This post is a part of my year-long quest in 2017 to read only female-authored travel writing. Find out more about it on the project’s main page.
There are plenty travelogues out there whose title begins with “Travels With…”. That’s unsurprising, given the best ideas for a journey come from a spark of inspiration or a hook – be that a person, an idea, or a theme. Many books come from an interest in a place, or a mode of transport, or a particular culture, but for others, the genesis lies in a potentially quite abstract concept that, somehow, opens the door to a journey.
Such books often skirt the grey area between documentary (about the thing in question), memoir (the story of the author and their interest in the thing) and travelogue (the journey that results from the author’s interest in the thing), and that’s very much the case with March’s book, Fi Glover’s Travels With My Radio.
It is, simultaneously, a reflection on Glover’s career as a radio journalist and presenter, an examination of what makes those in the industry tick, especially those in its more unusual corners, and a travelogue about a collection of mostly unconnected locations in the world threaded together only by the whim and interest of the author. In her attempt to understand what makes radio work, Glover visits small and unusual stations across the world to meet the presenters, get a sense of their listeners, and understand more about the often intimate connection between them.
Her journeys take her from Belgium to Texas to Somerset and many places in between, digging up fascinating stories about the medium and impact of radio. She meets Irish UN peacekeepers who run a tiny station out of a shed on the Lebanon-Israel border, and visits a station in Montserrat which played a critical role in keeping people safe during a volcanic eruption in the 1990s. She tracks down weird and wonderful stations in the USA, meets BBC colleagues running a special European Championships station, and hunts down associates from her first professional posting in local radio.
It’s a lively, fast-paced story with diverse backdrops and characters all revealed to us, and is peppered with delightful humour. “Like an acne-ridden teenager, Vienna appears a lot sexier at night”, she writes during a visit to Austria, and elsewhere there is amusing rant about wheelie suitcases that had me cheering on with agreement, and I had to laugh at her perceptive division of the world’s hotels between Unrealistically Named and Realistically Named.
In a contrast she manages seamlessly, there is also much poignancy during her visit to Lebanon. Referring to a former hotel building, now bombed out with a tree growing out of the roof, she asks “How did that little seed manage to grow on a bed of concrete and rubble?”
If I had to criticise the book, it’s for something that was truly beyond the author’s control – the very nature of radio itself. The medium depends inherently on two things, technology and popular culture. Both of those date quickly. This book was published in 2001, which in those two senses may as well be ancient history. While Glover predicts broadly accurately the impact of the internet on radio (at the time of her writing it was still emerging and unclear), other references look, to today’s reader, slightly awkward – like when she meets a presenter who declares himself single and happy, married to his job, and reflects that there was “something of the Jimmy Saville about that”.
Elsewhere, however, the author writes with brimming enthusiasm for the medium of radio, the dedication of presenters and the loyalty of listeners, and the social and emotional value radio plays in communities all over the world. While she writes so well about the places and people she encounters, it’s the radio itself that really gets her going, and is where her passion often soars the highest and results in the richest stretches of prose. Ultimately the book reads like a love letter to the medium of radio from an experienced and skilled industry professional.
If you want a pure travelogue, therefore, this may disappoint. That’s not, of course, to say that it is not travelogue and not qualified to be in my project. It absolutely is; as Glover’s adventures take her across the world from the Caribbean to the Middle East. The radio is certainly the star here, but the journeys turn what could have been a very different (and to me much less interesting) book about radio into something that is much more real, much more human and much more engaging.
Much of that engaging dimension to the book comes from the author herself, who writes with infectious enthusiasm, a warm and matey tone, and an at time ridiculous and cheerful sense of humour that reminds me a great deal of the playful self-deprecating style found in the travelogues of another of my favourite travel writers, Charlie Connelly. I kept being reminded of Connelly as I read, and I couldn’t help wondering if the two had ever met, and, if they had, if they made each other roar with laughter as I suspect they might.
Talking of the author, of course the whole reason she is on my project’s reading list is her gender. And here, I must end this review with a hopefully not too disappointing anticlimax. Glover refers to being a woman from time to time throughout the book, but her gender doesn’t dominate, define or direct the story in any way. And why should it? After all, one of the questions driving this year-long reading project for me is whether, if I never really dwell on male travel writers’ genders (and the writers rarely make a thing of it), I should do so in the case of female travel writers. Glover doesn’t bring her gender into her story because, for the most part, it’s irrelevant.
One of the few ways she does talk about gender that I can particularly recall is a brief reference, in the context of a female presenter in New York, of her wanting to meet a female presenter, though there is, for the purposes of my project, no real sense of why she does. And the only reference to her own gender in the context of travel is an encouraging one. She writes early on in the book:
“I still get a thrill at feeling so grown up on planes when I’m travelling alone. It seems to be the very epitome of girl independence and even though I have other trappings of a post-feiminist life (job, debt, two cats, too many choices) it’s the flying that always makes my bosom swell with pride.”
That said, it’s worth in my review dwelling on her gender purely to make the self-evident point that, I hope, this project can consistently illustrate – women can do anything in terms of travel writing that men can. There is nothing about her mission – not even hanging out in war-scarred Lebanon – that needed a man to do it, enjoy it and write about it. I hope it’s an encouragement to women interested in a particular thing that they could quite easily have their very own “travels with”.
Everyone has an interest. Everyone should be able to travel with it if they wish. Fi Glover certainly did, and wrote it about it most entertainingly.