Eye of the Geiger
Andrew Mueller on travel writing.
This is a declaration that may well prompt throbbing of veins and empurpling of complexions, but here goes: being a travel writer isn’t as easy as it looks. I feel that this is something I should qualify hastily, ie. in less time than it takes someone to load a gun and find my address.
I’m talking specifically about what has come to be understood as travel writing as you generally see – or, I’m willing to bet, far more often ignore – in the travel sections of newspapers and magazines. Even more than other segments of an increasingly craven and uncritical mainstream media, these sections are hopelessly beholden to the idea that nothing that appears in their pages must be affronting or confronting to anybody whose eyes may happen to rest upon them, especially not their advertisers (who are, almost invariably, the people who actually pay for travel writers’ travel). So these sections are, with a few honourable exceptions, difficult things to write for on two counts. First, that they’re rarely willing to let you go anywhere interesting. Second, that they won’t let you say anything interesting about the dull places they are prepared to send you.
This observation is, like everything else in this book, an expression of a strictly personal prejudice – it may well be that millions of people enjoy consuming eye-glazing advertising copy phoned in by some junketing hack idly rearranging the lexicon of travel section cliches (‘land of contrasts’, and so forth). Such a revelation would, I confess, make no less sense to me than what millions of people choose to do with their holidays, which is to spend them in the sort of places people take holidays. There is no body of people, not even the religiously devout or jazz fans, who baffle and boggle me more than the travelling public. I simply don’t understand why they go to the places they go – which is to say, the places everybody else has been already. And I don’t understand why they do the things they do when they get to them – ie, the things everybody else does. The defining absurdity of modern mass tourism is the crowd perpetually gathered in the Louvre beneath the Mona Lisa, taking pictures of it. Assuming that few if any of these people are commendably ambitious art thieves, what are they doing with these photographs? How does that conversation proceed when they show them around back home? (‘And that’s the Mona Lisa.’ ‘Really? Is that what it looks like? I’ll be damned.’)
This should not be construed as the lofty railings of a misanthropic snob with a rampaging ego who perceives himself as a capital-T Traveller as opposed to a mere tourist. I mean, I am a misanthropic snob with a rampaging ego, but I’m perfectly happy to acknowledge that, when I’m working abroad, I’m really just a tourist with a press card and a certain implicit license to ask people annoying questions and generally get in the way. And I also appreciate – that is, am frequently briskly reminded by friends who work for a living when I make pronouncements on this theme – that if your professional life is an arduous and regimented one, then the traditional holiday, of sunbaked idleness punctuated by various ritualised merriments, provides welcome opportunity to lift weary eyes to a view other than the grindstone. The problem is that the vista isn’t going to be all that interesting, and certainly not surprising.
Smart-aleck travel writers making fun of travellers is a tradition dating back to the 1869 publication of Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad – his account of touring Europe and the Holy Land with a gaggle of American pilgrims. It’s a matchlessly funny book, but back then there actually was good reason to visit the obvious places, and see the obvious stuff. The tourist’s world was still substantially mysterious, rather than a checklist of landmarks which look like the pictures (Stonehenge if you hadn’t seen a thousand images of it would be impressive and moving; now, it’s just smaller than you imagined). Most importantly, a century or more ago, such a trip would have been an adventure, a struggle, an accomplishment – three key tenets of any worthwhile enterprise, and three things missing from a sorry percentage of the modern jobs from which the modern tourist vacations.
Nobody needs to spend further time on a palm-fronded Balinese beach. Not one of the six billion human beings presently breathing wants to see another photograph of the Colosseum. Not even your closest friends and family – or, I reckon, you – are interested in a yarn about Disneyland, or the Tower of London. So, I guess that the travel feature which follows is kind of a plea to travellers, and to travel editors, to recognise that the world is a bigger place than they might think, and that almost all of it is startling, fascinating, and wonderful (apart, perhaps from Lunderskov, Denmark, where in September 2008 a local innkeeper answered my enquiry as regards what a visiting reporter might do on his afternoon off by mournfully intoning, ‘We have a pond.’). Even – or, perhaps, especially – when you decide to try taking a holiday in pretty much the last place anybody would.