Travel Writing on the Ropes or The Importance of Not Being Earnest (2010)

(Important hint: If you cherished Eat, Pray, Love – this essay is not for you)

Let me first toss in your general direction the red shirt. What red shirt? Christopher’s! The immortal Christopher Sykes from the immortal Road to Oxiana by the immortal Robert Bryon. Paul Fussell was sore- (and wrong-) headed about a few things, but spot on in regards to this classic travel book about Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan in 1933, published 1937. Bryon and Sykes travel for months and return with a red shirt, a blue bowl from Isfahan and, after three years of writing, a book. A shirt, a bowl and a book, that’s all they have to show for it.

Travel writing has always been about discussing a commodity. The change in the last 25 or so years, is that some travel writers now believe that the commodity in questions is their emotions, precious emotions, deep emotions, heartfelt emotions…

John Kirch and his girlfriend Iris, whose last name is not given, are Americans bound on a trip around the world.

Starting out by visiting Mack [a friend] in Hong Kong and ending up in Europe, Iris and I could be Marco Polos in reverse. Plying the trade routes, we wouldn’t so much loot the world–or seek looting’s pale modern equivalent: the bargain. We hoped to let the world loot us. (Music in Every Room 18)

The world doesn’t. Kirch wants to appear learned; while visiting a Hindu temple in Calcutta, he is offended that their guide “listed a panoply of deities, as if we didn’t know Vishnu from Adam.” But his next remark is, “I couldn’t help but label what I saw as chaos, and sympathize for the first time with olden missionaries’ cringing horror at ‘paganism’” (151). Then it all goes pear-shaped:

We had sworn never to be caught in the various American libraries run as showplaces by the Embassies and the U.S.I.S., a/k/a the Department of Disinformation. But the need for more reading matter wore down our resolve… While Sikhs in New Delhi waited obediently for immigration information, stunned to be turned into butcher store numbers to be paged, a high-caste librarian took his time exhuming, at my command, a decade’s worth of Sports Illustrated. (236-37)

That isn’t travel writing – that’s a hissy fit. Good traveling writing has a triangulation factor. The reader is at one corner, the place is a second and the writer is the third, so one is always shifting the focus from what is the place like, to what the traveler is like, to ‘what would I do in that circumstance?’. But the worst of modern writing puts the author front and center, hogging the stage, taking all the best lines, arranging the lights to highlight their best features.

Please note I am emphatically not joining the boring crowd chirping about how ‘travel/ travel writing is over’. Not for me is Paul Fussell’s claim that after World War Two “all that remained [of travel] was jet tourism among the ruins” (226) and travel writing is “hardly possible anymore” (37). Poor Fussell fumes that he cannot cruse the South Pacific on passenger ships; he must give up images of himself “lolling at the rail unshaven in a dirty white linen suit as the crummy little ship” calls at an exotic port (41). Martha Gellhorn questions:

Remember the old days when we had porters not hi-jackers; remember when hotels were built and finished before you got there; remember when key unions weren’t on strike at your point of departure or arrival; remember when we were given generous helpings of butter and jam for breakfast, not those little cellophane and cardboard containers; remember when the weather was reliable. (12)

Dear people, the weather was never reliable.

Against Jeffery Bernard in Egypt:

My daughter Isabel’s bar bill was LE32 for four days’ Coca-Cola which struck me as fairly revolting. I don’t think she liked the holiday very much… On our last day we went to see the pyramids and the Sphinx and took pictures of each other standing in front of them. But I shall remember the Nile especially during its brief sunsets. The heat of the day makes the sky white and not blue and when the sun goes down over those angry orange carbuncles of mountains, it is also pale and yellow. Then the color of the river changes too and it becomes as gunmetal. The distant chanting of calls to prayer are only interrupted by calls for Coca-Cola on the boat. I hope the ghosts of the old kings get angry one day. (Views from Abroad 311)

I place, standing in roughly the same place at the same time of day, Lawrence Durrell:

If you sit on the top of the Mena House pyramid at sunset and try the same thing [clearing your mind] (forgetting the noise of the donkey-boys, and all the filthy litter of other travellers–old cartons and Coca-Cola bottles): if you sit quite still in the landscape–diviner’s pose–why, the whole rhythm of ancient Egypt rises up from the damp cold sand. You can hear its very pulse tick. Nothing is strange to you at such moments–the old temples with their death-cults, the hieroglyphs, the long slow whirl of the brown Nile among the palm-fringed islets, the crocodiles and snakes. It is palpably just as it was (its essence) when the High Priest of Ammon initiated Alexander into the Mysteries. (Spirit of Place 158-59).

