Essay | Travel Writers as Citizens of Nowhere by Cecily Blench

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Cecily Blench


Travel Writers as Citizens of Nowhere


At the Conservative Party Conference in 2016, shortly after the Brexit vote, the new Prime Minister Theresa May gave a speech in which she said these words: ‘If you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’. She made this point while trying to address the concerns of those who voted for Brexit because of immigration, and it was effective – she was hailed by the right as a new Iron Lady. But many of us heard the deep and melancholy clanging of an iron gate slamming shut.

While May clearly meant it as a negative concept, the idea of the ‘citizen of nowhere’ appears in some of our best travel literature. Indeed, it is the very foundation on which travel writing is based. Near the end of Jan Morris’s Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, she includes a significant passage on the idea of ‘nowhere’ as a place:

There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own. They are the lordly ones. They come in all colours… They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding… They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it. It is the nation of nowhere, and I have come to think that its natural capital is Trieste.

Trieste has been argued and fought over for centuries – at one moment part of the Habsburg Empire, at another Italian, coveted by Yugoslavia, never one thing or another but always with its own unique character. It is now technically part of Italy, but surrounded on all sides by Slovenia. Its inhabitants form a melting-pot of ‘many races, loyalties and histories’. But Morris suggests that far from being a ‘totem of European disunity’, Trieste is in fact ‘a pledge of eventual European unity’.

It is not hard to see why Morris might feel some affinity with this shapeshifting city that nonetheless retained its character. She went there first in 1945 as James Morris, nineteen years old, an English soldier heading for Palestine. In the years that followed, James reported on all manner of world events, including the conquering of Everest, before undergoing gender reassignment surgery in the 1970s and re-emerging as Jan.

Jan is now one of our most beloved and insightful travel writers. She has written movingly about Europe throughout the twentieth century; in her book Europe: An Intimate Journey she describes the Berlin Wall as a ‘public shame’ and her delight in the 1990s at being able to ‘swan at will across that once implacable border’. Though she also remarks the thrill of crossing strictly guarded frontiers, she comes down on the side of open borders, pointing to the separation of Switzerland’s cantons by symbolic boundary stones that ‘represent a gentle apotheosis of the nationalist idea… I would not at all mind a Europe similarly demarcated.’

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In 2018 Donald Trump, on a visit to Britain, decried London’s multiculturalism, and linked it to the terrorist attacks that have regularly hit the city. He said that the movement around Europe of ‘millions of people’ was ‘very sad’ and (the dog-whistle growing shriller) implied that Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London and a Muslim, bore responsibility for the terror attacks. His comments showed a deep ignorance of London’s history, and failed to address any of the underlying causes of Islamic terrorism, so eager was he for a cheap shot at the perceived failings of liberalism.

London, like Trieste, has always been a mixed city. In Shakespeare’s day it would not have been unusual to encounter black slaves, Middle Eastern traders, European workers, and visitors from all corners of the globe. Centuries before that, it was home to Romans, Saxons, Vikings, and the Normans, as each wave of invaders came and went, leaving their genetic imprint on the country. In the twentieth century, the Windrush generation arrived in droves from the Caribbean to meet a shortage in labour after the Second World War and their descendants now make up around 5% of the capital’s population. At no time in history has London been ethnically homogenous, however much the idea might play into far-right fantasies of a golden age. The same is true of the majority of world cities.

But the British have always been reluctant multiculturalists. Writing of the borders of Europe before the creation of the EU, Jan Morris notes that even then the ‘surliest frontier’ was the British one. Conversely, she identifies Trieste, that great melting-pot, as one of the most outward-looking places in Europe, remarking that in the 1990s it was ‘the first city I knew with an Internet Café’.

While this essay is not about Brexit per se, rather the ideas that it has brought to collision, it is worth noting that in a radio interview two years ago Morris said that she thought Brexit was ‘a complete abdication of our place in the world… I’ve never seen this country in such a pitiful muddle.’ For a writer who saw the best that Britain had to offer in the twentieth century – ‘they alone had stayed the terrible course against Hitler’ – our current divided state must be a huge disappointment.

