TRAVELLING LIGHT THROUGH LIFE — BUT THINKING HEAVILY ABOUT IT.
Autobiographies can often leave readers wondering why their authors ever thought anyone would be likely to be interested in the details of their lives. They can be self-congratulatory reflections on what they regard as a significant journey or an apology for mistakes make on the way. Mercifully, this book avoids both of these wearisome templates.
Patrick Richardson was born in East Grinstead, but grew up in Edinburgh where he now lives with his German partner Gabriella. For four decades he wandered the world earing a living in casual jobs including teaching, baggage handling, tour guiding and tobacco picking. In recent years he has earned been a freelance travel writer for several newspapers, including this one.
Journalism is in his bloodline. His grandfather was the first salaried general secretary of the National Union of Journalists. Both his parents had journalistic ambitions, although when his mother, the middle-class daughter of an Edinburgh family, turned up unexpectedly at her mother’s house and introduced an unemployed conscientious objector as her husband, the door was shut in her face and they slept on Corstorphine Hill.
Richardson has met many famous people but his encounters with the poet Norman McCaig was memorable for the painful punishments he received from him. He transferred to George Watson’s College, where his non-conformist lifestyle, doubtless inherited from his father, led to two near-misses from expulsion, although he ended up there as a star pupil.
A brief time at Leeds University ended, as he disliked the ‘boorish, northern philistines studying engineering’. Thereafter he studied politics at Edinburgh University, adding Malcolm Rifkind, Robin Cook and Gordon Brown to his contacts’ list.
After graduating, the young Richardson was still not at peace. He describes himself as feeling ‘wholly unprepared for the outside world’. While at university, he went on an exchange to Charles University, Prague, during the Prague Spring, and met Indira Ghandi on a visit to India. His political awareness did not lead to a career and he chose instead to travel. He is completely open about his drug use and his many relationships. His plans to become a classical guitarist went nowhere, so Richardson went to live in Amsterdam, where the lifestyle suited him, but the manuscript of a book also remained an unfulfilled dream.
Not surprisingly, his mother was unhappy, telling him of a visit there ‘you’re close on 30, you’ve no profession, no money, you’re not married and you’ve no children.’ He did not share her concern. ‘Nor did I mind that I was merely an errand boy at the airport, given it was purely a temporary job and that, in time, something better would surely turn up.’ It did. A friend said ‘Fancy South America?’ and he was off again.
One of the compelling aspects of the book is Richardson’s openness about the difficult relationships within his family. From having a close relationship with his father as a boy, he became distant from him as an adult. In her later years, his mother relied on her son and sought his support and companionship. He recounts his sadness at her death from cancer. He and his only sister also seemed to have had a difficult relationship.
These details explain for the reader much about Patrick Richardson’s personal difficulties too. He admits to two breakdowns following the frequent endings of his many relationships, and once he was even suicidal.
Richardson’s life may have been complicated and sometimes hard to understand but this record of his adventures makes compelling reading. The details of the places he visited and the people he met add colour to an unusually frank autobiography
At his first primary school, he remembers seeing himself ‘as an outsider, a feeling that has pursued me all my life’. It is all the more surprising, then, that he has allowed us to see so much of his inner self.