There are probably as many forms of travel writing as there are journeys. In fact, as the great 19th-century storyteller Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, "There is a sense ... in which all true books are books of travel". Reading, rambling, writing are all connected in a delightful chicken-and-egg circularity. The Arabic language recognises this: the related words sifr, a scroll or volume, and safar, travel, are both to do with unrolling - of paper in the hand, of ground beneath the feet.
Given the vastness of travel literature, we're all bound to have our likes and dislikes. Patrick Leigh Fermor, in his nineties but yet to finish his great trilogy on walking across Europe in the 1930s, is a particular favourite of mine; so too are the almost forgotten Norman Douglas, brilliant illuminator of the Italy of a hundred years ago, and Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, describing their rambles in the highlands of18th-century Scotland. Freya Stark and Wilfred Thesiger are my giants of Arabian travel, while among the Arab travellers themselves, the14th-century Moroccan Ibn Battutah is the colossus (so colossal, indeed, that I sometimes feel my own three books on him have only scratched his surface). Among my dislikes, I particularly recall a book entitled Baghdad Without a Map as having nothing at all to recommend it except its rather catchy title. It was an example of travel narrowing a mind that was prejudiced before it set out.
Those favourites of mine, you'll notice, include not a single author who could truly be called contemporary. The sad fact is that there's not much good travel being written now. But then why should there be when - to play the Devil's advocate - you can see it all on the Discovery Channel? And there's long been a feeling around that there's something "subliterary" about travel writing; that, like figurative painting, travel is a mere simulacrum of reality, while the "real" literary art is fiction - the abstract. But to go to the extreme that some publishers reach and pronounce the death, or at least moribundity, of the travel genre, is folly. Some genres come and go, others rise and fall - then rise again. Writing at the end of the 1970s, Paul Fussell, the doyen of travel lit crit, could state that "the idea of literary travelling must seem quaint and a book about it a kind of elegy". How was he to know that the 1980s would see a renaissance of travel writing, and the celebritisation of authors like Bruce Chatwin?
No, there may not be much good travel about at the moment. But I think we can't help carrying on writing it. It's the oldest sort of narrative, far older than the novel: think of The Odyssey; think of Gilgamesh. It may well go back to the first tales told by our hunter-gatherer forebears over their mammoth steaks; even to the calls of our aquatic ancestors before they'd sprouted legs, telling each other which way to go for the best plankton. Travel narratives are hard-wired into the whole of the animal world, from the birds that migrate across oceans and continents to the bees performing their waggle-dance. "What songs did the mermaids sing?" is an old and unanswerable riddle. But I suspect the answer may be this - songs of travel.
Travelling, after all, is part of being human. E M Forster recognised the fact in A Passage to India: "The world is a globe of men who are trying to reach one another." So too did Kipling's returning soldier, "like all the rest, alone - / But reachin' out to all the rest!" I'm always highly conscious of how we travel writers follow in each others' footsteps, or footnotes. I've spent a long time following Ibn Battutah; but then he too followed his12th-century predecessor Ibn Jubayr. (What a stylist Ibn Jubayr was! He wrote, for example, of sailing the Mediterranean and being "becalmed on an ingot of silver, floating between two skies ...") In turn, part of Ibn Battutah's journeys were retraced in his own lifetime by his friend and fellow-writer Ibn al-Khatib. And when my publishers, John Murray, were still independent and in the house off Piccadilly that they'd occupied for nearly 200 years, I was always in awe of the portraits on the walls - Lord Byron, Dr Livingstone, Dame Freya Stark, Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor ... hard acts, hard journeys to follow.
And yet, however inimitable those greats are, and however many paths a travel book can follow, I always sense we're on the same sort of journey, and on it together. When you're travelling and observing, time is not the straitjacket that we usually imagine it to be. Is it because, when we're on the road, we're so involved in the other three dimensions that the fourth one - time - diminishes in relative importance. T S Eliot put it better than anyone else could: "While the narrowing rails slide together behind you / And on the deck of the drumming liner / Watching the furrow that widens behind you, / You shall not think 'the past is finished' / Or 'the future is before us'."
It's this stopping of the clock which is one of the most satisfying aspects of travel. Satisfying and, at times, much more: to see in a village in the wilds of Guinea an actual musical instrument Ibn Battutah heard and described 650 years ago, to dance there with the direct descendant of its14th-century player, a man who wears the same costume and even has the same name as Ibn Battutah's friend - that is as thrilling, as chilling, as seeing a ghost.
I am, in short, a lucky traveller. My road has been littered with eureka moments and instances of utter serendipity. It's as important for travel writers to have luck as it is for generals. And it's as important to follow your nose as to follow the book proposal you sent in to your publisher. My own proposal for my latest book, Landfalls, stated that I'd visit the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Assam, Burma, Sumatra, Borneo, Vietnam and China. The book as completed starts in Tanzania and goes via the Maldives, Sri Lanka, China, Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Guinea and Andalusia to Paris. A 30 per cent success rate; but you do get two extra continents.
The trouble is, after all the discoveries on the road, you then have to go home and write it all up. I find that the hardest part of it all is choosing what to leave out. In fact, the cutting and splicing that goes into writing a travel book is not unlike the process of making a TV documentary. Not, perhaps, as extreme - I recall that for the television series I presented about Ibn Battutah's travels, we ended up with more than 150 hours of film and cut that down to three one-hour episodes. But in books, too, you do have to think very hard about what you leave out and how to make the joins. For example, the chapter on Aligarh in my book The Hall of a Thousand Columns comes out as one neat visit; it was in reality the outcome of five visits over two years. All together, my three books of travels in Ibn Battutah's footsteps come to well over a thousand pages and about a third of a million words; they form perhaps the biggest travel narrative since Ibn Battutah's own book came out at the end of 1355. But that was slimmed down from nearly three thousand pages of travel diaries - more than half a million words - and another half million words of notes from reading and other assorted thoughts. (Some men, as they enter middle age, feel they have to buy big cars; others write big travel books.)
My sort of writing, in books at least, is pretty highly wrought. I tend to fret over commas and will search for weeks for an appropriate word. I research things obsessively before I go, observe and diarise obsessively on the road, and research again obsessively when I'm back home. And then I have to deconstruct the whole lot of research so that the book doesn't come across as too weighty. The thing to remember when you write a travel book is that, if you're into learning, wear it lightly. Facts are for guidebooks, for Lonely Planets and Baedekers, not for travel books. As Peter Fleming said of his Brazilian Adventure, it's "all truth and no facts".
As a result, I envy hugely those writers who can dash things off. Some of the best lines in any travel book of any era are from Dervla Murphy's first book, Full Tilt, which she put together from letters sent home while cycling from Dunkirk to Delhi in the early 1960s. It goes: "I awoke to find myself bereft of bedding and to see a six-foot, scantily-clad Kurd bending over me in the moonlight. My gun was beneath the pillow and one shot fired at the ceiling concluded the matter."
Yes, I envy her that sentence, if not that particular experience. Not many pages before, she had shot a wolf through the head in a Serbian forest. They just don't make them like that any more. Landfalls: On the Edge of Islam with Ibn Battutah, is published by John Murray. Tim Mackintosh-Smith will lead an evening of travel tales and conversation and also sign copies of the book at Magrudy's at Ibn Battuta Mall on Tuesday, September 28. For more information please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org