Meeting the master – Paul Theroux


With Paul Theroux at the Lismore Travel Writers’ Festival – June 15th 2013

It might be several decades since I was a spotty adolescence, but for the first time in my life yesterday I was like a star-struck teenager. I didn’t quite get tongue-tied or blurt out that “I’ve read all your books” (although it wouldn’t be very far off the mark) but I certainly did gush and told him I thought his books were great.

And who was gracious object of this hero worship? None other than Paul Theroux who spoke at the Lismore Travel Writers’ Festival this weekend.

Why I like his books are that he says it as he sees it. He can be grumpy and he doesn’t hold back on his judgement through undue deference to the oddities of other cultures. Montaigne in “On the Cannibals” says “there is nothing savage or barbarous about those peoples (i.e cannibals or foreigners), but that every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to; it is indeed the case that we have no other criterion of truth or right-reason than the example and form of the opinions and customs of our own country”.

I would have no doubt that Paul Theroux, as such an inveterate traveller, would respect this openness. But neither does he bend over backwards in the modern politically correct scourge of groupthink. If he reckons something about a foreign (or native) place is attractive and edifying or unpleasant and ignorant – he’ll say it. And back up his view. He also writes honestly about the uneven and often unsettling experience of travelling alone in alien places. He can stand over his out-of-kilter opinions because of his close-hand journeying through so many cultures and countries going back decades. He’s no slouch on the strictly writing side either.

I’ve relished his books for years. I quoted him too in “Travels with Bertha” (p25 for anyone interested) and mentioned him as the writer I might often read in my Irish Times “My Holidays” profile last year (see my 10 June 2012 blog).

So I was hardly going to miss out on the opportunity to attend the festival or to ask him a question from the audience (although I could easily have been greedy and asked a dozen such as – “why do travel and prison writings have so much in common?” or “what was it like to read to Borges”…almost like Beckett read to Joyce…and that too due to failing eyesight? or many another) but I restricted myself to one. Almost a technical one.

“When visiting a new place, does he read much about it before, during and/or afterwards? When does he flesh out his knowledge of the place when it come to writing his books?” His answer was that essentially he reads little before, during his journey he almost never reads about the place (favouring classics – such as Madame Bovary – complete unconnected to the country in question) and might then read about it afterwards to fill out his writing but with his main opinions and impressions of the country formed and informed by the journey.

That’s pretty much the manner I adopted in “Travel with Bertha”, though possibly different to the approach on my next book about my children’s great grandfather who escaped on a bicycle from a German prison camp and the oblivion of modern Italian history which requires up front research.

And when it came to the book signing….when I told him I’d quoted him in my book and enjoyed his writings very much he bowled me over. He shook me hand, asked was it possible for HIM to buy MY book and would I sign it for him! I felt like in meeting Elvis, Elvis asked me about a song I’d penned and to sing it for him. It was such a gracious way for him to encourage a younger writer in his efforts and I happily obliged. In a second copy he marked the paragraph where I’d quoted him and signed his name in the margin. That’s a book for me to keep alongside my collected Yeats signed by both the poet’s daughter Anne and son Michael.

Such encounters are what makes life all the sweeter. I left the event as happy as a child on a never ending summer’s day. No wonder the drive home was such a joy (see my earlier entry about the festival itself).

What a load of cobbers…books about Australia

Well it’s nine months since “Travels with Bertha” was launched. Long enough for a baby – and also for plenty of feedback to start coming through from previously unknown readers from as far away as the US, Scotland, Thailand, Australia (God bless ebooks!) and not to forget the Independent Republic of Cork COBBERS Thomas Wood - Australia in the 1930s - A Journey of Discovery

Most have been unfailingly kind – and very informative.

One reader reckoned the book was as good as “Down Under” by Bill Bryson and the descriptions he thought were so vivid that they made him feel like he was sitting there next to me as I travelled the continent. (A man of good taste obviously).

Another emailed to say he had been in Australia in the mid 90s with his then girlfriend, now his wife – and both enjoyed the book enormously on their holidays in Spain. His brother – who lived in Bondi for years – had a Ford Falcon Stationwagon and there he was thinking it unique when all these years he was unaware of the existence of the intrepid Bertha.

What has surprised me however was both the very wide age range of readers (I’ve received as many comments from people in their 50s and 60s as readers in their 20s and 30s) and also the repeated comments made about the many historical passages I included in the book; how readers were so intrigued by just how rich and complex Australia’s past was – much more than any had expected.

