Article: The Economist’s editor on foreign travel in 1913

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.

Article & book: The Camino de Santiago & travel snobbery

We live in a world of systems and safety nets, and we learn at an early age how to navigate the labyrinth of modern life — leave the house, coin here, card there, please, thank you, timetable, schedule, departure, arrival, home safe, warm bed. The risks we face? Getting caught in traffic, missing a meeting, the corner-shop sold out of milk. And life’s essentials — food, water, shelter, contentment — are mere sideshows to this little merry-go-round.

Most of us easily fall in love with the romantic idea of a big adventure — grab a backpack and hiking boots, launch forth into a magical world of mountains and birdsong and fresh, clean air. Live. Breathe. Get fit like we always meant to. Take photos. Enjoy the simple things. Let modern life drop away.

This is an entertaining article from Tom Allen about snobbery and the Camino de Santiago.  

Noting that over 200,000 people hiked the Camino Santiago in 2014, making it one of the most popular hiking trails in the world, Allen takes aim at travellers who “tend to be the kind of ‘superior traveller’ who isn’t happy unless they’re getting one over on the ovine hordes”, the type who have to be “the first Westerner to go somewhere previously unreachable or unknown, or the only one doing something new and exciting, or generally just proving they’re ever-so-slightly better or wiser or more perceptive than every other dumb schmuck.”

True, his real target is a certain category of ‘adventurers’ but his observations apply equally well to travellers in general. 

Tired of people questioning what kind of adventure it can really be if so many people are hiking it, Allen laces up his boots and sets out along the Camino to uncover its virtues in spite of its popularity.  

Allen praises the Camino for providing a taste of real adventure with some degree of safety net for first-timers, Allen sees the value in the Camino because it might actually persuade people to make the leap of the sofa and give some form adventure a go.

You get the morphing landscapes, the constant exercise, the tangible sense of progress. You get the satisfaction of planning and executing; of braving the weather and coming out unscathed; of resting your weary legs at the end of a hard day. You get the feeling of immersion in a foreign land.  

As he progresses along the Camino, Allen realises that the Camino is not only a useful ‘gateway’ adventure but is also intrinsically enjoyable and offers the “surprisingly joyous sensation” of camaraderie and a shared goal.  

Tom Allen’s article is available at Medium or on his excellent blog, here.  

Reading Allen’s article had me looking out my copy of Taras Grescoe’s 2003 book, The End of Elsewhere, the introduction and first chapter to which are also about the Camino and, to some extent, pursue similar themes. However,  Grescoe’s target is bigger and is the whole notion of travel.  Why do we do it in the first place? 

“The sole cause of man’s unhappiness” wrote Blaise Pascal, “is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room.” Shivering on hostel floors and ferry decks, stuck ticketless on tropical isles, I’ve often asked myself the question I am now travelling to answer: why in God’s name can’t I just stay put. 

In an attempt to answer his own question and adopting a wry and irreverant approach, Grescoe deliberately follows the deepest furrows ploughed by the 700 hundred millions of annual tourists rather than seeking out “the world’s ever-diminishing pockets of authenticity.”

Grescoe begins at Cabo Fisterra in northwest Spain – Europe’s End of the Earth – and follows a route taking in some of the planet’s most visited places on the way to his destination, Tianya Haijao on Hainan – the End of the Earth in ancient Chinese cosmology.  

Starting out along the Camino de Santiago as a Camino-sceptic, and walking it in reverse to maximise the number of other pilgrims he met, Grescoe encounters a budget travel snob, eccentrics, commercialism, motives for undertaking the pilgrimage varying from the saintly to the libidinous and even an American who had been inspired to walk the Camino without having read Peolo Coehlo’s book about it.

Gradually, I began to grasp the advantages of walking, the oldest and simplest form of travel.  The more I walked, the more materialism and concern about self image seemed to slough away.

By the end of his time on the Camino, Taras Grescoe confessed to being a convert, appreciating the slow transition of landscapes and the subtle changes of the breezes during the day, gaining an understanding of Spain and the influence of rural traditions on its culture and feeling that in many ways the Camino and those who walk it had not changed greatly since the 12th century.

When Taras Grescoe’s book was published in 2003, there were 700 million tourists annually.  According to the World Tourism Council (WTC) that figure relates to number of international tourist arrivals around the world rather than to the number of individual tourists.  More importantly though, the figure has already increased to just under 1.2 billion and the WTC estimates that the figure could rise to 2 billion by 2026.  

The odds, therefore, of finding a corner of the world that no-one else has been to or happens to be visiting at the same time we choose to are only going to lengthen.

So, in order to be true travellers or adventurers, should we avoid popular or ‘obvious’ places and seek authenticity in ever more obscure parts of the world?  

Not necessarily.  In the same way that adventurers may eschew popular hiking trails to prove that they are ‘real’ adventurers, Paul Fussel noted in his 1980 book Abroad that, for the anti-tourist

Sedulously avoiding the standard sights is probably the best method of disguising your touristhood. In London one avoids Westminster Abbey and heads instead for the Earl of Burlington’s eighteenth-century villa at Chiswick. In Venice one must walk by circuitous smelly back passages far out of one’s way to avoid being seen in the Piazza San Marco.   

Fussell went on to label the affinity of some to see themselves as ‘travellers’ rather than mere ‘tourists’ as “a uniquely modern form of self-contempt” and a symptom and cause “of what the British journalist Alan Brien has designated tourist angst, defined as “a gnawing suspicion that after all … you are still a tourist like every other tourist.”  

