A fistful of traveller’s cheques

The first proper journey I took on my own was when I was 22.

I had finished University and felt lost and unsure. I was bored and disappointed by my studies, and had left with much less interest in the subject than when I’d started. I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do; at least not a realistic clue, I had been raised to think sensibly, and ideas like being a comedy writer (my ideal job) or a rock star (never going to happen) didn’t seriously cross my mind. Such things were only available to a mysterious class of Others. I knew I didn’t want a proper job, the idea of settling down and getting a mortgage left me feeling bored and claustrophobic. I felt the tug of responsibility and expectations, I wanted people to proud of me and to be seen as succeeding in life, and so I was not thinking of entirely going rogue and avoiding the career ladder forever. I just wanted a couple more years of youthful adventure before I tried to live up to what everyone expected me to do.

I was intrigued by the idea of working my way around the world.

This has been my dream a few years earlier when my friend Adam and I were doing our A levels and we decided to buy a van and travel around Australia, working our way across the country for a year or so before deciding if we’d come back and go to University.

I had deferred conditional offers from both Salford and Keele Universities to study Economics and Politics. I was excited about either, although I preferred the former, feeling I needed to experience a gritty urban environment after my comfortable upbringing in the leafy suburbs. I knew I had a narrow view of the world, a view devoid of street cred, and was restless and desperate to put that right. I thought a year of intrepid travel then an inner-city University would tick the necessary boxes.

I failed.

It wasn’t for lack of imagination. I wanted to see Africa in particular, the continent held a fascination for me, as did India to some extent, drawn as I was to the typical hippy vibe based on my misunderstanding of Buddhism.

My ultimate dream was to sail somewhere, maybe to faraway islands in the South Pacific, or in a kayak down the world’s great rivers, camping along the way … and like a lot of people my age I was both drawn to, and repelled by, the USA. It was fashionable to be anti-American and even pro-Russian in those days, and part of me aligned with that because I wanted to be cool, but mostly I adored the idea of America and was desperate to explore it … it was so full of energy and glamour, it had brighter colours than the rest of the world, and seemed to vibrate with possibility. I used to wonder if the ground there felt different to walk on, like it had some sort of magical buzz about it, and maybe all of those idealistic notions made it feel too far out of reach, impossibly glamorous for a lad from Leeds like me … and Adam really fancied Australia, so …

It is true that our analysis didn’t extend much beyond listening to INXS and watching Neighbours, and perhaps the chance of bumping into Kylie Minogue entered into our thinking, but for me, the more we talked about it and made plans, the more Australia looked like the right answer. It would be somewhere I could find my true self, be accepted, and maybe even flourish.

We decided to spend a full year travelling, finding work wherever we could to pay our way. We pored over maps looking for places we really wanted to see, and talked about whether we’d feel more at home in Perth, or Sydney, or Brisbane … already picking favourites, despite having no idea what any of the places were really like.

We were going to buy a cheap old van and do it up ourselves, turning it into a caravan so we could sleep in it during our adventure. Adam had the brilliant idea of using hammocks for beds so we’d save space, so we weren’t short of creative solutions.

To fund the plan, Adam had seen an advert for bus drivers, and we figured we could do that for a year, working every possible shift, driving the worst routes, and saving as much money as we could. After a year we guessed we’d have enough for our flight tickets with sufficient change to buy a van and keep us going until we found work.

We were excited about it, and decided to get an old van immediately and crack on with restoring it. Once we’d got it all ready, we could simply ship it to Australia, saving us the trouble of buying one at the other end. This would surely be cheaper than a human ticket, we reasoned, because there was no need to provide meals.

Looking back at it now, I see that there was no part of this plan that made any sense at all, especially the hammocks.

I was serious enough about it to check out the air and sea freight rates, and this was fortunate because we quickly realised that buying the van here and shipping it halfway around the world wasn’t a very good idea. We perhaps should have also realised that neither of us had any relevant experience or skills when it came to the restoration of vehicles, and a lifetime of reading adventure stories and listening to Pink Floyd hadn’t prepared me for hardcore mechanics.

I wasn’t deterred. I applied for the bus driver job, and got an interview. This was my first proper job interview, and I was nervous. My entire future depended on this plan, and I had one short interview to convince them that I was their man.

