A Rough Guide to Anti-travel
Last Thursday I gave a guest lecture up at the Albany campus of Massey University. I'd been invited north by Jack Ross, who had included my blog post 'From Kalmykia to Huntly' in the coursebook of a paper he teaches on travel writing. My post had discussed 'anti-travel' writing, which I had assumed to be a thriving literary sub-genre. Jack and several other friends have started using the term, and Titus Books has shown some interest in an anthology of Kiwi 'anti-travel' writing. When I googled 'anti-travel' on the morning of my talk, though, I found myself being directed again and again to my own blog for information. It looks as though we might to have to kick this one off ourselves, folks.
I talked for about three quarters of an hour and then had a freewheeling discussion with Jack's students, who impressed me with their enthusiasm for literature and life. I hope that some of them will end up contributing to that Titus Anthology of Anti-Travel Writing. Here's the text of my talk, which Jack and the rest of my audience treated with admirable tolerance.
Ripping off the Brands: a Rough Guide to Anti-travel
When I had lunch with my mother the other day I told her that I was planning to give a guest lecture up at Albany on travel writing. ‘What will you talk about?’ she asked me earnestly. ‘You never go anywhere.’ She was only exaggerating slightly. When it comes to travel, I’m something of a failure, especially in relation to the rest of my family. My father, in particular, has visited an extraordinary number of countries on every continent except Antarctica. When I was a kid he would disappear for a few weeks a year and reappear with a stuffed piranha from the Amazon or a cheesy T shirt from Hong Kong. At the moment he’s planning trips to Estonia and Latvia, which are about the only countries in Europe he hasn’t visited. I imagine he has a list of all the nations of the world, and that he’s slowly ticking names off, like a very thorough shopper ticking off products at the supermarket.
My travel exploits are rather pathetic, by comparison. Apart from visits to Australia, which don’t really count, and numerous jaunts around New Zealand, which certainly don’t count as travel, in the eyes of most Kiwis, the only place I’ve been is Britain, and I spent most of my time in that country in Hull, which was awarded first prize in a competition to find ‘Britain’s Crappest Town’ in 2005. Even worse, I suppose, I spent most of my time in Hull in a small room amidst the university library’s archive of unpublished manuscripts, scanning yellowing letters by dead British Marxists and manifestoes of long-defunct political movements. PhD research isn’t all that romantic, even when it takes you abroad.
I suppose, then, that I am making a virtue out of necessity when I talk about being an exponent of ‘anti-travel’. It’s certainly true that when I placed an account of that epic journey to Hull in my first book I used the term ‘anti-travel writing’ to placate my slightly bemused publishers. I’d be hard-pressed to pass myself off as Bruce Chatwin, or even Paul Theroux.
The poetry of the everyday
But I want to argue that the phrase ‘anti-travel writing’ describes a distinct literary sub-genre, not just my own sense of inadequacy. I think this sub-genre has its roots in the modernist movement which transformed literature and the rest of the arts in the first decades of the twentieth century. Modernism was so-named because it was a response to modernity – to the industrial capitalism spreading through the world from Western Europe, to the speed of modern communications, and to the international crises that found expression in the beginning of the first global war in 1914. Whether they were painting Cubist canvases or experimenting with atonal music or writing stream of consciousness novels, the modernists were trying to find forms appropriate to the new world around them.
Modernists were of course divided in their emotional responses to this new world. Some, like TS Eliot, hated it, and pined for an older, pre-industrial society. Others celebrated modernity. The Italian Futurists, for instance, developed an almost religious attitude toward technology. The famous Futurist Manifesto of 1909 insisted that ‘a speeding motorcycle is more beautiful than the Mona Lisa’, and Futurist poems and paintings celebrated the feats of aeroplanes and trains, as well as the first generation of bikies.