Tom Allen seems to reach the same conclusion.  Observing that the people he met on the 800km long Camino possessed no extraordinary physical prowess but simply a desire to walk and complete it sometimes multiple times, he concludes: “perhaps that’s why superior travellers hate the Camino: it’s a powerful suggestion that there is nothing superior about them after all.”  The aim of adventuring where only few or none have been before could be seen as an exercise simply to set oneself apart from the crowd.  Or, to put it another way: “if everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody.”

Grescoe is making a slightly different point but there are parallels.  He gets carried away by the Camino and is swept up by it.  Feeling his materialism and concern about his self-image start to fall away and finding himself giving away money and possessions, Grescoe might agree with Allen, seeing the Camino was being a part of something with others rather than being apart from others.  While concerns about materialism might also recede in an adventure to a remote place, there is a difference in not being surrounded by shops and material things as opposed to being surrounded by them and caring less about them.  It is the difference between living a cloistered existence and living a ‘normal’ one.   

Ultimately, a large part of what seems to have made the Camino for Allen and Grescoe is its history and, perhaps contrary to what a lot of travel writing tells us we should seek from travel, its popularity and the many people they met along the way.  That doesn’t necessarily make the desire to be away from crowds wrong, it is just to say that we should examine the motive for it.  

Both Tom Allen’s article and Taras Grescoe’s book are refreshing and a reminder that what is important and what defines you is not where you go, but why and how you do it and that you do, in the first place, actually go.

For Allen, that is “to travel without expectations, to see what my senses tell me when they’re not obscured by my own ever-so-enlightened personal narrative.”

Sounds like a good ethos to me. 

 

Book: Harry Franck’s All About Going Abroad (1,411 words)

All About Going Abroad 
by Harry A. Franck  

Brentano’s, New York (1927)

The first obvious question of the prospective traveler is where to go…Our little planet may be but a speck in even our own solar system, but there is enough of keen interest on it to keep anyone traveling incessantly for a life-time. 

Born in 1881, Harry Alverson Franck, ‘Prince of Vagabonds’, travelled unceasingly and extensively during the first 30 years of the 20th century and wrote more than 25 books about his journeys.

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Central to Franck’s philosophy of travel was the idea that “a man with a bit of energy and good health could start without money and make a journey around the globe”.  

He put his money (or lack of it) where his mouth was and after graduating from university began a year long journey around the world.  He travelled mostly on foot, with very little money and with no fixed itinerary, going wherever the journey took him.  Franck wrote about this trip in his first travel book, A Vagabond Journey Around the World, which was published in 1911.  Franck expanded on his philosophy in his foreword to that book

Travel for pleasure has ever been considered a special privilege of the wealthy. That a man without ample funds should turn tourist seems to his fellow-beings an action little less reprehensible than an attempt to finance a corporation on worthless paper.  He who would see the world, and has not been provided the means thereto by a considerate ancestor, should sit close at home until his life work is done, his fortune made.  Then let him travel; when his eyes have grown too dim to catch the beauty of a distant landscape, when struggle and experience have rendered him blase and unimpressionable.

The idea of not waiting until retirement before travelling the world was echoed in the “retire young, work old” philosophy of Johnny Case, Cary Grant’s character in George Cukor’s 1938 film Holiday, in which Grant starred with Katharine Hepburn:

Whereas Grant’s character Case wanted to make a bit of money and then head out travelling, Franck didn’t think it was necesary even to do that before leaving home.

After his vagabond year, Franck travelled through Central and South America for a number of years, including working as a policeman for a time in the Panama Canal Zone.  He wrote about these travels in several books which were published either side of his First World War military service:  Zone Policeman 88 (1913), Tramping Through Mexico Guatemala, and Honduras (1916), Vagabonding Down the Andes (1917) and Working North from Patagonia (1921). 

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Image from http://www.harryafranck.com

Throughout the remainder of the Twenties and Thirties, Franck continued to travel widely, visiting China, Russia, Japan, the West Indies, Germany, Europe, the Middle East and what was French Indochina.  His last book, published in 1943, saw him return to South America.  

Aged 61, Franck obtained a commission as a Major and served with the Ninth Air Force in the closing days of World War Two, an experience he wrote about in Winter Journey Through the Ninth (published posthumously by his family).  Franck died in 1962.

All About Going Abroad is slightly different to Franck’s other books.  Although written with his usual wry humour, rather than narrating a particular journey, All About distills Franck’s travel experiences into a short book of advice for aspiring travellers.

Consequently, it deals with the where, when and how of travel as well as preparations before travel such as obtaining passports and visas and carrying funds as well as information on how to plan a journey. 

There is advice on choosing a class and berth on a ship, how to carry funds, etitquette onboard ships including securing a deck chair in an advantageous position and making arrangements for morning baths.  He covers the complexities and differences in rail travel in different countries, highlighting that the luggage allowance and checked baggage rules were as complicated and varied in the Twenties as they can be among airlines today.   He also addresses the emergence of passenger air travel, noting that Imperial Airways had as many as 6 daily flights between London and Paris by 1927. 

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Published in 1927, some of the advice in All About Going Abroad, such as the lists of times it takes to travel between major European cities and the requirement to take formal dinner wear on a cruise, reveals how much travel has changed since Franck’s time.  

However, it also highlights how little some aspects of travel had changed until very recently.  Travellers cheques are still in use even though the double signing procedure seems charmingly old fashioned in an era when most transactions simply require a four digit code or contactless payment.  Stocking up on camera film and ensuring they were protected from the elements was also a preoccupation until relatively recently as was the use of forwarding addresses and Poste Restante until email arrived on the scene (although I admit it never occurred to me to suggest to family that they send the same letter to different places in case the letter missed me at the first address).     

