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In Search of the Travel Writer

April 21, 2022 Leave a comment

“You really must write a book about it!” 

Whenever I visited my parent’s home in England while living and reporting in the Middle East, I would hear variations on this well-meaning suggestion. It was as if things hadn’t happened unless they were in print between hard covers. I always felt unequal to the task.

I knew I would be unable to match the erudition of my classicist father and had little desire to imitate my “Oriental Studies” university books on Iran and the Arab world. Yet the travel writers that I loved to read – whose books’ glowing reviews my mother, forty years later, still clips from newspapers and not-so-subtly sends to me – seemed to come from an unreachable galaxy.

I had missed the nineteenth and twentieth century heyday of Britons discovering new places (to them) and didn’t have the will-power for a lonely, deep-diving or world-straddling journey. I doubted I would ever be able to magic up the sights, sounds and asides crafted to delight a fireside English audience. Indeed, two decades later, when I managed to publish two books about what had become many journeys, my stories fell between the two camps: they were neither academic with footnotes, nor had that flying sense of exotic adventure or personal discovery that travel books can conjure up.

Reading Tim Hannigan’s fine new book The Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre (Hurst, 2021) has freed me from my sense of inadequacy at last. He clearly worshipped some of the same authors as me and longed to join them too. On his own journey to meet and debrief select names in the game, he struts his stuff, tongue only slightly in cheek. Pen portraits describe planes “scratching the sky” over London or he sees a “dark pubic tangle of withies on the parish boundary” in his native Cornwall. The dialogue is all scrupulously honest, which I love, and his analysis is lightly founded on his own doctoral-level research.

Enter Winston the Pig

I am thus completely at his side when, in an evening field, he quite naturally meets a pig whom he thinks he recognises and greets by his literary name, Winston. Then the porker winks at him, floats up and flies off over the treetops. It’s a lovely, compelling moment. But wait! Has he gone over to the dark side of travel fantasy? On my second read-through, I get it. Justice is being done to this most slippery of genres. With a playful touch, Hannigan demonstrates that the travel-writing church is broad and has room for all. He deservedly won a place for himself as well on the Financial Times’ Travel Books of the Year in 2021.

Tim Hannigan

Hannigan pays tribute to noted travel authors of other cultures, but sensibly limits himself mostly to what he really knows about: British travel writers. First there were the “travel braggarts” of hundreds of years ago, some of whom may not have made the journeys at all. Then came informative “voyages and travels” narratives, which by the nineteenth century became a real purveyor of knowledge. Then, according to one of Hannigan’s academic interlocutors, from the early twentieth century on it became a “popularising, middlebrow genre.” Ouch.

Along the way, Hannigan usefully defines travel writing to include: a real, immersive journey; an underpinning scholarliness; a knowledge of relevant literature; and a facility in the languages of people described. More generally, he adds the need for an evocation of place, usually one not often visited by outsiders or which doesn’t reveal itself easily. Above all, the account must be written in the first person with the author, narrator and principal character being one and the same.

In terms of style, he sees little real difference between travel writing and reportage. Irish writer Dervla Murphy tells him her work is close to journalism; other writers clearly would rather be seen higher up the literary ladder, on the same aesthetic level as novelists. Indian writer Samanth Subramian splits the difference, explaining that a travel writer does their journalism on the road and the magical leavening later: “The travel has happened, but the travel writing is happening at your desk.”

Bridges between worlds

Hannigan uncovers sides of travel writing that I hadn’t thought about much. The band of aesthete wanderers was “very male and very white,” he notes, not just from the privately educated British elite, but “hopelessly entangled with the history of European colonialism.” Then there is colonialism’s heritage: the supposed demotion of the people being described as a new “other” ripe for appropriation, or “travellees” who are not asked what they feel about being on the receiving end of posh authorial inspection. I learned how a whole university discipline is now devoted to the ins and outs of travel writing.

I was relieved that in the end Hannigan defends the idea that “travel writing is supposed to be about other worlds.” Author Colin Thubron – one of the more sensitive practitioners, even though white, male, married to an academic, London-based and an Etonian – also believed that outside eyes were legitimate intermediaries: “there’s no acknowledgement that travel writing can be an exercise not in power, but an attempt at understanding, and empathy … from people who think this culture has something to teach them … one culture looking at another.” Scholar Steve Clark concurs, telling Hannigan that the travel writers’ comparative ignorance can be a source of “freshness, wonder, power of insight.”