And the man from Cork – well he was a true gent. Not only did he read it twice, give it to friends with the exhortation to ” read the damn book gawd damn it !!!” but he also persuaded a librarian friend of his to purchase several copies for the local libraries. (I’m sure I owe him commission at this stage.). Since “settling down” – he was in Australia around the time I was there – he has been a keen reader of travel books (kindly placing Bertha among the best of them). Among the few he mentioned (including Clive James’ memoirs and “Johnny Gingers last Ride” by Tom Freemantle), if google is anything to go by one sounds like a really cracking read. “Cobbers” by Thomas Wood which describes his lengthy travels in 1930s Australia.

Any one ever come by it? Let me know – would love to hear more.

And please keep on sending me your feedback on the book ( or on facebook travelswithbertha). Always good to learn as I slowly start work on the next magnum opus!

Going Stateside

Travels with Bertha was reviewed recently by See below for the review:

Book Reviews from the American Library Association

Travels with Bertha: Two Years Exploring Australia in a 1978 Ford Stationwagon.

By Paul Martin. Nov. 2012.264p. Dufour/Liberties, $29.95

(9781907593420). 919.994.

The vast continent of Australia has every thing backpackers want: plenty of sunshine, great scenery, cheap hostels, and beer. The country even allows youths from around the world to take temporary jobs to finance their travels. Ironically, it was cold in Sydney when Paul Martin arrived from Ireland in June 1995- With the idea of staying a year and taking bus trips up the east coast, he found a bank job. For the first year, he saw little besides Sydney, but thanks to a governmental oversight, he overstayed his allotted time. In his second year, he bought Bertha, a 1978 Ford station wagon without air-conditioning, and drove her first through the outback and then around the continent, all with a revolving cast of companions. In this lighthearted travel memoir with a touch of history, Martin wittily recounts long, hot drives; stormy nights;countless bars; mechanical failures; and the generosity of strangers. A great addition to travel-narrative collections.

—Rick Roche

Books Ireland (September Edition) and UCD Alumni Magazine (2012)

It has been a busy week for Travels with Bertha with profiles in both Books Ireland September edition and the UCD Alumni annual magazine.

See below the link to the UCD Connections inclusion (page 49) and the Books Ireland profile

Books Ireland – September 2012

“An easy way to get to know Australia” – what the papers say…

In  recent review of “Travels with Bertha” entitled “AN EASY WAY TO GET TO KNOW AUSTRALIA”, the Bookshelf reviewer in the Tuam Herald wrote…

“My experience of the Australian outback is limited to one off-road trip to Lake Mungo, near the Victoria-New South Wales border. I remember the sense of wonder at being in such an ancient and unchanged landscape, especially in the silent hour around dawn before the electricity generator in the lodge I was staying in started up.

“Paul Martin has experienced those wonders a hundredfold, and he combines his descriptions of his travels, fleeting encounters with hitch-hikers or travelling companions for a few hundred miles, with reflections on Australian history, the way the country has dealt with the Aborigines, and its future prospects.

“If you are thinking of going down under, if you have a child or relative there, or if you are merely curious about this strange yet familiar, near yet far, continent, read this book.”

For the full article read –

“My Holiday” Profile – Irish Times 9th June 2012

My holidays

Travel writer Paul Martin


Holiday at Home, Paul and his wife, Barbara, at the Cliffs of Moher

Holiday at Home, Paul and his wife, Barbara, at the Cliffs of Moher


What was your best holiday? Besides Australia (of course) and my honeymoon in Kenya, it would be my first trip to South America. Arriving into Cusco, Peru was exhilarating. The high altitude in the Andes and the striking mix of Inca and Conquistador architecture gave it a very special atmosphere.

I also had the powerful sensation of standing at the centre of the almost mythical Inca empire which had been toppled over apparently so easily by Pizarro.

What was your worst holiday? It was the first fortnight of another South American trip (even though the next four months were wonderful). It started off in Quito, Ecuador where I was robbed in my hostel as the security guard had been bribed. Then after eating some dodgy chicken in Latacunga, I was as sick as a dog and forced to hole up alone in a crummy hotel. When I emerged from the room 24 hours later I was only half the man I’d been when I’d entered it!

If budget or work were not a restriction, what would be your dream holiday? My dream holiday would be to return with the family to Australia. I’d like to do it in about five years when my three boys might be old enough to appreciate it. After visiting friends in Sydney we’d rent a campervan for three months and travel from Karijini National Park to the Kimberleys in Western Australia and through much of northern Queensland.

