Promoting a travel book in the United States — even one like mine, on Tibet — is to promote a minority genre. Enter a bookshop in New York or LA, and you'll find travel narratives lurking among guide books somewhere at the back, or perhaps not there at all.
In Britain, on the contrary, the travel section may occupy pride of place. Numerous talented British writers have excelled at the travel book. Jan Morris, Bruce Chatwin, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Jonathan Raban spring to mind. Even top US travel writers such as Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux started their careers in England.
Why should this be so? What is it about my country that should generate both a love of armchair travel and the writers to supply it?
Various explanations propose themselves:
- That we British haven't yet understood that we've lost an empire and travel on as if we owned the world.
- That we have realized all too well and are making up for it by writing arrogant travelogues.
- That our system of boarding schools inures us to physical and emotional discomfort and equips us perfectly for hardship.
- That the same system makes us emotionally cold, so we can look on the world with writerly superiority.
- That we are too unimaginative to think that anything bad will happen to us.
In my own case I have no idea how much of three or four is applicable. As for five, well, the craft of travel writing involves taking certain risks. But on the road I feel curiously divorced from them.My great fear is not that something bad is going to happen to me, but that nothing will happen at all. Then there would be no book. Travel writers, like journalists, are hunting for copy. And like journalists, we may capitalize on tragedies and accidents.
But the accidents, of course, may happen to us.
While in Tibet, walking toward the high pass around the sacred mountain of Kailas, I met a Hindu woman coming the other way. Her group had failed to reach the pass, she said; it was too hard. Two of them had already died of heart failure.
I heard this only with the mute astonishment we reserve for things that happen to other people. I, surely, would be all right. After all, I wanted to write about this journey....
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Colin Thubron is an acknowledged master of travel writing. His first books were about the Middle East — Damascus, Lebanon, and Cyprus. In 1982 he traveled in the Soviet Union, pursued by the KGB. From these early experiences developed his great travel books on the landmass that makes up Russia and Asia: Among the Russians; Behind the Wall: A Journey through China; The Lost Heart of Asia; In Siberia; and most recently, Shadow of the Silk Road. Colin Thubron is an award-winning novelist as well as, arguably, the most admired travel writer of our time. He lives in London.
Books mentioned in this post
Colin Thubron is the author of To a Mountain in Tibet