In a less hysterical way, English-language modernist writers like James Joyce and William Carlos Williams celebrated the lives of the ordinary inhabitants of the teeming cities industrial civilisation had created. Joyce’s great novel Ulysses is a sort of extended prose poem celebrating the slightly seedy lives of a small group of inhabitants of ‘dear dirty Dublin’. Joyce wrote his novel in exile, in glamorous parts of Continental Europe, yet his mind was fixed on the minor details of a thoroughly unremarkable part of an unglamorous provincial city. Joyce searched for transcendent moments in the ordinary details of his characters’ lives, moments which he called epiphanies. The Romantics had located enlightenment on the tops of lonely mountains or on the shores of wild seas, but Joyce found it in smelly kitchens and smoky pubs.
I think a belief in the almost magical character that the everyday, the overlooked and the ugly can have, if they are only perceived properly, is a feature of much of the best modernist writing and art. In his introduction to a collection of poems by Andre Breton, the guru of the Surrealist movement, Bill Zavatsky wrote that:
The grand statement of Surrealism was that right here, right now, in this world, perhaps with a walk down the street and a chance look in the window of the local drugstore, you could find an entryway to the other world…the lost paradise…you yourself could create it.
And yet, as I’ve noted, modernism was also marked by a suspicion of the new world of modernity. Industrial capitalism was often seen as Janus-faced – on the one hand, it could create vast amounts of wealth, new types of culture, new amusements, and new supplies of leisure, but on the other hand it involved enclosed commons, poisoned rivers, child labourers, and black lung. Karl Marx, who was perhaps the prototypical modernist, praised capitalism for dragging peoples around world out of the ‘backwardness and idiocy of rural life’, but also noted that ‘capital comes into this world oozing blood and sweat from every pore’.
And in the first decade of the twenty-first century, when terms like peak oil and global warming are part of our vocabulary, it surely takes an effort of the imagination to understand the uncritical worship of industrial capitalism that is such a feature of The Futurist Manifesto. Today, in the era of globalisation, modernity no longer exists in enclaves, the way it did in Joyce’s era.
Other things have changed. In the decades since World War Two, especially, the coal mine and the steel mill have ceased to be the supreme symbols of modernity in the West. The growth of the so-called ‘consumer society’ and the service sector of the economy have changed the way many people in the West live and work. Travel has changed. Even in Joyce’s day, the ordinary inhabitants of a place like Dublin seldom had the chance to travel abroad, unless they were young men needed to die in a foreign war. Today, international tourism is routine. Majorca and Amsterdam are just a cheap airfare away.
Tourism is about the consumption of place. Like every other form of consumption, it is dependent upon brands. As Naomi Klein has pointed out, we live in the golden age of branding, and Majorca and Amsterdam and Hawaii and New Zealand are brands, as much as Levis or Calvin Klein.
Tourism today may be widespread, but it is subject to certain constraints. We may be able fly to a distant location for a holiday, but we are often able to spend only a brief period – a few days or a couple of weeks – there, before returning to dreary jobs and mechanical day to day routines. Travel has become the ‘other’ of work. Because we are often so busy at work, we choose to be indolent on holiday – to switch off cell phones and brains and lie on a beach. If we are obsequious at work, trying to impress or placate workmates or customers, then we can be selfish and demanding on holiday. Our interactions with the people and places we are visiting is often carefully mediated and commercialised. The inhabitants of the places we are visit are more likely to be pouring us drinks than sitting talking to us over a drink. Life on a typical package holiday is as unbalanced, in its own way, as life in a modern workplace often is.
Lost in Middle Earth
And it is not only tourists who can consume place-brands, and mistake those brands for reality. The people who live in the places that have been branded often show a tendency to empathise with the local brand, even when it seems absurdly irrelevant to their lives and concerns.
Tourism is now New Zealand’s most lucrative economic pursuit outside of agriculture. As the power stations and timber mills closed and hundreds of kilometers of railway track were torn up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, concerted efforts were made to rebrand the country as a clean, green paradise. An older image of a rough but cheerful God’s Own Country full of cow cockies, sheep shearers, and gigantic rugby forwards was allowed to fade.