While the packing list may seem outdated (few travellers would now pack a masquerade costume), Franck’s advice on the approach to packing is still valid:

The first and last rule as to clothing is to take as little as possible. A famous traveler-author makes it a rule to lay out his outfit for a new trip in three piles— 1. The things he is sure to use every day; 2. The things he is likely to need two or three times a week; 3. The things he may need. Then, throwing away the second and third piles, he goes on his way rejoicing. 

Similarly, Franck’s advice on ‘slow travel’ is also timeless:

You will get more enjoyment, at less cost, out of a leisurely journey through a small but carefully chosen section of Europe—or of any other foreign country—than by dashing across the whole continent hitting only the high spots.”

When discussing different types of travellers, Franck also reveals that ‘off the beaten track’ travel was as much a preoccupation in the 1920s as it is today.  Drawing distinctions between different types of travellers and travelling styles, he highlights those who go independently and:

prefer to meet the world face to face by depending on their own resources. That way, they feel, may be more probability of adventure, more likelihood of genuine thrills. For the sake of these  they are willing to forego the greater comfort of the “independent tour” and to accept philosophically the disappointments caused by the failure to secure always the accommodations they wish.

Franck admits though, that his favourite way to travel is as ‘the plain wanderer’:

That need not by any means imply a penniless individual; wealthy wanderers are far from rare. But such a one would never think of accepting a fixed itinerary from anyone. He may drop into a tourist agency and buy a ticket or “book accommodations” to the place he has suddenly decided to go to next, because a tourist agency is often the easiest place to get such things, and the general information that goes with them, all at no increase in price. But he leaves his route open, as people like to feel they keep their minds open, so that if he hears in the smoking room one night of a wonderful new ruin just uncovered, or catches a whisper in a native bazaar of something no other tourist has ever visited, he may forthwith go and see. But it takes a certain amount of phlegm and self-reliance, and energy, not to say freedom from calendar limitations, to accomplish and enjoy this form of travel. Besides, we are now hanging over the brink of the chasm which separates the mere traveler from the adventurer and explorer, and to these latter I am not presuming to proffer advice.  

All About Going Abroad is not just a glimpse of travel as it used to be but thanks to Franck’s insights is, in some respects, also a book about what travel still is and can be.  It is short but fascinating and ends with a seemingly paradoxical sentiment:  

Home again at last, it often happens that your journey in retrospect is the most delightful of all the pleasures of travel, not even excepting anticipation.

All About Going Abroad is available to view online free of charge at Hathitrust although it is sadly not possible to downlaod a copy.  For more Harry Franck books, the best bet is the Internet Archive.  

Further information about Harry Franck life and writing is available on Wikipedia and on the website run by his grandson: www.harryafranck.com

Article & Book: Albert Camus on awareness, happiness, travel & Algeria

For what gives value to travel is fear

This well known quote attributed to Albert Camus often appears in lists of top travel quotes.

In this short but thought provoking article from the fantastic Brainpickings, Maria Popova puts that quote in its intended philosophical context by looking at Camus’ essay Love of Life from Lyrical and Critical Essays.

Camus’s quote is more about being outside the comfort zone of our normal daily lives than a prescription to embark on dangerous adventures to incite a state of anxiety. 

Explaining that adherence to routine can lessen our capacity for happiness, travel plays a valuable role in breaking that routine:

 
Without cafés and newspapers, it would be difficult to travel. A paper printed in our own language, a place to rub shoulders with others in the evenings enable us to imitate the familiar gestures of the man we were at home, who, seen from a distance, seems so much a stranger. For what gives value to travel is fear. It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have. One can no longer cheat — hide behind the hours spent at the office or at the plant (those hours we protest so loudly, which protect us so well from the pain of being alone). I have always wanted to write novels in which my heroes would say: “What would I do without the office?” or again: “My wife has died, but fortunately I have all these orders to fill for tomorrow.” Travel robs us of such refuge. Far from our own people, our own language, stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks (one doesn’t know the fare on the streetcars, or anything else), we are completely on the surface of ourselves. But also, soul-sick, we restore to every being and every object its miraculous value. A woman dancing without a thought in her head, a bottle on a table, glimpsed behind a curtain: each image becomes a symbol. The whole of life seems reflected in it, insofar as it summarizes our own life at the moment. When we are aware of every gift, the contradictory intoxications we can enjoy (including that of lucidity) are indescribable.
Camus expressed a similar idea in his notebooks:
 
What gives value to travel is fear.  It is the fact that when we are so far from our own country we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits.
Rather than happiness, therefore, Camus tells us it is awareness we should wish for. 
 
As Maria Popova puts it, “Camus considers how the trance of productivity robs us of the very presence necessary for happiness” and travel can bring us out of that trance.
 
While we should not waste time, simply filling time or being busy is not the same as not wasting it “if in doing so one loses oneself.”
 
Therefore while travel can help heighten awareness, it is important to think about how we travel and whether we are simply filling time and losing ourselves, if we want to reap its full benefit.  
It is intersting to note that when travelling and being stripped of all that is familiar, we are likely to fel ‘soul-sick’ and that travel is an experience which can bring ‘contradictory intoxications’.  
 

Those interested in Camus’ writing on place should seek out his Algerian Chronicles.  While more a collection of reportage and political pieces than a traditional work of travel writing, Algerian Chronicles explores an exile’s relationship with the country of his birth as it undergoes a period of crisis.

