Paul Theroux saunters onto the stage in dark-grey chalk-stripe suit and a white straight-from-the box Nehrucollar shirt. His circular tortoiseshell glasses complete the image of the metropolitan intellectual.
Urbane and media-groomed he pauses, pours himself a glass of water [f be has notes, he doesn't use them preferring to tell a string of apparently unconnected anecdotes about his favourite travel books. For an hour. he weaves the threads of his immense knowledge into a richly textured fabric The packed house in the Ondaatje Theatre at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG, is enthralled.
The following afternoon, Theroux and I meet for a drink in the courtyard of his swanky hotel in Buckingham Gate to discuss his new book The Tao of Travel. Looking relaxed be admits that he 'winged it last night I don't do a lot of public speaking and it can be very stressful.
It's difficult to imagine how the author of such classics as The Great Railway Bazdar The Old Patagonian Express and Riding the Iron Rooster could find sharing his passion for travel literature with 750 well-read geographers as anything other than an easy stroll. But then again, he's never happier than when on the road. Or to be more precise, travelling by train.
It comes as no surprise that Theroux loves good travel writing, although he admits that 'felicitously written, well-observed books are rather rare'. As an example of one of the best of its genre, he cites Apsley Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World. 'I mention that not just because it's stylish, but because the voice is so consistent, so right, so measured,' he says. I mention that this might in some way be related to Cherry-Garrard being George Bernard Shaw's close friend and neighbour. 'Yeah. He looked closely at Cherry-Garrard's book.'
In his wrapping-up statement at the end of Theroux's lecture, the Society's president, Michael Palin, took a positive view of the state of the art, saying that 'rumours of the death of travel writing have tonight been proved to be greatly exaggerated'. Theroux agrees. It's not all bad, he says, 'it's just that publishers fear a certain type of book won't sell. But that's not a reason not to write it. And it doesn't mean that people won't do proper travel or write proper travel books. It just means that it's going to get harder for them to get published.'
He goes on to argue that in this respect, 'the future of travel writing greatly resembles the past'. But what about the future of books? 'That's the $64,000 question. No-one knows what's going to happen to books,' he says. 'We never foresaw the effect of the internet, or e-books or Kindle. We're in the middle of some kind of revolution, but I would like to think that the book with a binding and a jacket, that's full of good writing, will endure. And I think it will, only maybe there will be fewer of them.'
The problem with making predictions, says Theroux, is that everything looks superficially identical to how it used to. 'Sitting here in London today it still looks pretty much the same as when I first came here in 1965,' be says. 'When people write science fiction, the first thing they do is change the look of a place, but actually, places look the same. It's on the inside that real differences happen.'
This can be especially true of returning to a place after a long absence, and I ask Theroux what happens on a writer's return. Is it the writer or the place that has changed over rime? 'The truth is, I've changed, and I'm a different person when I go back,' he says. 'It's a wonderful and educational experience to go back to a place, because you see what the future will look like elsewhere. In general, the quality of life is vastly different and yet not as good.'
Ideal travel books have the gifts of description and a human element, Theroux says. …