A Travel Writer’s Dream Dinner Party: Who Makes The Cut?
Clockwise from left: Mr Bruce Chatwin. Photograph by Aurimages via ZUMA Press; Mr Anton Chekov. Photograph by ullstein bild via Getty Images; Mr Peter Fleming. Photograph by Mr Howard Coster/AF Fotografie/Alamy
I am passionate about travel literature. My grandfather once gave me a precious copy of Ms Freya Stark’s 1934 classic The Valley Of The Assassins and, ever since then, I’ve picked up obscure editions of travel books in second-hand bookshops around the world. Some critics say the genre is dead, that the Age of Tourism killed it off. But I think the opposite is true. The onslaught of mass tourism drove creativity as writers look for original adventures. So, when MR PORTER suggested I write about my fantasy dinner party – all men, with travel tales worth telling – I leapt at the chance.
I don’t know if my guests will get on. I hope they will, but it’s hard to tell since most of them are dead. My imaginary dinner party includes men I’ve known in person and those with whom I’m familiar only through their books. My one living guest is the American photographer Mr Michael Turek, whom I know so well I can predict what he will wear. He’ll turn up in head to toe Arc’teryx with a bum bag slung around his hips. He has a good head of thick black hair and a well-trimmed beard. We have worked together often. At one point, he was shooting a photographic monograph on Siberia and I was on a quest to find a lost piano for my latest book The Lost Pianos Of Siberia. I told Mr Turek the party was for writers only, but when he heard that Mr Anton Chekhov was among my guests, there was no stopping him. He cleared his diary.
Mr Chekhov, as Mr Turek rightly says, is perhaps the greatest Siberian traveller of them all. In 1890, he embarked on 5,500-mile journey from Moscow to the convict colony on Sakhalin Island, which hangs off Russia’s Pacific Coast. His book, Sakhalin Island, is among the most important pieces of investigative journalism of the 19th century, an enquiry into the Tsarist penal exile system. He gives plenty of lurid detail, from bodies turned crimson with bruising to the chattering teeth of a prisoner who bit his glass cup compulsively whenever he was given his medicine. I like best his descriptions of travelling along the Great Siberian Trakt before the railway was built.
“It is heavy going, very heavy,” observed Mr Chekhov in a letter home, “but it grows still heavier when you consider that this hideous, pock-marked strip of land, this foul smallpox of a road, is almost the sole artery linking Europe and Siberia.” He packed big boots, a sheepskin jacket and an army officer’s waterproof leather coat, as well as a large knife – for hunting tigers, he joked. “I’m armed from head to foot,” he wrote to his publisher.
On the way, he passed chain gangs of convicts. The company he kept was poor. The coachmen were wolves, the women cold and “coarse to the touch”. Inevitably, he got stuck in the seasonal mud, his sledge caught like a fly in gooey jam. In one small Siberian town, he made a drunken tour of the brothels with the town’s chief of police. In another city he didn’t like, he kept the curtains shut in his hotel room to block out the view. As for the food, “It didn’t taste very nice, but what can you do? You’ve got to eat. But to make up for it, there is vodka!”
“He is the elder brother of the novelist Mr Ian Fleming and the inspiration behind 007. He certainly looks the part. He arrives at dinner with the dust of China’s Taklamakan Desert on his boots”
Now the dinner table is on the topic of Siberia, the toasts are coming in hard and fast, with Mr Chekhov’s raffish wit dominating the conversation despite the tuberculosis I can hear rattling in his chest. As I listen to him talk, it strikes me that abundant charm is a characteristic shared by many a great traveller. It is the means by which to gain a stranger’s trust.
