I have never been an adventurous soul. As an infant in Belfast, I would lie motionless for hours on the kitchen table of our family home, devoid of any curiosity to wander. On one occasion an anxious neighbour, having spied my immobile pose through a window, knocked on the front door to express her concern. ‘Don’t worry. He’s often like that. He won’t be moving anywhere,’ replied my mother.
I have carried that inertia into adulthood, reflected in my profound dislike of travel. There is not a shred of wanderlust within me. I never fantasise about visiting distant lands, never leaf longingly through the travel supplements. Most people yearn to explore the world they inhabit, but I could not care less if I never see a new place again. I would prefer a wet weekend in Bridlington to a fortnight in Barcelona.
I recognise that my outlook is entirely against the spirit of our age. We live in a society obsessed with travel, where people now collect exotic experiences as enthusiastically as possessions. Millennials, in particular, seem to believe that relentless journeying is not only essential to personal wellbeing but also a badge of moral virtue. In an age of globalisation, tourism has become one of the biggest industries in the world, made all the more lucrative by cheap flights and the internet. It is estimated that one in 11 jobs is in this sector, while more than a billion foreign trips are thought to be made every year.
Well, count me out of this worship of globetrotting. If travel is the new religion, then I am a heretic. I have no bucket list, no must-see destination. My passport is almost pristine. The other evening at a dinner with some friends, one of them told me about the house she and her husband had built in Sri Lanka. ‘You must come and visit,’ she kindly said. I reacted as if she had asked me to join the revolutionary communist party. ‘There’s no chance of that,’ I replied. I have been on only four long-haul flights in my life, both times to the US and back, and I hope to reach a ripe old age without undertaking another.
Given our modern addiction to mass transit, my insularity could be seen as a personality defect. When I tell others of this travel phobia, they sympathetically presume that it must be down to fear of flying. But it is not that at all. Despite all the hassle of post-9/11 security, I actually quite like the bustle of airports and I am fascinated with all kinds of aviation, which has led me to write three books on the subject. No, it is not the journey that is the problem but the destination.
Part of me feels a profound sense of ennui if I contemplate a visit to a famous tourist spot that I know only too well from a deluge of films and photographs. It is surely impossible to look at the Sistine Chapel or the Taj Mahal with unjaded eyes. I must confess, though, that I can carry this attitude to extremes. Once in my youth I had a summer job as an international air courier, taking packages by scheduled flights to points in Europe and Egypt. I went to Cairo via Frankfurt 12 times, but always refused to visit the pyramids, even when the representative of the courier company offered to take to me to the site. ‘No thanks, I saw them from the aircraft window,’ I said, remaining firmly ensconced in my airport hotel room.
Yet the idea of venturing further afield, like a real traveller, terrifies me. ‘Off the beaten track’ is a place of fear, full of problems with language, maps, toilets, money, internet connections and car rentals. I derive no pleasure from the unknown, only anxiety. That goes to the real heart of my attitude. A born worrier, I like the familiar routines of my steady existence. It is often said that you should step outside your comfort zone, but I don’t see why. I have spent decades carefully constructing my own comfort zone. That is where I want to stay, precisely because it is comfortable.
I cannot pretend that my dislike of travel is the emotional legacy of any terrible early experience overseas, though throughout my life my primary feeling about almost every trip has been the relief to be home when it is over. In this context, it might seem paradoxical that I have a property abroad as well as one in Kent, my wife — a woman of remarkable tolerance — and I having bought a 19th-century house in northern France five years ago. But this Gallic retreat just emphasises the point about my foible, for its purchase both gave me another excuse not to travel anywhere else and enabled me to create another familiar comfort zone.
‘To travel is to live,’ wrote Hans Christian Andersen. If his words are true, I am missing out badly. No doubt many seasoned travellers, planning their next trip to Patagonia, would regard me as hopelessly parochial. More than ever, the urge to travel is equated with sophistication and openness. A large dose of sanctimony often nestles in the luggage along with the flip-flops and the selfie stick.
But the globetrotters should not be so smug. The modern addiction for travel causes tremendous damage to the planet, particularly the environment. This year, the authorities in Thailand had to announce the closure of Maya Bay, the golden paradise used in the Leonardo DiCaprio hit movie The Beach, because of the ravages to its ecosystem caused by mass tourism. According to marine biologists, 90 per cent of the coral has been destroyed by litter, motor oil, the dropping of anchors and the collection of souvenirs.
Nearer Britain, Dubrovnik recently made a drastic cut to the number of visitors allowed into its historic centre because brutal overcrowding threatened its world heritage status.
The self-righteous backpackers leave a carbon footprint like an asphalt spreader’s boot. In contrast, I make only the daintiest impression. I might be a shallow, stay-at-home philistine, but when it comes to saving the planet, I am the one entitled to feel virtuous.