Travel, if one believes travel writers and their favourite aphorisms, is close to a moral obligation. It is, to use the words of Mark Twain, ‘fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness’. Sensible folks cannot acquire ‘broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things’ by loafing around, all their lives, ‘in one little corner of the earth’.
Twain’s quote is nice and pithy, no doubt difficult to resist. Although some may find it too much of a generalisation. Either way, such quotes, one-liners, and aphorisms are in generous supply in On Travel and Journey Through Life, on the topics of travel and journeying, both actual and as metaphors for life. It is a beautiful petite book as glorious on the outside as the citations within and illustrated with some comic and delightful portraits. I am not quite sure whether one should read it like a book, from beginning to the end, or just flick through the pages, peruse playfully, put it down, and pick it up again later – and repeat the process. However, it beautifully complements The Best British Travel Writing of the 21st Century, much like chutney to samosa. The Best is a collection of thirty pieces of travel writing, all published in newspapers or magazines in the last twenty years, which confirm, challenge, contradict, and even dismiss the aphorisms and wisdom one finds in On Travel.
Barnaby Rogers and Kate Boxer, On Travel and Journey Through Life, Eland, London, 2022
Jessica Vincent, The Best British Travel Writing of the 21st Century, Summersdale, Chichester, 2023
Good travel writing is difficult. George Orwell put it well when he described ‘the normal stigmata of the travel book’: ‘the fake intensities, the tendency to discover the soul of a town after spending two hours in it, the boring descriptions of conversations with taxi drivers’.
Not all the writing in The Best collection escapes the bite of that passage. And the orientalism that often characterises western writing on other cultures is here too. One article describes for us ‘mystical India’; elsewhere we are told that ‘the jungle isn’t a place of science. It’s a place of potions and dream prophecies … an other-worldly kingdom where different laws apply.’
Happily, however, many of the pieces collected here avoid those pitfalls. The book opens with ‘The Night Train’ by Leon McCarron. The setting is the night – indeed only, there not being a train during the day – train from Baghdad to Basra. To create a sense of place, to have the reader feel in just a few short passages of description that they know a place and its people, though of course they do not, is the travel writer’s essential skill. And to do this without patronising either the reader or the place and people being described, whether by simplification or exaggeration: Orwell’s ‘fake intensities’ and unearned revelations. McCarron does this perfectly. He avoids clumsy attempts at sweeping insight, whether about travel in general or the circumstances of Iraq. Instead he relates, simply, the journey – or its outset at least – and the people encountered. That is not to say that McCarron eschews context, or that his article does not contain, or cannot prompt, serious reflection. McCarron touches on the origins of the train line under the Ottomans in 1914, conflict in and occupation of Iraq, and divisions in the country between Sunni and Shia. These things are part of his subject, and it would be false to ignore them. But much travel writing would struggle to resist introducing some trite profundity, some generalising comment on ‘the soul of the town’. McCarron’s piece is all the stronger for resisting that urge. By standing back, relating but not editorialising, McCarron lets what he is describing speak for itself. People and places everywhere are compelling by themselves; they do not need a narrator shouting over the top to tell us their significance.
There are a good number of similarly compelling pieces included in the collection. In ‘The Ancient Game that Saved a Village’, Jack Palfrey relates the significance of the game of chess to the village of Marottichal, in Kerala. Promoted originally by a tea shop owner in an attempt to combat rife alcoholism and gambling, the game became part of the village’s identity. As one man is quoted as saying: ‘Luckily for us, chess is more addictive than alcohol.’ ‘The Old Country’ by Karen Edwards, describes life in the Hunza community in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan. The strength and mindfulness of the people she meets is related by Edwards to their ‘unique rural culture’ and contrasted with the pace and pressure of urban life. But she quotes too the words of ninety-six-year-old Hunza man, Ibadat Ali, who remarks on the importance of openness to change and the benefits of technological progress.