Take Mr Peter Fleming, another of my fantasy guests. He is the elder brother of the novelist Mr Ian Fleming and the inspiration behind 007. He certainly looks the part. He arrives at dinner with the dust of China’s Taklamakan Desert on his boots. He speaks a little Russian to Mr Chekhov. He asks Mr Turek about his travels on the River Oxus (now Amu Darya). All of us urge Mr Fleming to talk more about his exploits in central Asia, given the success of News From Tartary. In his 1936 bestseller, Mr Fleming recounts a 3,500-mile journey, from Peking to Kashmir, travelling through Xinxiang, a region traditionally populated by the indigenous Uighur people, which these days is largely impassable (and impossible for journalists) because of Beijing’s political controls. As Mr Fleming observes, “It is a part of Asia which is almost as remote from the headlines as it is from the sea” – as true in the 1930s as it is today.
How to make original journeys in the Age of Tourism? Can this be achieved only by travelling into the geopolitical hotspots where others don’t want to go? My fourth guest, Mr Bruce Chatwin, suggests writers just have to look harder for the extraordinary encounters and occasionally make up a story. Mr Tom Maschler, who also published Sir Salman Rushdie, Mr Ian McEwan and Mr Martin Amis, famously said Mr Chatwin was a greater talent than any of them. I am in awe of his work, his journalist’s nose for a story combined with the literary spirit of a novelist, which bring to life the Aboriginal dreamscapes Mr Chatwin describes in The Songlines (1987). I also admire his economy of style, his use of language as precise and purposeful as the travelling habits of the Saharan tribes he liked. “My nomadic guide,” he wrote in a 1983 article for The New York Times, “carried a sword, a purse and a pot of scented goat’s grease for anointing his hair. He made me feel overburdened and inadequate.”
“I intended to bring back a souvenir to add to Mr Shand’s spoils, which included two headhunter skulls he called ‘The Twins’ and a G-string made from cassowary feathers”
When I mention this to Mr Mark Shand, my fifth and final guest – who in 1988 famously rode an elephant across India from the Bay of Bengal to the Sonepur Mela, an ancient elephant trading fair on the River Ganges – he recounts the story of Mr Chatwin’s stay at a cabin in Oregon. In a letter to his wife, Mr Chatwin wrote, “I wandered along the Brown Mountain Trail STARK NAKED for 15 miles… without coming across a soul.” The property’s caretaker wrote to the owner: “This son of a bitch was stark naked, except for his big hiking boots. And you won’t believe this, but he’d tied some flowers round his pecker.”
Mr Shand, whom I haven’t seen since 2014, loves salacious gossip. He is a gifted raconteur, a passionate conservationist and a committed hypochondriac (tonight he’s worried he might pick up Mr Chekhov’s tuberculosis). We first met in 2007. His father was dying, which was why he’d missed an article deadline about a trip to Africa he’d made with the photographer Mr Peter Beard. At the time, I was Mr Shand’s editor. To pull the words out of him, I persuaded him to come and sit in my office with the door closed and phones off until we had got the piece done. I sat him down with a packet of cigarettes and a bottle of whisky and asked him to talk while I transcribed.
So began a friendship that changed my life. I re-read everything he’d ever written, including Skulduggery, which describes a 1986 canoe trip with the photographer Mr Don McCullin into the heart of New Guinea. As we got to know each other better, he told me my writing had lost something in pursuit of easier gains. Those words were seared into my conscience when, in May 2014, I was assigned a story in Papua New Guinea. I intended to bring back a souvenir to add to Mr Shand’s spoils, which included two headhunter skulls he called “The Twins” and a G-string made from cassowary feathers. Then, out of nowhere, a few weeks before I was due to fly, he died in a freak accident. He’d fallen and hit his head on a Manhattan sidewalk.
As I close the door, I wish everyone good night, blow out the candles and finish off the wine. I look at the last picture Mr Shand sent me. He is sitting in a New York tattoo parlour, his forearm under a cruel tungsten light. Then a knock at the door. Mr Chekhov, who is drunk, has forgotten his coat. Mr Turek, who follows closely behind, has forgotten his bum bag. My dinner party, it seems, has been a great success when out on the pavement I can hear Messrs Chatwin and Fleming talking about a fantasy journey they never got to take.
Illustrations by Mr Mike McQuade