What a year the last six months has been! Coronavirus has changed our world, we hope that once we return to normal it will have changed into a kinder, much nicer place with love thy neighbour being nearer to the norm. Meanwhile unless we are one of the essential services which includes food shops and rubbish clearance along with the more obvious ones, the rest of us are staying at home, or working from home.
I perhaps am one of the odd ones, not only am I 84 years old and a type 2 diabetic, I am a fairly fit oldie who continues to work out regularly at my local gym and also swims in the spa, sort of retired but I have worked from home as a writer, author and journalist, for many years. I still work when I feel like it and sell the stuff that I produce.
I did take the advice and my wife, and I placed ourselves into self-isolation some three weeks ago when the warning bells began ringing. We are lucky enough to have brilliant and caring neighbours on all fronts who see to all our needs. They make me feel very humble and I just cannot seem to thank them enough.
During my first couple of weeks internment I decided to take up a friend’s challenge and put all my sailor’s yarns that I had regaled them with over the years, into a book. I finished “Red Ensign – Blue Ensign (The Young Man of the Sea)” several weeks ago. So, casting around in my head for ideas, here begineth the next lesson. It doesn’t have a title yet but it’s my life as a travel journalist.
I’ve been a writer for many, many years and wrote for many different outlets. I wrote Staff Handbooks for an events management company who ran motor racing events at Donnington and Silverstone. Horse racing events at Ascot, Windsor, Newbury and Cheltenham. County shows as far apart as Cowes on the Isle of Wight, and Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire. Stellar Artois Concerts in Oxford Jail, Sunderland Docks et al. During this time, I volunteered my services to our local hospital NHS Federation and have spent years writing, amending and rewriting patient’s handbooks. You get the picture, I write, right?
I became a travel writer by accident I suppose you could say. One of my closest friends who worked for me in the motor trade, decided, virtually at the same time that I sold my garage. He made up his mind that his future was to be in Canada and was to move to British Columbia. We threw him a leaving party and it was there I met the guy who sold the family their tickets. This chap ran a ticket bucket shop, sourcing the cheapest flight tickets and the customers found him. He did this very much as a part time pocket money alongside his full-time job as an animal feed salesman.
I had the cash from selling my business, was looking for ideas, he declined my offer of a partnership but kindly provided me with hundreds on sources and contacts and allowed me to pick his brains. We lived over twenty miles apart so were not in any way competition and I set up my “Bucket Shop” which I named Assured Travel, based in the hallway of my house and it took off. I quickly rented some serviced offices in Bedford and then had an idea that I could franchise the business.
This was before the internet got off the ground but I sourced a specialised programme whose name I can no longer remember that allowed each of my franchised outlets to send in their travel bookings direct to our central office where we took over the booking, dealt with the client direct and paid 80% of the profit to the franchisee. My son and I were recruiting new franchisees and monthly virtually took over a large hotel in Northampton where we spent time and money both entertaining and teaching them all the tricks of the trade. No-one paid for their franchise until the end of the three days and thankfully we had nobody drop out.
Within two years we had 109 Franchises covering the UK and everybody was making a good living. Two or three Franchisees managed to get on board with their local MEP’s who seemed to always be flying on a plane to somewhere on EU business. I got the impression that inflated receipts may have been involved but my side of the transaction would always stand up to scrutiny. Another Franchisee was making a fortune providing Muslims passengers with British Airways tickets to the Hajj in Mecca. Plus, other flights concerned with the seven steps, like travelling to Mina and Mount Arafat. I really have no understanding of Islam and its intricacies, but I know that they all favoured British Airways and it was good business. It seemed each of our franchisees joined our operation as an individual entrepreneur with a plan of their own. The success rather took me by surprise.
After some two years working very long hours at a nonstop pace. Up to 18 hours a day can begin to take its toll. In addition, I was finding that employing 14 members of staff was not a pleasant task. Each member had their individual problem whether it was coming into work completely hung-over, or with a drug problem. Another turned out to be a dirty old man and began stalking one of the prettier girls on the staff. I had to sack him, but the stalking continued, and stronger measures needed to be taken. Counselling of the girl did little good and I lost a good member of our team. I now think that I would have been far better and had less problems if I had used agency staff. However, I didn’t, and my problems continued.