I failed.

His first question was “Why does a lad with eight O levels want to become a bus driver?”

I hadn’t prepared for this question, or indeed any questions.

I answered: “I eventually want to go into transport management, but I’d like to work my way up. I don’t think any bus driver would have much respect for an 18-year-old in management, so I’d like to do the job first for a few years, then look at my options”

I was quite pleased with that!

He didn’t look impressed, and said: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

I realised I needed to sound realistic, so I said, “Well, I think that’s about around the time when I’d be looking at getting into management”

He put down my CV and looked at me.

“The thing is,” he said, “We’re looking for bus drivers”

I was disappointed, and so was Adam, although he didn’t even apply, so probably wasn’t taking our plan quite as seriously as I was.

I didn’t give up.

My next interview was for a job I really wanted, and had I got it I would have given up the Australia adventure and even my plans to go to University.

I’d been an avid photographer as a child, earning my Photography badge with the Cub Scouts, and spending a lot of my holidays trying to snap decent photos, which wasn’t easy with an old Agfamatic 901 camera that shot wobbly photos on 110 film.

That I shot any good photos at all with this inflexible horror is a testament to my ability to take a decent photograph.

So when I saw a photographer job advertised in the Yorkshire Evening Post, I applied with excitement. This felt right, like it was made for me, and I was sure they’d see I was the perfect fit!

The thing is, interviews don’t work that way. No one sees what’s inside you, they see only what’s on the outside: the way you look and the things you say and do.

It’s not preordained by destiny, it’s not “meant to be”, it’s decided by a flawed and biased human being, probably bored and distracted, asking questions to try to figure out who’ll be the best person for the job.

This job would be life-changing, it would define me for ever. I would be able to grow into becoming the artistic persona who drove a VW Beetle that I desperately wanted to be … but I had no case to make, no prior experience, no portfolio of success, I just needed the interviewer to peer inside me and spot the spark of potential and take a chance.

That I even got an interview was incredible. I assume this was an open-minded hiring manager taking a chance on a kid straight out of school, and if so, I am grateful to him. I was hopelessly out of my depth, but he indulged me. He listened to my stories about the Cub Scouts photography badge and my holiday snaps, and then asked someone to show me around, saying “This is John, not much experience, but obviously really keen, can you show him around please”

As I began the tour, I saw the next interviewee waiting to go in. He was a proper man – maybe 30 years old – with a bulging portfolio under his arm. I’m guessing he didn’t have to lean on his Cub Scout photography badge during his interview.

The photography studio was wonderful. It was exactly the kind of work environment I would have adored. It was arty but practical and unpretentious, creative but realistic, with interesting stylish people who were dedicated and hard-working. I am over-romaticising it, they were taking photographs for retail catalogues, not changing the world, but to my young idealistic eyes I was completely wowed by it all.

I didn’t get the job, so decided to refocus on getting cash for the Australia trip, and so I tried an Estate Agency.

This interview went better, up to the point where he told me how little I would earn. Taking into account my commute and other expenses, I would have made a net loss each week. I wouldn’t have minded this if it was a field I really wanted to get into (I’d have jumped at such a deal from the photography place) but my plan was to accumulate cash, not give it away, and so when I got the call saying I’d made the final three, I withdrew my name.

The Australia plan fizzled out, the final bucket of cold water being my very mediocre A level results that slammed a few doors shut – I certainly wasn’t going to Salford or Keele – and if I wanted to open those doors again, I needed to spend a year doing resits.

Australia, university, photography and bus driving were now all off the table, but following a year working in various dead-end jobs and studying to put things back in order, I sneaked into Leeds Polytechnic a year after everyone else.

Three years later, as my degree was drawing to a close, I had to think about what to do next.

Could I really work my way around the world?

I knew I didn’t want a proper job, and I knew some things I did want: to continue the student lifestyle, to travel, to experience living in a different country, and to learn a language.

I applied for Camp America, thinking it’d be great to spend a few months in the US working with kids on a summer camp. I didn’t fancy working in the kitchens or cleaning the toilets, and so applied to be a Camp Counselor, working directly with the kids and (hopefully) earning some tidy tips when their parents came to visit.

