Book Review - The Travel Writing Tribe

In his comprehensive study of travel writing, Tim Hannigan explores the genre’s history, its critical reception and tracks down well-known practitioners from William Dalrymple to Dervla Murphy. He interviews academic Carl Thompson, publisher Barnaby Rogerson and a group of readers from the Globetrotters Club and interrogates the lexicon of travel writing studies from “travellee” (the local people encountered by the writer) to “affective identification” (empathy with the subject). 

 Hannigan, who grew up in Cornwall, trained as a chef and writes about Southeast Asia, tackles the criticism historically levelled at the genre: that it “was hopelessly entangled with the history of European colonialism” and that it “was an elite genre” with Oxbridge-educated writers presuming a shared knowledge of history and classics. He also explores the “rootedness” of certain travel writers - like Robin Hanbury-Tenison and Patrick Barkham - who have somewhere they always want to return to.

While considering “the troubled frontier between fact and fiction”, whether it is acceptable to fictionalise what is essentially a non-fiction genre, he travels to the Dorset-Somerset border to meet Rory Maclean. In his debut, Stalin’s Nose (1992), Maclean famously opens with a pig called Winston falling from a tree and killing the narrator’s uncle. As Maclean was quick to point out, he always “signalled” when he was about to become inventive: “Maclean never pretended to be recounting the hard facts; he made a journey, then worked creatively…with whatever it was that he brought back.” Maclean broke the mould but claims that, as an outsider (born in Canada), he wasn’t aware of a tradition of travel writing: “I simply wrote the book that I wanted to.”

For years, travel writing was dominated by white men of a certain class – many of whom, Hannigan discovers, were educated at Eton. Wilfred Thesiger, for example, left his papers to the school. But in the age of globalisation and budget travel, this has changed with the emergence of writers like Monisha Rajesh, Samanth Subramanian and Sara Wheeler. While the growing popularity of nature writing appears “to have ousted travel writing as the dominant mode of creative nonfiction in Britain.”

Particularly illuminating is Hannigan’s interview with Subramanian, an Indian journalist with a British passport and a degree from an Ivy League university who lives in Dublin. He emphasises the value of a journalistic function in travel writing: “‘journalists…talk to people about their lives and about their problems and about their views on the world.’” This approach ensures the travellee has a voice.

Kapka Kassabova grew up in Sofia, emigrated to England and then New Zealand. In her twenties she spent time in Marseilles, Berlin and Argentina. Now she lives in Scotland. In much of her work, Hannigan suggests, “there was no clear point of departure or return…simply the middle component: adventure, unanchored and adrift.” Kassabova is interested in “‘human geography… the impact of a place on its people, but also on the journeyman…journeywoman.’”

Finally, Hannigan makes a pilgrimage to the tiny 10th century Byzantine chapel, just below Chora in Greece, where Bruce Chatwin’s ashes are buried. Chatwin, loved by many, was lambasted for fictionalising The Songlines (1987), his seminal book about central Australia, which effectively denied the Aborigines a voice. Chatwin later claimed it was a ‘novel’. Hannigan forgives Chatwin because of “the style of his prose; the way he could call up a place in its entirety with just a few, apparently inconsequential details… the distilled anecdotes and character sketches; the sheer joy of being at large in the world with eye and brain engaged.”

Hannigan concludes that there aren’t and “never should be, any qualifications, identifiable in advance, for good travel writers. You simply had to let them go out, travel, write.” At the end of his journey into the genre, Hannigan recognises that he wasn’t cut out to be a travel writer: “I wasn’t sure that I had what it took.” It’s this refreshing humility that makes his meticulously researched work such an engaging read. 

Hannigan finished the bulk of The Travel Writing Tribe before the Covid-19 pandemic hit but, he concludes, “people will always want to read about journeys.” Being forced into isolation, becoming armchair travellers, may well benefit the genre.                         

A shorter version was published in the New Humanist autumn 2021 edition.


Originally published in the New Humanist autumn 2021 edition.