Home truths on abroad – where now for travel writing?

William Dalrymple recalls an encounter with Paddy in the Mani in 2008, discusses the impact of Bruce Chatwin, and asks where next for travel writing.

First published in The Guardian, 19 Sep 2009

William Dalrymple

What is to become of travel writing now that the world is smaller? Who are the successors to Chatwin, Lewis and Thesiger? William Dalrymple names a new generation of stars and sees a sparkling future for the genre – one less to do with posturing and heroic adventures than an intimate knowledge of people and places

Last year, on a visit to the Mani in the Peloponnese, I went to visit the headland where Bruce Chatwin had asked for his ashes to be scattered.

The hillside chapel where Chatwin’s widow, Elizabeth, brought his urn lies in rocky fields near the village of Exchori, high above the bay of Kardamyli. It has a domed, red-tiled roof and round arcaded windows built from stone the colour of haloumi cheese. Inside are faded and flaking Byzantine frescoes of mounted warrior saints, lances held aloft.

The sun was sinking over the Taygetus, and there was a warm smell of wild rosemary and cypress resin in the air. It was, I thought, a perfect place for anyone to rest at the end of their travels.

My companion for the visit was Chatwin’s great friend and sometime mentor, Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was Chatwin’s only real rival as the greatest prose stylist of modern travel writing. Leigh Fermor’s two sublime masterpieces, A Time to Keep Silence and A Time of Gifts, are among the most beautifully written books of travel of any period, and it was really he who created the persona of the bookish wanderer, later adopted by Chatwin: the footloose scholar in the wilds, scrambling through remote mountains, a knapsack full of good books on his shoulder.

Bruce Chatwin, 1940-1989

Inevitably, it was a melancholy visit. Not only were we there to honour the memory of the dead friend who had introduced us, but Leigh Fermor himself was not in great shape. At dinner that night, it was clear that the great writer and war hero, now in his mid-90s, was in very poor health. Over dinner we talked about how travel writing seemed to have faded from view since its great moment of acclaim in the late 1970s and 80s, when both Leigh Fermor and Chatwin had made their names and their reputations. It wasn’t just that publishers were not as receptive as they had once been to the genre, nor that the big bookshops had contracted their literary travel writing sections from prominent shelves at the front to little annexes at the back, usually lost under a great phalanx of Lonely Planet guidebooks. More seriously, and certainly more irreversibly, most of the great travel writers were either dead or dying.

Wilfred Thesiger (1909-2003), who was in many ways the last of the great Victorian explorers, produced no less than four exemplary books in his final decade. More remarkable still, Norman Lewis was heading for his centenary when he published The Happy Ant-Heap in 1998, a characteristically bleak collection of pieces about trips to places so obscure, so uncomfortable and often so horrible, that they would tax anyone, never mind a man in his early 90s who should by rights have been shuffling around in carpet slippers, not planning trips to visit the smoked ancestral corpses of the highlands of Irian Jaya, or the torture chambers of Nicaragua, or any other of the grisly diversions Lewis settles on to bring “some stimulation and variety” to his old age.

One typical adventure of the nonagenarian Lewis took place on a trip to Kos. On reading a story in the local paper about a police investigation into rumours that “women on the small island of Anirini were disposing of unwanted husbands by throwing them down dry wells”, he merrily set off on a boat with three sponge fishermen and a prostitute they had picked up on the Piraeus waterfront (“they spent the crossing sleeping, eating and making love – the last on a strict rota”) in search of this barren island populated by homicidal widows. Before long Lewis, then aged 92, had hopped ashore, rented a room from one of the chief suspects, and was soon cheerfully peering down well-heads in search of rotting cadavers.

Within the last few years, as well as Thesiger and Lewis, Ryszard Kapuscinski and Eric Newby have both died. Though there are several very fine younger travel writers at work (notably Philip Marsden, William Fiennes and Suketu Mehta), and a few emerging new talents, such as Rory Stewart and Alice Albinia, author of the remarkable Empires of the Indus, no equally brilliant new generation has come up to replace the old guard.

All this is a long way from the optimism of the scene 20 years ago when I published my first travel book, In Xanadu. At that time, the travel writing boom was one of the most important developments in publishing. The success of Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, with its sales of 1.5m copies, had dramatically breathed life into the sort of travel memoir that had flourished in an earlier age, but which had languished since the European empires imploded after the second world war. Its success inspired Chatwin to give up his job as a journalist and to go off to South America. The result – In Patagonia – was published in 1977, the same year Leigh Fermor produced A Time of Gifts. The final breakthrough came in 1984 with the publication of the celebrated Travel Writing issue of Granta: “Travel writing is undergoing a revival,” wrote Bill Buford, the magazine’s editor, “evident not only in the busy reprinting of the travel classics, but in the staggering number of new travel writers emerging. Not since the 1930s has travel writing been so popular or so important.”

