This week we welcomed Prof Tim Youngs & Dr Nicky Bowring up to Newark. Tim set up the Centre for Travel Writing Studies (CTWS) in 2002 at a time when travel writing was still sometimes sneered at or ignored. Nevertheless, there were increasing numbers of queries from students looking for academic resources.
Tim did his PhD on travel writing but after 32 years he’s still not exactly sure how to define it. It’s a very strange and unique genre encompassing guide books, poems, autobiographies, blogs – a mix of forms and genres. Should we insist that it’s a record of a real journey? There are similarities with fiction but travel writing and real journeys are distinctive: “fiction can look after itself”.
So generally travel writing is an account of a journey undertaken by the person who tells the story. Tim has found that, as with writing poetry, as soon as you start to tell a story, a different voice/persona takes over that is different to the original person who undertook the journey and viewed the sights. (Perhaps this is because a traveller is focused on ‘input’ whereas the writer is concerned with ‘output’ and a voice needs to be found to translate between the two?)
Travel writing is made but not “made up”. It is crafted. The author has to decide what to tell, what to ignore (tip: leave out the boring bits). Some episodes take on symbolic quality where we learn something about ourselves. People we meet can also be symbolic but it can be tricky in talking about other nationalities or races; we do want to record what we see but we don’t want to stereotype.
When it comes to symbolic use there is a danger that we might compromise the reality/objectivity of what we observe. When we travel to a place we don’t see it neutrally, it is almost always already framed in our conscious or subconscious minds by pictures or books or films or whatever we have been exposed to, whether reinforcing it or opposing it. Is visiting Paris still ‘visiting Paris’ if you don’t do the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and so on? And if you consciously choose to shun those obvious tourist destinations that is still a choice made by your preconceptions.
Travel Writing is compelling because it looks at how we (or our culture) see (or saw) the world. Some elements (especially from an Imperial age) are clearly dodgy and a large volume of travel writing up to the mid/late twentieth century had a colonial, western bias. But there are also examples from other cultures and ages that we can explore and learn from; we can look to China and the Far East as well as accounts through history such as Xenophon’s Anabasis (the true story of ten thousand Greek soldiers fighting their way out of the Persian Empire in 400 BC).
Ultimately, although travel writing is about a journey or a place, it tells us who we (author and culture) are – how the writer sees a place explains who the person is.
Tim is also a poet and he read out a couple of poems that have a travel writing dimension: “Calcutta Subway” and “Dining Out”.
It’s said sometimes that travel writing is about the individual traveller with more emphasis on the persona of writer, and the competition entries that Tim and Nicky judged reflected this. Nicky is interested in the narrative of place and Gothic literature and the origins of that genre are very closely related to travel writing (Mary Shelley and John Polidori wrote, respectively, Frankenstein and The Vampyre in 1816 while staying Lord Byron’s rented house on Lake Geneva whilst on their own ‘Grand Tours’).
The three judges (Prof Tim, Dr Nicky and Dr Rebecca Butler) really enjoyed all the entries. There was a huge range and they were pleased to see varied destinations and types of narrator, including some covering disability travel. There were also some interesting contexts: political, social and cultural.
Becoming Habesha by Joanna Griffin of Hucclecote, Gloucester: “nicely crafted, lots of detail”
Life on the Road by Peter Pool of Ingoe, Newcastle upon Tyne: “fascinating, drew you in, politically charged but not imposing values, elegantly told”
Sea of Trouble by Peter Graves of Farnsfield, Nottinghamshire: “politically nuanced, very interesting & evocative imagery”
Also an honourable mention for It Would Have Been Easier To Swim by Glenda Walker of Cropwell Butler, Nottinghamshire.
The Cormorants by Maria Dziedzan of Normanton on Trent, Newark: “Really evocative imagery, highlighting current political debates around immigration”
Voyaging Alone by Anne Howkins of Newark: “Liked the synergy between person & place – really interesting description of place & questions around a female travelling alone”
The Conundrum of Cambodia by Robert Rayner of Ponteland, Newcastle upon Tyne: “Well written – good description of complex issues & the paradoxes of the country”
The judges sensed that the authors enjoyed writing their entries; all had interesting voices and executed their stories well. They were well written, self conscious and reflective, raising questions about who they are and what they got from their travels.
Some of the entries looked back at journeys taken several years ago; some told post-retirement about when they were in jobs. Tim remarked that it was fascinating how details had stayed with people and that it was privilege to read, judge and share. The narrative persona was strong and drew the reader in. They were well edited and structured, with endings often echoing earlier references. Often they were about our place in the world and what being exposed to another place and culture means.
In an open discussion afterwards, Vanessa asked about the morality of travel when it is often a case of ‘the haves’ going to look at ‘the have littles’, as well as the issues surrounding one’s carbon footprint. Having an awareness of where you’re travelling to is important and in a time of borders and nationalism then all the more important to travel and understand, but with an eye on green and sustainable methods.
Sheila pointed out that, growing up in rural Ireland, everyone used to hitch-hike. Not only was this a low impact form of travel it also gave new insights and experiences. This reminded Nick of reading his first travel book, Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks (hitch-hiker-based travel writing masquerading as madcap comedy).
The intent behind travel was also discussed – some, like Anne’s trip to Iceland, were superficially planned but left lots of space to explore at the author’s own pace, travelling “with wide eyes” and discovering the joys of Reykjavik almost by accident; others, like Nick’s one day dash to Kennedy Space Center at the end of a business trip, are moments desperately snatched and treasured.
Travel writing, it appears, can cover journeys that are both intentional and accidental. The planning and intent is needed to get you there, but it’s often the things you stumble across that make the biggest mark.