Philip Hensher: A career that went backwards

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The obituary writers faced a delicate problem this week, when the travel writer Eric Newby died. There is little disagreement about the qualities of his memorable, vivid and funny early work, such as A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush; similarly, not many people would argue about the quality of his later work. There didn't seem a lot of virtue any more, in the obituary pages, in the old principle of de mortuis nil nisi bonum. The Guardian said: "His later output ... fell markedly away from the exceptional standards he had set with his early work." The Telegraph said bluntly: "Newby's journalism got repetitive and, by the late 1980s, slapdash. People began to hint, and then to say out loud, that he was written out. He may have known this, yet could not stop writing."

A sad thing to find in obituaries, but Newby's career covered the rise and, perhaps, near-total collapse of travel writing as he had known it. If he couldn't keep up the excellent quality of his early books, that might be because it grew harder and harder, over the 50 years of Newby's career, to write travel books. The genre is a case study in the ways a literary genre can be seemingly destroyed by quite external considerations.

When A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush came out in 1958, it contributed to a fairly patchy body of literature, and a genre that expected nothing very much from its readers. The whole question of travelling for pleasure had only recently returned, after decades in which travelling, even for the very rich, was not a plausible idea.

The genre that A Short Walk added to were quite a lot of historically minded explorations, a lot of purposeful military or imperial adventures and a fair amount of picturesque travelogues in prose - the "Greece, land of contrasts" school. A Short Walk was, rather, an Evelyn Waugh-type travel book, setting out the narrator's comic misadventures and his failures with the culture as readily as his square-jawed polyglot triumphs.

What almost all travel books, until the later 1950s, had in common was an unspoken assumption that the reader probably wouldn't be going there. But travel writers as a whole found themselves writing about places that more and more of their readers knew perfectly well. Some, such as Jan Morris, were able to extract magic out of very familiar places. Others found themselves lost when it turned out that, as it were, easyJet ran cheap flights to Shangri La, and the genre started taking some desperate measures to retain its tang of the exotic. It was unfortunate that Newby found himself presiding over the expansion of the smug middle-class holiday as travel editor of The Observer from 1964-73. That was what was effectively destroying his own trade.

There were still some places one could go to, with difficulty, which would remove oneself from the riff-raff. Afghanistan retained some cachet. There was a rash of writing about Antarctica. But even that started to seem attainable, and trips to the most unlikely places started to be advertised in Sunday supplements. One idea was to make travelling unnaturally difficult - Newby went down the Ganges with his wife in a small rowing-boat. Train journeys grew popular with travel writers in an age of air travel. Or you could make the trip randomly difficult. One comedian wrote a conspicuously unfunny book about his journey round Ireland carrying a fridge. Why? Well, he had to have something to write about...

There was, too, an understandable taste for tales of travellers in more difficult times: Patrick Leigh Fermor's wonderful books about his pre-war travels, or Newby's excavations, decades after the fact, of his youthful journeys, or a revival of interest in pre-war writers like Robert Byron were marked features as travel literature grew in popularity. But it's grown much more difficult to write a reasonable travel book, and Newby's decline reflects the increasing difficulties of the genre. At some point, travel books stopped being bought by people who liked to dream about going to exotic places, and started being bought by people who wanted to find out more about the place they'd just been to, or wanted to be reminded of an enjoyable time.

Escapism is an easy and profitable task for a writer, and the habits which develop when he knows that few of his readers will ever be in any kind of position to check his descriptions against their observations are fundamentally quite lazy ones. Good travel writing has become much more difficult and demanding. I think that our increasing awareness of the genre's clichés signals not a decline in its quality, but shows a genre in the process of growing up.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away