17 December 2015

Home Never Looked So Good

The New Granta Book of Travel
Edited by Liz Jobey

This was a considerable disappointment. I enjoy superior travel writing, by which I mean the work of authors like Sir Richard Burton, Robert Byron, Jan Morris, Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin and Jonathan Raban. The last three are collected here, and Raban also contributes an introduction. Seeing their names on the contents page were, for me, part of the incentive for picking up this anthology.

Which turns out to be, largely, a collection of pieces by Oxbridge alumni about their travels in some of the world’s nastier places. Disaster and woe are pervasive: there are accounts here of a devastating flood on the Mississippi (Raban), the way of life of an Iraqi insurgent (Wendell Steavenson), the 2004 Asian tsunami as experienced in Sri Lanka (John Bornemon), and life under the gun in Kashmir (Basharat Peer). Even when external circumstances are not as overtly threatening as these, the quantum of misery in most of the pieces is high.

Thus we are privy to the anxieties and feelings of dislocation suffered by a newly arrived Ugandan refugee in England (Albino Ochero-Okello), the trials of a homosexual in a primitive tribal culture (Pierre Clastres), the collapse of the Bengal jute industry (Ian Jack), and the mutual exploitation of locals and foreign tourists at Thai holiday resorts (Decca Aitkenhead). Paul Theroux contributes a short, shameful confession of a similar kind, and W.G. Sebald writes of his compulsive, neurotic and possibly metafictional travels round Europe. Redmond O’Hanlon fails to find the Congo Dinosaur but worries about picking up AIDS instead. Rory Stewart gives us Pakistan as a failed state in thrall to a failed religion. I kept the tsunami story for last, because I am Sri Lankan, and found it a thorough disappointment — dull, culturally blinkered and poorly observed.

Essentially, this is a book of travel writing featuring places nobody in their right mind would ever want to visit. I suppose the editor was trying to be edgy and original, or something, but surely one of the great pleasures of travel writing is that of sharing an accomplished author’s experience of a place one dreams of visiting. There’s barely a smidgen of that here. Most of the non-awful locations visited are in the British Isles. Of the exceptions to this rule, Bruce Chatwin’s contribution is just a notebook excerpt, while James Buchan’s portrait of a small Iowa town is sapless and full of boring statistics.

There were three pieces I liked. O’Hanlon’s contribution, depressing as it was, was nevertheless meaty and full of human and natural interest; I didn’t exactly enjoy it, but I greatly admired it. Colin Thubron’s memoir of a journey through Siberia was also excellent. The best essay in the book for me was the least pretentiously written: Decca Aitkenhead’s ‘Lovely Girls, Very Cheap’, which offers a devastatingly accurate account of sex and drugs tourism in Thailand. It kept me reading and nodding my head all the way to the end. This woman is a brilliant, empathetic observer.

Apart from these three fine pieces, though, this anthology is rubbish. Its character is perfectly distilled in one of the shorter essays, Andrew O’Hagen’s description of a voyage down the Clyde in a sewage scow in the company of a group of gluttonous old-age pensioners. This particular piece can stand as a metaphor for the whole book.

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