I suppose I was vulnerable when one of my franchisees, incidentally an old Etonian, son on a knight of the realm, approached me with a proposition. He then introduced me to his friend a former Merchant Banker (that means something appropriate in rhyming slang) His name was Smith, but he spelled it with a Y that should have told me something. This first name was Jonathan, but he spelled it Jonathon, pretentious, moi? Their initial proposal was that they would like to buy shares in my company. I told them that I would think about it and take advice. I put them off for a month or so. Their next approach was to tell me that the Merchant banker was involved in a Travel Agency owned by a heavy metal rock band. They had bought a small travel agency situated on the bank of the Thames near Putney Bridge and used it to buy the travel needs of the band and it had expanded so that they had a lucrative business providing travel for dozens maybe hundreds of other rock bands. All this under the financial advice of our friend the “Merchant Banker”.
He told us that he had bought this travel company as they were too busy to run it, however he was still going to provide favourable travel prices for all the rock bands. It turns out that he had purchased the business on a promissory note. He then approached me with offer of merging the two businesses and using our operation as a model for franchising. His idea was to concentrate on London for members. My son and I would solely be responsible for advertising and recruiting and training and would be paid a couple of thousand a month each, as consultants. On top of that they would purchase the Company paying ten thousand a month over two years.
Have you heard the saying that if an offer looks too good to be true, it probably isn’t? You may also have heard the cockney rhyming slang “Merchant Banker”, well it’s spot on!
Things appeared to run like clockwork for about three months, and then they decided that the company didn’t need two bases and as the property in Putney was owned outright it didn’t make sense to be paying a high rent in Bedford. All the Bedford team were offered jobs in London, none took up the offer, thus negating any severance pay. The complete office in Bedford, computers, desks, chairs plus, plus even the coffee machine and the microwave oven. I had no idea this had happened until a week later. Mea Culpa! Bells were ringing but my son and I were still being paid and the merchant banker appeared to be keeping to his forecast. Until that is got a telephone call from the lady who had run the Putney operation saying that the two villains appeared to have disappeared with over £800,000 of client’s money and provided no tickets. My phone didn’t stop ringing from disgruntled franchisees who were having to cope with angry clients. Some of them had covered the debts personally. I reported what had happened to the police, (no comment) probably a civil matter sir but we’ll look into it. That week we learned that the evil pair had instructed a firm of auditors to wind up the insolvent Limited Company. I contacted the auditors to inform them that all of the computers, desks, chairs, plus, plus microwave and coffee machine were my personal property. I was politely informed, too late they’ve been auctioned off already, you will have to take your place in the queue behind the tax man and the banks.
When all the laundry was done all that happened was that those two naughty boys were barred from being directors of any company for ten years. Neither any franchisee nor my son and I came out with a penny. Now anyone who knows my history as a member of a Special Forces group will know that I have friends in funny places. I went with my family on a holiday to America and for some unknown reason I kept every receipt for every hire car, fuel, restaurant, even cups of coffee. I don’t know why I did that, funny habit I suppose.
Oddly enough the merchant banker had obviously made a lots of enemies and three unknown men visited him at his Kent Oast House that was surrounded by paddocks, loose boxes and general equestrian show jumping and others for lunging. All of course belonging to the tosser’s wife. Anyway, the visitors taught him not do it again. I do remember my lovely wife saying, before our holiday when my hot head began issuing threats, something to the effect that it wasn’t worth doing jail time for revenge and if I did, she would leave me. Obviously. I wouldn’t do anything so stupid, as I value my marriage. End of! I now had to pick myself off the ground.
I had spent so much time and effort into the travel business that my head steered me in that direction. I had all of my notes that I used during our training and recruitment sessions, I was a writer, so I wrote a book on how to become your own travel agent from home. I paid a vast sum to a vanity publishing company and had twenty books published that I could test the water with. I spent a further thousand pounds on advertising the book and after a month had sold three copies at £25 each.
My head was in a turmoil, where do I go next? It was then that I had a telephone call, via the publisher. It was from another publisher, he asked me to come to his hometown, Brighton where he would treat me to lunch and put a proposition to me that would make us both very wealthy. He wouldn’t disclose his proposal further, he just asked what had I to lose, just the fuel to get to Brighton? Now I had just suffered at the hands of a con man and suffered quite a kicking. I considered it carefully for an hour, called him back and arranged to meet him for lunch.
