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Journey around the travel scribes

Why is travel writing so unfashionable and even regarded by some as simply “wrong”?

Deep in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, while researching a chapter of The Travel Writing Tribe on Patrick Leigh Fermor, the academic and travel writing enthusiast Tim Hannigan enjoys a moment of revelation (and merriment). He is comparing an entry in Leigh Fermor’s diary of his epic journey from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul in 1933/34 with the printed version; the diary formed the basis of the entertaining and erudite travel book A Time of Gifts.

This was published in 1977 when Leigh Fermor was 62 (he had begun the journey aged 18), and Hannigan has noticed the author touched up passages quite a bit, on one occasion inserting the obscure phrase qui-cumque volt (“whosoever wishes”, from the opening of the Athanasian Creed) as though this sprang quite naturally to him as a teenager — during an encounter with a young woman in a bar in Slovakia. Hannigan laughs out loud and proceeds to rock on his chair “with unexpected delight”.

The matter of “what is real” is at the heart of The Travel Writing Tribe, a book about the practice of travel writing. Although by the time Hannigan has reached Edinburgh, having talked to a great many living travel scribes (these interviews form the meat of the book), he is well used to discovering from the horses’ mouths that truth in travel tales can sometimes be “slippery”. His reaction to his hero PLF’s manipulations, after he has stopped chuckling? A refreshingly honest: “I couldn’t care less.”

The Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre by Tim Hannigan (Hurst, £20)

After all, the Canadian author Rory Maclean has already admitted to Hannigan that he “loved” the experience of “remaking” his journey around Eastern Europe published as Stalin’s Nose in 1992. Sara Wheeler, author of the well-received book about Antarctica, Terra Incognita (1996), has said: “I’m creating a work of literature, so the demands of making it an acceptable work override, in my opinion, any question of verisimilitude.” And the esteemed veteran Colin Thubron has drily commented he is only reliable “by the abysmal standards of the genre”.

In The Travel Writing Tribe, Hannigan attempts to answer two questions. The first: why is he so drawn to travel writing? He is from Cornwall, aged 40, and developed a deepening interest in travel books, especially the works of Bruce Chatwin, while a trainee chef before moving into academia related to the subject.

The second is: why has travel writing become so “unfashionable”? This is witnessed, he says, in shrinking travel sections in bookshops, often reduced to “three feet of guidebooks and celebrity jaunts”.

Travel writing experienced its golden years of sales from the 1970s to the 1990s

Possibly, Hannigan suggests early on, this is to do with readers lacking trust in what has been written. Or maybe it is simply because they can visit places easily and cheaply on budget flights bought on the internet (not around as it is now when travel writing experienced its golden years of sales from the 1970s to the 1990s). Yet there is another concern: are its many “very male and very white” practitioners, usually from well-to-do backgrounds (Leigh Fermor and Wilfred Thesiger, of 1940s Arabian adventure fame, being the epitome) off-putting?

Hannigan quotes one prominent scholarly critic, Debbie Lisle, who, referring to the best-selling American travel writer Paul Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania, about his adventures in the South Pacific, once wrote: “[It is] boring, nasty and offensive in equal measure… Intuitively, I knew this wasn’t just a bad book; there was something wrong [her itals] with this book and something wrong [her itals] with travel writing.” This, she elaborated, was to do with the genre’s “conservative political outlook”.

Meanwhile, the academic Charles Sugnet referred to some of the successful crop of travel writers of the 1980s, many of whom contributed to Granta magazine including Chatwin, as “a highbrow version of the Banana Republic catalog… a curious fusion of 1880s and 1980s… their baggage filled with portable shards of colonialist discourse”.

Sugnet and Lisle’s concerns, Hannigan believes, are crystallised in the works of Edward Said, the late Palestine-American professor of literature at Columbia University in New York. Said is the author of the highly regarded (“seminal” says Hannigan) Orientalism, in which he says there is an overarching “western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”.

In other words, when this analysis is applied to travel writing: what right do these often white, male, expensively educated people who turn up with their notebooks have to cast judgement? Seen in this light, is travel writing almost inevitably “cultural appropriation”?