For nearly 10 years, travel writing was where the action was. It re-emerged at a time of disenchantment with the novel, and seemed to present a serious alternative to fiction. A writer could still use the techniques of the novel – it was possible to develop characters, select and tailor experience into a series of scenes and set pieces, arrange the action so as to give the narrative shape and momentum – yet what was being written about was true. Moreover, unlike most literary fiction, it sold.

Two decades later, however, after several hundred sub-Therouxs have written rambling accounts of every conceivable rail, road or river journey between Kamchatka and Tasmania, the climate has long changed from enthusiasm to one of mild boredom. Theroux himself was one of the first to express his dislike of the Leviathan he had helped create: in his most recent travel book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, he writes that the travel book is: “little better than a licence to bore … the lowest form of literary self-indulgence: dishonest complaining, creative mendacity, pointless heroics, and chronic posturing”. Bill Bryson and Tony Hawks continue to scale the bestseller lists, but there is no doubt that travel writing has lost its novelty, and its chic, and is no longer the powerfully prestigious literary force it once was.

In the same years, travel writing has undergone an assault in academia. In the years after Edward Said’s Orientalism, the exploration of the east – its peoples, habits, customs and past – by travellers from the west has become a target for scholarly bombardment. Travel writers have often come to be seen as outriders of colonialism, attempting to demonstrate the superiority of western ways by “imagining” the east as decayed and degenerate.

This has always seemed to me to be a narrow and prescriptive way of looking at what is, after all, one of the world’s oldest and most universal forms of literature: it takes us right back to man’s deepest literary roots, to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the wanderings of Abraham in the Old Testament, and the journeyings of the Pandava brothers in the Mahabharata. Over time, like poetry, but unlike the novel, the travel book has appeared in almost all the world’s cultures, from the wanderings of Li Po in Japan, through to the medieval topographies of Marco Polo, Hiuen Tsang, Ibn Jubayr and Ibn Battuta. Only with the multi-volume travelogues of the Victorians do we enter colonial territory, and hence arrive at the birth of the modern comic books of travel, invented two generations later by such writers as Peter Fleming and Evelyn Waugh – bright young things who passed lightly through a colonial world mapped, subdued and opened up by their Victorian grandparents with their gattling guns and survey equipment.

But the attitudes of today’s travel writers are hardly those of the Brideshead generation, and as Colin Thubron has pointed out, it is ridiculously simplistic to see all attempts at studying, observing and empathising with another culture necessarily “as an act of domination”.

Also, travellers tend by their very natures to be rebels and outcasts and misfits: far from being an act of cultural imperialism, setting out alone and vulnerable on the road is often an expression of rejection of home and an embrace of the other. The history of travel is full of individuals who have fallen in love with other cultures and other parts of the world in this way. Then there are those whose views have changed dramatically as they travelled, and have had their horizons widened: see how the prejudices against Islamic culture and civilisation expressed by the young Robert Byron in his first letters from India disappear as he sets off on the Road to Oxiana. As the great French traveller Nicolas Bouvier wrote in The Way of the World, the experience of being on the road, “deprived of one’s usual setting, the customary routine stripped away like so much wrapping paper” reduces you, yet makes you at the same time more “open to curiosity, to intuition, to love at first sight … You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you – or unmaking you.”

The question remains: does travel writing have a future? The tales of Marco Polo, or the explorations of “Bokhara Burnes” may have contained valuable empirical information impossible to harvest elsewhere, but is there really any point to the genre in the age of the internet, when you can instantly gather reliable knowledge about anywhere in the globe?

Certainly, the sort of attitudes to “abroad” that characterised the writers of the 1930s, and which had a strange afterlife in the curmudgeonly prose of Theroux and his imitators, now appears dated and racist. Indeed, the globalised world has now become so complex that notions of national character and particularity – the essence of so many 20th-century travelogues – is becoming increasingly untenable, and even distasteful. So has the concept of the western observer coolly assessing eastern cultures with the detachment of a Victorian butterfly collector, dispassionately pinning his captives to the pages of his album. In an age when east to west migrations are so much more common than those from west to east, the “funny foreigners” who were once regarded as such amusing material by travel writers are now writing some of the best travel pieces themselves. Even just to take a few of those with roots in India – Vidia Naipaul, Pico Iyer, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and Pankaj Mishra – is to list many of the most highly regarded writers currently at work.