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Most of the great travel writers combine an attachment to a homeland with an eagerness to see the world. Dervla Murphy spent her first thirty years barely leaving the small Irish town of Lismore, as she cared for her invalid parents. In times of great frustration and mental instability, books were her escape. When at last her parents died in the 1960s she immediately set out for India by bicycle, the first of many intrepid journeys. In between she returns to her house in Lismore, and writes at her mother’s desk. Proud as she is to be Irish, she is also in every way a citizen of the world, and has broken bread with peasants of many countries, drunk their moonshine, and slept on their floors.

Lawrence Durrell, often mentioned among the great British travel writers, was not in fact a British citizen – he was born in India and an administrative oversight (which was never corrected in his lifetime) meant that he had to get a permit each time he wanted to enter the UK. Fortunately, he did not think of himself as solely British and preferred to be thought a ‘cosmopolitan’. Wilfred Thesiger was born in Ethiopia, and of his 93 years, less than half were spent in Britain, preferring the company of the Marsh Arabs to that of the British aristocrats of his youth.

Or consider Martha Gellhorn, one of ‘our’ greatest war correspondents, who was born in Missouri but made her homes in France, England, Spain, Cuba, Mexico, and Kenya, as well as numerous shorter stints in other countries. She was a restless soul, at once at home everywhere and nowhere, constantly searching for the next important story. Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson, two names that regularly appear on British bestseller lists, are also both American, and both have lived in the UK for long periods. William Dalrymple, the English travel writer and historian, lives in Delhi, and is respected as much in India as in Britain. The best travel writers transcend nationality by way of their curiosity and willingness to experience other cultures for long periods, and have written perceptively about the world around them.

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But even the most restless travel writer goes home eventually, for home can be anywhere. After decades of travel Patrick Leigh Fermor settled in Greece, but for the rest of his life spoke and wrote fondly of his adventures, and never forgot the England of his birth. Fermor, a man who walked clear across Europe, defended Crete in the Second World War, lived with a princess in Moldavia, and swam the Hellespont, was a card-carrying citizen of the world (and nowhere).

Perhaps those who speak disparagingly of world citizens, with their blind belief in British exceptionalism, are the ones truly lacking in a homeland. The real Britain is far more complex and mixed than they imagine, and all the richer for it. By stating yourself only as a British citizen, or American, or German, you are rejecting the world and all that it has to offer. I am English but look a few generations back and my ancestors came from all over the globe, and the further back you look the more you see the movement and blending of races. To suggest that humans can be neatly fitted into ethnic and national pigeonholes is absurd.

Not everyone has the means or the desire to travel, and it is presumably those people that Theresa May was appealing to, banking on their attachment to a common culture, and perhaps a sly jab at the mythical ‘liberal elite’. But anyone can read a travel book, and our literature is all the better for the brilliant and compassionate travel writing that it contains. Travel writing opens the mind and nourishes the soul. I suspect that May is not a keen reader of travel writing, or if she is she has failed to absorb one of its most vital lessons – that we are all citizens of the world, and the only thing we have to decide is whether to go out into that world, scenting the possibilities, or to slam the door.

Jan Morris has written that her heart is in Wales, where she lives with her life partner Elizabeth, but it is only one of many homes that she has found in a lifetime of travel, and she describes her nationality now as a ‘passionate Euro-Welshness’. She returns again and again to Trieste, the ‘capital of nowhere’; it symbolises, for her, everything that the world is and ought to be. It has a grand history, a richly mixed culture, and people who are kind and outward-looking. She writes of a fall in the Piazza, and how dozens of ‘patriotic citizens of nowhere’ came rushing to help, concerned and gentle, picking up and dusting down a fellow citizen of the world.

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                                                                                             Cecily Blench is a freelance writer and editor based in London. She has a particular interest in travel writing, Southeast Asia, family history, and extraordinary women. The manuscript of her first novel was shortlisted in June 2019 for the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize.


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