Exactly forty years ago, modern travel writing had its annus mirabilis. Patrick Leigh Fermor published A Time of Gifts, the opening book of his now-classic trilogy about walking from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople; Bruce Chatwin published his first and best book, In Patagonia; and John McPhee published Coming into the Country, his landmark exploration of Alaska and its communities. Another exceptional book, very different to the other three, not least in that it was by a woman, also appeared in 1977 – but for the moment I will leave it unnamed.

It is no accident that the late 1970s should have seen such a surge of travel-writing excellence. These books all arrived towards the end of a decade in which international air travel had become widely affordable, and in which globalisation had begun to standardise even far-flung places. Such developments posed serious challenges for travel writing in what might be called its late-imperial mode, whereby the discovery of terra incognita was the default aim, and the heroic male adventurer the default protagonist. How was the ‘other’ to be encountered when the world was homogenising so rapidly? How was valour to be performed upon such a crowded stage? Susan Sontag diagnosed the problem as terminal in 1984, declaring travel writing to have become a ‘literature of disappointment’, unable – like the empires that had chiefly whelped it – to come to terms with its dwindling demesne and diminished responsibilities. Sontag was wrong, though. The crisis of territory didn’t hobble travel writing – it revolutionised it. The best writers rose to the challenge by seeking not originality of destination, but originality of form.

Certainly, Chatwin, McPhee and Leigh Fermor could hardly have been more contrasting as stylists. This is Leigh Fermor describing a sunset:

The flatness of the Alföld leaves a stage for cloud-events at sunset that are dangerous to describe: levitated armies in deadlock and riderless squadrons descending in slow motion to smouldering and sulphurous lagoons where barbicans gradually collapse and fleets of burning triremes turn dark before sinking.

This is Bruce Chatwin describing a sunset:

In a brick-red sunset I came to the cottage of a German. He lived with a scrawny Indian boy.

And this is John McPhee describing a sunset:

The air was cool now, nearing fifty . . . We sat around the campfire for at least another hour. We talked of rain and kestrels, oil and antlers, the height and the headwaters of the river. In the night the air and the river balanced out, and both were forty-six at seven in the morning.

Fermor’s sunset is epic, reflexive, an event of style, a sentence which burns itself magnificently down in honour of the day’s own inferno. He knows the risks he is taking with his tone (the cloud-events are ‘dangerous to describe’) but writes with the confidence of a hyperbolist good enough to earn his excess: meteorology-as-battle, the gradual combustions, the Germanic delay of that last vital verb until, at last, it is reached and the whole scene subsides to its close.

Chatwin’s sunset is sparse, incidental – atmospheric in a literal sense. It is a caption, really, written by a man who had worked as caption writer and cataloguist at Sotheby’s. Chatwin’s prose has often been celebrated for its clarity, and he achieved this clarity by subtraction, where Leigh Fermor achieved his moods by multiplication. ‘It’s very good,’ Leigh Fermor told Chatwin’s wife Elizabeth, of In Patagonia, ‘but he ought to let himself rip.’ ‘It’s very good,’ Chatwin told Elizabeth of A Time of Gifts, ‘but it’s too baroque and overflowing; he should tone it down.’

Then there is McPhee’s sunset – in which the sun doesn’t feature at all, eclipsed from the scene as it is by facts. McPhee’s prose here concerns balance, and is balanced: note how carefully those three pairs of nouns match each other (singular noun, plural noun; rain, oil, height; kestrels, antlers, headwaters), preparing for the equalised temperature relationship of air and river at exactly ‘seven in the morning’. McPhee – a New Yorker staff writer for more than half a century – is a man committed to accuracy and to metrics. Coming into the Country, like his other books, carries an astonishing density of detail: his non-fiction, as David Remnick has observed, emulates the ‘freedom’ of fiction but not its ‘licence’.

All three of these books hot-wired the neo-Victorian travelogue. In Patagonia was puckish, unreliable, dazzlingly experimental in its mosaic form, and a sly burlesque of the colonial quest-narrative: Chatwin sets off in search of a piece of brontosaurus skin, and ends up finding sloth turds on a cave floor at the end of the world. A Time of Gifts was by turns a baroque adventure in historiography, an interrogation of the nature of memory, and a heartbreaking tour through the since-shattered world of 1930s Mitteleuropa. Coming into the Country was an intricately patterned enquiry into America’s relationship with the idea of wilderness, braced by an awesome integrity of observation.

