This month’s Singapore Writers Festival features a host of local and international authors, among them Aussie travel writer Brian Thacker who speaks on 22 and 23 October. Brian has visited 77 countries (“78,” he says, “if you count Tasmania”) and written about most of them. His new book, Tell Them to Get Lost, retraces the footsteps of Lonely Planet founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler, and their original 1974 guidebook to Southeast Asia.
What did the 1974 book say about Singapore?
“Having long hair has become a criminal offence,” the old guidebook noted. And if you did get into Singapore with long hair, then you would have been treated somewhat as a pariah, with most government buildings and banks enforcing strict rules with large signs stating “Males with long hair will be attended to last”. There was even a campaign – and I’m not making this up – to measure the width of bell-bottomed pants.
In 1974, Sentosa Island was “being developed as a resort island”. It had “a coralarium, a swimming lagoon and pushbikes for hire”. And that was about it! According to the old guidebook, the “flash shops” could be found on Orchard Road and Tanglin Road.
How was your own Singapore research experience for the book?
I did have a bit of trouble finding 1974 Singapore, but still managed to find the same hotel the Wheelers stayed in, and their favourite restaurant. Tony and Maureen ended their trip around Southeast Asia in Singapore, and they put together the first Southeast Asia on a Shoestring guidebook in Room 2 of the Palace Hotel on Jalan Besar. The hotel is now called the Madras Hotel Eminence; Room 2 is now Half-Room-2; all the rooms have been divided into two smaller rooms.
Their favourite restaurant was Komala Vilas, which has been around since 1947.
Name three things that we can be glad are no longer in vogue from 1974.
Platform shoes for men, Alvin Stardust and regulated prices for flights.
What’s the secret to good travel writing?
Observation, going out of your comfort zone, telling a good yarn and spare pens.
You’ve travelled to a lot of countries; which ones have you lived in? How was your “expat” experience?
I lived in London (as Aussies do) for almost three years and worked in advertising. I made a point to hang out with Brits, because if I wanted to hang out with Aussies I could have just gone home where it was warmer. I also did three seasons in Switzerland as a ski guide, but that’s not really work.
What book projects do you have on the boil?
I have a couple of ideas. One involves re-enacting scenes from romantic movies around the world (with my girlfriend in tow, of course) and the other is taking a busload of people around Europe, 20 years after they’d all done the same kind of bus trip around Europe.
Do you read e-books or real books?
I’m still a real book kinda guy, but am planning on going e very soon.
The Singapore Writers Festival runs from 22 to 30 October. Visit www.singaporewritersfestival.com for details of writers, tickets, schedules and more.
Brian is speaking at two festival sessions:
• Saturday 22 October, 10am-11am: Brian Thacker in Conversation with Julian Baggini
• Sunday 23 October, 3pm-4pm: Meet the Author: Brian Thacker