To Boldly Go… Colin Thubron
Jennifer Cox: You have been called ‘one of the last great gentlemen travel writers’. Is that how you see yourself?
Distinguished British travel writer and novelist Colin Thubron is regarded by many as one of the world’s finest travel writers. Ranked by The Times as one of the 50 greatest post-war writers, Thubron’s award-winning travel books embody a golden age of travel and travel writing spanning nearly 50 years. And at the age of 75, Thubron’s travel plans are as ambitious as ever, discovers Compass editor Jennifer Cox.
: People do say that but I’m not quite sure what they mean. I guess it refers to a rather cavalier method of travel: when you go it alone, rely on your own resources. People have more kindly said it’s extensively researched travel writing, the kind that assumes a certain shared level of culture – classical, historical … – between the reader and travel writer. That’s probably no longer the case, for better or for worse.
JC: Is it better, or worse?
It’s worse if people are not aware of their own cultural background, the prejudices and baggage they travel with. Also if travel writers only take on what they see and what people say, without any background knowledge of where it all comes from. At the same time, some of my generation were a little too embedded in that cultural thing: it could blind you to the immediacy of where you were.
JC: You started travelling young: boarding at Eton and flying overseas to visit your parents as your father was stationed abroad with the diplomatic corps.
That was a formative time for me, between the ages of eight and 13. My father was working in Canada and the States, and I was travelling back and forth across the Atlantic on these four-engine stratocruisers, touching down in Shannon and Reykjavik. It had a great effect. It wasn’t that long after the war and England was a pretty drab place. Suddenly I was exposed to the Great Lakes and landscapes of Canada. And Times Square in New York, for a kid who’d never seen a neon light in his life … very quickly I learned that home was boring and overseas was terrifically exciting and full of possibility.
JC: As a young man, you worked in publishing – London, then New York – before turning your hand to travel writing, starting in the Middle East. What drew you there?
I was fascinated by what I didn’t understand about the Middle East. Most of my generation had a romanticism of the bedouin and the desert. But I became fascinated with Arab urban life, the complexity and secrecy of the inland cities of Syria – Aleppo and Damascus in particular. I think all of my travel books have been an attempt to understand something I didn’t wholly comprehend, so they would hopefully be a discovery for the reader, as well as myself. Also, as a publisher, I had a canny knowledge of what might sell: there hadn’t been a book published on Damascus for over a century.
JC: The result was the hugely popular Mirror to Damascus. Published in 1967, this beautifully lyrical book launched your long, extremely successful career in travel writing. Initially devoted to the Middle East, you then turned your attention to Russia, then China and Central Asia. What made you shift your focus?
Up until the early 1980s, I wrote about confined places such Lebanon, Jerusalem, Cyprus and, as absurd as it sounds, I felt the need to be comprehensive about a place’s history, politics and so on. Then in 1978 I had a bad road accident and fractured my spine. It was almost a seminal moment: I lay in hospital imagining that I was going to be given permission to walk along the Great Wall of China. That’s what I aimed for over the next couple of years. I didn’t get it of course – it was the early ’80s – but Russia started to take shape in my mind. It was the Brezhnev period. I took a course in A-level Russian and set off in a car to drive where I could – far less prepared than I had been for my earlier books – to encounter a huge culture that was much less easily mastered. It was a radical change, almost a desire to encounter the countries and cultures that were our traditional enemies at the time: Russia, the great communist superpower, with multitudinous China behind, both waiting to come west and subsume us. They were objects of fear to my generation, just as my parents were brought up with a fear of Germany. I wanted to put a human face on them. The press at the time presented Russia as a curiously blank place: men in homburg hats saluting the May Day parade. But read the novels of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, and here was an almost incontinently emotional, human, mad-drunk race. I wanted to try and resolve all that.
JC: With Russia’s current sabre-rattling, China actively expanding into Africa and Isis in Syria, do you feel modern travel writing has a role to play in creating understanding and a desire for dialogue?
Yes, travel and travel writing encourage people to try and understand a country, not from the point of view of politics but through the ordinariness of life. I often feel if members of the US Senate had been made to spend a month in the cafes of Baghdad, they could never have done what they did. Travel encourages you to understand a culture in your bones, in a way that’s not possible just by reading about it.
