Tim Hannigan is a lovely man. The Cornish writer and academic is author of several narrative history books, including the award-winning Raffles and the British Invasion of Java. His book The Travel Writing Tribe delves into the genre, interviewing two dozen of today’s finest scribblers: Colin Thubron, William Dalrymple, Dervla Murphy, Barnaby Rogerson, Monisha Rajesh, Kapka Kassabova … and me. He is kindly letting me post the chapter entitled Flying Pigs (haha) and I encourage you – if you have an interest in the the genre and its complicated relationship with the portrayal of facts (Tim notes for example “the slight disconnect between the raw records of [Wilfred] Thesiger’s journeys and his books”- to get your hands on a copy. It’s an insightful, lucid and engaging read.
Chapter 11: Flying Pigs
The voice behind my right shoulder said, ‘This is Katrin.’
A slim, fair-haired woman, standing in the light of an uncluttered room in an English village. I think I must have made some small exclamation of surprise, though I don’t really know what it was that surprised me – that she was real, I suppose.
‘It’s a bit odd,’ I said, uncertainly, ‘meeting someone in real life that you’ve already met in books.’
Katrin smiled. ‘Ah!’ she said, ‘But I’m a character in the books…’ Her accent was English. Why did that surprise me?
The voice behind my right shoulder again, speaking from the shadow of the hallway; decidedly not English, pitched somewhere in the coastal waters off the eastern seaboard of North America. A voice that sounded like a wry smile. ‘We both are,’ it said.
Several months had passed since my visit to Dervla Murphy. I’d been reading more travel books – old favourites and new titles, viewed now with a more critical eye – and I’d continued to fossick in the back catalogue of travel writing studies. Its lexicon – ‘traveller and travellee’, ‘contact zone’ and all the rest – was now as familiar as the place names of Central Asia, learnt from travel books.
In the high summer I’d spent a month in Indonesia. I’d watched over my own shoulder as I filled my journal each night, obeying Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s strictures. For the first time I found myself wondering why was I recording certain things and not others. What unseen forces were guiding my pencil across the pages of the notebook? And how might I twist the shape of the journey if I were to translate the rough diary into a polished travel narrative?
I knew that on my return I wanted to consider the question of travel writing’s troubled relationship with ‘truth’. It was, I’d realised, much more complicated than I’d first assumed. John Mandeville was simply a ‘travel liar’: he said he’d been where he’d never been, talked to people he’d never met. It was easy enough to mark him down as a fraud, his work as a hoax, and then to move on. But it was seldom so simple. My unease during the visit to Eton wasn’t all down to class anxiety; the slight disconnect between the raw records of Thesiger’s journeys and his books had left me discomfited too. Thesiger had been where he said he’d been, had talked to the people he said he’d met. And yet, somehow… And then there was my own encounter with Dervla Murphy, and the challenge I’d created for myself in writing it up. My collected scholarly definitions all mentioned some kind of factuality as an identifying feature of travel writing. But if this was a nonfiction genre, it seemed to be one haunted by fiction.
I went back to the academic literature, hoping to find out more. But, to my surprise, when I searched the library catalogue I discovered that this was one issue that scholars tended to avoid. They had pored over the questions of power and colonialism, dissected countless texts in search of some unique essence in ‘women’s travel writing’, and discussed ‘ethics’ at length. But no one seemed to want to ask uncomfortable questions about the slippery veracity of travel narratives. The few journal articles and monographs dedicated to ‘travel lies’ that I managed to dredge up focused on the distant past – on John Mandeville and his ilk. Perhaps some kind of politeness was at play. If a travel writer had been dead for six centuries, and if he claimed to have met a dog-headed man en route to supper with Prester John, it was probably quite safe to call him a liar. But if he was only recently deceased – or indeed was still at work – and if all he’d done was claim to have found a clump of mylodon hair in a cave – well, you were edging towards potential libel.
I’d be no braver than the scholars, I realised. I’d asked Colin Thubron about his own trustworthiness as a narrator during our conversation, and he’d declared himself reliable by the ‘abysmal standards of the genre’. But I couldn’t very well accuse someone of lying – least of all someone who had invited me into their home and given me tea and biscuits.
I settled down to read through my meagre haul of scholarly texts on travel writing and untruth. There was Travelers and Travel Liars 1660–1800, an old book by Percy G. Adams. It was a brisk run-through of Patagonian giants and mythical maritime passages, written in a sprightly style uncommon amongst more recent academics, and it showed how the travellers of old had incited the lies of their peers with their own fabrications. Elsewhere, in an edited collection, there was a chapter by Daniel Carey, looking at the way Gulliver’s Travels had cannily satirised the unreliable travel braggarts of the eighteenth century. And there was an article by Kirsten Sandrock on ‘Truth and Lying in Early Modern Travel Narratives’.