Another piece that stands out for its quality is ‘The Land of No Hay’ by J. R. Patterson. The setting is Bolivia, through which Patterson is travelling as part of a motorbike tour of South America. Before entering the country, he’s warned by travellers heading the other way that gasoline is, for foreigners to Bolivia at least, scarce. Hence the article’s title, from the constant refrain ‘no hay gasolina’. Like McCarron’s ‘The Night Train’, Patterson puts this all in context, raising the foreign mistreatment of Bolivia’s resources and the nationalisation of YPFB, the company responsible for oil and natural gas production in Bolivia. And, also like ‘The Night Train’, ‘The Land of No Hay’ excels by letting the events and people it describes speak for themselves.
The notion of ‘travel’ is broad, and the range of travel writing compiled here is likewise varied. Some articles, like Lizzie Pook’s ‘Trailing the Snow Leopard in Mountainous Ladakh’ are closer to nature documentary, less, or not all, concerned with people and society, but none the less compelling for that. Others are more personal, with elements of autobiography. That can jar if done poorly. A reader looking for exposure to other places, other cultures, can be left cold if those are treated as window dressing for the writer’s own self-reflections. But the pieces here avoid that criticism. ‘The Hajj Diaries’ by Tharik Hussain, for instance, describes the author’s completion, along with his mother, aunt, and cousin during the performance of Hajj. Hussain reflects on the unity shared with those completing the pilgrimage around him, strangers spoken to before the sunset prayer in Mina, friends and family who had entrusted to him prayers to make before Mount Arafat on the Day of Arafat. Similarly personal and contemplative is ‘Current Affairs’ in which Rae Boocock describes two walks, one between Brighton and Dover, the other from Fleetwood to Liverpool. As she walks, Boocock, who was raised in the north but lives now in Brighton, reflects on national and her own identity.
Other pieces take a more ‘meta’ approach, seeking to grapple with the moral implications of travel, and of travel writing. The piece that does so most expressly is ‘Bulls and Scars’ in which Nick Hunt takes us to the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, which he describes as ‘yellow, sparse, and intensely tribal’, the harsh conditions creating a ‘bewilderingly diverse’ array of cultures. But he is embarrassed for and of himself as he does so, wrapped up in concern that his desire to witness these ‘radically different ways to be human’ is in the end no different from the voyeurism of ‘tribal safaris’, composed of ‘rich white people paying hundreds of dollars to be ferried in convoys of 4x4s to throw money at tribal people while they dance and wear ceremonial costumes’. At times this is almost cringeworthy, as when Hunt, admonished by a local woman for photographing her, expresses feeling ‘embarrassed for myself and my stupid culture’. Most interesting, whether or not the reader agrees, are Hunt’s reflections on cultural relativism, as he discusses one tribe whose women are ritually whipped in, as Hunt tells it, a demonstration of endurance to suffering. One can be forgiven for questioning whether that explanation of the ritual is enough to escape the impression – shared, at least initially, by Hunt – that ‘there is no possible way to see this as anything other than the rankest misogyny’. Whatever virtues endurance of the whipping might show, it is ultimately only the women who are subjected to what we might normally call torture. But Hunt’s basic point, that it is an error to be closed even to contemplating other perspectives, is sound. Hunt’s closing thoughts engage convincingly with the notion that travel necessarily broadens the mind:
They say that traveling opens doors, gives people new perspectives. That is only partially true. People carry their doors with them; perspectives seldom truly change. But my friend is wrong. If we stay within our horizons, surrounded by people who are the same as us, it precludes all hope. We shut off any possibility of having our automatic beliefs – whether good or bad, right or wrong – smashed so their rubble can make new shapes.
Though dealt with most prominently in ‘Bulls and Scars’, reflections on the role, good and bad, of the traveller and the tourist recur throughout the collection. The reader can compare ‘The Hothouse Heart of the Jungle’ by Adrian Phillips, where tourism represents for a community in the Yasuni National Park, Amazonian Ecuador, an alternative to submission to oil prospectors, with the attitude expressed towards tourism by an Ethiopian priest in Joey Tyson’s ‘Eagles, Edges and Edifices: Touching the Heavens in Tigray, Ethiopia’: something unwanted, unneeded and endured only because of necessity.
