Travelling Fearlessly

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In 1992, I started working for a strange but beguiling organization. The Royal Society of Literature was, in those days, housed in a huge, dilapidated mansion in Bayswater, and it was there that its Fellows gathered to raise a farewell glass to my predecessor. They were an elderly, rather moth-eaten bunch, but one stood out – a strikingly handsome younger man in a velvet jacket. Somebody introduced me: ‘This is Colin Thubron. He’ll be a great support to you.’

And so he proved – when he was in London. For great tracts of time he was away, leaving his ‘old self behind’, exploring places most of us would neither dare nor desire to visit, but which we love to read about with a vicarious sense of fearlessness and endurance. In the golden generation that produced Jonathan Raban, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux and Redmond O’Hanlon, Thubron is now the Grand Old Man, bringing to journeys that are physically and psychologically testing a fine, romantic sensibility. Even when there is apparently nothing to describe, his prose is seductively beautiful: ‘A traveller needs to believe in the significance of where he is, and therefore in his own meaning,’ he writes in In Siberia (1999), as he chugs by train towards the Arctic Circle. ‘But now the earth is flattening out over its axis. The shoreline is sinking away. Nothing, it seems, has ever happened here.’

We meet on an autumn morning, sun streaming through the French windows of Thubron’s elegant Holland Park drawing-room. We sit in deep, white sofas, eating biscuits. Surely Thubron, now 79, can’t want to leave all this behind and subject himself to the challenges and privations of another three-month journey? Yes, he says. He does. He is preparing himself to travel down the Amur, the ninth longest river in the world. It runs between Russia and China, so he is brushing up the Russian and Mandarin he learned for Among the Russians (1983) and Behind the Wall (1987). H

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About the contributor

Maggie Fergusson is Literary Editor of The Tablet, and Literary Director of the Royal Society of Literature.

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