Interview: Paul Theroux on Travelling

What draws me in is that a trip is a leap in the dark. It’s like a metaphor for life. You set off from home, and in the classic travel book you go to an unknown place. You discover a different world, and you discover yourself. The traveller is an ancient figure – a stand-in for mankind – finding his or her way. Ideally, in a travel book the traveller is alone.

Interview with Paul Theroux as part of The Browser‘s FiveBooks series, also published in Salon in 2012.

Paul Theroux discusses his early life in Malawi and Africa, how travelling gives a perspective on home countries and what it means to travel alone properly and how that intensifies the personal response to a physical journey.

He explains why he chooses not to read travel literature and how he chooses what books to take on a  journey, revealing views similar to Graham Greene:

What books to take on a journey? It is an interesting – and important – problem. In West Africa once I had made the mistake of taking the Anatomy of Melancholy, with the idea that it would, as it were, match the mood. It matched all right, but what one really needs is contrast (The Lawless Roads)

Setting out his five book choices, Paul Theroux explains how each of them helped make him want to write a book himself, how we are drawn to stories about stories about suffering and people being tested and how the length of time a writer spends in a place can affect how they respond to and write about it.

Theroux gives an insight into the difficulty of treating travel writing as a strictly non-fiction literary form.  He highlights that three of his five choices are novelists (“a novelist should be a good traveller”) and explains the value of fiction techniques for travel writing (“the ability to write fiction…is helpful to someone writing a travel book”).  

This resonates with the views of Jan Morris, who resists not only being called a travel writer but also “the idea that travel writing has got to be factual.”  As if to make Theroux’s point about the closeness of travel writing and fiction, Morris recalls Theroux once saying to her that he “liked writing travel books because they gave him a plot; he didn’t have to think one up”.   However, as both authors point out, this does not simply mean making it up even though some travel writers haven been criticised for doing just that.

As for what the five books were? You can read those in the interview.



Article: There be dragons…Paul Theroux on travel in an unsafe world

The earth is often perceived as a foolproof Google map — not very large, easily accessible and knowable by any finger-drumming geek with a computer. In some respects this is true. Distance is no longer a problem. 

The reality is that much of the world is not as safe as we might like and news reports seem currently to add countries to the list of ‘unsafe places’ with alarming regularity.  

In a 2011 New York Times essay, Why We Travel, (published again by the NY Times after the Paris attacks of last November), Paul Theroux reflects on his own travels to places that he was warned off or that might seem unusual choices in light of political or civil unrest. 

The truth, Theroux muses, is that the world is not a static menu of places to visit.  Places have always suffered reversals in their fortunes that may affect whether they are safe to visit.  Some reversals may last longer than others but wars, dictatorships, hurricanes, floods, civil unrest, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and terrorism have always put some places out of most travellers’ comfort zones.

But, if the world’s travel map is constantly being redrawn in “tragic and unsettling ways”, that doesn’t mean that these places should necessarily be ignored by travellers.  

In Abroad, Paul Fussell reminds us that, etymologically, “travel is work” and “a traveler is one who suffers travail, a word deriving in its turn from Latin trillium, a torture instrument consisting of three stakes designed to rack the body.”   A few years later, in the forward to his 1985 Taste for Travel collection, John Julius Norwich lamented that the “the easier it becomes to travel, the harder it is to be a traveller.” 

So, in the same spirit, Theroux explains that travel to unsettled places may not always be be fun but can lead to genuinely rewarding experiences.  After all, travellers have always been “forced to recognize the fact that leaving home means a loss of innocence, encountering uncertainty: the wider world has typically been regarded as haunted, a place of darkness: “There Be Dragons.””


Theroux describes how experiencing daily life in troubled places can be revelatory and highlights that, while an unattractive political situation in a place might make visiting as a tourist a matter of conscience, it doesn’t necessary mean that travelling there would be unsafe.

So what advice to the traveller who is having second thoughts about visiting a destination? The New York Times has just published two further pieces that offer assistance.  

The first, In Cairo, Alone Time With the Pharaohs, by Patrick Scott suggests ‘Go!’.  Describing a visit to Egypt where tourism collapsed in the wake of the 2011 uprising, Scott advises that the result is that it is now possible to “enjoy the privilege of solitude at some of the world’s greatest historic sites.”   To be a tourist in a place where there are no (or at least, few) other tourists is attraction enough for some people, before the added bonus of world class sites.

Despite the seemingly relentless stream of articles about Egypt, Scott finds that, while from afar visitors “perceive the news media coverage of Egypt as overly alarming”, once on the ground in the country they feel different and “without exception…say they feel safe”.   And, as if to prove Theroux’s point about places being in constant flux, Scott quotes a stoical tour operator:

As soon as we are not in the news, people will start coming. We are in their brains, we are in their hearts, we are on their bucket list.   

The second article, An Informed Traveler Is a Safer Traveler, by Seth Kugel (NYT’s Frugal Traveler) offers level-headed, practical advice.  Focussing on recent media coverage of the Zika virus, Kugel suggests that while there might be a great deal of media noise about some places and events, that isn’t necessarily a good indicator of risk.  While we might worry about terrorism abroad, we would do as well to check road safety statistics at home.   With a hefty dose of common sense Kugel advises that, rather than foregoing a journey, the cautious traveller should do some of their own research to see if the media are overstating the risk.  Kugel concludes, quoting Arthur Former, that the decision whether to not go is ultimately one of weighing risk and reward:  

Travel to me is too vital, too important a part of civilized life that I feel we would give up too much by not traveling for fear of terrorism to France, Belgium and other destinations. 

