What exactly is a tourist? Briefly, it means someone who travels not for a particular purpose such as exploration, pilgrimage, missionary work or archaeology, but a person who does it for fun. Tourists may have specific places in mind or specific things they want to see, but the overall “purpose” of their travels is pleasure. John van Wyhe claims that the first female tourist was the Austrian housewife Ida Pfeiffer, whose name may be known by students of travel-writing but certainly not as well-known as she should be, but this biography should set the record straight.
Robert Macfarlane and Kathleen Jamie are the two most critically vaunted practitioners of the wildly fertile British publishing phenomenon known as “new nature writing”—though both reportedly resist that genre designation, and both are as much writers of history and human culture as of nature. Both explore these themes in similarly exquisite prose, but their tones and emphases are quite different, and their authorial performances have at times been contrastingly—and in Jamie’s case, one suspects, deliberately—gendered. While Macfarlane was bivouacking in the mountains, Jamie was watching falcons through the kitchen window; it was she who coined the phrase surely destined to dog Macfarlane for the rest of his days: the “lone enraptured male”.
While one might expect a text on linguistics from the title, An English Made in India is fact rather closer to travel-writing: no bad thing, for Kalpana Mohan in an engaging writer and the result is a pleasant and often erudite ramble around India. Along the way, she talks to school teachers in the hills, her family chauffeur and Uber drivers, students, Delhi booksellers, a Kerala princess and some leading Indian literary lights from Jerry Pinto and Arunava Sinha to Nabaneeta Dev Sen. Mohan is very good at this.
Much of early-modern history, up until the early 20th century, was characterized by empire—not just or even particularly the colonial projects of Britain and Spain, but contiguous empires of Russia, Austria-Hungary, China and the Ottomans. These latter were multi-ethnic and—using modern sensibilities—in some ways multinational edifices. They all came to an end around the time of the First World War: China and Russia morphed into republics and largely kept their territories; the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires were replaced by a welter of new countries.
There is sometimes a feeling—it may even be a sort of implied ASEAN policy—that Southeast Asia will, or at least should, converge: that the countries of the region will develop economically and differentials in standards of living will lessen, that the military will ease itself out of politics, that civil society will strengthen. This has, if seen with a perspective of decades, been a trend largely born out if far from completed.
Perhaps all travel writers should come home in the end.
Each generation of British travel writers has its preeminent court jester. In the 1930s Robert Byron did much to forge the genre’s comic tradition; Eric Newby began his long career in the 1950s; and in the 1980s it was Redmond O’Hanlon who gained the highest profile with travel-writing-for-laughs.