BOOKS / Postcards from the edge of boredom and beyond: Is travel writing the art-form it's cracked up to be? Or a refuge for failed novelists and poseurs? Anthony Quinn blasts off

Click to follow
HAVE ADVANCE, WILL TRAVEL - such might be the motto on the flag announcing the regrettable resurgence of travel writing in recent years. Now, what with publishers forced to tighten the purse-strings, and with television colonising the few parts of the world we don't already know, the vogue may at last be in decline. Undaunted, Mark Cocker has decided to assemble a survey of British travel writing this century, Loneliness and Time, affording himself an occasion to discuss his favourite exponents and to discover why their inky peregrinations have failed, by and large, to leave a stamp on the literary map. The travel book, he writes in puzzlement, 'is taught neither in schools nor in higher education'. His book unwittingly proves this to be one of our education system's more triumphant omissions.

Cocker first of all outlines why it might be that Britain has spawned such a profusion of travel writers. Moral and social constrictions have, he thinks, persuaded the more adventurous and free-spirited among us to up sticks and strike out for broader horizons overseas. For a man like Gavin Maxwell, for example, the open acceptance of homosexuality in North African countries may have fuelled his incentive to seek the kind of fulfilment his native Scotland could never offer. Generally speaking, in the mental interior of the traveller, Blighty has signified 'some kind of limitation': it is too bland, or too blinkered, or just too bloody awful for words. On this issue the book's multifarious assembly of writers seems to agree - they've got to get out of this place.

So begins a long and unfantastic voyage in the company of the century's top travellers, beginning with the Himalayan adventurer Eric Bailey and his doughty truffling of geographic and ethnographic data. His work represents a hangover from the Victorian thirst for detail and their need to 'pin down the universe and make it intelligible'. It made for reading of quite epic tedium, though there was at least a kind of honesty about Bailey's fact-finding mission.

As the roll-call proceeds through Harry St John Philby, Wilfred Thesiger, Laurens van der Post, Lawrence Durrell and Patrick Leigh Fermor, the accent of travel writing changes; it is no longer an expedition but a journey, a quest, a pilgrimage, and the landscapes traversed are not just the ones out there but the ones in here - you know, those places in the heart which only a trip to the mysterious East can unlock. Is travel really any way to interpret one's place in the world? Even if one disdains the old Horatian chestnut caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt ('Those who rush across the seas change the skies, not their own minds'), one may reasonably ask whether travelling has yet justified itself as a literary pursuit.

The answer, at least on the evidence of this book, is a resounding 'definitely not'. One of the advantages which travel writing enjoys over fiction, according to Cocker, is that it 'purports to be a record of fact'. But fiction has - and will always have - supremacy over the travel book precisely because it frees us from the obligation to believe. Whereas a novel, even a weak novel, bears the sweat of creative urgency, travel writing simply cannot shake its air of premeditation; that sound you hear in the background of so much travelese is the thin rustle of publishers' contracts and expense accounts.

Travel writing is the art of the bum's rush, a soft touch for any cultural dilettante or voyeur who can hold a pen. A book-length analysis of the genre looks to be an unenviable task, but Mark Cocker scores straight alphas for enthusiasm and loyalty - his research must have required enormous patience. For all that, his elevation of the travel writer's art is almost comically wrong-headed. Discussing, for instance, the arcane and exotic prose of Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mani and Roumeli, he asks us to admire the 'visual impact' of the line 'corkscrew-snouted swine gamble and gyre in gloomy equinoctial wabes'. These words, Cocker believes, 'can elicit the primitive responses in a reader akin to those generated by an incomprehensible language'. They elicited a fairly primitive response in me all right.

What one cannot fathom about travel literature, apart from its towering pointlessness, is the terrible arrogance it carries on board. How can a community, a country, a continent, be encompassed within the hard covers of a book? It is impossible to understand a place until one has lived there, and sometimes not even then. Sinclair Lewis once wrote: 'He who has seen one cathedral 10 times has seen something; he who has seen 10 cathedrals once has seen but little; and he who has spent half an hour in a hundred cathedrals has seen nothing at all.' We laugh at the benighted soul who passes around his holiday snaps - so-o-o boring - and yet we regard travel books with something close to reverence. The travel writer is no more than a tourist commissioned to collect anecdotes and root out the statutory 'paradoxes' that may characterise a place. As Julie Burchill describes him: 'He is a man with a hole in his soul; someone who is by definition looking for something, and not smart enough to settle for religion.'

What's to be done? It might be time to pack up travel writing and send it somewhere it deserves, like Siberia. Only trouble there, of course, is that one of its noble practitioners is bound to return with a book about it - Remaindered: A Thousand Days in the Literary Gulag.

'Loneliness and Time: British Travel Writing in the 20th Century' is published by Secker at pounds 18.50