Algerian Chronicles is a selection of Camus’ journalism about Algeria written over 20 years from 1939 “when almost no one in France was interested in the country, to 1958, when everyone is talking about it.”  

It was compiled and published in 1958 in response to the Algerian War at a time when Camus felt desparate about the country’s future and was torn between two positions: 

These texts summarize the position of a man who, having confronted the Algerian plight from the time he was very young, tried in vain to sound the alarm and who, being long aware of France’s responsibility in the matter, could not approve of either a conservative or an oppressive policy – from Camus’s Preface to Algerian Chronicles.
In her excellent review of Algerian Chronicles for The New York Review of Books, Claire Messud picks up on this theme of Camus’ bifurcated spirit and how he wrote about it frequently, quoting him as saying:

The Mediterranean separates two worlds in me, one where memories and names are preserved in measured spaces, the other where the wind and sand erases [sic] all trace of men on the open ranges.
The first section of Algerian Chronicles explores the economic causes of the crisis through articles written in 1939 describing the famine in Algeria’s Kabylia region.  Their publication led to Camus’ first exile as he was forced to look for work outside of Algeria (although he soon returned).  

The other pieces were written from the perspective of an outsider, albeit one intimately familiar with the country, or at least from the the perspective of someone caught between two places, and examine the development of the crisis, assess its (then) current state and propose a possible solution.

 

“What a misfortune is the one of a man without a city.” “Oh make it so that I will not be without a city,” the choir said [in Medea]. I am without a city. —Albert Camus, Notebooks, 1951–1959 (quoted in Claire Messud’s review for NYRB)

The New York Times‘ review of Algerian Chronicles is available here, Jermey Harding’s review for The London Review of Books is here and The LA Review of Books‘ review is here.

Article: On air travel – Pat downs, pissing & passport stamps

I remember when flying was a luxury experience, when the flight attendants were nice to you and everyone got a meal. Today, it’s as rough as hitchhiking and the planes are all beat to hell.

Great trilogy of essays taken from the book, Airplane Reading by Christopher Schaberg and Marck Yakich.

Airplane Reading brings together a collection of essays from writers, airline workers and travellers about the experience of travel by air.

The collection approaches the subject from a number of different perspectives. It doesn’t always focus on the miracle of mechanical flight and is less medidative than Paul Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring.

The three essays extracted and appearing on Literary Hub deal with airport security, agonising waits for the seatbelt sign to switch off and how one relative of an airline employee utilised their free air travel benefits.

Short and sharply written they are funny and worth a read.

 

Article: How is Cuba going to be ruined?

There’s nothing necessarily wrong about being a tourist. A tourist is somebody who happens to be more interested in the rest of the world than he is in his own little puddle.”
–Bruce Chatwin

The recent thawing in relations between the US and Cuba, culminating in President Obama’s March 2016 visit to the island, has prompted a slew of articles like this one urging readers to visit Cuba before it changes or is ruined.  

These articles raise interesting questions not only about how tourists view the view countries they visit but also how they view each other.

In a passionate and excellent article for Flood magazine, Natalie Morales urges us to Please Stop Saying You Want to Go to Cuba Before It’s Ruined and asks:

What exactly do you think will ruin Cuba? Running water? Available food? Freedom of speech? Uncontrolled media and Internet? Access to proper healthcare? You want to go to Cuba before the buildings get repaired? Before people can actually live off their wages? Or before the oppressive Communist regime is someday overthrown? Make sure you hurry and go observe these human beings in the time bubble that was created especially for you so that you could post a #nofilter photo of it on Instagram.

As tourists, we can fetishise destinations, as though any change in a place will somehow render it less ‘authentic’.  As Natalie Morales highlights, that renders the people who live there secondary to our notion of how a place should be and makes them just another part of the scenery.

Alex Garland made a similar point in The Beach.  Garland’s novel was criticised for presenting Thais as two-dimensional although that missed the point he was making, namely that this was how the backpackers he was writing about viewed them.  The Thais were just part of the scenery to the backpackers’ own south-east Asian fantasy, the result of watching too many Vietnam films.

In Cuba’s case, to equate change with ruining the country is selfish and patronising:  it overlooks why the country appears to be a ‘timewarp’ and makes huge assumptions about the desires of Cuban people.  

If renewed economic relations with the US bring changes, it would be perverse to view those as ‘ruinous’ when it was the US’s refusal of economic ties with Cuba which have caused so many of Cuba’s problems and denied opportunities to Cubans.  No-one would surely celebrate those economic sanctions, yet we worship its fruits in the form of the vintage cars cruising the Malecon and lament the prospect of change.

Christopher Isherwood considered the dilemma of changing and modernising historical places when he wrote about Cuzco in The Condor and The Cow but concluded that the: 

The alternative is unthinkable – to condemn thousands of people to a life of squalor and disease for the pleasure of the archaeologists and romantically-minded tourists. 

Isherwood’s sentiment, expressed in 1947, is equally applicable to Cuba now. 

Taken to its extreme, this kind of glorification of an ‘authentic’ or ‘unchanged’ state can be harmful.  The more that tourists demand the picturesque and authentic, the greater the risk of exploitation.  In Cuba’s case, economic conditions drive young females into the sex industry.   

In a different example, Nic Dunlop has documented in his book Brave New Burma how Thai businessmen exploit the Karen people, whose only option is to return to refugee camps, by running tourist villages in which electricity is forbidden so as to preserve the ‘natural’ experience preferred by tourists.  No doubt there are many other examples.