And it’s extraordinary how quickly the image of New Zealand as a pre-industrial, almost unpopulated natural paradise has been internalised. A friend of mine, a twenty-something Kiwi, was flying home recently after a long OE on the other side of the world. When his Air New Zealand jet got about halfway across the Pacific the cabin crew began to show promo clips designed for inward-bound tourists – shots of huge snowy mountains that looked like piles of delicious ice cream, mountain rivers that resembled torrents of champagne, and deserted jewel-like alpine lakes. My friend, who has grown up in South Auckland and has never been further south than Taupo, burst into nostalgic tears. It’s easy to understand why my friend was emotional about returning to New Zealand, or rather Auckland, after years away. He was looking forward, after all, to reunions with family and friends. What’s remarkable is the way that images of a completely alien South Island high country landscape were able to trigger his tears of homesickness.
A long-dead English Don has played a key role in the rebranding of New Zealand. The success of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels has been hailed by New Zealand’s government, and eagerly exploited by the tourism industry. Today locations from the Rings movies are noted on some new road maps, and visitors can choose from a range of guidebooks that mix photos of the locations with images from Jackson’s films. New Zealand has become Middle Earth, for a lot of overseas fans of the Rings. But in order to make this country more hospitable for Tolkien’s hobbits and orcs, Jackson carefully airbrushed our hills, plains, and marshes, removing signs of signs of real history, and in particular human history, from those places. The earthworks of Maori pa were unwrinkled into smooth green hillsides, and the ruins of shearers’ sheds were lifted cleanly off the South Island’s hinterland. As some of you no doubt realise by now, I am not a big fan of the Lord of the Rings. I agree with Michael Moorcock, who argues in his book Wizardry and Wild Romance that Tolkien's writing was driven by an obsessive fear that the south of England, aka the Shire, with its idealised countryside and countryfolk, was about to be over-run by rough northern blokes (orcs) led by nasty Bolshy intellectuals (evil wizards) and supported by ungrateful natives in other parts of the Empire.
The sad thing is that in the space of a few decades the writing of an embittered old Oxford Don - writing which could originally only be published by a crank religious outfit - has become a myth that so many people around the world have assimilated.
Thanks to Rings and the New Zealand tourism industry, New Zealand is seen by many millions of people as a sort of fantasyland, a refuge removed from the twenty-first century. If New Zealanders have a place at all in this myth, then it is as friendly, obsequious hobbits, happily isolated in their Shire at the bottom of the world, the custodians of a theme park wilderness. The real New Zealand and its people are both more complicated and more interesting.
Let’s consider, for a moment, the case of Hobbiton, which is one of the jewels in the crown of Waikato tour operators. The town of Matamata, at the southern edge of the Hauraki Plains, proudly advertises itself as the ‘Home of Hobbiton’, because Peter Jackson located the Shire of Middle Earth in the countryside nearby. In Rings, Tolkien makes the Shire a symbol of a healthy, natural rural community, free of the vices of sophistication and cosmopolitanism, whose inhabitants were organically connected to the land. The Matamata Visitor Information Centre tries to promote the same image today, and the Newzealand.com website, which advertises tours to Rings sites, claims that the Waikato region ‘perfectly portrays’ the ‘peaceful shire’, and boasts that the natural ‘rural landscape of ordered farms and hedgerows’ which can be found round Matamata is ‘a delight’.
The truth is that Hauraki is one of the most unnatural places in the world. It was conquered one hundred and forty-five years ago, when a British army invaded the independent Maori Kingdom of the Waikato. It is not that the Hauraki Plains were different, under Maori control – the Hauraki Plains did not even exist, in the era of Maori control.
Until the second decade of the twentieth century, the ‘Plains’ were a swamp covered by an enormous forest of kahikatea, or white pine. In winter, the whole area was waterlogged, except for a few small fortified islands like Matamata. Despite this regular inundation, the Hauraki was heavily populated by subtribes of the great Tainui iwi. The people of the Hauraki were highly skilled at fishing, birding, and catching the eels that swarmed in their millions in the great swamp. From the 1850s they also grew flax and wheat on the margins of the swamp, built mills, and operated schooners which traded with the foreign city of Auckland. The people of the Hauraki were so familiar, so comfortable with the water that surrounded them that they produced carvings, unique in all of Aotearoa, which portrayed figures – ancestors, and Gods – with webbed fingers and webbed toes.