If you had your pick, who would you bring on holiday with you? It would have to be my wife Barbara and the boys. Being Italian, she makes sure we eat well and always has an interesting “take” on new places. As for the boys – twins and another one 20 months older – they’re effectively triplets and are mostly 24/7 entertainment.

What’s your favourite place in Ireland? The Wicklow Mountains are just on my doorstep and the view from the top of Djouce Mountain on a clear day would inspire even the dullest of souls.

Your recommended holiday reading? My desert island reading would definitely be Montaigne’s Essays. On leisure holidays, I tend to read fiction and travel writing. Paul Theroux can be cantankerous but he does seem to hit the nail on the head about the shifting moods and odd happenings while travelling. The novel The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig mesmerised me on a recent holiday.

Where will you go to next? About eight years ago I went on an unforgettable holiday to France with my friend Eoin (whom I met in Australia) and his brother. We always swore we’d go back there together in later years. This summer with our respective families we’ll spend a fortnight in Brittany together.

Travel writer Paul Martin’s new book is Travels With Bertha: Two years exploring Australia in a 1978 Ford station wagon (Liberties Press, €15.99)

Genevieve Carbery

What the readers say!

Listowel Travels Writers Festival is on this week and much to my chagrin I won’t be able to make it. So I’ll have to content myself with the comments that have come back on the book. It’s now out a month and I’m pleased to say that all feedback has been very favourable. Here are some comments….and, no, I didn’t write them myself. (My mother didn’t either!!)


– Hi Paul, I have to write and say how much I enjoyed your book. It was funny, informative, and a great story. I really liked the fact that you gave so much of the history of the country. I read it in two days and gave it to Dave straight away. Hope it sells lots. Am waiting for the next one

– Hello Paul, I read a little more of Bertha last night and would like to confirm my opinion that you’re a genuinely good writer!

– Paul, I’m half-way through the book and wanted to say I’m really enjoying it.  You got a nice mix of personal experience and insight, history and characters.  Are you working on anything else?

– Paul,  I just finished your book and I so enjoyed it.  I can’t find the right word for it but you conveyed how you felt in the desert and in the middle of nowhere and the peace you got from it in the end really well….Anyway the book is a little gem and hope you are getting lots of good feedback!

– Il libro e’ bellissimo! Mi piace molto come scrive!! Davvero!! Sia lo stile che gli agganci storici/culturali. Mi ha aperto una finestra su un paese sconosciuto e non ti nego che mi sembra di fare il viaggio dentro la mia testa…!!! (The book is fantastic! I really like how you write!! Both the style and the historical/cultural vignettes. It opened up a window to me of a country I don’t know and I have to say it gave me a sense of undertaking the journey inside my own head!!)

– Hey Paul, am really enjoying the book, very interesting and great writing – congrats

Where to get TWB in paperback and as e-book

Various people have asked me this week where there can buy Travels with Bertha. I’ve given the details below and please check the WHERE TO BUY page on this blog for updates.

Ireland –  Travels with Bertha is available in a wide range of Irish bookshops

  • Easons – TWB has recently been ordered from Eason’s distributor and should soon be available in Eason Stores nationally
  • Dubray – Blackrock, Bray, Dun Laoghaire, Galway, Grafton Street, Stillorgan, Rathmines
  • Waterstones – Ballymena, Belfast, Coleraine, Cork, Drogheda, Lisburn, Newry
  • Other – The Bookcentre (Waterford & Wexford), Barker & Jones (Naas), Castle Book & Card Centre (Mayo), O’Mahony’s (Limerick), Rathgar Bookshop, Bridge Street Books (Wicklow), Crannog Bookshop (Cavan)

UK – It can also be ordered in any UK bookshop and delivered by Liberties Press’ UK distributor

Liberties Press – online orders – TWB can also be purchased directly from Liberties Press (see the biography and memoir section to the left of the homepage – – Postage and packing is free to anywhere in the Republic of Ireland

An i-book version is not available. Kindle e-books are only available from Amazon.

My interview with Tom Dunne, Newstalk 106-108FM

I must say it was a real pleasure talking with Tom Dunne this week – both on and off air. Given the success of Manchester City, he seems happy that Ivan Yates isn’t around in these few weeks and as for how a man he knew was caught by his wife having an affair….I think that will just have to stay a secret.

Tom Dunne, Newstalk FM

But if you want to hear about salties and freshies, cork dangling hats and perhaps the best question I’ve yet been asked about travelling in Australia click on the link below