Saturday, 15 May 2021

Britain is a country which made and lost and now says "Farewell" to its old Prince of Backpackers, the creator of 'Lonely Planet', Geoff Crowther

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Geoff, whose travel guides for 'Lonely Planet' covered three continents, inspired and informed tens of thousands of travellers in the last quarter and the last century, has died in Australia at the age of 77. He was born in the little town of Todmorden in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire during the Second World War in the Spring of 1944. His was a working class family, where he was the only child of Susie and George, who both worked in a cotton mill in the historic market town of Halifax in West Yorkshire. 

In 1955 at the age of 11 he started to attend the co-educational  Calder High School in Halifax, which had just opened in the village of Mytholmroyd  in the Upper Calder Valley as one of the first comprehensive schools in the country and replacing the older, Hebden Bridge Grammar School for Boys. In the sixth form he studied the sciences at 'A' level and for recreation began to hitch hike around an early 1960s Europe, still recovering from the War, despite the fact that he was in his teens and also the fact that his father disapproved. 

At the age of 18, in 1962, he started life as an undergraduate studying Biochemistry at the University of Liverpool. John Howard recalled : 'Geoff was one my student housemates in the notorious Number 4 Mossley Hill Drive in Liverpool. One day he set off in an ancient Morris 8 with his cat and all his worldly possessions heading  for India. He broke down on the Runcorn-Widnes bridge and was towed back that afternoon. Of course his second attempt succeeded and the rest is history'. After graduating in 1965 Geoff contemplated a studying for a master's degree followed by a PhD, but dropped out of academia and took to the road.

John "Hoppy" Hopkins, the radical photojournalist in jazz and counter culture had co-founded Europe's first underground magazine, 'International Times' in 1965. Having got out of prison after serving 6 months for the crime of possession of cannabis, he had started 'BIT Information Service' in 1968 as a volunteer-run business which evolved into a collective and open house. The 'information' supplied related to advice on house squatting and drugs, but also foreign travel, like the Hippie trail to India, Afghanistan and Southern Asia. It was based above the 'Badge Boutique' in Kensington which was Britain's first 'Head shop', a retail outlet specializing in paraphernalia used for consumption of cannabis and items related to cannabis culture.

One BIT staff member at the time, Rick Crust, said : "We're open every day of the year from 10am to 10pm (telephone 24 hours) and we give free help and information about anything to anyone who wants it. Dirty, untidy office; friendly, sometimes exuberant atmosphere, inefficient staff, confused clientele, aggressive cat. Free information, free bogs, free bath. free duplicator and typewriter, free kittens and puppies, free clothes, free food - cheap at other times but free if you're really starving, free people to talk to, free alternative library, free day-room to freak out in or sleep in, free crash pad, lots of other free floor space depending on the season, free optimism, free ecstasy, free lots of other things plus expensive travel guides to pay for it all".

It had already produced the first BIT travel guide using a hand operated mimeograph  duplicating machine which produced copies from a stencil. Geoff himself recalled : 'The first edition of this guide, which became known as the “Bible of the East”, saw the grey light of dawn back in 1970 as one of BIT Information & Help Service’s 
 free hand-outs. Put together by Nicholas Albery and Ian King as a result of endless requests for information from intending  travelers, it consisted of half a dozen or so duplicated foolscap sheets stapled together with one staple and no cover'. It was called 'Overland to India and Australia' and provided the template for Geoff when he arrived and took over publications as editor in 1972.

The 1972 edition had grown to such a size that there was now a minimum donation of 50p per copy, but rather than acting as a deterrent, buyers regularly left double what was asked, in order to support BIT’s activities. Geoff painted a vivid picture of his arrival : 'I was confronted with over 200 letters from travellers which had accumulated in the overflowing files, the scruffiest “office” I’d ever seen before - or since, several sleeping bags full of snoring human beings on the floor, an arthritic IBM electric typewriter which frequently threw fits and the sound of night-shift worker Jimmy Red’s inimical style of guitar drifting up from the room below. It seemed an impossible task but three weeks later it was ready - all 100 pages of it, double- sided. Nicholas and I spent the next 48 hours drinking wine and smoking mushrooms non-stop while we churned out a thousand copies of the new guide on the second-hand manually-operated duplicating machine'. 

Geoff soon became aware of the financial importance of the travel guide to BIT which, for its work, not unsurprisingly, received no 'financial support from government authorities nor did it want such strings-attached grants. It was occasionally given £500 or £1,000 by a rock star (Paul McCartney & Pete Townsend in particular) or by a charitable trust but for its main income it was forced to rely on the travel guides. It’s bills were enormous - always'.

