Colin Thubron is one of our most masterful and compelling travel writers. In a career that spans 44 years, the British author has written 10 extraordinary travel narratives (as well as 7 novels), each of which weaves history, landscape, and personal portrait into rich tapestries of life in destinations that range from Damascus and Cyprus to Siberia and China. His most recent book, To a Mountain in Tibet, is as learned and evocative as anything he has written before, and is his most personal book to date—which makes it for me an even more satisfying and moving literary journey. I have known Thubron for a decade and a half, and the interview that follows comprises conversations we have had through the years.
Don George: How did you get started in travel writing? I know you write fiction as well.
Colin Thubron: Well, I thought of myself as a writer from childhood, really. I don't know why, I just love words. And so that came long before the love of travel.
I mean, I was writing ghastly poetry as an eight-year-old. And so it was just like some kids dance and sing automatically, I was delighted by words, even when I didn't know what they meant; I just loved language.
When other kids in England were reading Bulldog Drummond, I was reading poetry.
It never occurred to me that I was going to be anything but a writer.
But obviously when you leave education and before you become a writer, there's this awful gap in which you don't know what to do with yourself, because you're not mature enough, really, to produce a book—or I certainly wasn't. Yet there's nothing really that prepares you for being a writer.
I went into publishing, which is a fairly obvious thing, for three or four years. In retrospect, I should have been in a mining company or something—you know, any other experience would have been better.
But then I went to Damascus in the hope that somebody would like this book I was going to write, and I became somewhat obsessed with that part of the Middle East.
I had traveled there casually when I was about 20, 21. The Middle East had always fascinated me. Most British people go to the Middle East and fall in love with the Bedouin in the desert. But I fell in love with the urban Arab culture. I was fascinated by those deep layers of civilization that underlay cities like Damascus and Aleppo and Baghdad. I was fascinated by the sheer complexity and richness of it architecturally, historically, in every way.
I think it was also that whereas Europe is sort of familiar to an Englishman, the Middle East isn't quite. It's not as unfamiliar as Japan or India. So you feel you've got a grasp of it, in a way. After all, it had the Crusades and the Romans and the ancient Greeks, so I mean it's got a lot of things that touch on our own history, not to mention the British meddling after the First World War and all that.
So you feel that it's familiar, and yet not familiar. For me, it had all the romantic colors of an Oriental country. At the same time I think I dared to approach it because in a way Islam is much more comprehensible to us as a Semitic religion, basically, than, say, Hinduism.
So I think it was a combination of reasons for going to Damascus: It had this romantic allure and at the same time I felt I could cope with it.
Also, there hadn't been a book on Damascus for a hundred years. So the publishing instinct in me probably said there's a gap here. So I went and had a year of messing around, not entirely in Damascus.
When was that?
That was back in '65, '66.
Did you have a book contract when you went there?
No. There was no reason for anybody to give me a contract: I was completely unknown as a writer. No, I just went. You know, it's that sort of compulsion you have. I knew I had to do it.
So I just sort of trusted to luck, I guess. I suppose I had a certain inner self-confidence because I felt that words were natural to me. And I never seemed to be particularly worried about conditions where I stayed. In Damascus, I stayed with a carpenter and his family on the street called Straight, where St. Paul was healed of blindness, in the heart of the old city. I paid the equivalent of about 20 cents for my board.
When did your traveling start?
Partly in childhood, because my father was in the military and had a year in the States, in Washington. As a schoolchild I was flying back and forth across the Atlantic to go to school in England and holidays in America. Similarly, we were in Canada for three or four years, in Ottawa.
So there was a taste for it, probably, very early on.
And then traveling for its own sake does fascinate me. Simply the curiosity one has about the world. And I think a romantic sort of pleasure, too. You know, I always wanted to see the most beautiful and extraordinary places in the world.
But I didn't particularly connect it with writing. I always thought that I would be a novelist. Maybe in part because the first English poet laureate was—my mother was of his family, Dryden. You know, John Dryden. And so there was that sort of sitting in the background a bit. And you know how schoolkids always want something that's special about them—well, this was what was special about me, I had this ancestor who was the first poet laureate.
Curiously enough, my father is a descendant of Samuel Morse. He's actually half-American. But for a completely unscientific person like me, I shouldn't even admit to that.
So I had thought of the more obvious literary genres as probably my field. But then my writing and traveling seemed to combine fairly naturally; when I was a child in England, it seemed quite natural to be writing about these places that stimulated me so much.
After some years in publishing, I eventually wrote that Damascus book. And then because a publisher took it at once and gave me what then seemed quite a handsome advance, I was able to go on to the next book, which was on Lebanon, and then Jerusalem, and then started writing novels, which is what I wanted to do at least as much as travel. And then I did a book on Cyprus.
