Writer on the road
One of the true elder statesmen of travel writing, Colin Thubron muses on his new book, the dangers of vodka and why you’re never alone when you’re on the road. Words and portrait by Nick Smith
Colin Thubron disappears into his kitchen to make coffee. He’s concerned that his telephone doesn’t seem to work properly since he tried to install broadband, and he is irritated on my behalf that crossing London on the Underground network has taken an unfairly long time and has made me late for my appointment with him. We’re in his smart west London apartment in a leafy avenue near Queen’s Gate, and while the silver-haired Thubron waits for the kettle to boil we make small talk about how difficult it is to hook up to the Internet. As he clatters around with mugs and spoons I surreptitiously scan his bookcases.
His book collection tells its own narrative of a man as fascinated with the progress of 20th century English literature as with travel. The novels of William Golding share shelf-space with the travel classics of Patrick Leigh Fermor, while the poems of T S Eliot are up there with histories of the Mughal princes. This duality of the literary and the geographical is an important thread that runs through Thubron’s life. While it is true that he is one of our best loved and most accomplished travel writers he is also a novelist of some stature. He may well have won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1988 for his epic Behind the Wall: A Journey through China, but as recently as 2002 he was short-listed for the far more prestigious Booker prize for his fictional work To the Last City. His opinion obviously matters: there are new books scattered around clearly sent to him by publishers in the hope that he might favourably review them. And there are others by friends who are authors sent in the hope that he might simply read them (‘I wish I had time to read books by my friends’.) Although he doesn’t mention it, his roots in literature are deeper still, being an indirect descendant of one of the real heavyweights of the English canon, the 17th century Augustan poet John Dryden. Watching over this literary melting pot in the corner there is an imperious stuffed eagle-owl he dragged back from Spain some years ago, in the days when you could ‘do that sort of thing without raising too many eyebrows.’
Thubron is of course currently in the spotlight on account of his much-anticipated new book, Shadow of the Silk Road. To say it has done well is an understatement with it being easily the best-selling travel book over the Christmas 2006 period, while its author has given an unprecedented three lectures on the subject at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). Scenes created by disappointed punters turned away from the Ondaatje lecture theatre amounted to little less than dignified rioting. However, this is not to say that Shadow of the Silk Road has met with unmixed critical acclaim. His staunchest supporters admit he can be difficult to read and ‘old-fashioned’. But what seems to have annoyed some of the newspaper critics this time around is his decision to include imaginary sequences of dialogue between himself and ancient Silk Road traders, something that the Observer finds ‘embarrassing in their melancholic self-regard.’ Strong stuff indeed, and in no way justified as a criticism of a book that is not just about the objective realities of traveling.
It is also a view that overlooks the point that Thubron is an innovator who, in order to create the emotional and imaginative depth his books require, is happy to experiment by integrating novel writing techniques into his travelogues. This approach is in fact something of a revelation at a time when there are too many undistinguished travel books being put out by mediocre publishers. Some of today’s best authors slip anchor and quietly join another genre (William Dalrymple is now a best-selling popular historian; Philip Marsden is reportedly writing a history of the Battle of Magdala; Justin Marozzi a biography of Herodotus). Lesser writers continue to publish accounts of travel stunts contrived purely for the sake of writing about them. But Thubron, the elder statesman of his art delivers original, literary observation that will still be in print long after we have forgotten the names of some of today’s writers.
Is this alleged decline in travel writing simply down to the fact that there’s nowhere left to go? ‘I do think it’s a slight illusion that there’s nowhere left to travel’ says Thubron. ‘I remember doing a journey in the 1970s in which I took an old car across Asia through Iran and Afghanistan through to Kashmir, North Pakistan and Lebanon. All these places have become difficult, if not impossible, to travel in today. At that time China and the Soviet Union were off the map altogether and I thought I’d never get to explore them. And then suddenly the exact opposite happened – these two massive areas for exploration fall open, while the central Islamic countries are becoming harder to travel in. Things change all the time.’