Brighton, in the miserable, pouring rain, found me in a very nice restaurant chatting to a very fired up individual. All of my international maritime signal flags were flying in my head, such as U for uniform – You are standing into DANGER, and B for bravo – I am taking on a dangerous item. B is a red burgee flag known for obvious reasons as BANG. My goodness you would be amazed at what goes on in my head.
In spite of my wariness I accompanied him back to his offices and I came away having, both signed legal agreements protecting both of us from evil. In short, he was the owner and publisher of a monthly magazine for entrepreneurs called ‘Business Opportunity World’, my book was to be printed by them and would be advertised in the magazine in a full page advert every month at a staggering price of £70 a shot. All of this at no cost to me and all the customers would be handled in-house. All I had to do was sit back and collect the royalties from the sales. My agreed share was £50 a book. No, I took it with a pinch of salt too, but in the first month of the advert appearing my bank was credited with nearly £2,000 and each month, give or take a few sales this appeared to be the normal amount. As time went by, I agreed to look into my experiences for new subjects to write other books. For instance, I had spent nearly twenty years in the motor trade, so my book on being a motor dealer working from home appeared and also had a full-page advert in the magazine. This was nowhere as lucrative as the travel book, but it swelled my coffers a bit more. I knew that this pleasant state of affairs wasn’t going to last forever, and my brain was turning to other ideas.
I had the office manager as a regular contact at Business Opportunity World and the end came more suddenly than expected. He called me with the bad news that seemed rather familiar. The boss had disappeared, and the company had the receivers in. We met up and I was saddened to discover that my publisher friend with the great ideas, had been ripping me off with the royalties. In fact, around half of what I was due, was paid directly into a Spanish bank account each month. In fact, he had possibly gone to Spain in order to disappear. I can’t say that I felt a great sense of betrayal this time, I certainly felt no need to send ‘the boys’ in. I was just saddened.
Anyway, lesson learned. I was going to continue to be self-employed on the grounds that I am unemployable with my smart mouth (I’m told) and the inability to take orders. I am not going to enter into any partnership with anyone. I am not going to employ any staff, period! During the three years of living in the land of milk and honey at Opportunity World I had been planning for the exodus. I had friendly relationships set up and nourished contacts at some twenty national newspapers. My first assignment sold my tale of my two rip offs at £200 per 1,000 words. The story sold and was published nationwide. I had an idea and outlets.
Softly, softly catchee monkey, or as they preach in Special Forces the adage of seven P’s, namely Proper Planning and Preparation, Prevents Piss Poor Performance. The shock of the mild expletive help makes the adage memorial. Useful, when training for life-or-death situations! I was going to train myself as a Travel Writer/journalist., with a camera!
Oh yes, c’est moi
Step one, I bought a new camera, my old SLR 35mm camera was just too cumbersome to carry all day so I decided to treat myself to one of the latest digital single lens reflex camera. I suppose I spent a month holding, fondling and falling in love with my new acquisition. Buying a couple of very expensive lenses and taking lots of photos but always using it on fully automatic. The results were brilliant, if I say so myself. I then went off on an assignment to Snowdonia taking the DSLR on a trial run and I’m totally infatuated.
I first got into photography in the 1960s when I had a dark room and developed my own results. I had a sailing colleague who owned a chemist/camera shop that also dealt with second-hand cameras. I changed cameras with his help, moving up from a simple Ilford Sportsman 35mm through many different makes and formats via a Rolleicord, a Rolleiflex twin lens reflex and even a Hasselblad 500C. Most of them would be worth a small fortune today.
In those days you will have gathered I had become quite a camera buff and knew of such things as depth of field, focal lengths and f stops. I’m not sure if it is laziness, old age or just that I had become so used to using point and shoot cameras that such things have become a foreign language to me.
Amazon sent me an email offering a special deal on a Masterclass for the DSLR camera and I resisted the temptation, but not quite long enough to delete the email into spam and I took up the offer of a full day Masterclass. I’m such an easy target for anything that takes my interest, and off course I was going to be a travel journalist. I have no idea how Amazon knew that I could be in the market for such an offer, but it is slightly frightening, could my purchase of an SD card reader have put my name on a target list?
