Travel Writing

Travelling with E.M.Forster

The following article first appeared in The Independent newspaper in March 2016.

On my first visit to Italy I was 13. It was on a Schools Abroad trip, on which we spent a night in the port of Brindisi, where I and my fellow schoolmates were sexually harassed by scary sailors, made sick by the stink of diesel and where nothing could have been further from the Italy of Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson. The next time I went to Italy I was about to go to university – I was in love with life, in love with travelling, in love with love and more than ready to fall in love with the Italy I knew from the works of E M Forster. It is a love affair that has never ended.

The British Institute in Florence, Italy, displaying copies of my book Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards - Facial Hair in Art.
The British Institute in Florence, Italy, displaying copies of my book Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards – Facial Hair in Art.

I first read A Room with a Viewat the age of 14 – and have continued to do so, on a regular basis, ever since. I turn to it whenever I need comfort reading; it’s the literary equivalent of hot buttery mashed potato on a miserably cold day. Despite having read it so many times, I seem to discover something new each time I read it.

Lights on the River Arno, in Florence, Italy, at night.
Lights on the River Arno, in Florence, Italy, at night.

The first time I visited Florence, I felt I knew it already. Seeing the Arno and knowing this was the same river on which Lucy, Charlotte and the Emersons also gazed, gave me a thrill of connection to a past age. In 2015 I gave a talk on my biography of Princess Louise at the British Institute in Florence. Stepping into the building, on the banks of the Arno, was to enter a world where nothing seemed to have changed since Princess Louise’s time (incidentally, a woman whom Forster knew). I felt as though I’d stepped into the Florence the Rev Eager would recognise, and was sure I could discern some of his “flock” in the audience.

There are so many books one should never re-read: books that spoke soulfully to your younger self seldom work when read again (most notably, for me, Paolo Coelho’s By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept).A Room With A View, however, has entertained me at all stages of my life so far. Wherever I’ve travelled, I’ve encountered Forster’s characters. In Jordan, I could discern Mr Beebe and Mr Emerson visiting the temples of Petra. Last year I was in Norway when I saw a family sit down for a picnic – and they actually possessed “mackintosh squares”. I have visited churches, temples and mosques all over the world and have lost count of the times I have been informed “this was built by faith”, to which I always intone in my mind Mr Emerson’s words: “Built by faith indeed! That simply means the workmen weren’t paid properly.” So far, I have managed to prevent myself from saying it out loud. I hope E M Forster would smirk a wry smile at that.

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Napier – New Zealand’s architectural gem

A vintage car in downtown Napier, New Zealand.

I have been lucky enough to spend a great deal of time in New Zealand, a country that will always be very special to me. The following article appeared in Oberoi Magazine.

On the morning of 3 February 1931, people in the Hawke’s Bay region of New Zealand’s North Island woke to what seemed like a particularly calm day, although the summer heat felt oppressive, as though a storm was brewing. One peculiarity noticed by several residents of the seaside town of Napier was that the sea was a strange colour. As they ate their breakfast or took early morning walks, they were unaware that their life was about to change forever. At around 10:46am, the earth heaved and shuddered. The second shock was even more violent and the earth seemed to rip apart. Freda Sharp, a schoolgirl in Napier, wrote to her relatives in England that “the ground came up in mountains beneath our feet”.

The earthquake, which reached 7.8 on the Richter Scale, lasted for just under three minutes, but it – and the ensuing fires – devastated the region. 256 people were killed and thousands more injured. Throughout New Zealand, many of the buildings had been created by European architects, settlers who had no concept of the need to create earthquake-proof buildings. 

An Art Deco building in Napier, New Zealand

Before the earthquake, Napier hadresembled other fairly prosperous New Zealand towns, its architecture a mixture of styles, having grown up and been added to with every new influx of settlers. Immediately after the earthquake, with thousands of people in temporary accommodation and so many surviving buildings now declared unsafe, the town desperately needed rebuilding. While much of the world, including New Zealand, was struggling under the Great Depression, architects and builders were starved of work. There was little money to spare and the lavish building projects of the 1920s had been replaced by the belt-tightening of the 1930s. Napier, however, needed to be reinvented. One of Napier’s home-grown architects was Louis Hay, who was enamoured of the very fashionable style of Art Deco. Hay helped to rebuild Napier meaning that New Zealand now boasts one of the world’s most complete Art Deco towns – and a place where, uniquely, Art Deco design incorporates Maori patterns.

Street art in Napier, New Zealand, depictng a 1920s scene of a woman and child waiting for a tram.

Today, Napier makes the most of its iconic 1930s architecture, a time period still redolent of glamour and glitz – despite the Great Depression. The town’s now-famous buildings draw as many tourists as the nearby wildlife and wineries. Every February, the town hosts its hugely popular annual Art Deco festival, which began as a relatively humble affair in 1989, but now lasts for five days and draws tens of thousands of visitors every year. It’s one of those occasions where people notin fancy dress are the ones who look ridiculous. People aren’t the only attendees to arrive in droves: magnificent vintage cars are shipped by enthralled owners from all over the world, just so they can take part in the parade. 

The Art Deco Daily Telegraph building in Napier, New Zealand.

Whatever time of the year you visit, you can join an Art Deco walking tour, or enjoy a journey around the town in a stylish Art Deco-era car, both of which are run by the Art Deco Trust. There are also self-guided walks and driving guides for the region – and if you’ve hired a car, travel on to Hastings, 20 kms from Napier, which also boasts its own post-earthquake Art Deco buildings.

The region is also rightly famed for its wineries. Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand’s second-largest wine-producing region, and one of the oldest wine-growing areas in the country. The first vines were planted here in 1851, by missionaries. Since then almost 40 wineries have grown up in Hawkes Bay. The region also has beaches, wetlands, hiking trails and it boasts the world’s largest and most accessible mainland gannet colony: the fabulously named Cape Kidnappers. 