Sandrock claimed that ‘medieval travel narratives were still allowed and quite possibly expected to invent parts of their material’, and that it was only sometime between the late fourteenth and the early eighteenth centuries that ‘the generic conventions of travel writing changed fundamentally’ as readers began to expect – and indeed demand – the truth. Surely something wasn’t quite right here. Wasn’t it simply the limit of readers’ credulity that had shifted? Just because dog-headed men are literally incredible to us, doesn’t mean that they were to a medieval audience. Columbus had carried Mandeville’s Travels as a guidebook, after all.
Still, the article was useful: Sandrock quoted another scholar, Siegfried J. Schmidt, arguing that readers of overtly fictional stories had learnt to replace the ‘fact convention’ that governed their daily conversations, their reading of newspapers, and indeed their reading of nonfiction books, with an ‘aesthetic convention’ that gave the creative vision of the writer free rein, that licenced the literally unbelievable. Peter Hulme, a senior scholar of travel writing, had said something similar: ‘We read books either as fiction or as non-fiction’. It was a binary distinction, and, Hulme felt, a ‘contractual point’.
But what happened, I wondered, when a reader came upon an unstable text? What ‘convention’ applied when you picked up a book that messed with your expectations, that wasn’t fiction but which plainly played fast and loose with the facts?
And that’s when I knew exactly who I needed to speak to next.
Rory MacLean had been amongst the first rank of the second generation of contemporary travel writers who appeared at the opening of the 1990s. By the time I discovered the genre, his books were already prominent on the shelves of the travel section. His 1992 debut, Stalin’s Nose, was an account of a journey around Eastern Europe just after the fall of the Berlin Wall – a journey made in an old Trabant in the company of an aging aunt called Zita and a pig called Winston. Other books followed: The Oatmeal Ark (1997), an exploration of MacLean’s own Scottish ancestry; Under the Dragon(1998), about Burma; Next Exit Magic Kingdom (2000), an odyssey through Florida; and more – Magic Bus, Falling for Icarus, Berlin: Imagine a City. And he was very much still at it today.
I originally came to these books with a certain youthful fundamentalism. I could see that they were finely written. ‘But,’ I remember spluttering to myself, ‘this didn’t happen!’ And in the case of The Oatmeal Ark, narrated partly by ghosts and partly in the third person: ‘This isn’t a travel book at all!’ It was only later – about the time that he published Magic Bus (2006), I think – that I realised this was the point. MacLean never pretended to be recounting the hard facts; he made a journey, then worked creatively, to a greater or lesser extent, with whatever it was that he brought back. Stalin’s Nose begins with Winston the pig falling out of a tree and killing the narrator’s uncle.
Since then I’d enjoyed his books enormously – though it was never an uncomplicated enjoyment. There was sometimes a disconcerting sense of giddiness as I read, as if the solid earth was shifting beneath me, ever so slightly. It was the needle ticking back and forth uneasily between my ‘fact convention’ and my ‘aesthetic convention’, I suppose. In fact, the way MacLean messed with expectations meant that I sometimes found myself particularly destabilised when I couldn’t spot him obviously inventing – as in Next Exit Magic Kingdom (2000).
Introducing a new edition of MacLean’s 2004 book, Falling for Icarus, Robert Macfarlane had cast about for an appropriate comparison. ‘I would pause over Bruce Chatwin as a possibility,’ he’d written, ‘but then probably stretch far further back: to John Mandeville, to St Brendan and to Marco Polo.’ What a compliment! Mandeville and his ilk, Macfarlane wrote, with an echo of Kirsten Sandrock, ‘returned bearing tales that were not to be submitted to the usual tests of verifiability and falsifiability, but in which the actual and the miraculous rubbed shoulders’. If I was going to talk to someone about fictionalisation in travel writing, then who better than a writer who did the same thing, openly, in our own era?
MacLean lived in a little village somewhere near the Dorset-Somerset border. I drove there on a damp afternoon, tracing a route across a map marked with improbable names: Hazelbury Bryan, Beer Hackett and – I am not making this up – Mudford Sock.
Summer had departed without ceremony, leaving wet tarmac, low scudding skies and roadside trees waving hysterically in the moderate westerly. The village itself was a place of steeply pitched roofs and scrubbed yellow stone. It looked like a film set.
