When Charlie Connelly came to Stanfords to sign copies of his hugely successful Attention All Shipping just prior to the launch of his next book, In Search Of Elvis, I was there to catch up on his latest exploits, including singing Elvis songs live on Uzbek television and being pulled up for being sleazy in his first attempt at romantic fiction.
Childhood and influences
What are your fondest memories of travel from your childhood?
Not so much a memory but I’m told that the first family holiday we had, when I was really, really tiny we drove to Devon and I thought every animal was a teddy bear. So, we’d go past a few of the cows and apparently I was going, “Teddies, Teddies.” My mum reminds me every time I bring a new girlfriend home. I was always a really shy traveller as a child, so I don’t know how come I ended up doing this kind of thing.
What were your first influences on you in the way you write? The biography on your website mentions Douglas Adams…
Yeah. He’s probably the biggest, though I’m not a science fiction fan. But I remember reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when I was about 12 and just thinking, “This is brilliant, this is really funny, what an imagination.” Since then I’ve really liked HV Morton who wrote In Search Of England and wrote some fantastic travel books – most of which is still in print, I think, even now 70 years after they came out – he was a really big influence on me.
When did you discover him?
Relatively recently, probably about seven or eight years ago I read In Search Of England. I found a dusty old hardback from the ’30s in a second-hand shop and I started reading it and the freshness of it and the writing and the vibrancy of it – it could have been written last year really. It made such a big impression on me.
Becoming a travel writer
And in your first travel book you go around England yourself, for Attention All Shipping.
I suppose my first travel book would be the one I did about European football.
Where you follow Liechtenstein’s lack of progress through the world cup, Stamping Grounds?
There was one before that called Spirit High and Passion Pure where I went round Europe looking at the connection between football and nationalities and different places and localities and things like that because I started off as a football writer and then started covering football in Europe. I wrote that book and then I wrote the Lichtenstein football book with the current publisher I’m with and I really enjoyed the travely bits more than the football bits.
And that’s what kicked you off on travel?
Yeah. So when I submitted that one and the publisher came back to me and said, “Ooh, have you ever thought of doing a travel book without any football in it”, that was perfect timing and that’s when the shipping forecast thing happened as well.
What tips do you have for other budding travel writers?
I think it’s no good doing the kind of school ‘What I did on my holiday here’ thing. You’ve got to have a reasonably good journey and something to say about it, I think. I’m quite lucky in that I like out of the way places because if I went to Barcelona there’s nothing that I’m going to write that no-one’s written before. I’m not going to say anything new about Barcelona, I don’t think. I’m lucky that I like these obscure out of the way places. So, I think the best tip I can give is to try and find somewhere different, where no-one has written about before or in a way that hasn’t been written about before. You need to have something to say, it’s no good just describing colourful markets and vibrant sunsets. You’ve got to say more than that, find the personality of the place and the personality of the people.
What made you think of writing about the shipping forecast?
I think like most people, and even for those who aren’t connected to the sea, the shipping forecast is something we all grow up with. If you went into the street now and stopped a half a dozen people, they would be able to name half a dozen sea areas and they probably wouldn’t know why they could do that.
It’s like a childhood rhyme, an uncertain memory, uncertain of the exact words.
Yeah, they always say ‘Dogger’ and ‘Fisher’ those are the two that always come up. It does seem to be woven into the national consciousness and probably because we’re an island – because Spain and France also have shipping forecasts but there’s not the same romance attached to it, the same culture about it. Because it’s just off their west coast, they’re attached to the continent of Europe and we’re not, we’re surrounded by this stuff. And there’s a poem by a poet called Sean Street about the shipping forecast and I think it’s a really great image. He describes it [the naming of areas in the sea] as paving the water round the isles – and when you look at the map it does look like that. I think that’s nice.
I think we all grew up with it and I happened to be working late one night at home and had the radio on and it was a really rainy night and the news came on and it was the first time there had been suggestions that cod fishing should be banned to let the stocks go up and there were all these interviews with Scottish trawler men who sounded terrified because their livelihood was, possibly, just going to be taken completely away from them. And then after that news bulletin the late night shipping forecast came on and they started reading off these names, the romantic names that the shipping forecast map’s made up from and it made me realise that there is a serious side to it. Because I have no connection with the sea myself and I’ve always grown up with it going, “Oh, what a lovely sound,” but then I realised that there is something serious about it.