Come the day, cometh the man as they say, and today I found myself in the village of Maddingly, just outside Cambridge attending the promised Masterclass. There were about a dozen very mixed bunch of students of various ages and sizes. One young lady had flown in that morning from Dublin just to take part and was flying home the same evening. Probably the only thing that we had in common apart from a keenness to learn was the fact that each was clasping a digital single lens reflex camera.
James (that’s a nice name and a good start), our tutor had been a professional photographer for many years with an impressive portfolio and a CV that included working with the famous Peruvian photographer Mario Testino OBE who is now a firm favourite of our Royal Family as well as Vogue and Vanity Fair. Needless to say, that was this wimp intimidated before we started.
Repeat after me; I must never switch my camera on to automatic, ever again! I now know all there is to know about Depth of Field, Focal Length, f Stops, Shutter Speeds and how to and when to use them. Seriously, a really good Masterclass that we spent both in the classroom and outside, putting our newfound knowledge into practice. I learned everything that I went for, and a lot more.
I won’t promise never to switch my camera on to fully auto, but I will use the other priorities whenever I can improve my photos. I have promised my wife that three lenses are sufficient for my needs (at the moment) but I haven’t told her that when I got home from school I went online to Adobe and ordered a computer programme called Photoshop Lightroom because well . . . . . . . . I needed it.
Right, now I’m armed and dangerous! I picked a destination that at least I could write about, Snowdonia, North Wales. It was a bit of a cheat really because I’ve been a climber for most of my life. I fact I’d cut my teeth climbing with the likes of Chris Bonington, Don Whillans and Joe Brown on some of the most difficult grades especially on the Llanberis Pass. I have memories of climbing some firsts (new routes) with Don Whillans on Cemetery Gates and Cenotaph Corner when we both got gripped up (freezing up with our knees shaking). Anyway, I digress, all I am saying is that I’m starting my new career in a place that I know like the back of my hand. I know all the right pubs, I know all the climber’s hangouts and hostels, I even have my favourite barmaids.
I can remember one of my chums teasing our barmaid who was the spitting image of Dylan Thomas’s Gossamer Beynon (“O beautiful, beautiful Gossamer B”), by telling her in a pseudo Welsh accent “I really love Wales” and when she agreed with a big smile he went on “Yes, honestly, I’ve watched Moby Dick at least ten times”. It gave us all a laugh, probably helped by the local bitter.
I could have written a 5,000-word article without leaving the confines of my own home.
That would have been useful during the Coronavirus lockdown. What I am really saying is that wherever you decide to roam, if you adopt the Special Forces adage of the seven P’s and do as extensive research as possible before you leave home, you will be able to produce an acceptable article that Editors will love to publish, even if God forbid you were to be in lockdown on the deserts of Oman. With modern technology you can submit your article from literally anywhere in the world!
That’s how I began my new career, I certainly didn’t make a fortune, but I made a steady income from both my articles and my photography. I sometimes travelled to places, at the suggestion of a magazine or newspaper editor. In which case I would find my ticket waiting at the airport and my destination hotel booked and paid for. Usually on those assignments I seldom wasted any time acquiring all the information and photos I needed and then usually typing my article on my trusty laptop on the flight home, all ready for the next publication. If I were to decide that I was going to choose my own destination it was done at a far more leisurely pace these took much longer but were far more profitable. I could sell my stuff to as many as 20 or thirty eager editors. They are always looking for their next space filler that in turn would keep their advertisers happy. That’s enough of my reminisces. Now let me pass on a little of what I’ve learned.
So, you want to become a Travel Writer?
First of all, have fun, but if you are travelling hallway around the world just to make money, stay home! You can get paid for writing about things in your own backyard!
On the other hand , if you have a burning desire to experience the exotic, the foreign and the faraway, and make money, then pack your camera and your laptop. Remember to add an extra bag with your luggage to pack every receipt for every penny that you spend. Your accountant will love you.
You can travel wherever you want, write about it, photograph it, and get paid. Deduct the costs from your taxes and have fun all at once. Just make sure that you have the fun bit. The work that you do in the three weeks after your trip is critical. You have to get your promised articles and the photographs to the editors in that time. This has to be your priority.
Next in your priority are post-trip queries, newspaper articles and re-sales. In fact, any extra sales you can squeeze out of those golden days on the road.
Your final manuscript has to go three stages of development before they are ready.
