Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.
Peter This week, we’re talking to Mark Palmer, travel editor of The Daily Mail, the UK’s largest print daily with a digital edition that measures its readership around the world in multimillions. Quite possibly, that makes Mark the most influential newspaper travel supremo on the planet. So, Mark, however do you continue to do your job each week, producing a travel section in a world where leisure travel is currently almost extinct?
Mark We are losing millions of pounds every month, but we’re trying to hold the line in some respects in order to support the travel industry. So we’re keeping our pages going. Traditionally, we were 10 pages every Saturday but we’ve gone down to eight and trying desperately to encourage people to think about travel – even if they can’t actually travel – and to plan ahead. And also I suppose part of our mission, I think, is to put pressure on the government to actually do something, to do something proactive, to get people flying again.
Peter You know, I think that’s a big problem overall, isn’t it? I mean, do you think that if we had temperature checks at airports that would solve the problem?
Mark Well, it wouldn’t solve the problem, but I think it would create the environment and an atmosphere in which people would feel more confident about travelling. I came through Pisa airport a couple of weekends ago and when you walk into the airport, immediately you go through one of these sanitising tunnels where you are sprayed with a very gentle mist. It’s a HOCL product, which is completely non-toxic – you can inhale it, it’s harmless and it’s a very natural product. And I think that was important; I think that you could be doing things like that, which would help.
Two weeks ago, the Mail started a campaign, which was Get Britain Flying Again. And at that point, finally, we got some traction from the government to at least think about testing on arrival or testing two days before you come back, and then maybe a second test five days later – at least, to reduce the quarantine time down from 14 days, even to seven days. And there was a lot of talk about that two weeks ago and since then very little has happened. They’ve just thrown up the white flag and retreated into some terrible quagmire of inactivity. And so we need to, as a newspaper – and my role, I think –to try to get the government, try to get pressure to bear to get this industry going again because time is running out. Every week we hear of more companies that are going out of business. The airlines are ready and want to fly, there is will on part of Heathrow Airport, Gatwick and everything else. Maybe it’s just inertia on the government’s part, or maybe it’s not knowing what to do. But it’s a very sorry state of affairs at the moment, there’s no getting away from that.
Felice I think the travel industry must be one of the worst hit industries.
Mark Yes, I think it is. I mean, obviously, come July onwards in the UK, things have gone pretty well – I mean, in summer and even September. Normally cottages and self-catering places drop off at this time of year, but actually many of them are saying that they’re very full for half term and full right up until November because people still want to go away.
So things have picked up in the UK, but obviously overseas…and you only have to go to an airport to see its shops. I was astonished – I hadn’t been to an airport for four months at least – I hadn’t actually even appreciated that Gatwick South, the terminal, is closed completely. Gatwick North is the only one that’s open and the only outlet that was open for business there was a WH Smith. I think there was also a Prêt and that was about it. And so there must be people that are being furloughed but eventually are going to have to to lose their jobs, unless some dramatic turnaround happens.
Peter Well, it’s the quarantine really that’s the killer to the whole business. Because if you decide now that you’re going on holiday, be it late summer sun or looking towards skiing…if you’ve then got to quarantine for two weeks when you get back, not many people can do that.
Mark No, absolutely not. I mean, there are some older people…when I was in Italy I noticed that on the plane, easyJet, a lot of people who are perhaps retired and who wanted to go away for a late summer break, then come home and are able to self-isolate for 14 days. But most people can’t. And it just seems ridiculous that we’ve stuck to this 14-day rule, and we’ve allowed more and more countries to go on to that so-called ‘red list’, almost like we’ve been a spectator to events rather than actually shaping events. And that’s what I find so dispiriting.
Felice I agree. And what’s it like flying at the moment? We haven’t flown for ages.
