On almost every trip, I make time for a short pilgrimage in search of one of my heroes. They can be musical, historical, literary or artistic, past or present, really anyone I admire or who inspires me.
For instance, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is my all-time favourite movie. Peter O’Toole’s charismatic portrait of the star-crossed war hero not only launched O’Toole’s acting career but also reintroduced the legend of Thomas Edward Lawrence.
An Oxford scholar who served in the Middle East during WW I, Lawrence was renowned for his flowing robes and coolness under fire. He was instrumental in putting royal dynasties at the head of two countries and by the end of the war, he was one of the most famous men on the planet. What really fascinates me, though, is the epilogue of Lawrence’s life. He struggled with the adulation and, in search of anonymity, he twice changed his name in addition to spending 13 years in the British military as a mechanic.
The final chapter of his life was centred around his cottage, Clouds Hill in Dorset, which is now owned and operated by the National Trust. The simple, white-washed building is tucked just off the road where Lawrence was killed when he swerved his motorcycle to avoid hitting two young boys on bicycles. The place has changed little over the past 75 years and the ghosts are still strong. When I visited, I almost expected Lawrence to come roaring over the hill on his beloved Brough motorcycle.
Pablo Picasso is arguably the most influential artist of modern times and another one of my heroes. He mostly pitched his easel in the south of France so while in Antibes, I headed to the Chateau Grimaldi, where he once worked and lived in what is now a Picasso museum.
On the day I visited, all hell seemed to be breaking loose. A grim-faced gendarme was towing away a Renault that had been illegally parked on the tiny roadway that snakes around the side of the chateau. Next door at the cathedral, someone who had obviously studied with the Phantom of the Opera was pulling out all the stops on the organ. Adding to the mélange were the hoarse voices of the fish and fruit vendors whose stalls sit halfway down the hill.
The distractions wouldn’t have bothered Picasso. In the fall of 1946, when he moved into the chateau, the 65-year-old master was besotted with Francoise Gilot, a painter 40 years his junior. Over the next six months, Picasso launched himself into a ferocious binge of creativity, producing 25 paintings and sketches, all of which he left to the town museum. I don’t always understand Picasso’s work but am fascinated with his energy and creativity. (I discovered that not everybody was a fan of the artist’s output in Antibes. Henri Matisse visited the chateau and commented to Picasso about his painting “The Reclining Woman”, “I understand what you’ve done with her head, but not what you’ve done with her bottom.”)
The soundtrack of much of my travel has been to the songs of Van Morrison. From Moondance to Into the Mystic, the craggy, soulful sounds of Van the Man have always soothed me. Much of his work is autobiographical, so last fall while in Northern Ireland on a golf trip I stopped by his boyhood home on Hyndford Street in East Belfast (there is a small bronze plaque at no. 125 marking the spot). It is still a working class neighbourhood of red-brick row houses. Morrison writes fondly of his formative days here and nearby haunts on Cypress Avenue and Orangefield where he went to school.
From his Avalon Sunset album, I followed his lyrics into the countryside where he sings about spending a lazy day driving through County Down including a stop at the fishing village of Ardglass for ‘a couple of jars of mussels and some potted herrings in case we get famished before dinner.’
Morrison is famous for being reclusive. But seeing first hand the places that have moved and inspired him brought me a little closer to yet another one of my heroes.
Photo Credits: Natalia Macheda, Black Beck Photographic, David Dear