This is not the actual writing – you simply take a sheet of blank paper and list. Set out your article’s components in the order you are going to use – this will create a road map for you that will make your writing faster and more purposeful.
Break up your article into segments under sub-headings. If a quote would make a good lead, note it first – follow that with a short transitional paragraph, then a fact, then an anecdote etc… Keep this up , sketching out the article or outlining it in detail.
Start a new page for each article you block and file each page in a separate folder.
You are then ready to rough out – this is getting your first drafts – this is where I begin plugging away on my word processor. Get out you ‘blocking sheets’, spread out their facts, interviews and other elements from your trip – convert your rough draft data and words into organised text that you outlined in your blocking, without much regard for spelling, punctuation or grammar.
As you finish one article move on to the next – keep plugging away and adding notes to yourself for when you are editing, keep going, get it down on paper and move on. Don’t worry too much about layout and paragraphs.
This is the most time-consuming task as you turn your crude stone into a polished gem, using all of the tools that are built into your word processor. Spell checker, grammar checker, thesaurus. Lay out your paragraphs and pages until your manuscript takes shape. Here endeth the first draft! Your manuscript after the hours of work that you have put into it, is beginning to take shape and it may look nearly finished – it isn’t , it is in draft form. Now the work is about to begin.
You now have to carefully proofread – It must be read out loud. The first proofread, I do myself. However, whether or not you get someone else to do it for you or not, you certainly need the second proofread done by a third party. You will see the necessity of this when you see just how many mistakes your third-party proof-reader has found just when you felt in your own mind it was ready to go.
At this point you take another look at your target magazine. Does your roughed article meet the parameters of its readers ? Does it make sense as composed? Is it interesting? Do the sections flow well? Is there a proper blend of facts, quotes and anecdotes? What is missing? What would make the text better? Is the tone consistent? Is everything clear, concise and the topic focused? Does it give the reader a full since of the place, can they feel it, taste it, smell it, could you make it better?
When you are satisfied, set the piece aside and let it sit for a couple of days before going back to read it again. Read it right through, aloud, again and when you feel that it’s going to be as good as it is going to be – prepare it for the final draft by manipulating your word processor. Make every effort to make certain that the manuscript when presented to the editor is as perfect as possible. Any less would be an insult and just asking to be rejected.
At your word processor set it out in manuscript form – A4 sheet double spaced on one side only. Print it out in high quality. Even if you are going to present it to your editor on a disc, you need to present him with a high-quality hard copy, together with prints of your photographs that you have chosen for your article.
Working from home
Forgetting about the necessity of self-isolation during the Coronavirus pandemic, your office as you travel the world, is wherever you and your laptop are at. However, on your return home, if you are going to present your editors with acceptable copy. It just will not work if you try to work in your living room in your armchair with your laptop perched on your lap. I might feel pleasant after maybe being away from your loved ones to be able to stay in their company. Even the distraction of a constant stream of snacks, being able to half watch a television programme as you work. Let me tell you now – it just is impossible; it isn’t going to work. You need to set up a designated space.
One of the great essentials for a writer is a comfortable and compatible place to work from, and ideally one that is a dedicated workspace. When I began my new career, my wife and I were rattling around in a five bedroomed house. Our son and daughter had moved out to grow their own families and I had the luxury of taking over a bedroom and converting it to a dedicated office. When I wasn’t travelling, I was able to go to work each day by walking into my office and closing the door! This gave me a certain discipline that took me away from the distractions and general hubbub of the home.
I needed that discipline and I tried to work set hours – I tried to avoid taking my wife to the shops or just popping out to visit a friend, when the temptation took me. I also made sure that I avoided sitting around in my pyjamas all day. I may have been dressed in shorts and a tee shirt or even a tracksuit , but always dressed so that I could at least answer the door without frightening the horses. We have now downsized homes and I now no longer have the luxury on a whole room set aside as my office. What I now have, which is more than adequate, is a dedicated home office, laid out in the corner of a bedroom and this is my workspace. It is comfortable with room for my computer, printer and a telephone. I am surrounded by my books and files – I have to be tidier than when I had a whole room as an office, but I can still step across the room and into my workspace – I am there to work and not be distracted by anything. I try to set up a daily schedule that allows me to focus on work when my mind is set to it.
