Taking the genre back to its origins, Tim Hannigan cites travel writing as possibly the oldest of all literary traditions. After all, Norse sagas are simply accounts of voyages, the Book of Exodus is a journey narrative and was not Herodotus the original ‘travel writer’, his Histories being a detailed account of view regarding the Greco-Persian Wars?
In The Travel Writing Tribe, Hannigan turns the concept on its head in his quest to hunt out travel writers themselves, ‘just as Philip Marsden has tracked down Spirit-Wrestlers and Armenians’. He seeks out the big names from previous generations as well as younger writers trying to carry their work into unknown destinations. It is a journey that brings him face-to-face with writers whose work he has known since his teens, and which sends him delving deep into archives, seminar rooms and academic gatherings, combing library shelves for scholarly works on travel writing.
Among all this, Hannigan takes time to examine travel writing’s greatest controversies. Is it acceptable for travel writers to fabricate experiences and where does the frontier between fact and fiction lie? What can be said about travel writing’s colonial connections? Is travel writing a pursuit dominated by posh white men?
Ironically the real tradition of travel writing – with its goal to communicate an experience to readers or listeners – could be said to have started with a woman. In the late fourth century, a Spanish nun named Egeria, set out to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and penned an account of her voyage in Latin, addressed to her fellow sisters back in the Galician nunnery. Hence it emerges that in an overwhelmingly male-dominated craft, the earliest European practitioner and her original intended audience were women.
Hannigan takes the reader from wintry Scotland, across Europe and beyond, to research the lives and writings of such immortals as Dervla Murphy, Wilfred Thesiger, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Colin Thubron. He sets off on trains and planes on mini-adventures, sometimes roughing it at hostels, to meet travel writers and record interviews. The result is, effectively, a ‘travel book’ about ‘writing about travel’.