Tim Hannigan is a travel writer in search of a genre. His journey takes him to various places across Europe where he interviews a broad range of travel writers who he hopes will help him define what exactly is travel writing. On the surface, this might seem pretty obvious – you head off somewhere and pen a picture for the reader. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. What about the writers who conveniently muddle up conversations to pepper up their journey? Why are so many of these books authored by white middle class Etonians? And why are the voices of locals or the ‘travellees’ either caricatured or completely missing from the narrative?
Hannigan’s is a principled journey that values both people and place. He is keen to make a distinction between fiction and nonfiction and wonders how and why this line gets blurred so often. He approaches this question as both a travel writer and academic – the book is based on his PhD. To help him, he visits the likes of Dervla Murphy (she of bicycle fame) as well as digging deep into the archives of deceased writers such as Wilfred Thesiger where he observes, “In Arabia and beyond, his preferred society seems always to have been a small group of young men and boys, possessed of some elite and initiated status, perfectly isolated from the great plurality of town and village.”
So, what has this got to do with D.H. Lawrence? Lawrence wrote four ‘travel’ books; Twilight in Italy (1916), Sea and Sardinia (1921), Mornings in Mexico (1927) with Sketches of Etruscan Places (1932) published posthumously. However, Lawrence only gets two mentions in Hannigan’s book, the most significant of which appears on pages 178-9 when Hannigan invites a group of readers to reflect on travel books they’ve read – this is important to Hannigan as he believes readers have been left out of debates about what constitutes travel writing.
One reader, Adam, cites Sea and Sardinia as appealing because ‘a lot of books that were written at the time were by wealthy people going on a European tour, and they didn’t bother about how much it cost’ whereas Lawrence is meticulous in his quotidian observations, detailing the costs of everything. Adam also found value in the book as a form of social history and found ‘out loads about unemployment, about politics, about what’s going on with jobs and people’. He would later revisit Sardinia with Lawrence’s book as a guide although Hannigan is cautious of ‘falling back on a text’.
Lawrence wrote Sea and Sardinia after a brief excursion to Sardinia in January 1921. There are clear issues with claiming to know a nation after spending just over a week in the country. Likewise, although Lawrence does give voice to the locals and includes them in the narrative – as Adam alludes to – they are never given equal weighting. They are observed and recorded rather than invited into the narrative.
One writer who does this very well is Samanth Subramanian who approaches his craft from a journalistic perspective. ‘Journalists’ he explains ‘talk to people about their lives and about their problems and about their views on the world’ thereby ensuring the travellee has a voice. Indeed, he illustrates this when he is challenged by a local in Sri Lanka who asks, ‘What good will this conversation do for me?’ Reversing this power balance is one way in which the genre can escape the exotic gaze and accusations of Orientalism.
Hannigan is from Cornwall and so has experienced many people representing his home in literature and film. He is currently working on a book about this called The Granite Kingdom – so expect Lawrence to be taken down a peg or two given his observations that Cornwall ‘belongs still to the days before Christianity, the days of Druids, or of desolate Celtic magic and conjuring’.
The Travel Writing Tribe by Tim Hannigan available from www.hurstpublishing.com