They’d laid out lunch on a wooden table in the front room of the cottage: bread from a bakery in the neighbouring village, thinly sliced ham and cheese, and a salad of roasted squash. I was still a little disconcerted by the existence of Katrin, MacLean’s wife, who features in several of his books. I’d known she was real, of course. But still, it was peculiar to find her, sitting to my right at the table, loading my plate with roasted squash and listening as I explained my journey. MacLean chuckled at the thought of Old Etonians and Thesiger’s stiff propriety. No veneration of the departed greats here.
‘I have a theory that there are two kinds of travel writer,’ he said; ‘the lean ascetic ones, and the garrulous ones who like to eat.’ His accent was Canadian, mostly, but with other traces, and he talked with a soft, half-whispered enthusiasm. It took me a while to work it out: he sounded like the best sort of children’s storyteller.
‘Which kind are you?’ asked Katrin, across the table.
‘Oh,’ said MacLean through a mouthful of buttered bread, ‘the lean ascetic kind!’ and he laughed. Like his speech, his laughter – and there was a lot of it – was somehow both forceful and soft.
Afterwards we went upstairs to talk in his office.
‘Look!’ he said, reaching across to his desk as I settled into my seat and switched on my digital recorder. He lifted a small, hard object like a battery. ‘I’ve just rediscovered this film, photographic film, Kodak film from I think about 1967. And I exposed half of it and then I thought “Oh, well, I’ll wrap it up and expose the rest later,” and I never did! And what I love about it is the latent images that are there. What did I photograph? What is on there?’
‘Can you remember?’
‘No, I can’t! You know, they’re probably terribly boring and naff photographs. But I just love the potential there. I must never process it of course…’
He sat across from me in a low easy chair beneath a ceiling-high bookshelf, hands pressed between his knees. He was tall – taller than me, I’d noticed when we were standing downstairs. But folded into the low seat, rocking slightly, eyebrows lifting and falling above his glasses, half-smile always in place, he seemed to shrink – not to the form of a child, but to that of an imp – an imp feigning absolute innocence.
Rory MacLean was born in Vancouver in 1954. He went to school at the elite Upper Canada College – the Canadian Gordonstoun, more or less. His father was a newspaper publisher, and his English mother had once worked as a secretary for Ian Fleming. But MacLean didn’t really seem to have a classical travel writer’s pedigree. He’d gone on to film school, and then, after a series of jobs on movie sets in Canada and the UK, he’d found himself in Berlin, working with the director David Hemmings on the David Bowie vehicle, Just a Gigolo. The film itself might have turned out rather a flop, but for MacLean the experience was the start of something.
‘I was pulled out of Canada – borderless Canada, the Great White North – and then thrown into the island city of West Berlin surrounded by three quarters of a million Red Army soldiers with the Wall,’ he said. ‘I’d never seen anything like it. It shook me to the core.’
For a decade afterwards he worked in the film industry, and on the side he rattled out dozens of unsuccessful film scripts on a Smith Corona typewriter.
‘That’s how I taught myself to write – writing film scripts for films that would never be made. I also think that’s why I feel quite at ease with handling dialogue, and so therefore, I think, with handling character as well. Because movies – indeed all narratives – are based on dialogue.’
It seemed obvious now, though I hadn’t spotted it the first time I read Stalin’s Nose: it was a scriptwriter’s book; the whole thing was driven by dialogue. Perhaps I’d been distracted by the pig.
MacLean said that he had not noticed the popular and commercial excitement around travel writing while he was living in London in the 1980s.
‘I wasn’t aware of that,’ he said, ‘because – well, first and foremost, I’m not English, and for the most part it’s an English tradition. Of course, there were, there are, Scottish, Welsh, Irish travel writers – and Dutch and American travel writers too. But it has been a mostly English genre.’
He did, though, go to hear Colin Thubron give a lecture at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, about his book Among the Russians (1983). Thubron had spoken of visiting countries viewed from without as objects of fear, and of overcoming that fear through understanding. ‘That really struck a chord with me: to understand the world one can try to “people the map”, while also writing about something you feel passionately about. And that obviously includes questions about yourself.’ MacLean still had the notes he had scribbled during Thubron’s lecture all those years ago. Sometime later, he won a travel writing competition in the newly launched Independent newspaper. The commission to write Stalin’s Nose came soon afterwards, and the film scripts were forgotten.
‘Famously, Bruce Chatwin said “I don’t believe in coming clean”,’ I said.
MacLean rocked back in the easy chair and roared with laughter – roared, but softly, somehow.
I went on. ‘I know you’re always very overt, you make it clear right from the outset that you are not a “straight” travel writer. You say that in lots of places, but without really going into any further detail. So I wonder if, like Chatwin, you do come clean…’
He raised his eyebrows. The light coming through the window behind me caught on the lenses of his glasses.
