David J. Constable
Freelance Travel Journalist
David Constable studied a Masters course in Modern and Contemporary Writing at Loughborough University, graduating in 2007. David discusses his career as a travel writer, his upcoming book and experiences of Loughborough.
Why did you choose to study Modern and Contemporary Writing at postgraduate level at Loughborough University?
There are many reasons: I wanted to be a writer and liked the idea of “modern” over Shakespeare and well, you know, Beowulf and all that guff. I had a Degree in English Literature and Journalism and really liked the idea of going into more depth and examining certain writers and periods. As it turned out, “modern” (for this course, at least) started around Dickens and the publication of American Notes (1842) and the thought of studying and re-reading Dickens and the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Tom Wolfe etc. was exciting to me. I read online about the English department at Loughborough and the course sounded good. Then I had lunch with my dad and he urged me to continue my studies – I’m pleased he did. And so, I packed and left for LUFBRA!
It was fantastic. I took it seriously, but probably spent too many hours in The Orange Tree in town. I had a good mix of people on my course; different ages, backgrounds, experiences etc. which lent to the environment. I was also training with the sprinters at the track, but after a good winter training campaign, ruptured my Achilles during an indoor race. From then on, it was all about the academics.
How have your postgraduate studies at Loughborough University helped you to progress in your career?
That’s difficult to answer. I’m sure the experience has benefited me in many ways, not just in my career, but also in life. That said, it’s not easy to narrow it down and point to a certain scenario. I’m a different person now from when I was a student and I’m sure that I’ll be a different person in another 10 years. What’s undeniable is that it gave me room to write and be creative, something I now do daily and depend upon in order to make a living. I made friends and still have a dialogue with my tutor, Jonathan Taylor (social media helps). I was also able to experiment more with my writing; to read other forms and voices, many of who were not English, and to practice different styles. I wrote more poetry while studying for my Masters, which I think helped me in journalism - to be concise and write to a word count.
Would there be one piece of advice that you would give to current or prospective students looking to study a similar course to yours?
Don’t ever feel overwhelmed. I did (I still do when a deadline looms), but you can’t force writing, believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve set the alarm early and gone to the gym, done my admin, the washing, the ironing, fed the dog etc. and then sat down ready for a day of writing and… nothing. At the same time, being a writer is like being a student for the rest of your life. You work when you can and when the pressure is on. It’s like having homework everyday for the rest of your life. You shouldn’t choose a course because you think it’ll enhance your career. Choose a course because it excites you.
As mentioned, I trained with the Athletics team. I could have been a contender!
I was writing some food articles here and there. Then I was invited on some press trips and I met other journalists. I was hearing about how difficult it was to be a travel writer and how everyone was moving into blogging. Of course, there’s a natural overlap between travel and food, so I decided to dedicate more of my time to pitching travel stories.
Paying ones. Seriously. It’s such a different landscape now compared to when I first started writing. Titles are paying less and we live in a different world. Consumers are approaching information in a very different way (on phone screens and iPads) and you can be successful if you have thousands of followers on Instagram, whether you can write or not. The Tatler travel section is fun and allows for an acerbic tone and I like that Jamie Oliver’s magazine runs long-form travel-food writing. I also love to read travel in The Sunday Times and Vanity Fair.
By hook or by crook. It’s not an easy job. Pitching and writing is hard and the pay is terrible. Failure is only one assignment away. Instagram and Twitter has changed the face of journalism and travel writing. Bloggers and vloggers now have a voice and a dedicated following. PRs and tourism boards have had to adapt, editors too. The impact of a press trip is measured in column inches or how many comments and social shares it has, not always on the quality of the writing. I do a lot more copywriting and editorial consultancy now to supplement my income.
I’ve been trying to think of a witty answer like “the place I’m going to next…” but I’ve recently returned from Estonia where I spent time in Tallinn and visited the islands, Saaremaa and Muhu in the Baltic Sea. It’s a beautiful country, still finding its identity after Soviet rule, but with a strong sense of heritage. Much of the country and islands are forest-covered, stretching around a desolate coastline. And there are these little seaside villages serving delicious food, like pulled wild boar with mushroom ketchup and sprats with homemade rye bread.
Paul Theroux. I interviewed him for Metro and Brummell Magazine. We were scheduled for 20 minutes together towards the end of the day. I arrived early at The Royal Horseguards Hotel and we ended up spending two-hours walking and talking along the Embankment. He is incredibly knowledgeable about the world and we discussed literature, train travel, life in Tahiti, our tattoos and even Bearsted – where I’m from in Maidstone – and the fact that the poet Edward Thomas used to live there.
It’s a collection of my travel writing, but with a focus on some of the world’s more obscure places. There’s really nothing new I can say about New York or Rome or Paris or Melbourne, however it’s still rare to bump into someone who’s visited Patagonia or The Gambia or Tahiti or Tbilisi. Every country is merely a setting though, it’s the people and the cultures that interest me. I write about my experiences and interactions with locals – from taking part in the Heiva in Tahiti and competing against the indigenous tribes of French Polynesia to re-tracing the footsteps of Bruce Chatwin in Patagonia – but it’s really about the power of sitting and watching.
Timbuktu and Iran.
I spent a few days recently with Massimo Bottura and that was a fantastic experience. The feature will be published in Suitcase Magazine in early 2017. I’ve interviewed Sir Ben Ainslie, Penelope Cruz and David Gandy. I wrote something about Tahiti for Tatler and another piece on Patagonia. Every country I visit has an impact on me, but few have really challenged me and stopped me in my tracks. Tahiti and Patagonia did. The Gambia too. I visited a small village in The Gambia where international artists were painting houses and school walls (published for Port Magazine and The Arbuturian). That was a good story and a wonderful experience.
Then there was a 5,000-word piece about Corfu for Jamie Oliver’s magazine, published earlier this year. It’s rare to be given that much of a word count. I also really liked writing about the “Residents of Sin” for Port Magazine, where I interviewed a variety of locals in Las Vegas.