The art of armchair travel
Great writing takes us into the unexpected, writes Campbell Jefferys
We’ve all been there, trapped on a sofa bookended by a pair recently returned from a trip to some far-flung or not-so-far-flung place, and taken through dozens, if not hundreds of holiday snaps. The theme seldom varies, with one or other of the pair, sometimes both, in front of a place of note and the accompanying commentary of “That’s me in front of X,” or “That’s her in front of Y,” or “That’s us in front of Z”.
Looking at these photos, are we inspired enough to get on a plane and visit? We say we are, to be polite. “Yes, I definitely have to go there.” And we echo the adjectives. “Oh, it’s breathtaking alright. Amazing and stunning. So picturesque. So quaint.” But the only itchy feet we get is to run for the door, not to the nearest airport.
This is the thing about travel: it’s personal. Someone’s holiday photos are interesting to them but put others to sleep. The same goes for travel writing, that realm of cliched, bloated language that rarely brings a place to stinking, glowing, pulsing life, and arguably the hardest form of writing to master. Because how do you garner someone’s interest in your personal experience of a place through words? How can you avoid dull travel logs that tread the familiar ground of I went here, I saw this and I did that, and it was breathtaking and amazing and picturesque?
These days, people are well-travelled. Even if they don’t get on a plane, they can sit at home and travel the world via the internet, see the sights, learn things, maybe even grow a little. That’s no substitute for real-world travel but it does reinforce that so much of the world is known. So, when sitting down to write a travel story, start with something surprising. For example:
“Downstairs, in Berlin’s Gesundbrunnen train station, there is a green door which thousands of people pass every day, completely ignorant to what lies on the other side. This door leads to a network of tunnels and bunkers . . . 11 of us, including two guides, pass through the door and go down a long staircase.”
Lots of people have been to Berlin but do they know about this green door and the tunnels beyond? From this opening paragraph, from passing through the green door, the reader is now one of the 11, heading down into the darkness to bear witness to how citizens coped and survived (or didn’t) through two world wars and a division that split the city in half. The air gets thinner, it’s hard to see, shadows dance. The bunker is soundproof as well as bombproof and, up above, the city is loud and life continues apace.
This story about Berlin, its place in history and evolution, is told from a dank bunker lit by glow-in-the-dark paint 75 years old. That makes it more striking than adjectivised sketches drawn from the window of a tourist bus.
Great travel writing does what travel should do: take us towards the unexpected, to a place that intrigues. These are the experiences that snap us awake, and they define a place in ways we didn’t anticipate, in ways we remember for years to come. Another example: in New York to visit the museums, I end up playing pick-up basketball on a fenced-in court at Washington Square. The story takes the reader on to the court and passes him the ball. It’s a muggy September afternoon and everyone’s talking trash. And look sharp, reader, because you might get an elbow to the head.
Travel writing requires an experience good enough to share. Not simply you in front of some sight but you following your nose, unsure of what’s ahead; peering behind the green door and heading into the darkness; getting yourself on the other side of a mesh fence and joining the five-on-five fray.
Sure, with the internet, there’s not much left to discover. But get this: there really is a place called Carhenge in Nebraska; they play cricket on the German island of Heligoland; the endless tourists are turning Auschwitz into a theme park; the Viennese are obsessed with death and funeral customs; there is a street in Hamburg only adult men can walk down; and hitch-hiking can help you make friends. When travelling, allow yourself the chance to discover the unexpected, to be surprised, to be educated.
And if you decide to write about it, start strong, keep the story focused, and finish well.
Travel writing requires an experience good enough to share.