The well-equipped travel writer is indeed a useful person, since just being from somewhere doesn’t make someone an expert on it. I am ethnically and culturally English – before me, my whole family history for the past three hundred years took place within one hundred miles of London – but I would be an unreliable informant about England. I’ve never studied it, lived there much nor spoken to many people about it. If asked to comment, I feel constrained by baggage of class, education and lack of experience. What expertise I have is likely only useful in regard to Turkey and several countries to the east of it, places I’ve been travelling, researching or living in for more than three decades. If the epithet “orientalist” is now doomed to have a negative meaning, I would rather it was applied to those who do no solo travel or research themselves, but make their judgements of the world from Western ideological and analytical bubbles.

Whoever the informant and whatever the process is, Hannigan is in no doubt that travel writing has fallen far from favour. It’s not just that narratives by outsiders are seen as unfashionably elitist, but also because there is no corner of the world left uncovered by social media videos and the like. The once-rich travel offerings in bookshops have shrivelled. Even the fold-out maps that I used to love have lost their appeal, yellowing in boxes in my attic. I first became aware of the trend in 2010, when I was invited to promote my own Dining with al-Qaeda: Making Sense of the Middle East, at the annual book fair of the National Press Club in Washington, DC. I discovered it was one of only three books of the one hundred or so chosen that even touched on a topic outside the U.S., let alone travel writing. Pride of place went to multiple cooking books.

Fact & fiction

Armchair readers’ thirst for books about foreign parts has clearly been quenched, and, to judge by the thin offerings of media international sections outside moments of crisis, their thirst for foreign news as well. Another dynamic may also be undermining the worth of travel writing. The move away from serving up “knowledge” to “popularising” persuaded some authors to pursue aesthetic, novelistic and even surreal qualities that can amp up the more humdrum realities of the road. “In my first flush of infatuation with travel writing, I had read the genre uncritically under its official designation: non-fiction,” Hannigan says. “But by now I had heard the dark stories of fabrication, of invented encounters and counterfeit characters.” He is surprised to find this “one issue that scholars tended to avoid”, unless the author was already centuries dead. I know what he means. I had been surprised when I encountered fabrication in my years as a journalist. Surprise turned to shock when I met the agent who had agreed to represent my first book on Turkey. As I remember in Dining with al-Qaeda:

She leaned forward to give her most important piece of advice: don’t let hang-ups about facts get in your way. Seeing me recoil, she sought to encourage me with the success of another of her clients. This travel writer had taken one of her ex-husband’s stories, she said, and seamlessly integrated it into his text as if it happened to him on his travels through some distant continent. Sure enough, when the same writer came to interview me while on a new Eastern journey, he exaggerated what I said and invented gory details. The technique spiced up sensationally the two pages devoted to our lunch together, but left me unable to believe the rest of the book.

Another writer, Rory MacLean, freely admits to Hannigan that his work should be called “creative non-fiction”; but at least he clearly signposts his moments of magical reality, while insisting that making the trip is an essential part of his art. Hannigan goes through Wilfrid Thesiger’s diaries and finds inconsistencies with the great explorer’s famous books. Even though Arabian Sands “brims with dialogue,” he notes, the writer’s papers contain “not a single line of recorded speech.” The more dependable Colin Thubron only goes so far as to say he is “reliable by the ‘abysmal standards of the genre’.” 

Writer-politician Rory Stewart appears to be the main modern champion of fact-based narrative, but Hannigan points out that he seems almost too priggish, promoting missives of colonial administrators and spies as the golden age of travel literature. Hannigan quotes another academic, Carl Thompson, who charitably tells him that author Bruce Chatwin’s eloquent flights of fancy were ok because it was like guitarist Eric Clapton “introducing you a little bit to reggae, and then you go and find real reggae.”

Subramanian gives Hannigan some hope for the future. Just as nobody needs authors to reach impossible places any more, he says, they also now don’t need dubious inner or fictive journeys. Instead, he believes a focus on the people being described will become dominant. When introducing such travellees, he says: “The only thing you can do is to try to be as sensitive as possible … make sure that they’re comfortable with the way they’re being portrayed … you just have to be as honest and accurate as possible.”

Exactly. And I agree with Hannigan when he says early on that, for him, “what gave travel writing its strange fascination, as well as its awkwardness and its tension, was the idea of an actual journey, bound directly to a text that overtly claimed the status of eye-witness testimony.” It’s the same thing as night draws in round a campfire and the tale begins: all the dramatic tension depends on the listeners believing that the storyteller actually saw the ghost. And if the tale doesn’t brim with novel sensations and insights, all the facts in the world won’t help. Hence the temptation to make stuff up.

