There’s a mildly jocund atmosphere, from the get-go, for the string of International Women’s Day events at the Dome. Most of the ploys here are old favourites: an excellent curator-hosted introduction to ancient portraits, a chance to make a naff t-shirt under the generously encouraging watch of museum staff, a talk trying to decipher how the world’s pitiful shortfalls when it comes to equality.
But in a bright back room where a couple of rounds of musical chairs are required to fit everyone in, Laura Barton is persuasively articulating the case for journeying into the entirely unfamiliar – and staying there, wandering, until your familiarity with yourself and new corners of the world is deepened and strengthened to inspirational effect.
The poetic writer and broadcaster starts with the words of John Berger, the essayist and art critic who died in January, on the ideas of ourselves we carry around like sacks of tethering tools, of our history, our past, how we are perceived and how we align ourselves to the rest of the world.
Noting her own story as a state-schooled northerner who went to Oxford and ended up at The Guardian, Barton suggests that this baggage stops people from seeing themselves in new and different ways. No matter how difficult the experiences, though – and, in her case, they’ve included being spat at in markets and followed back to her hotel room – travel provides a sense of weightless freedom which allows the lone wanderer a vital supply of clarity around the self.
“I’m aware that people look at me and wonder why I’m a British girl in Thailand or America or whatever,” she says, voicing a pragmatic, even mundane alternative to the time-honoured anecdotes about finding one’s self on some exotic gap year. “But I just don’t care. In fact, I probably have this brilliant feeling of quite literally turning back and leaving town. I’m just a person passing through a town in Arkansaw or somewhere.”
The solitude of Barton’s trip to Tulum, in Mexico, is a complete contrast to the carefree joys of teenagers on tour “who don’t really know who they are yet, trying to find out through travelling in packs.”
“Nobody spoke to me for about ten days apart from hotel staff and waiters. It’s such a party town, where people go out. I’d just got divorced and I’d gone to this nice place which was full of honeymooning couples and I was the only sad, tragic person on their own at breakfast. Everyone else was just there in groups getting drunk in the evenings. That was a weird, sobering time because I was trying to work out who I was. But then I grew to love watching people. It’s just liking the sound of your own breath and footsteps – just having exactly what you want for dinner and going to bed.”
There are mums and girls here, some of whom hold natural apprehensions about the roads less travelled. For Barton, the difficulties are worthwhile, and the discomfort some people feel when they realise a traveller is alone shouldn’t be reciprocated with a sense of guilt. “I’ve learned that I don’t have to make people feel okay. A woman in a bar is seen as either strange or predatory, and the predatory thing is really weird. You get some women who seem to think, ‘who are you? You’re trying to steal my husband.’ I think it’s very difficult to travel alone in some countries but I wouldn’t ever want myself to not do it. I love seeing a part of the world that I haven’t been to and I like thinking things through while I’m travelling.”
It is, at any age, a chance to reclaim a place in the world, and give a little less of a damn about the reputation and looks which are ingrained as being overwhelmingly important in adolescence. “Just not caring, and that life is messy and it’s okay to be messy and for things to not go to plan, is one of the best things I ever learned,” says Barton, looking back on her first real spree of travelling, in her late 20s.
“Maybe that realisation grew in tandem with travel. I’m a massively different person to who I was in my 20s. I think men often see it as a challenge, because they think, ‘why would you not want to be with me all the time?’ But it’s good for your sanity and soul. Learning your own rhythms is the really lovely thing. Being really honest about who you are and what you want to do with yourself and how you live your life is just beautiful.”
International Women’s Day, Brighton Dome, Saturday 4th March 2017