We have all heard people express the wish to have seen famous sights before they became too popular or how pleasant somewhere would be if only it wasn’t overrun or spoiled by tourists or had those thoughts ourselves.  It doesn’t take much reflection to realise that a desire that everyone else stays home while we travel to ‘unspoiled’ places is at best unrealistic. 

With more than a billion tourist journeys each year, we have to accept, as Nomadic Matt writes in this post, that people will travel and that all we can do is vote with our wallets and our feet to encourage sustainable development and tourism so that places don’t get spoiled.  

Yes, 19th-century clergyman Francis Culvert wrote that “of all noxious animals… the most noxious is a tourist” and we all know that it is tourists who spoil places and not travellers.  Noel Coward even wrote a song about how it was all the wrong people who travelled (Why Do all the Wrong People Travel?), although we probably shouldn’t be too quick to assume that the tourist is always the other fellow (but that is probably for another post).

In an interview with Ron Gluckman, Alex Garland cringed at the thought that the film of The Beach might encourage hordes of people to visit Thailand: “God, I hope not. That would worry me. But it’s all speculation until the movie comes out. I really don’t see Leo fans jumping on planes and coming to Thailand. I hope not.”  

We know how that turned out.

It is inevitable that Cuba will change in time.  Everywhere does.

Article: Teju Cole on Switzerland & the desire to be away from home

What is interesting is to find, in that continuity, the less-obvious differences of texture: the signs, the markings, the assemblages, the things hiding in plain sight in each cityscape or landscape.

Great piece from Teju Cole in The New York Times from last year.

Cole was invited to spend six months in Switzerland in 2014 by Literaturhaus in Zurich with apartment and stipend thrown in.

What follows is an insightful essay in which Cole contemplates Switzerland, photography and his own discovery of the country.

Trying to develop his photographic voice, Cole reflects on the impressive mountain landscape (the key to unlocking an understanding of the country) and attempts by artists and photographers through history to capture its essence.

Travelers tend to go where other travelers have gone, and perhaps this is part of the reason travel photography remains in thrall to the typical.

In the process he reflects on the nature of tourism and his identity as a traveller, recognising that he too is “part of a great endless horde”.

As he grapples with self-doubt about his ability to say something unique about Switzerland through his photos, he descends from the grandeur and sublimity of the mountains, Switzerland’s metonym, to the detail of life its valleys.

Searching for meaning in what he observes, Cole reflects on notions of home and also Heimweh and Fernweh, the German words for homesickness and a longing to be away from home.

“Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?’” But to have merely thought of here would not have revealed its subtle peculiarities, the peculiarities that are not written in guidebooks. Only direct observation can reveal those.

The subject of Cole’s essay claims to be travel photography or photography of places but his observations could equally apply to travel writing.

Not entirely at home when away, yet unable to remain at home, he contemplates an in between state. For Cole, Switzerland embodies that state while his search for meaning through photography could be a metaphor for the experience of travel itself.

Well worth a read.

Article: Save yourself from being a white saviour when volunteering abroad

The conversation was always about ‘help, help, help,’ but nobody ever asked if what we were doing was needed.

With A-level results out and gap years getting under way before university studies begin, this great article from Huck magazine about trying to avoid the pitfalls of volunteering is timely.

Earlier in the year, the London School of Economics announced that gap year students volunteering abroad could do more harm than good and that orphanages could lead to exploitation and child trafficking.  

Gap years and volunteering also made the press earlier this summer when Scottish actress Louise Linton ended up retracting a widely criticised memoir about her gap year experiences in Zambia.

Don’t be a white saviour.  Don’t.

Huck’s overarching message is easy to bear in mind.  Volunteers must try to understand their own motivations.  Sites like Humanitarians of Tinder and the Gap Yah Youtube video are funny because they expose possibly dual or insincere motivations but could equally illustrate another point made in the Huck article: “there’s no shame in ‘just’ being a tourist.”

Tourism is often seen negatively, as something destructive and culturally insensitive.  The point of Huck’s piece is that volunteerism, unless given some thought is also capable of being negative.   

Accepting that with only limited time to spend in a place we can only really be tourists, may be preferable to uncritically paying to take part in a scheme whose benefits may at best be unclear or at worst negative.  An honest approach may also help us see more clearly the impact our travels have on a place and on the relationships we have with the people who live there, rather than cloaking our travels in altruism.  

As an article on the BBC website in July pointed out, a dynamic where the most privileged from wealthier nations pay to take part in projects in or visit underprivileged communities can result in poverty tourism.

From volunteering on projects to visiting favelas in Rio and slums in Mumbai, it seems we will go to ever greater lengths to experience the authentic as a traveller rather than repeat clichéd experiences as tourists.  The ethics of this are not always easy.  

If so-called ‘slum tourism’ can be criticised for voyeurism and commodifying urban inequality, can the volunteer industry be seen as commodifying poverty and inequalities on a global scale along with the development and aid sectors that are meant to be alleviating it?  

Possibly, but it is also the case that done responsibly, slum tourism (as with volunteering) can have positive effects on communities and the people who visit them.  As well as bringing money directly to less advantaged communities and their businesses, visitors gain a different perspective on the destinations they travel to.  And that, as Fabian Frenzel, author of Slumming It, points out in this Forbes article and this interview in Vice “is the classical, educational aspect of tourism.” 

If all of this seems overwhelming and far more complex than you anticipated — good. That’s really the point. International volunteering should not be undertaken on a lark.  Shannon O’Donnell

Deciding whether to volunteer and choosing the right programme are not necessarily straight forward.  This isn’t to say don’t do it, or that there are not many ways that travellers can have positive effects on the communities and cultures that they visit.  It just means that having a positive impact on the world may not be as simple as it first seems.

