One Giant Leap… with Tony Hawks
TV and radio comedian Tony Hawks is a regular panellist on shows such as Have I Got News for You, Just a Minute and QI, and author of five bestselling travel books, including Round Ireland with a Fridge and Playing the Moldovans at Tennis (both of which have sold over a million copies). However surreal the challenge, his writing is always down-to-earth, opinionated and well-observed: a world view possibly formed during a gap year trip to Israel, as he explains to Compass editor Jennifer Cox.
I’d only ever been on package holidays with the family, but when I was 18 I took a year off, the first six weeks of which I spent on a Kibbutz in Israel. I did this as it was all I could afford. This was a time before budget airlines and it cost a fair whack to fly, but once you’d paid for your airfare everything else was covered as you were working.
I was very naïve: I didn’t know anything about the place at all. To some extent we live in this cocooned world in Britain where we take it for granted that there are basic freedoms and no conflict. And ours was probably the first generation that hadn’t been in any wars. At that point there hadn’t even been the Falklands (which, geographically speaking, was quite a convenient war, as it couldn’t have been further away). Travelling to Israel was a time when I started to wake up to what was going on in the world.
On the Kibbutz the work we did rotated. It mostly involved picking grapefruit, which was fun: a bunch of young people all mixed up together. There was a lot of partying in the evening, so I think we were all a bit groggy when we were picking those grapefruit. The worst job was moving the chickens. We’d have to get up at 4am and move chickens into vans.
One I was terrible at it: I’d pick up a chicken and it’d wriggle, so I’d drop it, then I’d have to start all over again. And you had to pick up six chickens at once, three in each hand. But of course once I had three in one hand, I couldn’t work out how to pick up three more in the other! Then one of them would wake up and start pecking me and I’d drop them. I was a disaster. In the end, another bloke who was more experienced would just give me the three other chickens.
We were all pretty naïve about the ideology behind Kibbutzim. We were just young people who wanted to travel and this was a way to do it on the cheap. We weren’t sitting down and having big political discussions about communal living, and how it was a great way to organise society. I suppose the age we were, we just weren’t particularly interested. I am now, but I wasn’t then.
One thing that surprised me was that the kids all lived separately from their parents in a big dormitory. I used to go up there with my guitar and do little concerts for them. It was going really well: they were giving me brandy they’d nicked off their parents. But then the adults must have noticed their supplies of brandy were diminishing, so it all got stopped.
This was a big Kibbutz, with a theatre where they held concerts. At one of the festivals staged there I performed a couple of songs, including a comedy song I’d written about some of the people around the Kibbutz. I suppose this would have been one of the first big audiences I’d played to, and it went really well. At that stage you’re starting to think about what you want to do. I already had a place booked at Manchester University to do drama, so I knew I wanted to perform.
Looking back I am glad of the whole experience: it’s good to question things, and I travelled around Israel doing a lot of thinking. It sowed the seed for not accepting anything without questioning it: to question tradition and how things are. And in fact so much happened during my year off, that it gave me the courage to realise, after a term and a half at university, that it wasn’t what I wanted. That I didn’t enjoy being a student. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I realised I had to go and find out.
Tony Hawks’ new book Once Upon A Time In The West…Country is out now (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99).
Image of Tony Hawks by Sean Hernon.