‘You know,’ he said, ‘with Stalin’s Nose I thought, this is a chance for me. I’ve been given a chance to write a book about something I really care about, and a part of the world I’m fascinated by, at a turning point of history – the fall of the Berlin Wall. The forgotten half of Europe can be discovered again by a Westerner – quote, unquote “discovered again”. And it felt like such an opportunity, such a privilege. I simply wrote the book that I wanted to. Perhaps because I wasn’t aware of a tradition of travel writing, I didn’t think, “Oh, well, I’ve got to stick to the absolute observable facts of the experiences that I alone have had.” It didn’t occur to me. I just thought, “This is probably the only book I’ll ever have the chance to write,” and I just felt my way through it. I think that’s the right word: I felt it.
‘I made the trip. I travelled from Berlin to Moscow; I went to all the places I wrote about; all the people who are in the book are real people and I met them. But then, if you like, when I sat down at my desk it was like starting a parallel journey. The experience and memories of the actual journey were drawn together and distilled, creating two realities – one on the road and the other on the page. It was… it was…’ He half turned to the bookshelf, as if the answer might be there somewhere. ‘It was… would freer be right? It was… it was as alive as the real journey. And I just loved it. I just loved the experience, this ability to remake this journey. Does that sort of answer it?’
I wasn’t quite sure if it did, but I went on anyway. I’d been rereading Stalin’s Nose, I said, and I’d spotted something else that I’d missed the first time around, besides the dominance of dialogue. ‘I might be mistaken about this, but although it’s a first-person narrative, I don’t think you’re ever referred to by name in it.’
‘No, I’m not!’ he said brightly. ‘I don’t name myself. So from the beginning I was as much of a character as any writer creates a character. So yes, I was never “Rory” travelling.’
‘Well, that’s what I thought,’ I said. Something had occurred to me. It was a silly question, perhaps, but it seemed worth asking: ‘Were you actually not a travel writer at all? Were you just tagged as a travel writer because it wasn’t a particularly classifiable book?’
The glasses glittered; the eyebrows rose and fell. ‘But it is a travel book! I start in Berlin and end up in Moscow.’ It was with words like Moscow – “moss-cow” – that his Canadian accent came through most strongly. The fact that he wasn’t British struck me again.
‘I’m a foreigner travelling through these lands, observing them as an outsider, as a young man in 1989, 1990, from the point of view of someone living in London, as I was then. From the beginning, travel writing has been the individual going out from his or her home country to a foreign place, observing and then bringing back their subjective experience – claiming it’s objective, but bringing back their subjective experience and sharing it at the RGS or wherever, and saying, “Golly, this is how it is!”.’
But that had never been quite the way he worked, I pointed out; and his wasn’t quite the tradition of his contemporaries. It wasn’t William Dalrymple emulating Robert Byron and Peter Fleming, or Philip Marsden following Colin Thubron’s lead.
‘But at that time I’d never heard of Peter Fleming!’ he protested. ‘I doubt I’d read Robert Byron in 1989. I had heard of Colin…’
‘But you clearly weren’t trying to write Among the Russians.’
‘No, because I couldn’t. I wasn’t able to do that. That’s a rich tradition, but that’s not my tradition.’ He paused and said, ‘How can I put it?’ There were often these little halts, these little questions of his own discourse, angled in the direction of the window or the bookshelf. ‘I don’t quite know how to put it, Tim; it’s just the way I wanted to write the book.’
I felt a little guilty. MacLean was forever having to answer these questions.
‘I understand it’s provocative,’ he said, ‘and I understand that there’s lots of arguments saying that my approach is unacceptable, in the argument of subjectivity and objectivity. But it’s an old argument; you know that. Individuals maintain that they have an objective view of the world, but of course it’s subjective; they come back with a totally subjective view.’ He laughed, again. ‘I’m just making a point of that by incorporating fictional elements or using fictional devices within a nonfiction book. So I see my books, if I’m forced to define them, as nonfiction, but having extensive use of fictional devices. I think it sits more comfortably in the American genre of creative nonfiction. That’s how I see it. It’s essential I make the trip; I must make the trip; I must meet the individuals who I’m going to write about. Perhaps those individuals will be transformed into composite characters in places; perhaps I’ll shift dates; but I will never shift the inner meaning of an individual; I always will be true to the individual, and reflect as honestly as possible a people, a society, a time – because I want the reader to empathise. I want the reader to identify with the character, and to feel what it was like to grow up in Nazi-controlled Berlin or to live under martial law in Burma, for example.’