The legacies of these three books are with us still, in terms of the ripostes they offered to the notion that travel writing was dependent on novelty of territory rather than novelty of address. Among those many writers influenced by Chatwin was W.G. Sebald, who in turn became a vastly significant figure in the tradition. ‘Just as Chatwin himself ultimately remains an enigma,’ Sebald remarked in a short but fascinating essay on Chatwin, published a year before Sebald’s untimely death in 2001:

One never knows how to classify his books. All that is obvious is that their structure and intentions place them in no known genre. Inspired by a kind of avidity for the undiscovered, they move along a line where the points of demarcation are those strange manifestations and objects of which one cannot say whether they are among the phantasms generated in our minds from time immemorial.

Sebald might, of course, have been writing about his own unclassifiable ‘prose fictions’ here: haunted as they are by phantasms who could be archetypes, polymorphous as they are in form, and travelling as they do widely in time though not broadly in space. The ‘undiscovered’ country in Chatwin’s work, as in Sebald’s, is largely a shadowed realm of the mind.

In the forty years since 1977, so many of the most brilliant writers of travel and place have – like Chatwin, McPhee and Leigh Fermor – sought to forge new forms and styles appropriate to their subjects, and to allow a bleeding-together of mental and actual terrain. I think here, in addition to Sebald, of William Least Heat-Moon’s ‘deep maps’ of America; of Pico Iyer’s cracklingly hyper-connective global tours; of Iain Sinclair’s psychogeographic dérives and Václav Cílek’s psychogeological essays; of Rebecca Solnit’s fierce fusions of politics, memory and landscape; of the books of Sara Wheeler, Nicholas Rothwell, William Dalrymple, Redmond O’Hanlon, Geoff Dyer, Colin Thubron and Jan Morris; and of a young Indian writer called Simar Kaur, who lives in the Indian Himalayas, where she is writing a remarkable first book – poised somewhere between ethnography and experimental fiction – called The Sky Road, about the truckers of the Leh–Manali Highway. Meanwhile, the scale and structure of the Anthropocene charges travel literature with new obligations and confronts it with new crises: how to represent the dispersed consequences of climate change and mass extinction, for instance, or how to map and track the so-called ‘hyperobjects’ with which we are so entangled.

What, though, of the fourth great travel book of 1977, the one I left unnamed? That was The Living Mountain, by Anna ‘Nan’ Shepherd – and how dissimilar it was to its three famous peers. The others were published, to fanfares of press and praise, by major trade publishing houses; Shepherd’s slipped out in a tiny print run from Aberdeen University Press, with scarcely a review to its name. The other three were written by men; Shepherd’s was explicitly, though not exclusively, about what it meant to be a woman walking alone in wild country. The other three were all variously animated by ideas of remoteness; Shepherd confined herself to a single nearby region, the Cairngorm massif in north-east Scotland.

Yet Shepherd’s book has been at least as influential as Chatwin’s, McPhee’s or Leigh Fermor’s. It is one of the works – J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine (1967) is another – that has inspired and energised the recent British renaissance of landscape writing. It has found its way into the work of countless artists, musicians, poets, photographers and calligraphers in Britain and beyond. Shepherd’s importance to the culture of what she calls her ‘dark and stubborn country’ of Scotland was recognised by the Royal Bank of Scotland’s decision to feature her words and image on its new £5 note, first issued in September 2016.

For The Living Mountain is about the Cairngorms in the same way that Moby-Dick is about whaling ships or Mrs Dalloway about London streets. It vibrates dazzlingly between the specific and the universal, and between matter and metaphysics. Shepherd describes what she calls ‘the total mountain’, a holistic account of the massif in which human presence, creaturely life, elements and weather are coextensive. She does so in prose that is deeply wise, avidly sensual and, we might say, committed to uncertainty. ‘Slowly I have found my way in,’ she writes of the Cairngorms, but ‘if I had other senses there are other things I should know’. Always, in Shepherd, movement across landscape has its corresponding inward journey, and place is somewhere we are in and not on.

Here she is, describing a winter Cairngorm sunset:

The intense frost, the cloudless sky, the white world, the setting sun and the rising moon, as we gazed on them from the slope of Morrone, melted into a prismatic radiation of blue, yellow, mauve and rose. The full moon floated up into green light; and as the rose and violet hues spread over snow and sky, the colour seemed to live its own life, to have body and resilience, as though we were not looking at it, but were inside its substance.

Colin Thubron | Is Travel Writing Dead?