Although a few people at college had mentioned Australia as a holiday destination, the concept of a gap year took me completely by surprise. Immediately, people I spoke to strongly urged me to take one myself after university, also fairly common practice. Throughout the first and second years, my attitude towards the possibility of extensive travel wavered somewhat: for a long period, I was so concerned about student debt that I didn't think travelling would be practical for years; then followed a brief period when, my finances under control, I seriously considered the idea. Ultimately, however, once I had firmly decided upon my career path and to that end gained a place on a prestigious postgraduate course in film archiving, I put the idea right out of my head and resolved to keep myself on the straight & narrow, undistracted.
I had, throughout my undergraduate years, heard many people exalting the capacity of travel to 'broaden one's horizons,' and some (students & lecturers alike) seemed under the impression that this was essential for anyone seeking to work in a cultural profession as I was. This perspective made some sense; it made me consider the fact that I had never been outside Europe, and certainly needed & wanted to see some far-flung places. The paradox lay in the fact that I have Asperger Syndrome: on the one hand, this meant that my tastes in terms of individual holidays were quite different from those of most of my peers, a problem which combined with the unlikelihood of me raising a family to make my chances of taking regular foreign holidays as a working adult seem scant; on the other hand, it meant that despite all those issues I was ultimately unable to reconcile the idea of devoting a substantial period of time solely to travelling, for I could not see such an activity as anything other than veering 'off the rails' of my career path, I felt that my need for stability & structure would prevent me from enjoying a trip on which one cannot book everything in advance, and above all - having endured substantially life-changing personal problems while studying - I was convinced that my personality was set in stone and could not benefit from the 'cultural insights' of travel.
In addition to my concerns over my condition, and my belief that travel could not 'mould' me as it did others, the issue soon became an ideological one. I had, throughout my later childhood & teenage years, gone through several 'phases' of political belief and attitude towards my Britishness; but by the time I commenced my postgraduate film archiving course at 21, I had found my place as a staunch patriot, fervent monarchist, and firm believer in old Middle English values. Therefore, when it became obvious that the overwhelming majority of the people on my new course (British & foreign alike) were obsessed with travel, I started to look upon the gap year phenomenon more cynically - seeing it as a stormy wave of internationalism sweeping my generation and destroying pride in one's country. What I failed to realise before it was almost too late, was that the death knells of British patriotism had been sounded years before, and that they would ultimately have been made good even if not a single British youngster had ever felt the urge to travel the world to better themselves. At the time, despite many differences of opinion with my postgraduate colleagues, I resolved to keep my head down and continue to shun what I perceived to be this most un-British school of thought. Disaster, as far as my career plans were concerned, lay around the corner in the form of conflict with my residential live-in landlady, an ex-actress from the Indian subcontinent who'd attained local political prominence through her late husband the Lord Mayor, and whose dictatorially-enforced domestic regimes and 'lectures on life' had caused me to become depressed. I had to get away from her, no matter what hurdles she tried to place in my way. This experience made my depression so bad that I lost all interest in a film-related career. I was forced to abandon my course and found myself 'cast adrift' with some money inherited from my grandparents to keep me afloat but no ambitions or goals to drive me on.
