Thoughts on Travel Writing

Thoughts On Travel Writing

1) -Travel writing does not appear to be about one person going many different places. There are many different books by many different authors, but each person only ever seems to have been one place. Many books also concern the same place. You wonder if the various authors didn’t get a reduced group travel rate and all go together. The only difference between the books seems to be how the various authors got to where they were going and what they did when they got there.

2) -There are those travel books telling the reader about the author’s travels and there are those travel books telling the reader what to do when he or she gets to destination. (guide books for want of a better name) In either case, how can you be sure that the author has actually been to the place they have written about?

3) – A lot of travel happens in books. There is perhaps more travelling done by book than by any other medium

4) – If you don’t like where you have travelled to by book, it is easy to close the book, put it back on the shelf, and choose another journey. Far simpler than actually having all the trouble and expense of going somewhere you don’t like. Why on earth did you go somewhere you didn’t like in the first place? You should have read about it before you went.

The grammar of travel

Thoughts  on Prepositions

I have noticed that All travel books have prepositons in the title.

Prepositions are those small words that situate us in time and space or move us along. Without prepositions we would be nowhere.


The most popular travel preposition seems to be AROUND – implying that you intend to come home and your travels have been no more than going round in a large circle. Personally speaking, this preposition does not imply any depth or discovery; it is merely describing how a person went around the edge of something without actually bothering to go in. AROUND also implies that you have been round in a giant circle, whereas ROUND has some idea of perpetual motion, the idea of going round in circles, some of them ever decreasing, much like our ever shrinking world.


TO – meaning that you go somewhere – it doesn’t necessarily imply that the person comes back, because they haven’t gone AROUND. Travelling TO somewhere meaning that you are not going to talk about your destination, but simply about how you got there. Either a long litany of highly unseaworthy boats and steam trains or a simple voyage of self-discovery (presumably on a long train journey). All those travellers/explorers/adventurers who go TO places have always come FROM somewhere, though they only tend to talk about going to. However COMING FROM somewhere is at least half the journey FROM, could be a simple departure point in one of life’s journeys or for journey of life itself. There are those places that are easier to COME FROM than others – from royal lineage or from a privileged background as opposed to from the working class or from a broken home. There are those people FROM places that are happy departure points and others FROM places where COMING FROM is more a case of GETTING OUT – escaping a destiny that you have not chosen.


Fixing you in places where you may (or may not) want to be

IN – I’m not actually travelling, because I am already here, IN a bookshop, IN a shopping centre, IN south east London. It actually matters little where the bookshop is, just to say that many journeys start IN books (or bookshops) and a lot of travel happens IN books


Travel writers always claim to be authorities on the places they write about. The common title seems to be “The Insider’s Guide” –  Reading such a guide, I would assume that the writer has the same thorough, “inside out” knowledge that only a native might possess. Unfortunately, from my experience of travel guides, most writers possess a very “outside in” knowledge – an external perspective that comes when insiders’ guides are written by people who are never truly on the inside. No matter where we go, we are always outside in and perhaps even a little back to front.


That moment IN-BETWEEN when you leave one place and end up somewhere else. The journey itself, which might actually be more important than the final destination. Are you travelling to get somewhere or are you travelling for the sake of travelling?

Travelling as a tense experience

Addressing myself to those learners of the English language who have problems with been and gone

“He has gone to India” – meaning that the person in question is not here at the moment

“He has been to India” – meaning that the person in question is either, recently returned, or at some point in their life has been to India,

as opposed to:

“He has just been to India. he went a couple of weeks ago and came back yesterday.”

Learners of English have the greatest of difficulties with that tense we call the Present Perfect and, in particular the difference between BEEN and GONE. For most foreigners the idea of BEEN is that you are still there and the idea of GONE means that you have been an have returned.  I suppose we could modify and even resolve this dilemma with the addition of the inquisitive adverb EVER. Though the interrogative phrase “Have you ever gone to India?” is not correct, it certainly resolves issue of being there or having just got back and the question “Have you ever been to India?” is very clear. Though within the minds of the English language novice the “have you ever been?” gets confused with the idea of “did you go?”

