In Search of Wonders: the elusive art of the modern day travel writer
BY RORY MacLEAN
Take a deep breath, I tell myself. Be calm. Don't fret, just 'let the phenomena occur'. For a month now I've been pacing the floor, lying under my desk, trying to decide what book to write next. I'm juggling countries and ideas; Peru or Portugal, healing or hedonism, love story or road romp. My editor says that Latin America doesn't sell. A friend at the BBC predicts that Armenia will be in the news next year. 'You MUST go to Newfoundland,' insists a retired fishing net salesman I meet on a train. I lose sleep. Drink too much. Go on the wagon. California replaces Peru. I drop Portugal. I toy with notions of fantasy and ideal societies. I try to keep as many balls as possible in the air. I try to listen to myself.
This will be my seventh book. The first three were written from the heart; Stalin's Nose for my uncle, The Oatmeal Ark to understand my father and Under the Dragon for Burma. It may sound romantic, but it's the only way that I can motivate myself through two or three years' scribbling. Likewise my fifth book which I wrote to come to terms with the death of my mother. Falling for Icarus is at once a meditation on love and a portrait of a small Greek village. All my books interweave fact and fiction to reach – in a personal and individual way – for greater honesty.
So relax, I tell myself. This is how to begin. Be calm and juggle. All I need to do is pair emotion and curiosity, seize the skeleton of a plot, then settle on the country and let the journey propel me. Story first. Or character. Destination next. In that order. I travel in search of the story that I want to tell.
Time was that travel books were all about travelling. Travel writers embarked on valiant quests full of derring-do, paddling to the source of the Limpopo in search of original knowledge. Then the world shrunk. Day-trippers trampled the wilderness, pausing to picnic in Newby's Hindu Kush. In once-distant China the Great Leap Forward no longer describes Mao's economic programme, but rather the surge of tourists rushing to touch the Great Wall. Bruce Chatwin's isolated Patagonia is now a holiday home for George Soros and the Benettons. According to the Financial Times, 20% of 'wilderness' holidaymakers check their e-mail during a week away. Bhutan is on-line and TV travel programmes make the foreign familiar. So how does the modern travel writer return home with anything more original than an unusual intestinal parasite?
'Old travellers grumpily complain that travel is now dead,' writes Jonathan Raban, 'that the world is a suburb. They are quite wrong. Lulled by familiar resemblances between all the unimportant things, they miss the brute differences in everything of importance.'
Today it is no longer enough to travel across a country, rather one must travel into it. Into its society. The travel writer becomes less a geographer of place, more of the human heart. The 'original knowledge' that he or she brings home is a collection of subjective impressions.
'Travel writing,' says Colin Thubron, 'is one culture reporting on another. Its history, more than most, betrays that objectivity is a chimera.' He adds that uniquely in literature, outside autobiography, the travel writer acknowledges his subjectivity. I revel in that partiality. It gives me the freedom to imagine. Once I manage to stop worrying.
So here I lie under my desk, juggling fancies, awaiting inspiration. Any time now the balls will fall into line and the sweeping arc of a rainbow will appear above Knighton Hill. Or it'll be lunch time. Some time soon story and destination will merge, I'll hop on a plane and go. I'll travel lightly, so as to be able to recognize things of value in the arbitrary. I'll not have many contacts, only one or two. Nor an itinerary which would disrupt the natural flow of the journey. A fixed itinerary, with a meeting in Bogota on Monday, and a second in Papayán on Thursday, hinders the evolution of a journey. It's not theory that drives me forward, but events, curiosity, intuition. My books come together when things don't go as I'd planned, or, at least, when I let accidents happen.
Which means, as I meet people, my story will change. I'll trust strangers, watch the sky, follow my nose and make a lot of notes. In eastern Europe I acquired a reputation for having a weak bladder. In the midst of heated conversations, my memory saturated, I'd charge off to the loo to scribble down their dialogue.
My journey will last about three months. Any longer and wide-eyed enthusiasm pales. Familiarity blunts attentiveness. Then, back home, I distil. I combine. I invent. The journey - and the people whose lives I've shared - anchors me. I lie on the floor again. I eat too many chocolate Hobnob cookies then swear off white sugar. 'The truth is not the facts,' according to Robert Altman. I try to create an honest composite of the actual encounters. The result is subjective, less documentary, but - I hope - more true.
Travel writers seek out wonders. That's our job. Always has been. Always will be. For me that wonder is in ordinary men and women who are separated by borders, politics, emigration, even time and death. Through my books I try to draw together their - and our - divided worlds. My objective is to enable a reader to understand a society and to empathise with its people through stories. To make a country and its history accessible.
Before the invention of photography, painters sought to make images that imitated the appearance of the world. Similarly before the globe was mapped, it was the responsibility of explorers and travellers to document facts. With the introduction of the camera, painting as a realistic form of expression fell from favour. In the same manner mass travel and television documentaries are now freeing the travel writer from the need to detail external realities. The duty of today's travel writer is to provide a new way of seeing and understanding the world. At least, that's how it seems to me from under my desk, still tossing around ideas and destinations. Fret. Juggle. Go