Oliver Balch on Travel Writing at Hay 25

Oliver Balch on Travel Writing at Hay 25

Oliver Balch is the author of India Rising

We live in a global village. Or at least that’s what we are repeatedly told. In a world where few street corners are free of McDonalds or Starbucks, what role is there for the modern travel writer?

Sitting in the (in)aptly named ‘Digital Tent’, so kicked off our discussion about the future of travel writing. Necessarily, there was a vested interest on the panel that the answer should be in the affirmative. We all live off travel writing to one extent or other. But what kind of travel, and what kind of writing, will keep us putting food on the table?

There are two questions here. Let’s tackle the most practical first: in an age of Wikipedia and Tripadvisor, what can a travel writer who jets in and out really offer? In informational terms, frankly “not a lot”. Hence the rather samey, uninspired, functional travel “writing” that appears in most newspaper travel sections. It’s not the writer’s fault. People want to know where to eat and what to see during their 48-hour break to Barcelona. Fair enough. The newspaper’s travel sections give them that.

But so does the internet. In the uber-informational age we live in, travel writing is – inevitably? – becoming an amalgamated list-ography of what’s already Googleable. Of course, the jobbing travel writer doesn’t pitch it like that. But look behind the amusing quote from the taxi driver, and the anecdote about the dodgy salad, and that’s basically what it is. If print travel writing is only about semi-edited public information, then it’s future is uncertain. Virtual, real-time, crowd-sourced, Tweeted travel will win out. And us travel writers will be eating potato chips and wood shavings.

Yet travel writing – good travel writing, that is – has always been about more than sharing information. As travel writerThomas Swick argues, the craft can incorporate the characters and plot line of a novel, the descriptive power of poetry, the substance of a history lesson and the discursiveness of an essay. It can humanise the alien. It can give voice to the voiceless. It can transport the reader from the drudgery of the Tube and a boring job to the plains of Tibet or slums of Delhi. “It gives eye witness proof of life’s infinite possibilities”.

We used to have travel writing like that. Think Bruce Chatwin, Freya Stark, Lawrence Durrell, Patrick Leigh Fermor, even Laurie Lee. They had the ability to unpick the nuances of a culture, and present their observations in beautiful, thought-provoking prose. It was that skill that led Evelyn Waugh to maintain that he preferred “all but the very worst travel books to all but the very best novels.” Could he say that today?

Which brings us to the second question: how should travel writers find something to say, and then how should they present it? There are certain basics. Leave the tourist trail, speak the language, listen, empathise, question, find the story, follow the story, write the story. Travel writing is there to entertain as well as inform. It’s not social anthropology. It’s definitely not travel agency blurb. It’s about people, I’d argue. People different from ourselves. People who have something to teach us about the richness of our world. People who remind us that we all live in a village, and that no village is the same.

Postscript: I had the great pleasure of talking with Mark Tully on the Barclays Pavilion stage yesterday. For any young writer looking to break into travel writing, you could do a lot worse than read ‘India: The Road Ahead’. Tully’s ninth book, it’s a fantastic example of accurate reportage, incisive historical analysis and genuine empathy for his subject. Tully could write about India from the desk in his study. A resident of the country for most of his life, you would think there’s little he doesn’t know about it. Yet he doesn’t. He leaves the comforts of home and hits the road. India still has the ability to surprise, he says. That’s true. What’s also true is that he allows himself to be surprised. That takes a large dose of curiosity, and no little humility.