After the Death of the Masters: travel writing after Wilfrid Thesiger and Norman Lewis
Slightly Foxed, Summer 2005
Last summer the two masters of travel writing, Norman Lewis and Wilfrid Thesiger died within a month of each other. As Britain buried the last of her explorers and the best of her travel writers, it became clear that a literary threshold had been crossed. The obituaries were unanimous in praise of these great men, a pair of a triumphant individualists who were born with a zeal to record a vanishing world. Despite their passionate identification with different cultures and their public championing of endangered societies they were also self-effacingly modest. By the standards of today's tabloids - with their routine exposure of sexual activity, 'outings' and the self-revelations of the famous - these two writers might seem indecently reticent. Norman Lewis claimed that he could walk into a room full of people and leave it some time afterwards without anyone realising that he had been there. Wilfrid Thesiger could never claim such invisibility. His beak-like nose, craggy profile and taste for traditional tailoring, whether in Chelsea or Afghanistan, made him instantly recognizable, though his icy reserve kept him insulated from all but a handful of intimates. This self-discipline was not forced in either man. It was an essential component of their role as travel writers. They were there to observe, to dispassionately record the world, not to paint self-portraits or to cast their shadow over the landscapes they loved. However they could seldom remove themselves totally from the story. Especially when one remembers that their respective master-pieces (Wilfrid Thesiger's Arabian Sands and Norman Lewis's Naples '44) were adapted directly from private travel diaries. However in both books it is clear the writer has deliberately stepped back in order to focus on the indigenous society he was travelling through.
This is not to suggest that travel writing should be considered a brood-sister to a scholarly work of anthropology. Although you may learn more about the nature of Neapolitan life from Naples '44 and more about the realities of Bedouin existence from Arabian Sands than by reading your way through a dozen academic textbooks, the reader should always be cautious. Thesiger was deliberately travelling with youthful outcasts of Omani society whilst Lewis was spending a lot of his time in Naples with prostitutes. Travel writing is always at its best when it is an individual's passionate response to a society. It seldom, if ever, aspires to a balanced view point and is most famously effective when a whole culture is threatened by destruction. The writer can then pull out all the stops and indulge in a poignant, mournful elegy to a dying world - whose beautiful lives and complicated belief systems are being flattened by the steam-rolling process of the industrial society. A revolution that brings the "dark satanic mills' to the last Arcadias: replacing gifts with bank credits, skilled carving with mass production, mountain pathways with graded tarmac, astonishingly complex embroidery with serge suits, art with advertising, heroism with a wristwatch and shaman-healers with a paid summer holiday. It is one of the pleasures of a settled, comfortable life to indulge in this melancholy process of regret. It also helps prepare you for old age and death, if you can convince yourself that all the old beauty of the world has been destroyed. However if you have ever been privileged enough to witness the ecstatic delight of an isolated village at last being linked to the outside world, and given access to hospitals, schools and a market place you might seriously doubt that anyone could resist such progress.
However the skilful evocation of a destroyed world can turn a travel book into a historical document. The young Mungo Park, his hat-band stuffed with notes, could never have known that he was creating a prime source of West African history. Wilfrid Thesiger would also achieve this with his book on The Marsh Arabs (whose home in the flooded delta-land of Mesopotamia in southern Iraq was drained by Saddam Hussein). In The Voices of the Old Sea Norman Lewis wrote one of the iconic books of the 20th century. It chronicles a self-contained Spanish fishing village with a sophisticated oral culture of verse-making just before it is destroyed by mass tourism; Lewis is almost completely absent from the narrative.
This, I feel, is one of the marks of a true travel-writer. The narrator's interest in the 'otherness' is wholly absorbing. As a corollary of this both Norman Lewis and Wilfrid Thesiger had plenty of fresh material to use when they wrote their autobiographies. Norman Lewis's Jackdaw Cake and Wilfrid Thesiger's A Life of My Choice are primarily concerned with charting the youthful influences that would prepare them to become lifelong travellers. Thesiger was inspired as a boy by watching the parade of a victorious Imperial army, recruited from the many peoples of Abyssinia. Lewis, equipped with eccentric aunts in Wales and spiritualist parents, grew up knowing that there was a world of unexpected magic behind the dull fašades of suburban north London. However their autobiographies are not especially revealing. Thesiger never made a secret of his preference for the company of young men but never wrote about, or even so much as acknowledged, his own, or their sexuality. Norman Lewis was married a number of times, and had an open marriage with his first wife, but kept his lovers, his wives and his children in a well-protected private sphere.