There was another impetus at play too, he said: ‘I think it’s part of this ongoing rebellion against the audacity of individuals who claim they’re being objective. And I’ve never accepted that. Of course, they’re doing their best to be objective, but their observations will inevitably be subjective, which is why I start all my – quote, unquote – “nonfiction” travel books with an incident that is patently not literally true, like a pig falling out of a tree, or a ghost speaking in the first paragraph. That’s a signpost; I’m saying please suspend your disbelief.’
The afternoon rolled forward, and the light from the window dimmed and brightened like a lamp fed by a fluctuating current as the squalls rattled by. MacLean seemed to grow ever smaller in the easy chair, as though I might eventually be able to pick him up and place him on the desk like a talisman alongside the undeveloped film. He threw back his head and laughed with soft force so often that the room, high and pale and clean, seemed to fizz and pop with it.
He talked about his methods as a writer on the road. During the research for Stalin’s Nose, he said, he had felt self-conscious about taking notes in front of people – though he’d always told them he was writing a book. Like Dervla in Northern Ireland, he’d made frequent dashes for the toilet to scribble down the most important points of a conversation.
‘I think I gave Canadians certainly, and maybe Brits as well, this reputation throughout Eastern Europe of having really weak bladders!’ he said. At the end of each day these first scribbled notes were written up longhand into a fuller journal, and then reworked into a first draft back at his desk when the journey was over.
‘That reworking once one’s back at home, that’s the flying, that’s the magic. Lawrence Durrell has this wonderful quote in The Alexandria Quartet, from the first book, Justine, about the role of the writer, the role of the artist, and he talks about the sackcloth covering that is reality, and how the writer or the artist has to see through the sackcloth covering to the cloth-of-gold underneath, the meaning of the pattern. And I guess that’s also why it is, for me, so important that one acknowledges the subjectivity, acknowledges that this is a creative work, that it is a truth not the truth.’
He told me about an organised debate on fictionalisation in travel writing he had taken part in a decade earlier, at the Royal Society of Literature in London, with another Rory – Rory Stewart, author of The Places in Between (2004), an account of a winter walk across Afghanistan.
MacLean had explained his own way of working to the audience. ‘Of course, I approached with a very convivial, collegiate manner: “We’re in this together, we’re travel writers!”’ He paused and grimaced. ‘He didn’t see it quite that way.’
Stewart – a former diplomat, rumoured secret service operative and future Conservative Party leadership candidate – had argued, with all the relentless assurance of an Eton College debater, that staunch empiricism was the only way to do travel writing properly.
‘And I was saying, “That’s not right, this is the twenty-first century, come on, Rory!” But he was saying, “No, no; don’t make anything up.” And I thought, come on! You walked across Afghanistan; it took six weeks; you don’t talk about going to the loo!’
‘No travel writers ever go to the toilet,’ I said.
‘Unless it’s to write notes!’
I found a recording of the debate later online. I’d half-expected to come down on Stewart’s side of the argument. I’d loved The Places in Between. And for all that I also loved MacLean’s books, there was still a lingering unease at the idea of a travel writer licenced to invent. But in the end I listened with some kind of horror as Stewart declared a dubious array of imperial spies and colonial administrators, penning missives to the mother country at the height of the nineteenth century, to be the honourable apogee of travel writing. Thesiger, as far as he was concerned, was ‘about the end of it’, and the subsequent ‘falling away’ into ‘decadence’ had come ‘because the stakes of empire have been lost, because the standards of espionage have been lost’ and because ‘the extraordinary moment in which they operated at the end of the nineteenth century’ has been lost. Rory Stewart had roundly bulldozered Rory MacLean’s puckish, soft-spoken contribution with all the might of the British Empire. Suddenly a fact-convention-defying pig in an old Trabant seemed much less ethically troubling.
Amongst the smattering of scholarly texts that addressed fictionalisation in travel writing, I had, to my surprise, found a couple which argued for a ‘fictive mode’ as an ethical approach. Rory Stewart would doubtless have been outraged at such decadence, but in a funny way, the argument made sense. One scholar, Claire Lindsay, had looked at fictionalised accounts by Luis Alberto Urrea of migrants trying to cross the US-Mexico border – accounts which imagined the experiences of travellers unlikely ever to write books of their journeys. Sometimes Urrea had used a second-person address – you do this, you do that – in his efforts to establish what Lindsay called ‘affective identification’ with the ill-fated migrants. It was a little blunt, perhaps, like grabbing the reader by the nape of the neck and shouting ‘Look!’ But it certainly suggested greater empathy than the passing glances of some more conventional travel books. Another scholar, Corinne Fowler, following Lindsay’s track, declared that in such works ‘it is a fictive mode that encourages the reader to identify with the subjects of the travel account’. I wasn’t really sure that the examples they gave properly counted as travel writing, but their argument could certainly apply to Rory MacLean.
