Steve Braunias: Armchair travel – the best travel writer there ever was

It’s very strange now to look at my row of travel books by the best travel writer there ever was. His tales of moving from one country to the next, a traveller at large in the wide world, seem more like his other kinds of books: novels. Right now we can only imagine what it’s like to travel. To write about it would be to write fiction. Paul Theroux – 27 novels, 18 travel books – was a master of both.

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He went everywhere. His first, classic book, The Great Railway Bazaar, saw him leave London at Victoria station and return four and a half months later via the Trans-Siberian Express. I think his best book was the one where he travelled through Africa (Dark Star Safari) or maybe it was the one where he travelled through China (Riding The Iron Rooster) and even his worst one, where he dragged his sorry arse through New Zealand, Australia and the South Pacific (The Happy Isles of Oceania) was just about the best travel book set in our own happy isles.

He embarked on that trip just as his marriage collapsed. The nadir of his journeying was a visit to Christchurch: “In front of the California Fried Chicken Family Restaurant on Papanui Road in Merivale I saw a family of four, Dad, Mum, and the two boys, eating happily in the glary light and joking with each other, and at the sight of this happy family I burst into tears.”

There has been a crazy but enduring notion that Theroux’s travel books are the record of a grump, a sourpuss, a meanie. Certainly, he can be direct and the rudeness of others drives him into a frenzy. But in fact, he’s wonderful company, funny, alert, interested in everything and everybody. He suffers fools gladly. He’s kind and generous.

Well, maybe not in New Zealand, where he was heartbroken, and wandered the streets like a ghost. Students in Dunedin were “ignorant, aggressive and dirty”. Kiwis everywhere were “beaky and pale, with short pants and knobbly knees”. Still, he wasn’t blind to our charms. Later, in Aitutaki, he writes of parking his kayak on the beach and running into a man with “thick glasses and rather dainty hands”.

Theroux said, “You look familiar.”

The man replied, “David Lange. I used to be Prime Minister of New Zealand.”

The two got on famously. Theroux gets on famously with hundreds of people in his travel books. He’s an observant and quite poetic observer of place but his books are so peopled, so warm and insightful about strangers he talks to on trains, in bars, on the street. He has better conversations with people he’s just met than most of us do with people we’ve known intimately for years.

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