Back to the Joys of Armchair Travel

‘Well that’s you shafted,’  said one friend kindly at the start of the worldwide lockdown. ‘Not a good time to be a travel writer…’

Well yes and no. Obviously there’s not much actual travelling possible at the moment. But then the ratio in travel writing between the former and the latter has always been grossly disproportionate – too little time spent travelling and far too much time having to write about it when you get back.

And in my case I only did just get back. I was writing a piece about the sunny beaches and boho resorts of northern Uruguay – one of those gigs which leads to envy and resentment, particularly in March – when  they introduced the sudden guillotine on air travel, so we had to slip over the border to Brazil for one of the last flights back to Europe. I was travelling with my girlfriend and for a moment we thought of just staying, as there are worse places to self-isolate than a low rent beach hut in the sun; but while this sounded fun for a while, if the worldwide lockdown continued for months it might have become restrictive and complicated. Wiser counsels prevailed. Which is lucky as otherwise we would still be there.

So I spent last summer and indeed much of last year only travelling as far as the shed at the bottom of my garden. But then that’s where I’ve had to write most of my books in the past anyway. Indeed you could argue that travel writing has always prospered when people couldn’t. One of the reasons why Byron’s long epics about Mediterranean sun, Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, were bestsellers of their day was because the British public were in Napoleonic lockdown and unable to travel there themselves; Byron did it for them. When he wrote of the isles of Greece and how ‘Eternal summer gilds them yet’, he must have had his quarantined British audience salivating.

Vicarious armchair travel has always played a factor in sales. As Paul Fussell described in his survey of the genre, Abroad, there was a huge boom in the genre a hundred years ago during and after the First World War when people were stuck at home and desperate for sun.  The travel books and novels of DH Lawrence, Norman Douglas and others supplied much-needed literary vitamin D. The titles alone were calculated to entice: Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico; Douglas’s South Wind.

The same thing happened after the Second World War when resources were scarce and another great wave of travel writing took place, so that people could read about going abroad even if they couldn’t afford it. Eric Newby and others fed this appetite, which helped unleash the adventurous travel that started to happen in the 1960s. Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush encouraged many a young hippy traveller to take the magic bus to Afghanistan.

In recent years people have got more resistant to travel books on exotic places because of low cost flights and a sense of ‘why bother reading about somewhere when you can so easily just go there?’ So the focus has turned from the ambition of the journey to the quality of the writing, like WG Sebald on the complicated joys of a past walk along the East Anglia coast in The Rings of Saturn: ‘Writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and so unexpectedly.’

And travel writing as a form of memoir means of course that while in lockdown, one can write about travel that happened a long time ago. Patrick Leigh Fermor spent much of a long literary life recreating just one journey: A Time Of Gifts and its sequels came out more than 40 years after his original Balkan travels of the 1930s. He didn’t ever have to leave his delightful retreat in the Greek Peloponnese.

There may even be something that makes ambitious journeys difficult to assimilate too close to the time – that their sensory overload can only best be interpreted years later, when the glitter and noise has fallen away to reveal structure underneath. An earlier book of mine, Tequila Oil: Getting Lost in Mexico, was largely about my own attempts to make sense of a wild road trip in an old American car I had taken through that country 30 years before; most of it was again written back home in a shed.

Travel writing at its best makes sense of a journey: gives it a narrative arc that it may not have had at the time but that the process of writing can reveal. And travel writing can also inspire us to make journeys that we may never have dreamed of making.

The redoubtable Dervla Murphy had to spend most of her 20s at home in her native Ireland with family responsibilities caring for invalid parents, during which time she read travel books and fantasised about going abroad.

When she was finally able to, in her 30s, she ‘pinged off like a piece of elastic’, as she once put it to me, bought a bike, took off all the gears so there was less to go wrong and started pedalling all the way to India. The resulting book, Full Tilt, is one of the great classics.

I suspect that as lockdown eases, we will all start making journeys again of ambition and purpose, and do them with even greater excitement having been deprived for a while; meanwhile there are plenty of travel books to read in our armchairs to inspire us.


A version of this article was published in the Spectator USA

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