The Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre by Tim Hannigan

Review by Linda Lappin

Travel writing has been pronounced dead at various times over the last century, only to spring back with new vigor, enticing new readers to lace up their hiking boots. Each generation has its its own world in transformation to explore, its own preferred ways of getting somewhere and reporting back. As the term “travel writing” comprises dozens of sub-genres ranging from transformative memoirs to guidebooks and nature writing, it’s not surprising that practitioners have kept up a lively debate on what should be included in the genre and what excluded.  Boiling it down: travel writing is writing about journeys to places – but the focus may shift from the writer, to the reader, to the destination itself, producing extremely diverse texts/films/videos with widely different functions: self-celebration, escape, entertainment, practical advice, infotainment.

Whenever we travel, we take ourselves and our cultural prejudices with us, and wherever we go, we encounter travelees. That is to say: the people living in a place whose lives we intersect and sometimes disarrange on our journeys.  Those prejudices, the expectations and mental images to which they give rise, and their impact on travelees have come under sharp scrutiny in academe over the last fifty years, ever since Edward Said published Orientalism, in which he argues that the misrepresentation of the “East” by western writers is a form of imperialistic exploitation. Not only are many classics of 18th and 19th century travel writing now seen as tainted and ambiguous, the entire genre of western travel narratives has become “irredeemable” in the eyes of postcolonial studies.

Yet today travel writing is everywhere: in print and online, in film, video, tv, and podcasts; on Twitter, FB, IG, Youtube,  TikTok.  Shopify ranks “travel” as one of the top IG hashtags of all times, ranking eleven points above “selfie,” and forty-two points above “cat.” We love to go places and tell others what we found there. Changing our location allows us not only to be somewhere else but to be someone else – and if we can’t manage to go where we want, the next best thing is reading about someone who did (or following them on Instagram).Whether it’s trekking through the Hindu Kush, biking across the outback, or restoring a 1 euro house in Italy, we want to read firsthand accounts to dream over. We want the facts from someone with authority.

Not so long ago, that someone with authority most likely belonged to what author Tim Hannigan in his new book calls the “Travel Writing Tribe,” a group of white, elitist, male British writers, public school educated, who combined the ideals of physical hardiness and an adventurous spirit with an academic background in anthropology or history and a knack for difficult languages. They belonged to prestigious societies for explorers, prepped for years before a trip in exclusive libraries, and had access to funding or personal fortunes with which to equip themselves. From the days of Sir Richard Burton, the avatar of the privileged scholar-explorer-gentleman writer has remained a fixture of British travel writing– though some women have been allowed to sneak into the club, like Freya Stark.

It is with the descendants of this tradition that Hannigan is concerned in his engrossing and thoroughly-researched book, The Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre.  An academic, travel writer, former chef, and travel writing fan, the author sets out to discover how travel writing and travel writers have changed since the 1980s. Hannigan wants to know:  Is there really “something wrong” with travel writing? Just how open is travel writing today to diversity of class, race, and gender?  How do writers feel about travelees? How important are truth and fact in travel writing? What options do young writers have for future careers in the field?

To answer these questions, Hannigan journeys to far flung points pre -Covid to interview travel writing readers, publishers, academics, and writers. Some of those writers, like the distinguished Colin Thubron, Robin Hanbury-Tenison (Taming the Four Horsemen) and Philip Marsden (A Far Country) conform to the well-established pattern of the upper-class scholar-explorer, while others like film-maker Nick Danziger, or cyclist Dervla Murphy (Full Tilt) deviate from it. The conversations, which unrolled in the writers’ homes or in cafes over pots of tea, are frank, insightful, often surprising. Nicholas Jubber  (The Timbuktu School for Nomads) affirms, “The travel book is an authentic calendar of the way that the world evolves.” Although the genre will change, it will endure, Jubber believes, thanks to its great flexibility. Publisher Barnaby Rogerson (Eland) instead warns, “The role of the professional travel writer will soon be at an end.” Murphy breezily contests the very raison d’être of the genre, confessing that she finds it pointless to read travel books. “You know, you just go there and find out for yourself.“  

Three of the writers Hannigan includes are dead: Wilfred Thesiger, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Bruce Chatwin. In discussing Thesiger and Fermor, he undertakes a meticulous study of manuscripts and other documents in archives. Comparing the final published versions of their work to early drafts, Hannigan unravels the painstaking process these writers undertook in transforming diaries and other material into vivid travel narratives. He also discovers  the occasional intrusion of fictionalized details.  

The answers to Hannigan’s query: “Is it OK to make things up?” are fascinating. The readers he interviewed concurred: absolutely not, but the writers had other ideas. Some believed it’s acceptable to alter the chronology of events or create composite characters to enhance the narrative.  Others pointed out the blurred borders of veracity. After all, when asked what divided fact from fiction, Bruce Chatwin once famously replied, “I don’t think there is a division.” And as Murphy reminds us, “The three of us can see the same thing and write down a completely different record of it.”  So where does accuracy lie?

To Chatwin, who made travel writing “cool,” is dedicated the poignant epilogue of Hannigan’s thought-provoking book.  In the final chapter, Hannigan hikes three days in the heat across the Peloponnese to reach a chapel hidden in an olive grove where Chatwin’s ashes are buried. Here he finds a geocache logbook gamers have left and leaves an entry in the log.  With this gesture he fulfills one of the most ancient purposes of travel – the pilgrimage or quest to the tomb of an ancestor whose beneficial influence we hope to absorb into our being.  In fact, Hannigan acknowledges that Chatwin was “the travel writer I most wanted to be.” It’s the journeys of others that still urge us on and help us make sense of the places we go.  “Going back to a book is like going back to a place, “Hannigan concludes. Travel narratives feed our essential need to find meaning in places.

In The Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre he provides us with a rich banquet of viewpoints and stories to mull over as we plan the reading list for our next trip.