Jan Morris, the venerable Welsh writer, once declared that writing about travel is simply writing about life, and therefore not strictly a genre in its own right. Maybe, but for me travel is life on steroids, albeit observed with some degree of detachment. Certainly the best travel writing draws inspiration from down-and-dirty experience, not from peering through a coach window.
In the years following the Second World War, many an incredible tale of adventure, indeed of survival against all the odds, took shape in the post-War book club editions or the Pan paperbacks, yellowing and dog-eared on the family bookshelves.
In The Long Walk Polish exile Slavomir Rawicz recounted his extraordinary trek, fleeing from a Siberian prison camp across the pitiless wastes of the Gobi Desert and eventually across the Himalayas to freedom.
German mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, trapped in British India when war broke out, escaped and fled into Tibet, then a feudal theocracy desperately trying to shout out the twentieth century. Seven Years in Tibet – forget the corny movie version – relates how Harrer and his companion, Peter Aufschneiter, eventually reached Lhasa, where Harrer would become a confidant of the young Dalai Lama.
Forget those Beat generation wankers. Australia’s own Peter Pinney was the original post-War drop-out, a feckless wanderer. After the Second World War this handsome and ingenuous layabout drifted around the world for fifteen years, usually penniless and just one step ahead of officialdom. Desperation lent an edge to his most audacious exploits: playing politics in the Adriatic port of Trieste; setting out on foot across the Sahara; rigging games of chance in West African street markets.
Penniless – as ever – in Calcutta, Pinney discovered his gift for recounting his adventures, and his writings published through the 1950s and 1960s – Dust on my Shoes; Anywhere But Here; Who Wanders Alone; The Lawless and the Lotus – still turn up in second-hand bookstores.
Along the way, Pinney broke a few hearts.
That night [in Sarajevo] she came… and she asked many questions, as women will.
“It must be difficult travelling in this manner,” she eventually protested.
“A little difficult sometimes, but I find travel is its own reward.”
“There is an international language,” I said, guardedly admiring her, “which can be of great assistance; and which women, I am told, understand.”
“What language is that?”
“Braille. The language of the blind.”
Another ripple of laughter escaped her. “I begin to understand you, I think.”
(Who Wanders Alone)
The language sometimes seems a little prolix, but Pinney’s yarns offer an escape from the twenty-first century as total as science fiction.
Fellow Australian John Borthwick, who met Pinney in his last years, compiled The Road to Anywhere, a paperback anthology of Pinney’s best (it, too, is out of print).
And of course there are way too many more… but just a couple
Laurie Lee ‘s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning
Eric Newby ‘s many books, especially A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, but also Love and War in the Apennines, A Small Place in Italy and others