Mark Well, it was absurd, really, and it was farcical in that they had very few security desks, or whatever you call them, open. So we’re all funnelled into one to have your hand luggage checked. And while lining up for that, people would literally be right next to each other and there was no question of social distancing at all. And it had to be like that because we were crammed into a very small space. It was either that or going back out through the departure gate. So that was ridiculous. Then, when you line up for the plane, you’re meant to maintain a bit of distance but you haven’t been doing that. And then once you get on the plane, you’re absolutely bang next to each other again. So there are just so many inconsistencies. And then on the plane, obviously, you wear your mask.
And one thing, one positive – I think we’ve got to try to think of the positive – one positive is that at the moment when you land, you know how normally everybody jumps up and grabs their stuff and then you’re standing there waiting before you can disembark? Well, the new rule is that nobody is allowed to leave their seats and then, in a very orderly fashion, you stand up from the front and then it goes all the way back. And at that moment, you collect your bag and walk off. And that actually was very civilised, so I’m hoping that something positive will emerge from it. And in fact it speeds up the process because people aren’t fighting to get back if their luggage is halfway back in the plane; they can just go back and get it and then walk out. So that was a positive.
But then you’re not able to get up to go to the loo – only if there’s nobody queuing for the loo. And then no fresh food – my breakfast comprised some Pringles chips and a disgusting kind of box called a Turkish box of delights. It had some revolting hummus and Tzatzeki and some more crackers. So that was that was my start to this nice little break in Tuscany.
Felice Well, it’s an advantage, as you say, people not rushing to get off. I mean, they just bang into each other and someone once dropped a suitcase on my head as they were getting off.
Mark Really? Yes, that doesn’t happen. When you arrive in Italy – and this is sort of classic Italy and why we love Italy in many ways – there’s a big sign saying that everybody entering the country will have their temperature taken and I thought that was quite reassuring. Of course, once you get to the carousel to collect your suitcase, there was absolutely no sign of anybody being tested whatsoever.
Peter So very, very Italian.
Mark And it reminds me of when I lived in Naples for about three months when I was much, much younger and which I absolutely adored. And I always remember I was astonished by the way they drive in Naples. And finally somebody explained to me how the the traffic lights there are purely symbolic: the red, orange is just a colour scheme, it means nothing actually, you just go whenever you want to go.
Peter So if we can’t travel now, we have to holiday at home. And nobody knows more about holidaying in Britain than you do because you’ve been running a column called An Inspector Calls, which is a hotel and food column. And you’ve been running that for how many years now?
Mark I think it’s about 12 years now, actually. It’s extraordinary. The thing about the Inspector Calls column, which I think we’re quite proud of at the Mail, is it’s one of the few, perhaps even only, columns where we pay our way and there’s no sort of freebie involved whatsoever. I book it often under a different name. I once booked it under a woman’s name, Antonia Robbins or something. When I arrived I had to explain that I’d actually just transitioned from Antonia. So the inspector wasn’t able to call anywhere for about three months and then finally when hotels started to open I’ve been back doing the rounds and actually I’d be very impressed with hotels. Have you stayed in a hotel at all since the end of lockdown?
Mark Well, it’s very well organised and you have the QR system with your phone to read the menus. And if there are menus they’re very much disposable menus and there’s no buffet. Everybody’s very respectful of each other and they’re doing their absolute best but they’ve got a lot of ground to make up and I think it’s important.
There were people, as you know, who did manage to save money during lockdown because there was nothing to spend it on. And some hotels like the Pig Group, for example, all of their hotels are fully booked right up into November. So there are people who want to go out and spend a bit of money and stay in a hotel.
Peter What about apartments? We’ve just been to Cornwall which, again, is fully booked.
Mark Whereabouts were you?
Peter We were just outside Newquay
Mark Between Newquay and Constantine Bay, that sort of area?
Peter The other direction.
Mark Around Watergate Bay?
Peter It was the other side of Newquay to that, just the other side.
Mark Ok, lovely. Well, you’re actually right; they’re doing very well. And half term in Cornwall you’ll be very lucky to find anywhere now. And I think people feel that they were locked up for so long, it’s now or never. Weather’s obviously changing, which is a bit unfortunate but I think it’s going to be going to be a good rest of the year, in a way, for the UK.