After the Waikato War the people of the Hauraki saw their territory confiscated and utterly transformed. Settlers dynamited the lazy rivers that wound through the great swamp, in an effort to destroy the elaborate eel and lamprey traps and weirs that were a danger to British shipping. Forests were levelled on the flatland and the hills that fringed it, and the swamp was drained like a wound. The colonists planted hedgerows and oaks, in an effort to ‘Christianise the landscape’, and gave their settlements sturdy English names like Orchard and Morrinsville. The only indigenous species that existed on the brand-new Hauraki Plains was the eel, which wriggled like a question mark in ditches on the margins of the landscape.
The so-called peaceful shire of tour operators is thus the product of furious and often violent activity. And a certain kind of anxiety, a certain very profound angst, has underlain this furious activity. I work part-time at the Auckland Museum, and I remember the farmer who had driven up from the Hauraki Plains with an artefact – a small green adze, which ached in his sweating hand – that he hoped we would acquire. When we told him the item would have to be referred to a curator, and that no speedy decision could be made, he became almost hysterical. ‘My father unearthed this thing’ he stammered, ‘and my father died terribly. I don’t want that to happen to me’. His was not the voice of the contented peasantry of an idyllic Waikato Shire. His was the voice of an insecure tenant on an alien territory. For him, digging up the past was a terrifying business.
Ripping off the brands
For me, anti-travel writing is about rejecting falsified images of New Zealand, and falsified images of other parts of the world. It’s about digging into the present to find the past which can help explain that present. It’s about ripping brands off the landscape.
I have to confess, at this point, that my take on anti-travel writing is influenced by my political prejudices. I’m a sadly unreconstructed socialist, and I identify with individuals and movements resisting capitalist globalisation – individuals and movements that don’t, in other words, think that human progress has to mean corporate ownership of the economy, free trade deals with the US, a McDonalds on every block, and Paris Hilton on every magazine cover.
I admire the Bolivarian revolution which has swept Venezuela in recent years, and I notice that an important part of that revolution has involved the redefinition of a national image that had been fashioned to suit interests and prejudices that most Venezuelans do not share. Instead of presenting Venezuela to tourists as a few idyllic beaches and a couple of spectacular waterfalls, travel agents are now promoting ‘revolutionary tourism’, which takes visitors into the barrios of the big cities and out to the cooperative farms of the countryside, so that they can hang out with real Venezuelans and get to know the country’s cultures.
Venezuela has been famous for producing beauty queens, many of whom go on to be television news presenters, high-profile journalists, and even politicians. But the vast majority of the people are not young, wealthy, ultra-slim and white like the beauty queens. When he announced the creation of a new state-run television station, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez proclaimed that at least some of its reporters and presenters would be overweight, aged and ugly, so as to accurately reflect the real composition of the Venezuelan population. (Maybe Richard Long should go and work there?) I think that rejecting the brands that are put on places and populations has to go hand in hand with rejecting the economic system behind the brand.
A couple of names for the canon
But enough of the sermonising. Which names can we inscribe in the canon of anti-travel writing? I talked of a debt to modernism, but that movement peaked eighty years ago. Who is doing anti-travel writing now? I wanted to mention Iain Sinclair, a Londoner and friend of the great JG Ballard. For many years now, Sinclair has been busy turning walking into a literary genre. His wanderings through some of the less glamorous parts of London and England have given him the material for a series of thick and poetic books. The thickest, and perhaps the most poetic as well, is called London Orbital, and records a long, arduous and often very funny walk alongside the M 25, the motorway which encircles or – depending on your viewpoint – besieges London. Along the way he encounters crazed hippies, secret military installations, industrial wastelands, forgotten, overgrown cemeteries, and speed freaks who hoon around the M 25 twenty-five times in souped-up Bedford vans for kicks. London Orbital is a sort of kaleidoscopic portrait of end-of-the-millennium Britain.
