Shelfie: Tim Hannigan ‘The Travel Writing Tribe’

Image Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock. Design James Walker.

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

Locating Lawrence: Ceylon, April 1922

It’s too hot, he doesn’t like the food, and don’t get him started on the temples. Join literature’s hardest to please traveller in Ceylon…

It’s the 3rd April 1922 and Lawrence is in Ceylon. As usual, he’s worrying about money. He informs Robert Mountsier, ‘Travelling itself is hellishly costly, but while we sit here we spend little.’ Lawrence is not someone used to sitting still, but in the heat it’s a necessity: ‘Here it is monstrous hot, like being in a hot bell-glass. I don’t like it a bit. I don’t like the East. It makes me feel sick in my stomach’. The real problem, of course, is it is too hot for him to write: ‘I’m not working and feel I never should work in the east’. As we know, Lawrence needs to convert his experiences into a novel of some sort for a place to have value.  

On the same day he writes to Mary Cannan. The letter comes with an explicit warning: ‘never travel round the world to look at it – it will only make you sick… Take my advice and don’t take far flights to exotic countries. Europe is, I fancy, the most satisfactory place in the end.’  That is, unless Lawrence is in Europe, in which case, he will hate it.

It doesn’t take long for his frustration to manifest into spiteful comments, ‘The east, the bit I’ve seen, seems silly. I don’t like it one bit. I don’t like their…hideous little buddha temples, like decked up pigsties…it’s better to see it on the cinema: you get there the whole effect, without the effort and the sense of nausea.’ Given Lawrence’s disdain for cinema and other forms of mass distraction, this is a backhanded compliment.    

Next up is Catherine Carswell ‘Tropics not really my line…not active enough’ whereas Mabel Dodge Sterne is informed, ‘Ceylon is an experience – but heavens, not a permanence.’ To be fair, nowhere was a permanence for Lawrence. As Catherine Carswell would later observe in her memoir, Lawrence “disliked an air of everlastingness about a home. For him it must have something of the tent about it”.

In addition to being unbearably hot, he doesn’t like the food either. ‘Something about it all just makes me sick… I loathe the tropical fruits, except pineapples, and those I can’t digest: because my inside has never hurt me so much in all my 36 years as in these three weeks’ Mary Cannan, 5 April.

He then lists various alternative places he might visit (Sydney, California, England) before a bit of self reflection. ‘I need this bitterness, apparently, to cure me of the illusion of other places’.

Given Lawrence’s love of the natural environment, surely the vibrancy of the jungle would provide solace. Wrong (uh, uh. Wrong answer noise). Mabel Dodge Sterne is informed on 10 April that it’s a colourful racket due to ‘the thick, choky feel of tropical forest, and the metallic sense of palms and the horrid noises of the birds and creatures, who hammer and clang and rattle and cackle and explode all the livelong day’. As for the fruits, the scents make him feel sick and have an ‘undertaste of blood and sweat’.

But there is one positive to his visit. ‘I shall be fulfilling my real desire to approach America from the west, over the Pacific.’ 

Lawrence then calms down a tad, perhaps because he was planning to book tickets for West Australia at the end of the month and so could see a way out. ‘I’ve been in Ceylon a month and nearly sweated myself into a shadow’ he informs Austin Harrison, ‘Still it’s a wonderful place to see and experience.’

It strikes me that Lawrence always feels happiest when he is in transition between places. It’s the journey rather than the destination that matters. ‘One may as well move on, once one has started’ he informs S.S. Koteliansky. But as the next destination draws closer, he becomes anxious and fearful once more, perhaps because it signifies no longer being in limbo: ‘I am not at all sure we shall like Australia either’. (Letter, 17 April to S.S. Koteliansky).

Lawrence found the East draining. He wasn’t wired to sit still and contemplate. He was programmed to move, ‘and what’s more with haste’.

‘It seems to me the life drains away from one here’ he writes to S.S. Koteliansky on 17 April ‘One could quite easily sink into a kind of apathy, like a lotus on a muddy pond indifferent to anything. And that apparently is the lure of the east: this peculiar stagnant apathy where one doesn’t bother about a thing, but drifts on from minute to minute.’

So eager is he to escape the Buddha, he even contemplates settling down permanently in England or Italy if none of this works out.

Yeah, right.

At the end of April, he once more finds himself on the next adventure, this time to Australia. Nothing makes Lawrence happier than the liminal space of the sea: ‘Here we are on a ship again – somewhere in a very big blue choppy sea with flying fishes sprinting out of the waves like winged drops’ and although the East is not for him, his head once more fills with fantastical images and Ceylon gets the ultimate Lawrentian compliment, they are rendered pre-history: ‘the tropics have something of the world before the flood…’

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