World War Two marked the end of the great age of travel. And it is easy to see why. Not only did the war make travel difficult, but the world that emerged after it – a monoculture of mass consumerism, package-holidays and the extraordinary imperialism of the American hamburger – left little room for the sensibility characteristic of so many of the writers of the twenties and thirties. The books of Robert Byron, say, or Waugh, Auden and Priestley are virtually Edwardian in temperament: they hark back to an earlier time. They wrote, as Paul Fussell has pointed out in Abroad, to celebrate a ‘Golden Age’: the corners of the world uncontaminated by the manifestations of modernity. ‘One travelled’, Fussell says, ‘to discover the past’.
It is a bit more difficult to account for why, so long after World War Two, there should suddenly be a revival in travel writing – evident not only in the busy reprinting of the travel classics but in the staggering number of new travel writers emerging. In many respects these writers – and the publishers who are retrieving the earlier ones – still address the past, although they now seem to address the past not discover but to preserve it. Later this year Penguin will reissue Kevin Andrews’s Athens, and in his preface to the new edition, Andrews justifies the new interest in old books by his belief that they serve as laments for places now lost to us ‘for the simple reason that – without recognizably barbarian invasions – bulldozers have lifted towns and landscapes off the surface of the planet, and cement has been poured into the resulting void.’ Andrews’s reasoning is evident especially in James Fenton’s contribution to this issue. In explaining why he felt the need to write about Cambodia, Fenton says that he wanted to represent, before it disappeared, an old Cambodia, cites Norman Lewis, whose A Dragon Apparent offers the last view of an old China before it was submerged by the twentieth century. But I am slightly suspicious of Fenton’s remarks – they seem incomplete – and they don’t account fully for why his piece is so extraordinary and so exciting to read.
Certainly the most obvious attraction of travel writing is in what it represents: escape. And this itch for escape, this need to keep moving, is evident not only in the writing collected here – for Jonathan Raban and Hugh Brody, for instance, it’s an obsession – but also in the lives of the authors themselves. They seem – every single one of them – to have some kind of disease; a fever, certainly. This collection is by no means comprehensive, ni part because it is extremely difficult commissioning work from travel writers: it is their occupational hazard that they are never home. There are many, for instance, whom I simply never reached. I am convinced that Gavin Young and William Least Heat Moon, author of the successful Blue Highways, have never been in one place for longer than the time it takes to eat a meal. In pursuit of Patrick Leigh Fermor, I had a very curious conversation – it must have lasted for about five minutes – in which I spoke a slow, clear English to a woman who, understanding nothing replied in what I assume to have been a slow, clear Greek. I did gather two pieces of information, however: ‘Fermor’ and something that sounded very much like ‘Spain’.
It wasn’t much easier with the authors I did reach. It took me weeks to discover just where on the globe I might find Paul Theroux, and when I did (he was rowing around Long Island) it took me another fifteen days before I ever got him on the phone. After reports that Bruce Chatwin, who seems to be congenitally absent, was momentarily in Wales, then Australia and finally Greece, I heard a rumour that his rucksack had arrived, mysteriously, at a friend’s flat. Expecting that the man himself would follow, I immediately started writing letters, none of which were ever answered: inveterately mobile, Chatwin merely arrived one afternoon in the office. As we go to press, there are – of the seventeen contributors in this issue – only five still in the country.
In a time of unemployment and economic restraint, it is of course tempting to see a relationship between the escape these authors offer and our own plight. 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. And emancipation of this sort is certainly available in the writings collected here. But they are also achieving something else.
When I recall these pieces, I do not immediately think of descriptions of place. James Fenton was in Southeast Asia for two years; he did stay in a Buddhist monastery; he did eat a bowl of live ants. Redmond O’Hanlon can indeed identify virtually every bird flying in the Borneo jungle. Martha Fellhorn was stoned by blacks. Colin Thubron did sleep in a cemetery in Saigon and was, in fact, surrounded throughout the night by howling dogs. Bruce Chatwin was caught in a coup in Benin and, in going over the proofs with me, he kept consulting his notebook to recall the exact phrases used by the corporal who claimed that Chatwin’s pen was not a pen but a gun. But these pieces succeed not by virtue of the details they report – exotic as they are – but by the contrivance of their reporting. They are all informed by the sheer glee of story-telling, a narrative eloquence that situates them, with wonderful ambiguity, somewhere between fiction and fact.
There is of course nothing new in this kind of ambiguity, although travel writing seems to be its purest expression – purer even than the New Journalism of the sixties and seventies to which it bears more than a few similarities. But if there is a revival in travel writing, this ambiguity – this generic androgeny – is partly responsible for it. Travel writing is 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. It satisfies a need. A need for a fiction answerable, somehow, to the world. Or perhaps I’ve got it wrong. Perhaps it’s a need for a world answerable to our fictions.