The great travelers and travel writers don’t whine about how it’s all over; they don’t take travel seriously enough to get all worked up. With brave intrangence they refuse to write sentences like: “India and I are inextricably linked,” (Scoop-Wallah 2), gush over fortune-tellers’ prophecies or share their souls. Good travelers go for stupid reasons, maps or books given as a present, a bet made while drunk, boredom, on a lark, or for some reason that they are simply unable to explain. They have an “emotional distance” (much as I hate to use the term) from what they are doing and seeing.

Thesiger and Cherry-Garrard faced more pain, physical and mental, than most people could bear, but they scarcely mention it. Thesiger sees sand and writes about sand, not about his mother. He may drift now and then into a soliloquy about himself in the sand, but it is sand AND self. You never forget that he is an Arabian desert which wants nothing more than his desiccated bones. Not that Freud is not welcome, or relevant, but he is a desperately dull companion when you are in the Empty Quarter.

Cherry-Garrard tells of finding Scott’s body in the simplest declarative sentences: “We have found them,” “Oate’s death was a very fine one,” “It is magnificent that men in such case should go on pulling everything they died to gain” (472). Robert Twigger in Angry White Pyjamas: A Scrawny Oxford Poet Takes Lessons from the Tokyo Riot Police (1997) can’t stop talking about what hurts and how much, knees, shoulders, hands, his sense of well-being, his sense of accomplishment. On the other hand, you get rare travel writers who erase themselves out of the picture so thoroughly; you finish the book wondering who wrote it. I defy you to read Roff Smith’s Cold Beer and Crocodiles: A Bicycle Journey into Australia (2000) and learn anything about him.

Good travel writers have to have a vantage point from which they can examine and judge themselves as well as the place, giving movement to the writing – back and forth between what it should be and what it is. Bad ones are self-centered.

The good ones get themselves into horrible situations through wretched stupidity and generally ought to be taken out of the gene pool. Mark Salzman, Stuart Stevens (damn his politics – I had to give up buying his books but I still read them), PJ O’Rourke (oddly, his politics are also abhorrent but they don’t give offense), and the highly charming Tony Hawks (Round Ireland with a Fridge, 1998). I give you George Courtland, smug with his cricket-bat willow trees wondering if the “small translucent pebbles” on a beach in Liberia are diamonds (The Travels of a Fat Bulldog, 172). No George, they are pebbles, but we appreciate your leaving such silliness in the book, as well as conversations such as this:

One of the guests aboard is a beefy, brainy-looking man wearing thick spectacles. He is a geologist called Mousewinkle.

“The only Mousewinkle I ever knew was a weedy whey-faced fellow at my prep school who was always homesick.”

“That was me,” says the beefy geologist, somewhat testily.

“You’ve changed a bit,” I titter, abashed.

“So have you,” he replies, staring meaning at my pink-topped head. “What happened to all that blond hair you used to have?”

“I passed it on to my children.”

“That sounds like a well-rehearsed reply.”

“It is a well-repeated question,” I say ruefully. (45)

A normal travel writer would have stopped after “testily,” showing himself the master of the situation; a good writer would have stopped after “children,” showing himself the wit. Courtland goes all the way, allowing Mousewinkle his revenge. Courtland’s self-possession is so strong, a mere Mousewinkle repartee cannot touch it, so the full exchange is included. And since you now trust him to be honest on the small matters, you trust him on Thailand, Zambia, Mongolia, the Barents Sea and La Paz.

The English are better travelers and travel writers because they don’t have that pesky American trait of thinking they can make things better. You get on a plane in the UK and you may have to walk out on the tarmac and climb steps to the plane’s door. Retractable do-hickeys to link plane and airport? Why bother? Americans are all about inventing, improving, not taking something as given, working it. Brits, knowing how it should be, seethe and endure, refusing to snivel.

The English have understatement, sprezetura, the stiletto. Americans have the club. Americans are touched, moved, suffering, full of woe, of grief, of mid-life crises, desire to find out who they are, despair over that pesky divorce. Mark Twain, in The Innocents Abroad (1869), opens his remarks on Rome with a long paragraph asserting that discovery “swells a man’s breast with pride above that which any experience can bring him” (274). He then asks

What is there in Rome for me to see that others have not seen before me? What is there for me to touch that others have not touched? What is there for me for me to feel, to learn, to hear, to know, that shall thrill me before it pass to others? What can I discover? Nothing. Nothing whatsoever. One charm of travel dies here. (275)

Grumpy petulance – so unbecoming.

