THINGS near us are seen life-size, and distance, while it enchants the imagination, destroys the reality. That is a good reason why those who want to know the truth about the world should travel.

Francis Wrigley Hirst was a British journalist and writer.  Born in 1873, Wrigley Hirst was editor of The Economist from 1907 to 1916.  Unsurprisingly, most of his writings were about trade, economics and politics.

This essay appeared in a 1913 collection called The Six Panics & other essays. It is ironic that Hirst should write about modern travel and the ease with which it can be undertaken just as the outbreak of the First World War was about to make travel in Europe more difficult.
Two of the six ‘panics’ in the collection relate to dreadnoughts and airships while another chapter discusses the Balkan Wars which served as a prelude for the First World War, which makes the pice on travel seem even more oddly placed.

I stumbled across Hirst’s essay in the excellent 1913 by Charles Emmerson, a history offering a different perspective on that year.  Rather than view 1913 through the prism of the war which followed it, Emmerson looks at 23 citiess around the world and tries to view those cities as they might have been seen at the time, modern and full of possibilities.  

Emmerson quotes Hirst’s essay at the start of his introduction and uses it and the experience of travel it conveys to highlight how modern and globalised the world of 1913 was. 

Ever the economist, Hirst writes about general trends in travel among those who travel for commercial purposes and emigrants who travel in search of work.  Profit and Labour are his preoccupations.  Even when discussing those who travel for pleasure, he observes that is a supply of good facilities and transport networks (which exist because of capital’s ceaseless search for a return) that drives tourist demand.  Despite his economic perspective, Hirst is no advocate of travel as mere consumer pastime.  
 
 If it were not for books, telegrams, and letters, Australia or China would look smaller and less important to the average Englishman than his neighbour’s field. And even with the aid of books and newspapers it needs a large stock of intelligent sympathy to understand countries and peoples one has never seen. But invention is fast removing the physical obstacles to knowledge of the world.
Hirst sketches an impressive picture of a globalised, connected world in which travel is becoming ever more easy and comfortable.  However, this is accompanied by a concern that as the volume of travel increases, its benefits will decrease.  
 
But what of the modern tourist? Is he as good a man as his predecessor, who faced so much more risk and discomfort a hundred years ago? Comparisons no doubt are difficult, but there is room to fear that against a great increase in the volume must be set some decrease in the advantages of travel…Your modern traveller may pass with every luxury by day and a comfortable berth at night to any city in Europe, and there reside in a luxurious hotel, surrounded by cosmopolitan attendants, who know nothing and care less of the city or country in which they are accumulating tips.
His concern is that a traveller could move around the world from one luxurious hotel to another, in a sort of bubble, with no better knowledge of a place than its hotels and restaurants.
After travelling in this way from one grand hotel to another, he may return from his trip in blissful ignorance of the language, the people, the habits, and prejudices of the country he has visited. He and his like have seen sights and compared hotels, but that is the whole story. In short, they are only tourists conducted or unconducted. Innocent they went and innocent they return of languages, institutions and laws other than their own. In the old days travelling was slow, uncomfortable and comparatively dangerous; but it was also comparatively instructive. 
For Hirst, travel should aspire to something more.  What matters is to experience other places.  Relying on books and descriptions is not enough.  Only by visiting other countries, by learning some of the language can one understand the culture and be better informed about world afffairs without falling prey to “malevolent journalism”.
Hirst’s essay is a call to action.  We can learn a foreign language to read books to understand other places and cultures although as modern invention has made travel easier and more comfortable than ever, we have no need to confine our understanding of places to what we read about them.  We can instead travel to them and, rather than learning a language to read books, use it to read men and gain experience.   Whether our journeys are “civilizing and liberalizing” rather than leaving us “boastful and ignorant” depends on the nature and quality of the encounters travellers have and the mindset with which they approach their travels. 
Hirst distills the classic essays on travel and quotes from Hazlitt, Claudian, Bacon, Sterne and Feltham in his search for guidance about how we should travel: “Experience is the best informer”; “[travel] makes a wise man better, and a fool worse”; “the more you hurry, the less you see”; wondering whether it is better to travel alone or with a companion; the importance of travelling among and socialising with people of all classes from the place visited rather than spending time with fellow compatriots in first class. 
Hirt’s essay is about travel as a civilising and improving influence, something from which a great deal can be gained with a little thought and effort about how one goes about it.  It is not unlike advice commonly seen about how we could all make better travellers.  Indeed, Hirst says it is difficult to improve on the old essays and, reading his essay, it is hard to disagree with him.

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