What space for a journalist?

As I finished Hannigan’s book, I wondered again: could my two books of experiences on the road in more than thirty countries – Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World in 2005 and Dining with al-Qaeda in 2010 – count as travel writing? Real travel – check. First person – check. Immersive – yes, I think so. Literary awareness and knowledge of languages – check. One critical difference, perhaps, is that I created both books out of not one but multiple trips to most of the places described over a period of two or three decades. For me, that time-tunnelling context was critical to having something to say that was both eye-opening and true. But perhaps it undermines the dramatic tension of the one-shot journey. Maybe a half check.

Preparing for a day on the road in an Aleppo hotel in 1982, with folding map and all.

A strike against me as a travel writer, though, may be that my books were often based on journalistic experiences. To be honest, my reporting notebooks, full of terse, home-made shorthand of what people said in interviews, were of only the most basic use for writing books. Indeed, the best source was my diary from visiting Xinjiang in western China in 1999, where reporters were banned and I had only gone for authorial purposes. Sitting in my hotel room each day, I wrote in longhand about the atmosphere, noises, aromas and gestures that struck me – not least the impending bulldozer of Chinese oppression – all impressions not just of what people said, but also of what they meant, and my own actions and reactions too. A real travel writer would no doubt have based their book on such meticulous diaries from beginning to end. On the other hand, without journalism, how would I have met bosses and presidents, financed hundreds of flights, dealt with war zones and kept up my drive to meet thousands of people?

A trip to Iraqi Kurdistan with the Turkish Armed Forces in the mid-1990s.

Another striking finding was that my published articles were rarely of immediate use as raw material for the books. I had assumed that the polished, sharp newspaper prose and the fact that I had answered so many clever editors’ questions at Reuters news agency, The Independent or The Wall Street Journal would make these texts the best basis for chapter sections. In fact, when I could find them, the rough first drafts of my stories proved to be much closer to what I actually wanted to say. If I discovered anything while book writing at my desk, it was how the act of journalistic transmission from foreign parts to a Western audience could distort reality in ways I had never been aware of while struggling to send reports from remote hotel rooms.

Even if I got past the stain of journalism, what might still blackball me from Hannigan’s British travel-writing tribe was a quality that he spots as indispensable early on: a common, cast-iron belief in a shared British culture. I did sign my first book contract in publisher John Murray’s ornate old headquarters in London’s Mayfair, in awe the legions of travel writers who had preceded me and in particular of the century-old oil painting of Lord Byron above my head. Thanks to a wonderful editor, that book, a modern history of Turkey, did fine on both sides of the Atlantic. But on the second time round, when I had to write about the Trans-Caucasus and Central Asia, I gave in to the temptation to combine John Murray’s offer with a three times richer American bid (however fond I am of liberal Englishness, I always sold more books in America). Torn between two distinct travel writing audiences and my day job at a newspaper, I lost both publishers, and, in the end, the day job too.

Luckily, my brilliant Dutch wife Jessica Lutz showed me how to reorder and rewrite the text, a new publisher took over the advance and Sons of the Conquerors made it to the finishing line, in four languages and as an Economist Book of the Year to boot. After Jessica gave the same helping hand to Dining with al-Qaeda, a long hunt found a New York publisher, Thomas Dunne, who signed me up over a cigar in his corner office in Manhattan’s Flatiron Building. The reviews were great and it sold several thousand hardback copies, but it didn’t pay back the advance and I had to print the paperback version myself. And I always hated the way the U.S. marketing team insisted that the back cover blurb start off with me “Following in the footsteps of Sir Richard Burton and Lawrence of Arabia …”, since at least the latter was in part a creator of fables.

Despite Tim Hannigan’s rich survey of The Travel Writing Tribe – and his other books of journeys in foreign and local parts – even he refers to himself in some places online not as a “travel writer” but as a “travel journalist”. Perhaps that’s actually the sub-clan of the travel writing tribe that I can most easily claim membership of, given that my ambition is to give, as accurately as possible, a TV-camera-on-my-shoulder view of the places where I worked and the context and voices of the people I met there. 

Along the way, fortunately, my eventual publications between hard covers did satisfy my mother, a voracious travel reader. And since most of my book talks have been at universities, perhaps there was substance my academic father could chew on too.