Shrinking world

Shrinking world

Future of travel writing

Shrinking world

Training the eye: A travel writer needs to view the world the way an ethnographer does.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been working on a travel book, my first extended period on the road since 1994. Nine Lives is about how traditional forms of religion are surviving and changing in modern India. Much, of course, has been written about how India is moving forward and transforming itself at the most incredible rate — the economy has been predicted to overtake that of the US by 2050 — but so far little has been said about the way these huge earthquakes have affected traditional religion in India.

Returning to the world of travel writing after a gap of a decade and a half away writing books about Indian history, I’ve been struck by how many of the great writers whose books first inspired me to travel and write are now dead: Wilfred Thesiger, Bruce Chatwin, Laurie Lee, Eric Newby, Rysard Kapuscinski and Norman Lewis have all passed on their last journey in the last few years. The world of literary travel writing, once associated with the drumbeat of hooves across some distant steppe, has begun echoing instead with the slow tread of the undertaker’s muffled footfall.

The age of the Internet

When I was writing my first book, In Xanadu, travel writing was highly regarded and writers like Bruce Chatwin were at the peak of their reputation. But publishers overcommissioned, and there was a flood of mediocre and downright bad books, often revolving around silly stunts: taking a dustbin cart to Borneo, a tricycle to New Orleans or a pogo stick to the Antarctic. Fashions changed, and travel writing’s moment in the sun ebbed away.  Many of the writers of my generation who had written travel books moved on to new forms: Sarah Wheeler and Katie Hickman to biography, Anthony Sattin to history, Philip Marsden to the novel.

Returning to travel writing after such a long gap made me think again about the form. Has the genre anything left to offer in the age of mass tourism and the internet? And is there anyone of real talent still at work in travel writing? I believe the answer to both question is yes.

Since 9/11 there has been a new insularity about English letters. The British once prided themselves on their cosmopolitan, island-nation global experience, yet throughout the Bush years our literature and media, as much as the Blair government, swallowed the Neocon lies and over-simplicifications about the Islamic world hook, line and sinker. As article piled on article, one longed to bring back the dead masters: where was Wilfred Thesiger or Bruce Chatwin when you really needed them?

Nevertheless, over the last few years there has been a slow trickle of books by younger writers which have, I think, been as good as anything published in the 1980s. Suketu Mehta’s Bombay book Maximum City is one of the greatest city books ever written, in my opinion, while Alice Albinia’s wonderful Empires of the Indus is a breathtaking debut by an author who writes enviably cadent and beautiful prose, but has nerves of steel and the pluck of a 21st century Freya Stark. I hugely admired Pankaj Mishra’s collection of travel pieces Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond, am currently reading Christopher de Bellaigue’s extraordinary book on Eastern Turkey: among Turkey’s Forgotten Peoples. There are probably many others.

Does it have a future?

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.

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. 

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.

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.

 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.”


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