We are all tourists now, and there is no escape. The first thing we see as we jet round the world is a filth of our own making. Resort hotel seepage. Takeaway detritus. Travel, in its pre-package sense, can no longer be said to exist. Airports even have ‘comfort zones’ with dental clinics, cinemas and (at New York’s JFK) funeral parlours.
Some travel writers, desperate to simulate the hardship of Victorian travel, have imposed artificial difficulties on themselves. The late Eighties saw a glut of such daft titles as Hang-Gliding to Borneo and To Bognor on a Rhinoceros. In every case, however, it would have been quicker to take the train. Why windsurf across the Mojave when there’s a decent coach service? The genre was revived somewhat in 1983, when Granta issued the first of its fashionable ‘Travel Writing’ issues. Norman Lewis, James Fenton and other left-leaning authors exploited the narrative devices of fiction to forge an incisively brilliant reportage.
Three decades on, Granta continues to tap the travel market, yet notably few risks are taken with lesser-known writers. Subsequent travel anthologies have included Bruce Chatwin, Jonathan Raban, Paul Theroux, Redmond O’Hanlon, Colin Thubron and Ryszard Kapucinski. All of them established authors, all of them brilliant. Now we have The New Granta Book of Travel. Unfortunately the same six travel authors are included: what is ‘new’ in that? The conservative nature of the anthology is a sign perhaps that Granta knows its readership; yet the impression of a charmed circle remains.
Fortunately there are some newcomers. Lavinia Greenlaw conjures a haunting poetry in her piece on the snow-bound immensity of the Arctic Circle. John Borneman, an American caught up in the Sri Lanka tsunami over Christmas 2004, gives a knuckle-whitening account of the disaster and its aftermath. Generally, the anthology is fun to dip into, and offers suitable armchair escapism for the New Year. The current fashion for ‘nature writing’ is represented, bracingly, by Robert Macfarlane and Kathleen Jamie, who extract a lucid winter poetry from the British wilds.
What drives an Englishman to Arab fancy dress? Wilfred Thesiger loved to wear the gorgeous flowing robes of the Marsh Arabs; John Simpson, no less strikingly, slipped into a woman’s burka in 2001 prior to the US assault on Kabul. In ‘Dervishes’, Rory Stewart blunders manfully through the Punjab wearing a ‘thin Pakistani salwar kameez suit and turban’. One can almost see it on the catwalk. For a young thruster such as Stewart, Islamic dress offers a Boy’s Own thrill of disguise as well as, more prosaically, protection against the vertical sun. The author, who is now a Tory MP, has much to say on the matter.
Another fine contribution, ‘The Life and Death of a Homosexual’, by the French ethnographer Pierre Clastres, explores the harsh gender distinctions as evolved by a stone-age tribe in the Paraguayan jungle. Hunting, for the Atchei menfolk, is their sole guarantee of masculinity. (‘One cannot be a man and not a hunter at the same time’, writes Clastres.) A man who is unable to wield a bow and arrow becomes, metaphorically, a woman, condemned to a lifetime of husking berries and fetching firewood. The essay, ably translated by the novelist Paul Auster, is brocaded with Freud-like insights into human sexuality.
Elsewhere, the anthology is patchy. Decca Aitkenhead tries hard to be cool in ‘Lovely Girls, Very Cheap’, as she samples the Klondike sleaze of Thai bars and backpacker rave parties on the Thai beaches. Fat white men from Reigate and pikey Essex girls provide Aitkenhead with an easy target, yet she has little of interest to say. The jerky, chemically-induced dance moves she witnesses at a beach party remind her of ‘a small child’s impersonation of a mentally handicapped person’. (The humour, Jeremy Clarkson-like, is not that good.) Aitkenhead notes that her body begins to smell unpleasantly under the pink plastic mac she wears. Thailand may be beautiful, but its beauty is tempered by inconvenience. (‘There are no idylls’ in the anthology, Jonathan Raban notes in his introduction.) Yet travel has never been easier: just put it on the plastic and leave the answer machine on.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 7, 2012Tags: Book review, Non-fiction, Travel, Travel writers