We may now be able to look forward to unquarantined travel to and from amber-list countries, but as the colour coding indicates, it will be some time before access to the rest of the world can be taken for granted again. Perhaps, for environmental reasons, it never should have been; it is also true that many people, for reasons of income or nationality, have never viewed the world in this way, or have travelled in circumstances that are less about choice than traumatic necessity. But for some decades, the option of sticking a pin in a map and then turning up there for a week or two has been, theoretically at least, generally available, and over the last months many have viscerally missed travel – missed that moment of stepping off a plane or ferry or train into a different reality; the sudden smell and sounds of elsewhere, of an expansion of perception.
But perhaps we can return to a type of travel that is sometimes forgotten – specifically, that of the imagination, through travel writing. From Herodotus to Marco Polo, through James Bruce and then, in the 20th century, everyone from Patrick Leigh Fermor and Rebecca West to Bruce Chatwin or Wilfred Thesiger, writers have always taken their questing intelligence out into the world and brought back idiosyncratic and evocative trials and marvels. Of course, it could be argued that until recently this writing has mostly been by men, privileged and white, striding out into the world and naming it, staking claims. But at its best this writing understands the complexities of such a position (think of Orwell and his elephant). And it is not always the powerful westerner doing the describing: for instance, VS Naipaul’s evocation of the English countryside in The Enigma of Arrival, which is called a novel but closely tracks his own life.
This kind of writing looks outside itself, at people and things of which it cannot assume immediate comprehension, and sets itself the challenge of making them come alive in all their differences – which is one definition of empathy (and the opposite of curating it for Instagram). Jonathan Raban is capable of making multiple consecutive pages about the motion of the Pacific Ocean under the keel of his boat gripping reading – partly because the ocean, like the allusive, shifting, glinting surfaces of his prose, hints at complex depths. Which is of course one mark of the greatest writing, and something the best fiction does too. Those starved of travel could equally well reach for novels and stories, especially those set elsewhere. Or go a step further and read fiction written elsewhere, in another language, then translated: the closest thing to actually being in a new country – arguably better, in some ways, given the gulf between a stranger’s first impressions, or even a repeat visitor’s, and the lived experience of a local.
At their best, both travel and writing are acute forms of looking: of empathic imagination, of seeing commonalities as well as differences, of immersion, of self-questioning. And while it is true nothing can replace that first physical moment of different air, different light, one can still, in a way, be abroad.