11 November 2010

Writing vs Blogging

This past week I have been masquerading – or parading if you prefer – as a blogger.

I have profound respect for both writers and journalists. I am saddened by the loss of newspapers. I am also saddened by the decline of the written word. The texture of imagination that is being erodes by explicit imagery of virtual reality, gaming and other near reality services. Our minds may be atrophying as a result. We no longer have to stress our minds in imagination. The near reality allows us to “Be There” so easily.

Last week I read a piece that was truly inspirational. It was: The Future of Travel Writing in the Internet Era
A following speech was delivered by British historian and travel writer William Dalrymple at the 2010 S.E.A. Write Awards Presentation Ceremony and Gala dinner, The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Bangkok, on 5 November 2010. The full text of the speech was made available exclusively upon request to Travel Impact Newswire.With special thanks to The Mandarin Oriental Hotel Bangkok, SEA Write Awards and Travel Impact Newswire for allowing me to reprint this.

The speech itself is a wonderful example of why writing as an art form must not be allowed to follow some of the other lost arts.

I hope you will read this and think carefully about what it means to all of us. I found it moving and it reminded me of the beauty of the written word. Long may it be a part of our society and being.

Last year, on a visit to the Mani in the Peloponnese, I went to visit the headland where the great travel writer Bruce Chatwin had asked for his ashes to be scattered.
The hillside chapel where Chatwin's widow, Elizabeth, brought his urn, lies in rocky fields near the village of Exchori, high above the bay of Kardamyli. It has a domed, red-tiled roof and round arcaded windows built from stone the colour of haloumi cheese. Inside are faded and flaking Byzantine frescoes of mounted warrior saints, lances held aloft.
The sun was slowly sinking over the Taygetus at the end of a hot day, and there was a warm smell of wild rosemary and cypress resin in the air. From the higher slopes, the distant peel of goat bells cut through the drowsy whirr of cicadas. It was, I thought, a perfect, beautiful, peaceful place for anyone to rest at the end of their travels.
My companion for the visit was Chatwin's great friend and sometime mentor, Patrick Leigh Fermor, who for me at least was Chatwin's only real rival as the greatest prose stylist of modern travel writing. Paddy's two sublime masterpieces, A Time to Keep Silence and A Time of Gifts, are among the most beautifully written books of travel of any period, and it was really he who created the persona of the bookish wanderer, later adopted by Chatwin: the footloose scholar in the wilds, scrambling through remote mountains, a knapsack full of good books on his shoulder.
Inevitably, it was a melancholy visit. Not only were we there to honour the memory of the dead friend who had introduced us, Paddy himself was not in great shape. At dinner that night, it was clear that the great writer and war hero, now in his mid-nineties, was in very poor health:
"I'm deaf," he told me as we sat eating in the moonlight, looking out through the arches of Paddy's cloister to the olive groves beyond. "That's the awful truth. That's why I'm leaning towards you in this rather eerie fashion. I do have a hearing aid, but when I go swimming I always forget about it until I'm two strokes out, and then it starts singing at me. I get out and suck it, and with luck all is well. But both of them have gone now."
From below came the crash of the sea on the pebbles of the foreshore of the bay. "Glasses too," he added, taking a swig of retsina. "Running out of those very quickly. Occasionally the one that is lost is found, but their numbers slowly diminish… " He trailed off: "The amount that can go wrong at this age—you've no idea. My memory- anything like a date or a proper name just takes wing, and quite often never comes back. Even Winston Churchill- couldn't remember his name last week. Terrific nuisance."
Over dinner we talked about how travel writing seemed to have faded from view since its great moment of acclaim in the late 1970's and 80's, when both Paddy and Bruce had made their names and their reputations. It wasn't just that publishers were not as receptive as they had once been to the genre, nor that stores like Waterstones and Borders had contracted their literary travel writing sections from prominent shelves at the storefront to a little annex at the back, usually lost under a great phalanx of Lonely Planet guidebooks. More seriously, and certainly more irreversibly, the great travel writers who I grew up reading were all dying.