Looking back at these masters and contemplating the present state of travel writing one has to acknowledge that we are in a new era. We exist in the Information Age, a new refinement in the advancing processes of the Industrial Revolution against which Lewis and Thesiger struggled all their lives. In places like Italy and the USA, private television stations have brought this initially revolutionnary medium to absurd levels of banality - a fusion of advertising, pornography and celebrity-watching so mindless that it is beyond satire. Pasolini (no prude he) was convinced that "it was television which practically ended the era of piety and began the era of hedonism". This new television-absorbed lumpen-proleteriat will, on average, watch as much as four hours of 'programming' a day but their effect on literary culture would appear to be minimal as more than half do not read even one book a year. Much more influential is the so-called quality slots of travel documentaries. Travel, by its very nature, cannot easily be framed by a medium which requires even at its most pared-down - a cameraman, a sound recorder, a director/producer and a narrator working to a script and a budgeted schedule. In practice, as the credits at the end of each program so honestly reveal, the film crew will be much, much larger. In conversation with an experienced travel producer, he explained to me that one concept every half hour is all their target audience can be expected to absorb. This audience will switch off if it is offered too many ideas, or if the narrator gets too serious. A television audience will expect an easy flippancy, to be entertained and flirted-with and will not normally tolerate more than ten minutes of filming in the same landscape before boredom sets in. And this audience is defined as the serious market!
But the lucrative effect of the TV tie-in now dominates the publishing of travel books. Anything with a whiff of television gets published, marketed and enthusiastically stocked by the chains of book sellers. This is the world in which the comedian Michael Palin has become the best-known traveller of the day, whose books sell by the hundreds of thousands. His recent work, "Sahara: as seen on BBC" has been written in the form of a continuous diary. The actual reality was a series of country by country visits based on filming needs and being ferried in and out of Britain by aeroplane for each work session. However the 'cut', 'edit' and 'continuity' skills necessary for film documentary work have flowed into his book. For instance "Day Fourteen: Tinfou to Tindouf" casually implies that he crossed the Moroccan Saharan frontier to a visit the Polisario camp in Algeria. On a map they look close enough but on the ground it is politically impossible, for this highly sensitive frontier with its unreported border wars has been closed for thirty years. I liked Palin better when he honestly records heading back to 'an English summer to cool off until the Saharan summer has burnt itself out."
Travel writing has become annexed into the entertainment industry. Fellow publishers have confided that sexual tension between travellers is always good for sales whilst a travel writer reticent about personal relationships will not help the books 'profile'. Contemporary travel writers now skip lightly along the tracks first forged by the great explorers ever conscious that with this trip they might finally 'break into' film work. To add a sense of achievement the modern travel writer will have to invent ever new angles in which to cross the Sahara or Gobi, new ways in which to trudge across the utmost poles, or burden themselves with a half-trained string of camels, an elephant, a fridge, a mule or an unresponsive girlfriend. This element of the travel writing with its self-invented impediments is clearly productive. In any one year you can be reasonably sure that a British publisher will be producing a book touching on elephants in India, a horse-ride across Central Asia and a camel trek across a sand desert. By the end of these books I am usually damp-eyed with concern for the animals and correspondingly irritated with the writer without having learned anything of interest about the humans found along the journey. Obviously there are exceptions: Redmond O'Hanlon and Stanley Stewart spring to mind though one feels that the classic travelogue - the narrative of a single journey - is becoming an increasingly posed and bogus metaphor.
This is not just a failure of imagination. The root cause must lie in the explosive growth of the travel industry, the extraordinary ease of modern travel and the sophistication of modern travel-agents. This week I received the most tempting catalogues inviting me on an island hopping cruise, a steppe-land safaris and mountain walks that would have previously been the preserve of note-book scribbling explorers. Why read about it, when you can do it?
In terms of quantity, the post-war period was one of the most productive eras of British travel writing when even medium sized publishers, such as Robert Hale, would be commissioning a dozen such volumes a season in addition to their standard list of detective novels. A previously mobile and affluent society found itself near bankrupt and confined to the armchair. Travel books (combined with a generous provision of purchase by public libraries) filled this emotional gap.
As the era of mass-travel got underway in the 60's the focus of travel writing began to shift. The desire for topographical description changed as people began to see the landscapes for themselves. Those wonderful evocations of landscape and colour (which still enchant me) in the works of say Pierre Loti were no longer required by the modern reader. And those who did require it, found increasingly greater satisfaction in the colour photograph book - a beautiful new art form then being invented. While the old school, which had combined close observation with a gentle lecture in art history (like Sacheverell Sitwell with his elegant explorations of Peru, Rumania, the Gothic North and the Baroque South) have been replaced by modern writers slaving away on ever more detailed and sophisticated guide books. This market-driven process still continues. In Britain there are now a dozen major guide-book series in competition with each other, constantly improving their maps, illustrations and contents - in an attempt to keep hold of their threatened market share.