The reactions of many of the people I had spoken to in connection with the domestic problem, and their inability to understand why I'd had no choice but to take the measures I had taken in order to get away, were further evidence that I belonged to a dying breed of person living by old English values; furthermore, deep down inside I knew that if I continued to doggedly stick to my guns on this issue then it would ultimately bring me only sorrow & loneliness; but despite the depression, my feelings of defiance remained too strong for me to fully accept this, especially since the problem landlady had herself been one of the most vocal preachers of the "Thou shalt travel the world" doctrine, and I thus resolved to use the money I'd inherited to fund an all-out assault on the job market, supplemented by temporary work where possible. Throughout the 2 years that followed, I managed to experience just about the entire spectrum of what is wrong with 21st Century Britain in my search for a job, most notably: stifling bureaucracy; obsession with charm, spin & je-ne-sais-qois; maddening political correctness; and erosion of civil liberties (the latter affects everybody of course, but the former three are particularly bad news if you're an Autistic Spectrum Disorder sufferer trying to secure satisfactory employment - which is ironic to say the least given the fact that New Labour swept to power vowing to end all discrimination and create equal opportunities for all). My longest period of temp work was a social nightmare, with travel often the only topic of pub conversation. In the end I accepted that the game was up as far as the job front was concerned, and that although most of my money was gone there was only one worthwhile thing to be done with what was left - go travelling. I was all set to book my flights when a shock job offer materialised, and I accepted it because part of me was still clinging to my 'safety zone,' but since it involved working for a home-based sole trader I knew it would offer no social opportunities; and with my lifestyle remaining very solitary despite my best efforts after several months, even while the job itself was going very well, I finally accepted that travelling was something I simply had to do: if I didn't seize the opportunity, I realized I would be forever institutionalised, not only as a rare Middle Englander among my generation, but into a lifestyle of 9-5 work, watching sport & films, reading and little else; in short, if you disregard the fact that I was earning money, I might as well be a 24-year-old single OAP; not willing to let this happen, I wasted no time in booking my tickets to depart after a year in the job. Most of my gap year would be spent in New Zealand, which I had wanted to visit since I saw the first Lord of the Rings film (more on this in later chapters), sandwiched between visits to India (plus a brief stay in Thailand) and Australia (followed by parts of South America) - my three main destinations all former British Colonies, two of them still Commonwealth Realms.
Throughout the coming months I was given several further demonstrations of old Middle England's demise, including quarrels with banks (professionally as well as personally since I was working for a financial adviser) & retailers exposing the total absence of not only the old system of common law, but indeed common sense itself, in modern society; but the single moment when I knew not only how fortunate I was to be getting away, but that if given the opportunity (i.e. work permit sponsorship) I must stay in New Zealand, was when Tony Blair ended his premiership by signing up to the new EU treaty, thus setting in motion the final surrender of Britain's sovereignty to an unelected bureaucracy, without even so much as a murmuring of discontent from the public which had - 4 years previously - staged the largest protest marches the country has ever witnessed in order to voice its vehement opposition to the invasion of Iraq.
|India: Reflections on the Raj|
I chose India as my first port of call mainly because I have long held a certain fascination with Indian history & culture (not to mention a great love of Indian food) and because - in order to break me out of my 'institutionalised' lifestyle - I felt I needed to spend some time away from the West. Some of my old friends from university told me that the culture shock would be simply too strong for me to cope with; that the lack of certain home comforts, sight of widespread poverty, health hazards, and constant invasion of personal space by beggars, would cause me at best to come home or at worst to create a diplomatic incident. While I knew there to be some very basic truth in those warnings, there was never any doubt in my mind that the extremity of them was based on an ultra-cynical stereotypical view of subcontinental culture, and that if I took the necessary health & safety precautions and found a high-quality tour operator then my time in India could be whatever I made of it; this ethos seemed to perfectly match that of Intrepid Travel, so I booked myself onto their 'Unforgettable India' tour, which enables Western travellers to experience a wide cultural repertoire and a taste of subcontinental living without withdrawing all the amenities of home. Nevertheless, I was highly conscious of the fact that I would be visiting the land over which my not-too-distant ancestors once ruled with an iron fist, although when I booked my tickets I did not realize that I would be arriving in Delhi just a few weeks after the celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of India's independence.
Since the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, a succession of Indian leaders have vowed - and failed - to finally achieve his ultimate goal of eliminating widespread poverty, without there having been any serious move towards free healthcare or a benefits system. That being the case, a good starting point would seem to be the abolition of school fees for those whose families cannot afford them, for this would enable even very poor children to be educated and - in the long run - would ensure that many more physically- and psychologically-equipped people had the skills needed to work. Getting all who can work into work is a commendable initiative, but the question of how effective this could be as a long-term solution is somewhat vexed.
In the final analysis, at least at this early stage of my travels, I will not seek (despite my reservations about India's chances of becoming socially developed) to pass judgement on a socio-economic system I cannot fully understand; instead I will just be glad that I was given the opportunity to witness & participate in a rich ancient culture, and to meet so many friendly & hardworking people who take such immense pride - in their work, in their families, and above all in their country.
Chapter 2: Arrival in New Zealand