It’s saving their lives.
Exactly. The shipping forecast came about in order to save people’s lives at sea and so that’s when I started thinking about where these places were and some of them are obvious but some of them aren’t. But we hold these names really dear for some reason and when Finisterre was changed to Fitzroy in 2002 there were letters to the newspapers – they were saying, “Why is this so?! You can’t change that!” And these were people who were in, like, Milton Keynes. No connection to the sea at all. So, that’s when I decided I would really like to go off and explore these places because I realised that growing up with them – don’t know anything about them.
Were you exploring at land and then also at sea?
Yeah. If there was land to explore that’s where I would go and if the sea area was named after a specific place I would go there. But otherwise it was whatever/wherever I could find really and some places I had the luxury of choosing between and others that I couldn’t so much. The area of Fisher comes down to a short structured coast of west Jutland in Denmark and the only place I could really go to was Hanstholm and I’m telling you now without fear of argument it’s the most boring place in the world and just nothing happens there. It’s a shopping centre and a little hotel and I was stuck there for a long weekend and it was one of the longest weekends of my life. Just to give you an idea of how boring it is the name Hanstholm apparently comes from the old Danish word ‘Henskaholm’ which means ‘the islet of the glove’. And the story goes: apparently a woman once dropped a glove there…and that’s the story.
What was your favourite area to explore?
I think my favourite was the Thames, which is my local one, for which I went to the principality of Sealand which is a military platform out in the North Sea. It’s owned by the Royal Family, but they’re not always there. It’s Prince Roy and Princess Joan. They’re in their eighties now, they live in Spain, so I think it’s Crown Prince Michael who owns it, who’s their son. And there’s always a minimum of two people there at any one time because it’s been invaded in the past.
They’re almost squatting really, aren’t they? Do they have a legal claim?
Well, that’s a good question, you see. When it was declared independent it was outside British territorial waters and the international law of the sea said that if you put up a temporary structure up in the sea you have to take it down afterwards which the British didn’t. When the war they left them there, and so Roy Bates thought, “Well they haven’t taken it down, it’s in international waters it doesn’t belong to anybody,” and that’s when they took it over and declared it independent. He was taken to court on some kind of firearms charge in the late Sixties because the British Navy had started circling it when they declared it independent. Prince Michael was telling me about it and said, “It was all very British, we just went up onto the top roof, we made it clear that we had guns, we didn’t pointing them at anyone but we showed them that we had guns with us and they sailed back.” And they were had up on fire arms charges and at Chelmsford Crown Court the judge said, “They had no jurisdiction out there,” so they couldn’t press the charges which they’ve taken as de facto admission that Sealand is independent.
Are there more of these places out there we could go and take over as well?
There are some, yeah, I don’t know if anyone has. It’s a real commitment to do it – 40 years it’ll be next year – and it costs them a lot of money to keep it going, they’ve got generators and stuff…
So how do they fund it?
The family aren’t poor, I don’t think, Michael makes a lot of money from, he runs cockle boats so he’s in the seafood industry. There was a plan a while ago to turn it into a casino but nothing’s come of that as yet. I think the plans are still there but… it’s really hard to get on to and they had a serious fire in the summer which caused what Michael estimates as about half a million pounds worth of damage. They started a fighting fund which you can donate to by PayPal to the Sealand Fighting Fund for Sealand T-shirts and things. There not making money out of it, it’s costing them money [And indeed, Sealand has now been put up for sale.]
And they’re buying their supplies form England are they?
It’s quite funny, when I was over there they had pinned on the notice board a pizza take-away menu. Placing the order they say, “What’s the address?”, “Well… you go out to the seafront and keep going for eight miles.” I found that quite funny.
When you wake up in the morning, and see the fog, do you have your own shipping forecast going through your head?
Not quite. I had a problem opening my eyes this morning [when the fogs came down closing Heathrow before Christmas 2007] the second brandy after dinner was not a good idea last night. Yeah, I’m not up early enough to get the twenty to six forecast but I was under a lot of weather on that journey, fog, mist, rain, hail. It all reminds of the windswept islands I’ve been to.
So your first travel book was about football because you were a football fan, then the shipping forecast because of a childhood fascination and now the next one is about Elvis – you’re a fan of his too then?
Yeah, I’ve always been a bit of a fan, not an obsessive one.