Responsible tourism is one alternative to travelling with a white saviour complex.  This excellent article by Shannon O’Donnell points out some others.  

Another way to avoid the pitfalls of both forms of volunteerism and tourism is simply to bear in mind Huck’s more forthright and general exhortation: “Don’t be a dick.”  

Article: The candour of tourists

But a part of me admires the candor. I’ve been led to understand that, when traveling, one does not generally wish to look like a tourist—for safety reasons, of course, but also out of some desire to seem like a cosmopolitan citoyen du monde. One should express curiosity, but never ignorance. 

Refreshing article from the Paris Review in which Sadie Stein reaches out to a couple of tourists on New York’s subway. 

Sadie Stein encounters two out-of-towners who lack pretensions and self-consciousness and try to talk to complete strangers on the New York subway, blissfully ignorant that they are breaking one of the cardinal rules of any metropolitan railway system.  

Rather than being tempted by TimeOut magazine’s suggestion to lie to tourists, Stein offers them genuine advice and admires the way they almost revel in their tourist status and offer ill-informed and outdated views about the city.  

But hold on, what is there to admire here?  Isn’t the point of being a real traveller to fit in and not stand out?  Who would want to be mistaken as a tourist?  After all, tourists, it would seem, have always been given a rough time.  

According to Kalvert in the 1870s, the tourist was the most noxious “of all noxious animals”.  The following century, Evelyn Waugh wrote that “every Englishmen abroad, until it is proved to the contrary, likes to consider himself a traveler and not a tourist.”  The tourist, according to Waugh, was always “the other fellow” and never oneself.  

Surely, therefore, no-one would want to be identified as a tourist, a second-class traveller, part of the herd, someone who according to Paul Theroux has no idea where they have been?   

As Anthony Peregrine points out in this article for the Telegraph newspaper, “disdaining tourists is the last permitted snobbery” and, as Paul Fussell highlighted in Abroad, no-one disdains a tourist quite like the anti-tourist or travel snob:

From the outset mass tourism attracted the class-contempt of killjoys who conceived themselves independent travelers and thus superior by reason of intellect, education, curiosity, and spirit. 

The anti-tourist, Fussell informs us, is anxious to assert their difference from tourists and they go to great lengths to do so, such as trying to merge into their surroundings, staying at out of the way places, avoiding standard tourist sights and, importantly, trying to avoid engaging other tourists.  

Fussell’s point is that this is not so much about a philosophy of how to travel meaningfully but simply about perceiving oneself to be better than the next person.  

Echoing Fussell’s assessment that anti-tourists manifest a “uniquely modern form of self-contempt”, Peregrine observes:

Tourists like one another. Travellers apparently don’t like anybody, unless he’s wearing a loincloth or she a sari. They appreciate their genuine experiences so much that they resent sharing them. The presence of other visitors at the temple, mountaintop or jungle clearing compromises the authenticity. Their own presence, curiously, does not.

So, hats off to the couple that Sadie Stein met, who are happy to be tourists and who were more than likely too busy enjoying themselves to worry about whether they were being ‘proper’ travellers and were ‘blending in’.  

So maybe it’s time to abandon the faux sophistication.  Drop the façade.  Stop pretending to fit in.   

“We are all tourists now,” said Fussell.  

Rather than lamenting that fact, Peregrine urges us to embrace it:

“The tourist is me. I feel no shame.” 

Article: Freya Stark on real vs bogus travel

Above all is enjoyment with no utilitarian objective, which it is the main business of both travel and education to increase as they can.

Freya Stark is celebrated as one of the most outstanding travellers and travel writers of the 20th century.

Born in Paris at the end of the 19th century, Stark volunteered during the First World War and began her adventurous solo travels in her 30s.  

By 1931 she had made three journeys into Iran, parts of which had never been visited by Westerners.  Stark was awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Back Award in 1933 for those explorations which were also published in 1934 as The Valleys of the Assassins.  

Stark continued her travels during the 1930s and after the Second World War, chiefly around the Middle East, Turkey and Afghanistan.   

The text of this particular essay by Stark does not appear online but is a chapter in her collection of philosophical essays, Perseus in the Wind, published just after the Second World War in 1948. 

In the essay Stark describes the importance of travel which, for her, was comparable to the ecstasy of love, although travel was “less costly and almost equally precious in the end.”  For Stark, though, travel surpassed love in one respect:

And there is this about love: that its memory is not enough; for the soul retracts if it does not go on loving, whereas to have travelled once, however long ago – provided it was real and not bogus travel – is enough.
The secret of travel was to have experienced it and “have it behind you.”  If one had travelled well, those experiences were enough and could provide a store to draw upon in later life:
 
Good days are to be gathered like sunshine in grapes, to be trodden and bottled into wine and kept for age to sip at ease beside his fire. If the traveller has vintaged well he need trouble to wander no longer; the ruby moments glow in his glass at will. He can still feel the spring in his step, and the wind on his face, though he sit in shelter: unless perhaps the sight of a long road winding, or the singing of the telegraph wires, or the wild duck in their wedges, or horses’ hooves that clatter into distance, or the wayside stream – all with their many voices persuade him to try just one more journey before the pleasant world comes to an end.

