Travels with my blushing pen

Howard Brenton

Howard Brenton is staying home to write, but it hasn't always been like that.

No holiday: I'm stuck at home writing towards fearsome autumn deadlines. I will reach something called "lock off" - the moment when a film or TV script goes into production - just as the weather gets nasty on our favourite Greek island and the tavernas close, the waiters going glumly back to their family farms for the olive harvest.

But I'm not complaining. My pen keeps me at my desk this summer, but over the years it has taken me to many places. I spent three happy weeks researching the story for a film in Far North Queensland, a hidden world of English millionaire sugar-mill owners and dirt-poor Italian cane farmers, all in Conradian decay. It was the first time I'd been in the tropics. I visited a man who had built a huge boat in the rainforest, miles from the sea; he was convinced a second flood was coming and he would be Australia's Noah. The film wasn't made but I got a great holiday.

But the pen can land a writer in ugly places. It got me into West Beirut in 1983 when that part of the city was occupied by PLO fighters and Israel was besieging them. "Nothing is normal here, nor will your reactions be," a young PLO officer said. Nothing was normal. Indeed, I found myself going out into the smashed street during a lull in the air raids. A boy was selling shirts from a clothes rail he was wheeling through the rubble. I bought one - Van Heusen, too.

I saw terrible suffering: a bleeding child in his running father's arms, scenes in hospitals that were indescribable. But - and this is so hard to explain - there was a crazed, holiday atmosphere under the bombs. Refugees from the south had occupied apartments deserted by the wealthy; at night there was laughter and the sound of cockerels crowing from the balconies under the Israeli flares.

Other ugly situations. In 1979 I was in Sofia, Bulgaria at a sepulchral theatre conference. I found myself addressing a packed roomful of writers at the Bulgarian Writers' Union. We thought we'd been invited for drinks - well, there was fruit syrup - but it turned out that a speech was expected. My companions all stared at me; as the only Western writer, I was the only one with nothing to lose.

In my country, I only had to put up with bad reviews in the Daily Telegraph, not the surveillance and state intimidation my colleagues from the East knew all too well. So I ploughed into an improvised speech about freedom of expression and socialism, West and East - I blush at the memory. To my bewilderment, I received a standing ovation. "That went rather well," I said to a Polish playwright. "Yes," he whispered, "but how do we know any of the audience are writers?" Suddenly I realised: I had just addressed a room full of secret policemen.

That trip to Bulgaria was my first time in a Soviet bloc country to experience what was called "actually existing socialism". A voice in the hotel foyer asked, would I meet someone? "Yes," I said. Writers always say yes; it's a compulsion to get out of your depth. And so I was taken on a tram through Sofia, down a street, on to another tram - a back street, a door, and I was in an apartment talking with a dissident and his wife. I sat in the corner of the room. They sat with the curtains open facing each other. All they wanted was a conversation about literature. We talked of TS Eliot and Edward Bond - a strange coupling of writers.

I went to the Soviet Union twice, during the Gorbachev era. A tiny memory of those momentous days: alone before the huge mirror of the huge bathroom of my huge suite in the huge Hotel Ukrania, I found myself staring at a state-of-the-art Gillette razor I had bought at Heathrow airport. It seemed an inexplicable object. It had travelled between two worlds: one a planet of trivial chat and empty plenty, the other a planet of profound human discussions and empty supermarkets. I wrote a play about the anguish of Russia in that time. The Daily Telegraph went potty.

In Far North Queensland, the cane industry is dying. Beirut is being rebuilt. The Soviet world has disappeared - a whole era, a continent of a way of life, has sunk to become a subterranean country of fears and resentments in Eastern European minds.

It may be sick but I own up. I think of these "tourist in hell" trips with a gnawing nostalgia. Maybe I don't need a Greek beach holiday. Anyway, in January I'm going to Serbia: travel may not broaden the mind but it's wonderful when it blows it.

Next Week: Adrian Mourby's travel disasters.

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Howard Brenton

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