Another bloke I’d nominate for the anti-travel canon is Martin Edmond, a Kiwi currently exiled in Sydney. Where Sinclair is an obsessive walker, Edmond likes to get around by car – he makes his living as a taxi driver, and he keeps a blog based on his experiences on the night shift. Edmond’s books mix travel, memories of almost hallucinatory power, and summaries of his own vast reading. They are simultaneously autobiographies and potted histories of the entire world. Edmond loves disappearing into the outback, or into remote parts of the Pacific, but he’s just as at home describing visits to less exotic locations like his old high school in Ohakune or some of the seedier secondhand bookshops of Sydney.
A five-step guide
At the risk of sounding like a self-help writer, I want to bust the anti-travel process down into five easy steps. The first step, of course, is to put yourself in the field. This does not have to involve making an epic journey; it does not have to involve making any sort of journey. It might involve nothing more than taking a chance look in the window of a chemist. Anti-travel writing is about exploring a certain state of mind, as much as a place.
Once you have found some sort of location, however near or far away, you need to take the second step of developing an original response to that location. You need to break with superficial, clichéd pictures of the place where you find yourself – to tear the brands off, in other words. One way of doing this sort of thing, for some writers, has been to use, or rather abuse, drugs and alcohol – one thinks of Rimbaud’s attempts to ‘derange’ his senses with hashish and absinthe to achieve a visionary perspective on nineteenth century France, or Hunter S Thompson dropping acid in Vegas.
Now, I certainly wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from using booze or drugs, but I do think that the methodology of Rimbaud and his successors has certain limitations. Drugs and alcohol don’t actually add anything to your mind – they just rearrange what is already there. If there isn’t anything much for them to work with, they tend to produce pretty uninspiring results. It’s remarkable how tedious most of the stoners I know become, as soon as they start talking about their last acid trip. Invariably, their visionary experiences remind me of some B-grade movie from 1969 with the Monkees on the soundtrack.
I know I’m going to sound like a geek, but I want to suggest that a little good old fashioned scholarship can trump acid in the inspiration stakes. The third part of the anti-travel writing process should involve research, a word which doesn’t have to have dusty, academic connotations. You could do your research talking to someone in a pub, or painstakingly tanscribing the graffiti on a toilet wall, or randomly opening a massive local history which nobody outside the district you’re studying has bothered to read. You don’t necessarily need a synoptic, God’s eye view of the place you’re studying – a view through a keyhole can be just as good, as long as you look hard enough. What is important is that you find some new angle on your subject, some sort of working hypothesis for your investigation.
The fourth stage in the process involves reaching some sort of conclusion about the place you’re investigating. You should be prepared to change your mind, in the course of your investigation, if the material you uncover contradicts your prejudices. But you shouldn’t worry too much about justice. All viewpoints are partial. You’re not a judge, asked to weigh carefully various pieces of evidence and reach a balanced verdict. There’s a reason why judges always look so bored when the TV news runs footage of court proceedings. It’s more fun to be a prosecutor or defendant, and argue passionately for a partial, and probably prejudiced viewpoint.
The fifth and final part of the process is, of course, the write-up. I’m sure the good Dr Jack Ross has told you that inspiration is never an excuse for sloppy grammar or redundancies or a surfeit of adjectives. He’s correct, of course, but I think that, once you’ve achieved a certain level of technical proficiency, you should always try to write fast. Writing should never be an open-ended process, because writers are supremely talented at finding excuses not to finish texts. Set your own deadlines. Travel writing, which relies upon the communication of initial impressions, should be done particularly quickly. If you’re excited, your writing has more chance of exciting.
Having said that, I’m a bit embarrassed about ‘From Kalmykia to Huntly’, the piece of my writing that Jack has included in your coursebook, because it was never meant as anything more than a ten minute blog post to go with some rather murky photos that my mate Brett Cross took during a trip we made down country. I would at least have checked my spelling if I had known Jack was going to use the piece.
