Travel, A Literary History, Peter Whitfield (2011)

How we learned of humanity’s discovery of the globe, delivered in an illuminating dash

The Bodleian Library 9781851243389 Quarto 303 pp £19.99/$30

The vast majority of writing about cycling is, at heart, travel writing – yet this appears to have occurred to only a very few of those who put pen to paper to recount their rides. Perhaps this in part explains why mountaineering, for example, has a significant body of literature – but cycling has amassed only a modest associated library of any note.

Peter Whitfield’s excellent book provides some further pointers to why this might be the case. Mountaineering, routinely exposed individuals to genuine life-and-death situations, involves exploration of new frontiers, internal and external and for a significant period of its development was exclusively the province of ‘gentlemen’.

Absent as cycling is from this volume, it is nevertheless of almost immeasurable valuable in framing an understanding of writing about two-wheeled tours.

The book is a broad-brush survey of travel writing from earliest recorded history to the present day – it might almost be considered as a critical bibliography for students on Travel Writing 101. But quickly as he trips through the great works, Whitfield remains as stimulating and readable as his critical judgement is sound.

Whitfield leaves you in doubt of just how important travel writing has been in forming our view of the world we inhabit. Be it Marco Polo’s evocation of the Orient, Thomas Nugent’s guides for grand tourists or Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, travel writing has shaped perceptions, sometimes for centuries after it was written.

He shows where Shakespeare borrowed from Ralph Fitch, and suggests that the Bard’s adoption of ‘The Globe’ as the name for his theatre was in part driven by a sense drawn from travel writing of theatres’ capacity to reveal the world. He shows how the modern stereotype of Spain can be traced back to George Borrow. And explores how writers such as EM Foster used travel writing to attack the country from which they had fled. As Margaret Mead observed: “I have spent most of my life studying the lives of other peoples, faraway peoples, so that Americans might better understand themselves”.

Stimulating as Whitfield’s entire book should be to anyone who seeks to understand the literature of cycling, for those tempted to add to it, the words of the great mountaineering writer HW Tilman are possibly the most apt. Writing in the preface to his China To Chitral he says: “Comparatively few travellers have visited Chinese Turkestan; which is perhaps just as well because of those fortunate few, not many have refrained from writing a book”.

TD Feb 12

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