As a teacher of English I am always at pains to point out that the present perfect applies to one’s entire life, from the moment that you were born to the moment the question is posed, because you haven’t died yet, meaning that you are not yet dead, meaning that you are still in the present, whether it is perfect or not.


Referring to three major travel conditionals

First Conditonal

One day I will go if …

The first conditional, meaning that in an indefinable future, if personal finances and family circumstances allow, I will, may or might finally go somewhere.

If I go there I will …

A rewriting of the first conditional for the would-be traveller who knows that they never will.

Second Conditional

If I went I would …

The phrase of the traveller who will never reach their desired destination. The mere use of a preterit form, implying that they have abandoned all hope of ever going anywhere.

Third Conditional

If I had been there, I would have …

Implying that the traveller has been somewhere but not the place that they had originally intended to go.

I wouldn’t have been there if (I had known then what I know now) …

Meaning that the traveller went to his or her desired destination, but was somewhat disappointed. For example they came to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower, arriving on one of the numerous days that the  personnel are on strike and the tower is closed.BUT

“I’d love to come but …”

The word of the traveller looking for a plausible excuse not to go somewhere.

The Purpose of Travelling

The purpose of travelling is (obviously) to change air, get a new perspective, do something different, discover new cultures, have an adventure (you choose).

Travelling, therefore, is going somewhere else to have a new experience and then, at some point, come home.

The place has to be interesting or exciting enough to make it worth your going there in the first place.

Travel writing therefore is essentially writing about it all – telling others about what you did, when you went somewhere – like writing your holiday postcards, but, when you get home, AND making it sound interesting enough to make others want to go there, and also to get it published.

This afternoon, I am in a bookshop in Bromley. I could write about my travels to, in and around this sinister corner of South London BUT Bromley is perhaps not exotic enough.

What have people written about?

Riding round India on an Enfield motorbike and stopping off on the way to talk to some interesting locals and Knock up a curry with « real » ingredients that you will never find in your local supermarket.

Farting around Northern Italy on a Vespa  – visiting typical Tuscan and Umbrian villages, popping in Renaissance churches, zooming round vineyards for a wine tasting, then eating in an authentic little restaurant and chatting fluent Cappuccino with the locals.

(You could do the same in France in a 2cv – come to think of it, as I peruse these books, I can’t find any about rolling round France in a 2CV.)

Other writings

Plenty of works about walking the Pilgrim ways of Europe (always accompanied by a donkey) – Compostella, Canterbury, Fatima and Lourdes. Voyages of self-discovery by agnostic types who don’t really find God, but certainly drink plenty of wine on the way.

  • Round China on a train
  • My trip on the Trans Siberian
  • Floating down the canals of France
  • Round the USA on a Harley Davidson
  • Round the world on the smallest boat you can find.

I might try my hand at travel writing. Just have to think of places I have been and all the interesting or idiosyncratic people I have met. Where can I start?

Considerations for travel writing

  • A suitable departure point
  • Choice of destination
  • Mode of transport


I suppose you are going to leave simply from where you come from However most travel writers like to choose a symbolic departure point. Going from London to Paris, you might well leave from Trafalgar Square and end your journey at the foot of the Eiffel tower. Leaving from a symbolic departure point does of course entail some “pre-travelling” before you begin you journey.


The choice of destination is actually not of paramount importance. If you are going somewhere though, it is always best to have somewhere to go. A final destination (of sorts) Whether you actually make it to your final destination or somewhere else matters little, just as long as you end up somewhere, anywhere or nowhere (even the last two are very valid and real destinations). It is important to have some vague geographical objective even if only to know which way to turn when you get to the end of the street. Would it much matter though if you had a last minute change of heart and chose to go in a different direction to that which you originally intended? If you are going round the world, you are going to come back on yourself anyway.