But of course, then along comes the big spanner in the works when you’re told that you can only have six people. And so the rule of six means that you’re not going to be able to have big gatherings. We were going to do a piece about where after all this, you can go and you can take 20 of your family, multigenerational and anything else, but we had to shelve that because you’re only allowed to be six.
Peter And that includes small children, so this really makes it very difficult indeed.
Felice So going back to the Mail, how did you become travel editor? When did you start doing what you do?
Mark Well, I think that when you get as old as I am, you’re lucky to hang your hat anywhere really. My background was news, really, I think the same as Peter’s. I was a news reporter and a news editor. And somehow the way I approach travel and travel journalism, travel writing – I try to take the view that if I go somewhere, I’m going there as a reporter. I’m trying to go there to find out what makes that place tick; what are the sort of the things that people there are thinking about? What are they engaged by? Talking to people and getting quotes and really engaging with real life in these places, rather than just saying: ‘We had some calamari washed down by some indifferent white wine.’ And so that’s how I approach it and how I hope that other people that we use approach it.
And if you do that then actually, because everybody thinks that travel journalism is a doddle, you just go along and have a nice time and tell people about it. But actually, as you both know, it’s a very hard thing to do well. And in the end, what you’re trying to do is encourage people to go somewhere and try to open people’s eyes a bit. I think the more that we can learn about the world then the easier it is to learn about ourselves.
Felice So how do you relax when you’re not working?
Mark I pour myself a very large Negroni and then I pour another very large Negroni on a Friday night. Fridays is our very busy day; it’s all quite pressured and the ads change, and so by the time I get home, I am in the mood for relaxation. I don’t know about you, but at the beginning of lockdown I always thought I was rather a television snob, I never really watched television, but I did find myself watching an inordinate amount of television and that habit has lingered a bit. And so I actually do now say to my wife: ‘What are we going to watch tonight?’ Which is an extraordinary thing. So for me, it’s a bit of that, and then I suppose as I get older – I used to run a lot but now I suppose it’s walking – I think I’ve become a bit of a walker bore.
Peter I want to get back to Negroni for a second. A bit for our American visitors: what exactly is a Negroni?
Mark Negroni is the greatest cocktail in the world, that’s what it is. If you mean what actually it comprises, then it’s very simple: it’s the Holy Trinity. It’s equal amounts of gin and the gin, to my mind, has to be a London Dry gin – none of this botanical stuff, sort of flowery nonsense, it doesn’t taste good at all. It’s got to be a proper London Dry gin and then equal measures of Campari and then a vermouth – and it should be a proper vermouth made in Torino rather than awful sort of Cinzano red stuff that is passed off as a vermouth. I am a Negroni snob; I enjoy being a Negroni snob.
Peter and Felice, you’ll be interested that one of the greatest experts of the Negroni is a girl. She’s only about 30 and she runs a bar in Courmayeur in Italy. And if you’re ever in Courmayeur, I will make sure that I give you the address of her little bar and she’ll make you the perfect Negroni.
Peter Don’t worry, I’ve been drinking Negronis in that bar since who knows when.
Mark I was actually meant to be writing a book about Negroni and I wanted to get Campari to put up some money and sponsor it and Campari – nobody knows what’s in a Campari, it’s one of those great secrets – they didn’t play ball. So I drink Campari but I don’t write about it.
Peter I think it was the girl’s grandmother who I used to drink with, probably.
Mark No, surely not!
Felice So where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you think you’ll do next? Will you be doing the same as you do now?
Mark Well, I hope to be doing the same thing. I mean, on a very personal level, I’m hoping that I shall be not living in London in five years’ time because I’m finding London a little bit oppressive, even though during lockdown it was actually quite pleasant. But I think that once you get the newspaper bug, it’s quite difficult to get it out of your system. So I hope I will be continuing in this job. If I am, I’ll be very lucky. If I am, I’ll be the great survivor, I think. But that’s what I hope, really, and I hope to still be writing. I think that, as you both I’m sure appreciate, journalism is a wonderful privilege and it’s a great opportunity to be in the grandstand of world events, but you don’t necessarily make a lot of money from it and therefore you’ve got to keep working all your life.