There are limits to all this of course.  Even a redoubtable traveller such as Theroux admits it is sometimes better to heed advice and his article should not be treated as encouragement to would be adventurers to head for the nearest newsworthy trouble spot.  For that, there is ‘Dark Tourism’ (see these articles in The Guardian and The Atlantic).



Book: Barbara Greene, Too Late to Turn Back

Too Late to Turn Back, Barbara GreeneLate to Turn Back: Barbara and Graham Greene in Liberia
by Barbara Greene (with an introduction by Paul Theroux)

published by the Travel Library

Too Late to Turn Back (also published as Land Benighted) is Barbara Greene’s account of her trek with her cousin, Graham Greene, through the Liberian bush in 1935.

From that adventure, Graham Greene produced Journey Without Maps.  Barbara’s account, to borrow from Paul Theroux, is however “quite a different pair of shoes”.

The difference between Graham and Barbara’s accounts can be characterised by the books they took with them to Liberia.  While Graham took Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and produced the darker more introspective Journey Without Maps, Barbara travelled with Saki and Somerset Maugham and produced a more accessible, vivacious travelogue.

While Too Late to Turn Back is considered valuable as a companion piece to Journey Without Maps and as a portrait of Graham Greene, there is, along side the self-effacement and modesty of its author, much more to Too Late to Turn Back.

Barbara Greene was 23 years old when, having been “merrily drinking champagne”, she met her cousin Graham at the wedding reception of Hugh Greene (Graham’s brother) (Although this article suggests that Barbara may have disguised her real age).

Greene’s plans for his Liberian adventure were already well advanced and, because everyone else had refused, Greene asked his cousin Barbara if she would accompany him. Barbara promptly agreed although she “had no clear idea of where he was going to”.

Both Graham and Barbara were later to recall the rashness of their decision to travel to Liberia.  Barbara described them both as being “two innocents” whose “ignorance was abysmal”.  Regretting her “champagne decision”, Barbara hoped her father would forbid her from making the journey but, to her surprise, found that he approved and so, within a fortnight, they were on their way.

As Barbara later acknowledged, it was “unusual then for young girls to adventure off into the wilds”, but “adventure off” she did and what follows in Too Late to Turn Back is the account of a young woman from a privileged existence who had admitted to enjoying her creature comforts roughing it through the African bush.  

As a travelling companion, Graham Greene was complimentary about Barbara, describing her in Ways of Escape as being “as good a companion as the circumstances allowed”.  He also recalled that she left all the decisions to him and never criticised when he made the wrong one.  An arduous journey is likely to strain even the closest of relationships of friendships and theirs was no exception.  Graham noted that, towards the end of the trip they would “lapse into long silences” but found this “infinitely preferable” to raised voices.  Barbara recalled many years later that they “never quarrelled, not once” and also that, although she had not, at any time, been the least bit helpful she “never, never complained”.

This last detail is a telling one.  Despite the seemingly carefree manner of her departure and references to the Savoy Grill and her privileged life in London, Barbara must have had considerable pluck to undertake a journey on foot through the West African bush as a lone woman with a cousin she regarded only as an “acquaintance” and an entourage of 29 carriers, cooks and guides.  They faced many hardships during their trek and Graham’s health progressively worsened prompting Barbara to fear he may die.

Although the book is the sort of travelogue that her cousin was keen to avoid writing, and despite the journey’s hardships Barbara’s account is engaging, revealing small details (such as Graham’s slipping down socks) which lend the narrative intimacy, warmth and humour. She is overly modest, although genuinely so and displays respect and admiration for her cousin, particularly over his handling of the carriers as well as for his presence, intelligence and intellect.  (At one point,  Greene admonishes Barbara over a pair of shorts she was wearing.  Barbara doesn’t repeat his words but, chastened, simply records that Graham “told me with all wealth of phrase at his command exactly what I looked like in them. It was worse than I imagined and hurriedly and humbly I gave the shorts to Laminah.”)

Theroux, in his 1981 introduction notes that Barbara changes during her journey from “scatty socialite” to “hardy and courageous”.  He notes her modesty, dignity, bravery and loyalty and suggests that her transformation shows that “however lighthearted a departure is, if the traveller is generous, observant and dedicated to the trip, the traveller will be changed.

Barbara later confessed to being unsure of how much the journey changed her although  admitted it must have done unconsciously.  She thought that managing “to stick through all difficulties to the end” showed “no particular merit” on her part as they had reached the point of no return early in their trip.  Although probably turn to a certain extent, one senses that this is more modesty and self effacement.

Unlike her cousin, Barbara never returned to Africa.  Remembering the trip in later life, Barbara identified the treasure that she brought back from their Liberian journey as being one that she kept in her heart: “a dream of pure beauty and peace, a vision of moonlit villages in the jungle, friendly people dancing to the twang of a native harp and the beat of a drum , simplicity where material values were of no account and where understanding could be reached without words.”

In Ways of Escape, Graham later stated that Barbara writing her book was the one thing in which she had disappointed him.  He had been so busy with his own notes that he had not even noticed that Barbara was making her own.  Greene was, however, grateful that Barbara had at least waited until a few years after his own had been published.  In fact, Barbara never meant for her book to be published and had only re-written her notes so that she had something to read to her father when he became ill.

Originally published as Land Benighted in 1938, Barbara’s account was reprinted in 1981 with a new forward by her and with an introduction by Paul Theroux. Unfortunately, the book is currently out of print but second hand copies can be found online.