Fresh in from far out - Galloway

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - Brought to book on the tourist trail

I returned to Bladnoch Distillery in Wigtown last week for the launch of Donald MacIntosh's second book, Travels in Galloway: memoirs from south-west Scotland. The first, Travels in the White Man's Grave, recounts his experiences during 30 years working as a free prospector in west and central Africa.

MacIntosh is an unlikely literary attraction. Slightly bent over a tartan-clad table, wearing the muted greens and browns of all those who have never left their native sod, his words arrived at the microphone honed and polished. As someone who has come late to writing, he built his sentences slowly, with an obvious pleasure at phrases whose source is the community in which he grew up. He talked of a drinker's breath that would have "killed a belted Galloway stone deid", and of "the two most affectionate things in the whole world - a friendly drunk and a wet dug".

However, it would be misleading to see in MacIntosh some dewy-eyed memorialist. After all, Travels in the White Man's Grave has been shortlisted for the Thomas Cook/Daily Telegraph Travel Book of the Year award; I imagine for the freshness of its writing - its clarity, erudition and good humour. These are the same qualities he has brought to his travel memoirs of Galloway. Because both books are also the result of a long acquaintance with what they describe, and the sifting of much experience, they have a depth denied to the majority of travel books which can appear to be the product of whim rather than of necessity. In fact, I confess to a general ambivalence about the whole genre of travel writing.

And I write here from experience, for it is a genre that I have myself explored. In 1989 I travelled to the Dominican Republic, and from there to South America. "Write us a book about it," my publisher suggested. Dutifully, I observed, experienced and filled my notebooks. Then, halfway through the trip, in between spending five hours recording my delight at seeing Machu Picchu and catching a plane down to the rainforest in south-eastern Peru, I was robbed. I lost poems, camera, films and 300 pages of my "book". It was, at the time, a simply awful experience. And yet, in my estimation, it made for a far richer book; for In the Palace of Serpents: an experience of Peru was about more than sympathetic observation: it was about loss, memory, the effort of understanding that my experiences required of me - and which perhaps alone can justify our presence in poor and troubled lands.

I fear that I have a Calvinist streak in me, which means travel has to involve some kind of difficulty; that the perceptions MacIntosh is able to offer can be won only through long experience or through intense engagement. In Abroad, his classic about literary travel between the wars, Paul Fussell delineated the problem for the modern traveller who wishes to be more than simply a tourist. One ploy he describes is to visit a major site but avoid its main attraction. For example, one may visit Hawaii and skip Waikiki; although "avoiding Waikiki brings up the whole question of why one's gone to Hawaii at all, but that's exactly the problem".

Jenny Diski, in Skating to Antarctica, presents herself as the anti-tourist at her most committed. She describes sailing all the way to Antarctica, the destination of her cruise, and never stepping out on to the continent itself. Developing her anti-travel theme, she imagines how she might "turn back 25 feet from the summit of Annapurna", or "go to Agra and fail to clap eyes on the Taj Mahal". She calls this "The Fuck-it Factor". But however she deploys it, Fussell will remind her: "The anti-tourist deludes only himself. We are all tourists now, and there is no escape." Which seems to be what all these travel supplements are telling us. Is it possible, I ask, to write interestedly about somewhere nowadays without having flight and accommodation details tagged on at the end of the piece?

And yet . . . Books come along that show how elastic and generous the travel genre at its best can be: MacIntosh's travel memoirs; Sven Lindqvist's troubling Exterminate the Brutes, which combines a Saharan travel diary with a clear historical analysis of how colonial racist thought led to the Holocaust; and Charles Nicholl's Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa, a thoroughly gripping and moving account of how he traced and reclaimed for us the lost life of Rimbaud. Books of memoir, history, biography - and travel. Perhaps I'll rethink my antipathy - and get out out my maps!

By Tom Pow

This article first appeared in The New Statesman Essay - To uplift the souls of the people

1999-11-08