One of the greatest things about being a freelance travel writer, quite apart from the obvious delights of travelling and being paid for it is the complete freedom of being completely out of the daily rat race with no commuting to work each day – No boss, managers or foreman who would rule my life. If I wish to, I can spend the day in tee-shirt and shorts, or even stay in my pyjamas IF-I-WANT-TO! No-one looks at their watch if I spend overlong visiting the bathroom. If I smoked and fancied a cigarette, I could smoke at my desk. I can even pick up my telephone and phone my friend for a chat.
My self-discipline is such that I don’t do these things but that feeling that I could if I wanted to, is great. Yet another incentive that makes me glad that I took that leap to freedom. Some days just to heighten my awareness of this freedom from shackles, I make a conscious decision not to shave for two or three days on the trot if that’s not giving the finger to convention at least it makes me feel as free at my work as when I am researching by snorkelling off a tropical beach – would you believe I work all the harder because I work for me and my family not as a wage slave to keep a boss in luxury.
To lead on from my declaration of independence and freedom it would seem a natural progression to mention . . . .
Once you start earning money as a freelance travel writer there are certain administrative and legal steps you should take, such as filing taxes – keeping careful records and taking out insurance. Whether you are writing, full time or part-time or even just weekends and evenings after your proper job, you will need to register with the Inland Revenue as being self-employed. You must register within three months of receiving your first cheque, regardless of how small it may be. Otherwise you will incur a fine of £100 and you card will be marked forever. You will also have to pay your own National Insurance once your travel writing income reaches £4,215 a year. Once you register with the Inland Revenue you should make an appointment and visit them and talk over all of your options as a newly self-employed writer. They will explain the self-assessment Tax returns you are now liable for. (Go to www.inlandrevenue.gov.uk/starting up. That is the nasty bit there is a sweeter part.
I spoke of setting up your own dedicated office and the need to keep all of your bills and receipts. You need a powerful computer, printer, scanner and software – set the total cost against tax! You need Broadband connection and monthly account – set the cost against tax! – and so on, et al. The real sugar coating as far as I am concerned is that my airline tickets, Taxi, car hire and hotel bills are all necessary expenses to the travel writer and I bet that sticks in the craw of some of the clerks still slogging away in the rat race at the tax office.
I always imagine the conversation at the Inland Revenue; Look at what this guy is claiming as expenses, two weeks in the Seychelles, Flight ticket, Taxi fare, Car hire, Hotel. He is even claiming for eating out in an expensive restaurant and a bottle of wine n the name of research! I keep every single receipt that I can possibly or even remotely put down as expenses for research. Another necessary evil that you need to splash out on but is also claimable as a legitimate expense is Travel Insurance. It is extremely important that you are fully covered
. I have always taken out an Annual Multi-trip Worldwide Policy so that I am always covered even if I get a last-minute assignment, I don’t have to worry about that aspect.- I make sure that the policy covers me for world wanderer, trip disruptions and cancellations as well as the loss of equipment and baggage on top of medical emergencies.
Another expense that you may feel unnecessary but I’m not clever enough to forego is that of an accountant. I use a big enough name that the Tax Man accepts his word on most things and every three months or so I empty my bag of receipts on to his desk, before taking him out for lunch, in a few days he lets me know if any receipt will be disallowed as expenses. Guess what, the Tax Man not only covers the total cost of my accountant, he also allows the cost of both our lunches. I may not have been very good at Mathematics at school but over the years you could say that I have become streetwise and I can count my profits. Whatever you do, don’t forget to write, as of today I reckon to charge £200 per 1000 words and that is multiplied by each article published.
I’ll never be a millionaire but I’m comfortable and happy. I also have something to do with my time during Covid-19 outbreak and like to think that I will have a list of likely Editors in this short piece. Hmmm! That’s 6,000 words at £200 per 1000, equals £1,200, times say 20 newspapers and magazines that could be £24,000 and at the time when people are becoming weary of the only articles being about the virus and death totals it could be an attractive item . I did mention that I am streetwise, didn’t I? Now what am I going to write next while I’m incarcerated? I think it may be on how Covid-19 boredom has given me a bad spending habit and my toybox is overflowing!
Here endeth my survival lesson during COVID19 but that’s just me. Sorry it’s been so long but the lockdown has been going on and on and on!