Under the Dragon, MacLean’s third book, published in 1998, was an account of a journey through Burma. This was where I had first met Katrin – or at least the character that bore her name. On one level the book was a fairly straightforward travel writing quest, with little obvious invention – as the narrator and his wife went in search of an obscure type of woven basket. But threaded crossways through the travelogue were four discrete chapters, intimate and unhappy life stories of four Burmese women. Occasionally these stories glanced briefly off the narrator’s own journey, but for the most part they stood alone. There was no overt trace of the authorial research that must have gone into them. And they were, clearly, in some way fictional. But they did – undoubtedly, powerfully, movingly – ‘encourage the reader to identify with the subjects of the travel account’.
I tried to explain all this now. MacLean giggled as I gabbled out the inelegant phraseology of travel writing studies: ‘affective identification’; ‘traveller and travellee’.
‘I don’t know what that means! Do I have to fill in a form to understand this correctly?’
‘Basically,’ I said, ‘their point is that by embracing fictionalisation it becomes much easier to promote solidarity. And it strikes me that that’s very much what you’ve been about really, certainly from Under the Dragon onwards.’
He thought about this for a moment.
‘I guess that the travellee…’ he paused and dipped his head as if I’d forced him to take something he didn’t really want. ‘I don’t like the word – but I do make the trip for the travellee as much as for myself. I see myself as a conduit between a reader and, say, a peasant farmer in rural Burma or a Scottish immigrant to pioneer Canada. I try to link the two worlds. I try to be the eyes and ears of my reader, to let observations and impressions pass through me to him or her. In that way – and this is very important to me – I’m not proclaiming, “Look at me, aren’t I clever, I’ve climbed the Atlas Mountains or paddled to the source of the Limpopo.” Rather I’m saying, “Look with me, look with me at these individuals, these societies, these forces which are so much greater and more interesting than I am”.’
This made good sense. But Lindsay’s and Fowler’s approving assessments of the ‘fictive mode’ had left me with certain unanswered questions. What was the process? Where was the craft? How had the writer accessed those lives? If the only place he’d accessed them was inside his own head, then this, surely, wasn’t travel writing at all. And even when there was no such outright invention, I sometimes felt a certain unease with travel writing in which the author stepped out of the narrative altogether to present a purportedly journalistic account of the lives of the travellee: Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2012), for example. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something there made me uncomfortable. If travel writing was a kind of larceny, at least when Colin Thubron entered a Soviet housing project you could see the theft taking place. At least you can see me, stepping through the hallway of a house in an English village, startled at the presence of a woman from a book. Nicholas Jubber had said something about this too: it was like being backstage.
‘But what about the actual process and what goes into it?’ I asked. ‘Thinking about Under the Dragon, I wonder how you went about creating those lives. Where are the actual travellees behind them, if you know what I mean?’
MacLean nodded. He knew what I meant. ‘That was a very difficult time in Burma. The individuals who were courageous enough to meet me, and Katrin who was travelling with me, they took a lot of risk, and I had to protect them. I say this at the beginning, which again, like the earlier books, is a sign going up, saying “fictional elements here, dear reader, be aware!” So I do change location; I do change the sex of some of the people; I do have composite characters…’
‘That’s what I was wondering,’ I said; ‘whether they’re just a distillation of various stories picked up, or whether there are more detailed encounters behind, for example the first woman, Ni Ni.’ This, of the four portraits, was the one that I had found most affecting: the story of the succession of small misfortunes that ruin a life and end with death in a HIV refuge. ‘Clearly it has to be fictionalised to a degree.’
‘But I was wondering, was Ni Ni drawn from a specific person whose life story you had a great deal of access to?’
‘I had access to parts of her story. The real Ni Ni had ended up in a HIV-positive care home in Yangon after her time in Bangkok. And so, if you like, for the research that was my starting point – in Yangon, me finding that woman, hearing her story. So she is a composite character, because it’s combined with other stories of women of the same social class, the same difficulties, the same general trajectory of life. That woman did die, like Ni Ni dies. So they are all based on real individuals – no, on actual individuals, met.’
Actual. MacLean had given me a word I’d been seeking for a long time now: a clear, unambiguous descriptor for the hard, resistant realities that a writer ran up against during a journey; a word distinct from the slippery, chimerical concept of ‘truth’. I was sitting in an actual cottage, in an actual village, talking to an actual writer. That much was beyond dispute.
