The death of travel – and of the travel book – has been predicted for almost a century. Writers as diverse as Joseph Conrad, Evelyn Waugh and Claude Lévi-Strauss long ago decided that travel writing, and travel itself, was finished. Nowadays, runs the obituary, the world has become overpopulated, and has grown too familiar through the ease of air flight and the computer screen.
There is a supposition, too, that travel writing is a postcolonial presumption: a notion that reduces all contact between ‘First World’ and ‘Third World’ cultures to a patronising act of acquisition. No mention here of travel as an avenue of understanding, of self-education or of empathy. Any meeting between unequal worlds is seen in terms of dominance – a notion that threatens to turn all human contact into paranoia.
In fact the travel-writing genre is infinitely resilient and varied. Just as the world itself changes, so the priorities and sensibilities of those who write and travel it change too. The old patrician stress on the historical and aesthetic, with its assumption of a shared culture between writer and reader, has loosened into more personal and demotic writing, whose locus may not be the Acropolis but the coffee shop beneath it. So the baton passes down from Paul Theroux and Dervla Murphy to Rory MacLean, Sara Wheeler and Philip Marsden, and on to Oliver Bullough, Tim Butcher and many others – and the sheer variety of interest and enterprise defies prediction.