Has the great British tradition of travel writing been overwhelmed by the combined effects of Television and new mass-market? Who are the heirs of the great master travel writers? I set myself the task of trying to discover who they were. I called in on the handful of bookshops in London, where the staff actively choose their stock. There are not many of these places left, but those that we have, such as Daunts, John Sandoe, Heywood Hill and The Metropolitan Bookshop, have become as valuable as whole libraries.
The depression soon lifted. Even restricting my survey to the books that had been published in the last twelve months I soon found myself with an impressive short list which I have reluctantly whittled down to half a dozen. Looking back over their spines, I feel an extraordinary new confidence in the genre.
I had unwittingly met Ghada Karmi, the author of In Search of Fatima, before. But then her face was a hundred foot high and her podium was surrounded by tens of thousands of anti-war marchers in Hyde Park. Her calm literary voice is a world removed from the fervent rhetoric of that day. She has also neatly reversed all the usual stereotypes of travel writing, for she is a woman not a man, she is Arab not British, of Muslim not Christian culture and she is exploring England not the exotic 'other.' Though born in Jerusalem, her childhood was spent with embittered exiles from Palestine in a northern suburb of London - which ironically was one of the chief Jewish neighbourhoods. This was the slow spring-board for her passionate attachment to her adopted land, its tolerance and its wonderful schools. A story of love for England capped by her fairy tale marriage to a liberal gentleman. Disenchantment and political radicalisation ultimately followed, but the domestic focus of the first half of this book is a vital aspect of its success. For I believe that this book is a conscious and skilful attempt to educate the English into an emotional sympathy with a Palestinian - any Palestinian - and so help break the hostile stereotypes that still dominate the collective imagination.
The Zanzibar Chest: A Memoir of Love and War begins as a classic post-colonial journey of discovery as we follow the young author, Aidan Hartley, in the footsteps of his adventurous Empire-minded antecedents, especially his Odysseus-like father, who has successively served as Colonial Officer, Ranch-owner, agricultural adviser and finally as an aid-worker in his beloved Africa. Each successive decade of the late 20th-century had seen such remaining 'White Africans' ever more marginalized from the East African power structure. Aidan clearly see his own career, as an African journalist, as just a further step down this ladder away from any enriching involvement with the land. To help understand this remourceless process of exclusion he also investigates assassination of his father's best friend, Peter Davey, back in the days of the British controlled Aden Protectorate. As the revelations of Davey's secret love affair with a Yemeni woman (and his secret conversion to Islam) are unearthed, so does the tempo of Aidan's own life. His experience of the last months of the Ethiopian civil war, the implosion of state authority in Somalia, followed by the disastrous US intervention, creates a compelling, nervy and disturbing narrative. A chillingly competitive love affair with a fellow journalist provides the right emotional setting for a final descent into the killing fields of Rwanda. Hartley has created a book fit to stand beside Conrad, Gide and Ryszard Kapuscinki's The Shadow of the Sun.
It also provided the perfect textual preparation for Emma's War by Deborah Scroggins. This is on one level an impeccably researched biography into the short but tempestuous life of Emma McCune, the English aid-worker who fell in love with Riek Machar - one of the commanders of the southern Sudanese resistance to the Muslim north of the country. It is also a very professional survey, and within the context of this personal tale, Scroggins neatly defines the rival ethnic and linguistic groups that make the Sudanese civil war such a complicated affair, without loosing site of the classic North-South divide. She also reveals the machinations of the Oil Industry, Tiny Rowland, Osama bin Laden and Mengistu's Socialist Ethiopia without becoming mired in conspiracy theory which these subjects so often incite. But on another - and much richer level - this book is a dialogue between two different sorts of relationships with Sudanic Africa. For Atlanta-based Scroggins is also an aid-worker - though clearly professional, well-briefed and effecient at her job whilst Emma often comes across as a frivolous, adventure-seeker looking for fulfilment and status in Africa that she could never find in her Yorkshire homeland. On the other hand, Emma was prepared to love Africa, to love individual Africans and to leave the privileged comforts of the aid-workers barracks (and their Western-scale salaries) to live in a Sudanic village. While Emma ends up defending a tribal slaughter perpetuated by her husband, her professionally minded ex-colleagues (there to feed the starving) go on strike when their regular supply of air-freighted meals is suspended. As a debate about the motivations of modern aid-workers the book is totally engrossing. Scroggins also has a journalist's eye for compelling detail; the kind that haunts the imagination and continuously pricks the conscience.
