BGTW Yearbook 2013
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Travel writing begins at home
BGTW member Nicky Gardner wonders if travel writing needs so strong a focus on foreign lands
"I have travelled a good deal in Concord," wrote Henry David Thoreau, setting the stage for writers who evoke a sense of place and the spirit of landscape without ever travelling far from their front door. Thoreau knew Concord like no other, and wove words about Concord like no other. In fact Thoreau ventured only reluctantly beyond the borders of the compact New England township where he was born. Concord was his world.
True, he did make journeys to Cape Cod, the Maine woods, Québec and Niagara – all of which he wrote about with great eloquence. Yet Thoreau's finest prose, most notably his essay Walden, was about the pretty pastures, woods and lakes of Concord township.
The peculiar skill of the accomplished travel writer is that she or he has an eye for detail and the knack of capturing a scene or a moment in words. The city street and the country footpath close to home often say more about our lives and our world than celebrated sights in distant lands. Indeed, la vie quotidienne is often more interesting than what goes on in the glitz and gloss of multi-starred resorts.
Earlier this year, the British Guild of Travel Writers ran a competition for budding writers. It drew a galaxy of fine entries, texts that swept from Russia to Queensland, from Sicily to Mongolia. These were accounts of wonderful journeys to be sure. The essays made me wonder if perhaps entrants presumed that an exotic journey to a far-flung land would catch the attention of the judges.
But is that really the case? Is not the lesson from Thoreau that the most wonderful journeys in the world are on our doorstep? Perhaps good travel writing, just like charity, begins at home.
Nicky Gardner lives in Berlin. She is co-editor of hidden europe magazine, a publication that showcases slow travel and out-of-the-way communities across Europe.