MacLean’s most recent book had been Pictures of You (2017), a collection of ten stories divined from the Archive of Modern Conflict, a strange private collection of images – some 4 million of them. It wasn’t really travel writing at all, and it pressed further into fictional realms than almost anything he’d done before, though it was, again, all about ‘affective identification’ – with a black woman in the racist Midwest of the 1950s; with a young girl in communist China; fictional stories inspired by nameless faces in the Archive’s collection. But what, I asked, about fictionalising actual people?
MacLean shot me a look of horror over the top of his glasses. ‘But I would never fictionalise an identifiable real person!’ he said. ‘That’s not respectful. I wouldn’t do that.’ It was a clear and unambiguous statement. ‘I respect the individuals I meet, if they’re identifiable. But if they somehow aren’t – because I have, for example, in Magic Bus, the central character, Penny; she’s a composite character…’
‘I wanted to ask quite bluntly whether she was real or not,’ Magic Bus was a whimsical retracing of the ‘Hippie Trail’ from Europe to India. Reading it, soon after it came out in 2006, I had realised for the first time that I was supposed to know that MacLean wasn’t strictly relating the actual facts.
‘She’s another composite character,’ he said. ‘To create the portrait of her, I took elements from three different women – a Londoner, a Welshwoman, and a Canadian from Vancouver Island. All were the same age; all had done the trail at about the same time. Of course I could,’ – he sighed theatrically – ‘I could have reported that Judy had made the journey this way, and Mary did it that way, and somebody else did it a third way. But how prosaic! How boring that would be! And much more importantly, their separate stories would not have evoked sufficient empathy. The reader would not have truly felt what it was like to be alive at that time, to embrace such Sixties optimism. The reader wouldn’t feel what it was like to be – quote, unquote – a “hippie chick” crossing Afghanistan in 1967, believing that by changing herself she could change the world. So once again, I took the three actual individuals and made one composite character.’
‘Did they know what you were doing when you spoke to them?’
‘They knew I was writing a book.’
‘Okay, but they’re not… the elements of those three women are not identifiable?’
‘I don’t think they are. The names are changed, the details are changed; I don’t think they are.’
‘So it would be different if you’d actually met a woman called Penny in Istanbul?’
‘If there had been a real Penny. I did meet one of them in Istanbul – she was one of the three. But she wasn’t called Penny; Penny’s an invented name. But of course, if there was a Penny who I met in Istanbul and we did the trip together, I wouldn’t stick bits on her and still call her Penny. That would be disrespectful; that would be manipulative. I would never do that.’
‘I wonder where the line lies though, Rory.’ This, perhaps, was the ultimate question about fictionalisation in travel writing.
‘That’s a very good question, because in Under the Dragon I write about my meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi – a real person. I quote her. I don’t put any words in her mouth that she didn’t say to me. But in the previous chapter there’s a composite character; in a subsequent chapter there’s someone who was actually in another part of the country. So I can’t tell you where the line lies; I can’t answer that.’
Maybe there was no answer – unless you wanted to follow Rory Stewart. And though I might have been inclined to do so when I set out on my own journey, I was no longer sure that I did.
Outside an early dusk was threatening, and suddenly MacLean noticed the time. ‘It’s five o’clock! My goodness, I’ve got to go to Pilates!’
This was my cue. The idea had formed some way back in the conversation – a mischievous one. He had come clean, cleaner than I’d ever expected, really. But I wanted to push my luck a little before I left.
‘I said at the beginning I wondered if you’d come clean. So Rory, that pig…’
‘What, Winston?’ he said, with studied innocence. He was taking it a little too far now.
‘You know which pig I mean!’ I said sternly.
‘Well, there was a pig, there was an aunt, there was a Trabant – not necessarily all at the same place at the same time, but they did exist…’
This was a polished answer; he’d given it in other interviews. I cut in, still stern: ‘I’ve heard you say that before…’
He stood up, and suddenly he was a tall man once more, no longer an imp. ‘I can show you a picture of the pig – and the aunt!’
This was unexpected. It was as if I’d met John Mandeville and he’d offered to show me a Polaroid of the dog-headed men. ‘My goodness!’ I said. ‘I would love to see a picture of the pig…’
But, of course, it couldn’t be as simple as that. MacLean looked around the room, at the tall bookshelf, at the pale window, at the undeveloped film on the desk.
‘I actually don’t know where the pig is. I have to think. I can show you the publicity pig?’ I frowned fiercely, and he grinned – ‘But no, you want the real pig. I have him lying beside Zita’s – her name was Ruth – her fireplace, and it’s printed on a mat. Where the hell is it? It’s here somewhere…’
But suddenly I wasn’t sure that I did want to see the photo after all. MacLean was still scanning the corners of the room – or was he just pretending to do so?