Since then I have been trying to alternate the travel books with the novels. The novels are not very natural; they're very internalized. Travel is obviously a fascination with what's out there, another society that you don't understand. And the novels are very much of internal landscapes. I swing obsessively between the two.
Over the years you have spoken very eloquently about the commonalities you have discovered among peoples in your travels. If I could ask a naïve but I think fundamentally important question: What is common among all people, what unites humankind?
Well, it's very difficult to put into words, isn't it, because it's a certain invitation to cliches or to sloppy sentimentality. But I think of Shakespeare, in ''The Merchant of Venice,'' talking about Shylock, who says, ''I may be a Jew, but do I not bleed as you do?" That says it, I think.
The most alien people that I have traveled amongst are the Japanese and the Chinese. And you find their priorities are different, and their morality, therefore, in some ways is also different. And so different things may hurt them more, or hurt them in different ways.
But the actual basic relations, again and again, are recognizable. It may be that their family relationships fall into quite different patterns, you know, with honor and obligation and so on, taking a much greater part than with us.
But nonetheless, when you get down to people's raw human feelings that have been hurt or sad or delighted or whatever it is, there it all is, and one can understand it.
You know, again and again, you think people are more different than they are.
I remember a Chinese chap who was in a hopeless state of unrequited love for a girl from whom he'd been separated by politics, really, by the Cultural Revolution. And everything that had separated him was profoundly strange to me—you know, inasmuch as the Cultural Revolution demanded certain things of different people, that they go one way and go the other.
And this girl had been posted out to one place and he was stuck back in another far away, and there was no question of them ever being able to come together, because of the way society works in China, and because of their particular backgrounds, that hers was so-called middle class and his was working class, and that had divided them, too. In the Cultural Revolution, he was superior, being working class, and she was inferior, being middle class. With the demise of Mao and so on, the opposite had taken place.
And all these things had separated them hopelessly in a way that was understandable but quite alien to me. What was not alien at all, however, was his wretchedness at unrequited love, at the inability to be with the woman he loved.
In the span of years that you've been writing, mass tourism has increased tremendously, and the ability to penetrate the farthest reaches of the globe has been enhanced. How do you feel about that? Do you think it's a good thing, a bad thing?
I feel ambivalent about it, as about most things. I suppose on the one hand, as a still-romantic traveler, one loves to come across a place that is uncontaminated by the West, that seems to be just its own culture, and where one meets people not of one's own kind. I just find a kind of visceral delight in that.
There have been moments in my travels when I felt I was the first person to arrive in a particular place. I think for example of an old dried-up bed of the Oxus River. I went down it, and here were these fortified cities sitting there, just stricken by the fact that the river had turned the opposite direction perhaps 350 years before. I wasn't actually the first person of course—I felt as if perhaps no one had been there for centuries before me. The romantic in one loves that—and after all, that's what makes one travel: to look at something different, to find the strange. If everything was the same, I wouldn't bother to go.
So of course, the meat and drink of the travel writer is what's new.
At the same time, you know, it's so easy to think of cultures as just there for your pleasure and service, and when these people are dying for their laptops, then you understand that they shouldn't be denied them, and that tourism is probably the vanguard, in many cases, for them to enjoy Western material benefits, which is what they're all going to enjoy, and so it's really churlish to want to keep them in some artificially primitive condition for your enjoyment, sort of like a game park.
So I feel ambivalent about it. And sometimes you regret the old values going, when they go.
On the other hand, I do feel that even when the appearances of things begin to converge more, actually, underneath, peoples are enormously different. I mean, I've traveled all over Europe, and the differences are still extreme, even though our cities may look increasingly alike.
It's a sort of hope for travel writing, in a way, that whereas geographical exploration or discovery may be impossible in the future, nonetheless, you can sort of travel down through the layers of a country, through classes and types, and they will continue to be strange to one another.
So there will always be a place for travel books.
I think so. They'll just take on a different function.
I think a Victorian traveler, you know, a British Victorian traveler, sent out by the Royal Geographical Society, would today say, ''Well, there's nothing much left to do.''
Because they brought back the firsthand knowledge that was of empirical usefulness to the society that sent them. The modern travel writer knows he's been preceded by umpteen demographers and sociologists and anthropologists—but yet, he's still there, and his perceptions may still be important.
Right. So you're talking now about tastes and textures and sensibilities rather than facts about heights and depths.
That's right. Now it's more to do with people's thoughts on what they see, their interaction with it.
And also more to do, I think—and this perhaps brings us full circle—with some common sort of experience. Even the generation of travel writers just preceding mine is rather more concerned with the grand view of history, and the beauties of landscape, and the Homeric things. Whereas the contemporary travel writer is much more likely to be downing ouzo with the local inhabitants and railing about politics. It's changed—and I suppose it will change again. In the meantime, I guess, the best advice is to enjoy the ouzo.
For more information on Colin Thubron's new book, To a Mountain in Tibet, click here.