Last summer the two masters of travel writing, Norman Lewis and Wilfrid Thesiger, died within a month of each other. As Britain buried the last of her explorers and the best of her travel writers, it became clear that a literary threshold had been crossed. The obituaries were unanimous in their praise of these great men, a pair of triumphant individualists who were born with a zeal to record a vanishing world.
Despite their passionate identification with different cultures and their public championing of endangered societies, they were both also self-effacingly modest. Indeed, by the standards of today’s tabloids they might seem indecently reticent. Norman Lewis claimed he could walk into a room full of people and leave it some time afterwards without anyone realizing that he had been there. Wilfrid Thesiger could never claim such invisibility. His beak-like nose, craggy profile and taste for traditional tailoring, whether in Chelsea or Afghanistan, made him instantly recognizable, but his icy reserve kept him insulated from all but a handful of intimates. This self-discipline was not forced in either man. Rather it was an essential component of their role as travel writers. They were there to observe, to record the world dispassionately, not to paint self-portraits or to cast their shadow over the landscapes they loved.
This is not to suggest that travel writing should be considered a brood-sister to a scholarly work of anthropology. Although you may learn more about the nature of Neapolitan life from Lewis’s masterpiece Naples ’44 and more about the realities of Bedouin existence from Thesiger’s marvellous Arabian Sands than you would if you read a dozen academic textbooks, the reader should always be cautious. Thesiger travelled with youthful outcasts of Omani society whilst Lewis spent much of his time in Naples with prostitutes. Travel writing is always at its best when it is an individual’s passionate response to a society. It seldom, if ever, aspires to a balanced viewpoint and is most famously effective when a whole culture is threatened with destruction. The writer can then pull out all the stops and indulge in a poignant elegy to a dying world.
It is one of the pleasures of a settled, comfortable life to indulge in this melancholy process of regret. It also helps prepare you for old age and death, if you
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