Saturday 30 August 2008

Travel narrative

I’ve just got back from a cycling holiday: cycling the Sustrans Rote 7 from Carlisle to Inverness. There’s something very powerful about the ‘narrative structure’ of such a holiday. If it’s Monday it must be Pitlochry. Further, there’s a simple injunction every day to get on to the next stop. Given the practicalities of coping with the terrain, mechanical failures, the British weather and, in my case, dodgy tendons, such holidays also fit Charlie Brown’s thought: ‘That’s the secret to life... replace one worry with another’.
But, obviously, to think of one’s thoughts on, and about, a cycling holiday as having a ‘narrative structure’ is simply to borrow the structure of travel fiction. Though I seldom seek it out, a handful of travel books, in the broadest of senses, read in my youth, have in turn long suggested a characteristic shape for my attitude to such holidays.

Starting from my earliest memory:

Tove Jansen’s Comet in Moominland. I can’t now recall why, when faced with an impending comet collision, our heroes feel the need to travel to see an astronomer since they only arrive there as the comet swoops down. I guess spurious travel in the face of potential disaster is the shape also of Wells’ War of the Worlds.

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The early stages of this, before it gets rather more exciting, is a great description of a journey out of the ordinary. The awkwardness of arriving at the Prancing Pony where things are just a little differently done is delightfully described. Although it was more explicitly merely a journey, as a child, The Hobbit never had the same resonance for me.

There must have been some travel in all the Herman Hesse I read in my teens but I suspect it’s best forgotten.

Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Although memorably described by my sister in law as ‘that dreadful hippie book’, this was the book that first got me interested in philosophy. But it’s better as a great, if slightly nerdy, book about how to travel by motorcycle.

Kerouac’s On the Road. The book, a conversation about which, got me through my university undergraduate interview without therefore having to reveal my ignorance of my chosen subject.

Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The flipside of On the Road.

But then, since my twenties, I seem to have stopped reading such things. Perhaps Sebald's The Rings of Saturn counts. Instead of fiction, travel guides have become much more important. I can constantly return to reading A.W. Wainwright’s Pictorial Guides to the Lake District. They stand in for the real thing when I'm not there. (After only a moment’s deliberation it was obvious I’d buy all of the new revisions by Chris Jesty, a fellow Kendalian who is walking every path, as they come out. I’m awaiting the eight volume Fellranger books (pictured) by Mark Richards in much the way I’d await a new Radiohead album or McDowell paper.)

On my recent cycle holiday, Sustrans’ wonderfully efficient pair of maps to cover the whole of the 430 miles took the role of a graphic representation of what we had covered as well as what was to come. They were not just a tool to navigate by but rather seemed to carry within them the past and future of the trip itself in the way that Wittgenstein suggests that, for those who are not aspect-blind, the picture of a loved one stands in for that person, goes proxy, whilst a car blueprint does not stand in for the car.

But the most extreme case of this was when, years ago, I walked Wainwright’s Coast to Coast with my partner, Lois. The guidebook itself took on a central role in conversations in the pub at the end of each day. It became an example of the idea of the extended mind as our conversations increasingly took the form of simply pointing to the pages to come, or pages past. (The book thus took on an essential role in constituting our thoughts.) And thus I became increasingly anxious that if we lost the book, it would not only be a practical problem navigating but also would disrupt the conversational structure of the holiday.