The best of them had certainly had a good innings. Wilfred Thesiger (born 1909), who was in many ways the last of the great Victorian explorers, produced no less than four remarkable books in his final decade before departing on his final trek in 2003, at the age of 93. More remarkable still, Norman Lewis was heading for his centenary when he published The Happy Ant-Heap in 1998, a characteristically bleak collection of pieces about trips to places so obscure, so uncomfortable and often so horrible, that they would tax anyone, never mind a man in his early nineties who should by rights have been shuffling around in carpet slippers with his colostomy bag, not planning trips to visit the smoked ancestral corpses of the highlands of Irian Jaya, or the torture chambers of Nicaragua, or any other of the grisly diversions Lewis settles upon to bring "some stimulation and variety" to his old age.
One typical adventure of the nonagenarian Lewis took place on a trip to Kos. On reading a story in the local paper about a police investigation into rumours that "women on the small island of Anirini were disposing of unwanted husbands by throwing them down dry wells," Lewis merrily set off on a boat with three sponge fishermen and a prostitute they had picked up on the Piraeus waterfront ("they spent the crossing sleeping, eating and making love- the last on a strict rota") in search of this barren island populated by homicidal widows. Before long Lewis, then aged 92, had hopped ashore, rented a room from one of the chief suspects, and was soon cheerfully peering down well-heads in search of rotting cadavers.
Since then, however, the world of literary travel writing, once associated with the drumbeat of hooves across some distant steppe, has begun echoing instead with the slow tread of the undertaker's muffled footfall. Within the last few years, as well as Thesiger and Lewis, Rysard Kapuscinski and Eric Newby have both followed Bruce Chatwin on their last journey. Others- notably Jan Morris- have put down their pens or busied themselves with a final bout of anthologising.
When I began my career as a writer, travel writing was suddenly where the action was, and it remained so for nearly ten years. Among writers the form became popular for it re-emerged at a time of disenchantment with the novel, and seemed to present a serious alternative to fiction. A writer could still use the techniques of the novel- develop characters, select and tailor experience into a series of scenes and set pieces, arrange the action so as to give the narrative shape and momentum- yet what was being written about was all true; moreover, unlike most literary fiction, it sold.
Two decades later, however, the climate in the more elitist literary circles has long changed from enthusiasm to one of mild boredom. Acdemics have begun accusing travel writers of orientalism and cultural imperialism, while Theroux was himself one of the first to express his dislike of the publishing Leviathan he had helped create: in his most recent travel book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, he writes that the travel book is: "Little better than a licence to bore… the lowest form of literary self-indulgence: dishonest complaining, creative mendacity, pointless heroics, and chronic posturing."
This seems to me to be a deeply myopic and mistaken way of looking at what is, after all, one of the world's oldest and most universal forms of literature: along with heroic poetry, the quest takes us right back to man's deepest literary roots, to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the wanderings of Abraham in the Old Testament, and the journeyings of the Pandava brothers in the Mahabharata. Over time, like poetry, but unlike the novel, the travel book has appeared in almost all the world's cultures, from the wanderings of Li Po in Japan, through to the mediaeval topographies of Marco Polo, Hieun Tsang, Ibn Jubayr and Ibn Battuta. Moroever, as Colin Thubron has pointed out, it is ridiculously simplistic to see all attempts at studying, observing and empathising with another culture necessarily "as an act of domination – rather than of understanding, respect or even catharsis... If even the attempt to understand is seen as aggression or appropriation, then all human contact declines into paranoia."
It is also true that travellers tend often by their very natures to be rebels and outcastes and misfits: far from being an act of cultural imperialism, setting out alone and vulnerable on the road is often an expression of rejection of home and an embrace of the other: the history of travel is full of individuals who have fallen in love with other cultures and other parts of the world in this way. As the great French traveller, Nicolas Bouvier wrote in The Way of the World, the experience of being on the road, "deprived of one's usual setting, the customary routine stripped away like so much wrapping paper" reduces you, yet makes you at the same time more "open to curiosity, to intuition, to love at first sight… Travelling outgrows its motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you—or unmaking you."
The question is often asked, however, whether travel writing now has a future: the tales of mediaeval travellers such as Marco Polo, or the explorations of 'Bukhara Burnes' may have contained valuable empirical information impossible to harvest elsewhere; but is there really any point to the genre in the age of the internet, when you can instantly gather reliable knowledge about anywhere in the globe at the click of a mouse? Why bother with someone else's subjective opinions, when hard information about the world is now so easily available? Why read a travel book when you can just go on Google Earth and look for yourself?