Too much reflection of this type can of course come close to navel-gazing, in particular if the aim is in truth to justify oneself as a traveller rather than to seriously question the sustainability and justifiability of current practices of tourism or other travel. Perhaps the best word on the point in this collection comes from J. R. Patterson, at the close of his article ‘The Land of No Hay’, when he observes that ‘travellers sometimes forget that countries are for living, not visiting.’ Forgetting this can lead to the reduction of cultures and peoples to displays of exoticism existing primarily for the entertainment of the visitor. While no doubt the rise of tourism as an industry means that such displays are sometimes exactly that – see Nick Hunt’s description of ‘tribal safaris’ – any peoples’ culture exists ultimately for itself, not for the benefit and entertainment of the outsider looking in. As Elizabeth Marshall Thomas put it:
The men simply did what [bush]men do without making anything of it, and didn’t even think of themselves as brave.
There are a couple of issues with On Travel. Some of the quotations are of questionable attribution – it is unlikely, for instance, that Albert Einstein ever said that ‘Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe’, though the quote is here, in chapter five on ‘Humility and Tolerance’, attributed to him. More significantly, in stripping quotes of their context their intended meaning can be obscured. One example of this can be found in the book’s first chapter, which includes the following extract from Robert Frost’s poem The Road not Taken:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Read alone, the passage conveys something about the significance of our choices and, perhaps, the importance of taking the road ‘less travelled by’. But that is not at all the thought expressed in the poem read as a whole. Notwithstanding the narrator’s contemplation in the passage extracted here, the poem earlier makes clear that there was little or no difference between the two roads in question: they were “just as fair”, and neither worn more than the other. The poem is not at all about the benefits of taking ‘the road less travelled by’, but all about the pointlessness of looking always backwards, of regretting the road not taken, and of fretting too much over such choices in the present. That is a small example. But one expects that any reader looking through the collection would find others passages taken from texts with which they are familiar, and their meaning distorted in the process.
These deficiencies are of course inherent in any collection of quotations of this type. The vast majority of the quotations were intended originally to be read as part of a larger text, not as stand-alone aphorisms, and so inevitably lose something when stripped from their context. It would be unfair to criticise On Travel for not seeking to be something other than the collection that it is. But it is worth raising the point, if only to suggest that the book may be most useful as a springboard to inspire the reader to look into the texts from which choice quotations are taken, and so engage with them more fully, and accurately, than is possible in the context of this collection. It would be helpful, then, if On Travel identified the texts from which quotations were taken, rather than simply the author. But with the ease of research permitted by the internet, that is only a minor flaw. (The quotes I have used: the Thomas quote is originally from her 2006 book The Old Way: A Story of the First People; the Twain quote is from his 1869 The Innocents Abroad; and the Orwell quote from his review of Henry Miller’s Colossus of Maroussi.)
Some of the quotations, however, do stand well alone. For example, two that engage with the suggestion by Mark Twain that not only is travel fatal to prejudice, but that prejudice cannot be overcome without it. Both are included in chapter two of On Travel, titled ‘Meetings and Collisions’. The first is from Maya Angelou, and is taken from her 1993 book of essays, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now. She said there:
Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.
The second is from the historian Jan Morris, taken from her 1989 memoirs Pleasures of a Tangled Life. It is more flippant than the quotation from Maya Angelou, but still contains at least a grain of truth, and certainly of honesty. It reads:
Some practitioners maintain that the essential purpose of moving around the world is to put yourself in other people’s shoes, to experience life, as far as possible, as Frenchmen or Israelis or Japanese experience it, eating what they eat, buying what they buy, even trying to think as they do. Not me. Nothing is going to make a shogun of me, least of all ten days at a Yokohoma motel … Far better in my opinion to regard the great world as a kind of show, a tragicomedy, kindly put on for my fascination. Nobody is offended by this approach. Most people love to be looked at.
Pomposity and grandiosity can be the enemy of real insight just as much as closed-mindedness. Better not to insist that from travel, ‘broad, wholesome, charitable views of men’ are sure to follow. As Nick Hunt observes in ‘Bulls and Scars’, the traveller can be piggish as anyone else. Whatever the moral benefits of travel, it – and writing about it – is something to be enjoyed, both by traveller and reader. And there is, before anything else, much to be enjoyed in reading On Travel and The Best British Travel Writing of the 21st Century. Whether or not moral enhancement will thereby flow, that enjoyment will be enough for most readers.