Mode of Transportation.

My mum used to say that she “didn’t come up the Clyde on a bicycle.” Now there’s an interesting mode of transport for a fluvial journey. The means of conveyance to take you TO and FROM or FROM and TO very much depends on where you are going. Crossing the desert by camel, travelling round France in a 2CV car – but do we really want to read about something so clichéd? Impossible, or incongruous transport for everyday journeys and incredible journeys using everyday means of conveyance. Motorbikes are very popular but what about travelling round France on a Camel or even coming up the Clyde on a bicycle?

My First Travel books

1974 – First Primary school geography textbook

A well-thumbed, voluminous book with colonial overtones and  traces of mildew on almost every page. The binding is obscured by multiple layers of yellowing Sellotape. The world in glorious black and white – photos of Missionaries and pith-helmeted colonial officials benevolently administering to the needs of semi-naked African children. The book is cast very much in the Imperial mindset of my second division, south east London private primary school, where manners rank higher than brainpower, where, every prize giving day we sing “God Save the Queen” and “Land of Hope and Glory” In geography lessons we learn how our Victorian forebears set bounds wider and wider until they built an empire on which the sun never set.  Teaching us this very imperial version of geography was Mrs Carling, who herself was so old that she might even have met Queen Victoria.  Mrs C had travelled to Africa and India (so she claimed) and she would often regail us with her personal experiences of empire. She had sailed down the Suez Canal, chugged across India in steam trains and flown to the furthermost outposts of “British civilisation” in airplanes that looked like airplanes – the reassuring rounded type with propellers.  Our geography text book was part and parcel of Mrs Carling’s  benevolent colonial world. We were supposed to have “modern” text books – al glossy pages, colour photos and a, geographical ethos which Mrs C did not share. Hence on the first geography lesson of the new school year, she “relieved” us of our “modern” books for her more traditional variant. The modern books were stacked in a pile at the back of the classroom, whre they lay gathering dust for the rest of the year.

Travel Brochures

After dad died, mum wanted to take a “foreign holiday” – one day she brought home armfuls of travel brochures all venting the merits of trendy Spanish package holiday destinations – Torremolinos, Tossa de Mar, Benidorm … exotic names of what seemed distant dream destinations.  Names that would roll and trip off the tongue, tingling my travel senses. Oh how I yearned to go to a hotel heaven in Torremolinos  rather than a caravan park in Wells Next the Sea.

The brochures quickly became essential bedtime reading. I abandoned Enid Blyton and spent hours poring over pictures of  Spanish beaches and skyscraper hotels all with lagoon style azur blue, palm-fringed swimming pools that seemed larger than lakes. The most exciting of all, we’d have to fly to Spain in a real airplane. I asked mum if it would have propellers. For a few brief months it seemed we would finally be like everyone and have a real two week package holiday rather than our traditional tartan pilgrimage. We never got to Spain, but I still kept my penchant for travel brochures. They provided a colourful window on the world in our black and white TV, coal heated Victorian terrace

Camping Equipment Brochures.

Every year dad would take us to the camping and caravanning show, held on the car park of the Twickenham rugby ground. (I guess we must be in the late sixties). We would clamber over caravans and crawl in and out of tents. We had a “play” tent that dad used to put up in the back garden in summer – a heavy canvas affair with wooden poles. It must have been military surplus or a former scout tent . The tents at the show though were different – all metal poles, zip up doors, man-made fibres and separate inners for sleeping. I used to come home from the show with tons of tent brochures. I’d spend hours looking at the tent pictures and dreaming of places to camp that could be as far away from our back garden as possible.

The AA Road books for Scotland and Ireland.

Mum only joined the Automobilme Association in the first place because they had a more ornate bumper badge than the RAC (Royal Automobile Club), and, still, when she joined, the AA mechanics were obliged to salute you on the road when they saw your very ostentatious, winged bumper emblem. Come to think of it, our AA emblem was possibly worth more than the beat up, second hand Morris Traveller that it was fixed to.