You don’t dress up then?
No that’d be ridiculous! But I’ve always been a fan. I realised it’s coming up to 30 years since he died and he’s bigger than ever, he’s probably bigger now than when he was alive and that really intrigued me because he was the first really, he didn’t so much invent rock ‘n roll but he was the first one to start, really grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and turned it into what it turned into. Everything now can be traced back to Elvis and I was curious to find out what this amazing great appeal was.
So where did you go?
Lots of different places. I did the places he was familiar with – Memphis, Tupelo where he was born in Mississippi, Las Vegas and Hawaii. But I went off to some other places as well you wouldn’t expect to find him. And I ended up in Uzbekistan at one point. Uzbekistan’s biggest pop star had opened an Elvis bar in the centre of Tashkent. I was intrigued enough by Uzbekistan having pop stars let alone a biggest pop star, especially one that was going to open an Elvis bar. So, I went out and saw him and that made me realise the power of Elvis because when he first heard him Elvis was banned in the Soviet Union at that time when this guy was growing up. Rock ‘n roll was banned. But his friend’s father was in the Soviet Navy and he used to bring home records that he had bought while he had been away. And he brought back this Elvis record and he went round his friend’s house and they put the record on and it absolutely blew them away, this raw music. And what struck me was he hadn’t heard of Elvis before, none of the hype that had gone with the record. Purely on what was coming out of the speakers it absolutely blew him away and it inspired him. So that gave me some idea of his influence and appeal without even understanding what he was singing about.
We ended up doing a duet live on Uzbek television, me and him singing. I was playing the guitar and trying to sing, yeah. Singing The Blue Moon of Kentucky live on Uzbek television. Luckily the recording is somewhere in Tashkent and hopefully that is where it will stay.
What’s next for you? Where’s next?
I don’t know at the moment, I’m trying to think of something, of new ideas. I’ve got about four or five…
Loves, hates and romance
What are your favourite aspects of travelling?
I went to Guernsey the other week and I was thinking as I flew in, one of the things you notice, when you come into land in a new place and the plane’s coming in and you see houses and fields and a topography you’ve never seen before and you think, “I’m going to this place.” I get a real buzz form that, I get really excited about landing somewhere and this thing about getting off a plane and being hit by a blast of warm air… I’m terrible in the heat, I’m no good to anyone. I actually prefer cold weather in a lot of ways.
Any plans for going to the Arctic then?
Yeah, I’d like to, I’d really like to. In fact that’s one of the book ideas I’m thinking about at the moment might involve that. The buzz I get is from seeing houses as your coming in on the plane, or if you’re coming in by ship you see it looming up in front of you and one thing I’d like to do is arrive in to New York by ship, coming in by the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan and everything. It would be a great way to arrive.
I’m a great fan of Rupert Brooke and not a lot of people know he wrote a travel book where he went to New York and he went across Canada and he ended up going right down to the South Seas and ended up in Tahiti and he’s got this fantastic passage of his arrival in New York by ship at night and it’s one of the best pieces of travel writing I’ve ever read and he’s not known as a travel writer, or a prose writer at all – he’s known as a poet. But that made me want to arrive by sea in New York. You go to Ellis Island and you think there are thousands of hopes and dreams that have passed through that little room. And the people that are running away from something or out of desperation and poverty and then they go through Ellis Island to what they think is the Promised Land – sometimes it didn’t work out that way for them, though..
What about your peeves about travelling?
Heathrow Terminal 2 – the baggage carousel!
One thing I do really hate about travelling are the people who have those suitcases on wheels and they’re walking along and they’re dragging them behind them and they’re about five feet behind them and you’re looking up at the board to see where your flight is and you go ‘Bang!’ straight into them. I hate people who have those bags.
Do you have any plans to continue the romance novel you started to write when looking at writing courses in Scotland on Holiday, the BBC travel programme?
When the film went out they left in the bit in where we have the one-to-one at the end with the tutor, where we discussed a bit I wrote where there’s a bloke repairing a lighthouse and he really fancies the GP from the island and he said to her how he was looking for his binoculars to look at the house and stuff – the editor pulled me up for being sleazy on that. But the bit where she said, “On the whole if you were to finish this novel we would certainly consider publishing it,” they cut that bit out of the film. They left in the pervy bit, but cut out that!
Any plans to finish it then?