Travel writers of the twentieth century: Fermor to Bryson

An Introduction

What is it that so pulls us towards the travel book? Perhaps it tugs on a similar heartstring to spending the odd sleepy afternoon window-shopping for white coastal holiday cottages we will never really be able to buy. The gentle escape offered by van Gogh’s ‘Stevedores in Arles’ is not dissimilar; as you stare into the painting you are allowed to partake in the artist’s sensory experience and to, however briefly, dissociate. The smudgy, pasty, brushstrokes of dock-water blues, marmalade oranges, and tidal greens capture a living image of place and moment that the travel writer strives for. It is by no means enough, and neither is it immersive, to simply paste into a book a photograph of one of St. Catherine’s Palace’s golden ballrooms or a skittish hovercraft flitting through the Everglades. If the reader wishes to partake in the scenes created by the travel writer, the pages should be likewise as loud and as vibrant as any of the paintings of the impressionists.

See how Patrick Leigh Fermor, travelling through Europe in the early nineteen-thirties, describes his first sip of beer in Munich’s Hofbräuhaus:

‘I squeezed in at a table full of peasants, and was soon lifting one of those masskrugs up to my lips. It was heavier than a brace of iron dumb-bells, but the blond beer inside was cool and marvellous, a brooding, cylindrical litre of Teutonic myth.’

For Leigh Fermor, the sensuous experience of tasting that first bitter sip is inextricably fused with his romantic notions regarding the region’s medieval past: the boyish excitement surrounding the ‘Teutonic myth’ is ignited by the bustling vibrancy of the moment, and that brief moment’s synthesis of feelings is drunk up by both reader and speaker alike.

Through travel writing we are ingratiated with peoples and places that are often otherwise unknowable to us. Histories and dialogues are opened up that before went unheard. When done correctly travel writing does not deal in any acts of orientalising, mythologising, or fetishization, but rather maps the writer’s relationships and experiences with place in a candid and enlightening fashion.

This column sets out in pursuit of some of the voices that have lit up the world of travel writing with the rattling passage of the twentieth century, up to Bill Bryson, Durham University’s former chancellor and one of Britain’s best loved non-fiction writers.

My intended victims are as follows:

  • Patrick Leigh Fermor – A Time of Gifts Trilogy (Rotterdam to Istanbul)
  • Laurie Lee – As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (Spain)
  • Freya Stark – The Valleys of the Assassins (Iran-Iraq)
  • John Steinbeck – Travels with Charley: In Search of America (the States)
  • V.S. Naipul – An Area of Darkness (India, Bombay to Kashmir)
  • Che Guevara – The Motorcycle Diaries (South America)
  • Maya Angelou – All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes (Ghana)
  • Bill Bryson – Notes from a Small Island (Britain)

These articles aspire not to approach the above writings as mere peeking-ins on photo albums of long-past holidays. Their intention is to examine what it is that makes us feel the need to write about our relationship to peoples and place – whether new or through a process of renegotiation – and to trace the changes travel writing as a genre saw over a century defined by such momentous change. Perhaps, too, it will succeed in inspiring the reading of some of these fantastic texts, many of which possess near indispensable cultural and socio-political relevance.

Image: Graeme Churchard on Flickr

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