Former MP and Masked Singer contestant Alan Johnson will be joining Cunard’s Literature Festival at Sea in December. Here he reveals his favourite destinations.

My most memorable holiday has to be my first trip abroad. It was to Denmark and came courtesy of a brilliant charity called the Children’s Country Holiday Fund which has, since Dickensian times, been providing holidays for the children of London’s slums. Usually these were seaside holidays in Britain but in 1962 when I went, they were using a horticultural college just outside Ejsberg during it’s summer recess to give around a hundred lucky kids their first taste of being ‘abroad’. It was a magical fortnight although a dreadful crossing from Harwich could have put me off sea travel for life.

 

Koala bear sitting in an eucaplypthus tree on Kangaroo Island/Western Austalia

I’ve just returned from a three week visit to see my sister who has lived in Western Australia for almost 40 years. Two of those weeks were spent on a Sun Princess cruise from Fremantle to Melbourne and back visiting Port Lincoln, Tasmania, Adelaide, Kangaroo Island and Margaret River. Ours was the first cruise ship to dock at Kangaroo Island since the terrible fires that devastated the western side. The visit was so important to the locals whose economy relies on tourism that the State Premier was on the dockside to greet us. All the proceeds from tours of the islands were donated to the recovery fund.

Colorful houses at night in Burano, Venice

Apart from Hull, which I represented in Parliament for twenty years, my favourite city is Venice, the most beautiful and uplifting city in the world. It’s problem is that it is so many other people’s favourite city as well and there are huge concerns about the damage that mass tourism is doing to its infrastructure. Nevertheless, I’ll be spending my 70th birthday there in May.

The Literature at Sea Festival in December will be an amazing experience. Not only will I be on the iconic Queen Mary 2 but I’ll see it fully festooned in Christmas finery. Furthermore, I’ll be on the ship with people who love books and love reading. I sometimes joke that I only write books in order to go to book festivals. There’s an element of truth in this; I just love having the opportunity to talk to people about my books. Public meetings have largely vanished from politics – they are alive and well in the world of literature. A book festival at sea, on a beautiful ship, heading towards New York is my idea of heaven.

Where to next? Well in a working life in which I had the privilege of travelling extensively, I’ve never been to Chile. I’ve always been fascinated by its location – like a long margin down the coast of South America. I’d also like to visit North Korea but for very different reasons and I’d need a firm guarantee of getting back again. Is there a Pyongyang Book Festival?

MSC-Cruises-Mediterranean-cruise-greece.My perfect holiday would always include eating good food, drinking good wine, reading good books and enjoying good weather. Crete has most often met these expectations.

On the cruise around Australia that I’ve just completed I read The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Waters is one of our greatest writers but I never thought she could write anything better than Fingersmith. She has. Highly recommended to anyone who appreciates the art of story telling.

Music is a crucial part of my life; indeed my latest book is a music memoir. But strangely it doesn’t figure high in my holiday needs, mainly because silence is such an important component of holiday relaxation. I never take any headphones etc with me on holiday so I suppose the answer to  what music I like to listen to on holiday is live music by local musicians which covers a vast range of styles and genres.

The item I never travel without is a book: usually several. Kindle would help to reduce my luggage weight but I’m afraid I’ve been unable to ween myself away from the sensual pleasure of holding the printed version.

I travelled a lot in my eleven years as a government minister in five different Cabinet positions but the most memorable is one of the more prosaic. I was Minister of State at the old Department for Trade and Industry responsible for the aerospace industry. We learnt that Taiwan was about to make a decision on which engines to buy for a big aeroplane building programme. Rolls Royce had been shortlisted and it was felt to be important to the Taiwanese authorities that a senior government representative went out there to press the case. There were two problems. The first was that we had short notice and would need to leave immediately and fly straight back because of a Parliamentary Committee I had to be at. The second was that there was a serious SARS outbreak in the vicinity of China at the time. A civil servant expert in aerospace issues and I flew to Taipei, attended an hour long meeting and flew straight back. What was bizarre was that the ten Taiwanese ministers and officials who attended the meeting all wore face masks. None of the Brits (including our local representatives) did. I’ve always thought that it should have perhaps been the other way round given that they had the epidemic. We won the contract.

tobermory village on mull

Naming one favourite place to visit on my book tours is hard. I’ve enjoyed the big festivals such as Hay, Cheltenham and Edinburgh but the less famous, more intimate venues have been just as much fun. For example, the Tobermory Book Festival last October was a delight. The Isle of Mull was stunningly beautiful in the autumn sunshine, The Western Isles Hotel was comfortable and at the event itself I was interviewed by Colin MacIntyre, one of my favourite musicians (check out his albums some of which are released under the Mull Historical Society name).

*Alan Johnson is one of the headliners at Cunard’s ‘Literature Festival at Sea’. The transatlantic voyage departs Southampton, and is on sale now at cunard.com

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