Roadtrips and peregrinations

Combining an academic life with travel writing isn't easy but, as Matthew Reisz discovers, the results can be fascinating

December 1, 2011

Travel writers paint "portraits" of unfamiliar countries; show us landscapes or ways of life that are disappearing; take us on more or less straight-faced "pilgrimages". Academics can and do produce books of all these types. Yet there are also some major obstacles. Extensive travel requires time and usually money, and the incentives built into the research excellence framework push people towards different forms of writing. Other relevant issues are explored in a new book by Simon Goldhill, professor of Greek literature and culture at the University of Cambridge: Freud's Couch, Scott's Buttocks, Brontë's Grave.

This is the third volume in the (very) occasional Cultural Trails series published by the University of Chicago Press. Perhaps predictably, it started in 2004 with a volume on one of the world's most celebrated "trails": Pilgrimage to the End of the World: The Road to Santiago de Compostela. The idea came to him, explains Conrad Rudolph, professor of medieval art history at the University of California, Riverside, when he realised that the 12th-century Pilgrim's Guide was "a medieval do-it-yourself manual that still worked". His book offers both historical reflections and practical guidance on the whole route from southern central France over the Pyrenees to northwest Spain, a journey that takes about two and a half months.

Today's "pilgrims" tend to be less high-minded. Rudolph's book was followed in 2008 by "recovering art historian" Erin Hogan's Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip though the Land Art of the American West, where the gregarious and city-loving director of public affairs at the Art Institute of Chicago decided to confront her "fear of solitude" through a lone three-week journey. Since she "tried to force spontaneity on [her]self" by refusing to "plan anything in advance", she failed to take a compass, got repeatedly lost and never managed to find one of the artworks she intended to write about. At one moment of sobering insight, she suddenly sees herself far from home, "a tiny drunk thing who didn't know where she was going, sitting in a dive bar filled with oversolicitous and, at moments, hostile men".

Goldhill's book is similarly deflationary. He feels little sympathy for the traditional religious pilgrimage "on bloodied knees, crawling toward an epiphany of self-awareness" and, even as he sets out to visit the houses of Sir Walter Scott, Wordsworth, the Brontes, Shakespeare and Freud, admits that he doesn't really see the point of literary pilgrimages, since his love of books doesn't extend to "authors and their things". Looking at a torn and faded Bronte stocking in Haworth Parsonage, he asks: "What Victorian woman, let alone the cripplingly shy Charlotte, would want her used underwear on display?" By the time he reaches Freud's carefully staged house in Hampstead, however, he is thinking far more seriously about the nature of self-presentation and self-revelation.

As a scholar, Goldhill notes, he has "been trained to be highly suspicious of the personal voice in my work - both when it is exhibited and when it is wholly repressed". Even mildly confessional writing brings on a feeling of angst "a bit like the pleasures and fears of a date: once you start thinking too much about how everything you say reveals more than you want and less than you mean to say about yourself, it can lead to stammering, blushing, and head-slapping foolishness".

This suggests some of the difficulties that travel writing can pose for academics. It is hard to write in a compelling way about landscapes, buildings or chance encounters if one is constantly worried about revealing too much about oneself. Is there any way around this impasse?

In 1998, Rachel Polonsky was a research and teaching fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. This term, she has just taken up a fellowship at Murray Edwards College and will also be teaching in the department of Slavonic studies. Yet for most of the intervening period she was "absent while on leave" from the academy. She abandoned "the scholarly masterpiece on orientalism" she had been planning and in 2010 published a very different sort of book: Molotov's Magic Lantern: Uncovering Russia's Secret History.

This "unplanned offspring", she says now, could never have been written "without that uninterrupted length of time in Moscow, and that freedom from academic obligations. Away from academia, and away from England, I felt very free to write in my own voice."

The book arose out of the lucky chance that her flat was on the floor below the one that once belonged to Stalin's leading henchman Vyacheslav Molotov, and that she was given the run of his library. Yet from this base she often "travelled out...whenever I had the chance, following whims, hunches and bookish romances", north into the Arctic and east to the Mongolian border.

Although full of sharply observed vignettes of "the new Russia" - where "the slender heels of Moscow's loveliest demimondaines tap the pavement as they make their way, shining for the evening in diamonds and air-soft sable skins, on a narrow pathway of granite flagstones set with green cat's eyes" - Molotov's Magic Lantern is also informed by a deep knowledge of Russian history and culture from Pushkin to Putin, and notably the terrible traumas of the Stalinist era. It is obviously the work of a scholar and has already had great "impact" in teaching non-specialists about a fascinating and vitally important country. But although it sounds like just the kind of book academics ought to be writing, it proved impossible to combine with an unbroken academic career. Impressionistic and unfootnoted, Polonsky is "quite sure that it would not be accepted in the research excellence framework".

There is, however, one young career academic, also based in Cambridge, who is now established as a major travel writer. Although he later published a more conventional study of plagiarism and originality in 19th-century literature, Robert Macfarlane, fellow in English at Emmanuel College, launched his writing career in 2003 with the award-winning Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination. A learned account of the "tremendous revolution in perception in the West concerning mountains" over the past three centuries, it is also full of more personal material about his youthful passion for "polar explorers with their sledges, their songs and their soft spot for penguins" and some almost suicidally reckless exploits of his own.

It is with The Wild Places, in 2007, that Macfarlane produced a travel book in the classic sense: a first-person account of a journey. It starts with him climbing a tree in the beech wood near his home in Cambridge and builds into "a prose map that would seek to make some of the remaining wild places of the (British and Irish) archipelago visible again, or that would record them before they vanished for good".

Although it is built around a strong central argument, the greatest strength of The Wild Places is Macfarlane's much-acclaimed ability to capture the atmosphere of each remote island, headland, marsh and moor. It ends with a mystical moment back among the beeches, where "the hedgerows were bright with the ochre of hazels, the doubloon-gold of birch...Woodpigeons were doing paper-aeroplane swoops, turning in stiff curves, their wings raked up...The wood looked drab from the outside that day. But when I stepped into it I found myself inside a light-box." There are no recipes for writing as well as this, but the first step is getting over Goldhill's "first date" anxieties about self-revelation.

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