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Too woke to travel write?

Perhaps a little less introspection will see a renaissance of the troubled genre

Artillery Row Books

Back in the mid-1980s, long before the internet and low-cost flights shrunk the globe, travel writing was on a high. Legendary globetrotting scribes — Bruce Chatwin, Jan Morris, Redmond O’Hanlon, Dervla Murphy, Norman Lewis, Jonathan Raban among many others — were shifting copies in suitcase-fulls as readers devoured stories from across the globe first scribbled in battered old notebooks.

Off they went in search of tales to tell, returning with gripping accounts

It was a bright, exciting time for the genre, with jet planes opening-up horizons and literary-minded travellers setting forth with eyes wide open in seek of adventure, encounters and stories, often in remote landscapes few back home would, in those days, dream of visiting. Off they went in search of tales to tell, returning with gripping accounts, be it of Chatwin’s wanderings in the Australian Outback, Morris’s meanderings across Europe, or Lewis’s investigations in India and southeast Asia. In his review of Lewis’s The Missionaries (1988) the novelist Graham Greene described Lewis, one of the highest flying travel writing stars, as “one of the best writers, not of any particular decade, but of our century”.

It was during this heady period, when travel book sales were soaring, that the literary magazine Granta cannily published an issue dedicated to travel writing with contributions from most of the names mentioned above, with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, Saul Bellow, Martha Gellhorn and others thrown in. This issue of the magazine, Granta 10, edited by Bill Buford, seemed to capture the zeitgeist of enjoyment of this form of writing — of well-told despatches from dusty places with the sense of a narrator with a pen and the detached position of an outsider coming to the fore.

In his introduction, Buford tried to put his finger on why the public was so fascinated by these literary travel jaunts, suggesting that during a period of economic hardship, as there was in the early 1980s, “their tales of the exotic could be seen to bear the same value as that of books and film, say, during the depression: they provide arm-chair emancipation”. What he was looking for from his contributors — whom he had to track down diligently as most were not at home (and it was not so easy to contact folk back then without the internet) — was “the sheer glee of story-telling, a narrative eloquence that situates them, with wonderful ambiguity, somewhere between fiction and fact”.

Caution as to the precise veracity of the stories, added to the attraction

This frank note of caution, as to the precise veracity of the stories told, added to the attraction rather than lessen it. Buford believed travel writing to be “the beggar of literary forms: it borrows from the memoir, reportage and, most important, the novel. It is, however, pre-eminently a narrative told in the first person, authenticated by lived experience”.

Fast forward 37 years, and it is clear the genre that was once so widely admired and, even, fashionable — inspiring readers’ trips and receiving warm widespread reviews — has plummeted in general appreciation. Travel sections in bookshops, as the academic and travel writing enthusiast Tim Hannigan recently noted in his book about the decline of this literary form, The Travel Writing Tribe, have been reduced to “three feet of guidebooks and celebrity jaunts”. Meanwhile, travel books struggle to make the literary review sections of papers, the genre often being completely overlooked in the annual Christmas round-ups, for example.

What has happened? Because clearly something has. Ben Macintyre, The Times columnist, wrote in 2011, on the death of the travel scribe Patrick Leigh Fermor (whom Buford could not trace to commission for Granta 10 as he was uncontactable overseas), that he believed the simplicity and affordability of jetting round the globe has meant that old-style travel writing adventures have become outdated. “The world is simply too small, too fast, too well-trodden to admit of such leisurely, civilised wandering,” he writes. “The jumbo jet enabled any traveller to reach the four corners quickly and cheaply. The internet brought the world to your room. There are no spaces on the map to be filled in, no place that Google Earth has not seen already. The empty quarters and forbidden cities are full of tourists, and open to all.”

Instagram stars with iPhones have replaced correspondents clutching notebooks

A feeling of hopelessness about the whole place of travel writing in the literary landscape — with billions of people posting pictures of their cheap-and-cheerful travels on social media and, as Macintyre points out, the internet covering just about everywhere — seems to have descended. Instagram stars with iPhones and thousands of followers have replaced correspondents in crumpled jackets clutching dusty Moleskin notebooks. Live webcams stream shots of mountain tops, beaches and the African plains. Who needs a travel writer to tell you how things are?

Of course, there has been another factor, too. In The Travel Writing Tribe, Hannigan refers to a perceived “cultural appropriation” of privileged Westerners, often “very male, very white” and expensively educated turning up in countries and asking questions. The academic Charles Sugnet goes a step further, accusing the Chatwins and Therouxs of being “a highbrow version of the Banana Republic catalog… their baggage full of portable shards of colonialist discourse”.

The suggestion that just about no-one has the right to travel anywhere and spout off reflections seems to have taken grip. In a neat circle, so many years on from Granta 10, the editor of the latest edition of the magazine, Granta 157, travel writer William Atkins begins his introduction of the travel writing-themed issue by admitting that when on a trip to Xinjiang in China (home to “re-education” camps for the persecuted Uyghur people), he “felt, not for the first time, the self-disgust of the European travel writer in a troubled place, who — journalistic pretexts aside — is neither a news correspondent nor an international observer, but basically a tourist with a book in mind”.

