Travel Writing: Which Way to Go?

As the end of the year approaches, booksellers will be looking forward to increased sales as people start buying awkward presents for awkward relations—a book, perhaps? In recent years, some of the most popular Christmas purchases have been travel books, often those that accompany a television series—for example, Long Way Round by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman and its sequel Long Way Down. And before that, we could usually rely on something from Michael Palin, perhaps going Pole to Pole or Full Circle. This year, one of the biggest sellers will no doubt be Billy Connolly’s Route 66, as a tie-in to his TV adventures on his ridiculously large and conspicuous motorbike. It makes me wonder how travel writing has evolved over the 20th century.

Not that many decades ago, when long haul flights really were long haul, a holiday under the Mediterranean sun was adventure enough for most British families. Nowadays, the many places visited by Connolly and Palin have already been experienced by many television viewers and readers. Popular travel writing seems to have become a comparison of holiday notes between celebrity writer and reader.

‘The Worst Journey in the World’ by Apsley Cherry-Gerrard

Contrast that with the classic travel writing of the early 20th century. Books such as The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard told of horrendous privations in Antarctica at the time of Scott’s last expedition. The Southern Gates of Arabia, about the land now called Yemen, was written in 1934 by Freya Stark (she died in 1993 at 100 years old) is one of over two dozen books about her travels, mainly in the Middle East and often to places then rarely seen by Western writers, particularly women. These books are examples of true exploration in the planet’s wildest places.

Then there is one of my favourite books: A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, where, although the path he chooses is well travelled, he still manages to capture fascinating snapshots of a disappearing age. Fermor was a highly decorated soldier, fabled for his exploits in Crete during the Second World War, and died in June 2011 at the age of 96. A Time of Gifts, only written 45 years after his journey across Europe, tells of his travels when, in 1933 at the age of 18, he left the Hook of Holland to travel to Constantinople (now Istanbul), meeting a variety of people, sometimes sleeping in fields, sometimes in cheap hotels, or in the castles of central Europe’s fading aristocracy. This was a time of great change across Europe and his tales of life, the people he met, and his descriptions of the countryside in a world soon to be swept away by war are beautifully written. He ends up in Hungary at the end of his first book in a proposed trilogy, and his second book, Between the Woods and the Water, continues his journey to Romania. Sadly, the long-awaited final book completing his journey to Constantinople was never published.

In recent years, books by Sir Ranulph Fiennes such as Beyond the Limits and Mind over Matter, which detail his travels in the Arctic and the Antarctic, have kept up the tradition of brave adventures through inhospitable regions. But I wonder: are these sorts of travel books dying out? Not because the writing isn’t any good; far from it. A book such as Tim Butcher’s Blood River, for example, written in 2008 and shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize that same year, is a haunting tale of 21st-century horror in the Democratic Republic of Congo, beset by disease and war. However, most of the horror of the book comes from the evils of men rather than problems associated with the natural environment.

Ranulph Fiennes

Perhaps it’s just inevitable that as the world gets “smaller” and there are fewer unspoiled and unknown wilderness to reach, modern travel writers have had to substitute natural hazards for man-made ones. It’s still travel to dangerous places, and just as unpredictable, but top quality travel writing has had to evolve.  So before you buy one of those glossy TV-series accompanying travel books this Christmas, as a last-minute present for cousin Tom, perhaps have a quick look along the shelf in the travel section to see what else is there.  Alongside the 20th century classics, you’re bound to find a more recently-written work too, where the author has suffered genuine hardship and danger to bring this book to you.  And I don’t mean room service being a little on the slow side.

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