Nourished by Travel – or not

Chambers, Thomas, active 1849-1859; A Burning Town by Moonlight with Travellers

(Thomas Chambers, A Burning Town by Moonlight with Travellers: York Art Gallery
© York Museums Trust)

Reading, on and off, Somerset Maugham’s short stories, I remembered Anthony Burgess, a great admirer of Maugham, writing that: ‘The form fitted a talent that was wide rather than deep, not (as with James) going over the same ground again and again till its possibilities were exhausted, but best nourished by travel, brief encounters with many human types, an anecdote swiftly jotted down between rubbers of bridge, a newspaper report, “brunch” with a planter in Burma, a whisky suku in a Malayan club.’[1]

‘Nourished by travel’, yes, though it’s often said that, in a great many cases, travel narrows the mind. Most obviously nourished are the travel companies, the airlines—and, as becomes daily more obvious, the spread of infectious diseases. But the number of those who feel less positive towards the industry is surely growing, now that even the thickest skull and skin must have been penetrated by some shaft of understanding that every journey by air—and, though less, by road and rail too—is another nail in the coffin of this abused planet.

There’s a moment in Jenny Offill’s new novel:
‘Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters?
‘Old person worry: What if everything I do does?’[2]

Like the destructive effects of smoking, denied, concealed or spun away for years, the facts now sit like giant stones on the road to the airport.

In 1950, apparently, the English travelled an average of five miles a day; in 2000, it was more like thirty miles.[3] The Librarian and I now travel, and plan to travel, far less; and less far, mainly because we don’t want to fly – besides, the cat takes a dim view of prolonged absences. On cats and travel: Guy Davenport wrote to James Laughlin (29 July 1995) about an inquiry from Laughlin’s wife: ‘Gertrude’s question—how do I know all the things I know—is a good one in that it lets several cats out of the bag at once. If she means history and geographical detail, the answer is books, travel, and stealing. If she means psychology and the behavior of people, I make it up.’[4]

One of the main divisions among travellers seems to have been the matter of purpose; more specifically, is there one? Sometimes, it’s a personal trait or tic: Colette wrote in Chance Acquaintances of ‘the few personal belongings which, at that time, I held to be invaluable: my cat, my resolve to travel, and my solitude.’[5]

Colette-and-cat

(Colette and cat: via The Guardian)

‘For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go’, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in a famous passage. ‘The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.’[6] So too, in Angela Carter’s post-apocalyptic Heroes and Villains, she writes: ‘The roads were arteries which no longer sprang from a heart. Once the cities were gone, the roads reverted to an older function; they were used for the most existential kind of travelling, that nomadic peregrination which is an end in itself.’[7]

Samuel Johnson certainly defined a purpose: ‘The grand object of travelling is to see the shores of the Mediterranean. On those shores were the four great Empires of the world; the Assyrian, the Persian, the Grecian, and the Roman.—All our religion, almost all our law, almost all our arts, almost all that sets us above savages, has come to us from the shores of the Mediterranean.’[8] Elsewhere, the opening of The Vanity of Human Wishes proposed surveying mankind on a broader scope, ‘from China to Peru’.

A more personal object was voiced by Edward Leithen, central to half a dozen of John Buchan’s novels, who remarks that: ‘All my life I have cherished certain pictures of landscape, of which I have caught glimpses in my travels, as broken hints of a beauty of which I hoped some day to find the archetype.’[9]

The brutal fact is that millions of affluent people fondly believe that they have a perfect right to drive wherever and whenever they like, and to fly wherever and whenever they like, and that exercising such perceived rights concerns nobody else and affects nobody else. The truth is otherwise. Perhaps the most famous inhabitant of Concord, Massachusetts, once wrote: ‘I have travelled a good deal in Concord’.[10]

A few more of us may need to cultivate the ability—and the desire—to study, learn and feel, let’s say, nourished by our own locality, our own small corner of the world.

 
Notes

[1] Anthony Burgess, ‘Bitter-sweet Savour’ (1965), in The Ink Trade, edited by Will Carr (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2018), 23-24.

[2] Jenny Offill, Weather (London: Granta, 2020), 21-22.

[3] Madeleine Bunting, The Plot: A Biography of an English Acre (London: Granta 2009),  91.

[4] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 205.

[5] Colette, Chance Acquaintances & Julie de Carneilhan (translated by Patrick Leigh Fermor; Harmondsworth; Penguin Books, 1957), 168.

[6] Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes and Selected Travel Writings, edited by Emma Letley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 163.

[7] Angela Carter, Heroes and Villains (London: Picador, 1972), 107.

[8] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 742.

[9] John Buchan, The Dancing Floor (1926; edited by Marilyn Deegan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 115-116.

[10] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 2.