I am sitting on the top floor of a university library, a space filled with the furtive rustle of fast fingers on laptop keyboards and the industrial rattle of roller stacks on the move. I’ve been sitting here, or hereabouts, for the last couple of months. When I first set up camp the view to my left – cut into long thin strips by a bank of window-mounted solar panels – was over a city swamped in paling greenery. Today it is wine-dark and smoky. I still feel a little like a trespasser.
On foreign ground
I’ve been a travel writer for a decade. Generally the reality of that designation fails to match the images it invokes. Neither a linen-clad 1930s throwback, at ease with a Moleskine notebook on a café terrace someplace Elsewhere, nor a perma-tanned playboy, winging his way from one Caribbean resort to another on a Condé Nast expense account. More likely I’ll be alone at my desk in Cornwall, plodding through another round of guidebook fact-checks.
But in between the hotel listings, the train timetables and the opening hours, I’ve always maintained an interest in scholarly perspectives on travel writing. I don’t entirely remember how this interest came about, but I know that the germ of it was already there long before I wrote my undergraduate dissertation (a look at contemporary reporting of “the terrorist threat” which took me deep into the territory of imperialism, Orientalism and other fearsome things). In any case, the interest endured, and I always felt able to describe myself as a practitioner with an eye on theory.
To be entirely honest, it was a very easy pose to strike. Precious few “serious” travel writers – still less guidebook-churning hacks – seemed even to be aware that somewhere in that most exotic of lands, Academia, there were people who had made careers out of critiquing their genre. All it really needed, then, was to keep churning through those hotel listings, and once in a while to toss out a passing reference to Edward Said while running a writing workshop, or to mention in polite bookish conversation that travel literature might have one or two queasy connections with imperialism. In travel writing, that sort of approach will get you a long way. It’s got me all the way to this library, at the University of Leicester where my PhD research is being funded by the AHRC/Midlands 3 Cities programme, to which I am enormously grateful. A travel writer in the territory of the travel writing scholars; the spy who came in from the cold.
But as I plough my way through the relevant literature – by which, of course, I mean the scholarly literature around travel writing, not travel literature itself; Pratt and Holland and Huggan replacing Chatwin and Thubron and Leigh Fermor – I find myself no longer entirely sure who is “us”, and who is “them”.
Us and them
Here’s the thing: since the 1970s, most travel writing scholarship seems to have been done in the spirit of criticism – literally, I mean; scholarship that’s flat-out critical of the genre. What’s more (and most significantly for what I hope to do myself), I have yet to come across a scholar of travel writing who is also a practitioner. My first academic subject was journalism, where many of those who taught and wrote had started out in the newsroom. But here the divide seems to be absolute. The theorists theorise and the practitioners practise and never the twain shall meet. East is East, as they say…
Where practitioners do know what’s being said of them in scholarly journals and academic conferences, there’s sometimes an understandable tendency to react with hostility. William Dalrymple, for example, has been particularly scathing of ‘unthinking sheep tumbling along in the wake of Edward Said’s flock’. On the other side, meanwhile, some of the scholars have been equally caustic. Take Debbie Lisle, whose The Global Politics of Contemporary Travel Writing has been one of the most energising and downright enjoyable of my encounters during my library-bound travels, but who threw me up a little short with her description of the genesis of her own critical (and critical) interest in travel writing. The very first travel book she ever read, she explains, was Paul Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania, which she came upon as a young backpacker, travelling in Southeast Asia:
It was, and I stick to this judgement, one of the worst books I have ever read – boring, nasty, and offensive in equal measure. The problem was that I didn’t have a critical language to express my distaste. Intuitively, I knew that this wasn’t just a bad book; there was something wrong with this book and something wrong with travel writing in general…
Funnily enough, The Happy Isles of Oceania was, if not the very first travel book I ever read then certainly one of the first five – along with Nicholas Crane’s Clear Waters Rising, Nick Danziger’s Danziger’s Travels, Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, and Wilfred Thesiger’s Desert, Marsh and Mountain. To be sure, it made the least impression of those five, and its author seemed the least attractive amongst those rangy, globe-bestriding figures (blokes, all of them, of course). But I didn’t think it was wrong. It came as part of my first wave of infatuation with the genre.
Others might put it a little less stridently, but Lisle’s basic position is also that of many of her fellow scholars. If we accept her idea that there’s something fundamentally wrong with travel writing, then there’s an obvious implication that there’s something fundamentally wrong with travel writers too. Fair enough; I reckon travel writers can take that flak. But I’m rather more troubled by a further implication: I wasn’t a travel writer when I read The Happy Isles of Oceania; I was a reader. Was there, then, something wrong with me too – and with the thousands of others who read and relished travel books?
And here’s where something unexpected has happened during my time in the library. For years, as a practitioner (and a reader, of course), I’ve tended to be decidedly critical of travel writing – a self-flagellant travel writer perhaps. But now, for the first time, I find myself occasionally muttering “Steady on! That’s laying it on a bit too thick, surely…” as I encounter some particularly aggressive brickbat. At other times I find myself mumbling with my practitioner’s mind, “Yes, but you’ve completely overlooked the imperatives of writerly craft with all this focus on ideology…”
Neither “us” nor “them”, then, but somewhere in between – and that’s actually exactly where I need to be, because in truth I haven’t entirely come in from the cold…
My PhD project is not to be a straightforward scholarly investigation of travel writing. I’m setting out to produce a “creative-critical” thesis, a peculiar hybrid thing like those dog-headed cynocephali so beloved of proto-travel writers from Herodotus to John Mandeville. I’ll be practicing and theorising at the same time, investigating and doing. I will, I expect, be giving the genre a bit of a kicking in the process, but I’m beginning to suspect that I might find myself mounting its defence too. And what I’ll have in the end, all being well, is some sort of travel book.
The crossing place
The lines from Dalrymple and Lisle quoted above do not represent a dialogue, nor yet a debate or an argument. One is simply a casual dismissal; the other a statement of hostile intent unlikely ever to reach the ears of those it criticises, still less convince them to change their ways (Theroux is still out there at it now, in his eighth decade). Between them lie antres vast and deserts idle – an impasse. But surely the ideal of travel writing – even if it is an ideal rarely, if ever, achieved – is to cross such spaces and to forge connections. Perhaps if theorists were also expected to practise, and practitioners also to theorise, then such a crossing might be more readily possible.
For the moment, then, I’ll keep my head down here in this library, and hope that no one notices me for the interloper that I am.
Outside, beyond the solar panels, it’s dark now, with an amber smudge over the city and a frost coming on…
 178. Khair, Tabish. ‘An Interview with William Dalrymple and Pankaj Mishra’ in Edwards, Justin D. and Graulund, Rune (eds). Postcolonial Travel Writing. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011
 xi. Lisle, Debbie. The Global Politic of Contemporary Travel Writing. Cambridge: CUP, 2006