This new global ferment and complexity has completely changed the game. Iyer was probably the first travel writer to celebrate the confusions of contemporary globalisation as his subject: Video Night in Kathmandu, published in 1989, is an extended meditation on this theme. Yet even those of us writing travel books with a backward glance to history have found that globalisation has hopelessly confused both our expectations and our narratives. In the mid-90s, during the research for my book From the Holy Mountain about the monasteries of the Middle East, I remember scouring the refugee camps of the Syrian-Iraq border for a last surviving coven of Nestorian Christians, only to be told at the end of my quest that there was a far bigger community resident less than a mile from my west London home, and that the last Nestorian patriarch was enthroned in a church in Ealing. “Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late 20th century,” I wrote in my diary that night. “Go to the ends of the earth to search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street.”

This sort of disjuncture is something I have become used to in the course of working on my first travel book for 15 years, which looks at how India’s diverse religious and mystical traditions have been caught in the vortex of rapid change that has recently engulfed South Asia. Last November, for example, I managed to track down a celebrated tantric at a cremation ground near Birbhum in West Bengal. Tapan Goswami was a feeder of skulls. Twenty years ago he had been interviewed by an American professor of comparative religion, who went on to write a scholarly essay on Tapan’s practice of spirit-summoning and spell-casting, using the cured skulls of dead virgins and restless suicides. It sounded rich material, albeit of a rather sinister nature, so I spent the best part of a day touring the various cremation grounds of Birbhum before finally finding Tapan sitting outside his small Kali temple on the edge of the town, preparing a sacrifice for the goddess.

The light was beginning to fade; a funeral pyre was still smoking eerily in front of the temple. Tapan and I talked of tantra, and he confirmed that in his youth, when the professor had interviewed him, he had indeed been an enthusiastic skull-feeder. Yes, he said, all that had been written about him was true, and yes, he did occasionally still cure skulls, and summon their dead owners, so as to use their power. But sadly, he said, he could not talk to me about the details. Why was that? I asked. Because, he said, his two sons were now successful ophthalmologists in New Jersey. They had firmly forbidden him from giving any more interviews about what he did, in case rumours of the family dabbling in black magic damaged their profitable East Coast practice. Now he thought he might even give away his skulls, and go and join them in the States.

Living in India over the past few years, I have seen the country change at a rate that was impossible to imagine when I first moved there in the late 80s. On returning to Delhi after nearly a decade away, I took a lease on a farmhouse five kilometres from the boom town of Gurgaon, on the south western edge of Delhi. From the end of the road you could just see in the distance the rings of new housing estates springing up, full of call centres, software companies and fancy apartment blocks, all rapidly rising on land that only two years earlier had been virgin farmland.

Six years later, Gurgaon has galloped towards us at such a speed that it now almost abuts the edge of our farm, and what is proudly toted as the largest mall in Asia is a quarter of a mile from the house. The speed of the development is breathtaking to anyone used to the plodding growth rates of western Europe: the sort of construction that would take 25 years in Britain, comes up here in five months. As is well known, the Indian economy is expected to overtake that of the US by roughly 2050.

What does it actually mean to be a holy man or a Jain nun, a mystic or a tantric seeking salvation on the roads of modern India, as the Tata trucks thunder past? How is each specific religious path surviving the changes India is currently undergoing? What changes and what remains the same? Does India still offer any sort of real spiritual alternative to materialism, or is it now just another fast developing satrap of the wider capitalist world?

Outside Jodhpur, I visited a shrine and pilgrimage centre that has formed around an Enfield Bullet motorbike. Initially erected as a memorial to its owner, after the latter suffered a fatal crash, the bike has now become a centre of pilgrimage, attracting pilgrims from across Rajasthan in search of the miracles it was said to effect. In Swamimalai, Tamil Nadu, I met Srikanda Stpathy, an idol maker, the 35th of a long line of sculptors going back to the legendary Chola bronze makers. Srikanda regarded creating gods as one of the holiest callings in Indian – but now had to reconcile himself to a son who only wants to study computer engineering in Bangalore.

In Kannur in northern Kerala, I talked to Hari Das, a well builder and part-time prison warden for 10 months of the year, who polices the violent running war between the convicts and gangsters of the two rival political parties, the far-right RSS and the hard-left Communist Party of India. But during the theyyam dancing season, between January and March, Hari has a rather different job. Though he comes from an untouchable dalit background, he nevertheless is transformed into an omnipotent deity for two months a year, and as such is worshipped as a God. Then, at the end of March, he goes back to the prison.

