Travel writing is today a genre of its own, flagged up in bookshops, studied and taught in universities. Alongside the many excellent contemporary exponents, a canon has emerged of historical writers whom everyone ‘ought to read’: men and women who underwent amazing experiences, demonstrated remarkable powers of initiative and endurance along the way and wrote about them in characterful, often luminous prose. Their individuality – even eccentricity – only adds to the delight of reading about their extraordinary adventures in faraway places.
So, when I mention to people that I’ve been compiling an anthology of travel writing, they often respond by reciting the canonical names: Robert Byron, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Freya Stark, Bruce Chatwin and so on. They may also look back further to Marco Polo, whose description of his travels, written in prison, became one of the world’s first bestsellers before the advent of printing, Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century Moroccan from Tangier who journeyed 70,000 miles over a period of thirty years, or Herodotus, the ‘father of history’.
But all kinds of people travel, for all kinds of reasons. When anyone – whether soldier, pilgrim, merchant, explorer, diplomat, scholar, tourist or captive – arrives at a destination after days, months or even years on the road, their senses can be heightened and their emotions roused. Encounters can seem charged in a manner that lifts them above the routine. Whether you are a dedicated or an occasional writer, the impulse to capture the moment, to record what you saw, heard and smelled, what you did, whom you met and where you went, can be irresistible, whether in the form of a journal, a letter home, a memoir or a poem.
The sudden immersion in the new and unfamiliar can lead people to write with a rare lack of self-consciousness: enthusiasms, blind spots and prejudices will be on display for all to see. Take, for example, the Milanese pilgrim Pietro Casola, who, on reaching Jerusalem in 1494, showed less interest in the holy sites he had come to see than in the lifestyle of the inhabitants, their clothes, their faith and their culinary habits (‘They eat on the ground on carpets. They do not drink wine in public – but if they get the chance they take a good long drink of it’). Or Harry de Windt, a British imperialist, who, despite a lifetime of arduous travel across Asia, found himself seriously discomfited in Beijing’s hutongs in 1887, surrounded by ‘dirty, villainous-looking ruffians’, grateful to have left his watch in his cart. Or the Swiss aristocrat César de Saussure, who, unable to speak a word of English, got lost in St James’s one evening in 1725, having forgotten the name and address of his London lodgings, and reconciled himself to spending the night on the streets (thankfully, after midnight, he bumped into a couple of Frenchmen who managed to lead him to his rooms). These and many others have left written accounts that artlessly take us to a distant mindset and place – yet the descriptions can also feel eerily familiar to anyone who has engaged in solo travel.
By contrast, when a ‘real’ writer offers us similar moments – when Freya Stark gets locked into a back-alley hammam in Damascus with a group of overfamiliar old men; when Simone de Beauvoir arrives in New York and finds herself hopelessly disoriented by not knowing the simplest things, like how to use the phone or buy a stamp; when Graham Greene tries to buy cocaine in Havana and ends up snorting boracic powder instead – the undoubted artistry of the writing is to some extent compromised by the knowingness of the retelling and the awareness of the effect the anecdote will have on the audience.
All these incidents, despite the true jeopardy they sometimes offer, end more or less happily. This may reflect an inherent bias within travel writing: encounters that end badly may never get written up. Ludovico of Varthema, a 16th-century adventurer from Bologna, became the first recorded Christian to visit Mecca. Having been unmasked as an infidel and an Italian, he tells us, he relied on his quick talking (and a considerable amount of bribery) to keep himself alive to tell the tale. But live to tell it he did.
The unintentional artlessness of the traveller’s insights can be seen perhaps most revealingly of all in Michel de Montaigne’s account of his journey to Italy in 1580 in search of a cure for kidney stones. Perhaps because of his physical discomfort, or perhaps because his views were captured on paper not by his own hand but by that of his valet, who was infinitely less talented as a writer than his master, the crassness of his judgements contrasts spectacularly with the thoughtful elegance of his more famous essays. Florence is unexceptional (just one thing seems to have delighted Montaigne there: during his visit to the Renaissance gardens of the Villa Castello, he received a surprise drenching when the gardeners turned the fountains on); there are no pretty Italian women; the meat is tasteless; and there are too many French tourists in Rome. Yet are these opinions any less valid, any less representative of the genre of travel writing, for their crudity?
Travel writing has undoubtedly changed since Montaigne’s day. In a world of mobile apps and 747s, very few places are unknown or even strange: uncomfortable hotel rooms, dreadful food and horticultural practical jokes can be remorselessly researched on TripAdvisor before leaving home. As a result, the ‘professional’ travel writer has to seek out ever more exotic experiences to attract our attention. Yet as readers of the thousands of travel blogs out there will know, we still get fascinated, lost or disoriented, we still make ill-informed judgements that say more about us than about the places we are visiting, and we still manage to find helpful people prepared to assist a stranger in finding a way back to safety. These blogs will be the real source material for future generations of historians.