I talked earlier about the right of Venezuelans to be ugly. In the piece which Jack put in your coursebook, and in a lot of other things I write, I’m arguing for the right of New Zealand to be ugly, or at least complicated, rather than the theme park paradise which the Tolkien films and the tourist industry seem to want to create. I’m fascinated by the Huntly district, and by the Waikato area in general, because of the very particular, very legible marks that history has made on the landscape there. Instead of airbrushing the landscape, and removing the history written on it, I want to read the messages in the coal shaft openings and canals and terraces and gravel quarries.
Underneath the streets of Huntly, and underneath the Waikato River that divides the town, lie a tangle of half-collapsed tunnels built a century ago by coal miners armed with shovels and dynamite. Every time I walk down the main street of Huntly I tread lightly, because I know I’m treading on hollow ground. Like the drained swamps and ghostly forests of the Hauraki Plains, these half-forgotten passageways are metaphors for a history which has often been repressed.
If you visit the coal mining museum in Huntly you may learn the names of the members of the miners’ wives lawn bowls team in 1951, or see a photo of the manager of Ralph’s Mine in 1911, but you will not be informed about the explosion that killed nearly fifty men at Ralph’s in 1914. You will not be told about the great strike of 1913, when drunken farmers on horseback, named Massey’s Cossacks, after the right-wing Prime Minister of the day, fought pitched battles with miners. You will not learn about the strange ‘riot’ of 1932, when the whole town of Huntly formed an orderly queue in front of the General Store, a group of housewives smashed the store’s windows with their handbags, and family after family calmly helped itself to the food its members could not afford to buy.
The fact that some of the uglier – or, perhaps we should say, more complicated – aspects of Huntly history have been kept out of the local museum may have something to do with the fact that a big mining company is funding the upgrade and relocation of that museum. But if you drive through the broken-backed countryside to the west of Huntly, on the wrong side of the river, then you’ll find the signs, the more or less cryptic messages left by history, like decaying mine entrances, blackened and condemned by explosions and fires, or derelict miners’ cottages the size of sheds, huddled in the shadow of the fine houses of the managers, or heaps of slack coal bleeding blackly into streams blocked by dynamited bridges. The past is a landscape waiting to be read.
I wanted to make the point that anti-travel writing doesn’t have to be packaged in prose – poetry can suit the sub-genre equally well. The account of the journey to Hull and back that I included in my first book mixed up prose and poetry. I thought I’d close by reading a piece called ‘Huntly’ which I wrote a few months ago, and which will probably make its way into my next book of poems, assuming of course that I can find somebody to publish another book of my poems! This poem is narrated by a worker in the cafeteria which forms part of the Visitors Centre at the Huntly Power Station:
Here at the coal station cafe
a Swedish couple consults
the local history, the book
nobody local would buy.
They turn the pages quickly,
turn the dogeared years,
the past we accumulated
like slack coal
or the grudges of the old,
until I bring a pot of tea
and a pair of mousetraps,
and the overland conveyor belt grinds
into gear, dumps another half-tonne
on the station's back door
while Japanese cameras flash.
The coal looks like kumara,
like the harvest they left to rot,
on a storehouse floor, in '32,
the year of the food riot,
the year nobody could buy.
Check the photo. It's in chapter four.
The seams, the reefs,
the bars on the river
take their own revenge.
Every explosion, every fire
every pisshead drowning
arose from an offence:
something pigshit stupid
or cheeky clever,
like Hika Wheeler wheezing
on a ciggy
under the river,
too close, this time, to
or the company plugging a shaft
with plaster, instead of cement,
or Trev Herdman sniffing up
his brother's missus
in the Delta Tavern,
the day before he dived.
Don't believe those
at the mining museum,
on the other side.
They'll shit you
about 'an indefinite
future', as though
this station will never blow
its last breath, never become
the latest croaked smoker
to be carted away.
At six o'clock I mop up,
tip the bins,
turn the dark on,
watch colour-coded traffic
flow across the bridge,
listen to the rain
and the river grinding by
like conveyor belt coal.