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Interview: Steve Lowndes talks about Travelling Light

Steve Lowndes has had a checkered career since arriving in Aotearoa New Zealand in the winter of 1979. Making the transition from hippie traveller to being the father of two children was the first challenge. Five years as a builder’s labourer were followed by fourteen years as the director of Akaroa Museum and during that time he wrote three short histories of Akaroa, Banks Peninsula and the Hurunui. He then went into local government serving on various boards and councils. He retired in 2019 as the Chairman of Environment Canterbury. Writing and painting have been twin drawcards that have engaged him throughout his life when work hasn’t got in the way. Steve talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about Travelling Light.

Travelling Light is a memoir of ten years spent on the road during the 1960’s and 70’s. Those two decades are now part of the distant past and the experiences we had were of a world that no longer exists in the same way. The book is both a recollection and, hopefully, an evocation of that simpler age.

What inspired you to write this book?

The book started off as an Instagram blog. Our daughter, Lee Lowndes, was so taken by the slides that her mother had taken during our travels that she digitised them and posted them under the title travelling_light_book. The site is identified by a large purple dot. Lee mixed up the photos with excerpts from newspaper articles that I had written along the way. Suddenly we had a matrix to build upon and one thing led to another.

The beautiful photographs are by Lisa Potts, how did you go about selecting the photographs for the book?

Lisa took gazillions of photographs and finding them, digitising them and sorting them was a mammoth task. In retrospect we made rather a meal of it and ended up with a jumble of files, thumbprints and images scanned at different DPI. Distilling the photographs down to the 250 or so needed for the book was another process which went backwards and forwards between the three of us until the text was completed and final decisions could be made.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

It would be difficult to describe any routine or process in any of this. We made progress sideways a lot of the time and sometimes we jumped so far ahead that we had to go back and do things all over again. We were fortunate that Lee is a digital native, because without her help in mustering the images we would still be doing it.

Travelling Light is a book that in many respects wrote itself. There was a predetermined beginning and the journey culminated in Aotearoa in the winter of 1979. I determined to do something everyday, however small, to work through all the resources at my disposal and the rest was merely the application of the seat of the pants to the chair.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include..

One obvious choice for music to accompany any film made from the book is the 1956 recording of Travelling Light by Cliff Richard. He sings it with such insouciance and simplicity that the music seems to come from a distant age. Billy May’s arrangement of Come Fly With Me, made famous by Frank Sinatra, is another recording that captures the zeitgeist of the age. O Sole Mio, a Neapolitan song, is mentioned in the book. It’s sentimental and a little lachrymose but it’s a beautifully evocative song.

Otherwise there’s the music from all the places we visited; South America, Greece, India, Thailand etc, an endless source to choose from.

If the book was made into a movie who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

As for who might play the two leads in the film, well, I’ve taken advice on this and the two recommendations are……Matt Smith and Alicia Vikander.

What did you enjoy most about writing Travelling Light?

Writing the book a was a journey of rediscovery, or a recovery of lost times. I was writing about events that had taken place fifty years ago and if it weren’t for the newspaper articles I wrote or the journals Lisa and I kept the immediacy of those years would have been lost.

As well as the enjoyment of reliving the past, there slowly came about the realisation that the decade of the 1970’s was something of a watershed. In those days we wrote letters to each other and put stamps on envelopes. The world’s population was half of what it is now. The digital revolution which altered, irrevocably, how we think, act and behave had not yet come about. The neo-liberal economic orthodoxy which was to turn us all into customers hadn’t been launched. Global air travel was still in its infancy, as was the advertising industry which serves it. There was no AIDS and Elvis was still alive. When you think about it the decade of the 80’s has got a lot to answer for.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

Well, predictably, when the first copy arrived we drank a bottle of champagne and marvelled that the elephant had been born at last.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

My favourite book so far this year is Ian McEwan’s novel Lessons. He writes with such clarity about complex ideas and you are never quite sure where the separation of the man and his imagination occurs.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

Another book. This one is a whimsical biography of a man called Henry Head Alexander. He was born in 1835 and travelled around the world, per mare per terram, seven and a half times. He’s something of an enigma and could be described as a prototypical hippie. The key to his life resides in several diaries that have survived and they are full of intriguing accounts of his amazing journeys.

Quentin Wilson Publishing


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