What is travel writing? One of this magazine’s former editors, Bill Buford, described it as ‘pre-eminently a narrative told in the first person, authenticated by lived experience’ – a definition that appeared in Granta’s travel issue of 1984, around the time that the genre reached the height of its post-war literary fashion. Bill might have added that the narrative usually finds its focus in a journey, though not necessarily a long journey. Apsley Cherry-Garrard travelled nearly to the South Pole; George Orwell went to Lancashire. The memorable books that came out of their travels, The Worst Journey in the World and The Road to Wigan Pier, have their origins in different impulses; when Cherry-Garrard set out with Captain Scott a book was the last thing on his mind – it was the expedition’s disaster that impelled him to write one – whereas Orwell set out for Wigan with a publisher’s contract in his pocket and an ambition to describe the travails of the working class. He knew he went to write a book, and always had an eye for material; Cherry-Garrard’s account, on the other hand, could be seen merely as a literary by-product of a grander calling. The difference lies between travelling to write and travelling for some other purpose (warfare, exploration, scientific discovery, pure adventure) and then writing about it – or not; only in the twentieth century did writers begin to see travel writing as a self-financing literary form.
A remarkable number of them have been English or England-domiciled: Patrick Leigh Fermor, V.S. Naipaul, Norman Lewis, Eric Newby, Jonathan Raban, Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron, Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux. One of the most influential (and unreliable), Ryszard Kapuściński, came from Poland. Only a few have been women: from England, they include Freya Stark, Emily Eden and Jan (formerly James) Morris, and from Ireland, Dervla Murphy. Like many of my generation, I owe a lot of what passes as my understanding of the world to these names – they made me interested to see the places they described and gave me at least a glimmer of an insight into their history and way of living. They also gave me days and weeks of amusement. Travel writing at some elementary level amounts to the exploitation of difference – comic misunderstanding is part of the traveller’s tradition and people and things that are both different and far away, socially or geographically, are tempting targets for the humorist. Colonialism and feelings of Western superiority have played a part in this – the critic Jonathan Keates described one school of travel writing as ‘Old Etonian on a bicycle’ – but then travel writing of most kinds, not just the humorous, has the history of colonialism perched on its shoulder.
Outside the trenches of the ocean deep, none of the physical world remains to be explored. Thirty years on from the travel-writing boom of the 1980s, new technologies have made the globe smaller, quicker, and, at least superficially, many times more knowable. The balance of power within it has shifted from West to East. A traveller on the plane from London to Delhi or Shanghai knows he is flying into the future and leaving the past behind. The assurance that was part of the travel writer’s equipment – the unspoken notion that where he came from was richer, safer and more modern than the place he found himself – has withered; the Western traveller’s jaunty superiority is almost dead and the days of cavalier travel writing – India on Monday, Burma on Tuesday – are over.
New ways have been found to tell us about abroad and at their best give us a profounder understanding of it. A few years ago, the American reporter Katherine Boo spent many months living in a Mumbai slum to produce her book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, with its insights into the complexity of poor lives. Twenty years before, V.S. Naipaul had found the slum too daunting to enter (he records the experience in India: A Million Mutinies Now). Which is the travel writer? Neither, probably, would want to be known as one, but, by excluding herself from the book’s narrative, it’s Boo who discards the age-old stance of the travel account: the curious outsider.
That standpoint isn’t without its uses. It could be enlightening, for example, to read modern accounts of travels in the Western world by writers from the East; if nothing else, we might then know how it feels to be ironised, condescended to and found morally wanting. Several such books may be in the offing. Some of our own medicine is surely coming our way.
Travel writing isn’t dead. It just isn’t what it was.