Mixing a criminal negligence practice with voyages to far-flung places, John Gimlette is one of a number of travel-writing barristers.
Bristling beneath the red braces and sensible specs is an individual whose itchy feet and curious mind compete with the comforts of an Everyman schedule – paperwork, family life, walking through the same chambers door for the last 27 years. The sound of those tectonic plates sliding, grating and shaping each other is palpable as barrister and travel writer John Gimlette (pictured) muses on balancing the rigours of the law with a taste for the road.
Over the last decade, Gimlette has journeyed across Latin America, Newfoundland and Labrador, Austria and France for his second career. How has he found time to maintain a career at the Bar and publish four books on those trips in the meantime?
In short, a three-year cycle of meticulous planning and travelling when chambers are quieter makes it work, diary-wise. But it feels natural to Gimlette to work two jobs side by side, and that one of them is travel writing. The clinical negligence barrister was born into a family of wanderers who maintained careers in the professions as well.
Gimlette spent his school summer holidays ferrying and flying solo between England and a family friend’s farm in Ireland, infusing him with the family wanderlust and the compulsion to write it down in diaries. At 17 he travelled to Hong Kong with his mother by Russian ferry, connecting at Nadkhodka on the Sea of Japan with an eight-day train (taking the Trans-Siberian Railway home; “I think my mother secretly wanted to do it herself, but thought it would be interesting for me to do, too,” he says).
“My great-uncles were army doctors who wrote histories of Nepal and India – my great-uncle John wrote Malay Poisons and Charm Cures in 1915, still published today. He had a compendious knowledge of jungle medicine that hasn’t been bettered. My grandfather was a GP and an amateur archaeologist; he wrote books on prehistoric agriculture that remain authoritative. So travelling and writing are in the blood.”
His legal and travel interests almost merged once. In his second year at Cambridge he took his summer holiday in Northern Pakistan to write a legal article on the status of refugees there. But the article never materialised.
“It didn’t really work because at that time, refugees were mixed up with the migration population anyway, and I was a bit naive about how to place the article,” he says. “But I had a fascinating time. It was a good experience in how law and travel can interface – probably the only time when the two have really meshed. Though the effect was to raise my interest in writing.”
Gimlette is quick to make plain that his travel writing has no effect on his commitment to his clients. But sometime even he isn’t sure where one job starts and the other ends. “You have to ask yourself, ‘which is the real life? That one, or this?’” he says, fresh from court and sipping tea in the chambers at One Crown Office Row. Far from existing separately, he sees a strong intellectual relationship between the work of a barrister and that of a travel writer.
“I couldn’t do one without the other,” he says. “There is a strong connection because both jobs involve the assimilation of huge amounts of information. In my clinical negligence work I might get many lever arch files of documents; somehow, I’ve got to work out from that what the crux of a case is. It might be the distillation of just a few documents,” he continues. “Likewise with travel writing, I might read 70 books, record 20 hours of interviews and take a couple of thousand photos on one three-month trip. That all has to be meaningfully whittled down into 130,000 words.”
Gimlette is one of several wandering wigs. His number includes Joseph O’Neill, the Irishman whose critically-acclaimed 2009 book on emigrating, Netherland, stormed the States, and Charles Foster, a member of the Outer Temple Chambers and author of several volumes on theology and travel. Another is Sadakat Kadri, a member of the New York Bar who has published numerous travel guides.
This year Gimlette has been promoting his latest book, Wild Coast, documenting his trip through the Guianas which, among other intrepid outings, finds him stumbling across the site of the infamous 1978 Jonestown massacre in northern Guyana, long since reclaimed by the dank, grasping jungle. There are guns, goldpanners, crims – as far from Bar life as you can go. “I still get culture shock,” he says. “I find it hard adjusting where there are high levels of poverty, where people have really big health issues and where there is a lot of crime. There have been times when I’ve thought, ‘I just want to go home’ – then I get used to it.”
His three-year planning cycle works travelling and writing around quieter parts of the working year back home. “In a way, my travel writing plans are better mapped out than my legal work. I travel in the summer or around the end of the year,” Gimlette explains. “But if I’ve only got three months it has to be clearly structured – not quite to the day, but I need to know what I’m to see, where I’ll go and who I’ll interview. For Wild Coast I spoke with the Guyanese communities in London and Paris first, then spent hours trawling the internet and in the library at the Royal Geographical Society; it takes a year to put a book together.”
Apart from completing and promoting Wild Coast, Gimlette says this year has been spent in chambers. In 2012 he’ll weave researching his next book around being at chambers and will take his next trip later that year, in one three-month stint or two one-and-a-half-month ones. “In 2013 I’ll write the book in about 100 days spread across the year, which involves taking time off and a dip in legal income.”
Of the three broad phases in writing his books – researching, writing and returning to chambers – Gimlette favours the writing, but finds the latter welcome relief from the cabin fever.
“You’re flogging your imagination to find new ways to express yourself, and concentration is very intense... I find it hard to switch off,” he admits. “I’m quite glad after a few weeks of that to come back. This is a job where you can go away and still come back to a job. And I come back a better barrister for having been away – I value the law work more knowing what it’s like to do something else.”