Travel in their blood

Carl Dixon talks to twoof the top writers appearing at this year’s Immrama festival in Lismore

LISMORE, Co Waterford, hosts the 10th Immrama Festival of Travel Writing next month. Immrama takes its name from the old Irish for journey, and the great and the good of travel literature will descend on the town — home of one of Ireland’s most indomitable travellers, Dervla Murphy — from June 7 to 10.

Among the attendees this year are Tony Wheeler, co-founder, almost 40 years ago, of the Lonely Planet guidebooks; legendary travel writer Jan Morris; and Artemis Cooper, who has written a biography of Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor, widely considered one of Britain’s greatest travel writers. There will also be family events, book launches and a day-long writing workshop focusing on how to write creatively about the outdoors. Also participating this year are writers Colin Thubron and Mary Russell, who have both written about their travels in the Middle East; a topic of considerable relevance, given the region’s present volatility.

Dubliner Russell spent long periods over ten years travelling in Syria on her bike, and these experiences form the basis of her book My Home is Your Home: A Journey Round Syria.

“People always ask me if it was dangerous, but before the current troubles, the most hazardous element was the traffic in Damascus,” she says. “I do think you develop some street wisdom over time and avoid getting into difficult situations. If, for example, a taxi driver drops you off in the centre of Damascus at night, a few streets away from your hotel, you can often judge from his demeanour whether it is safe to walk or not.

“Actually, I believe the statistics show a women travelling alone is less likely to be attacked than a man. I travelled most of the time on a bike. It cost me about €350, it had a bag at the front which was useful for storing stones to throw at feral dogs. It didn’t have lights, as I was trying to dissuade myself from cycling at night, but I ended up doing it anyway as everybody does in Damascus.”

Of course, the political situation in Syria has deteriorated of late and it is now a more dangerous place. “It is a very complex country and I can understand why Assad has dug in,” she says. “The government see Syria as vulnerable and surrounded by pro-American countries. They believe they are holding the Arab line. Assad’s Baath party has always been secular and if overthrown Syria could become an Islamic state. However, whilst some of Assad’s principles may have merit, the way he implements them certainly doesn’t.”

Thubron’s first book, Mirror to Damascus, was published in 1967, with later books detailing his travels in the Soviet Union, China and Tibet. A descendant of poet John Dryden, the son of a army brigadier, and always polite and articulate, the acclaimed author seems to conform to the stereotype of a particular type of British travel writer. But is this characterisation fair?

“It is a bit simplistic, but I can see why people tend to see British travel writers as middle-class, public-school educated and so on,” he says. “Much of it comes down to the boarding school system, which may be damaging in some ways, but does encourage self-sufficiency. You are, to some degree, independent from the age of seven, and you develop the belief that you can deal with the outside world — whether you can or not.

“My parents were based in America and Canada for long periods and I vividly recall at the age of eight leaving a drab, confined England to travel to the glitter of the Americas. I had never seen a neon light and now I was looking at Times Square or the grandeur of the Canadian landscape. Home to me was boring, excitement came with travel. Although I travel to get to places rather than to leave places behind, it does have a compulsive element and I get itchy feet if stationary for too long a period.”

Of course, not everyone chooses to travel to such intimidating and sometimes dangerous places. Have his experiences changed his views and made him more or less optimistic about humanity?

“That is a very difficult question to answer as I would have to compare myself with another version of myself who didn’t travel,” he says. “Traditionally, the view was that travel reduces fear of the unknown and increases tolerance. Certainly, finding commonality with people and in particular people from regimes such as the old Soviet bloc which are considered enemies of the West, is very pleasing. However, encounters abroad can also increase your apprehension.”

As China continues its seemingly inexorable rise to global dominance, an understanding of a culture often considered opaque to Western minds is now perhaps more important than ever.

“It is difficult to consider a whole nation without descending into cliché,” says Thubron. “However, there do seem to be fundamental differences between China, which is heavily influenced by Confucianism, and the West, which is largely influenced by Christianity.

“Even if you are an agnostic in the West or a communist in China, religion still infuses the culture of a people. Confucianism may not be a religion in a western sense and it does not facilitate any real belief in an afterlife, but it considers tradition and how you behave in society as very important. The idea of an intense inner life with repentance and sin is not so clearly present and there is a greater stress on social accomplishment, duty towards one’s parents and politeness.”

Thubron’s latest book, To a Mountain in Tibet, has more of a personal edge as he travels to Mount Kailas after the death of his mother Evelyn, who was also a novelist. He admits that in general more of his personal feelings find their way into his fiction than into his travel writings. Thubron, who has no children, is now the last remaining member of his family as his sister Carol died in a skiing accident when she was 21.

Mount Kalias is venerated as a place of pilgrimage by a number of major religions, including Hindu and Buddhism, and the sum of these religions accounts for one-fifth of the world’s population. The journey was difficult and dangerous and, for Thubron at least, solace was hard to come by. “From all that he loves, man must part,” a Buddhist monk tells him on his journey.

“There was no epiphany or revelation,” he says. “It was dispiriting in some ways to be in this Tibetan culture, which has no belief in the human soul or afterlife, at a time when you so wish to believe in the continuity of the personalities of those closest to you. What they consider important is the weight of good or evil brought to the world; it is a grand tradition but an impersonal one. All I can say at the end of the journey is that I am now inclined to believe that my own life and death are of less importance than I previously assumed them to be.”



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