Monday, 19 March 2007

Travel and politics

I've just been reading a very impressive book, Ken Finn's 'My journey with a remarkable tree'.

I won't spoil the story, but he gets involved with trying to find out what happens to the great 'spirit trees' of the Cambodian forest. And in between times, he gets a lot of his innocence taken away.

I like Ken's voice. He'll obsess about something - and then admit he knows he's being obsessive. He isn't afraid of drama, or of looking pretentious; big storms hit the jungle, trees speak to him. And his writing comes across to me as immediate and fresh.

But what I like most of all is that he cares about the context of what he's seeing. Not just: here's a tree. Not even: here 's a tree and I'm being a good green tourist. But: here's a tree, and I want to find out what happens to it after it's cut down.

There's a lot of politics here but I just don't see how it could be avoided by any traveller if they wanted to write something more than 'What we did on our holidays'. Any more than you could visit Auschwitz without knowing about Hitler.

It strikes me that one thing most of the travel writers I like have in common is that they engage with the politics behind what they see.  They might not be actively campaigning, but they see what's going on. For instance, Jan Morris is always aware of the marginality of eastern Europe, the kind of cities that survive only by permission of a larger empire. Timothy Garton Ash is both a political writer and a travel writer when he's looking at Eastern Europe and its emergence from the Communist period. It's about being aware of undercurrents and crosscurrents. Being aware of where wealth came from - and who might have suffered for it.

(When does politics become history.... that's another question. Perhaps for blogging another day.)

I don't mind the 'innocent' travel writer. But anyone who is serious, I think, makes their enquiries and finds out what is really happening - not just seeing the sights or retailing historical anecdotes.