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An open door: new travel writing for a precarious century

16 Apr 2022 5 minute read
Worm’s Head Rhossili from Llangennith image by Sarah Morgan Jones

Steven Lovatt

‘Strange time to put together a travel book’, said a friend, and there was no need to ask what she meant. In this early spring of 2022, the Covid-19 pandemic that emerged two years ago is still complicating travel to an extent barely fathomable to we Western post-war generations who had taken its possibility for granted.

Amid the hardships and annoyances of separation from family members, postponed journeys and the reluctant acceptance of video ‘meetings’, the Covid-prompted necessity to rethink how and why we travel, and whether we should really do so as blithely as we once did, has coincided with other, interconnected and equally pressing emergencies.

Prior to the mid-twentieth century, leisured travel was largely the preserve of a wealthy elite, and it could easily become so again, even as the combined disasters of climate collapse, pandemic and persecution are displacing millions of people on journeys that they would never have wished for.

The dream of global interconnectedness on free market terms exposes its contradictions at the moment of its greatest fulfilment.

The title of this anthology is borrowed from Jan Morris, who wrote to Owain Glyndŵr that ‘if the mountains secluded Wales from England, the long coastline was like an open door to the world at large’.

Distinctive anxieties

It was a strong and sudden sense of cultural loss and disorientation, prompted by the passing of Morris, which made me conceive the book as a sort of affirmation, and the image of an open door seems apt to contain all of the realities and possibilities that confront Wales in these dangerous times, from the door held open to refugees from Afghanistan to the Welsh government’s proposals to dissuade its young people from seeking ‘better prospects’ beyond the country, and calls to defend Welsh identity from a new movement of monied incomers.

All this in a context – not alien to Glyndŵr – of rising calls for self-determination and the recent sealing, unprecedented for centuries, of the Welsh–English border, albeit this time as a measure against the spread of Covid-19.

In light of all this, an anthology of travel and place writing seems, at second glance, perfectly timed. Indeed, from another angle it is long overdue, since to my knowledge, despite Wales having for centuries been written about, primarily as a sort of dream theatre for English aesthetes and capitalists, never before have Welsh and Wales-based authors been invited to ‘write back’ about their experiences as travellers within and beyond the country.

An Open Door is also most likely one of the first travel anthologies in any language to have been published since the start of the pandemic and, notwithstanding the fully realised individuality of its stories, the distinctive anxieties of our age are everywhere apparent in what amounts in sum to a belated sea-change in the genre of travel writing itself.

This change is similar to those that have recently given new life to the closely related genre of nature writing. Historically, nature writing tended to overlook the historical and cultural specifics, the experiences and daily lives, of those who actually inhabit ‘nature’, while its exclusivity, related to a persistent privileging of the male ‘expert’, denied a voice to people – disproportionately women, children, the elderly and the otherwise culturally marginalised – who either hadn’t the opportunity to roam and write at leisure or whose perspectives were simply not valued.

Curiosity and humility

On a parallel track, it isn’t all that difficult to see Wales as having been historically over-represented (and thus misrepresented) by more or less voyeuristic and exoticising writers from elsewhere, nor to appreciate, as a consequence, the appropriateness of a Welsh challenge to what in travel writing, as in nature writing, is a Sunday-supplement-friendly hegemony of the soothing, ‘uplifting’ and unexceptional.

An Open Door can certainly be interpreted as a challenge to this hegemony, and its contributors as representing, in the diversity of their backgrounds and experiences, a new and vitally necessary realism in the genre.

Taken together, the stories of An Open Door extend Jan Morris’ legacy into a turbulent present and an even more uncertain future. In doing so, and by the sheer intellectual entertainment they provide, they not only irrigate Welsh literary culture, but affirm all cultures and individuals that still value the curiosity and humility proper to travel, and the deepening of one’s relationships with places and their inhabitants.

Whether seen from Llŷn or the Somali desert, we still take turns to look out at the same stars, and it might be this recognition, above all, that encourages us to hold the door open for at least a while longer yet.

An open door: new travel writing for a precarious century is edited by Steven Lovatt with contributions from Eluned Gramich, Grace Quantock, Faisal Ali, Sophie Buchaillard, Giancarlo Gemin Siân Melangell Dafydd,  Mary-Ann Constantine, Kandace Siobhan Walker, Neil Gower, Julie Brominicks, and E. E. Rhodes

It will be published by Parthian in May. and can be pre-ordered here

Steven Lovatt is the author of Birdsong in a Time of Silence (Particular Books, 2021),  and over the last decade his critical articles on Welsh literature, particularly Dorothy Edwards and Margiad Evans, have been published in New Welsh Review, Planet, Critical Survey, the AWWE Yearbook and the Literary Encyclopaedia.
He reviews poetry for The Friday Poem, teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Bristol, and copy-edits books on ethnography and philosophy from his home in Swansea.

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