I failed.

I attended an introductory event, completed the forms, got some good references together, and did an excellent interview – leaning heavily on my experience working with youth groups in theatre – and never heard from them again.

My plan was to come back from Camp America and then join the army. This might seem like an odd choice for an irreverent lazybones like me, but the Adjutant General’s Corps had piqued my interest at a job fair and I thought the army might jolt me out of the rut I’d got myself stuck in. They were advertising for teachers to help soldiers prepare for the academic side of officer training at Sandhurst, to teach gurkhas to learn English, and to create educational materials. The job sounded fantastic, it would force me to get fit and would be a fascinating experience, plus having a few years in the army would be the kind of CV porn that would open up a vast number of sensible opportunities in the future.

The Familiarisation Visit (“Fam Visit”) was my first encounter with British Rail pricing policies that meant going via London was about twice as expensive as going via Birmingham then Banbury, moving on to increasingly small lines as I edged nearer to Wilton Park. I was quite excited by this, these were new routes and new stations to me, and such was my life at the time that a trip to see Birmingham’s New Street Station was keeping me awake with excitement.

The Fam Visit was a mixed bag. The job sounded wonderful, the explanatory sessions were interesting, the food was good, the evening was fun (I attended my first Scottish cèilidh) and had it not been for the five-mile run broken up with press-ups and shouting, I might have gone for it.

The run was not unreasonable and not unexpected (they had told us there was an assault course), but I was unfit and didn’t even own a pair of trainers (I was made to do it in my Doc Martens) and so as the group set out, all gung-ho and outdoorsy and macho, I felt completely out of my depth.

After a couple of miles, we had to stop, I couldn’t go on … I flopped down on a tree stump, the Major shouted at me: “Get up!” and then to emphasise the point, she made everyone do press-ups for a bit.

I failed.

As we all jogged back, with the end in sight, I managed to get into a rhythm. I’d broken through whatever barrier had floored me a few miles ago, and was now mindlessly plodding home.

The Major ran alongside me and started with the clunky psychology: “I think you were trying to wimp out back there,” she said, “don’t you think so?”

“No,” I said, “I’m unfit, I know that, that’s all,” but the culture was making itself clear to me, and from that moment on, the Major was out to show me how much of a misfit I was. Later she stared in astonishment and asked “have you shaved?” and I said no, because I hadn’t shaved, because I barely needed to shave once a week never mind once a day, and after the late night cèilidh, I just hadn’t bothered in the morning.

She demanded I immediately go off to shave and so I went to the bathroom, unpacked my shaving kit and shaved. Later she looked at me and rolled her eyes – yet more evidence that this one wasn’t a good fit: “Is that the same shirt as yesterday?” she asked, incredulous, and I nodded (I didn’t have any shirts, this was my sole surviving school shirt).

“It’s black!” she roared as spotted the tiny barely-visible dot on the otherwise clean white shirt.

The offending dot was blood from having just fucking shaved in the toilets!

I was starting to get the message that the army didn’t want irreverent boys who didn’t shave properly and couldn’t run very far. They were looking for tough rugger players who clicked with the macho culture and were already proper adults, not awkward lazy students who still hadn’t yet worked out how to be a grown-up. They wanted soldiers who fit their mould, I was a misfit wanting to be a teacher. They didn’t say no to me exactly, so I can’t say I failed because I never tried. They had made it clear that there was a huge chasm between me and what they wanted. I went home determined to get fit and prove them wrong. I ran every morning for three days, but this petered out and I allowed all the warnings about how tough Sandhurst was to get under my skin and I let the idea drift away. I still wonder what might have happened if I’d gone for it. In truth the chasm wasn’t that I couldn’t run five miles, that was easy to fix, it was cultural, and I knew I didn’t fit in.

I finished my final exams, completed my rubbish dissertation, and got my mediocre degree. I still insist that academia failed me at least as much as I failed it, but either way, I was a 22-year-old graduate with itchy feet who needed to make some decisions about life.

I was working two jobs, data-entry by day, pizza delivery by night, so I had some money coming in and needing to break away, to do something different and see something of the world, I decided to go to Spain to teach English.