These road books served us on numerous trips o Scotland and our long Irish holiday in 1969.

Large hardback volumes, (only available on mail order or from the AA headquarters in Leicester Square),  packed with information on absolutely everything to see from museums and castles to the farthest flung  heap of Celtic stones. No photos, but detailed hand-drawn pictures – almost as if the AA had commissioned an artist to draw every monument in Scotland and Ireland. The books were enormous and very unpractical for on-the-move, in-car use. I never read the blurb on the monuments, I’d just look at the maps of Scotland and Ireland – all jagged coastline with bays and sea lochs (or loughs). I’d imagine pirate ships sailing into craggy bays by the light of the moon, or monsters as old as the world itself, living deep in the bottom of bottomless lochs. I also loved the sketches of remote ruined castles. Even when we finally stopped going to Scotland and Ireland, I would sit for hours thumbing through the pages of the books. After mum died, I was stupid enough to give these books to a local charity shop.

The Wonder Encyclopedia for Children

Published in 1933 – this must have belonged to my aunt Margaret who was born in 1925, then in 1949 emigrated to Canada – Well, she didn’t take the book with her, and for years it sat gathering dust on an inaccessible shelf in our bookcase. I must have been about five when I asked mum to take it down. Not sure if I could read much at five, but I just  remember the words “wonder” and “children” in gold letters on the spine, beckoning me to take an interest – and it was intesresting. Pictures of seaplanes, dinosaurs, Viking ships and the Pyramids – everything that a young boy needed to fuel his imagination. I spent so much time buried in the book, looking at the pictures that mum eventually bought me a modern encyclopedia (circa 1972) but, it just wasn’t the same … far too modern. I still occasionally dip into this “wonder book”, possibly written by impecunious intellectuals seeking to make a few extra shillings with a spot of freelance writing. This encyclopedia is not in fact an alphabetical classification of knowledge, but a series of articles that just have to be read. Titles such as “jogging and speeding round the world,” or  “People who did big things” or “Some famous fights.” Even as an adult, titles like this appeal to me for their simplicity. I am still a great fan of this book, principally because of the naïve cultural and political mindset and the fact that it was written well before what came after. It’s a gem.

The Story of the British People in Pictures.

This one dates from 1949 and was purchased by my grandfather to help my mum with her school history. As a kid, I’d spend hours just looking at the pictures. King Canute, Alfred the Great, Robin Hood, all with flowing heroic locks, well gromed pointy beards and wise expressions,  in glorious black and white – come to think of it, most of the  heros all look like clones of Errol Flynn. This was time travel at its best , and  now, when I read the text, it is less jingoistic than my primary school geography book and more measured than the  “Wonder Encyclopedia for Children” – well, in between, Britain might have won a war, but in 1949 we are still on rationing and we have lost an empire, however it is all reassuringly reassuring. Everything will be alright. I love the quotation (no source given) on the first page of this book … “Nothing in the past is dead to the man who would learn how the present came to be what it is.”

The Aircraft Book.

Grandpa George’s big airplane book. Photos, drawings, histopries and technical data on pretty much everything that had ever flown. Not many jets though, so you can tell the age of the book. My grandfather had been the chief photographer on the Scottish Daily Mail for 20 years and, according to his obituary he had been a pioneer of aerial photography in Scotland, as well as the first ever journalist to fly with the Fleet Air Arm. During one mission, the plane (with my grandfather on board) was forced to ditch in the North sea. This book marked the beginning of my love affair with things that fly. I’d love to design and build flying machines then pilot them in a Jules Verne style quest to the centre of the edge of somewhere via an unknown world (just as long as I could be home for dinner).  Like many books, the aircraft book was either binned, sold or given to a charity shop when the family moved from south west London Victorian terrace to south east London semi in the early seventies.

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