Saturday, September 26, 2009

Travel writing

William Dalrymple in the Guardian on travel writing:

Last year, on a visit to the Mani in the Peloponnese, I went to visit
the headland where Bruce Chatwin had asked for his ashes to be
My companion for the visit was Chatwin's great friend and sometime
mentor, Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was Chatwin's only real rival as the
greatest prose stylist of modern travel writing. Leigh Fermor's two
sublime masterpieces, A Time to Keep Silence and A Time of Gifts, are
among the most beautifully written books of travel of any period, and
it was really he who created the persona of the bookish wanderer,
later adopted by Chatwin: the footloose scholar in the wilds,
scrambling through remote mountains, a knapsack full of good books on
his shoulder.

Inevitably, it was a melancholy visit. Not only were we there to
honour the memory of the dead friend who had introduced us, but Leigh
Fermor himself was not in great shape. At dinner that night, it was
clear that the great writer and war hero, now in his mid-90s, was in
very poor health. Over dinner we talked about how travel writing
seemed to have faded from view since its great moment of acclaim in
the late 1970s and 80s, when both Leigh Fermor and Chatwin had made
their names and their reputations. It wasn't just that publishers were
not as receptive as they had once been to the genre, nor that the big
bookshops had contracted their literary travel writing sections from
prominent shelves at the front to little annexes at the back, usually
lost under a great phalanx of Lonely Planet guidebooks. More
seriously, and certainly more irreversibly, most of the great travel
writers were either dead or dying.

Wilfred Thesiger (1909-2003), who was in many ways the last of the
great Victorian explorers, produced no less than four exemplary books
in his final decade. More remarkable still, Norman Lewis was heading
for his centenary when he published The Happy Ant-Heap in 1998, a
characteristically bleak collection of pieces about trips to places so
obscure, so uncomfortable and often so horrible, that they would tax
anyone, never mind a man in his early 90s who should by rights have
been shuffling around in carpet slippers, not planning trips to visit
the smoked ancestral corpses of the highlands of Irian Jaya, or the
torture chambers of Nicaragua, or any other of the grisly diversions
Lewis settles on to bring "some stimulation and variety" to his old

One typical adventure of the nonagenarian Lewis took place on a trip
to Kos. On reading a story in the local paper about a police
investigation into rumours that "women on the small island of Anirini
were disposing of unwanted husbands by throwing them down dry wells",
he merrily set off on a boat with three sponge fishermen and a
prostitute they had picked up on the Piraeus waterfront ("they spent
the crossing sleeping, eating and making love - the last on a strict
rota") in search of this barren island populated by homicidal widows.
Before long Lewis, then aged 92, had hopped ashore, rented a room from
one of the chief suspects, and was soon cheerfully peering down
well-heads in search of rotting cadavers.

Within the last few years, as well as Thesiger and Lewis, Ryszard
Kapuscinski and Eric Newby have both died. Though there are several
very fine younger travel writers at work (notably Philip Marsden,
William Fiennes and Suketu Mehta), and a few emerging new talents,
such as Rory Stewart and Alice Albinia, author of the remarkable
Empires of the Indus, no equally brilliant new generation has come up
to replace the old guard.

All this is a long way from the optimism of the scene 20 years ago
when I published my first travel book, In Xanadu. At that time, the
travel writing boom was one of the most important developments in
publishing. The success of Paul Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar,
with its sales of 1.5m copies, had dramatically breathed life into the
sort of travel memoir that had flourished in an earlier age, but which
had languished since the European empires imploded after the second
world war. Its success inspired Chatwin to give up his job as a
journalist and to go off to South America. The result - In Patagonia -
was published in 1977, the same year Leigh Fermor produced A Time of
Gifts. The final breakthrough came in 1984 with the publication of the
celebrated Travel Writing issue of Granta: "Travel writing is
undergoing a revival," wrote Bill Buford, the magazine's editor,
"evident not only in the busy reprinting of the travel classics, but
in the staggering number of new travel writers emerging. Not since the
1930s has travel writing been so popular or so important."

For nearly 10 years, travel writing was where the action was. It
re-emerged at a time of disenchantment with the novel, and seemed to
present a serious alternative to fiction. A writer could still use the
techniques of the novel - it was possible to develop characters,
select and tailor experience into a series of scenes and set pieces,
arrange the action so as to give the narrative shape and momentum -
yet what was being written about was true. Moreover, unlike most
literary fiction, it sold.

Two decades later, however, after several hundred sub-Therouxs have
written rambling accounts of every conceivable rail, road or river
journey between Kamchatka and Tasmania, the climate has long changed
from enthusiasm to one of mild boredom. Theroux himself was one of the
first to express his dislike of the Leviathan he had helped create: in
his most recent travel book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, he
writes that the travel book is: "little better than a licence to bore
... the lowest form of literary self-indulgence: dishonest
complaining, creative mendacity, pointless heroics, and chronic
posturing". Bill Bryson and Tony Hawks continue to scale the
bestseller lists, but there is no doubt that travel writing has lost
its novelty, and its chic, and is no longer the powerfully prestigious
literary force it once was.

In the same years, travel writing has undergone an assault in
academia. In the years after Edward Said's Orientalism, the
exploration of the east - its peoples, habits, customs and past - by
travellers from the west has become a target for scholarly
bombardment. Travel writers have often come to be seen as outriders of
colonialism, attempting to demonstrate the superiority of western ways
by "imagining" the east as decayed and degenerate.