The waterfront in Napier, New Zealand

Amongst the historic buildings to be visited in Napier are the Daily Telegraph building, the National Tobacco Company Building, the Masonic Hotel, the ASB bank, and the Art Deco Centre (formerly the Napier Fire Station), which is where the Art Deco tours begin. When you’re walking through Napier, along the pretty walking and biking trail known as Marine Parade, you will also discover a fascinating stucture: the Soundshell. Its design was inspired by the glamour of 1930s Hollywood. The Soundshell was built in 1935 and became a centre of town life and especially of teen life, because its collonaded courtyard provided a dancefloor that doubled as a rollerskating arena. Walk a short distance from the Soundshell to find the tourist information centre, where you can book winery tours, wildlife tours – and encounter possibly the world’s most friendly tourist information staff.

To find out more about Napier visit https://www.napiernz.com

To find out more about visiting New Zealand go to https://www.newzealand.com

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Street Art in Melbourne

In 2019, before the pandemic hit, I was lucky enough to return to Melbourne, Australia, one of my favourite cities. The following article appeared in Oberoi magazine (unfortunately, with half of the final sentence cut off by the printers!)

Melbourne has a long history of loving art. The first art gallery in Australia was opened here, in 1861, and the city has always had a reputation for being “arty”. Today, alongside all the official galleries, tourists and locals are eager to witness an ever-evolving art – the art of the streets. It changes, sometimes, daily. 

A street artist working in Melbourne, Australia
A street artist working in Melbourne, Australia

The most famous street to visit is Hosier Lane (not far from Flinders Street station), where you’ll witness street artists at work, blithely ignoring all the tourists and clatter and comings and goings all around them, and working just as anyone else would do at their day job. This is because, in Melbourne, street art is now definitely art, not graffiti, and in these streets, it’s not only permitted, but actively encouraged. Gone are the days when street artists had to work furtively, under cover of darkness, risking arrest for their art. Now it’s mainstream, and even the local Melbourne authorities agree that it’s good for artistic expression – and the tourist dollar! 

There are art-covered streets (with varying degrees of skill) all over the city. In the CBD (Central Business District) these include Strachan Lane, Rutledge Lane, Beaney Lane, Snider Lane, Rankins Lane, Caledonian Lane, Presgrave Place, Union Lane, Drewery Lane and Duckboard Place. But for fans of rock and heavy metal, there is only one place to get to: AC/DC Lane. Yes it is actually named after the Australian rock band. Until 2004, it was the much-more conservative Corporation Lane, but that didn’t attract anything like as many pilgrims seeking their heroes as AC/DC Lane does. Here, the art isn’t only painted on the walls, it’s coming out to get you. Former AC/DC singer Bon Scott (who died in 1980), has been sculpted bursting through the brickwork, created by sculptor Mike Makatron.

A street artist working in Melbourne, Australia
A street artist working in Melbourne, Australia

You can download an official street art map and visit the streets on your own, but there are great street art tours, led by working artists, which not only give you far more information that you’d find on your own, but also give you the chance to visit their studios at the end of the tours. Yes, it’s a blatant way for them to sell their work, but surely it’s better to go home with a genuine work of Australian art, rather than mass-produced tourist tat? 

'Real Australian' by Peter Drew
‘Real Australian’ by Peter Drew in Melbourne, Australia

Street art in Melbourne ranges from the simple but pithy stencilled slogans such as “Binge thinking is bad for your health”, to witty works by Stampz, including his kissing Disney princesses, and movingly beautiful images by @n20_jo, her works are so gorgeous that they make you stop, look and then keep looking. As with all the best street art, there are brilliant political works, such as pasted-up posters by Peter Drew, whose “Aboriginal Land Real Australians Seek Welcome” highlights injustices against the Aboriginal community, who are, despite many attempts to pretend otherwise, the original and only indigenous Australians. Another strikingly beautiful work, painted high over Hosier Lane is a massive, haunting portrait of an Aboriginal child, gazing across the top of Melbourne. He looks over what is now the city’s northern suburbs towards what was once a revered and sacred Aboriginal site. The portrait, by artist Adnate, stays in your vision long after seeing it. Long may it stay up there – as far as Adnate is concerned, it will be there until the elements destroy it, which seems a fitting analogy. 

Street art of a child drawing by @n20_jo in Melbourne, Australia
Street art by @n20_jo Street in Melbourne, Australia

There’s controversy here too: the working street artists, who lead the tours, despise over-commercialisation of the area. It might seem like a sweet irony, as they guide paying tourists through the maze of painted streets, but I understood what they meant, as we passed shops charging prices for so-called “street clothing” which only the only those in the salary bracket of a corporate lawyer (or drug dealer) could afford to buy with ease. These shops often pay street artists to create works – but isn’t that selling out? That was the question on seemingly all the artists’ lips. Though, having said that, UK street artist Banksy is still spoken about on the Melbourne scene with awe – yes, his works may be worth a fortune, but the reclusive Banksy still uses his talent to highlight social injustices and, often, to make others’ fortunes. When he paints on the sides of poor-looking buildings in the dead of night, he bequeaths a generous gift to the building’s owners, rather than making money from it himself. The greater irony I found on our tour was passionate way in which our street artist tour guide ranted against single-use plastics – whilst carrying a single-use-plastic water bottle…. 

Street art by Adnate in Melbourne, Australia
Street art by Adnate in Melbourne, Australia

Lucinda Hawksley is an author and travel writer based in London. Find out more at www.lucindahawksley.com or @lucindahawksley (Twitter and Instagram). 

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© Lucinda Hawksley 2021. Last updated 15 March 2021.