Travel-writing, according to some of its critics, is a “belated” genre. The adventurers of the 19th century who wrote books about their efforts to cross uncharted deserts typically travelled by the best means available. But traversing the Sahara by camel begins to look decidedly self-indulgent when you could do it more easily by jeep. It is belatedness, the argument goes, that sometimes leads modern travel-writing into dubious nostalgia, or reduces it to silly stunts. Another option in the scramble for continued relevance is to embrace modernity, the so-called “cosmopolitan travel writing” exemplified by Pico Iyer, with its emphasis on shopping malls, airport terminals and the quirks of globalization. But this too has its pitfalls—not least an occasionally gratingly arch tone of irony.
A novel based on anthropologist and author Nigel Barley’s writing career might well be called The Man Who Collected Colorful European Characters from the History of Southeast Asia.
The great Swiss travel writer Nicolas Bouvier began his career in 1963 with L’Usage du Monde, an account of a journey from Geneva to the Khyber Pass. Published in English as The Way of the World, the book earned him cult status amongst travel-writing aficionados, its distinctive sensibility and supremely elegant prose elevating it well above the myriad other 20th-century travel books featuring well-heeled young Europeans traversing sections of the old Silk Road.
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”.
Perhaps all travel writers should come home in the end.
More than 70 percent of the thousands of documented migrant workers who depart Indonesia for overseas jobs each year are women. The reason for this remarkable statistic is simple: the well-established demand for Indonesian housemaids in the wealthier countries of the region, particularly Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia. Around 45 percent of registered foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong are Indonesian; in Singapore the figure is 60 percent.
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.