Ways of seeing: travel writing in the 21st century

Photo by Darren Harmon
Photo by Darren Harmon

Is there still a place for travel writing in the 21st century? In age of mass travel, it’s inevitable that the raison d’etre of travel writing should be questioned. Even today’s armchair travellers have a mass of images and information about the most distant places available at the touch of a screen.

But I’d like to think that, while we no longer need reports of strange customs and uncharted territories in the way our forebears did, good travel writing does something special. It offers, as Colin Thubron has put it, a ‘way of seeing’ the world, mediating other places and people through the personal lens of the journeying narrator, capturing a particular vision – partial, but nonetheless true – and conveying it to others.

Travel writing in the tradition of journalism, meanwhile, gets behind the headlines and cliches about a place, providing some of the stories and context that our fast-moving media culture ignores.

This more nuanced understanding of travel writing helps to explain the rather strange project of writing about your own land. The sub-genre is hardly new: in his English Journey of 1930, J B Priestley took a snapshot of industrial and rural England during the depression. A hundred years earlier, in Rural Rides, William Cobbett chronicled changing life in the English countryside from the back of a horse. Then, in a pootling prototype of a road-movie, H V Morton motored in quest of Arcadian England between the wars, recounting his misadventures with an air of amused superiority.

I also love the grim realism of writing that derives its energy from the misery and discomfort of travel. In this respect, the miserablism of ‘Travels with Myself and Another‘, in which Martha Gelhorn grimly details the horrors of her trips to the more challenging parts of the world, is unrivalled. I’ve taken the book traveling to remind myself that whatever inconveniences I might experience, things could always be worse.

A more populist variant of armchair schadenfreude comes from Bill Bryson, who does a nice line in shouting at landladies of grim B&Bs in the decidedly un-Arcadian Britain of the 1970s.

The distinctive qualities of these travel classics help me to understand the potential of the genre for my own work. At its best, writing of place is a genre-busting form which weaves human stories and responses with the observation of culture, politics and religion and a sensuous, experiential evocation of geography and climate. It offers writers and readers the chance to see a place – even our own country – more clearly, to understand its particular, specific nature. It’s capacious enough to include investigation that brings to light the failings and hypocrisies of a society and a bardic song of praise to the beauty and meaning of a place.

Yes, there is still a place for travel writing. In fact, in an increasingly complex world, I think it’s essential.

So that’s why I wrote a travelogue about my own country, focusing particularly on an aspect of British life I think is going largely undocumented. The Secret Life of God will be published soon, along with In search of Glastonbury, a short, companion ebook which tries to get under the skin of the English market town that claims to be the New Age mecca for our times.

For an email about the release of In Search of Glastonbury and The Secret Life of God, leave your email in the box on the right.