I didn’t know much about Spain, but I had backpacked there the previous summer with some friends, working our way across the north coast. We imagined it would be fairly quiet as the weather wasn’t as good as down south on the Mediterranean, but that’s exactly why it was extremely busy and expensive. A lot of Spanish people go north in the summer to escape the heat, a concept unimaginable for a Brit. After being conned in San Sebastian, stuck on an industrial estate in Santurce, and sleeping in a field in Comillas, we eventually hired a car in Santander just so we had somewhere to sleep. We drove south to Reinosa, and along the Ebro valley, ending up in Briviesca – a tiny village in the middle of their summer fiestas. We had a fantastic time, Spain was a wonderful combination of lively and laid back, with great food and wine, gorgeous beaches, and pretty girls. Even the language didn’t seem as impenetrable as French or German and so I decided Spain would be my destination.

I enrolled to do a week-long introductory TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course.
The school was on the second-floor of a scruffy building on Vicar Lane in central Leeds, run by a man called Nigel. Despite this, it was excellent. I started the week with the vague notion of teaching in Spain after completing a longer TEFL qualification in the new year and doing a year’s worth of Spanish classes, but ended it – just five days later – full of confidence and excitement and raring to go immediately.

This is the sign of a good training course: it not only adds knowledge and starts the process of skill development, it also builds confidence and motivation.

The TEFL place on Vicar Lane

This was timely. The course coincided with my self-confidence hitting rock bottom.

I hadn’t much enjoyed my studies, and my social life had revolved around my housemates who were slightly older than I was, and they had drifted off into more sensible lives, the shared house returned to its owner. I was again living with my parents, uncertain about everything … even uncertain about who I was and how to approach navigating my awkward personality. I tried to be outrageous and funny during the TEFL course, which worked sometimes, but mostly it was disruptive and silly. I was unwilling to be an introverted nonentity but didn’t know how to be anything else, and so instead of getting good at being me, I tried to try to be someone else, an extroverted wisecrackin’ loose cannon, and as always when we try to be someone we’re not, we’re not very good at it.

I worked on one assignment with a nomadic guy called Kim. His life was travelling around in a van getting work wherever he could find it, and he thought having a TEFL qualification in his quiver would be another way to earn money as he wandered the world. I was transfixed by this lifestyle, and quizzed him on it endlessly, but never imagined I could do it, not least because it involved completely opting out of normal life, eschewing the usual measures of success. I wasn’t ready to do that, it seemed like someone else’s gig, and too much of a hustle for my taste, not really a life of romantic freedom but a life on the poverty line, scratching around for work, always looking for the next meal.

I introduced him to the Bavarian Doughnut from Ainsley’s bakery (a custard-filled sugary pastry), but never got to hear what he thought of it because he saved it for later. I still don’t understand how anyone could save a Bavarian Doughnut for later.

Another student on the course (Helen) was heading straight off to León in Spain to start a job at a school that September. I decided to follow her, I had nowhere better to go and at least I’d know one person, maybe she could even help me get a job. I arranged to meet Kim there too, so we could have Christmas together, it would be fun to have some company and as he was driving down to Spain anyway, he promised to meet up. I badgered him about it, giving him my parent’s number so he could call them to find out where I was. He laughed saying “you don’t seem to believe that I’m going to show up! I will be there, I promise!”

I never saw him again.

And so I sold my bass guitar and amplifier (I had failed to become a rock star, or even an able musician) and worked every shift I could, losing two-nights’ pay when I accidentally reversed the pizza delivery car into someone who sneaked into my parking space as I was reversing in. On reflection, it wasn’t entirely my fault, but I think it’s probably too late to unpick the details of the incident now; I have come to terms with the loss of that £30.

Despite this, I amassed £1000, converted it to traveller’s cheques in Spanish pesetas, and phoned Helen’s parents for her address in León, discovering she had moved further north to Oviedo. I packed my old rucksack and got my cheap airline ticket and with no job, no accommodation and virtually no Spanish, I set off on the biggest adventure of my life.

Map of Leeds in 1815 (Vicar Lane is visible) although please note that I was there many years after this (map from Workers Lunchtime)

(The publication date of this post has been changed to match the time I was writing about, rather than the time it was written. This was just to keep things in the right order. In case you’re interested, it was written in early 2021).

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