By Ben Stubbs
(University of South Australia)
Remembering the late Patrick Leigh Fermor in June 2011, Jan Morris commented: “Few of us want to be called travel writers nowadays, the genre having been cheapened and weakened.” An early career researcher in travel writing, this sentiment filled me with dread as I began my position as a lecturer at the University of South Australia. Indeed, travel writing courts controversy on many fronts, from the ethics of representation to the veracity of travel writers creating “mock ordeals” within their accounts. As Folker Hanusch and Elfriede Fürsich note though, it is precisely because of the significance of travel in modern society that travel writing is “such a fertile field for research” and worthy of continuing scholarly attention.
When I was given the chance to visit Professor Tim Youngs at the Centre for Travel Writing Studies in early 2016 it was an opportunity I accepted with trepidation: to be given the chance to spend time with someone so academically influential so early on in one’s career is daunting. Reading Tim’s work was one of the reasons I transitioned from being a professional travel writer to an academic in the first place. Despite my initial concerns, I had little to worry about.
There were many formal benefits to my visit to the CTWS at Nottingham Trent University: I talked about my work at a travel writing seminar at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham with Tim, I spoke to NTU students during an undergraduate lecture, I was introduced more thoroughly to the Studies in Travel Writing journal and I was able to give a presentation on my research on nocturnal travel writing at one of the fortnightly English Research Seminars hosted by NTU.
What was potentially more valuable however was the support and encouragement I received from CTWS members during my stay. It is often ignored in scholarly circles how worthwhile informal chats with like-minded academics can be. While travelling 16,000 kilometres for a coffee might seem extreme, it was more useful than I could have anticipated. Talking about travel and writing as it related to my career trajectory with Tim and Rebecca Butler over lunch, discussing blindness and travel with Dr Sarah Jackson over coffee, meeting with PhD students at the Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, said to be the “oldest pub” in town, and talking about teaching travel writing with Dr Carl Thompson over tapas all gave me ideas for the future and the realisation that there is a vibrant and supportive travel writing research community at Nottingham Trent University.
Another reason I was keen to visit the CTWS was to present my research and discuss my latest book, After Dark: A Nocturnal Exploration of Madrid, which I was preparing for publication at the time.
My book is a work of travel writing. With this project I was looking to do something which addressed the representation of the ‘other’ in a more thoughtful manner than some of the contemporary travel accounts I had read, in this case through the perspective of people who live during the hours of darkness.
In 1762 Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that we are blind half our lives because of what we miss at night. This simple statement struck a cord with me. If we writers, researchers and travellers are all blind half our lives because of what we miss during the night, what are the narratives and the perspectives on place that we’re missing out on?
This is where I saw an opportunity. Madrid is a fascinating place and it is underexplored from a travel writing point of view. Focusing on the capital of Spain allowed me to expand upon nocturnal travel writing in London and Paris from the 19th and 20th centuries in a modern setting.
My book was published by Signal Books internationally in October 2016.
Being at the CTWS after I had finished my immersion in Madrid gave me the chance to present my research, read the first samples of the book to a supportive audience and to have some quiet writing time to finish the manuscript.
Travel writing is as important and engaged as ever. It continues to cross even more boundaries than before as it becomes a political tool, a form which can dissolve literary borders and a meaningful site for “debates about mobility, location and belonging” (Lisle 2006).
I’m a travel writing optimist and I feel lucky to have a foot in both the academic and the professional worlds of the form. I hope that exploring these sorts of areas in thorough and engaging ways will enable travel writing to continue to have academic intrigue and popular credibility. Spending time at the CTWS allowed me to develop my relationship with the form and to build valuable contacts in the study of travel writing. I would love the opportunity to return to the CTWS in the future and I highly recommend the Centre to scholars and travel writers in the field.
- Hanusch, Folker and Elfriede Fürsich, Eds, Travel Journalism: Exploring Production, Impact and Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)
- Lisle, Debbie, The Global Politics of Contemporary Travel Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)
- Morris, Jan, ‘Patrick Leigh Fermor: A War Hero and a Travel Writer of Grace’, Observer, 12 June 2011
- Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Emile: or, On Education, trans. by A. Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1979)
- Stubbs, Ben, After Dark: A Nocturnal Exploration of Madrid (Oxford: Signal Books, 2016)
- Youngs, Tim, The Cambridge Introduction to Travel Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)
- Youngs Tim and Peter Hulme, Eds, The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)