I went to Marrakech in the company of Travellers’ Tales, the travel writing and photography training company. Initially exploring the souks of the Medina and the vibrant Djemaa el Fna, we then travelled up and over the High Atlas, and made inroads to the desert, all the time practising writing and photography techniques. At the end of the week, I caught up with the three tutors, Jonathan Lorie the director and ex-editor of Traveller magazine, distinguished travel and history writer Anthony Sattin and the force behind the BBC Unforgettable series, photographer Steve Watkins.
What was the driver behind forming Travellers’ Tales and leaving Traveller behind?
Well after editing Traveller for seven years I realised how many people want to become travel writers or travel photographers but don’t know how to go about it. Because we used to get submitted loads of articles and pictures that were just not done in the right way and I realised that there were a lot of people who probably had talent but didn’t know the ropes. And I’d done some lecturing in London on the subject and it sort of developed out of that and I find that lots of people do want it. We have events at Stanfords which always sell out.
These away courses aren’t the norm, so can you tell us a little about how Travellers’ Tales works in the UK.
We offer a training program for people with a variety of different levels and experiences and you can follow the program from beginners’ weekends in London and specialist master-classes in London at the Royal Geographical Society and elsewhere through to practising it at long weekends or weeks overseas. And the idea is when you’re in London you get quite a lot of classroom input and practice but when you’re in the field you actually put it into practice for real, live on location is how we see it. And for the duration of being in Marrakech for a week you are effectively a working travel writer or travel photographer on assignment. So it’s a live experience for people, which has all sorts of challenges and they’re doing it for real. And it makes it more intense with the time pressures and with the challenges of grappling with foreign material. If you’re put into an exotic place like Marrakech you have to respond to all the strange sights and sounds and absorb them and somehow turn them into a finished photo-essay or a finished article, something like that. Which is a huge challenge in a week and therefore you learn an awful lot. You’re learning by doing and you’re encountering the realities of being a working travel writer.
But there are lots of people who just want to try it out, put a toe in the water, see if it suits them and for them a weekend in London is much more feasible and so it gives people the chance to see how they feel about it and maybe take it further with an overseas one if they want to and they can progress in terms of what they’re learning and what they’re able to do by following a little series of steps.
Where have you taken students in the past and where do you plan to go in the future?
Outside of London we’ve always run week-long courses down in Cornwall on the cliffs near Land’s End. We have an Edwardian mansion that we use down there which is good. Beyond that, we’ve taken people for long weekends in Paris and in Grenada and now this week-long event in Marrakech. The next ones are a long weekend in Tuscany and Seville and ten days in Cuba in November. So we’re extending our range. The idea is the places we take people need to be really inspiring but they also need to be places where it’s easy for people to get to and not vastly expensive.
What’s the extra element of having well-known writers and photographers teaching and how have they taken to it without actual teacher training?
Well, they do get teacher trained – we train them. We choose the teachers very carefully because you need somebody who really knows the trade but you also need somebody who is personable and supportive and sympathetic to students who might be complete beginners. And you need a tutor who can respond to all different levels of ability and what people are coming for. So you need to be very careful because being able to do it isn’t the same as being able to teach it. I draw on people who I’ve worked with at Traveller magazine over the years or people who I’ve met. And in either case we offer them small things to do and then we grow them so that they can take on more and more. For example, Anthony Sattin, who is one of the tutors on this course, started doing short talks for us as a guest speaker and then this year has moved on to running a whole course in London himself and now he’s here on a week-long one as one of the three tutors and in time he will be leading something like this on his own. And each time he’s learning as well as you are.
There was a lovely thing Chris Stewart said when he started talking at our Grenada course. He sat down with a table of students and he said, “I’m here to learn as much from you as you are to learn from me.” Which I think is a really interesting thing because again he can write but it’ll be a new thing for him to be talking about writing. And what you get from having people of real calibre as teachers is first off they inspire by example. Students look at this famous, or distinguished, person and say, “Well, if they can do it, I can do it.” In most cases, most travel writers and photographers have taught themselves and have worked it out, so if students meet someone like that who’s got to the other end of the process, it makes me feel this is actually possible. The second thing is people at the top of the trade know really what’s involved, they’ve got the inside information on it, the inside track on it, and they can really offer that expertise.
What has the most successful student from Travellers’ Tales gone on to achieve?
On the photography side, one of our past students, Julian Love, has just won the Travel Photographer of the Year competition and he’s been taken on by a picture library and his work has sold in New York as well as London to magazines. So he is well on the way. He came to one of our week-long courses in Cornwall and has worked steadily away at it and kept in touch ever since. So, on the photographic side that’s a big achievement.
On the writing side I know of students who have had worked published by various magazines. I know of a couple students who’ve got book manuscripts in circulation with publishers waiting to get taken on. That’s a slow process so in the couple of years we’ve been going we haven’t actually got anyone published yet, but it takes longer than that. We’ve got one student whose out in India right now researching his book, we’ve got someone in Nigeria researching her book. So people do pick up the baton and run with it.
What’s your top tip as an ex-editor of Traveller (though still contributing editor) for impressing editors?
Hmm, good question. Show them that you know what they’re looking for. That’s quite a broad answer but really find out what the editors want. And they all want different things. The closer you can get to supplying the thing each different editor is looking for the more likely they are to take your work. So find out what they want, supply it in the way they like it, get it in on time and be extremely polite because it’s a buyer’s market.
Finally, how are your own endeavours for a novel set in East Africa coming along?
Well like so many people I’ve got a half-finished book in the bottom draw. I’m really an Africa hand and I’ve got a book I tried to write about Central Africa. So in some senses I’m in the same position as lots of my students and I’d like to get that finished and out there. It’s an area that nobody has written about for a long time really and I’ve got experience out there. I took a sabbatical to try and get it going and got about halfway through, which is marvellous and it was interesting for me because it was a big challenge to sit down every morning and write and to know whether I would actually enjoy that. Everybody dreams of that, but would you really enjoy it if you had to sit there with the blank screen every morning? And I was really pleased to find that actually I really did and kept it going. It’s now just a question of getting it finished.