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My brief guide to travel books: the boring, the narrow-minded and the brilliant

Nineteenth-century writers were an intriguing mix of curiosity and prejudice; modern writers are equally prejudiced, but not in a good way

By on Thursday, 30 June 2011

Paul Theroux: a mind narrowed by travel (PA photo)

Paul Theroux: a mind narrowed by travel (PA photo)

Travel writing never has quite made it into the pantheon of literature, has it? I mean, who were the great travel writers of the 19th century? Generally writers who were famous in other genres as well. Charles Dickens, for example, did a lot of travel writing, and I have even read some of it – not a whole book, I hasten to add, but anthologised passages. You can find edited highlights of what Dickens saw in Rome here.

The combination of prejudice and curiosity makes Dickens’s view of Italy one that others can enjoy as well. One senses his loathing of Catholicism, but a fascination with it at the same time. A similarly warped viewpoint is what makes the greatest 19th-century writer on Rome, Augustus Hare, so interesting. No one has surpassed his guidebooks, which went into numerous editions. I myself always used an 1898 edition of Walks in Rome in two volumes when I lived in the city. Rome has not changed much in a century, and Hare’s rants against the House of Savoy, his nostalgia for the papal monarchy and his contempt for “Roman Catholic idolatry” make for an intriguing mix.

Modern writers are equally prejudiced, but not in a good way. Paul Theroux, former altar boy, often rails against Catholicism, but without ever, to my mind, being particularly amusing. Ditto Fergal Keane, whose writings about Africa are often disfigured by boring rants against Catholicism. Theroux’s journey from Cape to Coast, Dark Star Safari, is worth reading, but he has little feel for history, and his book on the Mediterranean, The Pillars of Hercules, is one to avoid at all costs – it is a good example of travel narrowing the mind.

Of modern books, there are two or three that stick out in an overcrowded field. The best book about Africa I have ever read or am ever likely to read is The Last Banana by Shelby Tucker, his account of Tanzania and much else besides. He is an author who has a deep understanding and experience of Africa.

Another wonderful book is the work of an author who did not live to see its publication: Robert Tewdwr Moss died before Cleopatra’s Wedding Present saw the light of day. It is a fascinating and captivating account of Syria. The other great book also deals with Syria and much else besides: William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain, which recounts his travels through the remaining Christian communities of the Middle East. Both are of the greatest relevance today considering what is happening in Syria right now. I read both before going to Syria myself and found them hugely informative and interesting.

Good books about Malta are surprisingly rare. All Melitaphiles rate the superb The Great Siege by Ernle Bradford, whose The Shield and The Sword, his account of the Knights, which is hard to get hold of these days, should also be required reading. In my opinion and I am not alone, the best general account of Malta is Eric Brockman’s The Last Bastion. Brockman was a naval man, a Knight of Malta, and married to a Maltese; he wrote in 1961, but Malta, as long as you know where to look, has not changed that much. The book, long out of print, has recently been re-published and is available here.

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  • Judy Stove

    I didn’t think of myself as enjoying travel books until I read _A Time of Gifts_ by Patrick Leigh Fermor, the classic account of his walk from London to Constantinople (or the first part of it) during the 1930s.  Highly recommended, as is the sequel _Between the Woods and the Water_.  
    I later realised that I’d always enjoyed the books of George Borrow (_Lavengro_, _The Romany Rye_), which are classic mid-19th century travel books – just involving travel within England.  Leigh Fermor, as it happened, tried out some of Borrow’s Romany words on some gypsies he met in central Europe, without much success.

  • Parasum

    “I mean, who were the great travel writers of the 19th century?”

    ## Austen Henry Layard, for one :) His first account of his excavation of Nimrud (published 1849), which he at first thought to be Nineveh, includes long accounts of the tribes of the region. It is still read. His book is an account of his travels, and archaeology, and Assyriology.

    There are many accounts of travels to the region, before him, and since.

  • Indigo Blu

    For an African, or a person who is ensconced within the African experience, ‘Theroux’s journey from Cape to Coast, Dark Star Safari’, is NOT worth reading unless one seeks to be reassured by the self-burdened ‘white man’ traveller’s odd, self-congratultory tropes that find power in caricaturing an entire people in a manner that would not be acceptable anywhere else, not because of any political correctness, but because of its sheer bad taste. In writing Africa, Theroux has never, ever allowed facts or reality to intrude upon his rancid imagination.