This has always seemed to me to be a narrow and prescriptive way of
looking at what is, after all, one of the world's oldest and most
universal forms of literature: it takes us right back to man's deepest
literary roots, to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the wanderings of Abraham in
the Old Testament, and the journeyings of the Pandava brothers in the
Mahabharata. Over time, like poetry, but unlike the novel, the travel
book has appeared in almost all the world's cultures, from the
wanderings of Li Po in Japan, through to the medieval topographies of
Marco Polo, Hiuen Tsang, Ibn Jubayr and Ibn Battuta. Only with the
multi-volume travelogues of the Victorians do we enter colonial
territory, and hence arrive at the birth of the modern comic books of
travel, invented two generations later by such writers as Peter
Fleming and Evelyn Waugh - bright young things who passed lightly
through a colonial world mapped, subdued and opened up by their
Victorian grandparents with their gattling guns and survey equipment.

But the attitudes of today's travel writers are hardly those of the
Brideshead generation, and as Colin Thubron has pointed out, it is
ridiculously simplistic to see all attempts at studying, observing and
empathising with another culture necessarily "as an act of

Also, travellers tend by their very natures to be rebels and outcasts
and misfits: far from being an act of cultural imperialism, setting
out alone and vulnerable on the road is often an expression of
rejection of home and an embrace of the other. The history of travel
is full of individuals who have fallen in love with other cultures and
other parts of the world in this way. Then there are those whose views
have changed dramatically as they travelled, and have had their
horizons widened: see how the prejudices against Islamic culture and
civilisation expressed by the young Robert Byron in his first letters
from India disappear as he sets off on the Road to Oxiana. As the
great French traveller Nicolas Bouvier wrote in The Way of the World,
the experience of being on the road, "deprived of one's usual setting,
the customary routine stripped away like so much wrapping paper"
reduces you, yet makes you at the same time more "open to curiosity,
to intuition, to love at first sight ... You think you are making a
trip, but soon it is making you - or unmaking you."

The question remains: does travel writing have a future? The tales of
Marco Polo, or the explorations of "Bokhara Burnes" may have contained
valuable empirical information impossible to harvest elsewhere, but is
there really any point to the genre in the age of the internet, when
you can instantly gather reliable knowledge about anywhere in the

Certainly, the sort of attitudes to "abroad" that characterised the
writers of the 1930s, and which had a strange afterlife in the
curmudgeonly prose of Theroux and his imitators, now appears dated and
racist. Indeed, the globalised world has now become so complex that
notions of national character and particularity - the essence of so
many 20th-century travelogues - is becoming increasingly untenable,
and even distasteful. So has the concept of the western observer
coolly assessing eastern cultures with the detachment of a Victorian
butterfly collector, dispassionately pinning his captives to the pages
of his album. In an age when east to west migrations are so much more
common than those from west to east, the "funny foreigners" who were
once regarded as such amusing material by travel writers are now
writing some of the best travel pieces themselves. Even just to take a
few of those with roots in India - Vidia Naipaul, Pico Iyer, Amitav
Ghosh, Vikram Seth and Pankaj Mishra - is to list many of the most
highly regarded writers currently at work.

This new global ferment and complexity has completely changed the
game. Iyer was probably the first travel writer to celebrate the
confusions of contemporary globalisation as his subject: Video Night
in Kathmandu, published in 1989, is an extended meditation on this
theme. Yet even those of us writing travel books with a backward
glance to history have found that globalisation has hopelessly
confused both our expectations and our narratives. In the mid-90s,
during the research for my book From the Holy Mountain about the
monasteries of the Middle East, I remember scouring the refugee camps
of the Syrian-Iraq border for a last surviving coven of Nestorian
Christians, only to be told at the end of my quest that there was a
far bigger community resident less than a mile from my west London
home, and that the last Nestorian patriarch was enthroned in a church
in Ealing. "Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late
20th century," I wrote in my diary that night. "Go to the ends of the
earth to search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you
find they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street."

Today, however, many of the most interesting travel books are by
individuals who have made extended stays in places, getting to know
them intimately: such as Iain Sinclair's circling of the capital in
London Orbital or Sam Miller's Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity. There
is also Ghosh in his Egyptian village, published as In an Antique
Land, or Christopher de Bellaigue's magnificent recent study, Rebel
Land, which examines the way that the ghosts of the Armenian genocide
and Kurdish nationalism haunt a single remote town in eastern Turkey.
As Mishra puts it, in a more globalised, postcolonial world the
traveller "needs to train his eye in the way an ethnographer does . .
. to remain relevant and stimulating, travel writing has to take on
board some of the sophisticated knowledge available about these
complex societies, about their religions, history, economy, and

The last world should go to Thubron, the most revered of all the
travel writers of the 80s still at work. He is also clear that travel
writing is now more needed than ever: "Great swaths of the world are
hardly visited and remain much misunderstood - think of Iran," he told
me recently. "It's no accident that the mess inflicted on the world by
the last US administration was done by a group of men who had hardly
travelled, and relied for information on policy documents and the
reports of journalists sitting interviewing middle-class contacts in
capital cities. A good travel writer can give you the warp and weft of
everyday life, the generalities of people's existence that are rarely
reflected in journalism, and hardly touched on by any other
discipline. Despite the internet and the revolution in communications,
there is still no substitute."

The full article lives here: