Loneliness and Time

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Mark Cocker is a perceptive critic of travel writing, whose work is full of sympathy and surprises. One is immediately struck with a history of British travel writing which does not include Somerset Maugham, Paul Theroux, or Jan Morris; and only nominally treats the great nineteenth century explorers. Instead, he deals at length with a handful of transitional figures, notably Eric Bailey, Robert Byron, Lawrence Durrell, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Gavin Maxwell, Henry St. John Philby, Wilfrid Thesiger, and Laurens van der Post. These are not exactly household names, and seem to have little in common. Cocker is attracted to some for the literary style of their reporting, and may well convince readers to try Byron’s regal THE ROAD TO OXIANA or Fermor’s poetic MANI. Others have drawn his attention for their achievement, conveyed in the chronologically narrative style of the nineteenth century. Bailey was in many ways an old imperialist, writing travel literature according to old standards well into the 1950’s.

The particular geographical location seems to matter little. Philby and Thesiger made their marks in Arabia and Iraq, Fermor in Greece, Bailey in China and Tibet, van der Post in southern Africa, and Maxwell, surprisingly, in Scotland. What gives coherence to this group, if any is to be found, is that they all traveled in the 1930’s, 40’s, or 50’s, just before the lands they explored were fundamentally transformed by encroaching modernism. That they each respond differently to their travels points to the essential though subtly expressed message of Cocker’s work—travelers, as opposed to tourists, travel to discover themselves. One might take issue with his grouping of dreams, travel, and hallucinogenic drugs as the best means of revealing the unconscious mind to the conscious, but his study of these men of action and letters makes clear that a distant journey can be more than a trip.