Any long-haul flight ‘can plausibly be described as an act of violence’

This is just one aspect of what seems to be an almost complete rejection in some quarters — or perhaps deep mistrust — about travel writing. The very act of travel appears to throw up thorny questions about the suitability of the genre. Any long-haul flight, Atkins remarks, “can plausibly be described as an act of violence” due to the carbon implications. His contributors, unlike Buford’s (whose magazine cover featured a glamorous woman and a pilot with suitcases disembarking a plane), were “discouraged from flying” and the issue’s title — Should We Have Stayed At Home? — does not beat about the bush. The answer hanging in the air of “yes” might seem to “cancel” the whole literary genre.

There may be other reasons for travel writing’s loss of direction. Back in 1984, Buford referred to the “sheer glee of story-telling”. From Garcia Marquez’s captivating vignette on “Watching the Rain in Galicia” to Raban’s excitement at the onset of his journey by boat around Britain, Chatwin’s vivid description of a coup in Benin, James Fenton’s ventures through Vietnam to Cambodia (“I enlisted the help of a Vietnamese student as interpreter, and we set off by bus from Saigon to Cantho”), and Martha Gellhorn’s poignant recollections of a trip to Haiti, this “glee” comes shining through.

In simple terms, the story of a journey “authenticated by lived experiences” was related. This was what counted as travel writing: the opening up of the world through the eyes of a passing note-scribbler. Yes, there was some element of fictionalization and memoir, as Buford conceded, but — when it came down to it — a “narrative told in the first person” capturing a trip was what you got.

The “exotic” is just a budget flight away these days (pandemics permitting)

Travel writing, however, seems to have moved on — perhaps for reasons connected to concerns about “cultural appropriation”, damage to the environment, and the very fact that the “exotic” is just a budget flight away these days (pandemics permitting). In Granta 157, so many years on from its almost seminal travel issue, contributions take the form of a series of letters between a former US Border Control agent (Francisco Cantu) and a migrant from El Salvador (Javier Zamora), a collection of drawings and photos about Iceland with words added by Roni Horn, thoughts about postcards and “graffiti” that was once written on their fronts (as addresses were once only allowed the backs) by Jennifer Croft, and Emmanuel Iduma’s reflections on his family background in Nigeria while on a visit from America.

Meanwhile, Bathsheba Demuth describes the plight of grey whales in far-east Russia, a set of photographs by James Taylor of Australia with black rectangles in their centre represents “what the colonisers have taken and destroyed” from native inhabitants, and a series of diary-like entries (referred to as “chronicles”) by Sinead Gleeson relates a trip to Brazil to give literary talks. Taran K. Khan weighs in with an essay on the Afghan migrant community in Hamburg, Jessica J. Lee describes alleyways in Taipei close to where her mother was born, and Eliane Brum grapples with the “climate crisis… the greatest challenge along the human path” in Antarctica, quoting Greta Thunberg as she sets off: “Our house is on fire” before adding, after a moment of realisation early on: “The Antarctic was a utopia realizing itself, but my species — me — doesn’t fit there. I am not alone in being out of place. There are more tourists, more fishing boats and more mineral exploration vessels. Worse, this utopia is melting.”

A wobbly feel of whether we should travel at all permeates

All well and good — with some intriguing formats and beautiful passages of prose (especially in Khan’s piece on Hamburg and Kapka Kassabova’s on southern Bulgaria) — but the difference between Granta 10 and Granta 157 is frankly stark. A wobbly feel of whether we should travel at all, as Brum spells out, permeates — almost a feeling of guilt at having left home in the first place.

With so much soul-searching, what is to become of travel writing? The veteran travel scribe Paul Theroux, in his book The Last Train to Zona Verde (2013), describing in straightforward style an overland journey from Cape Town to Angola taken in his seventies, tried memorably to pinpoint why the genre still has for him an allure: “Reading and restlessness — dissatisfaction at home, a sourness at being indoors, and a notion that the real world was elsewhere — made me a traveler. If the internet were everything it is cracked up to be, we would all stay at home and be brilliantly insightful. Yet with so much contradictory information available, there is more reason to travel than ever before: to look closer, to dig deeper, to sort the authentic from the fake; to verify, to smell, to touch, to taste, to hear and sometimes — importantly — to suffer the effects of this curiosity.”

Theroux’s take offers hope for the genre. As does that of Macintyre, who believes that the “illusion of omniscience” offered by the internet makes visiting far-flung corners of the world more rewarding than ever. Meanwhile, Atkins says that “conscious, conscientious travel (and writing about it) goes hand in hand with an ethos of hospitality” and that travel writers need increasingly to “take seriously the experience of being a stranger… Only by doing so, as we continue to go out and meet the world on its own terms, can we begin to imagine an equitable future”.

Travel thoughtfully, if you like. For those so inclined — with a pen and a notebook and a desire to describe a journey (as Thubron, another “old-timer”, has offered so recently in his excellent book The Amur River, and John Gimlette in his equally captivating book on Madagascar, The Gardens of Mars) — perhaps a look back to less complicated days when travel writing was flying so high offers a way forward. Less introspection, maybe. Just a good story told on the hoof… with glee.

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