‘I can show you a picture of Zita, a beautiful picture of Zita, of Ruth, in a 1950s gown.’ But he couldn’t find that picture either.
‘She was an Austrian, from Carinthia. She had one brother who’d been a Communist, another who’d been a Nazi.,’ he said, as he continued his show of scanning the room. ‘My uncle – Peter in the book – met her in Carinthia at the end of the war when the Cossacks were being taken away, during all those terrible events. He was a Grenadier Guardsman and about to be seconded into British intelligence. In Stalin’s Nose I flipped his allegiance, making him a Russian, and retold those stories that he had been willing to tell me. But with Zita, nothing was changed. I pulled her back on the page. As Katrin will attest, she is totally underwritten.’
He trotted downstairs and called to Katrin. ‘Do you know where the picture of Winston is?’
Katrin started rooting through the drawers of a sideboard under the window. ‘It’s here somewhere…’
But now I was quite certain that I did not want to see the picture. ‘Stop!’ I said, with some distress.
MacLean gave the broadest of all his impish grins. It was gloomy, now, in the downstairs room, but somehow the rims of his glasses were still glittering. ‘I think Tim doesn’t actually want to see it,’ he said.
‘I don’t!’ I said, urgently, though I couldn’t for the life of me work out why.
Signals – was it really as simple as that? Was that the difference between a ‘travel liar’ and whatever more honourable thing Rory MacLean might be? Was that all you needed to do – signal clearly what you were about, and get on with it? I’d already done it myself, writing up my visit to Dervla Murphy, signalling that I was leaving my companion out of the story. It seemed almost too easy, but I couldn’t think of any reasonable objection, either. And MacLean was right, too, about the absurdity of believing in the possibility of a truly objective account. Travel writers never go to the toilet…
But still, even if Rory Stewart’s argument for empiricism – or pseudo-empiricism, really – was not one I wanted to associate with, I did still like the idea of reliable travel writers. Colin Thubron was still my touchstone. In the end there was only so much of that discombobulation between the conventions, fact and aesthetic, that I could take as a reader. I was very glad that Rory MacLean existed – but I was also glad that there was only one of him.
Driving back, I somehow went astray in the weave of B roads around Yeovil. It was almost dark now, and homebound traffic was roaring against me in a blur of cold lights. A layby appeared ahead. I signalled left…
The car rolled to a stop. I flicked on the courtesy light and reached for the road atlas. As I tried to work out where I was, certain familiar words seemed to jump at me from the map: ‘John Mandeville’, ‘Chatwin’, and a mocking ‘Honest!’ I shook my head and blinked, and the words resolved themselves as Hardington Mandeville, Chetnole and Holnest. The next junction, it seemed, would lead me to the A303.
I stepped out of the car into the wet twilight. ‘No travel writers ever go to the toilet,’ I muttered, and made for the bushes. Behind me, the evening traffic snarled past. It was cold, and there was a sudden fierce pungency in the air. On the other side of the strip of roadside trees, beyond a short incline, I could make out a wide field. The soil was churned over, and scattered across it, moving ponderously in the dusk, were pale, lumpen shapes. Pigs!
I edged forward onto the slope, fascinated. Wet twigs and bleached Coke cans snapped and crackled under my feet, and the roar of the traffic faded slightly. I could see more clearly now through the mesh of branches. There were corrugated shelter arks scattered across the field, stretching into a pig-speckled distance.
One particularly large boar was rooting in the mud close to the edge of the trees, away from the rest of the herd, nose buried deep, driving forward with little flicks of its head. I took another step, slithering a short way down through the litter and leaf mould. The pig must have heard me, for it raised its snout and turned to face me head on. From this angle, it looked as though it was smiling. I ducked under a low branch and moved closer to the fence line. The pig was smiling – or rather, it was grinning, impishly.
It couldn’t be, could it? I stared into the half-light, the name forming as a hesitant whisper.
And then, the pig winked. It winked, rose onto its hind legs with balletic grace, gave its suspended fore-trotters a sudden shimmy, and lifted clear of the ground like a rising moon. I followed its ascent slack-jawed. It soared vertically, trotters peddling gently at the evening air. I wanted to call out, urge it to come back – that pig had questions to answer! But it was too late. It executed a smooth about-turn thirty feet up, and sailed away across the treetops…
(MacLean has since published a new travel book, Pravda Ha Ha: Truth, Lies and the End of Europe (2019), which retraces the route of Stalin’s Nose in reverse, thirty years on, beginning in Russia and ending in Britain.)
(c) Tim Hannigan 2021