These are all issues I have been pondering as I have been writing Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, my first travel book after 15 years away writing history,
which looks at how India's diverse religious and mystical traditions have been caught and transformed in vortex of rapid change that has engulfed South Asia in recent years. Much, of course, has been written about how India is moving forward and transforming itself at the most incredible rate – the economy has been predicted to overtake that of the US by 2050 – but so far little has been said about the way these huge earthquakes have affected traditional religion in India.
Nine Lives explores this process through nine personal stories – a Sufi, a possession dancer, a Buddhist monk, a Jain nun, a tantric and so on, each story aiming to show how faith and ritual are clinging on in the face of India's commercial boom. Each life represents a different religious path. The idea is to find out what it means to be a holy man, a mystical musician or a tantric minstrel seeking salvation on the roads of modern India as the Tata trucks thunder past. Researching the book has brought home to me just how quickly and strangely the world is changing.
Last November, for example, I managed to track down a celebrated tantric at a cremation ground near Birbhum in West Bengal. Tapan Goswami was a feeder of skulls. Twenty years ago he had been interviewed by an American professor of comparative religion, who went on to write a scholarly essay on Tapan's practice of spirit-summoning and spell-casting, using the cured skulls of dead virgins and restless suicides. It sounded rich material, albeit of a rather sinister nature, so I spent the best part of a day touring the various cremation grounds of Birbhum before finally finding Tapan sitting outside his small Kali temple on the edge of the town, preparing a sacrifice for the goddess.
The sun was sinking now, and the light was beginning to fade; a funeral pyre was still smoking eerily in front of the temple. Tapan and I talked of tantra, and he confirmed that in his youth, when the professor had interviewed him, he had indeed been an enthusiastic skull-feeder. Yes, he said, all that had been written about him was true, and yes, he did occasionally still cure skulls, and summon their dead owners, so as to use their power. But sadly, he said, he could not talk to me about the details. Why was that? I asked. Because, he said, his two sons were now successful opthamologists in New Jersey. They had firmly forbidden him from giving any more interviews about what he did in case rumours of the family dabbling in Black Magic damaged their profitable East Coast practice. Now he thought he might even give away his skulls, and go and join them in the States.
It has been in the course of conversations such as this I have come to realise what a major role there still is for the travel in a fast changing world. As the desperation of the Western world to comprehend fast-changing events in the Middle East and Central Asia since 9/11 has shown so clearly, the sensation we have of knowing the world today is largely an illusion: in reality we simply don't know nearly as much about the world as we thought. The sense of information omnipotence that we have had through the internet and Google Earth has proved horribly illusory, and we know realise that there are in fact huge area of the world about which we know absolutely nothing. As print media shrinks, and television becomes ever more obsessed with celebrity, travel writing stands out as one place where the individual can really assess another culture in some depth, without using academic jargon or disappearing down a well of academic over-specialisation.
For the travel book remains a vessel into which a wonderfully varied cocktail of ingredients can be poured: politics, archaeology, history, philosophy, art, or magic. You can cross fertilise the genre with other literary forms: biography, or anthropological writing; or, more perhaps interesting still, following in Chatwin's footsteps and muddying the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction by crossing the travel book with some of the wilder forms of the novel.
Certainly, if 19th century travel writing was principally about place- about filling in the blanks of the map and describing remote places that few had seen- the best 21st century travel writing is almost always about people: exploring the extraordinary diversity that still exists in the world beneath the veneer of globalisation.
