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.
But by O’Hanlon’s era, the potential problems of British travel writing in a postcolonial world were already apparent, and a legion of critical scholars were on hand to point them out. In one particularly ferocious scholarly assault, Charles Sugnet declared that 1980s travel writing
too often means a rational, detached, slightly disillusioned writer making a foray out from the center (usually London or Oxbridge) to the peripheries (Uganda, Benin, Vietnam, Borneo) where he (and it’s almost always a he) sees that, as usual, the peripheries are uncivilized, and the people of color who live there are making a botch of running the place.
It was, Sugnet wrote, a “curious fusion of the 1880s and the 1980s” that sustained British travel writers, “afloat over various parts of the globe, their luggage filled with portable shards of colonialist discourse.”
When it came to O’Hanlon’s public-schoolboys-in-the-jungle shtick, Sugnet probably had a fair point. But he was laying it on a little thick. And he was also ignoring the existence of another 1980s comic travel writer who managed to be far, far more culturally sensitive and self-aware, and also much funnier than Redmond O’Hanlon. And though he perhaps didn’t gain quite so much attention at the time, Nigel Barley’s books have stood the test of time far better than O’Hanlon’s.
A travel insurance provider assured the author that anthropology did not constitute a hazardous undertaking.
Nigel Barley stands apart from his 1980s travel writing contemporaries in that he was an anthropologist first and foremost. His travel books were the by-product of professional fieldwork—lengthy sojourns underpinned by proper language training and research. He was doubtless also well versed in the debates of the postcolonial “crisis” then besetting anthropology—debates about the ethics of interpreting and representing other cultures which travel writers might have done well to heed. Barley’s books are delivered with the lightest of touches, and with lashings of self-deprecation. But there’s an underpinning seriousness to their endeavor, and particularly to their ceaseless skewering of the authority of the figures of both anthropologist and travel writer.
Not a Hazardous Sport—originally published in 1988 and newly reissued by Eland Books—was Barley’s third book for a general readership. It followed The Innocent Anthropologist and A Plague of Caterpillars (both also reissued by Eland). But where the first two books dealt with West Africa, Not a Hazardous Sport marked Barley’s first writerly engagement with Southeast Asia—a region he has returned to many times since, in works of biography and historical fiction.
The book takes its title from a travel insurance provider’s assurance to the author that anthropology does not constitute a hazardous undertaking. This is perhaps the first, subtlest, and best joke in the whole book—given the anguished ethical wrangling around the discipline at the time.
Not a Hazardous Sport is an account of a journey to Tana Toraja, the upland region of southern Sulawesi, Indonesia, beloved of anthropologists, documentary makers and tourists alike for its elaborate funeral customs and striking village architecture. “I have never really understood what it is that drives anthropologists off into the field”, Barley writes; “Possibly it is simply the triumph of sheer nosiness over reasonable caution.”
The outward voyage is a gentle one, via Singapore, Java and Makassar, with plenty of time for entertainment along the way. In a classic Barley observation, the overall effect of a new airport terminal in Jakarta, meant to echo “traditional” Indonesian styles, is “rather like a Pizza Hut affected with gigantism”. And there’s a supremely memorable encounter in Surabaya with a particular expat archetype:
Godfrey Butterfield MA, teacher of English, cast, like many an Oxbridge man before him, on this distant shoal by the wrack-tide of a life of drink and pederasty.
All of this is delivered in effortlessly jaunty prose, with an air of permanent good-natured amusement. But there’s also the faintly discernible trace of inexplicable melancholy common to the best of British comic travel writing (this melancholy hint is certainly absent in Redmond O’Hanlon’s books, but it’s there in the work of Peter Mayne, who is now largely forgotten but who did this sort of thing in the 1950s rather better than his celebrated contemporary, Eric Newby).
Once Barley finally reaches Toraja—almost hallway through the book—the serious stuff begins. One of the frequent scholarly criticisms of travel writing has it that the genre persistently “denies coevalness” to the inhabitants of the places it describes—typically through attempting to place them at a sort of temporal or civilizational distance from the author and assumed readership. Barley—with customary self-mockery and self-awareness—neatly avoids this. Beset by hymn-singing locals in the mountain town of Mamasa, he claims to feel “betrayed”—though you suspect that he really felt nothing of the sort:
For I had not come so far to meet Christians, to see people who doggedly refused to accept the picturesqueness I wanted to thrust upon them. Where were their strange customs and odd rites? The only odd thing about these people was how they could be so totally nice and unremarkable.
Later, Barley does get to visit picturesque villages with lavishly decorated wooden houses, and to watch distinctive Torajan ceremonies—all of which did, and still does, exist in Tana Toraja. But there are always complications and curious intersections. When the author thinks that he has finally encountered
a man who seemed to have resisted much of the worst of the modern world, a man of clear intelligence and charm who seemed content to stay in this remote village and cultivate his garden
it turns out that he is, in fact, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on a brief home visit from a high-level tech job in Kalimantan:
He was rather more of a modern man than I was—fluent with the jargon of computers and electronics. His values were probably much the same as mine. His attachment to the traditional world was as much an outsider’s as my own was. It was seen from the comfort of an air-conditioned modern bungalow in Kalimantan, possibly just a kind of romanticism. He rubbed salt into my wounds by his relentless self-awareness.
But of course, there’s a joke here too: it would be hard to find anyone more self-aware than Nigel Barley himself.
The final section of the book covers what Barley calls “The Return Match”, in which four Torajan craftsmen travel to London while they build a rice barn for public display in the British Museum, where Barley worked in the Department of Ethnography. He puts them up in his own home for the duration of their stay. A lesser writer might simply make use of such a scenario for innocents-abroad comedy (and Barley can’t resist a few comments on the absence of betel nut spittoons in London). But for the most part he uses it as an opportunity for reversing the lens, and for further skewering of anthropology and travel writing. When one of the craftsmen, Nenek, asks Barley why Britons insist on throwing coins into wells and pools:
I was unable to enlighten him. ‘They do it for luck,’ or ‘It is our custom’—neither satisfied him.
Not a Hazardous Sport is a very good travel book. It provides the necessary vicarious journey to a place that will be foreign— “exotic”, even—for most of its readers. But it does so with frequent and necessary nudges, to steer both author and reader away from complacency. It is as entertaining, and as valuable, as it surely was on its original publication three decades ago. The hostile academic Charles Sugnet was right about some 1980s British travel writing, but certainly not all of it.