Travel broadens the mind. This is of course a cliché but like many clichés, it is true.
My thoughts have been much concerned with travel during the past month because I have been to visit one of my sons and his family in Australia; a visit which obviously involves travel right across the world. It is not my first visit to Australia. Indeed during the past half century I have been privileged to travel a great deal. For a number of years my travel — as a journalist — was at my employer’s rather than my own expense. That no longer applies, but having to pay for my travel does not make it less rewarding, and does not reduce the mind-broadening effect.
Whenever I travel now I am reminded of the extent to which the experience of travel has changed in my lifetime. My first visit abroad was in 1949, not long after the end of World War II, when I went to France. At this time a journey to France, a very short distance, was more complicated than a journey across the world is today. I went by sea and then train. Frrench Railways at that time were still badly affected by wartime damage. The channel ferry was rudimentary in terms of passenger service. The journey was of course a great adventure for a young man — possibly more of an adventure than travel round the world is to young people of the present generation of student travellers. Their excitement comes from being able to visit distant countries, rather than Britain’s nest door neighbour.
Flying very soon became the normal means of travel, but flying fifty years ago was rather different from what it is today. On another visit to France, this time by air, our plane took off from a grass runway near Southampton. When I began visiting Africa, grass runways, and small aircraft, were not at all unusual. That combination made flying, for me, something of an adventure, in a way that flying in a large modern airliner, in which one feels virtually detached from what is going on outside, no longer does.
That said, my first flight in a modern jet airliner was for me a great adventure. I went on the proving flight of the Comet 4, the first pure jet commercial flight across the Atlantic. It was obviously an exciting event, not least because all the key people in the airline (BOAC as it was then) were on board, exulting in having beaten the Americans (The victory was short-lived, as the United States introduced pure jet flights only days later).
Whatever the means of travel, the real mind-broadening aspect comes from finding out about what other countries are like and how the way people life in different parts of the world differs from what one is familiar with. I had a good demonstration of that when in 1950 I paid my first visit — by train — to Austria, when it was still an occupied country. I was staying with an uncle serving in the British army in Carinthia, but the real excitement came when I went, again by train, to Vinenna, passing through the Soviet zone. At that time, Vienna, like Berlin, was surrounded by the Russian zone. Passing through it, for me at an impressionable age, was a rather eerie experience.
Travel can be interesting, as I have tried to show. If it involves undergoing a new experience — flying for the first time in a pure jet aircraft, for example — it can indeed truly be described as mind-broadening. Essentially, however, whatever the means of travel, what generally matters is what happens after you arrive.
With this in mind I have to conclude that travel does not always broaden the mind, in spite of my statement at the beginning of this article that the cliché is true. What leads me to this qualifying thought is my observation of the attitude of some of my fellow British countrymen to travel. The ones I am referring to see travel as a means of getting to another country on holiday, but they are terrified of having to adapt in any way to a way of life different from what they are used to. They go abroad on holiday provided that they can be assured that they will be insulated from its foreignness.
People like this are, I am sure, a minority.
Bill Kirkman is an emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. Contact him at email@example.com