The pleasure of The Travel Writing Tribe comes from Hannigan’s diligent efforts to get to the bottom of it all — setting off on trains and planes, sometimes roughing it at hostels, on mini-adventures to meet travel writers and record interviews. The result is, effectively, a “travel book” about “writing about travel”.

Early on, he meets Philip Marsden, author of travel books about places as far afield as Ethiopia, the Middle East and Cornwall, at the writer’s farmhouse home in Cornwall, having passed along “a long white track through fields” with a “cock pheasant lumbering into flight on frenzied wings” on his walk to the front door. Such touches, littered throughout, add to the book’s travel writing feel.

Marsden’s answer to Hannigan’s question about the genre’s unfashionability, although not touching on the backgrounds of writers, does pinpoint a concern many have about the genre: namely, the use of the first person. This “can smack of self-indulgence to a lot of people”; perhaps especially so when they consider a writer’s background. However, Marsden (white, male and far from privileged in the manner of Leigh Fermor or Thesiger), puts another spin on it: “I’m shy about the first person. But I’ve learnt that, actually, it’s not about me. The ‘I’ is not the writer — it’s just a figure wandering through a landscape.”

Hannigan’s interview with the award-winning travel author Dervla Murphy, now aged 89 with 20-plus books to her name, is another memorable encounter. Hannigan, accompanied by his partner, arrive at Murphy’s ramshackle abode in Lismore in County Waterford (“the place could hardly be described as a house… piles of firewood and old junk stood here and there”) as Murphy cracks open bottles of beer, serves the couple the “nicest” soup they have ever tasted, tells them that she “has no time for inner journeys or inner healings” with a gravelly cackle before adding playfully: “Travel books, as such, I never understand why anyone reads them.”

She is having fun with them, Murphy’s character shining through wonderfully in Hannigan’s description as she explains: “The three of us could see the same thing and write down a different record of it.”

Talking to local people and collecting their stories is still important and cannot be replicated online

Meanwhile, Hannigan’s meeting with Wheeler, at her home in north London, is particularly intriguing when Wheeler, being questioned about the lack of female travel writers, replies that there are many excellent female travel writers she admires, including Freya Stark, Mary Kingsley and Martha Gellhorn, but they are simply “underrepresented” by the “mainstream”. Of travel writing as a woman, she says “being a woman travelling on your own you have a massive advantage” over male travel writers. Why? Because people often open up more readily to a female passing scribe, offering the opportunity for more nuanced writing.

Robin Hanbury-Tenison, Patrick Barkham, William Dalrymple, Monisha Rajesh, Nick Danziger, Nicholas Jubber and Kapka Kassabova are all similarly visited, questioned, recorded and transcribed (more than 200,000 words worth); Hannigan’s definition of “travel writer” for his choices is someone who has written at least two travel books.

Yet it is discussion with Samath Subramanian, “an Indian journalist with a British passport [with] a degree from an Ivy League university” over a pint of Guinness at a pub in Dublin, that perhaps suggests the clearest way forward for Hannigan’s beloved genre. Yes, it is possible (outside of pandemics) to travel affordably almost anywhere in the world and it is also simple to look up information about almost anywhere on the internet. However, Subramanian, who has written books on Sri Lanka and India, points out that talking to local people and collecting their stories is still important as this experience cannot quite be replicated online.

For Hannigan this is “a rather rousing new line”. Subramanian says: “[The] function of travel writing is still really strong. And that is a journalistic function, because that’s what journalists do — journalists go and talk to people about their lives and about their problems and about their views on the world.”

This take, above all the others gathered in the interviews, seems to offer the clearest path ahead for Hannigan’s appreciation of the troubled genre. He ends his quest on a hillside in the Peloponnese in Greece by a chapel where Chatwin’s ashes were strewn. This acts as a pilgrimage of sorts in his understanding of travel writing — Chatwin having been accused of a great deal of fictionalization. Yet, by now, Hannigan has been on a journey and concluded “who cares?” about the strictly told truth (as he did in the Edinburgh library), even if he has acknowledged its role as reportage.

He is at peace with travel writing; his quixotic and thought-provoking quest among the travel scribes is over, and he is about to set off around Cornwall (for his own, proper travel book).

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