What does travel literature offer? The well-connected, well-travelled anecdotalist is with us still, but is it just fine writing with nothing to say?
There is more to it than that. Travel writing in English is a substitute for the loss of empire, a search for the glorious past - a kind of secondary colonisation by literature, conquering fresh worlds with every publisher's list. Young upper-class Brits can no longer be told: 'Go out and govern New South Wales.' But they sure as hell can be told to go out and write a book about it.
A certain pretentiousness was perhaps forgivable in the Edwardian Norman Douglas, whose lapidary prose, infused with a strong strain of homoerotic classicism, set unequalled standards of sub-literary tosh. But there are strands discernible in his writing which still inflict massively damaging influences on later writers. Chief among them are the desperately suppressed sexuality of the narrator, the arrogance of sweeping judgements based on anecdotal personal experience, the obsessive pursuit of the past, and the determination to get a book out of it all.
It is understandable that Douglas, whose first travel book, Siren Land, was published in 1911, did not tell us that his sirens were actually beautiful young men. But Douglas typified a well-known British type of belletrist, obliged to go abroad for sexual adventures forbidden at home. Naturally these peccadilloes cannot be alluded to in print. So there is a curious vacancy, sometimes posing as an objectivity, at the heart of some travel writing.
This absence of the author's inner life is also apparent in the work of Bruce Chatwin, who concealed his homosexuality from his readers. His much-admired In Patagonia comes over as a series of disconnected smatterings, magpie scraps of colonial history unconnected by real feeling. If he is after some rough trade with iron-thighed gauchos, he should tell us. The author's real self, his relationships with others, are disturbing by their absence. Behind the famous 'transparent prose' is only vacancy.
TE Lawrence paradoxically and skilfully masked this suppression as exploration of his own feelings, telling us in Seven Pillars of Wisdom that he will peel the outer layers of his character away like the skins of an onion. In fact he notoriously stops short of any true examination of the inner self. But at least he did understand that the first thing travellers should examine is their motivation. Are they just taking their hang-ups along in their knapsacks? This is a thought that seems never to have occurred to Wilfred Thesiger, the doyen of travel writers, whose work has had wide-reaching consequences in the attitudes of the British public and politicians.
Thesiger sought out experiences of extreme difficulty and danger, such as travelling through the empty quarter of Arabia. Some of this may have been motivated by a masochism induced by public-school hardships, for Thesiger typifies the upper-class Brit travelling in poverty-stricken style. This is a feature of Patrick Leigh Fermor's journeying - both belong to the 'real experience of a country' school of reportage, while also having all kinds of influential connections. In A Time of Gifts, Fermor got his fun posing as the penniless student roughing it across Europe, although he was bearing letters of recommendation to the local aristocracy which could whisk him instantly out of any real difficulty.
The damage done by Thesiger's descriptions of Arab life goes further than a bit of schoolboy play-acting, for he has sustained Lawrence's image of the wilderness Arab, the man of the desert or the marsh, as a romantic hero. Thesiger patronisingly deplores contact with the modern world. He was, of course, unable to get the opinions of women, and he did not think much of the opinions of young men who disagreed with him.
This has been extremely influential in how we perceive the Arab world, in creating the kind of 'orientalism', the false 'otherness', that Edward Said has been trying to break down. Seeing Arabs through Thesiger's eyes, we make sweeping generalisations based on a few instances - perhaps his knowledge of Arabic doesn't extend beyond simple instructions. He hates townsmen, loves tribesmen: 'I felt bored and frustrated when I had to spend a night with Iraqi officials . . . their preoccupation was with Arab politics, about which I knew little and cared less.'
Exactly. That political ignorance, that preference for a primitive romantic unknown instead of the difficult modern reality, has cost us dearly in the Middle East. It was the view behind the aristocratic orientalism of Anthony Eden, who simply did not believe that a townsman like Nasser, from the clerical classes, could command Arab support.
There was some hope that William Dalrymple (really Hamilton-Dalrymple, but he's too canny for that) might be a fresh new wave. But he chooses to travel as that tedious character, the poverty-stricken student, playing at travelling the 'real' way, taking up seats on overcrowded local buses and irritating anxious security officials. Poverty- stricken? In a manner of speaking. The trip from which In Xanadu emerged was largely funded by Trinity College, Cambridge. His companion was 'an Oxford ice-hockey blue' and various titled notables 'spared valuable time to help us clear diplomatic hurdles'. Hardly your average traveller, then.
If Dalrymple's connections have enabled him to get to places beyond the reach of the common herd, his books should be all the more interesting for it. The trouble is, he's obsessed with the past. Much of City of Djinns, his account of Delhi, is taken up with dramatic tales of the Moguls. Much more is taken up with the doings of his wife's Raj ancestors. Modern Indians speak like comic foreigners.
He typifies a sharp drop over the edge of the known world of travel literature and into the abyss of dreariness. There is a new breed of voyager who travels to write. At least the earlier scribblers travelled because they had to, whether under legal or psychological compulsion. Now their travels are directed and recorded just in order to provide publishers' fodder. At the beginning of Arabia through the Looking-Glass, Jonathan Raban takes Arabic lessons. And what is the first sentence he learnt to say? What else? 'I am going to write a book.'
The writer is a specialist in Islamic art history. Robert Winder is on holiday.Reuse content