That is not say to say that travel is something to be acquired or possessed like a souvenir.  What matters is how one travels, to ensure it is real and not bogus; and to make travel real, one must have a genuine horizon:  

There is no travelling without a horizon. This is, if you come to think of it, just what the bogus traveller lacks. He has made himself a world without a skyline. His rooms are booked in Paris, Cairo, Melbourne San Francisco, New York his routes are planned his days are scheduled: he has blotted out, with every touch of his organization, that blue rim that stands between the known world and the unknown For the rest, the chief thing the traveller carries about with him is himself. The places he visits are incidental. 

Real, as opposed to bogus, travel does not require us to pack up and head off into the deserts and jungles.  

Although Stark considered that every good journey ought to contain “some measure of exploration”, she considered that a short trip, some effort of our own and a little imagination were sufficient, provided the traveller maintained awareness of their horizon beyond which the “world is new.” 

Travelling was therefore as much a state of mind as it was a physical and geographical challenge and, despite being an intrepid explorer, this thought led Stark to wonder whether some of “the fairest journeys have been made by those who never left their houses.”  

Despite this, there is no substitute for the real experience of travel and it was through travel that Stark thought people of different races and cultures might reach a common understanding, in spite of those differences:

Travel is necessary to an understanding of men…Such delicate goods as justice, love and honour, courtesy, and indeed all the things we care for, are valid everywhere; but they are variously moulded and often differently handled, and sometimes nearly unrecognizable if you meet them in a foreign land; and the art of learning fundamental common values is perhaps the greatest gain of travel to those who wish to live at ease among their fellows.

A number of Freya Stark’s travel books are available to download for free from the Internet Archive, here.  Unfortunately, Perseus in the Wind is not among them which is still in print and available at Amazon and elsewhere. 

 

Article: Cows, couchsurfing & cultural dilemmas in Tajikistan

Didn’t we want to Couchsurf in such a remote place?
Well then, this is the time to suck it up.

An article from the Perceptive Travel blog about a standoff between people caught between the norms and expectations of their own cultures and those of another culture they are keen to learn about.

In No Country for Honest Men, when Marco Ferrarese and his girlfriend go in search of a remote, local couch surfing experience in Tajikistan, a failure to tell an untruth means they get a deeper cultural insight than they expected as they run up against the moral and religious beliefs of their hosts.  

The story is humorously told and nicely describes the social awkwardness of sitting down to afternoon tea with a family in Central Asia where there is no common language.

It is also a reminder that if we want to travel deeply and experience other cultures, that means respecting local customs and beliefs even if they are different to our own.  In this case, the extent of the cultural divide seems to take both host and guests equally by surprise, even though both have some understanding of the other and the encounter is one wanted by all concerned.  

From covering up at religious sites or eating with the correct hand to not stripping off at the top of sacred mountains or having sex on beaches, (almost) all travellers adjust their behaviour to avoid causing offence and out of respect for local laws, customs and religion.  

The custom may not always conform to our own values or morals but whatever our views is it right that, as a visitor, we should expect those in countries we have chosen to visit to adjust their attitudes to suit our values rather than the other way around?  

Sometimes, as Ferrarese points out, you have to be flexible when travelling and just suck it up.

Author Marco Ferrarese is based in Malaysia.  Read more of his travel writing at www.monkeyrockworld.com or follow him on twitter @monkeyrockworld.

Book: Foreign Faces by V.S. Pritchett

Foreign Faces
by V.S. Pritchett

Bloomsbury 2011 (first published 1964)

Literature is made out of the misfortunes of others. A large number of travel books fail because of the monotonous good luck of their authors.

This collection of travel essays by VS Pritchett has one of the best opening lines of any travel collection.  

Not many travel writers would begin by proclaiming themselves to be an offensive traveller, but Pritchett does and has a point.  However, not wishing to be misunderstood he is careful to explain that he is not prejudiced, narrow-minded or someone who travels with unrealistic expectations.  

His point is more elementary; that the nature of travel is in some way offensive.  As if that was not enough, Pritchett confesses that he compounds this by virtue of being a writer before going on to list some of the offense he has caused.  

Reading this essay, it is tempting to think that Pritchett must be talking about other travellers.  After all, our own way of travel is sensitive to local cultures and respectful to the people we meet so surely could not cause deliberate offence.  Besides, we know what Evelyn Waugh knew – “we are travellers and cosmopolitans; the tourist is the other fellow”, right?  

Wrong.  Pritchett might single out tourists as the one true source of annoyance when travelling but he makes it quite clear that we, “hypocrite lectuers”, are offensive travellers too.  It is a point with which Paul Theroux seems to agree:

Travel is not merely the business of being bone-idle, but also an elaborate bumming evasion, allowing us to call attention to ourselves with our conspicuous absence while we intrude upon other people’s privacy — being actively offensive as fugitive freeloaders. The traveler is the greediest kind of romantic voyeur…

from Ghost Train to an Eastern Star 

VS Pritchett may have viewed travel as offensive but that did not mean that he disapproved of it.  Far from it.

Although famous as a critic and author of short stories, Pritchett was an avid traveller and wrote several travel books.  His life is a classic example of the link between writing and travel on the one hand and being a writer and a traveller on the other. 

Paul Theroux picked up on this when writing about Pritchett shortly after his death in 1997:

A classic way to succeed in England, if you come from the wrong class or have the wrong accent, is to leave the country and go far away. That was Pritchett’s solution — and it worked for him as it has for many other English writers…France gave him a second language and inspired his short stories. Travel in Spain came soon after.

Foreign travel was crucial to Pritchett’s literary ambitions and Theroux quotes from one of Pritchett’s short stories to illustrate the similarity between being a traveller and writer and how both inhabit a place beyond frontiers.  Susan Sontag has also written about this from her own perspective in the eulogistic essay about Richard Halliburton’s travel books in the collection Where the Stress Falls.