Peter And writing books, you’ve done that, too?
Mark Yes, well, I’ve done a couple and I’d like to try to write some fiction at some point, but everybody says that and then the Negronis get in the way and one never actually gets around to it. But that would be a good goal, I think.
Peter And you’re a skier, of course, aren’t you?
Mark I love skiing and I hope to do that for as long as I can breathe. And I find that as I get older, I love skiing even more. And it’s not so much for the skiing, it’s just more being outside in the cold. I used to be a bit of a fair weather skier and only go out when the sun was shining but now actually, whatever it is, I absolutely adore it and I shall continue and hope very much I’ll have the privilege and opportunity to ski with both you and Felice sometime in the near future.
Peter We look forward to it.
Felice Everyone asks us this, so they must ask you: Do you have a favourite place in the world?
Mark I have been asked that question before, it is true. And I normally actually say that it’s the last place I’ve been, because normally that’s the place which is uppermost in one’s mind and still resonates and is bubbling away. But given that I haven’t actually been anywhere particular apart from Tuscany, which I love, I think in all honesty I would probably say India and that there’s something about India that is just so immeasurably enthralling and so huge. And you just feel, every time you’re there, that you’ve only just chipped a little tiny bit of the iceberg and there’s so much more to discover. And I would just love in the next 10 years or so to explore India more and get to understand it – it’s such a complex country. And of course, with our connections to it and history, it makes India all the more interesting.
Peter Is there any particular part of India that you like?
Mark I like Kerala, that whole area. And I suppose, like a lot of people, when I first went to India I went to Goa, which is sort of India-lite. But where I would really like to go to is Calcutta because people say that it’s a breathtaking experience. And so that would be very high on my list.
Felice Any big mistakes or dramatic things that have happened to while you’ve been travelling?
Mark When I went to Majorca – and I was actually at the time I was courting my wife, my second wife I hasten to add, so this isn’t so long ago – and we got to our hotel and it was going very well. I think that she quite liked me and I didn’t know her very well. And we looked at her bag and started to open her bag, and on opening her bag we discovered that there were some rather strange religious texts, including the Koran. It transpired that she had actually taken somebody else’s bag from the carousel and her bag was obviously somewhere else.
But then, when we took the case back to the airport, we actually realised that she’d done a good thing because this person was actually on the run from the police and so this is a way of identifying him. So that was quite an odd experience, and it gave my wife the justification to say: ‘It didn’t really matter. In fact, it was a good thing that I took somebody else’s luggage from the carousel because we actually helped society at large.’
Peter Did she get her bag back?
Mark She got her bag back. He didn’t take her bag, it was still sitting there, but we had his bag.
Peter Do you think being a journalist – and what you’re done with a fairly remarkable life – has changed you? Shaped you in some way that’s different?
Mark I was thinking about this. One of my children asked the other day because when I went on my so-called gap year, I did actually…and I’ve still got them…I wrote these extensive sort of pseudo-diaries interspersed with a bit of poetry and my own philosophy. And it was all nonsense in a way but it’s actually quite interesting that I wanted to write things down. And I’ve always felt that it’s only by actually assimilating information to an extent where you can actually write it down, that you understand it.
And so I think, through being a reporter or writing something, it’s given me an opportunity to learn about things that I never normally would have learnt about it. Today, for example, I’ve had to write about this new exhibition at the National Gallery, and I really knew nothing about this artist. But you have an opportunity, because you’ve got to produce something that other people can read and understand, and that gives you a certain kind of knowledge. You think you’re a great expert for all of five minutes but that, I think, is a way that it changes you and hopefully makes you possibly even more of an interesting person. But we will let others judge that.
Peter Mark, thank you very much for appearing on our travel podcast and we wish you the very best of luck with your future travels when they happen.
Mark Thank you very much. It’s been a great pleasure.
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Stay safe and we’ll see you next week.
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