By 1975 the production and collation of the guide by hand was generating so much work for Geoff that 'the donkey’s back was about to break. So, after several stormy meetings of the collective we decided to go into print after I’d re-written and up-dated the whole thing'. He worked on the edition for 6 weeks and finished it, despite the 'bus-loads of travelers constantly banging on the door in search of up-to-the-minute information on everywhere from Istanbul to Port Moresby, some of whom brought me a little something to smoke (bless them!) and a friend who daily needed an ear to pour stories into and who would march me off to the pub by lunch-time and leave me incapable of doing anything by mid-afternoon'. Then, after 'Ian King, our printer, did a beautiful job. I retired to the country for half a year, exhausted'.

By 1977 Geoff's connection with BIT in London was coming to an end. He had taken himself off to South America with the intention of writing a guide to the Continent, but when he returned to Britain he found : 'BIT was in dire straights and teetering towards the edge of the precipice having been taken over by a bunch of petty crooks, speed freaks, rip-off artists, winos and cider freaks. It was a sight for suppurating eyes. A short while later, from the end of ’79 and early 1980 it finally folded'. 

Back in 1972, the same year Geoff joined BIT, the married couple, Maureen and Tony Wheeler, started the publication, 'Lonely Planet', after they had finished an overland trip through Europe and Asia to Australia, following the route of the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition. They had started the journey with a car purchased for $150, sold it in Afghanistan for $155, and continued by train, bus, boat and other forms of transport and on their return, decided to convert their travel notes into a guide book. It was written by the couple in their home and like BIT's travel guide, consisted of a stapled booklet and was published in 1973 as 'Across Asia on the Cheap: A Complete Guide to Making the Overland Trip'.

It was not until 1977 that the Wheelers teamed up with Geoff, who suggested to him that with his travel knowledge and their publishing house, he could start making a living out of what he had been doing for free. Tony said that Geoff was : "Larger than life". In that respect he probably resembled another, larger than life Yorkshireman, the actor, Brian Blessed who'd just played Augustus in the BBC TV's production, 'I Claudius'. 
Geoff clearly impressed Tony who said : "He'd been everywhere. He'd been all around Africa. He'd got malaria here and hepatitis there and if there was anything going, he was clearly going to get it. But he knew Africa and he didn't know it, just as a backpacker, he knew the history behind it. He'd read the books". Tony recalled on BBC Radio this year : "We called it, 'Africa on the Cheap'. It came out in 1977. I've got a number of things from 'Lonely Planet' that I'm proud of, but that's one of them because it is the only guide that has covered all of Africa". 

The book attempted  to cover 54 countries either in areas in Africa or off its coasts. Geoff didn't visit all of them, and much of the detail was supplied by travelers who sent in information in exchange for a mention in the next issue and a free copy. Under the heading 'Comoro Islands' situated north of, Madagascar, Geoff issued the invitation : 'We haven't heard of anyone going there for a long time so we have no details to offer. If you do go, please drop us a line'. 

By 1979 Geoff, at the age of 35, Geoff left Britain to set up camp in a rainforest commune outside Burringbar near the NSW to Queensland border in Australia and in the shadow of Mt Warning. Here he lived in what he described as a 'semi-derelict, Morning Glory-covered, former banana shed in the depths of the rain forest' which probably explains him working on the roof.

Despite the fact that BIT had folded, Geoff and the printer Ian were determined to keep the BIT guides alive. He said they were 'unwilling to see the guides die after all that effort by the thousands of travellers who’ve written in over the years and are still writing in - keep those pens busy, please!' ' If the day ever arrives when it ceases to be a mirror of traveler’s experiences and an exchange of information then we’ll lay it down to rest and leave you in the hands of the strictly commercial boys'. He updated and rewrote the BIT guide and told readers : 'This time its taken three months to put together but then it is twice the size and, as there’s no electricity here and half of every day is spent keeping lantana, groundsel, leeches, land mullets and 6ft-plus pythons at bay, it’s not altogether surprising'.

