Justin Marozzi

Ways of escape

When I compiled a list of the top dozen travel writers of the past century for an American magazine the other day, it required some effort not to come up with an entirely British cast.

When I compiled a list of the top dozen travel writers of the past century for an American magazine the other day, it required some effort not to come up with an entirely British cast. Freya Stark, Norman Lewis, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Jan Morris were musts. So too were V. S. Naipaul and Colin Thubron, still writing up a storm, and the Ibn-Battutah-mad Tim Mackintosh-Smith for a younger generation. Although there was no space for Byron, Bell, Thesiger or Chatwin, no great legerdemain was needed to squeeze in the brilliant Dutchman Cees Nooteboom, Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish master of literary reportage, the Irishwoman Dervla Murphy and Martha Gellhorn from across the Atlantic. That left one space.

In the end, it had to go to the American author of this fascinating little distillation of travel wisdom from around the world. Paul Theroux is a master of the genre who gave the then endangered travel-writing scene a fresh lease of life with the publication in 1975 of The Great Railway Bazaar, a high-spirited, four-month railway romp across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Now 70, he sets out to arrange his thoughts on travel and those of many others into ‘a guidebook, a how-to, a miscellany, a vade mecum, a reading list, a reminiscence’.

Anecdotes, vignettes and bons mots are so densely clustered that readers may well find themselves forever dipping in and out, lured from one entertaining diversion to another. In the ‘Perverse Pleasures of the Inhospitable’, Theroux rightly observes that unwelcoming places have always been a gift to the travel writer, from a friendless Ibn Battutah arriving in Tunis in 1325 (he ‘wept bitterly’) to Apsley Cherry- Garrard’s fearsome Antarctica and Stanley’s savage, cannibal-ridden Congo. There is nothing more tedious than a blissful vacation.

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