Books: Around the world in eighty gags

Say farewell to the gent's club and `Hi!' to the fun pub. Nicholas Murray traces the travel-writer's route from patrician adventure to populist stunt; Scoop-Wallah: life on a Delhi daily by Justine Hardy John Murray, pounds 16.99, 266pp; Big Snake: the hunt for the world's longest python by Robert Twigger Gollancz, pounds 15.99, 319ppFrost on my Moustache: the Arctic exploits of a lord and a loafer by Tim Moore Abacus, pounds 10.99, 280pp

The winning formula for 20th-century travel writing - toffs in strange places - no longer seems operative. The toffs have re-positioned themselves in pursuit of what the narrator of Ian McEwan's novel Enduring Love calls "the oafish codes of street credibility", and the strange places are loud with the thunder of incoming holiday jets. Perhaps there is now no corner of the globe, outside war zones, where one will not stumble on some beaming backpacker toting a well-thumbed Lonely Planet guide.

These three books are all attempts to come up with something new and, as their subtitles suggest, travel-writing has gone high-concept. But the old habits of the English travelogue, it turns out, are not so easily discarded. The patrician style of classic practitioners like Patrick Leigh- Fermor - in which the well-born public-school man would drift across Europe with a gilded address book, pausing only to fan his feathers in a virtuoso display of scholarship - lingers now only in a few writers. The new twentysomethings of the genre have swapped the learned and assured pose of the mandarin for that of the boy or girl next door. Comic self-deprecation - always a feature of the English travel book - has come to dominate it. But here it has a new dimension, a sort of post-Imperial tristesse that surfaces in all three books.

In so far as they rise to such levels of seriousness, each of them is clearly troubled by the contrasts between their own ventures and those of the imperial ancestors they fitfully interrogate. Beneath the flaunted ignorance and incompetence, the furious playing for laughs, there is a striking vulnerability or perplexity about these end-of-the-century travellers. And, perhaps surprisingly, the figure of Kipling keeps popping up in all three.

Justine Hardy is the most serious. Acting impulsively on a suggestion (while buying a cabbage) from her Kashmiri greengrocer in Holland Park that she take her journalistic talents to India in order to understand the country, she signs on for a stint on the English-language Indian Express. Better equipped than most travellers - she speaks some Hindustani and has an informed grasp of Indian politics - Hardy struggles to persuade her editor to allow her to pursue serious investigations rather than lifestyle- froth journalism. "Why do you want to spend all your time with these peasants?" her Delhi landlord, a former prince, demands peremptorily when she returns from an encounter in the High Himalayas with the Dalai Lama and his followers.

The desire to understand a country in flux leads her to negotiate "the muddy marsala of cultural misunderstanding": to visit Assam, where a bewildering variety of separatist terrorists stalk the beauty of the tea-gardens, to penetrate a strobe-lit city disco in pursuit of the truth about the extent of Aids, and to brave the brittle snobbery of the Jaipur Polo Ground. "As India tried to reinvent herself I had to learn to swim instead of cling," she is forced to conclude. "But you want to be an insider, yaar?" a sceptical local female journalist asked her. "Why else would you want to work for an Indian newspaper?"

Hardy protests that she is just trying to learn and her honest attempt to do so makes Scoop-Wallah into an attractive as well as a lively book, its prose just occasionally too magazine-glossy ("Death is hardly softened by a bit of alphabetical juggling, Scrabble at flesh-piercing velocity," she writes after separating out all the terrorist group acronyms in Assam). For the most part, however, this is a funny, fresh and occasionally sad take on a country that no one - not even the lapsed princes and commissioning editors - is really going to understand.

Robert Twigger's opening paragraph in Big Snake demonstrates the comprehensive influence of Bruce Chatwin on a younger generation of travel writers. "In a studio flat in south London I spoke over a hissing international line to Cairo. The voice coming back to me was precise, accented and elderly. It was the first time I had spoken to a retired Egyptian general and I was asking him if I could marry his daughter." The short sentences, swift narrative, and tall tales told in laconic scraps of dialogue are all here. But Chatwin was more than the sum of his stylistic tics. The driven intellectuality, the life-long obsessional interrogation of the need to wander, are largely absent from these light-hearted romps.

The premise of the book is that, with four months to go before his marriage, Twigger has one last chance for adventure. There is a reward out for catching the world's longest python, but no prizes for guessing whether Twigger eventually catches his prey. I confess that my attention flagged at points during this python-less pursuit, although the glimpses of contemporary Malaysia (such as a rave on top of a tower block in Kuala Lumpur) were diverting.

Twigger makes a stab at a Chatwinesque Big Idea by pondering on the significance of the snake (chthonic anatagonist of the philosophies of light and reason) but, mostly, this is a comic Englishman- in-the-jungle affair. And it is haunted by the presence of Twigger's uncle, Colonel H, a retired swashbuckling imperialist for whom he evinces evident nostalgia and a perplexed sense of distance - as if his generation will never know the bulldog breed's venturesomeness.

The sub-text seems to be that the empire was lost not because of a just restitution but because the later generation were wimps. "There was no British empire to back me up," Twigger reflects at a particularly sticky point in the jungle.

"Our forefathers had done it all before and, as there was clearly no point doing it again, we'd made virtues out of under-achievement and torpor," echoes Tim Moore during his journey in pursuit of the Victorian Arctic adventurer, Lord Dufferin. Moore, who describes himself as "a failed dandy", takes the Twigger logic one stage further and plays Frost on my Moustache entirely for laughs, celebrating his unfitness for the task, intellectually and physically.

The humour is not exactly Wildean, but this is the funniest book of the three. "My idea of tackling one of the world's most appalling maritime challenges is being able to stand up on a lilo" is a representative Moore gag. As a celebrity jacket puff from Sir Ranulph Fiennes deftly suggests, this is essentially "terrific fun" rather than a contribution to the literature of Arctic exploration. As far as the boys (at least) are concerned, travel- writing seems to have come out of the shadows of the gentleman's club and into the bright decor of the Fun Pub.

Nicholas Murray wrote `Bruce Chatwin' (Seren); his life of Andrew Marvell appears in September

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?