Granta 94: On the Road Again, ed Ian Jack

The road too well travelled
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The Independent Culture

'Where is travel writing going?" I hear you ask. And even if you are not asking, maybe you'd like to have a little think about doing so. The art of travel writing, you understand, is facing another crisis. Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse - everywhere has now been written about - the act of travel itself has become morally questionable. It's those tiresome carbon emissions, of course. "The more we flock to view the disappearing glaciers," laments a contributor to the latest issue of Granta, "the faster they will vanish."

At the outset, this new Granta - "the magazine of new writing"- seems to be offering some really good news. ON THE ROAD AGAIN the cover announces excitedly - the publication hasn't devoted itself to travel for one and a half decades - Where Travel Writing Went Next.

We open up the magazine with high hopes. After all, the previous travel issues (1983, 1986, 1989) provided us with hot stuff. Chatwin and Theroux enthralled us with their yarns, O'Hanlon entertained with his jungle misadventures, Norman Lewis told us of Guatemala, Colin Thubron penned a touching, softly spoken essay on a Nanjing family diminished by the Cultural Revolution; there was Salmon Rushdie with the Sandinistas, Hanif Kureishi in Bradford, Martha Gellhorn on Cuba. Big guns, then, and delivering well-targeted ordinance. Yes, the 1980s were a boom time for travel literature.

And now what? Well, Granta 94 offers none of the above names, for a start. O'Hanlon has moved on to other things - Trawler wasn't travel literature, but a neat bit of popular anthropology. Chatwin and Lewis too have moved on - to a place you don't come back from.

In this Granta, Tia Wallman produces what seems like a recently recovered fragment of her past; she shares her search for her determinedly elusive father - aged 15, she ended up among the American occupying forces of 1967 Saigon. Jeremy Treglown does something a little more studied, walking in the dusty footsteps of VS Pritchett north to Old Castile through Extremadura, the barren section of Spain that gave rise to so many of that class of brutal émigré which was the conquistador. The natives seem to have become a more cosmopolitan, but lonelier people than Pritchett encountered; now they are glued to the plasma screens in bars, and welcoming him as a compatriot of Michael Owen and Beckham.

John Burnside proffers "How to Fly", a charming discourse on the nature of man's quest for flight; next, the somewhat freer style of Todd McEwan, on the progress of Cary Grant's suit in the film North by Northwest; there follows some first-class observational stuff by Tim Parks on the vagaries of Italian train travel and George Bowater in Armenian Turkey. Also to be found, a gallery of photos from Simon Roberts' journey across the 11 time zones of Russia. (I was slightly bemused here: the fruit of a year's labour, these seemed only passing views. Wouldn't a picture of a heap of shoes from the scarcely acknowledged dead of the Magadan gulags say more than yet another vista of Soviet apartments? And instead of the unsurprising flattened-out Chukotka tundra with drab gold mine, why not snap something like the Russian I once encountered who was reduced to rounding up stray dogs to build a sledge team in the manner of the Chukchi nomads whose culture the Soviets once quashed?) But each to his own taste, and there's much to amuse, much to ponder in Roberts' work, as with the wordsmiths. However, nothing much to surprise, I'm afraid.

Where did travel writing go next? The answer, if this collection is anything to go by, is nowhere very fast. The destinations now seem too familiar - and, of course, in this age of lemming travel and shrinking planet, the contributors aren't to be blamed for that.

In his introduction, Ian Jack, the editor, gives us his own take on the future of travel literature: if it's to be more than a persuasive literary entertainment, the information travel imparts should be trustworthy. The "delightful blend" of fact and fiction that was Chatwin isn't enough any more, he says, not with landscapes fast deteriorating, the research achieved at such cost. Yes, but Songlines, however fanciful, also astounded us; In Patagonia, for all its fakery, made us sit up. These books did capture something special.

Towards the close of the issue, James Hamilton-Paterson, in a critique entitled "The End of Travel", practically announces the imminent death of the genre. The other contributors don't try very hard to persuade us otherwise. While Ian Jack observes that travel no longer seems quite so innocent or beneficent, something that "broadens the mind", Hamilton-Paterson's dispiriting words, as he readies his obituary, remind us that "as travel expands, horizons are closing off." Can it be true? With no horizons, man has nothing - and his end will surely follow. That would be a shame, really.

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