Tag Archives: images

The poetry of Spaghetti Junction

Yesterday I went on my third monthly Birmingham Flickrmeet for a bit of socialising and a bit of snapping, but mainly because I’ve never been to the ‘notoriously confusing’ Spaghetti Junction as an end destination. Going in a group of about 15 seemed a safe way to venture into its scary underbelly.

And, y’know what, for all that it is an edgy urban concrete jungle, it’s certainly not the eyesore that people make it out to be. In fact, I found it to be quite a poetic place in the July sunshine.

Below is a favourite photo of mine from the day (there are lots more in the Birmingham Flickrmeet pool)…

Spaghetti Junction -62

(The full set of Spaghetti Junction photos are on the Flickr photo-sharing site or you can see them on this slideshow: Spaghetti Junction Flickrmeet.)

Underneath this early 1970s construction, renowned as the bane of those who must traverse it, I also found many treasures, delights and disturbing objects:

  • Teenagers fishing for perch
  • Artworks on the supporting pillars
  • A ‘typo’ underneath the Aston Expressway
  • Vivid yellow and black striped caterpillars
  • The gravestone of DC Michael Swindells who was stabbed on a canal towpath while making an arrest in 2004
  • Crackling pylons
  • A mother and two children out for a walk
  • Three police officers on dirt bikes
  • And, of course, the sweeping majesty of the roads above

There’s a travel metaphor here, I’m sure, regarding only seeing the surface and judging a book by its cover. If you can, it’s worth exploring maligned places like Spaghetti Junction more deeply. But safely.

And that’s why Birmingham Flickrmeets are so great and so useful – for when else would anyone dare wander there or, another example, the canals of Aston in the deserted industrial backend of Brum? Behind the headlines of gang warfare, you’ll find plenty of fascinating scenes of nature, urban artwork, barge life and the UK’s industrial heritage.

I’m starting to think of the Flickrmeets as an option for local adventure travel. What do you think? Underbelly tourism?

Personally I like the overview of Spaghetti Junction as well – not the M6 route so much, but the maze of dipping, curving through-roads. It’s kind of like driving your own car on a roller coaster and perhaps even it looks a little bit like a ricketty fairground ride in some of the photos – like this one from Pete Ashton:

Motorway Quadriptych

So, if you’re in Birmingham on (I think) the second Sunday of each month, bring your camera and join a Birmingham Flickmeet – or look for one in your own town – you never know what you might see.

But I think if you came to Birmingham and did this, it would signify a traveller rather a tourist moment – as Benedict Allen said in this earlier post:

“It is crucial to record. The difference between a traveller and a tourist is that a traveller simulates that experience (for others) and records it.”

Tourist vs Traveller – the difference according to Benedict Allen

How important is it to record your travels? This is the question I put to the explorer and Unbreakable tough guy Benedict Allen at the Travellers’ Tales festival in London this Saturday. I’m also interested in other people’s takes on this, and why they keep personal travel diaries?

Firstly, though, here’s Benedict Allen’s response:

It is crucial to record. The difference between a traveller and a tourist is that a traveller simulates that experience (for others) and records it.

Explorers like travellers are in the business of reporting back and, increasingly, this is a justification for going. We can no longer see the world simply as a playground (I was pretty self-indulgent when I started out). I feel better looking back that I recorded my expeditions: through writing, filming and photography.

You have to remember that is it s privilege to travel – many can’t do it (for financial and other reasons) – but by sharing it you give others a chance to get out there.

Of course, Benedict Allen has been on some pretty unique and far-flung trips. He added that the Niowra tribe he stayed with knew that their way of life was disintegrating and wanted him to record their Crocodile Initiation Ceremony for posterity.

But is there much value in the rest of us contributing our travel writing to others, especially if we aren’t adventurers but say backpackers following a well-trodden trail – or playground as Allen calls it? Is there anything for the world to learn from us?

Are we breaking down prejudices through our travel writing or are we just underscoring them?

And why are we so driven to record our experiences beyond the tourist holiday snap? Why, for example, do I have around 40-50 travel diaries locked up in a trunk in my house!?

(Aside: I did it so that I would have my best memories in writing for if I ever lost my memory. But also there were ideas of having published books, being the new Anais Nin, and let’s not underestimate the sheer habit of it.)

Finally, is ‘recording the experience’ really a difference between tourists and travellers? Or is it just that travelling types are often on long journeys with hours to kill so out comes the diary/blogging platform – or do you think you can you still be a ‘traveller’ on a weekend in the Lake District?

Of course, the irony of staying up late to blog my weekend of travel writing isn’t escaping me. I’m also reminded of Jack Kerouac who recorded the beat years while Neal Cassidy was the person who fully lived them.

So my finally question I’m pondering is how would my travels have been if I hadn’t stopped to record them – would I have live more fully in the moment, or is it worth saving some back to relive them later on?

More from Travellers’ Tales festival: See the list that keeps Benedict Allen alive

Girl with diary

A (wannabe) travel writer takes notes in a leather-bound diary at the Travellers' Tales festival, London (Feb 2010)

Views from the plane: the equator

I came across Keith from Velvet Escape’s blog after he wrote up his recent TwiTrip to my hometown of Birmingham. On there he has a running series of plane views, where he and guest bloggers post pictures from their flights and give tips of where to sit.

Well, I’m not sure I can do that but I did remember I had some shots of some equatorial islands from my Singapore to Jakarta (or was it Melbourne?) flight in 1999. Oh and I was sitting on the right side of the plane.

