THE present impasse in international travel has given a whole new meaning to being “held up by the traffic lights”. It is not the minor inconvenience of slowing down and stopping, as amber turns to red on the road, but the much more inconvenient changes of the metaphorical traffic lights of government advice, with hardly a country on green, and now even the amber of Portugal, with its distantly beckoning bottles of port, turning, like its raging elixir, to red.
It looks as if any travelling abroad we do this summer will have to be vicarious. But I am more than happy to put the “vicar” back into “vicarious”; for there’s a great deal to be said for vicarious travel. It’s easier on the wallet, and with far fewer discomforts and inconveniences, since it can all be accomplished from the armchair. You can go to The Wild Places with Robert Macfarlane, or even climb his Mountains of the Mind, without so much as slipping off your slippers or spilling a drop of cocoa.
Vicarious travel through literature has, of course, a long pedigree. Not everyone could do the Grand Tour, but everybody could read about it. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the narrative poem which catapulted Lord Byron to fame — and, indeed, notoriety — was little more than a rhyming travelogue with romantic episodes thrown in; Don Juan, even more so. In fact, Don Juan might be best summed up as Incredible Journeys meets Love Island!
So, whatever one’s tastes, there is some wonderful work to take us abroad in imagination, where no traffic lights of any colour will impede our journey.
But, when one is tired of words and seeks something with a different and refreshing savour, there is the best vicarious travelling of all: travel through wine. Here, one does not simply read about the Loire, but one has the very fruit and benison of its fertile vineyards, the very taste of the place, as the terroir comes to you when you are kept from going out to it.
When I was writing my Quarantine Quatrains in the most confined phase of the first lockdown, I included some verses to celebrate that very freedom to roam which the dusty bottles in my cellar conferred on me.
So, as the lights change once more from amber to red, I’ll enjoy these verses, and the wines they celebrate, in earnest of the day when travel can, once more, be more than vicarious:
I’ll keep the rules my country has imposed,
My life, like my small garden, is enclosed,
But still I’ll raise a glass and pledge my friends,
Although, for us, the tavern door is closed.
For in my cellar, ranged in dusty rows,
Are sleeping poets waiting to disclose
Their memories of St. Emillion,
Whose vineyards reach to where the Dordogne flows.
And with these wines I travel where I please
From Rhineland to the lofty Pyrenees,
I saunter though the chateaux of the Loire,
Drawing the cork on any one of these.
So with the poets let me praise the vine
And pledge my absent friends in vintage wine,
Sensing, sometimes, the savour at my lips
Speaks of a love both human and divine.
And when I come to taste my life’s last drop,
When all that flowed in me comes to a stop,
Then let me see my saviour pledge his love,
Come close to me, and help me drink the cup.