Pritchett’s first book was in fact a travelogue, Marching Spain.  In an interview with the Paris Review in 1990, Pritchett recalled that this book was accepted by the publisher only on the condition that he would also write a novel and so initially, it was travel and travel writing that drove his fiction even if fiction was the more commercially successful.

Obviously mindful that unfortunate events can be felicitous for travel writers, Pritchett recalled in the same interview how his first travelogue was not much than an account of a journey:

What I was really rather sorry about was that I had had no adventures…I always wondered how it was that Robert Stevenson always seemed to have adventures; why don’t I have adventures?

There is a parallel there with Foreign Faces in which Pritchett criss-crosses communist countries in eastern Europe, returns to Madrid and Seville and then goes farther afield to Turkey and Iran.  The essays are similarly marked by an absence of ‘adventure’ even though they are no less entertaining for it.

Pritchett’s essays on eastern Europe capture those places at a crucial time in the post war period between the 1956 revolution in Hungary and protests in Poland and the Prague Spring and subsequent invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.  His essays are not political but reveal the variety in the countries and the differences in society, culture and character.

Sociable and curious he brings the places to life through the characters he meets.  Some of his more general comments can appear blunt or actually offensive (“Romania annoys from the beginning“), but they often serve simply to grab attention.  His essays are full of sharp observation and Pritchett gets to his point with an informal but incisive and clear style.  Although he may not spare them from his pen, Pritchett writes about people and places with humour and generosity and without being a snob.  This is particularly evident in the essay on Madrid when it is clear that he is writing with affection rather than meanness.  

The result is a charming and witty collection of essays and not at all offensive.

Foreign Faces is currently available on Amazon for Kindle for only £3.99.

Article: Will Self on solving packing anxieties

The business traveler should bring only what fits in a carry-on bag. Checking your luggage is asking for trouble…There are very few necessities in this world which do not come in travel-size packets…Always bring a book as protection against strangers. Magazines don’t last, and newspapers from elsewhere remind you you don’t belong. But don’t take more than one book. It is a common mistake to overestimate one’s potential free time, and consequently over-pack. In travel, as in most of life, less is invariably more. And most importantly, never take along anything on your journey so valuable or dear that its loss would devastate you. (William Hurt, The Accidental Tourist)

In this short article in the New Statesman, author and self confessed bag-o-phobe Will Self takes a drastic approach to packing for a trip and heads to the US without any luggage. 

There is no shortage of advice on the internet about what and how to pack. From the type, size and weight of bag, which clothes to take and how how to fold them.  It is now even possible to have a company pack for you (you send them the bag and the items you want packed and they do the rest) or avoid luggage issues altogether by paying a company to send your bag to your destination separately to avoid excess baggage fees.  (Yes, really.)  

Everyone it seems has their packing routines and tricks, as this video shows:

Confessing to his own aversion to luggage and an obsession about continually trying to pack lighter and smaller, Will Self suggests we ditch the physical bags.  If we manage to free ourselves, he argues surely the psychological baggage and insecurities that go with them will follow and, unencumbered, we will be more receptive to the places we visit.  

As you might expect of a seasoned traveller, Rolf Potts has thought of this previously and in 2011 undertook a Round the World challenge with no bag, instead packing everything into a utility vest:

Only last year on Kickstarter, another company was trying to crowdsource funding for a similar jacket (be sure to check out the incorporated eye mask and neck pillow at 01:28):  

Rolf Potts and BauBax may have beaten him to the idea but Will Self has seen the short-lived happiness these would bring and the sleepless nights that would follow as we inevitably lie awake playing a mental version of Tetris, stuffing different combinations of objects into pockets to maximise what we can take with us on our travels.

 

Article: GK Chesterton and the Riddle of Travel

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The quote above regularly appears in lists of most inspirational travel quotes.  It is taken from TS Eliot’s Little Gidding, the last part of Four Quartets.

T_S_Eliot_Simon_FieldhouseMore than 30 years before Eliot wrote Little GIdding, English journalist and writer, GK Chesterton, wrote a short essay containing similar sentiments.  Chesterton’s output was prolific and, although during his career he had public and friendly disagreements with his contemporaries, George Bernard Shaw called him “a man of colossal genius.”

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Although he wrote more than 4,000, travel does not seem to have been a regular subject for Chesterton.  Nevertheless, it was a subject he touched on in several of them.  

The essay in question is The Riddle and the Ivy.   The point of Chesterton’s essay is this 

The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.

At the risk of having to dodge a heavy Gladstone bag, it was obviously for good reason that Chesterton known as the ‘Prince of Paradox’.  

While we might enjoy foreign places, Chesterton argues, the point of travel is not to see those places but to see more clearly and with renewed perspective the place that we have left and are returning to.  We need to leave what is familiar because “a cloud of sleep and custom” prevent us from seeing it properly.  The only way to get clear the ‘cloud’ is to go elsewhere “and that is the real object of travel and the real pleasure of holidays.”

Having asserted this, Chesterton then seems surprised when after a visit he returns to England to find what he has said is true and that he finds England at once “beautifully new and beautifully old.”  Having addressed, the Riddle, Chesterton then sets out his renewed perspective in contrast to that of the countries he has visited (the Ivy). 

The Riddle and the Ivy is published in Chesteron’s 1909 collection, Tremendous Trifles:   

It is also available at Gutenberg, the Internet Archive or at Amazon:

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.