William Dalrymple was definitely one of the hits of the 2013 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, indicated by unseemly shoving at his session in the big room and a plaintive cry of “if anyone has a spare ticket I’ll buy it” outside a smaller venue.
Although he abandoned travel writing some years ago, he devoted a session to reading from his travel books, and as he said, he still travels for his work. Does getting shot at count as armchair travelling?
Dalrymple read first from In Xanadu, his first book; “a young man’s book” and one with some “hugely embarrassing bits”. In it he follows the path of Marco Polo from the Holy Sepulchre to Xanadu.
City of Djinns was next up. It’s about Delhi, a centre of refinement and manners in the culture of India, but a world split in two by Partition.
From the Holy Mountain is about another world that is disappearing: the world of the Christians of the Middle East. They survived centuries of Islamic expansion, but now huge emigrations have seen them all but disappear from the lands they lived in for generations.
Nine Lives is his last travel book to date, and one he is not in at all, apart from a little bit of setting up. It attempts to describe the different Eastern religions, a subject more misrepresented by Western writers than any other.
For Dalrymple the worst thing a travel writer can do is the same thing over and over again. I don’t think he’s in any danger, but he did say he could re-write From the Holy Mountain in the light of what has happened to the Christians of the Middle East.
So who are the travel writers he rates?
- At University he read Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley.
- Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush was influential early on in his career but then Eric committed the cardinal sin of repetition.
- Dalrymple thinks each generation produces a great travel writer – for him it was Bruce Chatwin; now it’s Robert Macfarlane.