Writer on the Road: One of the True Elder Statesmen of Travel Writing, Colin Thubron Muses on His Latest Book, Shadow of the Silk Road, the Dangers of Vodka and Why You're Never Alone When You're on the Road
Smith, Nick, Geographical
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's irritated on my behalf that crossing London on the Underground has taken an unfairly long time and made me late for our appointment. 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. 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 TS 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's true that he's one of our best-loved and most accomplished travel writers, he's 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 in 2002, he made the long list for the far more prestigious Booker prize for his fictional work To The Last City. His opinion obviously matters: scattered around are new books sent by publishers in the hope that he might favourably review them; then there are the ones written by friends, sent in the hope that he might simply read them ("I wish I had the time," he says).
Thubron is currently in the spotlight thanks to his latest book, Shadow of the Silk Road. To say it has done well is an understatement. It was easily the bestselling travel book over the Christmas period, and Thubron 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 isn't to say that Shadow of the Silk Road has met with unmixed critical acclaim. Even his staunchest supporters admit that 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, which the Observer found "embarrassing in their melancholic self-regard". Strong stuff indeed, and in no way justified as a criticism of a book that is about more than the objective realities of travelling.
It's also a view that overlooks the fact 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 far too many undistinguished travel books being published, 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've forgotten the names of some of today's authors.
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 during the 1970s in which I took an old car across Asia through Iran and Afghanistan to Kashmir, North Pakistan and Lebanon. All of 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--those two huge areas for exploration fell open, while the central Islamic countries became more difficult to travel in. …