How not to travel: like Bruce Chatwin in the outback, manufacturing an account of heroism at the expense of a people more vulnerable than you. The Big Chief approach of The Songlines: I taught the Aborigines to hunt; they were hysterical about snakes, but I rigged up a groundsheet and cooked supper, unconcerned. In Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography, it turns out that it was Bruce who suffered from herpetophobia. The Aborigines, sensing his alarm, made a snake-proof bed for him before sleeping curled directly on the ground. None of us is immune to fear, but I’m not sure fiction is a defence against this kind of transposition, this false claiming of mastery and courage.
Right now, this second, I’m sitting on a train, ploughed fields, three wind-smashed hawthorns on a hill. Travel is a luxury. Right now, this second, Theresa May is at the UN, asking for the free movement of refugees to be stemmed. We are entering an era of closing borders and mass migration, where tides of desperate people, walking away from war zones, are met with fences or penned in camps. We can’t talk about the healing power of walking, solvitur ambulando, any longer, without knowing too that the ability to walk freely is a privilege, that being able to get up and go is not a shared human right, though it feels like the most basic act of our bipedal species.
And still I travel. Why? Because lives are lived in places, shaped by geological forces, and places serve as portals to descend through time.
Working on The Lonely City, I spent years haunting the Lower East Side and Times Square, loitering outside the Village East Cinema on Second Avenue, looking up at the window of the apartment where David Wojnarowicz and Peter Hujar lived. Places permit certain kinds of physical and psychic possibilities, certain kinds of contact. The ruined Hudson piers of the 1970s, where radical, anonymous art and sex proliferated, gave way to today’s alienating city of froyo joints and banks and manicured pleasure gardens. It’s research, putting your body in specific landscapes and gauging how it feels there, and as necessary as being cloistered in an archive.
My new book is about bodies and freedom, and for it I’m making another sequence of journeys. Dublin. Vienna. Rangeley. Taos. Different kinds of thinking have come out of these different places: Freud’s exacting maps of the human psyche, Bacon’s frenzied, incarcerated figures, Agnes Martin’s radiant nets of pencil lines. In the summer of 1967 Martin left New York for the desert of New Mexico, and I know there’s something I can’t quite grasp about the freedoms that she sought until I go to that wide-open place, which is also the intended location of Trump’s infernal wall.
Which bodies can go where might be the central question of our century. For travel writing to be more than a rarefied excursion of the privileged, it’s as essential to grapple with these issues of power as it is to own a passport.
Olivia Laing’s latest book is The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (Canongate)
Photograph © Usamah Khan