Every world is changing, even as you step into it. But my own experience of how the world changed in travel writing was growing up reading the likes of Eric Newby, he of A Short Walk in The Hindu Kush. Like Patrick Lee Fermour, Newby was one of the gentlemen greats, who came to travel edit the pages of the Observer, and when I went out to The North West Frontier, lots of people took his very funny Short Walk with them, including me. How travel writing has changed since then, and how our knowledge of Pakistan and Afghanistan too. No longer an adventure, more a horror story. But then all writing is the mediation of supposed universal experience, through a particular consciousness, as language and its precise use mediates too. It was why it was a little funny, talking of “gentlemen greats” to find Country Life editing an article about a polo match on the Shandur Pass, from my line about a local man peeing in a lake, to his “relieving himself”. Up in the Hindu Kush folk pee, they do not relieve themselves, if “this is true, throughout the shires, that horses sweat but Man perspires!”
I was always freelance, trying to write in papers like The Telegraph, The Times or Guardian, specialising in stories related to wildlife or environmentalism. It never brought in any money, but it did give the chance to do some extraordinary trips, and to write too. So I heard little stories like an editor bumping into Jan Morris, James in a dress by then, and telling her travel writers had charmed lives. Hmmm. Jan Morris is certainly a deeply charmed writer. The problem was the days when you could sound off as real traveller and writer were also morphing into the days when you had to write about the quality of hotel shower heads, and so sell the travel industry itself, to support a paper’s advertising revenues.
The democratically thin end of that enormous wedge is the Internet and the likes of Trip Advisor, where self-appointed experts apparently cause horror stories complaining about the number of tea bags, or the position of the kettle in Bed and Breakfasts. In trying to set up potentially interesting pieces though, with prominent companies, that could be a little corrosive of your independence too. But there was also the fact that no journalists took travel writing very seriously, as they should have done, and often saw it as a chance for freebies, or a holiday from the real fight. Art though, and finding a real voice in writing, and travelling the world, is the fight too.
I fell very foul of The Telegraph when I was attacked by an editor, and many editors on the inside love their bits of power, for daring to be rude about Devon and Cornwall, although I wasn’t really. That was the impression that came out from a piece about history there, or England’s story, notably falling off our own maritime identity into American dreams and longings at “Westwood Ho”, that had been severely slashed in print, causing several “points of view” complaints from the public. Hey ho. Travel writing at its best is writing at its best, but rather than glossy food fests, posh hotels or book stunts like crossing the Atlantic in a bathtub, it should be brought back in print, if only as a leader to other articles more obviously engaged in selling things. One place that dedicates itself to travel writing as writing, almost purely in fine reprints, is Eland Books.