What makes good travel writing?

[quote source=”12th century theologian Hugh of St Victor” rating=”0″]The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.[/quote]

I sometimes feel a fraud being called a travel writer, since all I have seem to have done is go to one place and write about that. France. South of, more specifically  the Pyrenees. In truth one particular valley.  But actually that I think is the point – real travel writing requires total immersion. The immersion of writers like Gerald Brenan, in South from Granada, who lived the life of the village high in the hills of Andalucia in the 1920s, or Colin Thubron who says when he travels he never even takes another book with him. Nor camera or recording equipment. The best travel writing demands dedicated observation and total engagement with place and people.  It is more about place than about the journey,  though no doubt many are initially compelled by wanderlust. For Freya Stark it was her passion for the Arab world, her deep fascination for its people,  that motivated and informed her travels. She learned Arabic of course.

Her level of observation- making notes from the back of a camel as often as not – was almost forensic. She took photographs too but it is her assiduous daily notes that form the basis of her writing.  Journals written at the time, drawn on sometimes many years later, have proved invaluable for me too.  Though written without thought to style, they yield a freshness and immediacy that recreates the moment. I once made the mistake of thinking on a particularly rushed exploratory trip that I could take photos and write it all when I got home. Not so.  There was nothing there. No texture, no detail, critically no response.

Thus I am convinced that travel has to be written. Photos help of course. But I want not just the information gleaned by the explorer but also their response to the experience. How else could that be conveyed except by writing.  Format doesn’t matter, and the huge number of travel blogs today means that anyone can do it.  But TV travel does not do it for me. It is too superficial. There are too many layers between the presenter and the audience; the researchers who have prepared the information, the film crew lurking somewhere, however much they try to convince us that the traveller is soulfully alone in the middle of the desert, wearing his continuity required blue shirt. There is no authentic response to the place.

Not only do the best travel writers offer a knowledgeable and authentic experience of the place they observe, I think they also fill an important gap of reportage. No longer do we have foreign correspondents in Uzbekistan, and every far-flung corner of the world. We need writers who travel and embed themselves in order to inform us. And better indeed that they should be independent and not paid for by governments or media barons. Of course modern technology means the locals can tell us what is going on these days and this empowerment is vital, but we also need writers with knowledge and experience of these worlds, writers who have been there and observed and recorded, before the precious mosque was destroyed, the Roman bridge blown up, the tribal village obliterated by floods.

(This piece first published in the Arvon Book of Literary Non-Fiction. Bloomsbury 2012)