JC: Is this one of the reasons you always travel solo for your books?
I’ve found that to travel with another person from your culture is to create a bubble of security from which you consciously judge, saying: “Oh look aren’t they funny!” When you travel on your own you are the funny one, and are quickly forced to realise that your way is not the norm. It makes you more vulnerable of course, but it also makes you more sensitive to where you are.
JC: What are the practicalities of producing your travel books? How long does each stage take?
Each book takes three years or more, and the proportions between writing, research and travelling are quite unheroic. A year and a half on research, with much of that spent dragging back my language skills – especially in the case of Russian and Mandarin – as communication is very important. The journey is often very short, usually three or four months of intense travelling upon which everything rests. The writing takes a year or more. I take a lot of detailed notes when I travel: you remember a conversation or what a city looked like in general, but it’s the little details that give life to a description.
JC: What do you think of the modern trend of gonzo travel writers, where authors eat the wrong things or hurt themselves, basically failing their way around the world?
One of the advantages of travel writing is that it reflects back the idiocy of the person writing it. I don’t like the stunt where the traveller is consciously handicapped, casting them at the centre of the story. What interests me is the country. In fact, some complain that I don’t talk about myself enough. That said, you can write an awful lot about a place but what people remember is a personal incident. For instance, I wrote a quite difficult book in the late 1980s about China (Behind The Wall: A Journey through China, 1987), obsessed by what the Chinese had done to each other during the Cultural Revolution, the cruelty. Bringing a very western style of thinking, I wrestled to understand it. In fact, the book is a study of someone encountering something they do not understand, finding it very disturbing and, in the end, coming to some sort of understanding. But all I hear from people is: “Ooh, I remember that book you wrote on China. There was that owl you saved from the Cantonese restaurant.” Again and again, when someone comes up bright-eyed, I know they’re going to talk to me about that owl! Similarly I wrote an entire book on the Silk Road (The Silk Road: Beyond the Celestial Kingdom, 1989), about the artificiality of borders. And if anyone remembers anything, it’s not my great insights on the Silk Road, it’s how I had a very bad time with a dentist in Iran. This is one of the humiliations of the writer.
JC: Talking of which, did you ever think you’d feature in a Daily Mail headline: Explorer Discovers Love at 71?
No I did not. And I didn’t expect to get married at the age of 71. It’s partially the qualities of the woman I met. Also I sacrificed quite a lot for my career – during my 40s and 50s I spent long periods abroad – and writing is quite a solitary occupation, to which I devoted myself single-mindedly.
JC: In your most recent travel book – 2011’s To a Mountain in Tibet – you travel to Mount Kailash, mourning the recent death of your mother and also reflecting on the deaths of your father and sister. It’s a beautiful, poignantly sad book, after which you come home and marry. Does this mark a new chapter in your life, a new direction?
In 2006 I wrote Shadow of the Silk Road, a 7,000-mile journey through Central Asia and China ending in the Middle East, a journey involving so many of the countries and ideas of my past. It almost felt like a final book. Some people thought it was, and I wasn’t sure where the next travel book was coming from. But then my mother died ... my father had died, my sister had died. I felt compelled to do something, so made this short, sharp, solitary journey to Mount Kailash, a sacred spot on the landscape that I could relate to as an agnostic. I wasn’t anticipating writing a book. It was a personal journey, and that is what the book became. Now I have an idea to write about the Amur river, which forms the border between China and Russia. I may not be able to do it – it may be too difficult in terms of politics and I could end up spending my time in police stations – but I need to see if it’s possible. My instinct is still to go where no one else has written about, where there is something still to be understood.
JC: Is this a continuation of the desire to explore you’ve always had, or a determination to keep exploring as you get older?
I don’t know how many real travel writers ever feel it’s time to give up. Retirement feels like death. Most people are forcibly retired by their company at 65; authors are retired by their public, when they stop buying their books. At my age – 75 – I find it hard to think I’ve settled. I like the idea that I’ll write another travel book. It may be a little more sober than it was, and I have my poor wife to think about. But it’s still there, the desire to travel hasn’t died.