Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The craft of travel writing.

Travel writing through the ages. No - I don't mean from the eighteenth century onwards, but rather the different way younger and older writers, men and women, approach the task of travel writing.

What's brought this on? Well, a while ago I read Trish Nicholson's Journey to Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon, and more recently I won Alessandro Gallenzi's book Inter Rail on Jenny Woolf's wonderful blog.

Maybe it's not entirely fair to compare them - Inter Rail is a novel; but the writer informs us that it is based on his journey around Europe as a young man. So I'm assuming he built on his meetings with some rather shady characters and developed that into a tale of derring-do, of drinking and meeting women and careering around in very fast cars with a man who is clearly a con man. What struck me, reading this, is his lack of reflection - he is too busy laughing to think that maybe not paying for a taxi might be funny once, but the driver may have a family to feed and his larks have consequences. I found myself thinking like a mother, wanting to know what he did for clean pants when his clothes were stolen.

Of course, I have missed the point - he's a young man. Behaving as young men do - and having terrific fun doing it. Sometimes I need reminding of that.

In contrast, Trish's trek in Bhutan was instantly recognisable. She paused to drink in the mountain air, to marvel at the mysteries of the culture, to tiptoe round the edges of Buddhism. Her descriptions are wonderful - for those of us unable make it to Bhutan she offers such clear descriptions of her travels that we feel we are following her footsteps. She is hugely respectful of everyone she meets, as aware of her impact on them and their way of life as she is on her own thoughts and processes. (She is also enviably fit. How does she bound up mountains like that?)

Not difficult for me to identify with her. We follow similar pathways, notice the same things. Her lovely book feels gloriously familiar to me.

So why think of them in the same blog? Because they are, in many ways, trying to do the same thing. To show me a place, and the people in it. Their starting points are different, but equally valid. Both have something to say about the writers themselves, though Trish's book tells us more about Bhutan while Alessandro reminded me of the glorious energy of young men.

And did they both tempt me to visit their chosen destinations? Of course they did. But, while my thoughts may be closer to Trish's, I have to admit I'm not immune to joining in the folly of the young (as those who have dipped into Hidden Tiger Raging Mountain already know!)

And you - do you need jolting out of the familiar from time to time?


  1. Of course I need jolting out of the familiar. I'm the biggest coward when it comes to travel. I think you're wonderful to have wandered so far around the world. If I were to try it out, it would have to be with a very safe itinerary and a courier I could rely on... last of the great adventurers, that's me!

  2. Thank you, Ros - I think there's a huge difference between what we can manage in travelling terms and from the books we read. It was a jolt to read something difference, and crazy - very different from most travel books I read - but an important reminder that we all see the world differently, and that our ideas and energies change over the years.

  3. Thank you Jo, for your lovely comments on Journey in Bhutan. Like you, I am fascinated by the varying approaches taken by different writers to the same places or experiences, but I think it is less to do with the extent of travel experience than with background and attitude. Although it is set in entirely a different place, it's particularly interesting that you compared a novel - I have said elsewhere (in a guest post on @TerreBritton's inspiring blog Creative Flux), that to understand a place well, one should read not only good travelogue but novels by writers who know the location and culture intimately. Another interesting comparison is that some people like to read everything they can before a trip, others prefer to go uninfluenced, and read on their return.

    1. Thank you, Trish. Isn't it exciting that there's so many different approaches to this wonderful craft of travel writing! And I so agree - reading novels, by local writers if you can, is an important a way of learning about a country as a Lonely Planet!