Not sure where these islands are exactly, possibly they’re Indonesian islands just south of Singapore, but the pictures are pretty so I thought I’d share them, direct from the old-skool photo album. I think the rainbow effect is from the position of the sun over the water. I think.

There’s a number of groups on Flickr that publish more of these photos, btw, for example:

Equator from plane, SE Asia

Equator from plane, SE Asia

Equator from plane, SE Asia

Behind the scenes of a travel feature – pt 4: the results of the Google Docs experiment

Time for a quick review. After being commissioned to write two ‘top tens’ for Allaboutyou.com, I posted a PR alert and Twitter callout to help me find ‘romantic places’ in the UK and abroad – more on the problem with top ten lists in part 1. In part 2, you can read the travel editor’s original commissioning briefs, and in part 3, the seven tools of feature research are listed. Now, in part 4, the story continues…

So what happened next?

There was my blank Google Q&A form sitting out there in a load of PR and tourist board inboxes. The idea was that it would act as a collection funnel for the incoming data – and keep it off my email.

Answer: Google Docs went nuts.

Research results 1-50
Research results 1-50
  • Over 48 hours, the online Q&A form filled up with 98 responses.
  • The CEO of the African Travel and Tourism Association (ATTA) – spotted the callout on TravMedia and reposted the request to 400 association members across Africa.
  • The PRs did all the hard work for me in preparing guide prices, product details, image sources and contact info.
  • Nearly every question was answered by each PR and boxes were filled in – although many wrote an essay where the simple location was asked for, which stuffed up the spreadsheet layout.
  • Reams of irrelevant material and spin were produced to make a generic place sound romantic rather than point out any actual romantic history, tradition or fact. Annoying although certainly not unexpected.
  • There were a small number of bang-on-target suggestions, which were siphoned off into a UK and a worldwide file as per the commissions.
  • Several places were suggested twice, eg the Taj Mahal. I ended up using both client details as I used information from both.
  • I DID receive emails – but only nine (annoying but better than 98!). Three PRs ignored my form and emailed text such as a ‘nestled castle in a perched village’ or entire Valentine press releases (all ignored). Another emailed for clarification – subtext: was it worth her filling in the form? Some PRs experienced firewall issues and couldn’t access the form due to Websense, which blocks personal storage sites. Another emailed after the deadline had passed. And one filled in the form with out of date information – oops!
  • My favourite justification for romantic credentials was this one: ‘My daughter was conceived there, so no better compliment to the romance of the ambience.’
  • Another PR threw in some language tips on what to say in Sardinia to your beloved: ‘Non posso vivere senza di te – I can’t live without you!’
  • Twitter feedback resulted in a few funnies but no major new ideas. It did have a supportive role when I had further queries, though – see part 3 for more on this.

On the whole, it was a spectacularly good response, though. What did I learn from it?

Some pros and cons…

There were issues: double postings, excessive writing, unfounded statements and opinions, clichés, spin and so on. (The original source material is to be published in the next and final post.)

But there was also great value in rooting out knowledge I wouldn’t have found otherwise, such as being able to wear a suit of armour to propose at Warwick Castle or the location of the original ‘Horse Whisperer’ ranch.

So I have to say to the PRs, a big thanks for taking the time to fill in the form rather than send generic press releases.

Some tips for PRs…

For those faced with a Google form or  journalist request, DON’T waste your time spinning your product to fit the journalist’s angle. Facts, evidence, relevance and concision are the things that stand out over pretty prose and just stating that something fits the bill. It took seven hours to plough through all 98 responses, and to copy and paste the potentials. Take out all the generic suggestions spun for romance and this could be reduced to just an hour or two.

Ultimately, it was the chancing of so many sort-of relevant ideas that made the Google Docs/PR alert route financially unviable – shoving me frustratingly over time and therefore budget.

Factoring in picture research…

Sourcing good pictures is also like entering a time warp.

The pic research for each of the 10 blurbs was another tipping point. Free tourist board or PR pics are desirable and usually great quality. But traditionally writers haven’t had to source them – picture researchers have. Now, though, gallery features make popular editorial pieces and sourcing can be part of the commission package. Even with a media library log-in, or the PR contact for images, the resulting workload – the back and forth of emails, selection and zipping of images, collating and sending to the travel editor – soaked up another half day.

Surfing for images on a stock library is faster but you can still while away many minutes looking for the right image to go with your copy.

My judgment on the Google Docs research method…

Ordinarily, this type of feature would take me 1.5 days to write, but the extra spreadsheet and picture sourcing brought this up to 2-3 days. So using Web 2.0 tools did make life easier but it also actually slowed down the work.

The Google Docs sourcing experiment is not for every time – you have to be pretty dedicated to go through this process – and it’s probably not targeted enough for general themed features like these ones. It would probably work much better for my next list piece on great rail journeys.

But I do think it is invaluable when you are stuck for inspiration and it takes only a couple of minutes to put together. It also throws up some great source material and new ideas. The likes of TravMedia and HARO offer a community of experts and the wisdom of the crowd.

Statswise, in the end 6 out of 10 of the UK’s most romantic places were sourced from the Google Docs form; 8 out of 10 of the most romantic places worldwide feature were.

An invitation to rewrite my feature…

To round off, I’m finishing this series by publishing the source material itself (the locations and romantic USPs only in order to keep it manageable and to keep individual PR’s emails and phone numbers private).

Again I invite readers to compare the finished articles (UK and global) with the sourced material – would you have picked out the same list? I also invite the romantic among you to look for further inspiration and make your own selection from the list. Meanwhile, journalism students or wannabe travel writers are free to use the material to create their own travel feature from the material – – just leave a link to your stuff in the comments so I can see it.

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