If the British might feel quizzical about their involvement in the Sudan, this is as nothing compared to the French relationship with North Africa. It is a truism of Algeria, that the French are too interested, the rest of Europe is uninterested and so no-one is disinterested. John Kiser's The Monks of Tibhirine is a beautiful, uplifting book that is all the more welcome because it breathes a spirit of heroism and courage into the scorched emotional landscape of France in Algeria. Like Emma's War, it is another example of a highly professional work by an American journalist researching the life of a maverick European who dies tragically young in Africa. This recipe again makes for a compelling combination, partly because both Europeans and Algerians get assessed with equal weight whilst none of the tangled background of two centuries of murderous history is taken for granted. It is also a very particular book, in part because it is about sacrifice and also because it studies the thought processes, rivalries and secret ambitions of a group of a Trappist monks. The story is centred around the character of Christian de Cherge, whose life was saved in the Algerian War of Independence by Mohammed, a young village policeman who stepped in front of this unarmed young French soldier to protect him from resistance fighters. Mohammed insisted that de Cherge was a good man and a friend to the Muslims. The freedom fighters let them both go that day but a few days later Mohammad was found with his throat slit. Mohammed's self sacrifice inspired the rest of de Cherge's life. Years later, he would become the dynamic head of a small Trappist monastery, energetically pursuing a religious dialogue with Islamists during the dangerous years of the Algerian civil war. The world needs such stories: of a Frenchman driven to follow the life of Christ - to its ultimate conclusion- by the self-sacrifice of a Muslim.
Although I learned a lot about Algerian politics from John Kiser, The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones is easily the most outwardly political book in this short list. It is a scorching review of Berlusconi's Italy and would be unreadable if one was not convinced that Tobias Jones adores Italy and fully intends to spend the rest of his life there. For only someone who is prepared to enter the political struggle should be allowed to pen such a biting, crushing - but wickedly entertaining - review of a nation state. Nor is it just Italian politics and its corrupt economy that is under review, even their football, their faith and the betrayed promise of their glorious cinematic culture is taken apart. Berlusconi is clearly the villain of the piece but Tobias Jones is too analytical not to see that he is just a symptom, not the cause of Italy's troubles. Jones is also refreshingly different in not ascribing all of Italy's problems to the lawless Mafia and Camorra ridden south but is endearingly respectful of their culture. His chosen field of life study is the prosperous Northern cities, the so-called White Mafia from Milan and Genoa, his beloved Red Padua and the deadly legacy of the unfinished civil war that was fought out in the North between the partisans and the fascists. The Dark Heart of Italy will stand as a companion volume beside Peter Robb's Midnight in Sicily; another epic in the outside worlds obsessive love-hate relationship with Italy, a land where even a patriot can liken his loyalty to, "I'm like one of those people who fall in love with a prostitute". Having read, and noted Jones, I feel that I may at last be ready to read Alberto Moravia's novels with sufficient background to do them justice.
The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad, a short but superbly crafted book has already achieved iconic status. In part because the Norwegian journalist Seierstad, like Norman Lewis, has made herself invisible as an observing presence despite existing as a long-term guest in the cramped, emotional suffocation of an extended Afghan family packed into a crumbling three-room Soviet-built apartment block. On one level the bookseller of the title, a heroic Afghan merchant who has successively defied the dictats, restrictions and pillaging of Communists, Muajhadeen and Taliban regimes, dominates the entire text. His passion for books, the right to self-education and the freedom to read and preserve the treasures of the past, all coupled with an acute business sense, make him into an extraordinarily animated figure. However, within his own family, his absolute paternalistic authority (exemplified by his taking of a second girl-wife) directly reflects those political autocrats whom he has cannily resisted all his life. In this moral confusion, the true heroic figures of Seierstad's narrative are the women of the household, struggling for a breath of respect and self-determination. However Seierstad, in recording that even the confident-minded intellectual of the family, Shakila the teacher, has "never in her life slept in a room without her mother" and how she lies close up against her mother "curled-up in the foetal position" seems to offer no solution but stands as a stark witness to another form of life.
When Dr Johnson reproved Richard Knolles, a man of genius, who had wasted himself on His History of the Turks "upon a foreign and uninteresting subject, recounting enterprises and revolutions of which none desired to be informed" he put the issue - and the great challenge of travel writing - in a nut shell. The genius of a good travel writer, is to take these individuals by the hand, and lead them gently with wit and skill into landscapes, sympathy, knowledge and understanding that they would have never travelled to otherwise. As the world divides needlessly, but yet again into two armed camps, the need for observant travellers remains as vital as ever. And Johnson in this case was quite wrong, for Knolles awoke a vast reading public and his Turkey book went into edition after edition.
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by Barnaby Rogerson