffs — thrown in. I mean, come on! This England. The whole UK with a “No” vote behind us, lumps falling off the Shard, and extended ceramic poppies. Where in the whole wide world and Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwlllantysiliogogogoch — from any standpoint — does Earth have anything to show more fair?