Now take Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo (1984). Here are O’Hanlon and the poet James Fenton, on the first afternoon of their journey, attempting to impress their guides with their fishing acumen:

“The trouble is,” said James, flicking a rod handle and watching the sections telescope out into the blue beyond, “my elder brother was the fisherman. That was his thing, you see, he filled the role. So I had to pretend it was a bore; and I never learned.”

            “What? You never fished?”

“No, Never. What about you?”

“Well, my elder brother went fishing.”

“So you can’t either?”

“Not exactly. Not with a rod. I used to go mackerel fishing with a line. All over the place.”

After managing to knot all the lines, forget the weights and break one line, they regroup and try again.

James reached right back and swung the rod forwards and sideways as if he was axing a tree. At that very moment, it seemed, the Borneo banded hornet, Vesta tropica, sunk its sting into my right buttock.

            “Jesus!” I said.

It was huge and jointed, this hornet, flashing red and silver in the sun.

“You are hooked up,” said James matter-of factly. “You have a spinner in your bum.”

There was a weird, gurgling, jungle-sound behind us. Dana, Leon, and Inghai were leaning against the boulders. The Iban, when they decide something is really funny, and know that they are going to laugh for a long time, lie down first.

Dana, Leon, and Inghai lay down. (37)

O’Hanlon went to Borneo as a naturalist looking for birds and information about the now-extinct Borneo rhinoceros; compare him to the American Eric Hansen’s Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo (1988). When Hansen tries to explain why he traveled, he writes into his text a long quote from Isabelle Eberhardt’s The Oblivion Seekers, in the middle of which comes the sentence:

The cowardly belief that a man must stay in one place is too reminiscent of the unquestioning resignation of animals, beasts of burden stupefied by servitude and yet always willing to accept the slipping of the harness. (44)

American writers focus the narrative on themselves, their reactions and emotions to the place visited, allowing the reader to experience every nuance of the traveler’s emotions. The British style is to center on the location and appear as an, usually offstage, narrator. Using other people or the pronoun “one,” makes readers feel that anyone traveling the route would see and hear the same events.

By chance, both men write of the cicadas in the up-river town of Belaga. O’Hanlon:

The big green and black insects whirred into the lights, pulled their joy sticks the wrong way and knocked themselves out on the ceiling, mixed up their flaps and powered into the shelf of baked beans tins, forgot their ailerons and splashed down in James’s beer. James picked up his captive, his finger and thumb on its abdomen, and it protested with a burst of sound like a football rattle.

“They good to eat,” said Leon, ‘they taste like little fishes.”

“No more little fishes. Not this week,” said James, releasing his captive. (159-60)

Hansen makes the insects personal:

An ancient ceiling fan squeaked and wobbled unevenly as the wooden blades batted giant cicadas against the walls, occasionally cutting one of the insects in half. From the cool concrete floor, one of the cicada heads, with wings and thorax intact, buzzed to life and flew out the door of the coffee shop, leaving its abdomen behind. Ten minutes later, seemingly unperturbed by its accident and once again attracted by the light, the head and wings flew back into the shop only to be swatted against the wall by the same overhead fan. Blind persistence–I could relate to that. (267)

O’Hanlon’s quest was scientific, to find evidence of the Borneo rhinoceros. When he finds a man who had killed one, the book stops. Hansen does not reach his stated goal, crossing the island from East to West. Reach your goal? Why bother? Within a day of his goal, he asks his guides to turn the boat around and heads back into the highland jungle. Heading towards the Eastern coast, he sees increasing signs of current Euromerican culture in the clothes of his guides and the motors on the boats. Poised between two worlds, a jungle that has just spat him “out like a piece of old chewing gum” and what is, to him, a hostile modern world, he goes back in the jungle (173). The jungle which, just to be clear, he ends up leaving, returning to Sydney, to America, the goal unfinished – something for his soul to ruminate on.

The point is not that Americans are famously self-involved, we knew that. The point is not that you can buy an adventure, you could always do that. What’s new is that the swerve of one’s emotions are now the adventure. The English are against the ropes; American psyches invading the travel landscape.

This is not a cri de coeur, but a battle cry. Ye English arise, wake that sleeping lion and go valiantly into this dark fight! Stop talking about yourself unless you can make fun of yourself, unless you can gracefully occupy a corner, and only a corner, of the stage. I beg you to take up the falling flag of travel writing or we will be lost in the choking sulphur of Frances Mayes:  “I could kiss the ground here, not to feel myself in that tight space where the past gnaws the future but in the luxuriant freedom of a long day to walk out for a basket of plums under the great wheel of the Mediterranean sun. At the tail end of the century, continual splashes of newness” (250).

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)