The Art of Travel: Reviews

Jan Morris in the New Statesman, 6 May 2002

Read at the New Statesman website

This entirely delightful book has an ambiguous title. Does it refer to the skill of travelling properly, or does it mean the matter of travel as the subject of art? A bit of each, it turns out, but it might better be called The Philosophy of Travel, because I think that’s what it is really meant to be.

Most philosophers, in my experience, write a modicum of rubbish, and de Botton is no exception. He is a genuine master of the truism, a virtuoso of the obvious. I doubt if he has written a dull sentence in his life, but when he draws didactic conclusions, or talks about motives and suchlike, he does sometimes put one toe over the fringe of bunkum. That the reality of travel does not always live up to the anticipation; that painters can often tell us more about a place than photographers; that personal anxieties, brought from home, can encroach upon the mind even when you are lazing on a tropic beach somewhere – such thoughts could well be expressed by anyone who has been on a package holiday to Benidorm.

But away from the generalisations, this book is really an elegant and entertaining evocation of all the sensations of travel, and a manual of how to get the best out of it. Half of it concerns de Botton’s own reflections; half of it is about the attitudes of great writers, painters and, yes, philosophers towards the whole business of going away from home. I have made a profession of the practice, so perhaps I may be forgiven for offering a few travelling techniques of my own, and seeing how de Botton conforms to them. Here they are:

Wherever you go, pretend to yourself that you have never been there before.

Remember that any experience, of any sort, even going to the dentist or losing a passport, is grist to the proper traveller’s mill.

Keep in mind E M Forster’s advice about the best way to see Alexandria – “to wander aimlessly about” – or Lord Salisbury’s theory of an ideal foreign policy – “to float lazily downstream, occasionally putting out a diplomatic boat-hook to avoid collisions”.

Don’t set out to see what other people see.

Take a sketchbook, not a camera.

Don’t be ashamed to go on a bus tour.

Travel alone.

Almost all these simple precepts crop up in one form or another in this book, and de Botton graphically describes putting them to the test. He is fine, and fun, when he follows the travels of celebrated predecessors: Flaubert to Egypt; Humboldt to Peru; Edward Hopper into the service stations and late-night cafes of America; van Gogh among the wind-flustered cypresses of Provence; or Wordsworth amid the Cumbrian sublime. He is best of all, however, when discussing his own detailed and intimate responses to the making of journeys.

Pretending he has never been there before? He often goes down to Heathrow, he tells us, just to watch the aeroplanes go by, but nobody has ever described the take-off of a loaded 747 with such freshness and amazement, and I am prepared to bet that nobody ever will – in particular, that always thrilling moment when the lumbering progress of the aircraft along the tarmac suddenly becomes, with “the controlled rage of the engines” and “a slight tremor from glasses in the galley”, a breathtaking release into the Elysian freedom.

Is everything grist to his mill? Of course. Absolutely everything. De Botton is as interested in the conversation of a man with a mobile telephone on a train as he is in the typography of public notices – as curious about the compulsion of deserts as he is about the different designs of front doors in England and Holland. I feel sure he would welcome, just for the experience, an interrogation at a Paraguayan immigration office, or the extraction of a tooth in a Rwandan dental surgery.

Wandering aimlessly? Well, he is perhaps too analytical to be quite authentically serendipitous, but he is certainly no conventionally organised traveller. He ignores guidebook itineraries, and indeed toys with the idea of writing his own subjective handbook to Madrid – drawing attention, for instance, to the lack of vegetables in the city cuisine (three stars for interest, in his guide), to the smallness of Spanish male feet and to the extraordinary length of Madrileno surnames.

Not seeing what other people see? Bless you, he doesn’t even try. De Botton’s vision is entirely his own. Who else would observe that the cry of a black-eared wheatear has no effect on a caterpillar “walking strenuously across a rock”? Has anybody else ever noticed that the texture of Amsterdam brickwork is like that of halva from a Lebanese delicatessen?

De Botton takes both a camera and a sketchbook, it seems, but he quotes Ruskin on the value of drawing as a way of seeing places, however primitive your technique, and says that he began to appreciate the identity of oak trees after spending an hour drawing one in the Langdale Valley – my own experience exactly, after spending interminable coffee breaks trying to get the Doge’s Palace right.

“Don’t be ashamed to take a bus tour.” Alain de Botton would never be. He doesn’t give a damn, I’m sure, what other people think, and when he goes on a tour along the Van Gogh Trail, led by a lady guide from the tourist office at Arles, he carries his camera along, too, to take holiday snaps.

And does he travel alone? Not always, it seems. Somebody called M often accompanies him: but he proves my precept all the same, because on page 24 of this book, when the two of them are eating lunch in the shade of a tulip tree beside the Caribbean, they fall out over who should have the larger portion of creme caramel, and don’t make up till nightfall.

So in all respects, this book gratifyingly confirms my own travelling criteria. De Botton probably prefers to be thought of as a philosopher, and I myself would rather categorise him (if he must be categorised) as an essayist; but the sparkling, profound and exuberant quality of The Art of Travel betrays him not just as an admirable traveller, but as one of the very best contemporary travel writers – an artist in the genre, in fact, in both senses of his title.

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