The Travel Writing Tribe by Tim Hannigan review – an elitist genre?

Rory Stewart on his trek across northern Afghanistan in 2002. Photograph: Rick Loomis/LA Times via Getty Images

This article is well worth a read. I don’t know about the book, but the ideas that it explores are interesting. The hypothesis is that travel writing used to be dominated by Old Etonians with colonialist tendencies; but this critique apparently shows that the ‘travellees’ are writing back.

By  Ali Bhutto

First published in The Guardian

In the decades following the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978, academics have shed light on some of the uncomfortable truths about travel writing. These include its tendency to be a white, male-dominated genre that glorifies colonial sensibilities and reduces individuals encountered on a journey to mere caricatures. Over time, however, scholars adopted a more nuanced approach, recognising attempts by some works of travel writing to rectify such imbalances of power. 

Nevertheless, it is fitting that the opening chapter of Tim Hannigan’s book, The Travel Writing Tribe, is titled “The Long White Track”. The book is unusual in that Hannigan, who is well versed in the scholarly critique of the genre, confronts these questions from the perspective of both an academic and a travel writer.

From the very start, he picks up on a curious pattern. Almost all the better-known male British travel writers, including Wilfred Thesiger, Peter Fleming, Robin Hanbury-Tenison and Rory Stewart, attended prestigious independent schools, most commonly Eton College, followed by a higher education at Oxford. Not all of them, however, made it to university. Patrick Leigh Fermor was “kicked out of more than one boarding school … An alarmed housemaster once described him as ‘a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness’”. Likewise, Colin Thubron suffered from a “growing tally of educational miscarriages”. He sat his maths O-level at Eton three times and failed “by a wider margin each time”; he failed the entry exam to Cambridge and was later declared ineligible for national service, after which he started working at a publishing house.

Hannigan’s research takes him deep into the heart of the British establishment as he sifts through Thesiger’s diaries at the Eton College archives. He notices that the students, clad in the trademark black tails, pinstripe trousers and white ties, stood out from the rest of the townsfolk, as if they belonged a separate tribe. He writes: “I was still keen to pursue an idea about Old Etonian travel writers having some particular predilection for ‘tribal cultures’ in other parts of the world, and the possibility that this had something to do with their schooling.” This was, to an extent, evident in Thesiger’s choice of company during his travels: “In Arabia and beyond, his preferred society seems always to have been a small group of young men and boys, possessed of some elite and initiated status, perfectly isolated from the great plurality of town and village.”

The travel writing genre is often criticised for its unfair treatment of the “travellee” – the people encountered by the narrator during a journey. But a significant number of works have made a concerted effort to empower the same. In 1996, Nick Danziger, who lacks the public-school background of his fellow travellers, profiled a series of marginalised communities in Danziger’s Britain, giving their voices more space in the text than his own.

Similarly, in This Divided Island: Life, Death and the Sri Lankan War, Samanth Subramanian is challenged by a local of Kattankudy, who asks him: “What good will this conversation do for me?” – a question Subramanian is unable to answer convincingly.

Travel writing and journalism, Hannigan observes, were inextricably linked, yet there appeared to be a “strange tussle” going on between the two: “For a writer with literary aspirations, the word ‘journalist’ seemed to suggest relegation to the lower divisions … But on the other hand, for a writer with established literary credentials, eager to claim the kudos of empiricism, ‘journalist’ might appear a higher designation than ‘travel writer’.”

There was also, Hannigan notes, the genre’s complicated relationship with the portrayal of facts. Some writers had the tendency to fictionalise various details for aesthetic purposes. He had, for instance, noticed, “the slight disconnect between the raw records of Thesiger’s journeys and his books”.

Hannigan also visits the veteran travel writer Dervla Murphy, who cycled from her home in Ireland to India in 1963 and wrote about it in her debut work, Full Tilt. He learns from Barnaby Rogerson, the publisher at Eland, that despite her age, she was open to receiving visitors as long as they brought some beer with them. Her home, which “can hardly be described as a house”, was a collection of small old buildings scattered across a walled compound; it had once been the town market. During the interview, she tells him that her reputation for being a recluse is undeserved and only while writing a book does she go into “purdah”.

Murphy, whose anti-colonial middle-class Irish background sets her apart from most travel writers of her time, is hesitant to pin her books down to a specific genre, preferring instead to describe them as “journalistic records”.

Haunted by the grim commercial prospects of professional travel writers, Hannigan seeks reassurance wherever possible. According to Rogerson, limited funding for writers may in fact be producing better travel books. The best books, he argues, are not the ones churned out when writers try to meet deadlines, but those that are “oscillating inside them and had to come out … because the experience is so strong and profound”.

Thubron, meanwhile, is more optimistic about the future of travel writing. He refers to an edition of Granta that lists Mohsin Hamid, Rana Dasgupta and Subramanian on its cover, alongside his own – and there are others, such as Monisha Rajesh and Kapka Kassabova, both of whom Hannigan interviews. The future of the genre is fluid and adaptable, and in the hands of writers from all over the world. “The voice of those once written about is coming back and writing about us,” he says.

6 thoughts on “The Travel Writing Tribe by Tim Hannigan review – an elitist genre?

  1. John BURKITT

    One British travel writer (or just writer?) who breaks the posh mould is Norman Lewis who for my money knocks most of the rest into a cocked hat, and he had a proper job for a lot of his life! I’ve just read his biography by Julian Evans and am working through a lot of his books that I’ve missed out on so far. A great writer.

    Reply
  2. antoon van coillie

    And what about Freya Stark, Martha Gellhorn, Ella Maillart, Anita Leslie, Gertrude Bell, Hester Stanhope,.. ?

    Reply
  3. Marc CANNIZZO

    No surprise here. The 19th and early 29th century traveler was typically from the elite. Rebecca West, an anti-colonialist, did provide some early pushback.

    Reply

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