Rory Stewart, perhaps the most highly regarded of the younger generation of travel writers, believes passionately that travel books allow writers to explore other cultures in a slow and unhurried way that is impossible with most other forms of non-fiction. Stewart is quite clear that travel writing has a more important role than ever: "Just look what gets written about Afghanistan," he says. "In an age when journalism is becoming more and more etiolated, when articles are becoming shorter and shorter, usually lacking all historical context, travel writing is one of the few venues to write with some complexity about an alien culture. An Obama speech, a foreign policy paper or a counter-insurgency briefing minimises differences, and the same phrases like 'failed states' are used to link countries which are actually very different such as Yemen, Afghanistan or Pakistan.
"But the best sort of travel book with its imaginative empathy and depiction of individuals inhabiting a landscape helps the reader to live through and understand the possibility of cultural difference. You can deploy paradox and incongruity, and use encounters with individuals to suggest complex problems within foreign societies. Above all you can leave things unexplained, and admit ignorance and uncertainty, and stress the fundamental problems of communication in a way that is almost never seen in policy documents or journalism. What kills so many briefing documents and newspaper reports, apart from their tendency to exaggerate fears and aggrandise ambitions, is their aspiration towards omniscience, and their impatience with everything that is intractable or mysterious. Travel writing provides a space for all these things."
Stewart is also sure that the kind of travel writing which is showing particular durability is that where an informed observer roots and immerses himself in one place, commiting time to get to know a place and its languages. Many of the greatest of the travel books of the late 20th century were about epic journeys, often by young men, conveying the raw intoxication of travel during a moment in life when time is endless, and deadlines and commitments are non-existent; when experience is all you hope to achieve and when the world is laid out before you like a map: think of the exhilaration of Eric Newby's Short Walk in the Hindu Kush or Robert Byron's Road to Oxiana.
Today, however, some of the most interesting travel books are by individuals who have made extended stays in places, getting to know them intimately: books like Ian Sinclair circling of the capital in London Orbital or Sam Miller's Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity. There is also Amitav Ghosh in his Egyptian village in In An Antique Land, or Chris de Bellaigue's magnificent recent study, Rebel Land, which examines the way that the ghosts of the Armenian genocide and Kurdish nationalism haunt a single remote town in Eastern Turkey. As the travel writer, novelist and critic Pankaj Mishra puts it, in a more globalised post-Colonial world the traveller "needs to train his eye in the way an ethnographer does… to remain relevant and stimulating, travel writing has to take on board some of the sophisticated knowledge available about these complex societies, about their religions, history, economy, and politics."
Colin Thubron, perhaps the most revered of all the travel writers of the eighties still at work, is also clear that travel writing is now more needed than ever: "Great swathes of the world are hardly visited and remain much misunderstood—think of Iran. It's no accident that the mess inflicted on the world by the last US administration was done by a group of men who had hardly travelled, and relied for information on policy documents and the reports of journalists sitting interviewing middle class contacts in capital cities. The sympathetic traveller who takes time to immerse himself in a country may gain not only factual knowledge but also a sensuous and emotional understanding, and convey a people's psychology and their response to things in a way that can never be accessed by studying in a library. A good travel writer can give you the warp and weft of everyday life, the generalities of people's existence that is rarely reflected in academic writing or journalism, and hardly touched upon by any other discipline. Despite the internet and the revolution in communications, there is still no substitute for a good piece of travel writing.'
Certainly, there seems to be a remarkable amount of good travel writing going on, such as Suketu Mehta's Bombay book, Maximum City, is one of the greatest city books ever written, in my opinion, while Alice Albinia's wonderful Empires of the Indus is a breathtaking debut by an author who writes enviably cadent and beautiful prose, but has nerves of steel and the pluck of a 21st century Freya Stark. I hugely admire Pankaj Mishra's Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond.
Paul Theroux's obituary to travel writing is long premature. Perhaps it should be his close friend Jonathan Raban who should be given the last word of retort: "Old travellers grumpily complain that travel is now dead and that the world is a suburb. They are quite wrong. Lulled by familiar resemblances between all the unimportant things, they meet the brute differences in everything of importance."
William Dalrymple's most recent book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India is published by Knopf.

With thanks to the Indiaphile for the image.


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