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Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams
As a child growing up in North London travel writer Robin Mead’s dream, for as long as he could remember, was to be a journalist. “Whilst other boys were dreaming of becoming train drivers, or whatever else constituted professional ambition in the 1940s,” he writes, “I produced mock-ups of newspapers filled with local gossip both real and imagined”. Something which no doubt stood him in good stead some years later when working for a local newspaper he and a colleague, to cover the fact that in their editor’s absence they had spent the day in the cinema watching Some Like it Hot, fabricated a story about a tea-drinking giant cabbage in Ponders End. A plan that backfired when the editor decided it should be front page news and wanted photographs to accompany the article.
Mead’s dream of being a journalist had become a reality in 1953 when, at the age of 16, he joined the Enfield Weekly Herald as a junior reporter on a six-month probationary period leading to a three-year apprenticeship. An entrée into journalism which he reflects now sounds very “old fashioned”. Coincidentally the same year saw the publication of L.P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between, which opens with the famous line, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”, a line which is both apposite to Mead’s journalistic beginnings and also to Press Trip as a whole.
As a freelance travel writer for over four decades Mead has written 29 travel guide books and over the course of the last five decades countless travel articles for newspapers and magazines worldwide. As a result of which he has visited over 100 countries and continues to travel around 50,000 miles a year. Press Trip, as his first volume of memoirs, is his first book to visit that foreign country that is the past and look back on the many thousands of miles travelled. One of the many fascinating facets of this journey is just how dramatic the changes have been in newspapers, journalism, and travel during Mead’s career.
After serving his apprenticeship Mead moved on to work for national newspapers, first the Daily Herald (which was later re-launched as The Sun), then the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, followed by The Times and Sunday Times. At that time Fleet Street was not only a generic descriptive phrase for the national press but also a literal description of where the majority of the newspapers had their offices. During the course of Mead’s career that has all changed – there are now no newspapers based in the street. But when Mead arrived in Fleet Street in 1959, even standing on the pavement in the early evening he could feel “the anticipation and excitement” generated by the fact that, as he evocatively describes:
“deadlines were approaching; news editors were shouting at reporters to finish their stories; sub-editors were sweating over headlines; Linotype machines were chattering with increasing urgency, turning thousands of words into hot metal; in cavernous basements the huge printing presses – as vast and impressive as the mighty steam locomotives I had once so admired – were standing by to begin their nightly ‘run'; and lorries were already lining up to take the first editions to the main line railway stations for distribution around the country”.
It’s not just the location of newspapers that has changed dramatically during Mead’s career, but also the culture within their offices. When he first started working in Fleet Street not only were the titles almost entirely all-male preserves, but many of the senior positions were occupied by former military officers. At the Telegraph newspapers the hierarchies between the ‘officers’ and ‘other ranks’ even extended to which toilets they were allowed to use. Whilst when Mead moved to The Times in the mid-1960s the newspaper, although attempting to shake them off, still had some of its traditional vestiges, as he writes, “sub-editors traditionally had their afternoon tea served by a butler in front of the fire […] and the editor and other department heads liked to get home in plenty of time to change for dinner”.
In the 1986 Mead found himself on the front line, or more specifically the picket line, during the ‘Wapping Dispute’, which brought seismic changes to The Times newspapers, and ultimately would bring about the demise of Fleet Street as the geographical home to the newspaper industry. By the mid-1980s The Times and Sunday Times were owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International who had secretly built and equipped new offices and a printing plant in the Wapping area of London. The NUJ (National Union of Journalists) advised their members not to work in the new building unless agreements were reached on a raft of issues covering the move. A strike ensued and the strikers, of whom Mead was one, became known as ‘refuseniks’. When the strike ended as he writes in his insightful and emotive chapter covering the dispute, the remaining ‘refuseniks’ were dismissed. Mead went to work at The Observer, but it is clear that having worked for The Times newspapers for three decades the dismissal hurt.
The media coverage of travel has also been another big change during Mead’s career growing exponentially hand in hand with the rise in mass tourism and the widespread availability of air travel. “Travel editors were”, as Mead writes, “a rare breed in the early 1960s”. Serendipitously the Daily Herald, his first national newspaper job, did have a travel editor and looked favourably on such content, and his first Fleet Street by-line was an article about a holiday in Cornwall.
By the end of the decade Mead had written over 200 travel articles, including the first travel articles ever to be published in the London Evening Standard, and travel had become very much a buzz word – the BBC began broadcasting its long-running Holiday programme in 1969, which would be followed by ITV’s Wish You Were Here in 1974, both of which would include amongst their regular presenters Mead’s then Travel editor at The Times, John Carter. Whilst keeping a part-time Editorial Executive role at The Times newspapers, Mead launched himself into what he describes as “the Golden Years of travel” (the 1970s and early 1980s) as a freelance travel writer.
Through his many articles and books Mead quickly established himself as an expert on particular countries and areas of travel, principally Greece, Australia, the USA, and closer to home the Channel Islands and Britain, and also on all aspects of cruise ships and cruises. As he reflects on the miles travelled in Press Trip the book becomes not only an highly engaging travelogue filled with amusing, inspiring, often gripping, and sometimes poignant adventures, but also a fascinating and revelatory behind-the-scenes insight into the writing of travel books and articles with all the help, hindrance, and often extraordinary behaviour of PR people, hoteliers and the like, and fellow journalists.
Incidents that include, to highlight but a few, being manhandled away from an interview in the USA with the founder of the Marriot Hotel chain, J Willard Marriot – an interview that Marriot was only too happy to give Mead, whilst Mrs Marriot made cups of tea for them both – by four PR men who held Mead against a wall whilst demanding his interview notes, despite Marriot’s protests. Whilst, on another trip to the US being lead by a PR person into the desert and an ambush by rogue cowboys.
Also, despite speaking only a smattering of Greek, Mead was twice put in situations where he had to be a front man (or as Mead puts it “a ventriloquist’s dummy”) whilst Greek answers were whispered in his ear. The first time was having just landed in Athens airport Mead was made to give a television press conference, in Greek, by his host the owner of Olympic Holidays, whilst the latter whispered the answers to the Greek journalists’ questions to him. On the second occasion a Cretan hotelier implored Mead to meet local people who objected to her plans to build another hotel development – once again Mead responded to the their concerns, all voiced in Greek, via the hotelier whispering the answers to him.
One of my favourite stories in Press Trip occurs far closer to home, during a trip Mead, his wife, and their young sons made to Scotland, to Loch Ness to hunt for the Loch Ness monster. Which, in a borrowed cabin cruiser fitted with underwater detection equipment they may well have found… except Mead has no proof because when the equipment showed up something very strange immediately below their boat, “we should have stopped to investigate, but instead of reaching for the binoculars or camera, I did what any sensible person would do if they found themselves perhaps 12 feet from a prehistoric monster: I reached for the throttle, jammed it wide open, and headed for the shore as fast as possible”.
Press Trip is a thoroughly engaging and very enjoyable multi-layered book that combines travelogue, cultural history, memoir and more filled with adventure and incident which Mead presents in a wonderfully readable style that is by turns, gripping, humorous, poignant, informative, and inspiring. All-in-all an highly recommended read.