Friday, 18 January 2013

Kieran: The Idle Traveller

Dan Kieran (2012) The Idle Traveller, The Art of Slow Travel Automobile Association, Basingstoke; 224 pp.; ISBN 978-0-7495-7342-3

In the vein of the slow movements – slow food, slow reading, sloe gin (my favourite) and others – Dan Kieran is an advocate of slow travel. It would be nice to think that he took up his stance as a matter of principle, but in fact it was due to a fear of flying. Still, that does not undermine the validity of what he has to say. Indeed, his irrational fear opened up a more rewarding way for him to move through the world. I had a similar change of view many years ago after the police confiscated my driving licence (they have absolutely no appreciation of performance art).

For Kieran the rewards of travel are in the journey. Travelling slowly allows us to take in sights, smells, colours and sensations at a pace that we can easily digest. And it need not involve travel far from home. In an early chapter he describes a walk from his house in Chichester to a village on the South Downs that he had visited many times by car. The walk is entirely novel for him. He finds features of the landscape that he has never noticed before and understands that his surroundings have greater depth and character than is apparent through the closed window of a speeding car.

Each of the chapters sets out a principle of slow travel and Kieran illustrates them with his own experiences and with accounts from other writers. He is wary of guidebooks, especially those with must-see and things-to-do lists. Famous tourist spots often turn out to be ho-hum and it is the interaction with local people and the rhythms of their daily life that remain longer in our memories. He recommends reading novels and other books about places we visit in order to give more depth to our appreciation of place and time.

Things not going to plan is a regular part of our lives so encountering this when we travel should come as no surprise. I am always amazed by tourists who fly into a panic whenever something goes wrong when at home they would just shrug the matter off and carry on. Kieran’s advice is to embrace the mistakes and cock-ups – travel is a learning experience after all. Facing the unfamiliar and coping with it (or not) tells us something about ourselves and enriches us as people. Travel gives the mind more dimensions than just breadth.

In the days of the Grand Tour travellers were encouraged to keep diaries. Today we tend to favour holiday snaps and dashing off notes online without much reflection, but this leaves little memory of feelings and thoughts during our travels. A diary can be more meaningful and, even when read years later, may bring to mind emotions, sounds and smells of a past that is never truly forgotten.

It is a telling reverse that Grand Tourists were rich but keen to engage with the places they visited, whereas rich tourists today prefer to remain as isolated as possible – airport lounges, shielded business class seats, hotel taxis to hotels that could be anywhere and only English spoken, thank you. How strange that when travelling wealth transforms you into a prisoner in solitary.

If there is a weakness in this book it is Kieran’s convoluted attempts to link slow travel to the more ‘creative’ or ‘right-brain’ side of our natures. He notes that the left-brain versus right-brain distinction has long been discredited by neurologists, so why does he persist in using it as a metaphor for order versus creativity in thought? It is a dodgy basis for an argument at best and I found it detracted from the more cogent elements of the book.

Part of the Grand Tour ethic was a shift towards humanism and questioning how to lead a better life. Travel helped people to think about these issues from new perspectives. Kieran is sure that slow travel makes us better people if we open ourselves to the environments through which we journey. It also strengthens our bonds with others. He says his strongest memory of a journey through England on an electric milk float was the sense of community he encountered. Slow travel puts us in close contact with people and allows us to share what it is to be human.

Kieran is optimistic about the influence of the internet on how we travel. He sees the ability to go online and explore potential travels as a way for individuals to take greater control over how they see the world and where they visit. It is also a rich resource for getting in touch with people around the globe or in your own neighbourhood. I live in a city that has regular couch-surfing meetings and there are many websites that link to home-stays and small B&Bs that would otherwise remain unknown. So the means is there – all you have to do is supply the will. Hopefully Kieran’s book will encourage that.

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