Other people I met had had their worlds transformed in a more brutal manner: by invasions, by massacres, and by the rise of often violent political fundamentalist movements. Tashi Passang was a Buddhist monk in Tibet until the Chinese invaded in 1959. When his monastery came under pressure, he decided to take up arms to defend the Buddhist faith: “Once you have been a monk, it is very difficult to kill a man,” he told me. “But sometimes it can be your duty to do so.” Now living in exile in the Indian Himalayas, he prints prayer flags in an attempt to atone for the violence he committed after he joined the resistance.

With stories and dilemmas such as these slowly filling my notebooks, I set out to write an Indian equivalent of my study of the monks and monasteries of the Middle East. But the people I met were so extraordinary, and their own stories and voices so strong, that in the end I decided to adopt a quite different form. When In Xanadu was published at the end of the 80s, travel writing tended to highlight the narrator: his adventures were the subject; the people he met were often reduced to objects in the background. I have tried to invert this, and keep the narrator in the shadows, so bringing the lives of the people I have met to the fore and placing their stories centre stage.

Above all, I had to consider whether travel writing was still a form that could adapt to this very changed world. With the book finished, and having read a lot of the more recent travel books produced by younger writers, I have not the slightest doubt that the genre has a great deal of life in it yet. For wonderfully varied ingredients can be added to a travel book: politics, archaeology, history, philosophy, art or magic. It’s possible to cross-fertilise the genre with other literary forms – biography, or anthropological writing – or, perhaps more interesting still, to follow in Chatwin’s footsteps and muddy the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction by crossing the travel book with some of the wilder forms of the novel.

If 19th-century travel writing was principally about place – about filling in the blanks of the map and describing remote places that few had seen – the best 21st-century travel writing is almost always about people: exploring the extraordinary diversity that still exists in the world beneath the veneer of globalisation. As Jonathan Raban once remarked: “Old travellers grumpily complain that travel is now dead and that the world is a suburb. They are quite wrong. Lulled by familiar resemblances between all the unimportant things, they meet the brute differences in everything of importance.”

Raban is not alone in this conviction. Rory Stewart, probably the most highly regarded of the younger generation of travel writers, believes passionately that travel books allow writers to explore other cultures in a slow and unhurried way that is impossible with journalism or most other forms of non-fiction. “Just look what gets written about Afghanistan,” he says. “In an age when journalism is becoming more and more etiolated, when articles are becoming shorter and shorter, usually lacking all historical context, travel writing is one of the few venues to write with some complexity about an alien culture. An Obama speech, a foreign policy paper or a counter-insurgency briefing minimises differences, and the same phrases like ‘failed states’ are used to link countries which are actually very different, such as Yemen, Afghanistan or Pakistan. What kills so many briefing documents and newspaper reports, apart from their tendency to exaggerate fears and aggrandise ambitions, is their aspiration towards imperial omniscience, and their impatience with everything that is intractable or mysterious. Travel writing provides a space for all these things.”

Stewart is also sure that the kind of travel writing which will show the greatest durability is that where an informed observer roots and immerses himself in one place, commiting time to get to know a place and its languages. Many of the greatest of the travel books of the late 20th century were about epic journeys, often by young men, conveying the raw intoxication of travel during a moment in life when time is endless, and deadlines and commitments are non-existent; when experience is all you hope to achieve and when the world is laid out before you like a map: think of the exhilaration of Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush or Byron’s The Road to Oxiana

Today, however, many of the most interesting travel books are by individuals who have made extended stays in places, getting to know them intimately: such as Iain Sinclair’s circling of the capital in London Orbital or Sam Miller’s Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity. There is also Ghosh in his Egyptian village, published as In an Antique Land, or Christopher de Bellaigue’s magnificent recent study, Rebel Land, which examines the way that the ghosts of the Armenian genocide and Kurdish nationalism haunt a single remote town in eastern Turkey. As Mishra puts it, in a more globalised, postcolonial world the traveller “needs to train his eye in the way an ethnographer does . . . to remain relevant and stimulating, travel writing has to take on board some of the sophisticated knowledge available about these complex societies, about their religions, history, economy, and politics.”

The last world should go to Thubron, the most revered of all the travel writers of the 80s still at work. He is also clear that travel writing is now more needed than ever: “Great swaths of the world are hardly visited and remain much misunderstood – think of Iran,” he told me recently. “It’s no accident that the mess inflicted on the world by the last US administration was done by a group of men who had hardly travelled, and relied for information on policy documents and the reports of journalists sitting interviewing middle-class contacts in capital cities. A good travel writer can give you the warp and weft of everyday life, the generalities of people’s existence that are rarely reflected in journalism, and hardly touched on by any other discipline. Despite the internet and the revolution in communications, there is still no substitute.”


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