For the past century, ever since Sir Mark Aurel Stein brought the region to the attention of the wider public, the Silk Road has been a rich hunting ground for explorers and writers. Since the Millennium there has been a major exhibition at the British Library, a television series on the subject by geographer Nick Middleton, as well as the much publicised all-women horseback ride along the length of the route by Alexandra Tolstoy and her three companions. So isn’t this rather over-exposed territory for Thubron? ‘What fascinated me was the countries themselves, the idea of inner Asia, central Asia, Northwest China, the Islamic countries… the sort of in-between countries, those porous borders, the cultural transfusion that resulted from the endless movement of people in antiquity. All that interested me a lot and came before any idea of traveling the Silk Road itself. Then later as a result of my research I realized that the one binding element between all these countries was the Silk Road and so I came to it in a secondary way. I realized by the end of the book that almost all political borders are fake and the real borders are elsewhere.’
The journey that makes up Shadow of the Silk Road was complete by Thubron in two legs, the first in 2003 and the second in 2004. It was impossible for him to get from China to Turkey in one hit because of the war in Afghanistan, a place where according to Thubron ‘it’s not a good idea to take a car.’ Despite the fact that he researched his subject for a year-and-a-half before setting out, the journey was planned in ‘rather a scattershot way’ with a broad idea of which counties he was to travel through, but only ‘the vaguest notion of where I was to go in them.’ He says that this is the only way to do it, having learned that if you try to arrange meetings, book hotels, stick to timetables then the only things you can guarantee are endless hassle, problems and disappointments. ‘You have to get out of that mood you have in England where you expect everything to work for you’ he says glancing mournfully at his telephone. ‘Why should everything work for you? If the buses don’t run, you miss the train, the camel goes lame or the car breaks down then you kind of have to accept that as part of the personality of the country you are in. Whether what happens is bad or good, it doesn’t really matter provided there’s a book at the end of it.’
The idea of there being ‘a book at the end of it’ is something that is always in Thubron’s mind and a driving force behind some of his scarier adventures. To be traveling alone, he says, means that there are always two of you on the journey. In this apparent paradox there’s the one who is physically doing the traveling and the other sitting on your shoulder with a notebook and pencil. And it is the latter who thinks, just as you are being mugged ‘hmmm, this is good copy… I think I’ll we’ll use this.’ It’s a tension between self-preservation and daring that not even the best of writers can resolve. After all, if you are traveling sensibly, at least in theory, then nothing much bad will happen to you. You end up looking for experiences or even worse manufacturing them, whether consciously or not. ‘I’m very ashamed of this,’ says Thubron, ‘but I am aware all the time I am on a journey that it is for a book. All the time there’s this dual business going on. You are going for experience and you push yourself to do things you’d never normally undertake. Maybe something dangerous. But that’s not courage.’
Rather than courage he sees it as application to his trade. While traveling as a professional writer he claims to imagine himself invulnerable in a way that he would not were he on holiday with his girlfriend, for example. Out on assignment he is looking for experiences in a way that others do not, experiences others would try to avoid. He cites as an example the moment he nearly died on the Silk Road journey. It had nothing to do with terrorism, insurgency, Islamic fundamentalism, gun-toting tribal warlords or even natural disaster. It was simply his inability to judge a mundane situation where both he and his Kyrgyz companions had been drinking vodka before getting in a car and driving away. ‘I hadn’t realized how drunk they were. Like most of the Central Asian peasants they were subverted by vodka. The whole car seemed to pass out at the same time, including the driver.’ The car veered slowly towards what Thubron says must have been the ‘only lorry driving in central Kyrgyzstan that night, and I don’t know how we missed it.’
Colin Thubron is slightly different from most travel writers today – he comes from a generation when his chosen genre was at its apex. The competition were far fewer in number , though his contemporaries – Bruce Chatwin, Eric Newby, Jonathan Raban, Paul Theroux – were a fearsomely talented and diverse bunch. But what he has in common with all of them is that he is a writer first and a traveler second. He elaborates by making the point that ‘years ago someone made the distinction between travelers who write and writers who travel.’ He his happy to place himself in the latter category and equally happy to admit to being the ‘someone’ who made the distinction in the first place. ‘Since I was a child I wanted to be a writer. I write novels and I wrote bad poetry as a teenager…’ The telephone rings and we look at each other significantly before agreeing that it must be working again. The interview has come to a close, but there is one last question. I ask him how when the day comes, he would like to be remembered. As a writer? He looks thoughtful before saying: ‘I suppose so, yes. Though it’s difficult to know what a writer is.’