Monday, November 19, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature,
history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 

            I will readily defer to any real art historian who can prove otherwise, but I am of the opinion that the most significant event in Western visual art in the last two hundred years was the invention of the camera.

            Once photography was established, traditional representational painting and sculpture began to fade, and conceptual art (including abstract art) arose. I appreciate that there is much more to 19th, 20th and 21st century Western art this; that Western art was greatly influenced by non-representational art from other parts of the world once there were huge European overseas empires and easy travel to them; that many Modernist schools of art (such as Surrealism) contained big elements of representationalism; that fashion, politics, economics and the personal skills and tastes of artists had much to do with the development of art, as they always do have. But even so, for the last nearly-200 years, the camera has been there to render redundant many of the old genres of Western art – portrait painting, landscape painting, battle scenes, still life etc. etc.

            Why toil for hours at a canvas when one click of a shutter, or press of a button, can do the essential work of recording?

            Now it is my contention that something similar has happened to travel writing in the same period – and especially since the mid-20th century.

            When I was a wee and tiny lad, travel was still by and large for the privileged few – and even today (especially in an isolated country like New Zealand) travel is a form of cultural currency which can be indulged in more by the affluent than by the general population. Hence, in New Zealand, the office party and Christmas party boasting about how much overseas travel one has done.

            Travel also used to be very slow. Right up to the mid-1960s, ship and rail were the most convenient modes of long distance transport. Long distance passenger flight was only just beginning to assert its dominance. At the age of eleven, in 1962, I went with my parents and three of my siblings to England. We sailed on the good Dutch ship Willem Ruys across the Pacific, through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic to Southampton. A year later we travelled home on the same ship, this time via the Mediterranean, Suez Canal, Indian Ocean and Tasman Sea – circumnavigating the globe in a journey which of course took many weeks. That’s the way most people from New Zealand did it at the time, so I would have been one of the very last of those generations that took sea travel (as distinct from tourist “cruising”) as the norm.

            Last time I went to Europe, it was a matter of a couple of days with boring time spent in air-ports en route.

            And while the switch to air travel was going on, television (which had been preceded by movie travelogues – and National Geographic magazine) was beginning to bombard people with images from faraway places. Mount Fujiyama? The Christ of the Andes? The Eiffel Tower? The Kremlin? The Pyramids? Beach resorts in the Caribbean? Rain-forests in South-East Asia? We saw them all on TV, just as we saw their exotic flora and fauna and people.

            So what does all this have to do with travel writing?


            Doughty travellers, who merely wrote up exotic sights they had seen, were rendered as redundant as portrait painters had been rendered by the camera. Readers no longer needed the Vatican or Angkor Wat described to them in blow-by-blow prose, because they’d already seen them on the box. And when it came to the more familiar overseas destinations, cheap airfares had put them in the reach of a much larger part of the population. It was no longer an “adventure” to fly from Auckland to London, and suddenly books like Alan Mulgan’s worshipful late 1920s Home – a Colonial’s Adventure (about his wide-eyed trip to England) looked both quaint and mildly hilarious.

            Of course there have long been travel guides (from Baedeker in the 19th century to Lonely Planet in the early 21st.). They are intended for people who mean to actually visit the places described, get the best bargains in accommodation etc. But for those who simply want to read about distant places, the traditional describe-and-wonder travel book no longer cuts it.

            I appreciate that in techs and universities, there are still courses that teach people describe-and-gawk “travel writing”. But their main aim is to produce journalists who can turn out those pieces of tourist-trade-associated puffery that you can see in the “Travel” sections of most newspapers. (Where, you will note, the writers must carefully acknowledge which airline “sponsored” them.) I appreciate, too, that some people produce personal travel blogs to publicise their latest overseas holiday. They are as perceptive or as bland as the person writing them.

            But as for the full-length travel book? If it is to be more than a na├»ve chronicle, it has to be a species of literary essay. The “travel” is really a pretext for personal reflections on life, politics, society, literature etc. and the book is dependent for its interest on the author’s personality, literary skills, erudition and ability to string reflections together.

            It also helps to have a gimmick, to make most travel seem more of an exotic adventure than it really is.

            Remember all those books Paul Theroux wrote, about travelling around in antique trains? He didn’t have to travel from A to B that way, but the trains themselves were his gimmick. Remember Jonathan Raban in Coasting (1986), sailing around the coast of Britain? (This book has a very funny scene where Raban bumps into Theroux and they discover they’re both researching the same sort of travel book with a similar gimmick – showing how hard it is even to find an original gimmick.). As a reviewer, I have become very used to the gimmick-driven travel book where the writer tries to tart up his/her otherwise routine foreign travel. Travelling in the company of a querulous relative or mother, to give the story some human interest. Travelling in the footsteps of earlier travellers. (I know of at least three modern travel books retracing the steps of Johnson and Boswell through the Highlands of Scotland.) Travelling around Australia in search of rude place names (The Road to Mount Buggery). Travelling to different corners of the globe in search of towns with the same name. Even one book about travelling around Ireland carrying a fridge. I have reviewed all of these at different times.

            So if you can’t do literary skill in a travel book, then you can do gimmickry. Or, at a more highbrow level, you can pretend you are a solitary 19th century traveller privy to ethnic secrets no other Westerner has yet stumbled upon (the fake anthropology of Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines).

            Thus, in the age of mass travel and mass media exposure, do travel writers have to strategise their wares. They also have to persuade their readers that the foreign places they are encountering are more exotic than they really are. I often grin when I come across claims that such-and-such a place is “off the beaten track” or “not a tourist trap”. In travel books, as in the boastful conversation of travellers, what this usually means is that the place visited is seen yearly by only tens of thousands of visitors rather than hundreds of thousands. Sorry, but in countries that are untroubled by war and do not have closed borders, nearly every place that can be visited has already been visited many times over.

            I must make a few clear admissions in this slightly jaded account of modern travel books, however.

            The first is that there are still writers who can astound us simply by telling us about unfamiliar foreign things, and this is especially true of those who go to closed, hostile or otherwise troubled countries that few tourists choose. (Look up the review of Robert Carver’s The Accursed Mountains, about travel in Albania, on the index at right.)  The second is that, even in the 19th century, the best travel writers knew that it was their personal encounters and observations that made a travel book readable, and not just descriptions of exotica. (Look up the review of A.W.Kinglake’s Eothen, about travel in the old Ottoman Empire, on the index at right – and especially the quoted sections.) The third is that, as early as the 18th century, Henry Fielding was warning that travel books were interesting only if they dealt with personal human encounters. (Look up the review of Henry Fielding’s The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon on the index at right – and especially the quoted sections.) Finally, I have to note that even before mass air travel and television, there were some writers perceptive enough to see that purple-prose describe-and-tell travel books were already becoming old hat. They could easily be faked. I have on my shelves Anthony Powell’s sprightly little satirical jab What’s Become of Waring, first published in 1939, a novel about the mysterious disappearance of a famed and popular travel writer. One of the novel’s devices is the gradual revelation that the blighter has put together his best-sellers by sitting at home and simply plundering, re-working and jazzing up the choicest passages from other people’s travel books.

            When I open a new travel book, I do not really expect to be lectured on the sights a foreign country has to offer. I want to meet the perceptive personality of a writer who has some literary skill. Without these things, a travel book is mere tourist fodder. 

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