In 1980 Geoff  began to work with the Wheelers to create a new guide to India. At that time 'Lonely Planet' was a tiny company, operating with a staff of six, out of an old shop-front office in a questionable corner of Melbourne. He was to research the south while they explored the north of the country for the first comprehensive backpackers’ guide dedicated to the both the beauty and humanity of India. Tony later recalled: “Geoff moved in with us in Melbourne to put it together. Nearly all of the maps in that first edition were hand-drawn by Geoff. It was a crazy project; we felt like we were putting together an encyclopedia of India rather than a guidebook – and at times only Geoff’s beer-fuelled mapping mania kept it going”. The result, his 'India  a travel survival kit' was published in 1981.

At that time guidebook research and making money were traditionally incompatible and most authors put up with a pittance, so long as it allowed them to keep travelling. Geoff, however, had signed a 2.5 % royalty rate deal with 'Lonely Planet' and as sales of the India guide soared, so did his income. In the years that followed he added other first editions to the Lonely Planet repertoire : 'Korea & Taiwan', 'Malaysia', 'Singapore & Brunei', 'Morocco', 'Algeria & Tunisia'. Whether they were a product of Geoff working by himself or with Tony or Hugh Finlay, they all came with Geoff's hand-drawn maps. 

It was while he was researching his book on South Korea that he asked a fellow bus passenger where he could find the nearest post office. The passenger was Hyung Poon and they kept in touch by letter after he left and a couple of years later he returned to update his book with her help and they married in Seoul in 1982. Seen here together in Kenya, Geoff wrote  'Kenya  a travel survival kit' with Hugh Finlay and it was published in 1991.

Tony recalled : "Geoff's maps were a thing of beauty and joy for ever. They were hand drawn. Basically Geoff went out walked the streets and counted how many paces it took, then turned north or south or east or west and drew maps from it and there were mistakes, but they were absolutely the best thing out there". Some travellers drew attention to the mistakes. One, in a letter printed in the Africa guide complained : 'Since when has the ancient and well-represented word 'opposite' meant 'further down the street, take the first left, go around a cornfield and take a sharp right just before the military camp? Couldn't you put a caveat in your next edition telling unsuspecting travelers that your directions are an unbridled act of creativity, a spontaneous outpouring of the mango wine-fueled imagination?' On the reverse side of the coin, one traveler walked in Tony's Melbourne office and said : "You know that hike that you said would take a day and a half? It took me six weeks. Halfway through I was cursing your name, but later I realized it was the greatest adventure I'd ever had''. 

Tony said : "Geoff's work sometimes had political consequences. The Ethiopian rebels once used photocopies of his maps to to help them in staging a coup". In fact it was 1991 the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front relied on his cartography when driving ex-Soviet tanks into Addis Ababa to overthrow the despised government of Mengistu.

On another occasion, Geoff's outspoken criticism of the Malawi dictator, Hastings Banda, provoked a personal reaction. Geoff's son, Ashley said : "He called the President at the time, 'The Second Hitler'. He really had a go at him for being such a ruthless ruler and he was banned from the country. He was part of that generation that was rebellious in the sense of anything against authority was something to be proud of. He was a very vocal opponent of any kind of war and I think that really came down to what he had seen in post World War Two Europe like and also what happened in Afghanistan, post Soviet invasion". 

With his new found affluence Tony said : "He started building this incredibly beautiful house. There were Japanese hippies there that would come and they did a lot of the woodwork on the place and it was just a beautiful, beautiful place and that was Geoff in his prime when he was building that house". Geoff's soaring roof was inspired by the Batak architecture from the Indonesian island of Sumatra and the house was his home with Hyung Poon and son, Ashley, who recalled : "All of his stories that he told me as a boy, revolved around African animals. He would always tell me about the sightings of tigers in India roaming through theses dry forests. Exploring the savannahs in Africa trying to track wildebeest herds or find lion prides"However, Ashley also remembered that Geoff was "off on what seemed like never-ending journeys across the planet. It was Mum and I fending for ourselves".

The unfortunate downside to Geoff's success, was that he used his income from the guides to fuel his increasing appetite for alcohol and drugs. His son Ashley said : "I grew up with him essentially, not really remembering him without a drink. I would probably say that probably broke us and it broke our family and it certainly broke him in the end because he was bored. He was bored about where life had taken him. Things were becoming very regular but he was always somebody who wanted to chase something crazy". 

Geoff's marriage to Hyung Poon was dissolved when Ashley was 8 years old in 1997 and he left her and Ashley and settled in the state of Goa on the south western coast of India. Ashley said in his eulogy to Geoff on his passing : 'From the little time you spent at home in Australia you were buried in writing, books, music, drugs, and alcohol' and squared it in his mind by saying : 'I guess it’s true what they say about geniuses – they can’t stop themselves'. 

