‘Hugh Grant loses his bookshop in Notting Hill” was the headline on an article that appeared last week in my local Spanish newspaper. International interest in London’s Travel Bookshop (described as a tourist attraction comparable to Paris’s Shakespeare and Company) is entirely due to its central role in a popular film promoting an engaging view of London and the British. In Britain, the news of the bookshop’s closure has additional and more serious implications – for the future not only of similar independent establishments, but also, and no less importantly, of travel writing.
Travel writing today has an undoubtedly tarnished image. The casting of Hugh Grant in Notting Hill says much about popular preconceptions of the genre and its practitioners. It is a genre which has traditionally been dominated by the British toff, in modern times by writers such as Peter Fleming, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Colin Thubron. The idea of the charming and literate old Etonian going off into the desert with his camel and thesaurus has its lingering appeal. But in general, in the post-colonial era of widespread travel, it appears increasingly anachronistic and elitist, a residue of the time when Britain still had imperialist ambitions.
A reflection of the more populist and democratic approach to travel today is the way in which the travel shelves of bookshops have come to be overwhelmed by guidebooks, few of which can claim to have the caustic wit or delightfully opinionated views of Richard Ford’s A Handbook for Travellers in Spain of 1845, or the deeply personal and informed vision of modern classics such as JG Links’s Venice for Pleasure. Publishers’ fears of being sued, combined with the demands of travellers with limitless destinations at their disposal, but with ever more limited time in which to see them, have produced a bland form of guide book literature largely filled with ephemeral and randomly compiled practical hints and information.