In an article on the vicissitudes of contemporary travel writing, William Dalrymple tells the rueful tale of going all the way to the Middle East looking for an obscure Christian sect, only to be informed that the largest community is right back where he’d come from, in London.
‘”Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late 20th century,” I wrote in my diary that night. “Go to the ends of the earth to search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street.”’
I know exactly what he means; meeting real honest-to-God shamans in a tiny Siberian village where the locals ask “where’s England – that way?’ pointing vaguely westwards, only to have said shamans show you snaps of their recent visit to a drearily suburban bit of Switzerland, is indeed a slightly shocking and humiliating jolt of reality.
Tuvan Shamans (photo by Stanislav Krupar)
But I’m bothered by an underlying assumption in his sentence (quite apart from the assumption that because they are from the Middle East, obviously they will have a kebab business) that the running of the kebab business on a London street is less interesting and worthy of notice.
These days we are wary of Imperialist travel writing, which posits the traveller as a superior guide, the travelled land his or her adventure playground in which to marvel at barbaric foreign wonders while secure in the privileges – money, education, a Western passport – of home. (Isn’t that what distinguishes the traveller from the refugee or the migrant – that he can always go home?)
I think Dalrymple is right that the best travel writing rises above this. Colin Thubron’s Behind The Wall annoyed me at first because it seems to be all about him trying to get to grips with Chinese culture and history and moaning when they don’t fit his assumptions. But as the book progresses it becomes less about Thubron and more about the people and places he encounters, it becomes open-minded and free-flowing; a literal realisation of why we all want to travel – to loosen our minds from their moorings; become, in Nicolas Bouvier’s words, ‘open to curiosity, to intuition, to love at first sight …’
But (to be a bit less unmoored and free-flowing and get back to my point) why is it that a kebab business at the end of my local street is not a subject for similar mental freedom and exploration? Have members of the Middle Eastern Nestorian sect suddenly become uninteresting because they have British passports?
The short answer, I suppose, is yes. They are more like me and therefore I have so much less reason to be curious about them. But I think actually the answer is more complex.
I worked as a journalist in the former Soviet Union for several years, a job I loved because it gave me a license to be curious. Now I’m back home in England, on reflection I think it wasn’t the label ‘journalist’ that gave me that license, it was (despite living out there for over a decade) the label ‘foreigner’ and the label ‘traveller’. When you are on the road it’s easy to be curious and open to new people and experiences because you know that you can always move on. And perhaps it’s easier for people to open up to strangers, foreigners, travellers, and tell them their stories for exactly the same reason. The traveller has time; he doesn’t have his own life but is living on other people’s; there are no responsibilities and no lasting repercussions.
There are lots of things I’m curious about at the end of my street in London, like the Koran reading centre and rabble-rousing evangelical church and the suspicious closure of the kebab business. But I feel I’ve lost the license to exercise my curiosity. Here I’m not travelling or foreign, I’m supposed to be home. And home is where you should have a life of your own, and not be nosying about in other people’s.
Dalrymple concludes that the best new travel writing is not the old model of the footloose individual on the road, but is based on long-term, intimate knowledge of one place, for example Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital. But does it still count as travel writing if it’s all set in one place?
I suppose that if the writer has been changed by it, has been open to asking questions and listening to answers, then yes, a walk along a local street is a genuine journey. It’s just one that can be much harder to make than setting off across half the world in search of shamans or obscure Christian sects.