Long ago, before the internet negated geography, travel was believed to broaden the mind.
Chauncey Gardiner, the middle-aged character in Being There, played by Peter Sellers in his last and perhaps greatest role, has never travelled. In fact, he has spent his entire life confined to a grand house and its gardens. By the end of the film this beguilingly gentle simpleton is a prime candidate for the US presidency. Gardiner unintentionally bamboozles everyone into mistaking his moronic monosyllabism for straight-talking, priceless, distilled wisdom.
A satire about the impotence and provincialism that beset the US political elite in the 1970s, Being There was adapted from a novel by the Polish émigré and Holocaust survivor Jerzy Kozinski. The Donald Trump presidential circus is a frightening reminder that no fiction is ever absurd enough for the Land of the Free.
These days, while the travel industry booms the idea of travel as intellectual aphrodisiac is either dismissed or regarded with suspicion. The old-fashioned idea of the voyage of discovery has been laid to waste because we think we know everything; the combined weight of the globalised economy, budget airlines and the internet mislead us that way. And while millions “discover” India annually the very notion of “discovery” itself has been totally debunked as a largely Western-centric world view that sees the journey of the imagined enlightened narrator always bringing light to “dark” places, or comprehension to the obscure. Meanwhile, many alternative histories – most recently Peter Frankopan’s stellar The Silk Roads – are testament to the fact that the world has always been an interdependent mesh made up of networks of relationships. Even before classical civilisations, only a minority of human societies lived without contact with a worldwide network of ideas, diseases, economies, tastes and influences. Just look at the Roman craze for wearing Chinese silks, the Dutch love of Turkish tulips or the Persian passion for blue Chinese porcelain. The novel idea that Bangladesh is suddenly somehow closer to us because we have our cheap T-shirts stitched together there is myopic as well as narcissistic. This notion that the neoliberal market economy has managed to shrink the world is to be contested.
The notion of the global village somehow survives and has been energised by our apparent ability to communicate everything, everywhere, at apparently no cost, and mostly with positive consequences. Google Earth, our own Eye of Sauron, allows us to hover over the surface of the planet, rendering it tangible. When the journey between Bainbridge and Brisbane is made in a few clicks of the keyboard, what is the result for the traveller if not complacency? This sense of casual flippancy about the symbolic abolition of distance, and with it the rules of geography, is contingent on the promises of the age of the digital panopticon.
Armed with a smartphone and nourished by this ideology, the average 19-year-old European backpacker on a gap-year, ventures into Vietnam with pretty much a complete knowledge of what he is about to “discover”. All is well vetted, pasteurised and rendered safely digestible by the layers of invisible control (wealth and privilege) that frame the experience for them. The odd mosquito bite, dog-meat restaurant and other uncomfortable exoticisms just add a little piquancy to the dish. But it remains part of the same pre-curated, prepackaged, sanitised experience, glibly elevated to “self-discovery”. The Backpacker, 5-star boutique-hotel guest, Spiritual Spa resort customer and silver haired cruise passenger all circumnavigate the world in their own way, safely cocooned in an ideology that keeps the world at a safe distance. A set-to-replay fantasy of Self and Other for those of us who can afford it. This form of consumption of places is virtually attested to by the number of holiday pictures that feature close-ups of colourful servings of food. They come, they eat (with their mouths and eyes) their own pre-imagined fantasies, they sometimes get a tummy bug, but they go home happy at having “done” the world, with the Instagram post to prove it.
This issue of Tank is the start of a series of regular winter issues dedicated to another idea of travel. Less packaged, less predictable, with fewer certainties, we bring you a little of the world not filtered by Instagram. A bit more deserving of consideration, perhaps. Bruce Chatwin, who hated being called a travel writer, is our travel guide. Chatwin was celebrated and derided in his life for his writing; the pedants and purists who saw the purpose of travel writing as documentation were suspicious of his literary flourishes and thought his flights of tangential speculation just misleading. We are guided by him to start and end our journeys with questions, rather than requiring our travels to provide us with answers.
Meanwhile, I am comforted as much as annoyed that my mobile phone service provider, recently rebranded as Everything, Everywhere, miserably and with regularity fails to deliver anything, anytime, anywhere, especially when I travel. §