Interviewing Tony Wheeler for the Guardian in 2007, on his standing down and selling his 'Lonely Planet' and 'Rough Guides', Carol Cadwalldr asked him about Geoff. She wrote : 'He's gone now. A broken man living in Goa, Tony Wheeler tells me, and it's hard not to feel a pang. The latest edition of Lonely Planet India is a monumental 1,236 pages, produced by 12 writers, and it's, without a doubt, a terrifically useful book if you need to navigate your way from Calcutta to Bangalore; probably even more so when it's a couple of megabytes rather than several kilos of dense matter weighing like a stone at the bottom of your bag. But, well, there's a certain something that's been lost; a Geoffness, I think I'll call it'. 

The travel writer Rory MacLean met Geoff in Goa while researching material for 'The Wheel Thing' which was published in 2006 and was not impressed. He recorded meeting Geoff who he said was steadily drinking himself stupid and whose memory for places was shot and commented that Geoff : 'had turned into a sad embodiment of the adage that “if you can remember the 1960s you weren’t really there”'. 

After a brief second marriage to a woman he met in Kenya and and longer writing travel books, Geoff was in financial straits after his second divorce and at the age of 60 in 2004, he had, in fact, returned to Australia. Hyung Poon and her partner had invited him back to live with them in the beautiful house he had built when they were first married. The following year he sustained a head injury in an accident and was transferred to a care facility where he spent the last 14 years of his life. As time went on his dementia increased and it is therefore unlikely that he was able to appreciate the greatest accolade of his life when the British Library’s 2016 'Maps & the 20th Century Exhibition' in London displayed Geoff’s maps and notes in his journal from researching the first edition of 'South America on a Shoestring', alongside the map of Middle Earth which J R R Tolkien used while writing 'Lord of the Rings'. 

His son Ashley said : "When the British Library reached out to mum and myself about wanting to display some of Dad's maps in this big exhibition, what was really wonderful being a big Lord of the Rings and Hobbit fan, was Dad's map actually exhibited next to Tolkien's map of middle earth. It really kind of illustrated Dad's connection with the world and also what his view of the world was and his view of particular people and places were and how he expressed that in his maps".

On Geoff's passing, BBC Radio 4 'Last Word' programme about Geoff was broadcast in April 2021, with Matthew Bannister's interview with Tony Wheeler and Ashley Crowther :

In his care home, he was a long way and time away from, one suspects, his happiest years working in London for BIT in the 1970s, which he described as : 'A constantly changing collection of drop-outs, misfits, visionaries, deviants, information freaks, students, runaways, travellers, electronics whizz-kids and even “normal” people from all over the world, none of whom were paid and many of whom worked all hours God sent'. 
Geoff died as a result of complications caused by advanced dementia. This was possibly accelerated by the long term effect of his long term appetite for drugs. His son Ashley said of Geoff : "If there's one bit of fatherly advice you've given me, it was don't try heroin, but a little raw opium is OK and LSD and mushrooms are fine and that pot was all right, provided you didn't do it while working".

Richard Everist, a former publisher at Lonely Planet remembered Geoff as :

"A charming rogue, with a fearsome appetite for life that sometimes challenged those caught up in his wake. He was a hero for me, and if I am not mistaken, for many others too."

* * * * * * * * * * * 

My own experience of back packing, while a student, consists of travels to the Greek islands of Mykonos and Rhodes with two friends in the summer of 1967 and alone to Sciathos and Alonisos in 1969. In Crete we slept on the beach in the unspoilt seaside village of Matala, where the 'Dolphin Cafe' repeatedly played the Beatles 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' on a record turn table. I was 20 at the time and have no doubt that, also at the time, the 23 year old Geoff was off  travelling to a more  exotic  destination. 

Three years later the 27 year old American singer, Joni Mitchell stopped off at Matala on her 'European Odyssey' and was inspired to write her song 'Carey', after 'Cary' or 'Carrot' Raditz, a cane-carrying chef with bright red hair, who she met there and referred to the village and the 'Dolphin CafĂ©' she called 'The Mermaid.

'Maybe I'll go to Amsterdam,
Or maybe I'll go to Rome,
And rent me a grand piano and put some flowers 'round my room.
But let's not talk about fare-thee-welIs now,
     The night is a starry dome.
                            And they're playin' that scratchy rock and roll,
                              Beneath the Matala Moon'.

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